Air-travel freewrite

For Jessie and I, writing while at airports / in the air has almost become a tradition, not to be skipped. We are similar in many ways, and one of the ways is that we become really in our feelings while in transit, particularly at airports. We both mutter “night flight to San Francisco, chase the moon across America” (holy words from Angels in America) under our breaths as we walk the jetway and board the plane, it comes out of our mouths without it meaning to. I’m always uncomfortable at the airport, always scanning, wondering, noticing myself and everything around me. So much to see. Everyone’s a guest and going somewhere. Everyone is clutching their belongings, double checking things, eating dubious foods, running or walking very slowly so as to pass the time. Everyone’s always trying to find the best place to sit.

I’m on a flight to Chicago reading The Handmaid’s Tale which is probably entirely the wrong thing to read when I’m anxious to be traveling farther and farther from my husband with every passing minute in the air. Empty paper cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee. I’m listening to Tom Rosenthal, always my plane music of choice. The older I get, the more I dislike flying. It was thrilling when I was a kid. It felt *special* to be at the airport. I always assembled so many activities for the plane, and got to work on them almost immediately when the plane took off. Game boy games and chapter books and coloring pages. Little crafts. Friendship bracelets. Now I sit down on the plane and there is nothing I want. My mind is now so much more accustomed to empty space. In fact, I relish it. I was noticing that shift in my brain as I was waiting in the long line of people to take my seat, 12D. As a child that line would have felt annoying, like it was genuinely taking forever. Now, to stand in a line is vaguely comforting. The time passes easily, like water running over my feet. There is nothing else required of me, I need only stand here. My brain floats in some sort of warmth. The thinking either ceases or accelerates comfortably. I have thoughts or I don’t either way. I notice things about other people. The woman listening to a Lauren Conrad podcast diagonal from me. She selects it in Spotify then picks her manicured nail. She has a floral water bottle and ballet flats. Possibly the same age as me. We are different. The woman to my right is fussing with her large paper cup of tea. She opens a book in an ebook app on her phone. I’m reminded that I could do that too. I’m reminded that I should want to do something.

I have begun counting. The phone fixation got so bad that I would count to 100 without looking at it. Look at a tree while counting. It felt so good to do this. I’d hardly noticed how little my brain could handle quiet. In a line, even the phone does little good to placate the mind. All the better. Adulthood maybe means finding rest in waiting in line. My brain has now fully developed. I’m 26. It’s almost like I noticed the change, a perceivable shift. All the roads have been connected, all the superhighways constructed, the workers sitting down to take a break, take off their yellow vests. There’s a new rest in my brain. I know who I am. Nothing new is being built, only repairs here and there. Only the parts that were broken all along and may never be fixed.

As soon as I checked my big yellow suitcase, I regretted not giving it a very thorough check, making sure everything was VERY safely zipped, adding multiple name and address labels, seeing that the woman behind the counter affixed the checked bag sticker securely so it wouldn’t fall off in transit. It all happened so quickly, before I could blink she whisked it away and I couldn’t ask for it back. I spent my whole time in the security line very worried, sick to my stomach, that my bag wouldn’t make it to Rapid City with me. Considering walking back up the escalator to double check something, who knows what, with the check-in agent. What would she say to me? I stay in line. Transfer in Chicago. O’Hare, one of the biggest airports in America. More room for error. Right before leaving home I wrote my name and phone number in sharpie on masking tape and stuck it to the bag, an afterthought. As Isaiah pulled it out of the back seat for me, the edge of the masking tape was curling up, not secure. I pushed it back down, rubbed it with my thumb as hard as I could. All I can think about is that curling edge, my precious handmade clothes being lost forever in the recesses of some airport. My bag will probably make it but I can’t unthink the fear. That’s how OCD works. Once it’s there, it doesn’t leave. More factual than anxiety, the heart takes it less personally. I didn’t check all the things to check, I didn’t do all the steps. It’s irrational, but only marginally. OCD begs the mind to be superhuman, to remember every thing, make every provision. To not do so is to fail. I feel like I’ve failed. Though it will probably be fine. That’s the refrain. It’s really always fine. My life is very safe. The Handmaid’s Tale reminds me of that but also reminds me of everything I’m afraid of. Makes me notice the strangeness of being on an airplane, the sort-of-luxury mixed with extreme hassle. The strangeness of having freedom to move about as I wish. My whiteness. My intelligence. My female-ness. All of them are apparent to me. Here I am up in the air, an adult in a crumbling world. What is required of me?

And now I really have to pee.


Off the plane, found a bathroom, found my way to my second gate. I’m briefly in Chicago which makes me emotional, vaguely. Such places and people I’ve loved, a whole other life that was mine! I consider my snack choices for a while, feeling like I definitely needed a snack, but worried, as always, about food poisoning. I forgo the beautiful but expensive tortas from Frontera because they’re expensive and more food than I want (though probably well-handled and therefore low risk). I end up with a toasted bagel with butter (relatively safe choice) from a sort of chaotic/dusty bagel stand (unsafe choice) so after eating it I feel mostly worried but also satisfied. Nothing too bad can happen to a bagel, right? As soon as I walked away from the shop and went to the other concourse I found a tidier looking shop with bagels, a nice motherly woman tenderly shuttling them from case to toaster to bag with lovely tongs, and I considered throwing away my stress-bagel and eating one from her instead, but I’m trying to not do so many things like that anymore. I’m trying to fight the OCD in little ways, give up little bits of control, within reason. Not too much at once. I wash my hands well, I touch nothing, I eat the bagel. My stomach hurts a little after, probably from the butter and the stress. It will be okay.

I’m amazed at the mental gymnastics my mind does to try to conceive of and then avoid any possible danger. I’m brilliant at it. So much negotiation, mostly around food and eating. What used to be thoughtless and worry free ( I washed my hands SO LITTLE as a child) now takes up a lot of my mind. I grieve that, I really do. But it’s real, it’s a part of my life right now. I’m realizing that I haven’t written about it before — I have OCD. It’s been diagnosed for about a year now but it’s been a lifelong thing just with different expressions. It’s good to know what it is so I can resist. It’s really hard.

I’m relieved by the fact that now that I’ve eaten I don’t have to eat anymore for a while. My flight to Rapid City starts boarding in about 7 minutes, though I’m in the very last group. Of course. I sort of want more coffee, though that’s what made me want to pee so bad I wanted to die before. (Truly it was maybe the worst ever? And THEN there was a line at the bathroom. I was literally crossing my legs.) When I get to Rapid City, one of the dearest mentors of my life will pick me up at the airport (which I can hardly believe) and take me to a camp with many of my other dearest people and we will all spend time together for two weeks like a dream family reunion. I haven’t really thought about that very much. It’s hard to think about. I have few expectations, which I think means it will be really wonderful. I’m calm and excited. I miss Isaiah. I miss my dog. My stomach hurts. There’s so much I fear. I’m a writer in an airport and for the moment all is well.

Into the Woods

Last weekend, I had the last minute opportunity to see my very favorite musical, Into the Woods, with 18,000 other people at the Hollywood Bowl.  The cast was once in a lifetime, the length of the run one weekend only.  We watched for three glorious hours as the sun slowly set over 16 people, going in and out of the proverbial and literal woods to chase dreams varying in scope but identical in need.  Beginning again or decidedly ending, getting a wish and finding out what happens after.

Before you dismiss this as the musings of an admittedly devoted student of musical theater, I’d like to share with you something a voice teacher once said to me (yes, yes, the irony).  She said that if you printed out the collected lyrics of Stephen Sondheim (which he actually did himself), you would have a lifelong course in philosophy.  At the time I was only loosely familiar with his work, but the comment stuck with me.  She knew him personally, you see, as her son had played Jack in the original Broadway cast.  She told me Stephen Sondheim had given him a bag of silver beans made especially by Tiffany’s on opening night, and that stuck with me too.

Fast forward to college, when my entire theater group became enflamed with anticipation as the release of the film version drew near.  People were humming their favorite songs from the soundtrack under their breath, comparing theories about whether Meryl Streep really would prove indomitable even as the Witch, a notoriously difficult role to sing.  I still had never listened all the way through the musical, as my sister’s production at the YMCA had ended after Act 1, but was familiar with enough of the key songs – No One is Alone, Stay with Me, Agony – to be thrilled at the prospect of hearing them all in a row.

Imagine my dismay, then, upon seeing the movie version, only to realize that they did not include the entire soundtrack (I get it, Rob Marshall, you’ve got 500 producers breathing down your neck).  I trotted off to the library, knowing there was more to the story, and rented the beautifully dated filmed production from the 80’s.  I lost my marbles.

It’s a show about parents and children first and foremost, I think;  the mistakes they make, how everyone more or less makes a selection out of the same handful of wishes from generation to generation, despite evidence supporting different paths.  I’ve written some version of my meditations on the themes here before, as I will always be interested in wishes.  I think they’re the most revealing thing about a person, especially when they’re able to claim it without pretense or embarrassment.  Nothing more clearly illuminates a person’s life – and the choices they make – than what they wish for.  The characters are at various stages of both age and status in life, and their wishes are as follows – a child, to go to the festival, beauty and youth, and money.  Another description for each could be as follows: family and community, freedom from circumstances, impermeability, and security.  And, the implied wish that all of them allegedly lead to: happiness.  The drive of the play can be boiled down to a single question, sung by the ghost of Cinderella’s mother as she seeks out guidance: “Do you know what you want – are you certain what you wish is what you want?” The two are deeply connected, but not necessarily the same.  The story is continued by a second question, perhaps more interesting: What happens once you get what you want? How incisive is it into the human condition that an entire second play is spent parsing out what happens after we’ve so-called sacrificed everything, shown a brave face, and earned what we wanted?

This production at the Bowl, after the show’s gradual embedment into my life, was my first time listening through the story slightly closer to the adult than child side.  It’s a show that covers the entire generational spectrum of children entirely without experience to completely knowing adults who recognize that “children can only grow from something you love to something you lose.” (WHAT!)  Or, in broader terms, people who have learned their lesson and people who are still in the midst of it.  During perhaps the most famous song from the musical, No One is Alone, Cinderella says something truly wild: “People make mistakes, fathers, mothers – people make mistakes holding to their own, thinking they’re alone.  Honor their mistakes, everybody makes one another’s terrible mistakes.  Witches can be right.  Giants can be good.  You decide what’s right.  You decide what’s good.”

This is decidedly poignant in light of the main song about parenting in the first act, Stay with Me, in which the Witch implores Rapunzel, “Stay with me the world is dark and wild; stay with me while you can be a child.” I can’t think of how many times throughout my upbringing my own mother said some version of this to me, with slightly less overbearing undertones.  Having had two older sisters who perhaps endeavored to grow up too quickly, I took it to heart.  She follows this up by saying arguably one of my favorite lines in the whole show: “Princes wait there in the world, it’s true.  Princes, yes, but wolves and humans too.” Every wish you’ve ever had, every hope you’ve ever clung to, has a flipside of everything you will have to lose in order to obtain it, and, what’s more, a hidden face you’re unable to see, blinded by your idea of it.  You will make mistakes, despite warnings, despite people who love you and know better guiding you along the way.  Because want outweighs wisdom, almost every time.  And childhood, if you’re lucky, is the one time you are guaranteed to be protected from your own impulses.

Red Riding Hood verbalizes this very moment of transition in I Know Things Now, her moment in the arena to share concisely what she’s learned, a child faced with her first adult mistake.  Her conclusion is this: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot! And a little bit not.”

My acting teacher once referred to this musical as dashboard music – an album that you can return to throughout your entire life and still find yourself in, just in a different spot.  This line in particular hits me differently every time I hear it, because every time I know just a little bit more than before.  And while scary can be exciting, nice really is so different than good.  This is what so frustrates the Witch upon her decision to simply disappear in the second act.  “You’re so nice – you’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.” Witches, after all, can be right.  Good is not the exact opposite of bad – nice is different than good.  In so many ways, the direct structures and antitheses laid out in fairy tales – good and bad, actions leading directly to what you deserve, ultimately succeeding if you behave well – are very much expected in reality, despite generations and histories and entire civilizations telling us otherwise.  Goodness is often random; tragedy even more so. You can resort to the law of attraction all you want, but as hard and fast as some rules of life are – in order to get what you want you have to go after it, often taking it from somebody else – there are ten others that despite reason and rationality and hope will always be true.  Red is just finding out the difference between expectation and reality; the Witch has spent a lifetime being disappointed by it.

Keep reading…

the transfiguration variations

I spent my weekend at an artists’ retreat at my Anglican parish in Pittsburgh. We all mostly worked independently, with little breaks for talking to each other about making things and sharing what we were working on. Some folks struck up partnerships and collaborations. I got to sit in the nave, long and empty, and write poems, listening to someone mess with some chords on the organ, someone painting in the corner. I felt sad for a lot of the time and couldn’t quite figure out why. We prayed Compline together, my favorite hour of the daily office. We sang many of the prayers with tunes by people from our church. It was special in a really ordinary way, fitting for the theme: “transfiguration in ordinary time.” We were all meditating on the transfiguration, which turned out to be the perfect window to look through. Throughout the weekend, I worked on this poem. I don’t want to say too much more about it, I don’t think I have much to say, so I’ll just share it as it is. A composer at my church is planning to use the poems as the text for a song cycle, such an exciting idea. Whether or not that happens, I’m thankful for the time and space I had to write them in the quiet, in my church. This story is quickly becoming one of my favorites in the gospels (such spaciousness, such mystery, such fear, such joy!), and embodying Peter’s perspective for a little while helped me to learn a little more about my own. An expanded sort of midrash, sort of fourteen different midrashes for the same small chunk of text, very much inspired by the music sort of variations where there are themes that keep weaving through, doubling back. I imagine Peter misremembering, or even there being multiple universes in which different things happened. Can’t it be everything at once? That’s the beauty of imaginative interpretation, of midrash, it’s open-ended, it’s poetic, there’s so much it could be. 

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Transfiguration Variations

I.

on the mountain, we stopped to sleep
and to eat, to wash off the sweat, to
take off our shoes. we fell asleep,
woke up to a sound like bells, like
brass striking brass, like if wind had
a tune. Jesus in white, he was shining
like water, its shimmering top, two
others like dolphins, like hawks, like
brothers, holding his hands, clasping
them with theirs. they were
telling all the secrets, discussing the
mysteries, renewal of the cosmos,
the wholeness all at once, and I couldn’t
bear to hear it, couldn’t keep my mouth shut
so I squeaked some words,
they turned to look,
their burning eyes on mine.
And I saw Jesus, saw his face for the
first time without needing something from him.
I saw him from the inside of the cloud.
I saw him from the top looking down.

 
II.

on the mountain, we stopped to sleep
and to eat, to wash off the sweat, to
take off our shoes. we fell asleep,
woke up to breakfast being cooked,
little cakes, flakes of snow, some quail.
and we ate. I’d had a dream where I built
a tent like the tabernacle with elaborate rooms,
tables and chairs, panes of glass,
gold and copper and bells, different pitches.
in the dream I was thirsty and there was water to drink.
in the dream we had skin that shone.

 

III.

why can’t we live in this glorious place?
tell me why we must leave!

 

IV.

did they mean for me to see them?
all three of them glittery and singing,
a choir, it felt like I could join the song.
I knew the words. I stood, made a sound
and they stopped their singing to listen to me
speak foolishly. they listened with an openness
that made me walk right into the cloud with them
where the song resumed and I sang it too.

 
V.

I stayed up all night while Jesus prayed, with
colors behind my eyelids as I listened to his
shuffling feet, he always paced. no place
on earth I’d rather be than the quiet of this
mountain with Jesus near, walking
in circles through the inky night.
this is what I know of eternity.

when I open my eyes, more stars than there
should be and I can’t close them again.
I watch the multiplication. I feel it last
forever.

 
VI.

I wasn’t surprised to see him
shine like that. I’d seen him
look that way before, once or
twice, walking on the road,
talking about the scriptures,
talking about the future.

 
VII.

as he was praying, the
appearance of his face
changed and I started from
my sleep and froze to watch.
he was bright and how could
I breathe? the moment before an
explosion, something terribly wrong, the
ringing in your ears just after or before?
he multiplied from one to three but
the others were not him.
their backs to me, and I’m
alone in myself, I can hear
what they’re saying and it
makes no sense to hear their
ordinary voices, laughter,
Jesus breathing.

the wonders I’ve been witness to
are hard to say in words. shouldn’t
I come to expect exactly things like this?

 
VIII.

we went up the mountain
because he likes to be up above
when he prays. he likes to see
far, watch birds in flight.
he told me that as we
climbed up, breathing hard,
just two hours ago.

 

IX.

up on the mountain, at the top,
Jesus stood and faced us and
his body became something new,
his skin shone and his clothes
became bright and white, a man like a
diamond, like a prism, like a wind chime,
he rang like a bell. the new wine suddenly
bursting the old wineskins, exploding
with warmth, said nothing, just
shone, the birds were silent, the
hawks and vultures landed to watch.
Jesus whispering with Elijah
and Moses who touched his back,
like brothers after some time apart.
I stood, wet with sweat,
hardly breathing, looking at Jesus.

he looked how he looks in my
dreams.

 

X.

I wanted to build a tent on the top of
the mountain. I wanted to stay there,
why would we leave? I wanted your
clothes to be white like they were
forever in that high place where
the air stood still.

I wanted to see you and, more, to be
seen. watch me ascend, find the top of
the mountain. I am bright, I’m above,
I’m amazed and aloft. don’t make me go
down there, don’t make me pretend that
this never happened when my skin’s shining too.

 

XI.

woe is me, for I am lost.
my lips are unclean, I speak
of tents in the presence of god,
unthinkable glory and I make plans,
imagine fabric and poles.
o save me, I am lost.

 
XII.

on the mountain, we stopped to sleep
and to eat, to wash off the sweat, to
take off our shoes. we fell asleep
as Jesus prayed and woke up to
the dawn of his body, the morning
came sudden in him.

 
XIII.

on the mountain, we stopped to sleep
and to eat, to wash off the sweat, to
take off our shoes. we fell asleep
and woke up in the future, everything
exactly like he said it would be,
and I heard myself shouting,
“please stay like this!”
but he didn’t, he didn’t.
he stopped dazzling when
the cloud covered him.

 

XIV.

up on the mountain, at the top,
Jesus stood and faced us and
his body became something new,
and I was there to see, kept the
sweetest secret for years, the way
his glory looked, the vision of
his shining face.

From the Notebook: Into the Woods

{You may have noticed that this is coming on Friday instead of Thursday – that is because there were literally no hours between Tuesday and Thursday to complete this essay due to unforeseen if nice circumstances.  

As stated many times before, this website was initially started as a practice and question about the process of writing; I started this essay several days ago when I had several hours to sit with it and think about what I wanted to say.  I want to finish it in the same way, which the next several days similarly does not allow.  Ergo, a From the Notebook – which will be completed as the full fledged essay I initially set out to write in next week’s post, instead of hurriedly finishing it to post it “on time.”  In the name of actually letting the process of writing be just that – unfinished, unpolished, worth reading at every stage.}

This past Sunday, I had the last minute opportunity to see my very favorite musical, Into the Woods, with 18,000 other people at the Hollywood Bowl.  The cast was once in a lifetime, the length of the run one weekend only.  We watched for three glorious hours as the sun slowly set over 16 people, going in and out of the proverbial and literal woods to chase dreams varying in scope but identical in need.  Beginning again or decidedly ending, getting a wish and finding out what happens after.

It’s a show about parents and children first and foremost, I think;  the mistakes they make, how everyone more or less makes a selection out of the same handful of wishes from generation to generation, despite evidence supporting different paths.  I’ve written some version of my meditations on the themes here before, as I will always be interested in wishes.  I think they’re the most revealing thing about a person, especially when they’re able to claim it without pretense or embarrassment.  Nothing more clearly illuminates a person’s life than what they wish for.  The characters’ wishes are as follows – a child, to go to the festival, beauty and youth, and money.  Another description for each could be as follows: family and community, freedom from circumstances, impermeability, and security.  And, the implied wish that all of them allegedly lead to: happiness.  The drive of the play can be boiled down to a single question, sung by the ghost of Cinderella’s mother as she seeks out guidance: “Do you know what you want – are you certain what you wish is what you want?” The two are deeply connected, but not necessarily the same.

This production was my first time listening through the story slightly closer to the adult than child side.  It’s a show that covers the entire generational spectrum of children entirely without experience to completely knowing adults who recognize that “children can only grow from something you love to something you lose.” WHAT.  Or, in broader terms, people who have learned their lesson and people who are still in the midst of it.

It’s about getting what you want and, more interestingly, what happens once you get it.  If the play was just the first act, it would still be glorious – but how incisive is it into the human condition that an entire second play is spent parsing out what happens after we’ve so-called sacrificed everything, shown a brave face, and earned what we wanted?

“Stay with me the world is dark and wild; stay with me while you can be a child.” I can’t think of how many times throughout my upbringing my mother said some version of this to me, with slightly less overbearing undertones.  Having had two older sisters who perhaps endeavored to grow up too quickly, I took it to heart.

I think of myself in Los Angeles, far away from almost everybody I love, pursuing my wish.  I’m out here, in the woods.  A cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold.  I’m off to get my wish.

Every character gets their moment, their time alone to express what deeply exists within them.

“Isn’t it nice to know a lot! And a little bit not.”

My acting teacher once referred to this musical as dashboard music – an album that you can return to throughout your entire life and still find yourself in, just in a different spot.

“People make mistakes, fathers, mothers – people make mistakes holding to their own, thinking they’re alone.  Honor their mistakes, everybody makes one another’s terrible mistakes.  Witches can be right.  Giants can be good.  You decide what’s right.  You decide what’s good.”

When I went to see the subpar movie version with a group of about ten people, I remember leaving the theater and hearing a couple friends derail the above lyric as disappointingly amoral, universal in scope.  I think it’s the exact opposite – your experiences don’t leave you with your cringe-inducing “personal truth” – they help you to decide what’s good, instead of merely accepting what somebody told you.  Good is objective, but we have to learn how to choose it through getting knocked on our ass and trying things our own way.

Doing the right thing is complicated! Goodness itself is complicated, especially when interwoven with our own wants and philosophies.  You have to decide what’s right, not based on what someone told you, but based on what is standing right in front of you.

And yet!  We are simultaneously forever bound by what we were taught when we were young, by our parents and mentors and anyone who we saw as big.

Moment in the Woods is perhaps the single greatest meditation on someone who has so called big ambitions for their lives realizing in real time that Big does not equal Better.

There are so many winks, so many inside jabs along the way! The actor who plays Prince Charming literally also plays the Wolf, and just a few songs later, the Witch sings my favorite line in the entire play: “Princes wait there in the world, it’s true; princes, yes, but wolves and humans too.” We all think ourselves so wise, so indestructible to other people’s mistakes.  I certainly do – my sister once described me to a T in an offhand remark: “Jessie likes to make her own mistakes.” Even when someone who knows better and who has my best interest at heart advises something, I still almost always test out my version just to see what happens.  And on the road to The Thing We Want, the Thing That Will Make Everything Better, are countless snares disguised as that very thing that only experience can teach you to recognize.

Oh God, but how else do you learn!? There is no other teacher but experience, which is almost always the bridge from nascence to maturity, the beginning of caution, the removal of simplicity.  In actively seeking our desires, we step away from the safety of ignorance.  “And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t known before – isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not.”

But! Despite our insistent individuality of the west, despite putting our wishes above almost everything else on our journey to understanding, we cannot help but be part of community – “You can’t just act, you have to listen.” “Children will not obey, but children will listen.” We are, for better or worse, the products of our environments – the ones we choose and the ones formed out of necessity.  We do listen when someone tells us what to do; we can’t exist in a vacuum.  But how ceaselessly we go back and forth between the worlds of our own making and the worlds in which we actually live.

OPPORTUNITY IS NOT A LENGTHY VISITOR

“You’re so nice – you’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.” –> Witches can be right.  Good is not the exact opposite of bad – nice is different than good.  In so many ways, the direct structures and antitheses laid out in fairy tales – good and bad, actions leading directly to what you deserve, ultimately succeeding if you behave well – are very much expected in reality, despite generations and histories and entire civilizations telling us otherwise.  Goodness is often random; tragedy even more so. You can resort to the law of attraction all you want, but as hard and fast as some rules of life are – in order to get what you want you have to go after it, often taking it from somebody else – there are ten others that despite reason and rationality and hope will always be true.

A decidedly unsexy example: when I was a little girl, my grandmother told me relentlessly to floss because she had to replace most of her teeth in her 60’s.  I, young, and decidedly averse to most dental hygiene in general, decided I did not in fact need to do that because I was young.  It took a truly terrifying meeting with a dubious periodontist to get me to floss –

marriage

On Thursday, Isaiah and I will have been married for four years. We will have been together for seven and a half years. After having gotten married when we were 22 (so YOUNG), we are now 26 and therefore at a more reasonable age to be married people, though still on the young side. I remember working my coffee shop job in Chicago and telling my co-workers that I was married (my tiny, high-voiced, very nervous to be socializing with co-workers self) and their blinking look back told me they were confused and a little bewildered by me and my choices.

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(photo from when we were approx. 19 years old)

There’s a line in what I will dub one of the most romantic songs of all time, “The Next Ten Minutes” from The Last Five Years, a musical about the beginning and ending of a marriage, that has always stuck out to me. “till there’s no one left who has ever known us apart.” Sort of a morbid thought actually (my sister, my mom, my dad, anyone I ever went to school with before college?), but it moves me nonetheless. I remember talking with Isaiah’s aunt about how his youngest cousin who I met as a baby will never know us apart. When she thinks of Isaiah, she’ll think of me too. It moves me because it hits on something really true about marriage. You cannot know me now without knowing Isaiah. Instead of one, I’m two. It’s strange how much and how little that matters, functionally. Many of my friends don’t really know Isaiah, only me. But he is so much a part of me now that I’m not always sure where I end and he starts. Our life together is more seamless than patchwork, and I don’t know how it got that way. He is mine and I am his. I know him better than anyone in the world, and also he is the hardest person in the world for me to figure out. (Much like myself, oh much like myself).


Marriage
to Tanya

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such a light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet, I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

-Wendell Berry


Maybe this is embarrassing to admit, (I feel embarrassed), but I never dated anyone before Isaiah. I never had a boyfriend, never kissed anyone, never even really held hands before him. This was NOT for lack of wanting or trying. I fell madly in love with about eight different boys over the course of high school. I could tell you about them, they were dreamy! But it wasn’t to be. Que sera sera. Isaiah was the only one.

The other day, people were shouting at each other outside. The third house from the left in the townhouses across the street seems to have some unrest about it. Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you, but you don’t live here so it’s probably okay. At this point it all unraveled so loudly that the whole neighborhood couldn’t help but notice. I’m worried about them. It’s hard not to draw conclusions about what the shouting was about. All of the man’s things were in a pile on the porch. She wanted him to leave. I heard her shout, “You’re embarrassing me!” Was he hurting her? Was she hurting him? Emotional, physical, too complicated to say? I don’t want to draw conclusions, but it was happening and it was loud. My windows weren’t even open, but I could hear it all. Loud noises, slamming doors. She was angry, and I expect she had a right to be. She knew it would be better if he left. She piled his shoes on the porch, I could see them. He kept picking up one white sneaker. (I snuck peeks out the window, how could I not?) He was reluctant. He could have left quickly, but he dragged it out, lingered on the porch with his shoes. He didn’t leave right away. Eventually he did, and the street quieted. I don’t know what it was about for them.

I think of conversations with Isaiah, fights, arguments, loud ones, where you can’t help but be loud, but the last thing I ever want is for him to leave. I never have ever wanted him to leave. My heart breaks that that is what she wanted, what she needed, the woman across the street. Leave then, man. Do what she asks you to do. This is not my story to tell, but it was the view from my window, the sound coming in through the cracks in the door. Who is my neighbor? That man and that woman. And my husband. I imagine a world in which I would pile Isaiah’s shoes on the porch and cast him out of my house. I cannot imagine it. My heart breaks that hearts are broken in that way, every day. 

I think that is what amazes me. Perhaps what I am most grateful for. In four years married, seven and a half together, I never never once thought of leaving or wanting him to leave. I have been angry, I have been hurt, I have been beside myself with fear and fury, but I have always wanted him beside me throughout. That feels like some sort of magic, that two humans could hurt each other and heal each other, over and over and over again like that. I’m a very private person. I don’t need many people in my days. But I need him. I need him like I need air. I’m not sure how it happened that way, but it’s simply true. It’s beyond co-dependency, it’s marriage. We are intertwined, and I’m not even sure how. He moves like a shadow through my days, and I move like a shadow through his. We breathe the same air. I wake up and he is there.

There was one day last year when I was convinced he was dead (due to snow storms and no phone service and the ski resort people not having his name on the list). It was one of the worst days I’ve ever had. I was so sure, so terribly sure that he had died in a car accident on the icy roads in northern Wisconsin. I called my mom because I didn’t know what else to do. I went to the end of myself. I thought it through. What do I do if he dies? What happens to me? I wept and then stopped weeping. Where do I go? It was a terrible thought experiment, but I followed the thread as far as I could, almost as a way to survive. The not knowing was too big to shrug off. And then he wasn’t dead. And then he called me and I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to explain what I had just gone through within myself. It was terrifying. I never want to feel that way again, but I know I will. It flashes back sometimes, that gut-punch of worry when he doesn’t pick up the phone and I don’t know why, when he’s out past dark, literally anytime I remember that he will die some day, maybe before me. Is this what love is? A part of it at least.

But when our lives are so spiraled together (as they ought to be) how could I not love him like that, so much that fear for his death feels almost more terrible than fear for my own. So much that I want for his life just as much or more than I want for mine. If he wanted to move to Germany tomorrow, I’d go with the happiest heart. He moved to Pittsburgh with me because it’s where I’m from. We go together. We make choices easily because when we think it’s like with one mind. We rarely disagree. Sometimes we hardly talk, there so much agreement about us, so much that has become elemental, given, set and sure. This comforts rather than frustrates me, though it could read as boring. It’s not. We go about our days. We are both very self-contained. We aren’t big “discussers of things.” I don’t know why it works. I can never describe him to other people, not well. I have no idea how it happened this way. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s torn me right in two. It’s made everything I’ve ever done possible. It’s extremely sacramental. Maybe too much.


Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer

We turned into the drive,
and gravel flew up from the tires
like sparks from a fire. So much
to be done–the unpacking, the mail
and papers. . . the grass needed mowing. . .
We climbed stiffly out of the car.
The shut-off engine ticked as it cooled.

And then we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful.

-Jane Kenyon


One year after we were married, I wrote an essay on my blog. To read it now, I read such a beginning, such a youthful love. Such joy. I was so happy, so surprised! What a gift I’ve been given with this love. I don’t remember that often enough anymore. I wrote this, which moves me still: “No, marriage has been for this year the underlying joy, the hardwood floor, the bottom line, the thing to come home to again and again and again after long days away.” We were children when we met! Eighteen! We have very literally grown up together, witnesses to each other every day, every month, every year. And still, it’s the hardwood floor. And the years are the rugs piled on top. The years are the warm paths walked into the wood. The years are the marks and the dirt, the times we neglected sweeping.

I honestly can’t quite remember why I picked him. First semester of freshman year at Wheaton, we were getting to know each other, falling into something, dancing with the idea. The most cliche thing two freshmen at Wheaton could do, and we were doing it. We hardly meant to! I could list his qualities that I surely noticed at the time and liked, but I don’t think I chose him on a rational level like that. What I remember when I think of that time is that I always wanted to be near him. When we were in a room together, I always wanted to stand near him, sit beside him, close the space between us. When we weren’t in rooms together, I always wanted to find my way back to where he was. I remember sitting beside each other to watch a movie with all our friends in the basement of our dorm, who knows what movie. Months before we started dating, kissing, tying our lives together with invisible string. His thigh was touching mine and he didn’t move his and I didn’t move mine and it was all I could think about. And then on from there, a christian college dating story that is too classic to recount. But, it’s still exactly the same. I just want to be near him. We sing it to each other all the time, still, almost like a joke, that line from Sufjan Stevens’ “Eugene.” “I just wanted to be near you.” Just this morning, we sang it, sad that he had to leave for work, that there would be some distance between us. It’s maybe the most loving thing we do. A reminder. Of all the people in the world, I want to be nearest to you. I want to be beside you in every room, and find my way back to the rooms you’re in when we are apart. I want to be near you, for the rest of our lives. Nearer than even myself. Four years later, I want more nearness than ever before. 


Written after one year of marriage. 

Written after two years of marriage. 

About our wedding, part one and two. It was way more beautiful than we even meant for it to be.

Laps, July 23

7:45a – Wake with a start, having missed my alarm.  Only reason I’ve woken up now is due to the parade of animals circling my room like they usually do, only this time I know why – weird animal spidey-sense that can hear sounds I can’t.  Pretty sure I haven’t missed my alarm since seventh grade. No matter – run! 

7:47a – Throw on what I wore last night, run toothbrush over teeth, grab tube of mascara for red lights.  Mentally chastise myself for not having on-hand to-go coffee.  Head to class, manage to shave 3 minutes off of ETA, and thus be only 15 minutes late.  Arrive, only to find two other classmates aren’t there, as well as one instructor.  Remind myself everyone has other things going on, and being late does not always equal disrespect, nor is it always received that way – O Midwestern Gal, you’re in LA now.  Share when it’s my turn about agent meeting, they all agree it was weird and not the norm.  It is special and frankly moving to be in a room with people who are all rooting for each other.  

10:01a – Class adjourns. Would normally like to linger, but have pounding need for caffeine and sneaking suspicion that my body wants to go back to bed and have decided I will let it.  Receive text from roommate that lets me know she is headed to my housesitting house to drop off goods from Food Drop.  Feel like I might fall asleep before I get there.

10:07a – Quick Whole Foods detour.  Get two kinds of cold coffee, so as not to be put in bind again.  Resist urge to buy massive piece of chocolate cake, which is giant and apparently contains 1,500 calories????!!  Cashier greets me with a simple, “Caffeinating today?” I love grocery check out small talk.  What else is like it? 

10:30a – Back to my glorious air conditioned house.  Anastasia arrives shortly after with bounty from food drop – vegetables, carton of blueberries, apple cake, diced onions, arugula, premade salad, apricots.  Enough food to stay holed up inside as long as I want to, which is indefinitely.  All of this, right here and for me.  Delight in being provided for, both in house and table. 

11:16a – Call Ar, tell her I have decided to watch movies all day from stack I got from library last night: Harold & Maude, Sing Street, Celebrity, Hateful Eight, Girl Interrupted, Magnolia, Sense & Sensibility, When in Rome, and In Bruges.  Have officially made decision to allow myself to be shut-in today, and to watch as many movies as I want.  Feels like big decision; hard to explain why.  Snack on apple cake.  We go through almost entire HBO catalogue together, which is adorable, adding things to our list, talking about how we wish we could watch them together, laughing at how we are making lists of how we will spend luxury time instead of just luxuriating, decide we will watch In the Bedroom later over FaceTime so it feels like we are watching together, decide I will watch silly movie in interim. 

11:29a – Attempt to begin with Celebrity. Can’t figure out DVD player, because I’m pretty sure remote is broken.  Hunt around for correct batteries, replace them.  To no avail. Can hear sound of movie, but not see it, which feels like slap in face to me, the DVD Poirot. Could drive to my apartment and get my outer DVD drive, but that would shatter illusion of Shut In Who Watches Movies and Eats Free Apple Cakes.  Decide if it really is broken I can wait until tomorrow and just watch streamable things I’ve been wanting to.  Eat salad, eat tiny Belgian chocolate dessert found in fridge. 

12:36p – Watch The Jackal, which is kooky and a little too long but also, I dig it.  Pause every now and again to text people back, read an article about the damages of purity culture, return to Bruce Willis.  The fattest cat, Neptune, continues to jump on my chair and cuddle for shifts of five minutes before waddling back to the litter box.  Scuttle over to kitchen, bring out hummus and carrots.

2:14p – Promptly begin watching next title on list, Destination Wedding, but despite having Winona Ryder as protagonist within first 10 minutes am decidedly not that into it (even though all my favorite ingredients are there – what is that about !) Perhaps it’s for another time. Put snacks away, relocate to my glorious bed. Cue At Last.

2:49p – Start watching In the Bedroom, which begins dreamy and set in the summer in New England, instantly endearing me to it.  Am actually zonked by its spell and promptly fall asleep.  Am woken up not long after by call from Hannah and Amy because it’s Writer’s Group Tuesday. Amy says she can tell I was asleep because she knows my sleep face. Aw.  

3:48p – Migrate outside so as to showcase the sunshine to my friends. We are in 3 different time zones, two different days, completely different climates and geography.  Conversation pleasantly meanders through each of our days up until this point, which is consistently very dear and excellent fodder for writing.  I like arriving at alleged point so roundaboutly.  I show them the chicken I’m babysitting, Candy Corn, and she coos at them like the good girl she is.  We talk about The Crane Wife, an essay from the Paris Review Hannah made us aware of that has respectively floored us.  During a conversation earlier in the week in response to reading it, Hannah said, “My audience is women.” We talk about that too –  all you can offer is what you have.  You can’t be for everyone, in any capacity, and that’s just fine.  As we talk, I return to topic in my brain that continues to pop up: there is something about the feminine experience of staying at home, doing our mystical things in the nest that no one knows about, burrowing around in uninterrupted time. We talk about vacationing in Ireland or the Hamptons, which feels almost too delicious and hysterical to imagine.  I sit outside a while after our phone call ends, due to dubious wifi and phones overheating.  Love feeling of sunshine on my legs, of feeling littlest bit burned.  Watch Candy Corn dip her sweet little beak in and out of grass, looking for worms. 

4:29p – Languidly make my way back inside.  Grab a little nosh from the fridge. Finish In the Bedroom, in the living room.  So much more space in a house than an apartment! Don’t know if I’ve seen another movie like it.  Wonder, as always, how to meet people making movies like that and make them with them.  Marvel at how many truly great movies are just lurking around beneath all the dross.  Wonder how much it matters!

Keep reading…

leaks

A leak first in the basement, seeping down the wall and finding a way to the drain, and then coming as a drip from some crack somewhere in the chimney capping, no way to know exactly where or how. My father-in-law visited to help patch a roof leak shortly after we bought the house and he said, “think like the water, if there’s a way in it will find it.” Something like that. My life feels leaky, not at all watertight. I’ve been leaking in little trickles down the walls. Leaks are always disconcerting, even when the leak itself is not very big or causing a fuss. A little water is easy enough to mop or catch in a bucket. Right now there’s a pot in the fireplace (non-functional) catching whatever drips find their way down. It’s accumulated to about 2 cups in the past months. Small leaks are fine, what’s terrifying is the fear that it’s all a dam about to burst, or the knowledge that somewhere along the way something is getting damaged, slowly eroded bit by bit by bit. Some wood somewhere is rotting, there’s some sort of crack. When there’s a leak, something is wrong. It can’t be ignored forever. And I am leaking too.

IMG_2269.jpg

I have obvious leaks that really do need tending — like the fact that I haven’t been to the dentist in YEARS or my general unsureness of how to feed myself well daily. Both of these are relatively harmless on the granular level, but could add up to some damage somewhere down the line. There’s a crack that needs to be patched, and it’s only me who will do the patching. I need to just face it, one of these days.

My other leaks are more existential, more difficult to trace. I see the evidence, a little stream of water making its way across the floor, the sound of a drip into the pot in the chimney while I sit and try to read. Where’s it coming from? I don’t know. There’s a hole in the bucket, dear liza. With what shall I fill it?

Jill and I went to one of our favorite cafes for egg sandwiches today and we talked about my work. “I’m not sure what my goal is,” I said. There, an existential crack. By the end of the conversation, she told me, “I think you know what your goal is, I think you do.” I think I do too, but it’s too tremulous, too much to tackle except in small sips of thought, except in my dreams and subconscious, except in the margins of all the other rituals of my life. My statement was true, I feel unsure of what my goal is even though I can still articulate it, work it out in conversation with someone who knows me. It’s my unsureness that alarms me. I’ve always been someone to figure out how to do what I want to do. What I want to do now feels un-figure-out-able. I feel blocked and stuck. I feel worried and small. I feel like it’s possible that the thing that is my most true goal will be unattainable. So I catch the drips in a pot. So I watch it find its way to the drain in the floor. I work at it only unintentionally, as it seeps out of me. See, not all leaks are bad, but they’re all indicative of something going on, some wall about to crumble even just a little bit. Will the dam break? Or will it go on dripping? Something needs to be done about it, and it can only be done by me.

Something has been coming up for me lately, something I first thought about in a community art class. The contrast between host and guest. My teacher Leah said in class that we are always either being the host or the guest, and we all have a natural proclivity to feel more comfortable in one role or the other. I’ve been spending a lot of time hosting. Hosting friends in my home, hosting classes and writing sewing patterns. Teaching and writing essays and asking questions and trying to smile and making space for people. I like to host, I’m good at it. I love making things for other people to use or enjoy. But my small self, my tenderest softest part, yearns to be a guest. Cosmically, a guest. I long to be taken care of in some huge way. I hold that longing back most of the time, but sometimes it bubbles out of me, like a leak meandering across the basement floor. How do I tend that leak? Maybe I will withhold some of my hosting, maybe I’ll seek out more places to practice being a guest. Maybe I will ask someone to host me, scary though that is. It’s a lot to ask, isn’t it? But there’s a hole in the bucket. My gut tells me that the only way to fill the hole is christ, the bigness of jesus. And that is both a comfort and a curse. Jesus, the true host. Jesus, not here.

For all the leaks, some sort of patch in ordinary time. Or, even more realistically, the chance to watch them happen. To hear the drips and watch the water move across the floor in a beautiful pattern, little curves and revisions when it meets an obstacle like a little rise in the concrete. The chance to let the weather happen, because the leaks only happen when the rain comes hard. So much of it stays out of the house, and for that I’m grateful. But some always gets in, and I’m grateful for that too. It’s nice when something, even the rain, demands to be seen. Okay, I’ll see you. You can be in my house too.

Seasons

I woke up this morning, knowing I should have written this essay earlier this week.  I cracked open the curtains, saw the sun peeking through the bougainvillea and canopy of trees.  I’d been awake for over an hour, as two very persistent cats were pushing at my adamantly closed door and were making progress on the trash can barricade placed in front of it.  Matters were not helped by the sound of the dog whacking into the furniture outside, involved in some unseeable frenzy, presumably with its tail.

It’s hot in California.  So hot, I can’t step outside for longer than three minutes without sweating.  I have taken to going to the back porch, placing myself just so at the table to be half in sunlight, half in shadow.  I listen to a song my friends or sisters sent me, or I’ll coo back and forth with the chicken as she investigates the vegetable patch.  The moment the heat starts to feel like too much, I alternate my crossed legs or shift my position.  I try to stay outside as long as I can, and consistently find that in staying I enjoy the heat more.  The dog sometimes comes out, barking maddeningly at something that gets lost in translation and settles at my side once she realizes it’s probably fine.

It’s summer. I’ve just returned from a vacation with my family, a pilgrimage we’ve taken more or less for the past decade to the east coast where the majority of our extended family lives.  We went to the beach every day and drank gin and tonics every night and stayed up far too late watching Season 3 of Stranger Things.  Every day, we woke up asking ourselves what we wanted to do and more or less did it.

Since my return, I have not quite been able to shake this strategy.  Being home of course resurrects those commitments that can’t quite be sloughed off, as well as the daily rituals of feeding oneself and making sure the doors are locked.  But aside from what’s necessary to simply keep going, I have generally foregone any Should’s or Ought To’s.  I have watched movies during the day time (generally unthinkable), driven to places only to depart as soon as I arrived and realized I didn’t want to be there, and stopped whatever puttering I was doing to cuddle with this massive cat I’m babysitting who won’t stop following me around.  I’ve been trying to follow my nose, see what pops up if I can lay low long enough to let it.  It has led me in a few circles, literally and figuratively.

Amy and I spend a lot of time talking and thinking about poetry, both on this website and in our conversations with each other.  An old favorite – a totem, really – is Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.  Take the time to read it now if you haven’t already.  There’s a line where she says “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”  Most of what the western world at large presently requires of its inhabitants does not include this.  But to get anything meaningful done, I think you have to listen to yourself when your body is telling you to do nothing.  Following your nose, so to speak.  Doing the absolute bare minimum for however long and seeing what happens.  It has led me to literal hours of writing things out that have long been seeking purchase in my brain, eating a pint of ice cream for dinner, and going down a rabbit hole of YouTube lectures for God knows how long.  I bought a dress without worrying about it, I said no to something I didn’t want to go to without feeling bad, I danced cuz I liked the song that came on.  I felt relieved.

I know people talk about seasons of time, but the actual calendar seasons are pretty obviously directive.  Fall has a clipped energy of excitement which settles perfectly into the hibernation of winter, creating a necessary foil for the incomparable energy of spring and lazily looping back around to the mandated slowness of summertime.  It’s very simple, really.  There’s a pretty clear pattern to how things ought to be done, and there’s a reason that school years end and begin with summer.  Our lives require ordained periods of reflection and distance in order to be lived well.  A break, a lapse, a change of pace for no other purpose seeking out a bit of emptiness.  A luxury, of course, which goes without saying.  Though when you think about the world beginning in a garden, it makes sense.  An actual season for everything, if all had gone as planned.

As is, the garden I’m sitting in seems far too inviting to leave too quickly.  The shadows of what the world ought to be linger just long enough to give me what I need.

midrash in may and june

I’ve been working on this project for half a year. It keeps surprising me, over and over and over again. It’s been feeling harder, recently, and I’m also more astonished by my poems, like they were written by someone else. I read my poems from the beginning of the project and they’re different. A different voice, a different self writing with fingers on keyboard. Writing poems is undoing me a little bit. Sometimes it feels impossible. Sometimes it feels like I don’t deserve to write poems (which seems like a strange response, some sort of cosmic imposter syndrome.) Sometimes it feels like the most true thing I could possibly do. It mixes me up. When I write poems now, I’m less aware of myself as I write them. I’m less aware that I’m writing poems. I’m less worried about meter or rhythm or line break, things that always made me feel nervous to get something wrong. They come more easily when they come. And I’m also less troubled when they don’t come. I’m learning poetry. I’m practicing. I’m showing up to it and it feels good.

Along with the practice, I’ve been thinking about poetry, like as a concept, more and more as well. I’m realizing that I’ve been practicing it, influenced by it, at home in it for longer than I realized. Poetry as a mode, as a practice, as a spiritual practice, makes more sense to me than almost anything else does. I experience Jesus more richly when I’m writing poems than any other time. I’ve always had so much trouble accessing Jesus, but that feels cracked open now. I can finally imagine him. I finally have permission, even within myself. I’m trying to figure out how to put that into words. A lot of my personal writing recently has been circling around this idea, poetry as prayer, as a way to be, a place to put myself, a life’s work. I’ve been researching. I’ve been writing things down, trying to remember. I’ve been thinking about heresy, thinking maybe it’s useful. Holding two conflicting ideas in my hands at once, making a poem at the intersection of possibility and impossibility, orthodoxy and heresy, truth and mystery. What’s true, what could be true? What are we not sure of at all? I’m thinking about all these things. I’m practicing it. I’m drawing no conclusions. I’m in the middle of it. It’s hard to even write this summary of what I’m thinking about because I don’t know quite how to name it. My mind doesn’t want to land anywhere, it’s flitting about. It touches down in poems. It deposits them like coins in a pocket. Slowly, I’m becoming rich.

Nothing more to say, so here are some poems from these months. Lots of Moses, who astonished me. So much I’m learning everyday.

(For more on the project and more poems: Midrash in January and February, Midrash in March and April)


(manna, may 2)

I forgot to write
a poem about the manna
this morning
and isn’t that just typical
that the bread on the ground
I forgot to gather
spoils if you try
to keep it for even
one day.

I had an idea,
that came with the dew,
now, in evening,
it’s lost.


(moses talks with god, may 9)

the people stood trembling at the base
of the mountain, watching the thunder
and the lightning and some wild blackness,
not quite dark, just out of sight. please
don’t make us come any closer they said
to moses who spent days climbing up and
down, ashen face and thrilled, drinking water
after each trip, cup after cup, each time more
ravenous, at once more calm and crazed.
moses would climb back up again, and the
people would watch him, clutching each other’s
hands. how strange to be so terrified of the
thing that will sustain you. how strange to
know he was headed into wonders and fear
for his life even so. he climbed into the blackness
until he disappeared. they squinted up, they
craned their necks, they couldn’t see moses
anymore.

(exodus 20)


(the tent of meeting, may 15)

at the edge of the town, moses built a tent
which he called the tent of meeting.
the pillar of cloud would descend to
the tent and stand at Moses’ door,
and all of the people would stand
in their doorways and watch the cloud’s visit,
see the lord speak to moses face to face
like a man speaks to his friend.
in their whispered conversation,
please show me your glory,
moses asks the cloud, as if it had
not already, as if the glory were
not there in his doorway, standing up.
what sort of voice comes out
of a cloud, what sort of friendship
was had at the tent, where a man
asks a cloud to show him its face
and the cloud says if I do you
will die? but the cloud knows that
the questions of friendship need
answered, they can’t be hung dry.
these two together murmur their nonsense plans,
like children working a way around a rule.
go hide in this rock,
I’ll come by in my glory and,
somehow, I’ll show you my back.

(exodus 33)


(an explanation, may 16)

you thought that I was one like yourself.
you thought that I was stiff-necked like
you, prone to be unnoticing, unable to
choose. you thought that I was impossibly
soft, like one of my clouds. you thought
I was silent.

if I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell you.
think of yourself, when you’re hungry
you weep. if I were hungry, I wouldn’t
tell you, for the world and all its
fullness is mine, the cattle on a
thousand hills.

before me is a devouring fire.
around me is a mighty tempest.
these, my intimates. these, my
council, this is my trinity, my
head. don’t you realize that
my storms aren’t always visible?
don’t you realize there’s
so much you can’t see?

you thought that I was one like yourself.
oh, my love, I am not.
you and I are very different.
(psalm 50, exodus 34)


(moses’ shining face, may 17)

when moses came down
from mount sinai
with the two tablets
in his hand,
he did not know
that the skin of his face
shone because he’d
been talking with god.

the people were afraid,
and when they came
near and saw him face
to face, they asked him,
gently, if he could wear
a veil. they didn’t know
what to say to someone
with a shining face.

moses looked for a mirror
and couldn’t find one
anywhere. a basin of
water in the middle of
town, he removed his
veil and looked into it.
he couldn’t see anything,
just the way the water
sparkles when the sun
sits on top of it, the way
the water keeps on moving,
carrying the sun.

(exodus 34)


(moving, may 18)

you’ll know it’s time to leave
this place when the cloud is
taken up from over the
tabernacle, when it vanishes
into thin air. then you will take
down the screen for the door
of the tabernacle, then you will
pack up the golden altar in the
tent of meeting, put away the
fragrant incense in a saddlebag
or box. then you will pack up
the lampstand, put the table
on a cart. fold the veil, carefully,
though it will still surely wrinkle
on the way. leave the testimony
in the ark, but be sure to secure
the mercy seat. take off the
covering of the tent, un-spread
its canopy. take down the pillars,
the poles, the frames and bases.
pack it all up to be carried away.
look at the land where all of this
stood, say goodbye to this earth,
you’ll never see it again. follow
the cloud to a new place. see
the grace in undoing everything
you’ve done.

(exodus 40)


(secret, may 20)

but when you pray
go into your room and
shut the door and pray
to your father who is in
secret. but when you pray,
sit with your back against
the wall and tell no one
what you thought about there.
but when you pray, become
very still, or maybe dance,
hold the secret on the tip
of your finger, blow it into
the air. but when you pray,
look at a tree and keep on
looking, the leaves are always
moving, there’s always some
kind of wind. but when you
pray, I don’t care what you do,
I don’t know at all what it’s like
for you. I hardly know what it’s
like for me to pray in secret
such secret things, the wordless
breathing I do in the mornings
when I’m almost still asleep.
I can’t tell you about it at all,
I wouldn’t know how to begin.
you know me, I love to tell.
everything I have I would give to you.
but there are some things I withhold
without even meaning to, some things
I can’t find even within my own mind.
funny how easy it is to keep secret
the most incomprehensible things.

(matthew 6)


(the door, may 24)

I’m learning not to assume disaster,
I’m learning to hold out my hands,
asking for bread, and not expect
a stone. I’m learning to ask and
wait open for an answer instead
of dooming myself to silence.
I’m learning not to expect a serpent
when I ask for fish. my greatest
darkness is the fear I harbor, my
insistence that somehow the world
is not good. my greatest fear is that
the door will never open though I
knock and fling my body against it,
or, worse, wait across the hallway,
afraid to even go near. my deepest
fear is that the door is not a
door at all, that I’d swing it open
in a moment of boldness and
find a cement wall. ask, and it
will be given to you. seek, and you
will find. knock on the door with
the softest fist, put your ear to the
wood and listen for movement,
the soft swish of a garment, a
cup being lifted to lips, someone
cooking onions, a great feast being
prepared. something or anything
happening in the great mystery room.
if the door opened now you’d be flattened
by light. today, keep your hand on
the doorknob. imagine what’s on
the other side. think about the moment
when the door will open, the reuniting.
how will it feel to see the knob so slowly turn,
to part the veil with your fingertips,
watch the stone roll away.

(matthew 7)


(fruit, may 25)

are grapes gathered from thorns,
or figs from thistles?
look at the table — a basket of
oranges, orange with oil, or
the wood gleaming bare?
which is it?
you will know them by their
fruit, the sweet smell following,
an apple placed in the palm
of your hand, unmistakable in
its realness. in a bowl, there’s
either some peaches or there isn’t.
it’s maybe more practical than I thought.
wherever Jesus goes, bananas and
pears, like midas but sweet,
fruit everywhere he has touched,
a trail of berries like breadcrumbs
wherever his feet have been, fairytale
fruits appearing from nowhere
juice like blood that drips and stains
and satisfies.
(matthew 7)


(another explanation, may 28)

I see you live with panic,
with wasting and fever that
consumes the eyes and makes
the heart ache. I see you with
famine, being ruled by people
who hate you. I see you running,
always running, so afraid. I see
our heavens like iron and
our earth like bronze.

if you want to know what I want,
if you want to know what the
whole world is about, why things
are the way they are, I want
closeness, closeness with you.
I want to give you what I have.
as close as the air is to your skin,
the unity of molecules, their
life together. if you walk in my
statutes in these dark strange
days, it’s only a way to be closer.
don’t you see, if you’ll only
come, I’d give you everything
I have.

(leviticus 26)


(elegy for the earth, a found poem, june 14)
before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened
and the clouds return after the rain,
in the day when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men are bent,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those who look through the windows are dimmed,
and the doors on the street are shut –
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and one rises up at the sound of a bird,
and all the daughters of song are brought low –
they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way;
the almond tree blossoms,
the grasshopper drags itself along,
and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home,
and the mourners go about the streets –

before the silver cord is snapped
or the golden bowl is broken,
or the wheel broken at the cistern,

and the dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the spirit returns to god who gave it.
(eccl. 12)


(abundance, june 18)

I wasn’t made to be silent.
I will open my mouth in a parable,
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
talk about things I don’t understand
with language that’s incomplete.
I’ll tell you what I heard somewhere,
I’ll give you the coin I found
in the fish’s mouth, the first one
I caught. he said it would be there
and it was. I went down to the water,
now it’s in the palm of my hand.
I’ll tell you everything I know.

(matt 17, psalm 78)


(friendship, june 20)

moses is no prophet. no, moses
is not merely a prophet, one I
speak to quietly, murmuring in
visions, in dreams, whisper secrets
in the wind, maybe misremembered,
misspoken, twisted, too proud.
no, moses is no prophet, moses is
my friend. with him I speak
mouth to mouth,
I stand at full height, he beholds
my form. to him I speak clearly,
not in riddles. moses has seen my
back. your jealousy deceives you.
do you wish to be my friend,
or merely to have what he has?
would you rather listen or speak?
moses is meek, moses comes back
to me again and again, ready to hear.
he has shown me himself, and I
behold his form. you don’t know him
at all. do you wish to be a prophet
or a friend?
(numbers 12)


(spies, june 21)

go spy on the land
that will be our home.
peek through the sumac
branches, the allium puffs.
see the meadow and wonder
if it’s from another world, one
much like this one but with more
milk and honey. maybe where each
season is everlasting? where it’s all of
them at once? string a grape vine along
a branch to carry back with you, some figs
and some pomegranates to show what you’ve
seen. the people are big there, but they’ll be your
brothers or maybe they’ll disappear in a puff of smoke.
caleb says we will take the cities, that it won’t be too hard.
investigate what is to be, imagine living there,
building a wooden house, laying down the
fruit on your own dining room table.
this is the first day of summer
all is still time-bound, and
we aren’t there yet.

(numbers 13)


(says the quiet early vineyard worker, june 26)

no, I don’t wish I’d tarried in
the market till the last hour,
the best deal. the vineyard was
lovely all day, the sun through
the leaves on the vine. the
heavy fruit to gather, the songs
we sang as we worked. juice
on my hands and legs.
no, I don’t wish I’d waited
longer, I’d only have wasted
my time with gossip and
worry and other things that
just stretch out the days, give
them circular shape. just as
much sweat, a different kind.
sleepiness that goes on and on.
no, I’m happy to work if
you’ll have me, to have a
reason to stretch my arms
and legs. that’s all that I need,
that’s payment enough.
Is there a better way to
spend a day? I’ll be back
tomorrow,
at your gates at dawn.
(matthew 20)


(the budding staff, june 27)

in the tent, a row of staffs.
aaron’s must have been budding
all night, a quiet spring,
sprouts, flowers forming,
ripe almonds from dead wood.

did a child dare peek in
the middle of the night
and see the flowers growing,
visibly, one by one by one?

I envy this sign and wonder,
though it terrified the people
that god could be so forceful,
so obvious, so plain,

saying no extravagantly
with almonds and flowers and buds.

(numbers 17)

Vacation

Sorry not sorry, pulling the vacation card and leaving whoever may read this with some humble summer suggestions:

  1. If you can, get to a beach.
  2. If you like true crime, get your hands on a copy of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara.  Surprisingly great to read on the beach.  A great book of the genre, and just generally well-written.
  3. If you can’t get away, consider rewatching the second season of Mrs. Maisel.  Remember the Catskills? Remember Zachary Levi?
  4. Eat what you want, and as often as you are able don’t check your email until the end of the day.
  5. Space out a little.
  6. Eat an apricot.
  7. Revisit all the things your 17-year-old self wished would happen in the summer.  Try to make at least one of them come true.
  8. Invite me over to watch Stranger Things with you.
  9. Carve out a small chunk of time every day to chip away at that big question mark/project/fear.
  10. Disappear a little, if you want.