Sunday, March 29, 2009

Valediction & Salutation

It's odd that something that reflects so badly upon my housekeeping chops should reflect so brilliantly on my kitchen spider's. My first thought was "camera," not "duster." Arachnophobia aside, it's hard not to show mercy toward something as miraculous and lovely as a spider web.

A woman whose manifesto is I take pictures of weeds is bound to be an impractical sort. Someone once actually asked me whether the goal activity was identification and eradication. How could anyone simply like weeds ? Weeds for weeds' sake , as it were ? Weeds are, by definition, bad. They crowd out the good plants, the elites, like a hungry rabble swarming the cultivated few. They are unruly, unsophisticated and common. Out of control, even.

Well, sure. And maybe "weeds" is a provocative exaggeration on my part, as I also photograph wild flowers and garden plots. And just last week I thought very uncharitable thoughts as I ripped skeins of dry swallowwort from our chainlink. But "weeds" is my byword, my rallying cry. They are humble, and common, and tough and dignified. Worthy of attention. Someone's got to do it.

So yesterday, after weeks of photographic drought, I set out to take pictures of weeds. I decided to go to the grounds of the Robert Treat Paine mansion. The stones of our church actually came from these grounds, and there is an image of a kneeling Lydia Lyman Paine in the lower left of the big East-facing stained glass window above the altar, so I feel a connection, even though Robert and Lydia were more cultivars than weeds. I like to think that Lydia (so lovingly crouched beside the child in the window) appreciated the early spring mustards and the Queen Anne's lace that bloomed on the Olmstead-designed grounds of her summer house.

All early spring walks are leavetakings. Last year's weeds are one well-aimed sneeze away from a dust cloud. The upraised seedpods of the mustards are stripped and fractured, and the swallowwort cradles are brittle, half-moon husks. Increasingly tattered oak leaves hang impaled on bare branches, and only rare clots of red cling to tangled bittersweet vines. Knotweed stalks, stiff and hollow, stand cracked and bent at the waist.

Last year's abandoned galls knuckle the bare branches, and a few seeds still wait to be eaten or dispersed. The hungry ground is patient. What doesn't sprout will feed what does, or the larvae that wriggle among the roots. Nothing is lost.

All early spring walks are also greetings. The Paine Estate has several vernal pools that resound with spring peepers. I could hear a few chirps and cheeps from a distance, but, clearly it is still too early for the full chorus.

As I walked deeper into the grounds I spotted a second pool, still half clogged with ice. As I approached, I heard it: a deep, throaty gabbling, like muttering turkeys. I tiptoed closer, my eyes on a tongue of clear water at the far end of the pool. I could see the surface of the water twinkling with motion, twinkling and gabbling, all of which stopped as I drew near.

Yes, I admit it now. Winter is over. Ice hands, palms up in a final supplication, melt away.

Just as Lent will end and the Resurrection will be proclaimed. The natural year and the Church year cycle together. If the natural year is a circle, the liturgical year is a spiral: it is Lent again, yes, but conversion is ever ascending toward the light. Or maybe it is ever-descending into the depths of the darkness that is God.

In the Gospel text today, Jesus says Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

That's what it's all about, isn't it -- the relinquishment of clinging, the death of the self -- eradicating all the obstacles to our life together in God through Christ. I hate to say it, but it's a little like weeding -- rooting out of all the lush, aggressive, invasive tendencies that block the light of God.

Christ is a koan of monstrous proportions. That's why I am so grateful for the Eucharist and the liturgical year. Over and over again, we participate in Christ, we join Christ, we incorporate Christ, we are incorporated into Christ. We don't just think about Christ and learn facts and theories about Christ, we move in and through Christ with all of our being, body, mind, spirit.

There is no one right answer to the koan Christ: there are a million million right answers, all of which involve love and God and one another.

Lent is about self-examination and repentance, but it does not exclude thankfulness: gratitude for mercy, for love, for one another, for the beauty of the world, for God, and for Christ, God's ultimate gift to us.

So, as much as I love the lingering, cold, film noir corners of bogs, the sticks and sharp shadows, the bronze, leaf-clotted, water, and the stones scaled with grey-green lichen, and as much as I love the delicate, skeletal translucencies of dead, dry weeds,

I admit that I came to the Payne Mansion yesterday because I knew what I would find on the broad, rolling cultivated lawns behind it --

crocuses opening,

jonquils unfurling,

the feast of welcome that the loving Father has thrown for his starving, wayward, weed-eating, sorrowful and prodigal daughter --

once again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Plate Of Shrimp

Still alkalotic from singing the Gospel hymn -- I really do have to learn how to breathe -- I tried to fix my attention on the priest and acolyte in the aisle. I crossed head, lips and heart, and tried not to slip into a distracted fret about having to make an announcement (ex tempore and I are not friends) and sing the anthem.

It was then that it came, the Johannine zinger that riveted my attention to the text like, well, a rivet.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

So the Revised Common Lectionary was having a go at my vernophobia, asking me to plough deeper into the compost of clinging to the darkness of winter and dreading the light of spring. Sure, my vernophobia may have its pedestrian roots in a body-dysmorphic adolescent's dread of removing layers of winter clothing, exposing her flesh to the world of scrutiny and judgment, but it's taken on more layers of meaning as time has passed, all pointing to my love of being insulated and isolated, hidden from the piercing gaze of the other.

I've spent a lot of my life defending this to myself. This is the way I am, it's hardwired into me, into my neurons and neurohumours, how dare anyone suggest that I should or could be otherwise, that there are essential virtues in human connection that I am missing out on ! And, as a corollary, denigrating those who are convivial, gregarious, extroverted and sociable as Coca-Cola swilling, bikini-and-muscle-shirt-wearing monsters of Babbitry. I have constructed my own personal anthropology and theology of reclusiveness, and, like a reflex, I trot it out when the going gets -- social.

But John's not talking about introverts huddling in the darkness. He's talking about evil.


Last week, in a particularly Lenten moment, I thought Could I be evil ? Although I remember thinking this in a hospital stairwell, I can't remember what strain of fret actually elicited that question, and I probably answered, Hell, yes! But John's talking about evil deeds, not evil people. It's the old hate the sin and love the sinner thing.

Lent heightens awareness of shortfall. Of sin.It's like one big session on a zafu: look, there's impatience, there's scorn ! And over there ? In that fabulous hat ? Self-aggrandizement ! Here comes bitchiness and judgment, and not far behind prance apathy, neglect, cruelty and hatred, all the courtly retinue of of the squalling Princess of I-Want-It-And I-Want-It-Now !

Man, it's positively Boschian in there. Quick, someone order up a herd of swine !

All these imps and demons materialize at the touch of the Other, like fleurs-du-mal from a magician's wand. What about that touch ? It judges, it scrutinizes, it scorns, it asks for the impossible, it accuses, it pleads, it demands -- and Princess I ? She's filled with fear, dread, anxiety, refusal, self-righteousness. Those eyes, she thinks, don't reflect back a Princess -- they're distorting mirrors in which a miserable wretch cowers, grotesque and beyond redemption ! Out with those eyes, off with the heads out of which they they stare !

And, while you're at it -- CRUCIFY HIM !

OK, I know, I'm jumping ahead in the passion play. But you get the picture.

So what about the living-in-a-world-of-Lent layer of this vernophobia ? What's so great about this Boschian Desert of Shortfall ? This dark space of closely scrutinized sin and alienation ? Even Lent's not supposed to be this dark ! Let's turn back a few pages to Ash Wednesday;

I invite you, therefore , in the name of the Church, to the observance of a Holy Lent, by self-examination and repentence.

That's the chink in the wall that lets the light through: repentence. That's the chink in the ice through which the green shoot pushes.

That's the reminder that not all gaze is hostile, predatory, violating: there is the gaze of the Father, that loves, holds, lets be. There is the redemptive gaze of the son, forgiving us, even from the cross where we nailed him. There is my own regard that besmirches others with my projected anxieties, or sees sees others through distorting lenses of prejudice and need. We are lovable and forgiven -- what a radical thought ! It's much easier to stay comfortably ensconced in patterns of hostility and woe.

At the depths of self-examination, beneath all the anxiety and fear, beneath the projected hostility and judgement, deep in the thawing compost of sin and winter lies the green, light-seeking shoot.

Don't be afraid.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Every year it's the same: the air softens, the trees sway with more suppleness in the wind, the pinks at break and close of day lose their shrill, cold edge, and I feel the same old dread arise. I can only call it vernophobia. I know what's coming. Green will rish up through the thawed loam, through the leafmould, and surge through the limbs of trees, preparing to erupt. Then the wee fuzzy things, downy infant life, will crowd out the stiff, withered, gone-to-ground or toppling-over debris. Then look out for the throngs of humans -- in shirtsleeves, shorts, convertibles; on rollerblades, bicycles, skateboards; wearing shades, billed caps, jogging shoes; and worse: in their new bathing suits. In their oiled skin. With their suntans. Playing volleyball. Frisbee. Tennis. The world becomes a beer ad, a Satyricon of inebriation and copulation. There is no place in such a world for an old woman muttering

I take pictures of weeds. Dead weeds.

Step aside then, old gal. There's a new crop coming. The ravenous children are wailing in the wings. Make way, make room, move on.

Farewell, then, skinny Bishop and your fabulous mold-dappled sleeves.

Farewell, then, smashmouthed prophet and your windblown Jeremiads.

Farewell, prim old dowager and your fabulous hat.

In the muck of the swamp, life stirs in its green, fleshy cradles. Skunk. Cabbage. Even the words seem heavy, pregnant.

The winter light fades, greensick, and I swoon, a paraphrase of John Berryman's autumnophilic Dream Song on my cracked lips-- I could live in a world of Lent.