Friday, February 27, 2009

A. Sophie

Aunt Sophie -- or A. Sophie as she liked to call herself in recent years -- died yesterday, by all appearances quite peacefully, sitting in her armchair at breakfast. She was 93. As valiantly and elegantly as she'd led her last years, she'd constantly hoped for death: she'd outlived Uncle Pete, and all her dearest friends. True, she had pals at the assisted living, but it was not the same as with the old pals -- Helen & Roland, Ruthie & Tom, Marion & Tony, the old gang, all dead now. Sophie was an exemplar of endurance and dignity, wit and kindness. Dad, by his account, despite his sadness, was jubilant that her end was so graceful. No hospital, no pain, no nursing home. Just drifting off into death, as she so often did into sleep, in her armchair. We will miss our dear matriarch. Requiescat in Pacem, A. Sophie.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Nativity Baked Meats Did Coldly Furnish Forth The Funeral Tables

Nightfall and cold rain. DK unplugged the window lights -- the Christmas lights, the hippie lights. True, they were burning 24/7, and, yes he did rightly cite the wastefulness of it all, this trickle of spark and light coming off the grid like water out of a leaky faucet. I stared at the dead strands inelegantly draped across the front window. It was depressing. Disheartening.

I liked the lights, the strand of white lights plugged into a strand of colored lights. From outside, the tiny lights looked like stars, doubled into 3-D by the windowglass. Tiny lights in engulfing darkness: vulnerable, mere, slightly ridiculous. Like a human, I suppose.

Inspired by DK's insistence on hewing to the proper decorative rubrics of the liturgical year, I finally threw my Christingle away. DK, as you might imagine, had inquired about this residual bit of Christmasiana overstaying its welcome in our bedroom.

It had been sitting on my dresser since December. I liked the Christingle. I had defended its presence, explaining that, sure, it was decaying, but come Easter it would resurrect, bodily, into a plump, fragrant fruit.

Yeah, right, he replied. My theologian spouse. He can smell an Episcopal blague, an uncanonical, DIY bit of doctrine a mile away.

The 4 wands of sweets -- gum drops, raisins and gummi bears -- looked fresh, but the orange was clearly failing. The red sash that had fit snugly around its waist sagged around its feet, the once-bright peel was hardening and darkening, and the bottom, where I'd stuck it into a candle holder, was mouldering. The candle was pristine white.

I thought for a minute about the light of Christ surviving in a decaying world, and threw the sad contraption into the trash.

I should have eaten it. A. -- the young, devout Indian man who brought the custom to our church -- had urged me to eat it, just as, a few weeks ago, he insisted I join in on some post-service meal rather than putter away in high altar guild mode.

Eating together, he reminded me, fellowship over food, was an important part of the early church. Not just the Eucharistic meal, but breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I demurred and puttered on, citing the church's equally important tradition of anchoresses and anchorites.

Potluck, soup and bread, Shrove Tuesday Pancakes, youth group breakfast: there is no dearth of table fellowship in my church. I am more on the Simone Weil end of the religious food spectrum, the look and don't eat end. Weil, intensely, longingly attracted to Christ, refused Baptism (and consequently a place at the Eucharist table) because of the Church's two famous Inquisitional words -- anathema sit -- the exclusionary, excommunicating pronouncement against a heretic. Weil, like Christ, identified with the outsider. To her, exclusion was anathema. She preferred to be with the outcasts.

Thinking of her strict witness, I feel a twinge of shame. My church continues to exclude a whole class of people from participating in its full, sacramental life. The Presiding Bishop asks for a "season of fasting" from proceeding with inclusion. The Archbishop of Canterbury bans a duly elected Episcopal Bishop from Lambeth. The rhetoric -- some of it -- is soothing, eloquent, pious, complicated. One longs for a Jeremiah, or an Amos.

Cut, in other words, the crap.

Should I give up the Eucharist for Lent ? Now there's an interesting thought.

I tried to give up soy ice cream for Lent last year. I lasted three days. When I proposed to try again this year, DK, theologian in residence, weighed in.

No, no, don't give that up. Give up something else. Like bacon.

I, vegan, laughed. Jesus would see right through that.

No he wouldn't -- Jesus loves bacon !

I winced and shook my head.

OK, then how about asparagus ? he countered.

I laughed again. We eat asparagus about twice a year. What kind of discipline would that represent ?

DK chuckled. Discipline. Oh, I get it -- you secretly want to be one of those Christians who go around flogging themselves ! He made flagellant gestures in the doorway of my room.

Meanwhile, in the window of my study, concealed behind my computer monitor, my two, battery-powered, LED-based, auto-timed, flickering Christmas candles still shudder on at nightfall, first the left then the right, epistle then gospel, as if lit by an invisible acolyte.

There are secrets in every marriage.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Variation on a Theme

This is the story of a woman inhabited by the demons of resentment, petulence, pessimism, misanthropy, ill-will, arrogance, self-importance, indolence, judgmentalism, greed, anger and despair, who, in a rare moment of clarity, ceases to enjoy entertaining these demons, and begs for exorcism. At which point the demons exit, bury themselves in the ground, sprout as noxious weeds and die, much to the woman's delight, for she enjoys taking pictures of dead things.

The Lenten desert prepares itself.

Doesn't need any efforts on my part, apparantly.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fall Fell Fill Foll Full

Every garden contains the first garden, even the Belmont Victory Garden, even in February. The snow between the plots had drifted into undulating convexities, and was overtopping my boots. I stepped carefully, slowly, a pace congenial to looking and photographing. As my eyes acclimatized to the landscape of dried tangles and makeshift fences, I realized I was not alone. A man skiied past, stopped a few plots away to shout in Russian into a cell phone, then disappeared. Good riddance, I thought.

I have no problem with the concept of original sin, the alienated ego, the separate self. I have been enjoying my alienation lately, gnawing on it, relishing it, like a gargantuan infant of such vastness that my squalling discontents and hungers sometimes crowd out the whole world.

Eat, hissed the snake. And I did. Ate everything, even the snake.

But there is also, our priest once pointed out, original blessing. So post-lapsarian Eden is still open to visitors, a theme park of sorts, or maybe an archeological site, much like the winter garden ? What imagination can vest its withered vines and twigs with green ? Not mine -- last Saturday, at least. I was content with dry bones, with wire and snow,

with rusting tools, mysterious artifacts

and vistas of separation.

But when you encounter your fellow hermit on the garden path, then what ? What recognition arcs between the briefly upraised eyes ? Lips curve into smiles. What memory stirs ? Mother/child ? Creator/creature ? Oh, that sweet first moment of Fall, the moment when we first give Love a name -- if only we could hover there, midair, together, forever !

Impossible. Before long we crash, our limbs snap, we're caught on rusting barbed wire, we're swearing at buttons and shoelaces, dripping faucets and peeling paint, at the cat and at each other.

But then there is fractured grid against unscathed snow, and the oddness and elusiveness of aesthetic pleasure. Grid and snow: objects from which pleasure is quite easily stripped to reveal the naked strangeness that of everything that follows the bite of the apple.

Red-cheeked trollop ! Forget the fiction of the pimping serpent or the wife-who-made-me-do-it ? We see, lust, grab, eat, belch and look for more almost before we know what happened.

I was reading a dense essay by Rowan Williams this week in his book on the resurrection. I was reading it in bed; it was late; my eyes were crossing and my attention was flagging. I ploughed through the words, not quite getting the gist; notions of victim and victimizer, redemption and restraint. Then I fell asleep.

"Christ died for our sins" was a brick wall I'd bloodied my nose on for years. A crack had opened in the wall when our priest rephrased it, "Christ died because of our sins."

But how does that lead to redemption ?

A few days after falling asleep over Rowan it came back to me. It was a random moment, mid-workday, nothing special: there was the Victim, the PureVictim, who does not retaliate, who forgives everything -- and the other, necessary pole of this salvific dyad was myself, the sinner, the perpetrator, the victimizer, the undeserving recipient of gracious mercy. Coupled with this came an image from a film,Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, -- the final scene when the hero, a donkey, after a life spent brutalized at the hands of a series of owners, lies down in a field and dies surrounded by a flock of sheep.

I trudged through the Victory garden in my old boots, my LL Bean leather and rubber boots circa 1978. They are the only piece of animal I still wear. What if I were to encounter the cow from which they came, standing at the far limit of the garden, under a tree where the snow is not so deep, gazing at me with sadness and love ?

What if I could glimpse an agitated stranger on a cell phone and, simply, smile ?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Tears Of Things

I can't begrudge the litterer. I picture him or her trudging along the icy river path, inadequately shod, fretting about work or finances, children or lover, sick of the interminable winter, finding solace crunching through salty, unctuous blown corn. The gloved hand raises piece after piece to the chapped lips. The cheap, butter-like fume rises from tongue to nose, comforting, distracting from cold and worry. But, like life itself, it must end: the empty box with its bright, unnatural colors seems a mockery, a savage clown riffing on transience and absurdity. Fling it away, sad walker, and hurry home.

The winter world is pitiful, stripped, broken, decaying, cluttered with mounds of dirty snow. Regarding it, we surge with compassion. It rises, volcanic, in us. We slip and stagger on the ice under its impetus.

I gaze at a comely leaf, rising and falling in the wind. Heart-shaped and a delicate brown, it is dappled with tiny points of black mold.

Glory be to God for dappled things wrote the Jesuit poet, no stranger to dysphoria. Is this what he meant ? And what would he have made of the shadow of pi inscribed upon it ?

I confess: I love this stippling black mold. It is definite, even elegant, like a gentleman -- a dandy, a swell -- of the 1920's. The prospect of intimacy with it almost makes me rethink cremation. Almost.

Yes, I know. I'm reaching for something. I'm not even sure what. Some kind of solace ? I'll deny it, but I think it's true.

Comforter, where, where is your comforting ? cried the same Jesuit, later.

What solace lies beyond, outside the imagination ? Oh, if I could shut off the stream of words and wants, I might find it. The broad, original, generative solace. Where ? A there ? From here ? Bring one word for the journey -- love. Then ditch the journey, ditch the word.

To study the self is to forget the self.

But we live in a world of words. Of work, sadness, others, so many considerations. Cup after cup of coffee. Laundry to do. Cold, paint-stained hands. Forms and rectitudes. An undying ember of gratitude.

I realized, the other day, speaking of words, that I am a Trinitarian Universalist. This was a small insight, a little ridiculous, possibly heretical. But the discovery made me happy.

The wind rattles through the pods that remain on the trees, a skeletal sound, not unpleasant. Milestones streak by -- Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, my birthday -- and that cheap floozie, Valentine's Day hurtles, florid, toward us.

Beyond it, cold, still, and the color of ashes, lies Lent.

That's what I've been reaching for.