Saturday, November 29, 2008

What's Important ?

Two questions:

How can a whole article about Obama's appointment of Samantha Powers as a transition adviser not mention anything about her important work on genocide, but spend paragraphs harping on her "insult" to Hilary Clinton during the campaign ?

Why, on the day after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, did the Boston Globe give a banner headline to an article about an iffy "jailhouse confession" (to their interviewer) about a local child-related crime, and relegate the attacks to a smaller two-columned headline below ?

Sunday, November 23, 2008


It was one of those odd little news stories, tucked away well inside the paper after the mayhem and realpolitik, something of a human interest palate cleanser, but with a sourish aftertaste: someone has been leaving meat on Framingham Common. Yes, that's what I said: meat. Chunks of meat. Whole roasts, in fact. Speculation as to motive has been swirling, ranging from the most benevolent (nurture) to the most malicious (poison). As has the obligatory outrage -- if not the classic, man-in-the-street's howl of think of the children !, at least think of the puppies !

I prefer to read it as a little, iconic poem -- a sign, a message, from an author abscondicus -- rather than a literal object for consumption.

And, as a reader, I bring my own presuppositions and experiences to the text. You see, I once lived in Framingham. It was during my first medical internship -- an experience bisected by a brief, disastrous, ill-conceived sidetrip to Chicago and psychiatry. During the second limb of my Framingham sojourn I lived on Henry Street, on the third floor of a much-subdivided tenement.

This little apartment was womb to much further ill-conception, the place from which I undertook medicine, marriage, and motherhood, three tasks to which I was most highly unsuited.

Undertook is too strong a word. Fell, or stumbled into gives more of a flavor of that wandered lonely, in a cloud period of my life. I remember sitting at the kitchen table of the little flat, staring off toward the rail yard, miserable, writing in my journal. Even today I can conjure that leaden feeling of being lost in a life that was somehow not my own, of being carried, inevitably, toward a pre-ordained destination where I would reside, forever, a doomed and despised alien.

It was all very tragic and ridiculous.

I married Philip, a nice enough and good enough man. We were, to put it mildly, dissimilar, almost biologically so, probably at some outer limit of what the defenders of marriage would endorse as the marriage of one man and one woman. It was the marriage of one man, and one miasma of roiling ambiguity.

I insisted on a Catholic wedding, odd for a lapsed Congregationalist, but even my choice of wedding gown, except for the fuzzy trim on the sleeves, screamed NUN -- with hood and high white neck it was plain, almost severe. But instead of bride of Christ, I was becoming Bride of Philip. Who was Catholic, but only nominally so.

We had had the obligatory pre-marriage sessions with Father B., our hospital chaplain, and had probably promised to raise any potential progeny in the Church. What was my spiritual affiliation at that time in my life ? None, unless you call a state of continuous existential emergency an affiliation.

Here's a little poem from May of 1977


Epistemology of the morning:
in the rooms disgust returns to itself
manifold. Oxen of the dream herd home
to low and drool at the day's slats.

Oh light, trite and complacent
as a god, what was your face
before my birth lathered it
with this slow blood ?

So as I stood in the pulpit at St. Augustine's reading St. Paul's famous passage about love from Corinthians, the camera caught me in a moment of truth: I am gritting my teeth, getting through it like an actress in the nth iteration of a hated play. My glasses are too big, my hair, newly cut for the wedding, is too short, and the nun suit is just not cutting it. The camera has frozen my face in the rictus sardonicus that I would wear for years. An hour earlier my uncle's car, bearing me toward my wedding on a subzero, windy, mid-February day, had stalled at the top of the long hill below the church. It had stalled on the railroad tracks, in fact. In case I was not getting the simple message "stop," the universe was adding an exclamation point in the form of a speeding train.

I should have abbreviated the passage and shouted the only applicable phrase:

For now I see in a mirror dimly !

St. Paul knew about benightedness. He knew about sin. He had big time street cred in the conversion department. So I hope he'd forgive my misappropriation of his words from 1 Corinthians 13. I had no context for them. To me they were pretty words about being nice to one another, something properly Biblish about "love," and wasn't that what marriage was all about ? Wasn't it ? Of course I loved Philip. Didn't I ? And even if I'd bothered to read what preceeded these words, the 12th chapter's august dissertation on the Body of Christ, my eyes would probably have simply glazed over.

But, still, something drew me churchward, much like the bright, cozy Christmas scene in the alley window drew the longing gaze of Hans Christian Anderson's poor little match girl as she shivered, unshod, ill clad and alone, amidst the trash and snow. It was an inchoate wish, little more that Philip Larkin's observation that churches were serious places on serious ground. Yes, it was bathetic, and, yes, it was comic, and yes, yes, yes it was doomed. There was nothing in St. Paul's list of love's attributes that I can boast of having brought to my first marriage. I was not patient, I was not kind. I was often arrogant and rude. I did insist on my own way and rejoiced, spitefully, in wrongdoing. I believed in nothing and hoped for nothing. I endured, but only for as long as it suited me. What probably hadn't ever been love turned to anger and resentment. If God's love for us is, as J. MacQuarrie says, a radical letting be, and if human love takes that for its paradigm, I fell completely short. Or, as Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together,

God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom in which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, where before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather, in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God's image should appear in others. That image always manifests a new and unique form that comes from God's free and sovereign creation. To me the sight may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every man in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified. After all, even that image certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it.

And lacking that -- myself in larger measure than Philip, though I would not have said that then -- we divorced.

To paraphrase Bruno, the inventor of what we like to call the ham joke,

In what town do the pigs attempt to pin their own crimes on others ?


So today, at the foot a tree on the Framingham Common, there lies a slab of beef. Tree and flesh. Carnal knowledge and incarnation. Icon and Mystery, substance and accident. Memorial to a stillborn -- no, abandoned -- marriage. Somewhere along the way the text -- the Logos -- opened up to me. The light was blinding. Today I have both Church and marriage.

On the face of it (and I submit as evidence two photographs of two marriage beds) not much, but in truth absolutely everything has changed.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tabernacle East

For the past three weeks I have been 25% of our choir. This is indeed a pity. I am, by all accounts, a second or even third stringer. One of us, in her 80's, has sung in choirs since age nine. I, 56, have sung in them (and sung) since age 54. Thanks be to God for M.

I was thinking about this today. If playing music on an instrument is like rowing a boat on the ocean, then singing is like being thrown in headfirst. Like swimming, or, in my case, trying not to drown.

Last week we had 15 minutes to rehearse the anthem. I stared at the music. It was in a peppy, even martial 6/8. There were many, many notes. Coupled to many, many words. I gazed, depressed, at a brace of high Es. The choir director, attempting to comfort me, announced that he had transposed it down a whole step.

Whoopee skip, I thought, uncharitably, then Yes, but the third stringer must exercise the monastic virtue of obedience.

Where does he get these freaking hymns ! I thought, even more uncharitably. I pined with deep Anglican longing for the Purcell he had tantalized us with a few weeks back.

Shut up and sing, I scolded myself. I had to to put myself in the Director's shoes. I was, after all, 25% of his raw material. That alone should merit some compassionate cutting of slack.

Then I noticed the triplets, densely and unintuitively coupled with words:

full of the -- faith that the -- dark past has
over a --way that with -- tears has been
stray from the -- places, Our -- God, where we

and then, a few measures later, first note a darkling half step lower,

full of the -- hope that the -- present has
treading our -- path through the -- blood of the
drunk with the -- wine of the -- world we for-

A leaden, musical despair set in. The senior warden (another 25% of us) was right: my lungs were too small for this. Plus my Dad would probably show up, and the old I-never-sang-for-my-Father neurosis -- fully operative a half century later -- would kick in.

You might want to leave before the anthem, I whispered in Dad's ear while passing the peace. He grinned. He was fully abreast of out choir's recent tribulations. A magnificent, trained baritone, he'd sung in and directed many a church choir back in the day -- even, it turns out, sung in a choir with M. in the 1960's. He knew that afflictive brouhahas could occur in choirs. One had in ours. It had been a high ecclesiastic melodrama, an opera savon, all very Church-of-Corinth, all very unfortunate. Upshot ? The two best singers packed up their voices and left.

Leaving yours truly, at least for a few weeks there, not just as 20-25% of the choir, but 100% of the altar guild.

I AM the altar guild I chanted, swaggering about, mad with power. And above all else, do NOT put flowers in the baptismal font !

Eventually the dread moment arrived. The offeratory was beginning. The oblation bearers were milling around at the back of the church, the LEM was juggling the collection plates. The four of us heaved to our feet, the choir director lit into the intro, and we flung ourselves gamely into the rolling sea of the anthem. Honestly, I tried my best. I really did. I used everything I knew: breast-stroke, dogpaddle, butterfly, crawl, even treading water. I gulped seawater and spluttered; triplets and syllables foamed out of my nose. Chas-ten-ing rod ! I sang, and a deep, upbubbling vent of gassy hilarity threatened to blow me out of the hymn altogether.

A few million choruses later it ended with a resounding Chord of Victory, then stony silence. That was the sound of the Body of Christ's collective jaw dropping. We sat down and stared at our hands. I was dizzy, hypoxic. My knuckles were white, my fingernails blue. I could have used some artificial respiration: out with the bad air, in with the good.

J., the last 25% of us, turned to me. Boy, that was bad. she whispered, shaking her head.

After the service, as we filed back to the choir room, I noticed that the Director was reprising the anthem as the postlude. I rolled my eyes. The music washed over me like a best-avoided topic that someone was always bringing up, either out of cluelessness or spite or both. I had to admit it was a catchy tune, a decent hymn even. I anticipated a week-long earworm, boring through my annals of musical shame like some mythical sea-beast. Ah, well. Our parish was kindly. They'd probably even compliment us on our performance. And my Dad, the uber-kritiker ?

I couldn't understand the words.

Also, I suppose, kind in its own way.

The Director, probably realizing his minions needed more than 15 minutes to rehearse next week's anthem, was prepared. He passed out music and called a quick rehearsal. I looked at the music. To Those Who Came Before Me, I read, shuddering a little at the flowery cursive font of the title and at the rippling arpeggios in the accompaniment. By someone named Sally DeFord. No Hyfrydol, no Aberystwyth. No Byrd, no Purcell, no freaking Ralph Vaughan Williams even ! Well, it began on a low A. That was something. And there was an alto part. OK, then. And a descant ? And a terminal up-a-half-step modulation ? Uh oh. We hurriedly rehearsed the first two pages and agreed to meet 15 minutes earlier than usual next Sunday.

When I got home I turned to the last 2 pages. Beneath the appeggios and 8va arpeggios of the final measure there were two asterisked phrases in fine print:

*words for heritage theme
**words for genealogy/ temple work theme

Say what ?

Heritage ? Genealogy ? Temple work ????

Was this a freaking MORMON hymn ??????????

The choir binder fell out of my hands. I quickly Googled Sally DeFord. I was right.

It was a Mormon Hymn. Mormon ! The church that had, by all accounts, just nearly singlehandedly bankrolled the triumph of Prop 8 in California, elevating homophobia to the status of constitutional fiat ! I had been feeling particularly ill-disposed toward Mormons all week, and now this !

I stared at the computer screen. Monastic, third-stringer obedience be damned, this was outrageous ! This must not stand ! I raged inwardly, plotting revenge. I Googled furiously. Aha ! Yes ! I would download "If You Could Hie To Kolob" and leave it anonymously on the piano in the choir room ! That would send the Director a message !

Bwahahaha ! I danced gleefully around my study as the pages spewed from my printer. I AM, I AM the Altar Guild I sang to the tune of Old Hundredth.

I gathered up the pages of Kolob and looked at the music. Huh ? This couldn't be ! If you could hie to Kolob in the twinkling of an eye -- no, no, no -- those weren't the words ! I knew the words to this tune ! When Jesus left his Father's throne he chose an humble birth... This was #480, this was Kingsfold ! -- not some Mormon ditty about Kolob !

I sunk into my chair. Our choir was still bleeding from its fracture over, of all things, choir robes -- and now here I was about to foment musical discord among the faithful remnant. I took a few deep breaths. Look, PT, I told myself. The Catholics were pretty instrumental in supporting Prop 8 -- and if the Director handed you a Gregorian Chant you'd be in Heaven, in Kolob even. And, Mitt Romney notwithstanding, there is, after all, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which could probably sing the ever-living heck out of our late, sainted, mangled anthem. My cheeks reddened.

This 25% third-string, gravely-voiced, back-bencher needed to practice two things: her music, and humility.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Underneath the garden's hectic, flamboyant rot is the smug triumphalism of the inorganic.

Wire and stone perform a skeletal totentanz entitled Space & Time.

First and only act, "Birth Pangs."

But there are secrets hidden within words.

Consider this: Dilapidate.

Stones rot. Time and space decompose.

It's all combustion, be it a slow smolder or a conflagration. Good for heart-and-hand warming as winter nears.

This is the farthest shore of sex. This is an ocean-going pod.

At the garden's northernmost corner there is a complex liturgy underway. Listen --

Old Man's Beard.

Virgin's Bower.


And the Ding an Sich ?

That's the question, isn't it, and the answer.

We are like the baby that wants what it already has.

Who then, to make matters worse, learns to speak !

Sky Daddy, they sneer, who think they have what they have.

Apostate, they sneer, who also think they have what they have.

What can we do ? Build a hut of rotten sticks, dried grass, yes and I don't know.

Call it cathedral.

Then, naked and terminal, bow.

We fray. Light seeps, then pours through.

Under the bright eye is the white socket, the fragile boat.

Run, child, toward the everliving green !

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Tempered Joy

An amazing grace, indeed. We wake from a long nightmare, not just into the ordinary day, but into a brilliant new day !

But how can we be fully joyful this morning when California (and Arizona and Florida) appear to have voted to enshrine narrow, religiously sectarian, anti-family bigotry in their state constitutions ?

How can we be unreservedly joyful until full human rights are afforded to all our brothers and sisters ?

Hoping for, and rejoicing in Obama's victory, I have been hearing the Song of Simeon -- the Nunc dimmitis --

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised
for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior...

Not that I naively (or blasphemously) equate Barack Obama with a magical political messiah, but that maybe I could croak happy this morning given the truly prophetic and revolutionary change that a young, progressive black president represents.

But, no. No croaking happy yet. There are miles to go before we sleep, Simeon.