Friday, September 18, 2009


After the storm I wander the riverbank
and watch the trees deform and reform in the wind

Raindrops have hung themselves out to dry
on every line and filament,

and snails drowse
on the high ground of the switchgrass.

The footfall of the housefly

echoes in rift between summer and autumn.

I listen with an eye of water.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I -- as I have said -- take pictures of weeds. But, inevitably, one of the citizens of weedlandia will venture into my viewfinder and will turn up in a photograph, more so, I think, as summer winds down and a collective lethargy seizes the insect community. They've worked hard, after all; they're worn out, their tasks are nearing completion. Plants have been pollinated, their eggs have been laid. All that remains are a few weeks of rest, the first frost, and death.

I confess, I have capitalized on their pre-morbid lethargy to approach closer than they appreciate. I can't get enough of the ruby-red eyes of the housefly, and the complex, silvery apparatus that surrounds them. Was it the poet Karl Shapiro that called the housefly a "hideous little bat, the size of a snot" ? He clearly did not have a macro lens.

Any butterfly picture is a macrophotographer's coup. However, I decided, early on, not to fret if I missed a shot of these edgy, flittering creatures. I did not want photography to become like hunting: grimly stalking a subject until the capture. It's the other way around -- something captures my eye, and if it holds still long enough, my lens captures it. The transaction is quick and reciprocal, elusive and evanescent.

Some of my best bug shots have been accidental. Take this one, for example, a close up of a rather fierce looking woundwort, with a little slip of a critter gazing bug-eyed up into it's maw. Didn't notice the little guy until well into post-processing.

Don't get me started on dragonflies, clearly the cool kids of the insect world. They're always striking poses on tall stems and stalks, just tantalizingly long enough for me to frame and focus, but not long enough to get the shot. I have read of macro photographers who trap them and put them in the freezer -- long enough to stun them into photogenic stillness but not long enough to kill them. The photographs are gorgeous; the method is merciless.

Another confession: spiders have always creeped me out. I am not alone in this irrational distaste, and maybe also not alone in its exception: the daddy long legs. This is possibly because of the ancient children's book (and Fred Astaire movie) by the same name: Daddy Long Legs (if I am remembering correctly) is a doting, show-biz uncle who brings light into the life of a young orphan in some sort of unhappy circumstance. Or maybe there's simply something intrinsically benign about the creature, a tawny little nut suspended between improbably long and fabulously hinged appendages. But have you ever seen a pair of them ?

This little dude, an iridescent green stink-bug, seemed to notice me and dove beneath the leaf, only to peek out again a few seconds later.

Yes, the bugs are lethargic and autumn is approaching. It will soon be time to reread Robert Frost's great poems of satiety and age, "After Apple Picking" and "An Old Man's Winter Night," and Rilke's "Autumn Day." And to contemplate Thomas Merton's "If I am not ripe now, I will never be," with its echo of Rilke's "Who is not rich with summer nearly done/will never find a self that is his own."

But for now, in summer's lingering warmth, we citizens of weedlandia rest companionably together, enjoying our lethargy, our lethe, our foretaste of the great forgetfulness that awaits us all.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Prone to Wander

Last night I dreamed I renounced Christianity.

I ripped a gold cross I was wearing from around my neck and flung it away.

In the dream, DK and I were about to get married. The preacher made a snide remark about DK being Jewish.

I told the preacher that I was a Jew and a Buddhist and that he was the opposite of an evangelist, driving people away from the church.

At breakfast, I told DK about the dream.

"You spend too much time thinking about religion," he muttered.

Maybe he's right.

Yesterday I drove from an Episcopal service and LEM visit to a RC Latin Mass listening to a Zen podcast on the identity of the relative and the absolute.

If that is not a metaphor for my current spiritual situation, nothing is.

I had been reading Matthew Fox's "Original Blessing." At the point where I hurled the book across the room crying "faugh" -- his scorn of "introverted religion" -- I was already growing uneasily suspicious Fox was too crunchy even for me. I am not a dance, mime, clowning, ecstatic, play & story, Goddess kinda guy. And neither was Meister Eckhart, I bet, despite Fox's claim.

But the Latin Mass did a lot toward purging me of my chronic Roman Catholic infatuation. Don't get me wrong -- it was magnificent -- but aside from snippets of familiar Latin floating down from the choir loft, I was at sea. Most of what the priest said was inaudible. There was no written text provided for the curious visitor. I'd been to this church before for a vernacular Mass. They had a service leaflet the size of a phone book, and enormous batches of missals and hymnals, so I figured there'd be at least a Latin text. But, no. Or at least it was not immediately apparent as I stood at the back of the church looking lost -- and probably reeking of brimstone. No one even made eye contact with me, never mind offered help. I was among the hardest of the hard core: I was on my own. Sink or swim, sister. Stand on your own two feet.

Seated in a back pew, I realized that I probably DID stick out like a sore thumb, and not in a good way: my head was uncovered. I gazed out at a sea of mantillas. Lace mantillas, ranging from hankie to kerchief-sized, some white, some black. One was even green. How did I even know the word "mantilla" ? From what 1950's brain stratum did I dredge it ?

"Omigod," I thought, panicking, scanning the room, wishing I had done more research, "I am committing a boorish, rubrical faux pas if not a venial sin !" Did my hairclip count ? Should I drape my sweater over my head ? Would that make me even more conspicuous ? It would probably burst into flames. Eventually I was able to locate 3 or 4 uncovered female heads amidst a vast sea of lace, and panic subsided to mere unease. I sat back and watched every pew but the one where I sat fill up. This was a popular Mass, and I was the proverbial stranger, the sojourner.

Eventually, when the church was packed, some latecomers sat beside me, at either far end of the pew.

The altar party was huge, and, of course, male -- acolytes great and small, deacon, subdeacon, priest, torch bearers, crucifer, thurifer, boat boy -- the whole deal. But all boys and men. Where were the girls and women ?

In the pews. In their mantillas. This was not beginning well. I tried to clear my mind of contingent, temporal quibbles. I was about to experience something I'd been wanting to witness for as long as I can remember, something, as an Episcopalian, I could now claim as part of my heritage, although I suspect everyone in that church would loudly beg to differ were I to suggest it aloud.

I sat there feeling detached, and, to my dismay, even a little bored. I was an observer, not a participant. I had the brief subversive impulse to present myself for communion, but I pushed it down. I was a guest -- the phrase "spy in the house of love" floated through my brain -- and, at the very least, I would mind my ecclesiatic manners. Play by the house rules, at least the ones I knew.

I -- and my knees -- were relieved when the Mass was over. I fled into the sunlight, and sped home. It was a beautiful day, bright, cool, breezy, and I had spent the whole morning indoors. Unaccustomed to the light, my eyes teared. I squinted. Newton Upper Falls blurred like a drowned town. Religions were contingent forms, all of them; modes of expression; languages, color schemes, choreographies, all pointing to the same Mystery. Is that a damning belief, a disqualifying belief, in and of itself ? There are plenty of Bible passages that have God railing against ceremonies and sacrifices when they become an end-in-itself and not the means. There was a lesson in there for me that I kept learning and forgetting. What language did I want to speak ? I had just been in a roomful of people who had found their voice. But for me there was no pure tongue that seemed to suffice: I was babbling in a strange creole, a pidgin. No wonder people stared, then backed away.

What was the source of my restlessness, my discontent ? I was getting closer, but the heart of it was still eluding me. Maybe DK was right. "Thinking about religion" is a sorry pursuit, indeed. James, in the morning's Episcopal epistle (the RC epistle, in English, was Galatians on fornication) could just as well have contrasted "thinkers of the word" with "doers of the word" instead of hearers and doers.

Was Christianity, thinking of my dream, even mine to renounce ? Shouldn't it be renouncing me, ripping me from around its neck and flinging me into the outer darkness where, as we all know, I am most comfortable ? Where I have no problem conflating Christ and Guan Yin ?

So what should I do now ? Is that the question ?

To be attached to things is illusion,
to encounter the absolute
is not yet enlightenment.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Sign and Instrument

It was difficult to remain in the Boulevard Noir while vacationing in our neighbor's Cape Cod summer house. While Boston sweltered, I had two patios -- one always shady -- on which to recline and read, and a sea breeze to keep me cool. I alternated between Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and Thomas Merton's Journals. I was bovine with pleasure.

I was beyond reach of everything -- the EMR, my litterboxes, the laundry. My pet frets receded like the sea at low tide, leaving smooth, cool sand. No sharp sea wrack here. Around me was another woman's garden (the best kind) , a lovely mix of cultivars and wildflowers, and when I tired of reading, I wandered around with the D70 taking pictures.

Was I in a dream ? Would the elegant gesture of the tiger lily, when downloaded, turn out to be Greene's homeless, "rotting" crone, saying the rosary in an alley, symbol of salvation that our hero, a long-lapsed Catholic, and a tormented, amoral and murdering punk, found horrifying.

Merton wrote, "If I am not ripe now, I will never be." He was just beginning his sojourn in the hermitage. He equated ripeness with "giving everything to God." I heard an echo of Rilke: "who has no house now/ will never have one." Did I have a house ? Well, I do have a church, a parish; I do not simply sneak into a back pew late and escape in the middle of the benediction as I once thought I would, were I ever to acquire a church. And yet, like Merton did from time to time, I was feeling restless. More than that, I was feeling spiritually detached, irritable, exasperated. Nothing that even rose to a dark night of the soul. Just a dim night.

Here I was renting another woman's house and sitting in another woman's garden. A metaphor, maybe ?

The other day, as we watched the Kennedy obsequies on TV, my husband asked me a theological question. Could I explain an apparent contradiction in Christian imagery ? How did one reconcile the going to heaven to be with one's loved ones and the saints right after dying with the bodily resurrection out of the grave that was to occur at the End of Time ? So what was it, then ? An immediate trip to heaven to be with Jesus, or a long wait in the grave to be with Jesus later ?

I suddenly remembered how this very question had always baffled me growing up Congregationalist. It was one of those points of theology, like salvation by faith or works, that had confused and exasperated and ultimately alienated me from the whole Christian enterprise. I realized I hadn't given the whole post-mortem thingy a lot of thought since I'd thrown my lot in with the Episcopalians. I was probably suffering from a gravely deficient soteriology AND Christology, so I told DK I'd ask the priest.

I cornered her in the sacristy right before Mass last week. She got part way into a sophisticated and subtle disquisition on eschatology and the theology of the body when an organ crisis supervened and urgent piano moving suddenly trumped everything. Plus I'd really wanted a more primitive answer. An answer that would have satisfied a literal minded 13 year old, and that might satisfy my skeptical husband. I needed Jerry Fallwell, not Rowan Williams.

Later that night I had a brainstorm. I knew where I could find a clear, concise answer ! I ran to my bedroom and fished under the bed -- yes, there it was -- I hauled out the big, dark green satisfying heft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

(What, you don't all keep a copy of the Catechism under your beds ?)

And I was right. There was an answer. A simple answer. A brilliant answer. When you die, your soul goes to heaven and your body remains behind in the grave to be rejoined with the soul and resurrected (you can only hope!) in a purified state at the Second Coming.

I finally understood. It was understanding without faith but satisfying nonetheless, in a foolishly-consistent-hobgobliny sort of way. It was as mechanical, and reductionist as Freud's id ego and superego, but at least it was something. And there was nothing wooly about it. A thirteen year old and a skeptical husband don't need wooly answers.

But the schema would take a LOT of translation before I could sign on to it. I'd have to remember to ask for the rest of the priest's subtle disquisition.

But, frankly, I was tired of translation. Tired of subtle disquisitions. I was glad for the Sunday lectionary's recent protracted foray into John's theology of eating, of Eucharist. Loaves, fishes, body, blood, bread, wine: it made visceral sense. Embodiment. Incarnation. Bringing material into the body. It's easier to translate the feel of host on the tongue and the fume of wine in the throat than it is to fathom and expound on soul and body's complicated, pre- and post- apocalyptic transactions. You could leave out the words, and go straight to the stomach, the heart and the soul for understanding. Blood, as it flows through the body, doesn't engage in complicated, verbal dialectics. Bread as it is digested is neither verbose nor disputatious.

I like the part of the Eucharistic Visit closing prayer that calls Communion the "sign and instrument of our common life." The Eucharistic act is a sign, a complicated word, but it is also an instrument -- something that makes things happen. It binds us together into a Body of Christly significance, and we, in turn, become instrumental in ushering forth the Kingdom here on earth.

That's where salvation is rooted -- not just in the grave or in the clouds, although it is there too, somehow, subtly, wordlessly.

There's one psalm, a very short one, where the psalmist sings that he is not capable of understanding lofty theological matters, rather simply rests quietly in God like a child on its mother's breast. I've always liked that psalm. "Individual salvation" may be a "heresy" according to the Presiding Bishop's reiterated proclamation of corporate, relational salvation, of Ubuntu, but then what of the old woman in Greene's novel --

In an alley between two shops, an old woman sat upon the ground; he could just see the rotting and discoloured face: it was like the sight of damnation. Then he heard the whisper,'Blessed art thou among women,' saw the gray fingers fumbling at the beads. This was not one of the damned: he watched with horrified fascination: this was one of the saved.

So what, then, is ripeness ? And who, what, is the harvester ?