Sunday, April 26, 2009

Reconsider the Lilies

Well, what about the lilies, then ? Yes, yes, of course. They neither toil nor spin. Everyone knows that. Even at the farthest reaches of my strayings-from-the-fold this thought, in lean and troubled times, was a sustaining one. A crop of daylilies comes up in my yard, year after year, undaunted by my neglect. The bright orange bells are a challenge to the macrophotographer. They are, unlike flat faced compositae, all depth-of-field. And, even today, I revisit with embarrassment the day my ex-sister-in-law -- more of a globetrotting hippie freespirit than I could ever hope to be -- pinched off a daylily bud in a public garden in Vancouver and fed it to me.

My late Aunt, A. Sophie, once said to me, I hate lilies.

A. Sophie, I can see where you're coming from. I don't exactly hate lilies, but let's just say, I harbor a robust ambivalence toward them.

I bought a stargazer lily, once, at the grocery store. I wanted to photograph it as it bloomed. Well, the damned thing bloomed and bloomed and bloomed and would not die. Its cloying fumes filled the house until I felt as if we were living in a funeral parlor. Finally, choking on deathly sweetness, I snuffed it.

Now as you can imagine, Altar Guild + Easter = Lilies. Piles of them. Having gotten through Christmas and poinsettias dancing in my dreams like the swarms of brooms in Fantasia, I was more relaxed. We, the Guild, were a good crew, and together we would make it happen. The lilies -- Easter lilies, of course -- even came with their pollen-spewing anthers removed, and I, nascent churchwoman that I am, did not make a single castration joke.

The church looked, everyone agreed, very nice. Not all the jonquils opened in time for Sunday, despite S.'s delicate c-section of some of the buds, and one tulip did plummet from the pulpit during Rite I, but overall, the floral bits of Easter were a success. I, the Anglican Communion's most improbable altar-guild directress, heaved a gigantic sigh of relief.

It was a blissful, luxuriant, even voluptuous sigh. Followed, as such sighs often are, with a cold, sober realization: that even after plants had gone home with the Sunday School kids and parishioners and had been brought to the homebound, there would be a jungle of remaining foliage. Sagging foliage. Decaying foliage. Subverting the easter message even as it was still being preached.

The lilies, no surprise, were the hardiest. True, I had to pinch off some browning bells before Easter II, but the altar looked almost as nice as it had the week before. The daffodils and the tulips were another story. I propped them in the windows of the church hall and hoped they wouldn't look too depressing before I could figure out what to do with them. Someone had alluded to bulbs. Something about basements and paper bags. I emailed the gardener-in-chief.

Well, yes, we could save the bulbs, but the best thing would be to plant them !

Even the lilies ?


So, bright and early Saturday, my black thumb and I drove to the church, and together with Gardener-in-Chief, we planted a dozen and a half lilies in the circular bed around the church sign, and one in front of the memorial statue of Saint Francis . The lilies looked splendid among the daffodils and tulips.

And I had never noticed the two ceramic bunnies under the boughs beside St. Francis until I knelt in front of him to plant his lily.

We stashed the tulips and daffodils behind a stone buttress, congratulated ourselves, and called it a day.

Fast forward to Sunday, today. As there was to be a baptism, there would have to be an aspergillum. I headed out to snip some greenery from the bushes near St. Francis and recoiled in shock: his lily was gone.

There was the hole, but no lily. I looked over at the circular flower bed -- half of those lilies were gone, too, and the ground was cratered with holes.

Some tulips lay on their sides as if grieving, and the remaining lilies had aged visibly overnight.

Other tulips had been plucked and thrown into the lawn, and some daffodils were snipped at the base.

In fact, a pair of red-handled scissors, a clue perhaps, lay spread-eagled amidst the shorn flowers as if the thief, caught in the act, had fled and left them behind.

And, to add insult to injury, there was a plastic Hannaford's shopping bag lying in the flower bed by the walk. I went over to retrieve it and, to my surprise, it contained an uprooted lily and a pansy in a dirty pot. There had been, I was told, a massive theft of unplanted pansies the week before. Did the pansy thief, seized by guilt, attempt to return the goods, only to find an even more tempting array of pinchable blooms, and to fall even more deeply into sin ?

I picked up the bag. It was another clue. The lily thief, owner of red-handled scissors, had shopped at Hannaford's -- along with thousands of other residents of the city. It was a strange case. Troubling. Odd. It cried out for a seasoned detective -- Sherlock Holmes, Dick Tracy, Inspector Clouseau, Mike Hammer, Nancy Drew, or even Mma Precious Ramotswe and her incomparable, bespectacled assistant Mma Grace Makutsi. Unfortunately, it had only me, improbable altar guild directress and even more improbable gardener, standing there in the hot morning sunshine, standing there holding the bag.

If there was to be no empiric/historic resolution to the Case of the Purloined Lilies, surely there could be a symbolic/theological one -- floral emblems of resurrection, buried. To be resurrected next spring. But now what ? Empty holes ! Empty tombs ? And One, the Deracinated One, returned -- returned to what end ? So Improbable Directress could replant it this afternoon ? I was beginning to feel sorry for the lilies, to regret my scorn. For, after all, they're famous for their non-toiling and non-spinning and Solomonic splendour, but, as the rest of the passage points out, they are alive today and tomorrow thrown into the oven. I was having no success at getting my story to conform to the Easter story. Maybe it was just a sordid little urban tale of petty theft, pointless vandalism, or ecclesiastic revenge, or even of someone's desire for something bright and beautiful getting the best of them -- forgive them. They did not know what they were doing ! Plus, didn't thieves hang with Christ ? And didn't one thief, captivated by the bright and beautiful Saviour that hung beside him, earn a place with Christ in Paradise ?

Well, that would have to do for now. I brought my bag of clues inside and stashed it behind the trash pail in the sacristy. There was choir practice, a baptism, I was LEM and then had a LEM visit to make. The rest of my detecting would have to wait until later.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


It was a winter that made unbelievers of us all. It had snowed, was snowing and would snow in aeternam; it was dark, and would be dark, cold and would be cold. The earth had tilted away from the sun, and kept tilting, falling out of the arms of gravity into endless space. Soon our candles would be burned down to stubs, our woodpiles depleted and our root cellars empty. That which had fallen into the earth would slumber there forever.

I stared at my camera. Why bother ? I had a few free hours, but, honestly, how many pictures can one take of dead knotweed, crumbling swallowwort and mouldering bittersweet ? The day had clouded over, the clouds were spitting rain, and the wind was getting colder. Friday had been bright, almost balmy; spring, as usual, was vacillating. Backsliding, even.

I decided to go to the river. It was, after all, just a few blocks away, behind the grocery where I needed to go later, anyway. A walk would do me good. It had been a long Holy Week, and the week back to work had been arduous. I was tired. I would get some air. Air was good, right ? Or, sometimes bad -- hadn't a slew of patients the week before evoked drafts blowing across bare heads and other vicissitudes of the air as the source of their ills ? Mal-aria, as it were ? Well, I was after some bonair, some salubrious, cobweb-clearing misma. Easter Sunday had come and gone, but creation seemed to be lagging behind, infested with the same I could live in a world of Lent as I'd been feeling a few weeks back.

Lent was indeed over. I was finding it hard to go back to the things I'd given up for Lent -- the rabidly opinionated political blogs I'd been compulsively reading since the Clinton impeachment, and soymilk icecream. I'd even stopped reading the blogs and listserves documenting the minutiae of the travails of the Anglican Communion. And I felt amazingly better. There's only so much snark and vituperation that a body can take. And only so much soy icecream.

There was still a mountain of snow in the parkinglot near the river -- maybe 15 feet high, encrusted with road dirt, and laced with trash. But beyond it, the river was full and swift and the geese milling about, madly honking. I felt my heart leap. Coming to the river is always a homecoming. This is where I learned to see. This is where seeing led me deeper into the Mysterious Ground of Being, the Source and End of All, the Ground from which faith springs, an exuberant assent.

But Easter is not just about the end of winter and the coming of spring; God is not simply Creator and Ground, easter bunny and easter eggs. God is also redeemer and sanctifier; God is with us, with suffering humanity, within history: Christ, God Incarnate, the Word. Like us, scandalously particular; unlike us, without blemish. Like us, of suffering flesh; unlike us, of pure Love, absolute mercy, and absolutely without vengeance. Who died an atrocious death at the hands of social, political and religious elites out to preserve their own power and status -- hands like our hands. Who forgave, infinitely and abundantly, even as he died on the cross.

And who has been resurrected.

That's the Mystery, the central koan of Christianity. God operating within history and human concourse, not just in the revivifying woods and by the rushing river. A Word signifying a thing of infinite, inexpressable complexity -- a word, a music, an icon, an encyclopedia, a teacher, an example, a call, a lovesong, a cry -- a Word that is the answer to all the badly phrased, stumbling, half-formed questions of the human heart: Who am I ? Where am I going ? Where have I come from ? And why, oh why, oh why ? Why pain, why suffering, why grief, why loss, why anything at all ?

All around me were strokes of green -- leaves, grass, the early mustards, some even flowering white. The red, complicated knotweed stalks were pushing up everywhere. There was no doubting it now. Spring, inexorable, was underway, uprushing like a juggernaut from its hidden places. I saw and I believed.

Gratitude welled up. The God of Genesis was right: it is good, this thing, life, our life, the life of fellow creatures. It is good, and astonishing and a gift. I watched a tiny gnat poised within a newly unfurled leaf. I thought of the expansion of my own life-with-others that was occurring since I'd joined the church. That was a like a springtime, too, a resurrection.

Yes, I was glad I'd decided to come to the river. It never disappoints. As many springtimes as I've walked its banks, it still seems new and astonishing. May it always be so. And may that other river remain as fresh to me --

...then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the City...

as they both flow, side by side, one crystal, one brown, through the middle of Waltham, Massachusetts.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Veronica, Patron Saint of Laundresses and Photographers, Pray For Me

It was the Maundy Thursday service, the footwashing service. I'd set out four chairs, four enormous stainless steel bowls, and draped the chair backs with fresh new towels a prescient parishioner had just bought at Costco's, a shrink wrapped batch of sixty. All was well. The service was proceeding smoothly. Altar Guild had done its thing and could relax into the liturgy. As the priest ascended the pulpit it suddenly hit me.


Sweet Jesus help me, I had forgotten the water. And how PRAY tell were feet going to get washed without water ? Was this going to be an air-guitar version of foot washing ? Dry cleaning ? A parting of the Red-Sea dryshod footwashing ? A miracle -- a transformation of air into water ? I crept, discreetly, out of the pew and down a side aisle, searching my memory -- was there a canonically prescribed vessel ? Could I use the baptismal ewer ? I tore open the sacristy cabinet, found the ewer, found an ancient, ornate, tarnished one in a brown felt bag, filled them with warm water, and (discreetly, I hoped, but not so discreetly the server wouldn't notice) put them on the piano bench. I crept back to my pew. Where was G., my long-departed Altar Guild mentor when I needed her ? This would never have happened on her watch. I needed her to smile sadly but reassuringly, to pat my hand, and take charge.

It quickly became clear that two dinky ewers of water would not suffice to wash the 60-odd feet that had come to the service. A bucket brigade of ewers and old brass vases quickly constituted itself between the nave and the sacristy -- not unlike the loaves and fishes event, come to think of it -- and every last foot was washed -- so many feet, in fact, that the water got gloriously dirty, and there was a mountainous pile of towels in the sacristy afterward. Along with mountainous piles of spent vases, bowls and ewers, sacred vessels and linens, and everything else that was, at service's end, stripped from altars, walls, chairs and kneelers in preparation for Good Friday.

I stood surveying the wonderful mess. All would be well.

At least I hoped it would. It's one thing to screw up the water. The Paschal fire is a whole other beast.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Only No Trespassing Sign Had Been Heavily Redacted

Spring has come to the graveyard in the old Metropolitan State Hospital conservation land. Crocuses are blooming near the low, anonymous headstones, and soon the branches of the big tree in its center will overspread them like the wings of a great green hen.

Just beyond the cemetery a path veers uphill. A month ago I trudged partway up and, discouraged by the still-deep snow, turned back. Today, driven partly by curiosity and partly by the wish to avoid a young couple w/ dog frolicking in the graveyard, I turned right and headed up. My misanthropy peaks in early spring when the pale, stunned-by-winter populace creeps out of hiding, blinking in the brightness -- and immediately cranks up their radios, whips out their frisbees and their beer coolers, dons their blindingly bright and shockingly scant sports clothing complete with snow-white, oddly fetishized athletic shoes the size of SUVs. You see ? Misanthropy vintage 2009, straight out of the bottle. There's more where that came from. A whole cellar full.

What I was headed toward was boarded up brick. What could be more misanthropic ?

It was, of course, one of the old hospital buildings. At least one other had been turned into condominiums, funeral baked meats and marriage tables and all that. This one clearly was still awaiting its fate, eyes, if buildings have eyes, screwed shut.

It was hard to imagine that this was, even in its heyday, a welcoming place. I passed through a patch of staghorn sumac and crossed a small meadow of brown, trampled grass. I had the absolutely wrong lens for this subject -- my 90mm macro -- but it would have to do. I'd simply have to be careful not to back off any cliffs.

Of course, this was no secret garden that I alone had discovered. The tagger and his -- or her ? -- spray can had come before, with their own more aggressive and extroverted brand of misanthropy, the kind that claims public and private surfaces as personal canvases on which anything goes. Other people's paint rankles this misanthropist as much as other people's music. It's never what I want to see or hear. It's like standing in line at the grocery, bombarded with tabloids and magazines hawking gluttony and weight loss with equal fervor, featuring celebrities that are too fat, too thin, too crazy, too reclusive, too well or too badly dressed and undergoing yet another personal public "tragedy." Bombarded with "check out TV" competing with the overhead muzak, tracts of diet tips, Bible verses, crosswords and sudoku, racks of candy bars, and, of course, that ubiquitous icon, TV Guide.

Do you hear me, you self-important, self-righteous, post-modern Graffitist ? You, sir or madam, are a TV Guide equivalent. Put that in your CFC-containing can and spray it !

That being said, I admit that some graffiti is artful -- look how the tawny, wood-grained center of the blue amoeboid form looks like the red paint's been stripped off the window board -- but then the yellow bleeds down over the sill onto the brick. Nice.

And I like the two left palm prints. A humanizing touch.

But, mostly, I like how things speak for themselves. I like the black-maroon-white stippling of this railing, a railing that looks frozen in mid-step.

And this beautiful vine, right at home nestled in the corner of a boarded up doorway.

There was something about the impregnability of the building that was summoning me, issuing a challenge, singing a siren song -- come in ! come in ! It was primitive. I know my cats feel it -- they are drawn like magnets to closed doors. They thrust their paws beneath them, and hurl their bodies against them. Let me in ! Let me in ! But these were doors without handles, windows without glass or latch. Like the old Lithuanian Daina says of the grave, dark the lodging without door or windowpane.

The pavement around the building was littered with the handiwork of vandals: glass, porcelain, whole steel sinks, pieces of unidentifiable, institutional apparatus, smashed, disarticulated, rusting, mingling with weeds and drinks containers.

The porcelain, in particular, stood out. Even broken, it seemed more graceful than the rest of the trash. Its curves echo human curves. The shampoo sink's concavity, for example, is designed to accept a human neck. But so is a guillotine's.

Other curves seem botanical, even abstract, like body's curves photographed close up (or maybe with the wrong lens.)

I stooped to inspect a glittering scatter of pretty blue at the front steps. Wired glass.

If this was now a place of no entrance, I was reminded that it had once been a place of no exit.

I continued my slow walk around the building. These sinks had to have come from inside. Maybe the place was not such a fortress after all. At the back there was a fenced in pavement with a rusted basketball hoop at the far end, and a row of swingless swingsets beyond it. The gate had been smashed open, so I walked through. The only object on the broad pavement was a snare drum.

I felt my pulse quicken. Things were getting interesting. My fingers twitched on my camera. I was a child, alone in a visual candy shop. What was all this recreational stuff ? I hardly knew where to begin.

The hoop's scab-red backboard

and solitary, dangling looped strand made it seem more like a gibbet than recreational equipment. Try as I might, I could not imagine play on this playground. It was as if it had been constructed old, rusted, ankylosed, and broken. Keep off. Beware. Nothing good will ever happen here. Every few minutes I had a fleeting worry about being caught. I had seen no "No Trespassing" signs, but "No Trespassing" was deeply implicit even among all the signs of exuberant trespass. But, as far as I could tell, I was alone. I hoped my camera and my gray hair would give me a pass.

I looked up at the backside of the building beyond the rec yard.

Here the taggers had abandoned all pretense of artfulness and had gone straight for the crude and sexual. But what was the white symbol beside the redacted notice. An A on an O ? Alpha and Omega ? The sublime designation of Christ juxtaposed against a sexual referent so confused that it could allude either to the word it replaced -- police -- or the building on which it was written ? Was the graffitist trying to emasculate the police, stripping them of power, or to fetishize the abandoned building as the town's (female) sexual organ ripe for penetration ? Christ frequents these places of brokenness and abandonment, of lostness and confusion, but with a spray can ?

Then I saw it. The smashed window: seventy small, thick panes, about half of which had been broken. I approached. The battering ram, a long, heavy steel pipe,

was still in situ. Alpha and Omega, indeed. These are the dusty, damaged outskirts of the world, places boarded up and breached, places where old and new sins meet, couple in the darkness and reproduce their kind.

I leaned on the sill and looked in. It was dim inside, and the air was cold and smelled of concrete. I jacked up the iso on my camera and took some shots. Inside there was another big window, again with closely gridded panes, and behind it, more glass, reflecting the harsh, intruding light.

And there were more palm prints, this time right & right. This fortress had indeed been been breached. Stainless steel cabinet doors hung open, scrawled over with paint. Bright red medical tanks still hung strapped to the walls. Plaster was smashed out and over written with sexual vulgarities -- one so puerile and offensive (I must say in the spirit of full disclosure of my nondisclosure) that I have photoshopped it out.

Time may not have stood still within these boarded-up walls, but it certainly had curdled. Past woe mingled with current in a nauseous jumble, one inextricable from the other. I stared and shot photo after photo, complicit and fascinated, trespassing and transgressing.

Then I saw it: across a small courtyard was an open door. I pigeons flew in and out, roosting in dangling ductwork.

I watched one shambling along the base of the building, pecking for seeds.

Then I followed him in.

It probably wasn't blood spatter I was seeing, just a graffitist's rendition, but it set the tone. I tiptoed past, definitely anxious now, briefly imagining being locked in, reassuring myself that I had a cell phone, worrying that I hadn't charged it --

but soon curiosity replaced anxiety. Around the corner from the tiled bloodbath was a large, dim room. The walls were covered with primitive murals -- a jungle motif, clearly not the graffitist's, who had added his own coprophagic commentary above water bubbler painted a feculent brown and incorporated into a tree trunk.

A phone book on the floor gave me a time horizon -- 1992 -- and an envelope an identifier: this had been a children's hospital, a kids' asylum. The stark playground and the bright murals began to make sense, sad sense. Gaebler Children's Center. I remembered that Fernald School was a few blocks away, an institution for the profoundly mentally challenged, now in its waning days, but in the 1950's, home to the infamous "Science Club" where corporate scientists -- from Quaker Oats no less -- fed radioactive breakfast cereal to children in purely commercial experiments.

Lock them up, throw away the key, and do what you will with them. These places of darkness and secrets, boarded up even when the windows were still all glass. Home to the least, the lost, the forgotten, the abandoned, the absolutely vulnerable. Had there been kindness here too, and care ? Love ? Compassion ? Of course. The human heart contains these things, too.

A gash of light drew my attention.

Beside it, there was more mural: a cheerful, green parrot perched in a tree above an elephant. The graffitist was stuck in his (or her?) coprolalic vein. What is the worst you can write -- shit (or, oddly childish, poop,) and Nazis ? Was the graffitist a former patient, returned to declare You, my custodians, acted like Nazis and treated me like shit, or was he (or she) simply a garden variety nihilist, content to desecrate anything, addressing and negating all sweetness out of some purely private, unassociated hurt.

I liked the parrot. I wanted to see a kind hand in it.

I wanted to see a kind hand in the bulletin board, on which some faded Garfield cartoons were still pinned. But, when you get right down to it, what did I know ? What right did I have to even speculate ? Was speculating a transgression ? Did it disrespect, dishonor what had happened here, what had been endured, what had been inflicted, what had been assuaged ?

I had no idea. Behind me, grinning like a Cheshire cat, was a greenish, strangely marbelized piano.

I stared at the unlikely spinet. It was still relatively intact. I plunked a key: a dusty bass note sounded, and faded away.

So there had been music here. I hoped it had been like George Herbert's Church Music

Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure
Did through my body wound my mind,
You took me thence, and in your house of pleasure
A dainty lodging me assigned.

Now I in you without a body move
Rising and falling with your wings.

The piano wasn't talking. But it had survived the vandals' hands. Something about it had elicited restraint, respect.

Or at least some respect.

The keys were worn and stained right where playing fingers would have touched them most. The stains reminded me of the nicotine stains on the fingers of State Hospital patients I'd seen during my training. I remembered the drawing I made of a woman I'd seen lying on the ground, smoking, at Worcester State Hospital in the late 1970's. I called the drawing, "It Tastes So Good To Her."

There was not much music left in the piano. Its stiff, disarticulated keys resembled both stained teeth and stained fingers. The grooves in the felt of the hammers only hinted at the songs of yesteryear. It's hard to read a body, to fathom the text of a scar. Sometimes there's only the reader shedding their disfigurement upon the blank page. Better than spray paint, maybe, but not by much.

I looked up. On the left hand wall there was an open door leading deeper into the building. Maybe if I'd brought a wider lens or a better flash I'd be tempted to go further, emboldened by the objective persona of the documentarian. But I was a weed photographer, out of both my element and focal length. I had trespassed enough. It was dangerous here. Ghosts, resonances, gaps, gashes -- things that lacerate, infiltrate, unsettle -- it was time to leave.

The tagger had left a final word on the inside glass of that door: Help. In bleeding red letters. Legible, were the door shut and locked, as pleH. Joke ? Compassionate comment ? Jokey response to the unsettling, compelling pain of compassion ?


I was tired of trying to read this place. Maybe I'd gotten it wrong. Maybe I should have been listening to its music all along -- the flap of pigeon wings, the crunch of my footsteps on the debris-strewn concrete, the thud of hammer on loosened strings, and, mainly, the silence.

I hurried out, blinking in the sunlight. Two figures stared at me from the playground, two boys, adolescents; I was a double trespasser, then. On the state's turf, and on theirs. I headed back around the building, toward the path to the woods below. It was a clear day and the view was beautiful. I remembered how the State Hospital in the town where my Dad had worked was often called The House on the Hill. This was also, it seemed, a House on a Hill. There was something about asylums and heights, asylums and towers, madwomen in attics, something lofty about lunacy, an affliction of the body's topmost organ, the seat of the soul, an affliction brought on by the touch of moonlight on a sleeper's head. I grew up in an era enamoured of the deep, compassionate, misguided myths of psychoanalysis, into a time of complex chemistries and disembodied brains.

I looked into the distance. There was Boston on the skyline. From the House on the Hill, I was looking east toward the capitol of John Winthop's City on the Hill --

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.

I picked my way through the sumac grove toward the trail. A noble vision, fertile soil for a genocide. Sin, repentence, the grace of forgiveness. Not just in history, but in every human encounter.

Weeds are simpler.