Sunday, May 29, 2011

Window Meadow Shadow

Photography is a physical sport. There is the hefting of the camera, of course, and the precision of framing the shot and holding the camera motionless. Between elbows, shoulders and knees, not to mention obliging tree trunks, railings and rocks, the body can become a perfectly respectable tripod.

And, squatting on one's heels at full closeup, one can even eschew the focus ring, and rock back and forth until the tendril or antenna is crisp and clear.

Who else but photographers and cloistered religious get to fall to their knees at will and not be the object of suspicion, curiosity or medical concern ?

On bright, highlight-blowing days the body becomes a brise-soleil, , drenching the subject in moody, saturated shadows.

The secret is this: we may appear to be taking a snapshot, but we are, in fact, praying. Yes, praying -- that fraught and utterly elusive religious imperative, the skyward heave-hoing of signs and utterances, throwing metaphors at metaphors until the smoke detectors scream themselves off the ceiling.

So here's another metaphor: prayer is the colloquoy between what sees and what is seen, the ghostly persona that inhabits the space between eye and object, uniting them beyond difference.

The rest is Ms DsGruntled paddling in the lake of fire and brimstone under the church.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


One day of sun after seven of rain, drizzle, fog, downpours and dampness is enough to turn the mind toward summer.

I spent the morning weeding and digging and planting along the front walk of the big, old stone church on Main Street. Passersby waved and greeted, and one joined in the weeding, all seeming pleased at being alive in a world where there are flowers and sunshine and people with whom to share that pleasure.

We watched a knotted earthworm unknot itself, a clever patient thing indeed. I planted countless gangly fussy pansy-like plants in a circle.

I could have: kept my dental appointment, sang with the Real Choir ™ At Trinity, Boston, at the confirmation service, or, of course, stayed home, recluse that I am. As I am likely a better weeder than I am chorister, I opted for the soil.

And summer. I do tend to loathe it, the heat, the thronged world -- but, at least today, I look toward it with equanimity. Open windows, a line of storms in the west, 49 degrees overnight -- equanimity, interest, gratitude.

And the spring's well underway at the river, the dear, dirty river I've much neglected of late. The mustards are already going to seed. The geese are relaxing in the shallows. Mushrooms and knotweed are in their heyday, and grasses are putting out their seedheads like mad.

All these common things, nothing special, nothing exotic or rare, just everyday life on earth, this subtle miracle in whose midst we live, subtle miracles ourselves.

On days like this once can almost stop fretting, interrogating, deconstructing, translating, anguishing, languishing, analyzing, meditating, cogitating, ruminating, debating, and even waiting. It's all here, right now. What more can one want ?

Well, of course, one always wants more. Wants beyond. Wants between and inside. One feels oneself behind glass, in vitro, apart. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, as the sutra says. We construct the world as it constructs us.

So we're left with stories, organs, heaps; we hold on, and we let go.

We bestow names, it's all we can do sometimes. We feel compelled to indicate to one another that we're in this thing together, this big mystery, this round dance of creation, redemption and sanctification. The nights, even the summer nights, are dark and extend forever in all directions.

Eliot wrote of midwinter spring; there is also midsummer winter. But, then again, to paraphrase the sage badly, firewood is firewood and ash is ash.

It's odd how it works, this two faced world. On the one hand it can seem brute and nauseating facticity, the vertiginous thrownness of being-here-at-all, occasion of anguish and despair. But shift your gaze just a bit and the old hag becomes the young woman: everything is grace, gift, awesome, amazing and wondrous.

Not to be ageist, of course. There's nothing like squatting for 30 minutes to induce one's knees to remind one of the ravages of la fuite du temps. The hag is as awesome and wondrous as the debutante, ash and firewood, each abiding in itself.

Anguish and gratitude, each wondrous and complete, and abiding in itself.

That's the genius of the Trinity -- it's like a United Nations of Being. Numinous ground and source, sure, but there has to be an accounting for that which perceives and constructs and relates -- to ground and to one another -- like, as Sherwood Anderson said of love, a wind.

The sun is lower, now, and the prematurely opened windows will soon need to be shut.

It's likely that the rain will remain in the west until after nightfall, and then it will water my circle of gangly pansies -- violas ? -- under the magnolia tree in front of the old stone church.

It feels a little like mercy.

Friday, May 20, 2011

On The Threshold Looking Out

I was looking for asylum, that much I know. I was looking for, as Philip Larkin wrote, "a serious house on serious earth."

And if I couldn't follow Thomas Merton into Gethsemani, signing onto the closest thing to it that would have me would have to suffice. Note how little this original impulse had to do with Jesus. I was comforted by the Dalai Lama's famous advice to seekers: look to your own tradition. I could, by that advice, legitimately contract an arranged marriage and hope for the best. One could say that I desired to desire what Merton had desired, or -- and maybe it's saying the same thing -- I desired to be Merton. Not just like Merton, but Merton himself.

Thereby achieving a double asylum -- escape from the world and escape from myself.

This week I was in New York, in Times Square, an absolute cauldron of mimetic desire. On every towering and illuminated surface are moving -- writhing, scrolling, flashing, morphing -- images of people wanting what someone wants us to want.

There she floats, cool, serene and utterly self-absorbed, over the fray, her bare arm as impossibly thin as her skinny soda can, her cheekbone as angular as the even-skinnier bent straw she holds in her pursed, crimson lips. She is all in cold blue, except for the bits of red and white that make her All-American; the sensual sweep of the hat brim belies her angles, and hint at the subtext which, like everything in Times Square, is sexual. The can is thin like her, but also elongated like a dick. The fire-engine red lips around the straw can suck and blow.

And yet chances are that such a fleshless, malnourished creature hasn't much actual libido. She drowns her hunger in 0 calorie soda pop, she hasn't menstruated in years, and the best thing about sex are the glimpses she gets of the hollows of her thighs and knees in the ceiling mirror. Who would want to caress that barely enfleshed humeral head ? The arm, thin as the skinny Pepsi can, is oddly phallic; it is an arrow pointing at the ad's other object of desire, the soft drink, which is almost secondary to the actual thing it's selling: skinniness.

I desired a serious house on serious earth.

Instead I found a hall of haunted mirrors.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


That there is something rather than nothing.

Note that it's a declarative, not a question. We can interrogate that declarative, but we must not transform it into a question, especially one prefaced with "why." That way madness, or at least mauvais foi, lies. Leave "how" to science; let science run with it as far as it can go, into complex regions light years beyond my understanding. I appreciate the parables science provides to the innumerate such as myself so we can catch a glimpse of these nether regions, these farthest fields -- astral fields, quantum fields, neural fields: the expanding universe is like a rising loaf of raisin bread.

That irreducible, dizzying, even nauseating declarative is the abyss beside which I've lived my life; it is what prompted me to become churched. Surely the word "God" can be used to indicate the vast and vertiginous "that there is" -- like a chord that contains all sounds, or white light that refracts into all possible color, and, at the same time, like the most perfect silence and most utter darkness.

So if I allow science its parables, then why do I chafe at In principio creavit Deus cælum et terram ?

It's a small step from that to the anthropomorphism and androcentrism of the religion of the benevolent (or angry, if that's your bag) Old Man in the Clouds and His henchmen, always men, writing on His (and their own) behalf and declaring their writings Truth, and not just Truth, but infallible Truth. Volumes of meticulously codified Infallible Truth in the name of the (god)fellow who had proposed simplifying the code to two commandments: love God, and love one another.

And, you know what else: I'm tired of stories. Of beginning, middle and end. Of plot, thick and thin. Of themes and characters and morals, of tragedy and triumph, of the throbbing pulse of human emotion. I am sick of the horse and rider thrown into the sea, of the babies dashed against the rock, of the Yahweh-sponsored genocides and land grabs, of the women bidden to veil and keep silent in church, of the psalmist's God's endless, tiresome and capricious rewards and punishments. I stare at the page and the words become opaque and absurd, letters like stick figures waving fingers at me, or ideograms from an extraterrestrial civilization. They jumble, fray, reassort, then, tissue-thin, disappear. Vocabularies and liturgies undergo the same dissolution: the elevated host, already wafer thin, becomes translucent, transparent then gone, thanks be to God.

Which may be the point, or at least one of the two points between which religious matters oscillate, the chatty and the dumbstruck.

And then there is the Tiber, the ever beckoning Tiber, my idée fixe, my louche paramour, my longed-for and detested stalker. "Sink or swim," he calls in the seductive tones of a Merman. I watch as that infatuated part of me wafts off toward the Call.

What she does not know is that I have stuffed her sweater pockets full of stones.

And, without her, what is left ?