Monday, February 18, 2008


Ecclesiastic neophyte that I am, I have a million questions. One was about church bells. Yes, replied G. my altar guild mentor, there was a carillon. But it was broken. I wasn't surprised. The church's grand, ancient organ had had acute respiratory failure last fall, and the motor barely made it back from the ICU for Christmas.

And what about that door behind the table in the narthex ? Where did it lead ? Up into the tower ? Cool. Had she ever been up there ? I stared at the thick, old door.

She hadn't; I silently, inwardly, vowed that I would. The first chance I got.

Which was odd. When it comes to trespass, I am the world's biggest coward. As a child it appalled me that even the grownups loved to break into the abandoned log chalet next to my Aunt's summer house to gawk at its musty elegance. Aghast, I would tiptoe after them, my stomach in a knot, breath sticking in my throat. The men even went into the basement; could they be more reckless ? This is trespassing I whined, desperate. It was very important NOT to trespass. It was an important enough sin to be in the Lord's Prayer !

But, no doubt about it, the tower door was leading me into temptation, and the next Saturday morning, after I had vested the altar and put up the hymn numbers, even as the morning sun streamed through the sanctuary's towering Christ, I headed back toward the narthex and the door.

It certainly seemed like a forbidden door. No one had expressly declared the tower off limits. But I hadn't asked permission. On purpose. Would that qualify as a sin of omission ? And does ignorance of the law defend one against the charge of a sin of commission ? And would St. Paul back me up if I claimed the law had been, uh, superceded in my case ?

I was getting used to being alone in the cold, shadowy church on Saturday mornings. I quickly learned how the heat clanking on and the creaky boards in the sacristy floor could mimic footsteps. I had been at it for months, but I still had a lingering, irrational sense of, well, trespassing. And, I had to confess, it was a little thrilling. And thrill leads to boldness which, in turn, leads to -- more trespass.

I would do it. No one would ever know. Temptation -- the big, stone tower, the prospect of seeing the long-mute carillon -- was having its way with me, and I was succumbing. I would simply look. Not touch. Certainly not try to play the thing. No. I would be a disembodied gaze, wafting like a ghost up the inside of the ancient tower. I strode down the side aisle with great resolve.

The church keys in my pocket, I squeezed into the space between the narthex door and the table. But wait. Oh, no ! The big, old keyhole beneath the doorknob was from a completely different era than the keys on my ring ! I was disappointed, then relieved. Thank you, Jesus, I muttered. But if He was leading me away from temptation, I was not following. I turned the knob and pulled hard.

Stairway to heaven, I thought as the door opened.

It was a frigid, windy morning. If the narthex was cold, the air that rushed out of the opened door was icy. Icy and redolent of dust. The tower was dim, but not dark. Wan day light filtered down from above, as if carried on the bitter draft. I slipped in.

I was in the tower. La tour abolie,. That was Eliot, right ? The Wasteland ? A fellow Anglican. Fragments shored up against MY ruin. I looked up. A rickety staircase made of old plywood wound upward into the shadows. I wished I had worn my jacket and brought my cell phone in case the staircase collapsed and hurled me to the ground.

But it was now or never. I crept forward and grasped the gritty rail. Boys build towers, girls build enclosures: I remembered my Erik Erikson, and the photo DK's psychoanalyst dad had forwarded to us a few years ago of DK and his brothers, circa 1960, building a doozy of a tower out of blocks.

But here I was IN a tower, confounding Freud, confusing myself, risking the Anglican wrath of certain Episcopi whose rigid notions of gender are so fundamental to their theology that they surely must extend to church architecture. What would they have me do, I thought, mildly deranged by anxiety, be dragged up the outside of the tower like Fay Wray in a big, hairy fist ?

I stepped gingerly. The stairs and railing seemed flimsy, almost porous. It was unbearably cold. I cringed: an enormous spiderweb with a spider big as a plum at its center billowed in the draft. I passed a small stained glass window with a missing pane. The wind knifed past and through me. There was no turning back.

A church needs a bell, even a dormant one. I remembered the bell of the church of my youth, the West Parish Congregational Church -- a church as bright and clean and whitewashed as Christ Church is dark and worn and full of mysterious shadowy corners. A church so bright the memory of it makes me squint. But on Sunday morning someone would pull the long rope in the narthex and the bell would toll. I loved that bell, how it called us to church, to God. A tower is a feeble simulacrum of ascent, but the sound of the bell rises like the Holy Spirit itself.

I climbed higher and higher on the creaky boards. The sound of the Saturday morning Main Street traffic came as if from a great distance. I was almost there. I quickened my ascent. One more turn of the staircase and I'd be there, plucking the forbidden fruit of my tresspass. Breathless, I climbed, and looked --

-- and there it was: nothing. A gritty plywood floor. An old ladder lying on it. That was it. I looked up. More plywood. No door, no bell, no carillon. Nothing. A great windy space.

I was stunned. I hurried back down as fast as I dared. Where was the carillon ? Had it been purloined ? How does one purloin a carillon ? I tried to remember the one carillon I had seen almost 40 years ago in the bell tower at Wellesley. It was a big thing. Not very portable. Not portable at all, in fact ! There had been a chalice stolen once from the sacristy many years ago, G. had told me. A jeweled one. A chalice was one thing, but a carillon ?

I rushed past the broken window and the spider and back out into the narthex. My heart was pounding. Maybe G. had been wrong about the carillon. Maybe there was no carillon. But I had never known G. to be wrong. She'd been a parishioner for decades. The had to have been a carillon. I felt like Nancy Drew. The Mystery of the Missing Carillon. But the intrepid Nancy would have taken the tower by storm, not crept up it like a trembling churchmouse.

I hurried back to the sacristy where it was warm and safe. I hadn't been caught. Perhaps I'd even been granted an enormous lesson in apophatic theology. But if I wanted to know the secret of the carillon, I would have to confess.

So, a few weeks later, I went straight to the top: to the priest. I rushed through my mea culpa: I'd climbed the tower stairs. Well, she said, with her usual cheer and goodwill, that falls under the category of at your own risk. Relieved, I asked about the carillon. Oh, yes, there was a carillon. An electronic one. It was before her time, and it was broken. She'd heard that it used to suddenly start chiming away in the middle of the night, willy nilly, and the neighbors complained. They'd never bothered to get it fixed. Hadn't I ever seen it ? The big metal box in the narthex ?

I rushed to the narthex to view the dead carillon. And there it was, kitty corner from the tower door, and next to the wooden case that contains the funeral pall: a squat, chest-high metal oblong with a glass front and lots of knobs. It gave out a 1950's Univac vibe. I had mistaken it for some kind of anonymous electronic device, part of the church works, a thermostat or a burglar alarm. I looked through its glass door. There, on a small shelf, was a boxy cassette tape labeled "common hymns."

An electronic carillon. Oh. My. God. How .... how tacky ! I though of the electronic carillon music that periodically emanated from the Catholic church in my neighborhood. Smarmy hymns. With vibrato. I stared at the silent metal contraption. Its glory days of bursting into song in the dead of night were over. Long, deo gratias, before my time.

Thank you, Jesus. I whispered.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

020952 - 020908

i. Sputter

The story so far, told
in degrees of uncompanioning:
once again the mise en scene is winter

and paths that once seemed long
shrink to a point, to a hole through deep snow
calculated as a nail. There is still time

to sort through the remaining propositions:

You must
lose the idea of shelter.

The worst
has already happened.

Things like that.

I know a woman --

-- wait, stop, doesn't that remind you
of your most secret dream

-- well, yes, of course,
there is a hermeneutic of every fragment
even diphthongs, particles of lament,

but I must remind you it is winter
and the ambiguous murmuring bushes
have shed everything but
advocate and wood

so that what remains is whip and hiss
and indifference.

Neither nostalgia for a face
of waters, nor longing
for a street of water
can quench

the prayer of mirrors.

-- Wait, wait ! Your desire for propositional clarity is understandable,
there are tasks indigenous to every stage of life,
spring cleaning and picnics, Martha and Mary,
but don't you see that the face you must seek
is the antenatal one ?

-- What are you saying, then ?
That everything's just a bloody afterbirth ?

That we're orphans,
suckled by machines,
subsisting on bar codes and zip codes,
mothered by comic simulacra
and rusting ironies ?

ii. Stagger

Questions fail, fall,
in cascades of pink feathers,

then rise again like arms

that reach toward a kiss --

both carnal

and subtle as a ray.

Friday, February 08, 2008