Sermon for A Soldier

Bonilla

On the island of Kaua’i, I see this sign on a small side road.

Iraq: 4,328   Afghanistan: 1,321

Dan, from the driver’s seat, says, “That’s much more effective than ‘Stop the War’ signs.”

“Yes,” I say.

“It doesn’t even say whether the person who put it up is anti-war. It just provides information, like a reminder. So we remember there is a human cost.”

“Yes,” I say.

The sun has finally decided to show up for this party, and the wind is warm in our faces as we drive slowly over tiny one-lane bridges and watch the thin, silvery line of waterfalls moving down the mountains like tiny spider webs glistening in the distance.

I say, “Orlando.” I say it like a prayer.

“What?” says Dan.

And I find myself spilling the whole story to him, and everyone else, my new friends. A story I haven’t told in years.

Orlando Bonilla. 21 year old Puerto Rican/Texan with a slight over bite from one crooked tooth, and a quick laugh, and terrible taste in music. Orlando who befriended me my first day of class, my junior year of college, at the University of Texas. Orlando who couldn’t pass his Spanish tests (so funny, Puerto Rican boy) and so started to have study sessions with me before tests. Orlando Bonilla, who woke up at 3am once because I called him, drunk and crying and heartbroken, because a stupid boy I fell for ignored me at a party after we had made out the night before. Orlando, who when I finally stumbled into his car, said,

“Drink this water.”

“No,” I said.

“Girl. I’m not in the mood. It’s late, you look like shit. Drink that water.”

“You can’t even speak Spanish,” I said and drank the water.

He laughed, pressed his head into the steering wheel.

His truck carried us to a friend’s house in East Austin, and they let me hold their newborn baby at a rickety metal table with linoleum floor squeaking beneath it.  Orlando tucked me into bed after I’d cooed at the baby long enough and then puked up all my desperation and vodka into his friend’s bathroom.

Orlando who took me to an ROTC ball–all the beautiful young men in their starched uniforms.

Orlando who took his hand and drew an outline over my side body while I stretched out along his living room carpet, rehearing the subjunctive with him one Thursday afternoon and said, “That curve. From your shoulder to your hip bone. That’s beautiful.”

Orlando who never hit on me, though. We weren’t like that.

“I forgot about him,” I tell Dan now in the blue car on a blue island in the Pacific.

And I did too, until one night in 2004, while I was living for the summer in D.C. and had a horrible nightmare. In it, Orlando came to me.

He said, “You look terrible in brown.  And Casey, I’m dead.”

I woke up shaking and sweating, having not thought of him once in at least 6 years. But my chest hurt, and then I remembered in my dark bed, “ROTC.”

I knew it right then. Generally, I’m not a big believer in superstition–I am Irish, so occasionally I give in to the temptation, but most of the time I’m relatively level-headed. But I knew. I went immediately to the Washington Post website and scrolled down the list of names, so many names, and there it was: Orlando Bonilla.

He had died two days earlier in a helicopter crash in Iraq.

“It’s amazing,” Dan says to me now, “that you had enough of a connection to know, even subconsciously, that something had happened to him.”

“I don’t know if it was amazing. It was something,” I say.

That night in 2004 I looked up the article about his death. He had married, moved to Killeen, Texas. His wife lost her father in Iraq six months earlier. Her father and husband in one year.

I called my boyfriend at the time, my voice all kinds of shaky, and he said, “Baby. You should come to this show. Really.” At the time, he worked as the sound engineer at Blues Alley in Georgetown, and Odetta was doing a two session show that night.

“Bike down here for the late show,” he said. “Trust me. You can sit at a front table while I work.”

Blues Alley is small and dark and candlelit, and the space was appropriate for how I felt that night. Odetta’s second to last song was Bessie Smith’s “Poor Man’s Blues”, a song about African-Americans and other poor folk who had to fight in World War II and then come home to be treated with neglect by the government they had just represented and defended. Her voice spread through the room like a salve, deep and wounded, but steady. Nobody moved or spoke, the crowd fully hushed by what was coming at us from the stage. All that light. All that light.

(in retrospect, I’m really glad I went to that show for many reasons, not the least of which is that Odetta died shortly after and I would have missed the opportunity to sit inside her light like that)

Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today


Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today


He would do anything you ask him in the name of the U.S.A.

She sang. I cried. My boyfriend biked home with me and then held me through a sleepless night.

All those names.  Orlando.

My cousin, Owen, is Special Forces, and has completed more than his fair share of tours. He’s safe, for now. Many of my students at the University of Houston and Houston Community College have been in Iraq or Afghanistan or have family members there. My friend, Cecily (who has a brother in the military), and I once spent a completely irresponsible and blissful night with two very sexy British soldiers on leave from Afghanistan. I don’t know what happened to those guys, but I hope…

What I mean is, it’s real. People we know have died. Might die. Will die.

I’m not writing a war protest, exactly.

I’m just sitting in a car in a beautiful corner of the world in the native state of our President, celebrating a partnership, gazing at a sea whose currents (should I jump in them and start swimming) would carry me to Southeast Asia, remembering a long lost, and dear friend, and his widow. Because I saw a sign on the road.

“Dan,” I say now.

“Yeah.”

“How many numbers did that sign say?”

“I don’t know. A lot,” he says.

I am silent.

“That’s an old sign,” he adds, “And that’s just the Americans.”

And we head for the beach.

Amen.

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/6892775/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/woman-loses-father-then-husband-iraq/

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Sermon for Seniors

A letter to the young women and men of AP Critical Approaches to Literature, class of 2015, from their teacher, Ms. Fleming

You may forget much of high school, although you’ll remember more than you might predict, because high school memories sparkle in the long darkness of our pasts, for better or worse.  Teenagers live with very little skin: even the barest of breezes burn and passing words pulse and buzz and injure and inspire.  Still, just in case you do forget, I write this so you’ll remember—maybe—something.

The lessons critical theory has to teach us go beyond literature:

  1. Form is meaning.
  2. But form is not ALL meaning.
  3. We live inside various structures: psychological, political, economic, narrative and linguistic.  These structures are the modern world’s understanding of fate, but they don’t necessarily doom us.  They only doom us if they remain unconscious.
  4. Objectivity is an illusion.
  5. Basic kindness requires that we know how to decenter ourselves and listen to stories.
  6. Facts, while important, are not the same as story, and truth lives inside story.  Always.
  7. Be attentive to the archetypes around which your story builds.  They allow you to move your experience out of personal history and into the realm of myth and symbol, a healing process every culture in the history of humanity has recognized as valuable.
  8. Our world pits heart and mind (also faith and doubt) against one another in a binary opposition.   But heart and mind are symbiotic: you will never have a huge heart without a strong critical muscle, and your critical skills will suffer if you let your heart atrophy.
  9. Fundamentalism is the most dangerous form.  The “good guys” always become the “bad guys” if they go fundamental on you.  This is not to say belief in a certain cause or a certain worldview or a certain morality is bad; you should open yourself up to the risk of belief.   For example, I believe in critical belief, doubtful faith, incredulous devotion.   I also believe in teenagers.
  10. Love the objective correlative.
  11. We need tragedy.
  12. Consider the antithesis. Consider being the antithesis if necessary.
  13. Both women and men might be beautiful, strong, intelligent, and tender. And should endeavor to be.
  14. Power exists only in relationship.
  15. The author has the authority, which is why, as Barry Lopez writes, “Sometimes we need stories more than love or food.”

Of course, you should make up your own minds about any of these thoughts. You are the author of your life, not me, so you have that authority.  This above all: to thine own self be true. 

Even if you never take another literature class (insert the sound of my heart breaking), please read.  Read fiction and poetry in particular.  Reading builds our moral imaginations, offers us solace and perspective, and gives us a temporary escape hatch from our various cages.

Also, clean up your own messes, eat semi-healthily, try to sleep, brush your teeth, use deodorant, etc.  Be good but not too good.  Vote.

Finally, let me say thank you.  The word “vocation” comes from the Latin for a “call” or “summons.”  Teaching and writing are my vocations (as are motherhood and marriage).  None of your teachers chose their career by default or because they didn’t have other options, and all of us consider quitting at least once every year because vocations are difficult, hardcore soul-work.  A vocation, as opposed to a career, includes a sense of bigger purpose.  Some people never have the privilege of vocation.  You give my life purpose, not to mention joy.  Thank you.

Y’all are my heroes—you’ve received the hero’s call to adventure for real now—and my ambassadors to the future.  I can’t wait for the stories.

 

Amen. 

 

If, for Mother’s Day, you’re looking for more traditional “mother” sermons, here are links to past sermons on motherhood:

Sermon for Sons Leaving 

Easter Sermon (A Baptism Story)

Sermon in Which I Ordain Myself

Easter Sermon (A Baptism Story)

Last night, during the Easter Vigil service, we baptized my son, Samuel Graham.

Earlier in the day, my husband and I, and the godparents–my sister-in-law and one of our dear friends–attended a pre-baptism “training” and the priest asked me, “Why do you want to baptize your son?”

It’s a good question.  Many of my friends have asked as well.

Do I believe my son’s soul needs saving or that he needs to believe in the veracity of a risen Jesus Christ?  No, I don’t.  I have a very, very low soteriology.

Do I think he needs to be part of a church community to grow into a kind, big-hearted, moral human being?  No, I don’t.

Do I feel tied to some family tradition?  Not really.

Do I believe in symbol and ceremony?  Yes, very much, but I don’t believe these require much pomp and circumstance.  They can be quiet, personal, and daily.

But nor did my husband and I make the decision lightly.  In the training, the priest reminded us that what distinguishes the postmodern world from the modern is its inhabitants’ understanding that they choose their own narratives, and then participate in the construction of those narratives.  So my short answer is: we baptized our son because we needed to finish writing a really good story.

It begins this way: I couldn’t get pregnant.

My chances of conceiving were low: I was 37, suffered from severe endometriosis, fibroid tumors, and polycystic ovaries. After I had a myomectomy to remove one mango-sized tumor from my uterine wall, my egg reserve diminished by half. When my husband, Trip, and I finally decided to borrow money from our parents for in-vitro fertilization, I wondered if we should adopt. I wondered if I had the right to spend money on IVF while some mother somewhere worries about her child’s next meal. Why did my desire for a child trump hers? I sobbed everyday in my closet trying to choose heels or flats, a skirt or slacks.

Once, a woman at our local coffee shop said to me, “I don’t believe in IVF, because I believe in Jesus.”

That coffee-shop lady hit a nerve. We live in a culture that still sanctifies and deifies mothers, that speaks of the “miracle of birth” and the “blessing” of children, and is largely content to leave the science of reproduction a mystery.   I felt unholy and un-whole. And just two weeks ago, Dolce & Gabbana, in an interview with an Italian magazine, called IVF babies “synthetic.”

People’s ignorance astounds me. Even after pregnancy and childbirth, many have only a dull understanding of their own bodies. They think of IVF as a day surgery, like an eyelid lift, and when I use terminology about the reproductive process their eyes go foggy. They have no idea what IVF really is, but feel entitled to speak about it.

Here’s what I know: IVF is sonohysterographies, transducers, and speculums. It’s icy terminology like advanced maternal age, implantation, insemination. It’s a hormonal hurricane and meticulous scheduling. It’s hope and disappointment spiked so high you can’t eat for days or return phone calls from your friends. It makes Facebook a nightmare, all those babies posed in front of chalkboards announcing their ages—“Harrison is 16.25 days old!”—in cheerful, loopy handwriting.   It’s healthy living right when you need a stiff drink. It drains the joy out of sex and reduces it to check marks on a calendar. It’s trial by fire, a real initiation into the painful and paradoxical vocation of parenthood.

I also know that IVF brought me the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.

After two years of horror, we finally managed to retrieve one good egg from my uterus.  One.

My egg transfer took place on Ash Wednesday. Everything in the room was blue: blue light, blue walls, blue bed sheets.

Trip sat to my left. Our shoulders touched.

Dr. Schenk said, “In a moment, the lab will flash an image on the screen so you can see the embryo before I insert it into the catheter.”

A sudden yellow sparked into the blue room, the screen buzzed and we saw him for the first time: tiny embryonic sun, five days old, and his fragmented cells quivering the way the water’s surface quivers, alive and becoming.

“Oh,” she said, “that embryo looks good.”

Trip sat up straighter.  Just a few days earlier, when the embryo arrived back from the genetic testing center as our only chromosomally normal egg, she pronounced it a middling grade B/C. Teachers, we spent the interim period between then and now threatening to get our son the embryo expensive tutors to bump him up to at least a respectable B+.

Then the screen went dark. My full bladder tightened.

“I want you both to watch the ultrasound image,” she said. “You’ll see the catheter, white, move as close to Casey’s uterine lining as we can get it, and then you’ll see the embryo release.”

In the universe of my uterus, our son emerged from the catheter’s long tube a tiny bright white traveler, propelled toward my uterine lining.

Dr. Schenk stripped the paper mask from her face, and she placed her hand on my right knee and her eyes brimmed. She was trying not to cry.

“We’ll just hope this works,” she said.

We hoped too. Our hearts and wallets were worn thin.

That night, I attended Ash Wednesday mass with my father.   I didn’t say a word to him about the egg transfer. We always go to Ash Wednesday mass, not out of piety, but because my grandmother loved Ash Wednesday, and we loved her. Catholic masses can be beautiful, but this mass wasn’t. I paid more attention to the cerulean stained glass behind the Virgin statue’s head that grew bluer in the dusk.

After the transfer, we waited. I couldn’t read or write or sleep.

The ninth day after the transfer I succumbed to the home pregnancy test. I knew the routine. Pee. Wait. Move the stick under the lights. Tilt it. Shake it. Weep. Repeat in two days.

But this time, a line.

I didn’t trust it at first. I took over 20 tests. We lined them up one below the other on the bathroom counter, and I labeled them all with meticulous abbreviations: 9dp5dt, 10dp5dt, 12dp5dt.

The fourteenth day after the transfer, they took my blood. The HCG levels came back at 88.

“It’s low,” Dr. Schenk’s nurse, Gloria, said. “But what matters is whether it doubles by Wednesday. We’ll take your blood again then.”

Pause.

“But for now, you’re definitely pregnant.”

Gloria’s reassurance didn’t reassure me at all. On Wednesday, the HCG levels came back at 224.

Then in the fifth week, I bled pink then brown into my panties. I read horror stories about blighted ovums. I started to cramp.

The seventh week, my gestational sac measured two weeks behind, the amniotic fluid dangerously low. Several websites assured me this signaled inevitable demise.

Trip assembled a small altar next to our bed, a skeptic’s Hail Mary pass. He placed a silk scarf over a corner table, bought one dark indigo candle of Saint Gerard Mejalla, patron saint of motherhood. He hung my grandmother’s blue rosary over the altar. At night, after he jabbed a two-inch needle of progesterone into my behind, we slept, resembling nothing if not two palms pressed together in prayer.

In the ninth week after the transfer, Gloria slipped the transducer through my vaginal gates as I lay back on the bed and stared at a mobile of wooden fish circling on the ceiling. The soft light cast shadows across the walls, making the fish swim. Trip held his head in his hands on the other side of the room. We could hear my uterus—a stormy bay in the Doppler.

It seemed like hours that we waited. My legs quaked in the metal stirrups.

“Do you hear the heartbeat?” Gloria asked.

A different sound, underneath the others: a rapid pulse, pulse, pulse.

Trip said, “Oh my God.”

One of the few gifts of infertility is that I learned to love my son before the fact of his existence, which is to say I believed in him without knowing if I’d ever meet him.  Certainly that love, rooted in hope, fear, and knowledge, functioned like deep faith.

A woman’s body is hallowed ground even if she never conceives—motherhood is not the litmus test for a woman’s worth. Still, I think IVF is a sacred process, one where doctors work through science to encourage the everyday-miraculous. To that awful woman in the coffee shop, and Dolce & Gabbana, I say what the faithful always say to nonbelievers and what scientists always say to the uneducated: Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it any less beautiful and true.

Oft read scripture passages during Easter vigil include the Exodus story, specifically the parting of the Red Sea, and the opening and closing lines of the Gospel of Mark. Mark does not begin where the other gospels begin, with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Mark begins the story much later, on the day of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist. It’s as though Mark considers this second birth more important than the first. John the Baptist, Mark tells us, appeared to baptize Jesus “in the wilderness.” He uses the word “wilderness” twice. A wilderness, of course, is an uninhabitable, inhospitable region, words I definitely would have used to describe my womb as well as the landscape of our two-year infertility journey. All the signs had pointed toward disaster, so we clung to our transfer experience on Ash Wednesday. It became the blue water-light bobbing on the far horizon of the long, long desert through which we walked. When he arrived eight months later—skin and bone like any other baby in human history, even Jesus—my son’s eyes shone that same bottomless blue.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, the forty days Jesus wandered through the desert preparing for his holy vocation, and Easter marks its glorious end. On an Ash Wednesday we invited Samuel Graham into the wasteland of my body, and during last night’s Easter vigil, candles aglow in the dim cathedral, its dark wooden ceiling like the underside of a capsized boat, his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents witnesses from their pews, we invited him into the body of the church and into a narrative he can use and reconstruct when he needs a sense of self and belonging. His godfather, my friend Greg, said to me after the service, “I watched the priest anoint his forehead and took a mental picture that I won’t ever forget.”

And from my broken body, briefly made whole, such an upwelling of gratitude and awe.

Amen.

Sermon para la isla bonita

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I am an island girl.  I didn’t grow up on an island, but I’ve long obsessed over them.  Perhaps some ancient strain of my Irish heritage still resides in me, inscribed into my consciousness by past generations’ pens.  Whatever the initial reason, I can mark all the major eras of my life by which island reigned in my recent experience or in my academic imagination: Galveston Island, the Emerald Isle, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Zanzibar, Vancouver Island, Margarita Island, Kauai, St. Pierre, Newfoundland.

This week, our president, Barack Obama, started the process to naturalize U.S. relations with Cuba.  As I read the New York Times articles covering this historic move, I felt a past self flutter-kick up from deep inside me and then heard her whisper to me.  She said, Dos partrias tengo yo: Cuba y la noche, quoting the famous Cuban poet and freedom fighter, Jose Marti.  I have two homelands: Cuba and the night.  I’m not the only one.  Obama cited the famous writer when he announced his intent to normalize relations.

My love for Cuba began as a teenager–my best friend was Cuban-American, her parents part of the young generation that fled the island after Castro’s takeover in 1958.  My experience in her family–the rope vieja, the easy laughter, the salsa lessons and pan con mantequilla on late Saturday mornings, the cut-off consonants in their rapid espanol that I attempted to mimic–probably led in large part to my choosing Latin American Studies as a major in college, and in my first graduate program in the same field, I focused on the Caribbean, writing two major papers in Spanish, one about how the history of baseball functions as a map of U.S.-Caribbean relations and one about the history of sex tourism in the Caribbean.  Between undergrad and graduate school, I worked at an organization that provided college students the opportunity to travel legally to Cuba, and I had the privilege of visiting Havana two summers in a row.  I remember feeling so special boarding a Havana-bound plane in Miami when few other U.S. citizens could ever do the same.  I remember begging the officer at customs to stamp my passport so that I could be “official” (Cuban customs officers were in the habit of not stamping U.S. passports since they knew most U.S. travelers were arriving illegally).

Havana moved me as few other cities ever have, and I’ve lived in and traveled to many soulful cities.  Soul is the right word.  Every island I’ve loved has soul.  Strange mixtures of people wash ashore and decide to stay.  Then they’re isolated together, and a rich soil develops, a seething fertility of ideas, art, genetics, at once collision and integration.  The particular pathos of such a history spoke to me.  All that encounter, all that beauty.  And it made me a writer.  I wrote my first short story about Cuba, the story that I used to get into an M.F.A. program, a story my late teacher, Daniel Stern, graciously asked to include in his festschrift–giving me my first published piece of writing in an anthology that boasts work by Edward Albee and Elie Weisel.  All that water too.  Jose Marti also wrote, if you’ve seen a mount of sea foam, its my verse you’ve seen.  Where you’ve seen my writing too, you’ve seen some island.

I fell in love in Havana.  I sat at the sea-most edge of the Hotel Nacional’s patio, practically hanging over the ocean, in a white, wrought-iron chair, across from a man I’d just met and almost threw my whole life over for because he had eyes so blue-green I couldn’t distinguish them from the water all around us.  I wandered down a cobblestone side street and into a shop that sold hand painted movie posters and bought the one for a Soviet propaganda film, Soy Cuba, which still hangs in my kitchen.  I found the clave‘s rhythm on a rooftop dance floor, partnering with young mixed race boys in flip-flops who asked me about Tupac and the Internet.  I nodded at bored soldiers on street corners with their machine guns drooping in the humidity.  I carried a thin layer of sweat around like a tight, see-through dress.  I let the humidity swallow me whole, like a giant mouth.  I’ve never forgotten it, la isla bonita.

Like many people, I’ve long hoped for a lifted embargo.  And as someone said to me yesterday, “when Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are upset about and against something, it’s probably a good sign that you should be in favor of it.”  But I also sympathize with the cause (ironically, those Cuban-Americans who have supported the embargo have also unwittingly supported Fidel Castro); I admire Cuba–what cojones you must have to hold out so long at the enemy’s doorstep.  As someone who studied Latin America for years, I know the dangers of U.S. political and commercial presence on the various nations of that continent.  As much as I understand the underbelly of Castro’s regime, I feel a legitimate fear for the island, a fear based on real world evidence from other Caribbean islands, a fear of transnational tourist corporations, a fear of tawdry aesthetics, the  powerful creep of commodified banality, and economic dependence.  The Cubans deserve some freedom–I’ve never met such learned people without the means or avenues to use their learning–but communism hasn’t cornered the market (pun intended) on enslavement.  I want to scream from the hot rooftops: go see this beautiful place!  But then I want to scream, “But only if you promise not to ruin it!”

Maybe what I love about islands are their “in-betweenness.”  In a sea they are the absence of sea. Or, they are loamy way stations.  The sea can be a tight embrace and or a daily beckoning.  I guess I’d like to imagine a future Cuba that way–as the absence of capitalism and the absence of communism, a borderland, something in the thin, 90 mile stretch between those two vast idea-lands, a truly free-floating place.  It has always held that kind of promise.

Let us respect the tide’s posture toward the island.  May we allow the shore’s waters to open out when they will, like so many eager arms, and may we allow them to hug themselves closed when they must do that too.

Amen.

Sermon for When I Don’t Feel Like Writing a Sermon

A few weeks ago (I know, I know…I haven’t been keeping up well on this blog.  I’m pregnant, and I had a deadline for an article I was invited to write for Sojourners Magazine), my husband and I attended a two-day conference called “The Science of Spirituality.”  The first night we heard two speakers, both of whom tried to answer the question, “Does science prove the existence of God?”

We drove home from the lectures in silence.  My husband was agitated, I could tell, and so was I–but the agitation remained dispersed, prickly, nameless.  I couldn’t articulate what was wrong.

My husband finally said, “It’s a stupid question.”

“What?” I asked.

“It’s a stupid question–whether science proves or disproves God.”

Just like that!  The agitation congealed into a mass I could see and define.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s right.”

We both bristled–not at any one speaker at the conference, but at the whole idea of the conference itself.  Even the syntax is off: the Science of Spirituality, that preposition signaling a duality, a dichotomy: science/spirituality.   As though it’s a given that science and spirituality must be separate concepts that can either work together on friendly terms or antagonistically.  But what if some of us are having a conversation beyond the dichotomy?  A conversation where confirming the existence of anything is beside the point, and even a hindrance to cultivating a spiritual self?  A conversation that recognizes every arrival as a point of departure?

I think too many people understand religion and science as systems of belief, as two different sets of knowledge.  But, really, science and faith are processes, systems of praxis.  Paolo Freire defined praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”  Praxis is a way of participating with God or the universe to create meaning.  I don’t believe meaning exists outside this participating.  Let me say that again: meaning does not exist as some finite, concrete thing outside of us, some ultimate answer we will comfortably access if we try hard enough–meaning exists in the relationship between the unknown and our search for it.   This searching is physical; we must use our bodies as well as our brains.  We have to develop a practice.

It seems to me that the scientist practices.  The scientist has a practice, which is to say a ritual of “doing” that may or may not lead to an answer, but even if the practice answers a question, a new question arises.   And it is the doing, answering, doing again that makes the science a holy quest.  The scientist participates in meaning-making by setting the conditions every day that might invite knowing.  The poet works in much the same way.  As does the person of faith.

The best poetry punctures the veil, it creates through attention to language and image a moment behind which we sense a bigger scene, a whole world of truth that the poem cannot contain, but in its brevity and precision points toward, winching open the window a notch to give us a slim view.  In the best poetry, God flickers brightly for a moment before dispersing again.

Many of my secular friends baulk at the idea of going to church because of the obvious absurdity.  They say, I don’t feel anything or I don’t agree with some of the things the priest or scripture says.  But they’re missing the point.  The point is the practice, and it must be difficult and boring sometimes and a challenge to our comfortable positions, both physical and mental.  If it worked every time, we wouldn’t need it.  God would be accessible to us the way Netflix makes our favorite sitcoms accessible, and after we finished watching we’d feel both vacuous and food-sick.  Actually, some churches try to imitate Netflix, and when I leave those places I do feel like I’ve inhaled two Super-sized fries with sweet-and-sour dipping sauce.  It’s just….gross.  But the best churches ask us to perform sacred rituals, to use precise words and actions, to engage with image and symbol and syntax, to run the experiment, to be poets.  God may or may not show up, but we must show up.

I must always be paying attention.  I must always set the stage though no actor may appear today or tomorrow.  I must open the blank page.  I must set the petri dish.  I cannot just believe.  I cannot passively wait for meaning to arrive.  I cannot say, “God exists,” and be done with it or ever say, “Prove it,” and then sit back to wait.  I must do.

The doing is difficult.  Right now, for example, I don’t want to go to church.  I don’t want to write this blog post.  I haven’t wanted to write a blog post in a while.  I’ve lost the ritual of doing that would create an opening for genius to appear.  Like the existentialists’ Sisyphus, I stand at the bottom of a hill, look at my gigantic rock and cannot believe I must lift it up the hill.  Again.  The work feels absurd, much like grading papers feels absurd, and kneeling before communion feels absurd (especially when my pregnant belly bumps up against the hymnals), and pouring laundry detergent into its plastic measuring cup feels absurd, and exiting I-10, and flossing my teeth, and pausing every morning and every night at the same bush at the corner of 8th and Cortlandt so Max can sniff its edges.  Again.

God is not a thing for science to prove.  Nor is religion a thing to disprove science.  Proof is an absurd end goal.  The process is the point.  The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  Sisyphus is most free, Albert Camus tells us, “in that hour like a breathing-space” when he walks back down the hill to begin again his infinite doing.

Sermon for Small Houses

I grew up in a small house.  In the mornings, before school, my father, mother, brother and I all took showers in the same shower, so we had a line-up: first my mother, then my dad, then Ben, then me.  Sometimes I showered before Ben, but I took a long time back then what with shaving and conditioning and exfoliating my vain skin, so if I went first he got a lukewarm shower, if not a cold one.  We had two bathrooms, but the shower in my parents’ bathroom boasted better water pressure.  We were always in each other’s way.  I secretly raged at my mother for four years because she’d come into my bedroom early in the morning to grab earrings or a hair brush (why were they in my room?  I don’t know) and then fail to close the door behind her when she left, so I’d have to hear her morning routine, all the clangs and bangs of getting ready, thereby losing 45 minutes of sleep.  My bedroom shared a wall with the living room, and to this day, I cannot stand the sound of Sunday: football commentators and boisterous mid-game commercials.  We mostly ate in front of the television, not because we were avoiding each other’s conversation, but because it was too cramped at the kitchen table in its tiny nook.

But I loved that house.  It bred in the four of us an intimacy.  I never could have avoided my parents or hid much from them without great trouble: not a late night make-out session, a drug habit, or even a bad mood.  Nor could they have hid much from Ben and I, and while closeness can inflame irritation, we all knew each other so well.  And we didn’t lack for anything.  We weren’t poor by any stretch of the imagination–I’m steeped in all kinds of privilege; if not in my childhood home, in the educational legacy and wealth of my family (my ancestors are all college-educated going back five generations) –and our house would not be considered small anywhere in the world but a sprawling city like Houston where land was cheap and construction booming.  It’s such a logical fallacy, the idea that people with small homes have no wealth.  Maybe they have a better sense of community, or a keener aesthetic sensibility, or an environmental consciousness.  Or maybe they just don’t like to clean.

Now I live in an “urban” neighborhood (read: inside the Loop) in Houston where the tendency lately is for new homeowners to gut the small bungalows that have dotted the landscape for 100 years and add on “giant butts”–that’s what my husband and I call them; they’re really called “camel backs” as one architect explained to us.  After all the gutting and sawing and painting and landscaping, the house is no longer small, but deceivingly huge.  There are three houses on my block listed for sale at over $1 million dollars.  Still, people complain.  After a prenatal yoga class the other night, I heard a woman say she’s moving to the Woodlands, because “I would never buy a home in the Heights with these prices: you don’t get a yard, the traffic is bad.”  Good, I wanted to say, move out.  Clearly you don’t understand the definition of urban.  It’s like Houstonians want to prove their urbanity without understanding the requirements to achieve it: homes close together or shared, public transportation, parks instead of yards, restaurants and coffee shops and small grocery stores within walking distance, people that don’t look like you walking down the street.  Take your giant SUV and your $200 yoga mat with you, I thought.  People like you moved here because it was “cool” without understanding what made it cool.  Here’s a clue: cool is not an A&M flag waving above your porch when you’ve been out of college for 20 years. Cool is neither your desperate need to conform nor your patriot-like dedication to banality. And cool is not asking for a grande frappuccino at the local coffee shop. 

I sound nastier than I mean to sound.  I apologize.  The handsaw that grinds every day on the re-purposed bungalow across the street has been wracking my pregnant nerves.  I benefit from these people: my property value is up and our home is zoned to schools that improve every year.  New businesses pop up weekly.  There’s money around to support my artist friends who, like me, have stuck it out here.  But my husband and I struggle with these changes.  We’re both teachers; we don’t belong in a neighborhood of millionaires.  We worry about raising our child with any sense of scale and gratitude.  On the other hand, we also have lived in this neighborhood–at least I have–for a long time, long before the scourge of big butts on the backs of small bungalows.  Our lives together began in this neighborhood.  In it, we met, got married, bought a home together.  It makes some natural sense that we might root ourselves to this spot.

And we own a small home.  I love it.  Last night, around 10:45, we finally finished a months-long, DIY remodeling on our second bedroom in preparation for the little guy.  With the lights dimmed and curtains drawn, I walked through the house and felt a deep satisfaction in its cohesiveness, the soft transition from one little space to another, the containment like a snug embrace.  I could hear the dog chewing his bone on our bed upstairs, and the shower water humming over my husband’s head, and when I stood in the center of the living room, I could almost see into every corner of our home: I felt at the epicenter of something true and rich.  I thought, I don’t need anything bigger than this, or more honestly, what did I do to deserve this enormity?

Of course I could make fun of myself here.  I can’t help but think of Stuff White People Like:

“All white people are born with a singular mission in life in order to pass from regular whitehood into ultra-whitehood. Just as Muslims have to visit Mecca, all white people must eventually renovate a house before they can be complete.”

Or I could be too serious.  There’s a moral imperative here: we should live more simply so that others may live.  Some houses are obscene given…well, the real poverty in our world.

But I don’t mean to make fun of anyone or take a moral high ground.  I mean to celebrate the beauty and peacefulness that smallness inflates for me and for whole communities.  I mean to remind myself of Alain de Botton:

We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical…We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us… We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the building we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.

Amen. 

Sermon for Solitude, A Vow

My husband and I spend a lot of time together.  We like each other and feel a genuine enjoyment in each other’s company.  Most people think of us as a couple that does things together: exercise (sometimes), read, cook, eat, attend events, grocery shop, complete the crossword puzzle.  I can’t tell you how many times one of us says, “I need to go to Target to get soap,” and the other answers, “I’ll come with you,” for no other reason than that it sounds fun to run the errand together.

But we’re not co-dependent.  I hope.

In our marriage vows we cribbed from Rilke, and I promised my husband “to be the guardian of your solitude, to offer you comfort in my absence as much as my presence.”  And he promised me too.   I’ve been thinking about that vow lately.  As a general rule, we should return to vows the way we make children say the Pledge of Allegiance regularly, ritually.  So often in marriage, the vows are spoken once and never revisited; they function as an occasional formality rather than everyday mindfulness.  Vows should be the keen needles on our daily compasses.

I don’t know that I’ve been great about protecting his solitude or about honoring my own.

We included solitude in our vows because we both need it.  We’re introverts, but more than that, we recognize solitude as spiritual nourishment.  Many great minds have articulated the importance of solitude better than I can, everyone from Albert Einstein to Henry David Thoreau to Emily Dickinson to Paul Tillich to Otis Redding.  For me, solitude provides space for idleness–which the creative mind craves and needs.  I haven’t written on this blog for three weeks because I haven’t had time to do nothing, and therefore, I have had nothing to say.  Solitude also provides time for difficult soul work and a prescription-strength antidote against anxiety.  Solitude is different from loneliness; more often than not I feel most lonely in the presence of others than I do when I’m actually alone.  Solitude is also different from “taking time for one’s self” if such time-taking involves passive entertainment like watching bad television or mining Facebook.  Solitude is full immersion into our own humanity, and so it is a prerequisite to compassion.  Most importantly, solitude is prayerful by its very nature–it is the one room in our lives that God will enter.

It shouldn’t be that hard to ask for and find solitude, but in our modern lives and in a shared home, it’s really, really hard.  Cell phones provide us the ability to be available at all times, and therefore, we decide we should be available.  Radios and televisions and earphones and PA systems offer us the distraction of noise whenever we want it.  Leaf blowers and alarms and dishwashers decimate any uncomfortable silences.  Plus, I’ve got a baby on the way.  How do I find and guard my and my husband’s solitude?  More than day care or car seats or parenting theories, this question weighs on my mind.  I know we won’t be good parents unless we first answer this question.  At least I won’t.

At school, my students have trouble with solitude.  As Einstein said, “Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature.”  Teenagers don’t want their own solitude–at their age they’re rightly negotiating the social world–and they also don’t respect mine.  They assume my lunch and free periods are available to them and that my classroom has open doors like the all-night IHOP I used to frequent in my own youth.  The other day, during a 15 minute “break period” between classes, students began showing up to my room with food, with conversation, with backpacks and for the first time in my life I found myself saying, “Get out.  Go somewhere.  This is my break time too and you’re interrupting it.”  They were appalled.  That was probably not the best way to go about guarding my solitude.  A better way, I’ve found, is taking walks.  I’m lucky that my campus boasts a mile or so of tree-lined, hilly walking trails behind the football field.  When I’m most bombarded with emails, deadlines, and meetings, I disappear back there for a 20 to 30 minute walk.  The day I found out I was pregnant, I walked through those trails and spoke to my unborn baby, pointing out the sunlight through the leaves and the squirrels dancing across branches, enticing that embryo to stay with me and to want to enter the world.  Then I taught 3rd period, and I was a better teacher for having given myself the time alone.  I never see anyone on those trails except the occasional maintenance worker–here the school offers us a sanctuary and we’re all too caught up in the buzz and frenzy of achievement to notice.

Where in my married life and in my life as a parent will I find the hidden trails to walk in?  And how will I plant the trees and carve the paths of a quiet, solitary place for my husband and son?  How will I keep my vow?  Because I really love to be alone.  I LOVE it.  I like going to dinner alone, to the movies alone; I like staying in my house all day alone; I travel better alone than with others.  And my husband loves to be alone.  And my son, whether he loves it in his youth or not, will have to learn solitude early if we want him to be able to build a meaningful life for himself.

Sometimes very early in the morning, I’ll wake up to the sound of my husband’s solitude.  He’ll have left our bed an hour or more earlier, in the dark light of morning, and he’ll be reading on the couch with Max curled at his feet or lightly strumming his guitar or staring out the window.  The quiet in the house will have an energy like the blue halos around the angels’ heads in old paintings.  I’ll think, he’s walking through the trees.  I’ll try to let him by resisting the urge to call out for coffee or turn on the sink to brush my teeth.  I’ll feel a surge of love for him and for the mystery of his interiority, the sacred and secret gardens inside him through which I’ll never walk.  I want to comfort him with my absence.

More often than not I fail.  I interrupt him and bring the whole damn noisy world with me.  I’m highly verbal, and I’ll start talking for no reason.  Later, I’ll snap at him about how he’s eating or why he hasn’t remembered to set up a doctor’s appointment.  I’ll get agitated by all that world-noise, and I’ll fail to protect my own solitude.  He might fail to recognize that I need it.  And so it goes.

Vows are tricky things: you have to live them everyday and it takes a lifetime to figure out how.

Amen.

Sermon for Surrender (of Guns)

We ran out of milk this morning.  We need milk–for our coffee, for my shredded wheat, just in case I feel like making crepes.

“Where should I go?” my husband asked.

I knew what he was asking, but didn’t answer.

“Do you think anyone will be carrying a gun this early in the morning?” he asked.

“That’s not the point,” I said.

“I know,” he said.  “I’m joking.  Whole Foods is open.”

Kroger is the closest grocery store to us, and the cheapest too.  Whole Foods will require we use more time, more gas, and more money.  But Kroger is currently in a showdown with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group we both belong to, because the corporate food-seller is allowing customers to openly carry guns in their stores.  The statement they issued last week read,

The safety of our customers and associates is one of our most important company values. Millions of customers are present in our busy grocery stores every day and we don’t want to put our associates in a position of having to confront a customer who is legally carrying a gun. That is why our long-standing policy on this issue is to follow state and local laws and to ask customers to be respectful of others while shopping. We know that our customers are passionate on both sides of this issue and we trust them to be responsible in our stores.

I know where I stand on gun issues.  And I have an opinion about the pathetically paltry–even cowardly–nature of Kroger’s official statement.  I know that while some people carry weapons, I’m carrying an unborn child whose body I’m obligated to protect, and I do not feel I can fulfill my obligation in a place where people brandish weapons.  But I don’t want to sermonize about my position: preaching won’t work.  The two sides are speaking from such psychologically different places, and the argument–it seems to me–is not so much about policy, but about symbolism.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We are symbols and we inhabit symbols.”  For the gun skeptic, like me, the gun symbolizes aggression, particularly male aggression; it symbolizes my grandfather’s early death; it symbolizes distrust and a lack of community; the gun is lead and steel where I want stem and root; death where I want life.  For the gun enthusiast, I cannot say what guns symbolize, except that I suspect the gun stands in for the illusion of control, for agency and utility, and I’m sure, for some people, guns are beautiful as aesthetic objects as well, the way books are for me beautiful things first, before their usefulness and power even come into play.

Instead of sermonizing, let me offer literature.

Writer Andre Dubus wrote an essay in 1990 for The New Yorker called “Giving Up the Gun,” where he attempts to understand his decision to give up guns after years of collecting and carrying guns.  For 13 years he had a license to carry in Massachusetts, and since his boyhood in Louisiana he loved guns, many of which he found “beautiful…their shape and balanced weight pleasing to hold.”  For him holding a gun was an aesthetic experience; he held “the tiny twenty-two as another person might hold a pocket watch or a ring, a hammer or a golf club.  To me, that gun, like all my guns, was somehow alive, with a history or a future; with a soul.  I loved it, and bought it.”

He collected guns like I collect books.

Dubus also wanted the illusion of safety–to protect his kids and family, and then later, himself when, after losing his ability to walk in a devastating car crash, he felt newly and profoundly vulnerable to the violent world.

Ultimately, however, Dubus was foremost a spiritual man, even before a gun enthusiast or master writer.  And on a train in 1990, he decided to give up all his guns.  His decision was not political or practical, but spiritual.  I want to let his words be the sermon today.

I have written all this to try to discover why, sitting in my wheelchair on a train, I gave up my guns.   But I do not know.  Eight months after that Thanksgiving in Baton Rouge, I was driving home from Boston, armed with a pistol, and I stopped on the highway and got out of my car to help two people who had driven over an abandoned motorcycle.  Then a car hit me, and I have been in a wheelchair for over nine years.  My body can no longer do what I want to do, and it cannot protect my two young daughters, and my grandchildren, from perils I used to believe I could save people from.  I have not learned the virtue of surrender–which I want–but I have learned the impossibility of avoiding surrender.  I am also more afraid now.  For the three years and eight months after my injury, until those moments on the train, I believed I needed a gun more than I ever had.  Alone in my house, I kept a small twenty-two Beretta semiautomatic in my shoulder bag, its loaded magazine in one of the bag’s pockets, and for the first time in my life, the gun was to protect myself.

I only know this: on the train images came to me: I was alone in my house, on the couch, watching a movie on video, and a man kicked my door open and came in, to steal, beat, kill; and I shoved the magazine into the pistol and worked its slide and aimed the gun, but he kept coming at me, and I shot his leg, but he kept coming, and I shot his chest, again and again, till he stopped coming.  Then, as I looked out the train window at snow on the ground, one sentence came to me: With my luck, I’ll kill someone.

That was all.  Luck was not the accurate word, and I do not know what the accurate word is.  But with that sentence, I felt the fence and gate, not even the lawn and porch and door to the house of sorrow I would live in if I killed someone.  Then I felt something detach itself from my soul, departing, rising, vanishing; and I said to God: It’s up to You now.  This is not the humble and pure and absolutely spiritual love of turning the other cheek.  It is not an answer to turn someone else’s cheek.  On the train, I gave up answers that are made of steel that fire lead, and I decided to sit in a wheelchair on the frighteningly invisible palm of God.

Amen. 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Staying (A 10 Year Anniversary Sermon)

Today I’m attending a 10-year anniversary party for a local bar, Poison Girl.  The first week it opened, in August of 2004, I walked in with my boyfriend.  He and I had just driven a U-Haul truck from Washington D.C. to Houston where he would spend a few days helping me get settled in before I began MFA classes at UH, and before we would part ways indefinitely.  We entered the bar sweaty, hot, love-worn and hollowed, his dark curls foamed out from his face by the humidity.  The bar’s cool, shadowy interior, red walls, and cushy stools offered us temporary reprieve from our inevitable cleaving from each other.  It would be painful, our leave-taking; we were so desperately in love, and we needed a stiff drink.

So, in addition to celebrating the bar’s 10 years in Houston, I’m marking my own decade back in my native city.  I was gone for 10 years.  Now I’ve been back for 10 years.  The latter weren’t the best 10 years of my life–at least not the first 5 or 6.  While I loved learning to write, and I appreciated the privilege of spending 3 years honing a craft, my time in the creative writing program was largely an unhappy time for me.  In my early to mid-twenties, I had lived in six cities and three countries, moving every two or three years, and spending summers elsewhere.  Three years in Houston–a city I’d sworn I’d never return to when I left at 18–felt like an eternity to me, and the switch in my “career” focus as well as learning to live as a single woman after experiencing very true love–all these changes left me feeling, more than anything, untethered.  Too free, too loose, and at the same time, stuck.

I don’t need to catalogue in great detail the horrible ways I attempted to cope with my unhappiness.  Suffice to say, I bounced around from boy to boy, many times without much integrity.  A few of those relationships were serious, but none of them were true.  I had been spoiled, you see.  I knew what it felt like to have a man love me fully and kindly: there was no way I could have settled for anything less than spectacular and the less spectacular the relationship the more I raged at it and hurt myself and others.  I dyed my hair a million times.  I started friendships and then retreated from them.  I threw myself into workout plans as though my body might save my psyche.  I wrote wretched short stories, and even more wretched poetry.  In the meantime, the world suffered too.  My twenties started with 9/11 (if that won’t mess up someone’s early adulthood, I don’t know what will) and they peaked with the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, a tragedy that became intimate for many of us in Houston, the city that received the most Katrina evacuees of any other American city.  I still can’t write about the two days I spent volunteering at the Astrodome in the wake of that storm, and I was only a volunteer, not a victim.  Those years were also not great years for my family in various ways I won’t mention here. 

Anyway, I showed up every week on the week to the barstool, from that first day I wandered off Westheimer into Poison Girl with my heart broken.  The bar offered me reprieve in many ways during that time.  It wasn’t just the alcohol (although, sometimes, that was enough), but I met friends there outside of the writing world and my own, navel-gazing drama.  When I graduated from the MFA program, I forged my new life–the one that would redeem the decade for me–from friendships and opportunities I lucked into there.  

When I saw the flyer for Poison Pen’s anniversary, I couldn’t believe it.  10 years?  I’d been here 10 years?  I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that all week.

The last five years of the decade, of course, were much better for me.  My friend, Tina, saved me from myself (she doesn’t know she did this and would deny it, but it’s true).  I met my husband, bought a house, got a dog, found a job I love, started writing well again, and now, this baby boy.  I don’t have time to show up at Poison Girl much.  I’ve been re-civilized.  

Still, I have to fight off my flight instinct.  And that’s what I want to really say today.  It’s hard work to stay still for 10 years, to tough it out in a place where you might run into people who knew you when you weren’t so great.  I still have to fight off the instinct to avoid my friends who knew me during the first part of the past decade.  I hate having to inhabit the past they knew me through.  My husband said to me the other day, “I feel sorry for you.  You have a past here that I don’t have, and you sometimes have to collide with it.  That must suck.” 

I teach Homer’s Odyssey every year to 15 year-olds.  It’s a book that renews itself for me year to year; like a deep well, I return to it and it offers me new insight from its deep pools.  Odysseus spent 10 years away from Ithaca at war in Troy, and then it took him another 10 to return home.  Twenty years.  As I write this, I can’t help but think of Stephen Dunn’s poetic re-imagining of Odysseus’ journey:

He had a gift for getting in and out of trouble,
a prodigious, human gift. To survive Cyclops
and withstand the Sirens’ song––
just those words survive, withstand, in his mind became a music
he moved to and lived by.
How could govern, even love, compete?
They belonged to a different part of a man,
the untested part, which never has transcended dread,
or the liar part, which always spoke like a citizen. The larger the man, though,
the more he needed to be reminded
he was a man. Lightning, high winds;
for every excess a punishment.
Penelope was dear to him, full of character and fine in bed.
But by the middle years this other life
had become his life. That was Odysseus’s secret,
kept even from himself. When he talked about return
he thought he meant what he said. Twenty years to get home?
A man finds his shipwrecks,
tells himself the necessary stories.

A woman finds her shipwrecks, indeed.  

My students often display surprise when they realize that Odysseus arrives, naked, on the shores of Ithaca halfway through the epic.  What else could Homer have to say for hundreds of pages after he returns his hero home?  The real story, I tell them, is not the adventure on the sea.  The real story is not how long it takes him to get home, but how long it takes him to be home. And it’s a long, ugly process.

My mother, a few months ago, expressed some envy to me.  She said I was lucky to have had time in my twenties to travel, to date various people, to get to know myself and experience lots of things.  Because she gave birth to me at 23, she didn’t have that kind of freedom.  While I recognize the rich (and indulgent) opportunity of such time in one’s youth, I tried to tell her that I mostly feel empathy for young adults I see now who “float around” trying to land somewhere.  While they’re “free,” they’re also anxious, often depressed, their feet dangling over a ground that they can’t feel or see.  

It’s hard to float, I think.  But harder still to land.  Toward the end of Homer’s epic, Odysseus watches his old father, Laertes, plant a tree.  It is an important lesson for a man who has depended on deception and words for too long.  In an essay he wrote the year I was born that claims the Odyssey is really about marriage and the household and the earth, Wendell Berry describes the moment, “In a time of disorder [Laertes] has returned to the care of the earth, the foundation of life and hope.”  A dear friend of mine once described marriage to me as “the most difficult soul work you’ll ever have to do.”  She’s right.  Any endeavor that requires you to commit–to plant trees–is a spiritual endeavor of the highest order.  Real communion requires much from us: it asks us to stay.  

All that time I spent floating around looking for a crack in the window, an escape route, I didn’t realize that I longed to return–not to D.C. or my former love–but to the bravery it takes to settle down, to stay in a place that doesn’t buy your bullshit and remembers all injuries.  It was a bravery I had once and then lost and then had to find again after the world stripped me bare and washed me up onto the hot shores of my home.  

Happy anniversary to Poison Girl, who has stayed, and to me.

Amen. 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Beautiful Stories

One morning during the hopeful, horrible infertility treatment process, I clicked on a YouTube video posted by some obscure acquaintance in my newsfeed, one of those with a hyperbolic title like “This Fashion Video will Change Your Life” or “What This Dog Does is Amazing.”

In the video, a young scientist, Chao-Lin Kuo, approaches the home of physicist Andrei Linde, the architect of cosmic inflation theory. Cosmic inflation is a name for the rapid, exponential expansion of the universe in the fractions of a second after it burst into being. Big Bang believers have long thought cosmic inflation explains the gigantic size of our universe and all its parts, but have yet to provide evidence for this inflation.

Before he knocks on Linde’s door, Kuo announces to the camera that he has a surprise about gravitational waves that he and his team have discovered in the afterglow left by our universe’s violent birth. A highly sensitive telescope, the BICEP2, captured the space-time ripples by hunting for a special type of light polarization called B-modes.

I watched as the young scientist finally knocks and Linde and his wife, Renata Kallosh, also a physicist, answer.

Kuo says only, “Five sigma at point two.”

Of course, I didn’t know what any of this means, but in the video Linde’s wife seems to understand first. She startles, and steps forward to embrace Kuo. Her husband stands back in the shadow of the doorway and says, “Can you repeat? Can you repeat?”

Kuo repeats, “Five sigma at point two. ”

Andrei Linde falls through the doorway and over the threshold.

The three scientists pop open champagne in the couple’s dining room. I am struck by the ordinary in the room: a painted fan, a map of Tuscany hanging on the wall between windows, a blender shoved among other kitchen utensils on a shelf.

He says, “When the doorbell rang, my wife asked if I was expecting a delivery. Well, yes, a delivery I ordered 30 years ago!”

They all laugh, clang their wine glasses together over the tablecloth, and then like schoolchildren hang their heads together over a computer screen and talk shop.

At the end of the video, Linde speaks to the camera alone. More serious, he says finally, “We’ll hope this works. I always leave with this feeling—what if I’m tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful?”

 

I thought about Linde’s last words for weeks:  What if I believe it just because it is beautiful?  Although Linde is a man of science, and what he believes in–The Big Bang, chaos turned, in a few seconds of cosmic luck, into the unlikely birth of a  universe–is widely contested by unimaginative religious people (who, ironically, believe in an unlikely birth), his question struck me as essentially spiritual.  I have asked myself the same question many times.  When I first got pregnant, I always wondered, “Will this work? Do I believe this science will work just because I want so badly for it to work?”  And I ask myself that about God.  Do I believe in something resembling God just because it is a beautiful story?  Do I believe in hope, peace, reconciliation, freedom, equality because they’re beautiful ideas?  Are all the things I believe in just beautiful, but ultimately elusive fictions?

Maybe.

But right now when the world feels unjust, chaotic, and unquenchably aflame I think we need beautiful stories–not as an escape or illusion, but because some part of our humanness understands that the most beautiful stories do not require proof: they’re true because they’re beautiful.  Proof is beside the point.  And if we’re engaging in mundane, binary arguments about their veracity, then we’re not trusting the stories or the stories are not beautiful enough and need to be rewritten, retold, or reread.

This week I reread Alice Walker’s “The Flowers” with my students, a story I love and one that spoke new truth to me after the Ferguson tragedy.  I also revisited the story of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in the midst of the ALS ice bucket challenge craze.  Lou Gehrig remains my favorite baseball player of all time; he died, of course, of ALS, and in one of the most profound moments in American baseball he stood on the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium and gave a farewell speech.  He was already suffering from the disease that would kill him, but his last words to his fans were, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on earth…I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”  All grace and humility, like his whole career.  But that’s not the beautiful moment for me.  After he spoke his former friend, longtime bitter rival, and all-around jackass, Babe Ruth, stepped up to the mound to hug Gehrig.  That hug ended a five-year long estrangement between the two men.  The photos of the moment–Babe Ruth’s large frame enveloping a frail Gehrig and, afterward, his head hung in deep reverence–capture the possibility of reconciliation.

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I’m not feeling all that profound this week.  The miraculous eludes me.  I find I cannot shed easily my political skin.  But I’d like to think if we hold ourselves open to possibilities at the furthest reaches of our imaginations, those possibilities captured in stories–reconciliation between enemies, flowers at the tombstones of history, science’s discoveries–then our capacity for awe will inflate  and expand.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.”

Turn to the beautiful stories, I tell myself.  Go to them with your soul willing and your intellect sharpened, especially in times like these.  They are, like Linde’s gravitational waves, the afterglow of our violent births.  They are the scattered shards of a broken light, more truth than proof.

Amen.