Homily for the Thin of Skin

A poet friend of mine once told me, “Poets are born without skin.”  He was quoting a famous poet–I thought Li-Young Lee–but for the life of me I can’t remember now.  I’m not a poet, but my friend recognized something of the creature without skin in me.  He was–is–a kind man with his own thin outer layers.

I always remembered that small moment of gentleness: him, turned around to face me from inside the small bay of his grade school desk, us, waiting for our graduate school professor to show for an insufferably early morning section of Creative Writing.

His voice comes to me now across time zones and years–tender, unassuming–as I have been thinking deeply about sensitivity and gentleness of late.

For many years I have suspected myself to belong to a beleaguered tribe of people for whom the world often feels too overwhelming–too noisy, too mean, too garish, too pointy-edged.  I was a sensitive child; I am a sensitive adult.  I can be exhausting for people.  At my most melancholy I can only describe myself as walking around like an exposed nerve.  Even clothing hurts, even small talk, even shadows.

Luckily for me, I had parents to toughen me up and a relatively healthy if slightly abnormal family life and childhood.  No major, major trauma.  Lots of activities to keep me busy.  A brother for a best friend who then and now faced my sensitivity to the world with an equal dose of humor and empathy.  Now, when I’m overwhelmed, he goes into a mocking British accent: do you want to get a coffee and a scone and go talk about our feelings?  You giant nipple.

I laugh, because his response is a ridiculous thing for someone to offer as comfort.  Cruel or bullying, even.  But his voice has a subtext, a tonality, layers of deep compassion.  I feel understood, fully seen, and jostled back into equanimity all at once.   I have a difficult time explaining his tonality to my husband, for example, who asks, “How does he get away with that?”  Somehow he can make fun of me and comfort me simultaneously, because the undercurrent of our relationship rings like a team of far off bells or like a whale song that travels leagues of deep sea to reach another whale’s ear in sonar, saying “I’m here.  I’m right here.”

We live in a culture that despises sensitivity, misnames it weakness or disability.  Highly Sensitive People (HSPs to psychologists–we have an actual label in that world) spend much time faking it until they make it, pretending to function well in a world that feels, some days, like a barrage of mortar shells.  This “faking it” can lead to serious depression or isolation, but those maladies result from misunderstanding, not from the sensitivity itself.  According to Dr. Elaine Aron, HSPs, while struggling with dissonant or loud sounds, people who hover over them as they work or perform, stressful social situations, and bright lights or discordant colors, have some important strengths that other people may not have: high empathy, keen imaginations, vivid dreams, focused concentration, creativity, and an ability to read complex emotional situations clearly.   We do not have a disorder, but often Western culture treats our sensitivity as a modern day leprosy, a disease that demands a speedy antidote or an abomination that requires quarantine or expulsion.  Or the culture overlooks us entirely.

For example, during our pre-marital counseling, my husband and I filled out a survey in our workbook that asked us to determine who took responsibility for a long list of “marriage tasks.”  I felt horrible filling it out and reading out the results: the exercise determined that my husband does 90% of the work.  But the list was slanted, biased–folds laundry, buys groceries, pays bills, cleans floors.  In a small voice, I said, “But I buy all our gifts for people.  I remember birthdays.  I call our friends.  I pick the morning music.  I navigate us through hard conversations.  I do the bulk of our emotional work.”

We skinless souls are not wimps.  We’re doing some hardcore work for the rest of you.

How great a world would it be that might carve out a space for our kind and think of us as vital counterbalances to industry and media buzz, like the soothsayers, witch doctors, and minstrels of ages past?  Or our priests and professors?  I’d settle for starting with artists, paying them for their gifts and offering them space, time, or just a quietness in which to grow calm and concoct their magic elixirs.

And mightn’t we all benefit from a bit more gentleness, which is not to say we must exclude ferocity, truth, and resilience?

I could use a little of my kind of gentleness: the living silence inside the Rothko chapel’s purple paintings or at the far end of a swimming lane, light dimmers, almost any shade of ultramarine, grey, or persimmon, birch trees, banjoes, worn cotton, sunlight on hardwood floors, conspiratorial laughter, coffee froth, long highways, good stories, the five minutes before mass begins, a blank page and a super-sharp pencil, well-aged Merlots, Doritos, active verbs, a dog’s sigh, Irish Spring on my husband’s skin, free-time at midday, teenage humor, mornings without words, a breeching whale in North Atlantic blue, lip balm, my brother’s voice and the voice of some friends, the long light that reaches toward nightfall’s embrace, its illusion of a forever and ever and ever peace even when I know better.

Amen. 

Sermon for Dr. Ed Young

As I drove down I-10 yesterday, I passed one of the many billboards that line Houston highways.  Sometimes I forget the signs exist, the way sometimes you can’t see the biggest thing in front of you, the proverbial forest for the trees.  But this billboard sucker punched me, my awareness jolted upright and already starting to swell.  It read:

Truth, Lies, and America Today: How to Vote for a President  (insert red, white, and blue rectangular graphics and Dr. Ed Young’s best smile in the background)

I don’t know Dr. Ed Young personally, nor do I attend his church.  I went to a service there once in high school and many of the high schoolers I teach are members at Second Baptist.  I only know him by reputation and insider gossip (mostly from a friend who attended school there and considers herself a recovering Baptist).  I am biased and somewhat uninformed.  But I couldn’t help my fear and terror and deep wish for a sermon I suspect he won’t give.  I so wish he would.  So here you go: my instruction manual for Dr. Young.

How to Give a Sermon on How to Vote for a President

for Ed Young

Tell a story.

What story you tell–its plot lines and poetics, its heroes and villains–will depend on your intentions.  Check your intentions, dear sir.  Comb through them with fine-tipped bristles.  If one thread of ulterior motive exists, revise and rewrite.  Consider the wastebasket lined with coffee grinds and yesterday’s headlines.

Wear the right tie.  The occasion calls for red or blue.  Try red and blue stripes.  Avoid binaries.

Tell a story about privilege.  Ask your parishioners to take out paper and pen (you may need to provide these; the modern faithful are not all notetakers).  Ask them to list every privileged group they belong to–not by choice, but by pure luck.  They may need help uncovering these categories from a giant heap of dirt we’ll call the Pile of Entitlement.  Here’s a sample list of categories to help them out:

Race: ____________

Gender: _____________

Sexuality: ____________

Employment status: _________________

Marital status: _________________

Citizenship: __________________

Religion: _________________

Health insurance status: __________________

Ethnicity: ____________________

Physically abled or disabled: _________________

Economic status: _______________

Neighborhood: _________________

Level of education: __________________

Amount of money (estimate) in savings: _______________

Renter or owner ______________

 

That’ll be a good start.

Have them kneel down.  Have them recite the following prayer, which is actually a poem.  Tell them poetry is prayer:

Thanks

by W. S. Merwin
 
Listen 
with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank youwith the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster 
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is

Then, give them the definition of a strong leader.  Make eye contact here with the camera.  Quote Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Ask them if they know the most important trait in any human.  Eager followers, A-students on Sundays, they will call out guesses from the pews: Strength?  Power?  Intelligence? Faith?  Hope?  Fame?  Wealth?

Say no.  Say it again.  No.  Say: the most important trait in any person is kindness.

Tell them to build and nurture compassion.  Feed it everyday. Remind them literature and music help with this endeavor.

Tell them to ask questions.  Tell them questions are the pump jacks that dot the rich oil fields of their lives, the nodding donkeys that dig deep, that bellow their slow, yes, yes, yes, from the distances.

Tell them good men have flaws.  The best men acknowledge them in public.  An anecdote from your own life might serve you well here.

Tell them they have spectacular brains.  Tell them they have big, huge, red hot hearts.  Tell them to use both.

Tell them they are worthy.  Tell them you trust them.

Tell them about city ordinances and local races.

Tell them about the beggars that stand everyday under the Texas sun two blocks down from your megachurch at the cross-section of San Felipe and Voss.  For those who may not speak Spanish, translate San Felipe into Saint Philip.  Tell them he was an original apostle of their Lord and Savior.

Tell them Jesus loved women.  Refer directly if necessary to your Bible.  Check the footnotes for specific passages.  There are too many to include here.

Tell them of the people, by the people, for the people.

Tell them separation of church and state, poll and pulpit, oil and water.

Tell them you love them.

Mean it.

Love them.

And then let them go.

 

Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Atonement

Aldo Mondino, Kapparot

 

My fiancee works at a private Jewish high school in town.  He loves it.  Many times the mixture of him (WASP) and the students (mostly Jewish and hailing anywhere from Israel to Mexico) strikes all of us as just hysterically funny.  I find myself amused in no small part because he teaches in the neighborhood I grew up in, then and now chock full of Jews.  Old hat for me, but for my fiancee everything feels new: the Shabbat service on Friday, the abundance of days off in October, the Ma’amad he’ll have to present in December.  My father, a long time fanatic of the 6-man football phenomenon in West Texas, is tickled silly that my fiancee’s school has a 6-man team.

I like when he comes home and says things like, “I love that everyday we get to eat Challah.  Holla!” and lifts the roof with his hands.  I roll my eyes, but it’s still funny.

Occasionally, though, he’ll bring home something sincere and serious, and in truth he takes the whole place sincerely and seriously, as he should.  This past Wednesday Jews all over celebrated Yom Kippur, a day of atonement.  Even I had the school day off.  My fiancee told me a story about a strange act of atonement that the school community performed together based on the custom of Kapparot.  Originally the custom required use of a live chicken, into which the sins of the individual could transfer during the ceremony.   Each person would swing the chicken three times in a circle above her head while reciting these words: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”  Then the rooster or hen is slaughtered and given to the hungry to feed them, thus ridding the sinner of his sins.

At my fiancee’s school, they did not use live animals, thankfully.  Instead, in a more compassionate version of the ceremony, each student wrote down his sins on a piece of paper, wrapped the paper in a dollar bill and swung the dollar bill over his head three times while reciting the requisite words.  Afterward, the rabbis took the money to the needy and burned the papers filled with the all the sins of teenagers.

“What was your sin?” I asked my fiancee.

“I didn’t write one down.  The teachers didn’t have to write one down.  Just the students,” he said.

I forgot about it after a few hours.

But yesterday morning I remembered.  I woke up and shook my fiancee awake.

“Baby.  We should write down _________ and put it in money and then give it away.”

He didn’t laugh.  We had some atoning to do toward each other.

I’m sure our version of Kapparot differed in almost every visible way from the original custom.  We used the back of a torn envelope.  Both of us wrote something down about abusing alcohol a little too often; I quickly scribbled down a few more things I never said out loud.  And won’t.  I only had a $10 dollar bill so that’s what we used.   He went first.  I recited second.  We stood on our rained-out deck, the deep green ivies dripping fat drops of water onto the brick walls, steam rising up from the humid earth beneath the wood planks below our feet, cars humming past toward the makeshift entrance to I-10 at the end of our block.

We burned our scraps of envelope with a citronella candle that never staves off mosquitoes, ever.  We watched them fizzle and curl their way way down to black and ash.  Because of the cry-your-eyes-out downpour so typical of a September in Houston, we couldn’t find anyone outside to pass on our $10 dollar bill to, even in the usual places under the freeway.  We’ll do that today.  I am under no illusion that we will improve the world in any real way because we gave a homeless guy some money, nor should we permit ourselves any self-satisfaction from this symbolic act.

But listen.  I have always been moved by the idea of atonement.  My favorite holy day of obligation in the Catholic church was and still is Ash Wednesday.  I love that mass.  I never miss it.  Let me here say something about the difference between atonement and repentance.  A Jewish colleague of mine told me her rabbi conceptualizes atonement as “at-one-ment”, a way to become whole again, to recreate the sacred unity between man and the divine, and man and his fellow man.  Certainly “at-one-ment” captures the spirit of Ash Wednesday too.  On these days–Yom Kippur and Ash Wednesday–we are not called to repent or wrack ourselves with guilt.  We acknowledge our broken and torn souls, and ask for stitches.  We do this in communion with others, because a god will use these people around us as the thread through which she passes her needle and stitch them into our skin like train tracks or road paint methodically spread down a long, lonesome highway we all must travel, the entire act like any healing both public and intensely private at once.

Frivolous and antiquated as it may seem (I kept picturing the narrow backyard of a Brooklyn brownstone, the poor fowl screeching for dear life above the din of taxis, Latin beats blared into the streets, and subway cars tumbling overhead), I like the idea of the chicken, or at least the idea that we may release our “sins” instead of bury them inside our bodies to be confessed again and again and again.  So many useless Hail Marys.  I like the idea even that atonement may require a blood-letting of sorts, that our ability to forgive ourselves and others is a matter of life and death.  I also like the final movement of Kapparot, that instinct toward generosity and giving, without which no atonement can ever come full circle.   Confession is not enough; one much actively love others and engage with the divine to repair the world.  And no matter how dirty and down low we get, we always can engage in such repair.

What an invaluable lesson for teenagers.  And for all of us.

Amen. 

 

Sermon as a Faith Story

I grew up Catholic.

I was baptized, confirmed and educated in the Church, but I learned what it meant to be Christian mostly by example.  When I was a child, my father resettled refugees for the YMCA, and then worked for many years as Vice President of Catholic Charities in the Houston-Galveston diocese, and my mother taught science at a troubled, inner-city high school.   We often had 3 or 4 people living with us while they were transitioning from one country to another, and my parents also welcomed several foster children and exchange students into our modest home. 

We were not a typical “parish” family—I was only required to attend CCE classes until I was confirmed, and even then, my parents did not require regular attendance at mass.  However, somehow my brother and I still intuited that we were to act within the walls of our home and in the larger world as loving followers of Christ’s example.  We were not told this in any explicit way; rather, we witnessed it.  Both of us can recite the Corporeal Works of Mercy faster than we can the Nicene Creed. 

In this way, Catholicism for me became a familial, cultural, and private aspect of my identity, a thing I was born into, a thing I could no more choose than I could my hair color or height or Southern accent.  I never felt the need to proclaim it or restore it in public—it was as deeply hidden and powerful in me as my chromosomes. 

 I did not recognize my Catholic upbringing as an influence on my behavior or my writing until recently.  In 2007, a man I loved asked me to marry him, and I said yes.  He was raised in the Baptist and then Presbyterian traditions and after our engagement began to push me about my spiritual life.  At the same time, I was experiencing a crisis in my writing life.  I spent three years in an MFA program swinging back and forth between writing fiction and nonfiction, having much difficulty discerning between the two and convinced one—fiction—was the higher form.  This crisis grew out of an earlier one.  When I decided to dedicate my energy and time toward writing by leaving my job at a human rights non-profit organization, I suffered a crisis of conscience.  After all, I had been heavily schooled in the idea of vocation and service—how could my writing serve the world in any real way?

 What saved me was my teaching obligation.  Teaching was certainly a form of service, as I knew from watching my mother.  I still believe that teaching is sacramental in that it is a kind of “anointment”—teachers anoint their students with knowledge and thought.  And teaching, of course, is a kind of communion, the classroom a sacred space.  

But at that time, as my fiancée began to push harder—our disagreements as political as they were religious—I found solace in reading and writing the personal essay.  As a friend of mine once described it to me, the personal essay is a space for provisional truth.  That is, the essayist never reaches her destination but is ever-arriving.    The personal essay, then, becomes a space for deep contemplation, a tool for the vital attempt we all make to transform the private and personal into meaning.  The essay form offered me a way to voice what I like to refer to as my “intellectual faith”, or what Marilynne Robinson refers to as “faithful doubt.” In my romantic relationship an expression of doubt was a touchstone of failure and in my academic community of writers an expression of sincere Christian struggle was laughable.   This paradox often left me feeling bound and voiceless.  The personal essay unshackled me.

I began to study and be moved by writers like St. Augustine, Robert ColesSimoneWeilThomas Merton, Marilynne Robinson, and Andre Dubus.  Formative books for me during this time were Dubus’ “Mediations from a Movable Chair” and Coles’ “The Harvard Diaries” as well as his biographies of Weil and Dorothy Day and his writings on the relationship between story-telling and moral imagination in children.   One particular passage of Coles’ rang true to me.   He writes:

…in the lecture halls and seminar rooms of our colleges and universities, where relativism and deconstructionist criticism make a mockery of any person’s struggle to find a faith that persuades, convinces, and even a mockery of the attempts that particular novelists, or poets or short story writers have made to find meaning in life, and render it through words, through images, through narration that bespeaks of, well, the utter essence of their humanity: we are the creature of language, and through it a moral awareness that gives us a sense of the ought, and naught.

For one thing, I felt protective of my fiancée.  His increasingly traditional and conservative religious practice and beliefs left him susceptible to ridicule by my university colleagues and contemporaries.  In my soul, I agreed with them.  But I also knew from my experience as an undergraduate student in the Northeast that liberals and academics, many of my closest friends, could be some of the most intolerant people on the planet.  I did not want to be intolerant—what kind of liberal would that make me?  How could that kind of intolerance inspire people to change?

Still, a fierce loyalty to my family’s variety of Catholicism made it impossible to abide my fiancée’s shifting beliefs about homosexuality and abortion.  My own relationship to God, while cultivated and real was less literal than his, and occasionally his language and the language of his church alarmed me.  We both worried about raising children together.  Most of all, both of us wanted to be loved for who we were and not in spite of it.  Our friends and family members, at best, were good skeptics.   Every day we endeavored to avoid name-calling and blaming, to praise each other’s sincere efforts, and to hold each other accountable for our actions and beliefs so that we could live together peacefully.  At that time the country was in the thick of the 2008 election season; the political and religious climate heightened our awareness of discrepancies in our worldviews.  I was all in for Obama.  To my dismay, my fiancée was not.  In many ways we became a microscopic reflection of the painful reconciliation required at much higher levels in the nation.

In the end, while the nation found the common ground to say, “We can,” my fiancée and I failed to say, “We do.”  I left him.  In one of the saddest and more pathetic moments of our demise, I cried and screamed at him, “I don’t want to marry a Republican,” and he whispered back, “I know you don’t.”  At that point neither of us could tell the difference between “Republican” and “Christian” and “conservative” much like the rest of the country.  I threw myself into writing essays in the wake of our dissolved engagement.  While my pain was personal and private and real, in my writing I did not want so much to vent or confess as to relate and work through what I recognized as an essentially American story—a Red State story, a Christian story.  I also began to see my nonfiction writing as a form of service and vocation that harkened back to my spiritual upbringing.  I recognized what I thought of as a failure of liberal Christians in the face of rising Christian fundamentalism.  We had lost our voice, or at least our willingness to use it. The ascension of fundamentalism and its hold on vulnerable young people like my ex-fiancée was, as Marilynne Robinson writes, “the fault of the liberals in large part, because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism.”

I think what I have been trying to achieve in all my essays is a return to the beautiful “story” of Jesus, because as I writer I know the metaphor moves people, the symbol.  This is because when an artist uses a metaphor she is reaching toward something God-like that is unreachable.  The metaphor is the artist’s confession: the best I can do is approximate.  There is no symbol, no representation that will suffice, there will never be a symbol that will suffice, and so those symbols must be graceful, thoughtful, and sacred. I think the writers of the Gospels instruct us to read their words metaphorically, and encourage us to use our own metaphors.  Each book of the New Testament is replete with similes, sentences that begin, “God’s Kingdom is like…” or “God’s love is like…” We cannot know God, we see, as Peter reminds us, “through a glass darkly”.  Our imagination brings us closer to God—to be a Christian (or religious in any way at all) is to have a wealth of imagination.  St. Paul says in is a hard life, Kierkegaard says it is a foolish life precisely because it requires a faith in the improvable thing. (I cribbed that line from my father.)

It is not important that I write my life from a doubtless and fixed place, and therefore reduce God to a concept that fits neatly into my narrow vision, and then live a rigid life according to that vision.  No, what is important is that I seek in the direction to which those symbols point—that I look unflinchingly toward redemption, forgiveness, and hope even when I suspect these things might elude me in my work and in my life.  The artist’s job is to open new avenues of hope, widen the space for definition and representation, and welcome others into grace.

 Or, as Thomas Merton advises in his New Seeds of Contemplation, “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish, or from doubt.”

 I will always be “catholic.”  But when I go to church now, I attend the Episcopal church—close enough to Catholic that I feel comfortable (I don’t want my grandmother rolling over in her grave), but the Episcopalians have demonstrated great foresight by moving with the tide of history in terms of gender and sexuality issues.  I am most recently inspired by the writings of Henri NouwenAlain de BottonRebecca Solnit, and Bishop John Shelby Spong.  My (new) fiancée finds the ritual and serenity of the Episcopal Church inspiring, having grown up, like my first fiancée, in more spartan churches.  We live inside our doubts; they form the walls of our home and church.  Inside these walls we observe our own unique brand of shared faith.  We will both vote for Obama in large part because his story more closely resembles our own faith story.

 Architects build skyscrapers to withstand wind load by making them bendable at the top, much like nature’s trees.  A tall building’s ability to lean in strong wind protects it from falling.  I think the long tradition of intellectual debate, contemplation, and personal writing in more progressive Christian sects—as in Judaism and other faiths—acts in a similar manner.  Moreover, this tradition matters a great deal in a culture where ego-driven confession is sold on television and in bestselling books as entertainment and our politicians and religious leaders engage in nuanced debate less and less frequently. Our doubts and fears, thoughtfully considered and expressed, are the wind-bearing architecture of a kind God, given to us so that we may bolster ourselves and construct meaningful lives.  

Amen.

Sermon for the First Sunday in Ordinary Time

A friend said to me recently, “I’m just dealing with the fact that I’m not a rock star.  I’m a high school teacher.”

I laughed.  I also felt a tsunami of compassion swell in my veins.  I knew exactly what my friend meant.

Let me begin by saying I have the highest respect for teachers, especially high school teachers.  My grandmother taught high school history, my mother taught high school science, and my partner teaches high school English.  These beloved people, and all other great teachers, do difficult, honorable, often thankless work.  God’s work.  It is no easy feat to steer a soul out of darkness and into light.

Still, I understood my friend perfectly.   The older I get, the more my youthful aspirations elude me.  Even five years ago, I was wide-eyed with artistic expectation.  Ten years before that I wouldn’t have believed that I wouldn’t always be one of the prettiest, one of the brightest, one of the most talented or most successful.  I didn’t think I deserved those things, necessarily, but I thought I could earn them.  Vanity may be the bane of my generation and tribe, and the crippling misdirection from purpose that society uses to seduce all pretty girls.  Vanity is certainly my Achilles’ heel.  For some people like me to say “I’m a teacher,” to a stranger at a dinner party requires a humility and strength that “I’m a novelist” does not.  In her own way my friend is facing the same realization I’m facing: I may or may not become a writer with a capital W.  I may not become famous or semi-famous or even singled out.  I might not save the world.  My metabolism will slow down.  My muscles will atrophy.  My hair will turn gray.  Many of my students will graduate and forget my name.  I might be ordinary.

As with any trial, I turn to literature.  Or rather, literature finds me like a fairy godmother or talisman. The word talisman comes from the Greek, teleo–to consecrate.  In my case, this August I received a talisman charged with sacred power from Lucille Clifton in the form of this poem:

the thirty-eighth year 

of my life,

plain as bread

round as a cake

an ordinary woman


an ordinary woman


i had expected to be

smaller than this,

more beautiful,

wiser in Afrikan ways,

more confident,

i had expected

more than this


i will be forty soon.

my mother was once forty.


my mother died at forty-four,

a woman of sad countenance

leaving behind a girl

awkward as a stork.


my mother was thick,

her hair was a jungle and

she was very wise

and beautiful

and sad.


i have dreamed dreams

for you mama

more than once.

i have wrapped me in your skin

and made you live again

more than once.

i have taken the bones you hardened

and built daughters

and they blossom and promise fruit

like afrikan trees.


i am a woman now

an ordinary woman.


in the thirty-eighth

year of my life,

surrounded by life,

a perfect picture of

blackness blessed,

i had not expected this

loneliness.


if it is western

if it is the final europe

in my mind,

if in the middle of my life

i am turning the final turn

into the shining dark

let me come to it whole

and holy

not afraid

not lonely

out of my mother’s life

into my own.

into my own.


i had expected more than this.

i had not expected to be

an ordinary woman.

When I first read the poem, I was in the bathtub at a hotel in Farmington, Connecticut.  I ran naked out into the room and said to my fiancee, “Here.  Read this.  This is what’s wrong with me and what I haven’t been able to articulate to you.”  That same warm night at an outdoor poetry reading, I sat next to him, a rich glass of full red wine balanced delicately on the grass between us.  The emcee chose from an entire anthology of poems to read Clifton’s “An Ordinary Woman” to the crowd.  For a split second, I believed in signs.

I also recalled a song I love by Tracy Chapman, First Try, a song she croons in an older, more wistful voice than any song about fast cars.  She sings, “Can’t run fast enough, can’t hide, I can’t fly.  Struggling with the limits of this ordinary life.”

That word again.  Ordinary.

In the Catholic Church, we have what’s called “ordinary” time.  As a child I didn’t understand what the priest meant when he welcomed us into mass on the “Third Sunday in Ordinary Time,” for example.  What was the difference, I wondered, between ordinary time and other time?  In the Roman Catholic Church there are two periods of ordinary time on the liturgical calendar.  The exact timing becomes complicated, but suffice to say that Ordinary Time exists between Christmas and the Lenten (Easter) season, and then between Easter and the next Advent Season.  The time between birth and death.

More people attend mass on Christmas and Easter; these are holy days of obligation and Catholics love them some obligation.  As I get older, I do the opposite: some years I attend Christmas mass, and rarely attend Easter mass.  I show up tempus per annum, the latin phrase for “times of the year”, translated in English as “ordinary time.”   I need lifting when I feel most lowly and alone, most human.

Perhaps that makes sense.  The Catholic writer Henri Nouwen said, “I realized that healing begins with our taking our pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes all of creation.”  We can display vanity in our suffering too. We must learn ordinariness.  We have to be common to find communion.

In ordinary time we will arrive at the most holy of our life’s work.  In ordinary time we will be asked to recognize the everyday-miraculous: sunrise, schoolroom, sentence, spoon, soap, sleep.  It is not the high drama of midnight mass with its trumpets and Halleluia’s, nor is it the dusky hours of an Easter vigil.  But it may be the time between birth and death–ordinary time–when life demands from us the most humbling and extraordinary task of coming out of our mother’s lives and into our own.

Amen.

 

Newfoundland Sermon 1: Midrash with Whales

My family spends summers in Newfoundland, Canada.  If you’ve ever traveled to Newfoundland, you know its natural beauty and the oddness and kindness of its people, but you also know there isn’t much to do there.  When I say my family spends summers there, I really mean that my family communes with whales.   Everyday we travel the 5.2 km from our house to Cape Bonavista—by foot or car—and wait for a puff of breath from some majestic creature feeding on the North Atlantic’s bounty.  We gasp each time one graces us with her presence, every single time.  My partner describes it this way, “You think you know what whale watching is—some tourist activity people do once in their life and think, ‘Cool.’—and then you see the Fleming family whale watch.  Whole different beast.”  It’s true.  We’re like whale connoisseurs; sometimes we visit the cape two, three, four times a day to avoid ever going what my dad calls, “0 for whales.”  Ben has even perfected a whale call-song, which sounds suspiciously like Ellen Degeneres’ Dory from Finding Nemo.

The last whale I saw this year gave my father and I quite a show, slapping his fluke on the water’s surface, spinning his speckled body around so that the fluorescent green algae swirled, and flashing the underside of his white tailfin.  We watched him for a long time, during which I felt my heart race and then calm, race and then calm.

As we watched, I was thinking: I am so often afraid. 

I was thinking: remember in May, Casey, how you had an anxiety attack in Whole Foods.  Swear to Christ.  It started in front of the Honeycrisp apples, reached its apex in the prepared food section, and subsided in the parking lot where I only started to cry once inside the warm cocoon of my car.  I never had an anxiety attack before that, not a real, physical one, and I suspect it had to do with turning 35, which for whatever reason has really thrown me for a few loops.  It scared me. My body went numb, my ears clogged, like being under water except louder.  I almost lay down and curled into a fetal position next to the organic steel-cut oats. 

 Fear and anxiety seem to be a lodestone for modern people.  But they aren’t new.  And certainly I had no real reason to feel afraid in Whole Foods: I mean, talk about a bougie crisis.  Still, the anxiety wasn’t fun.

 What do we do when we’re afraid?  We go to the cliffs and oceans.  We roam the deserts or trek up mountains.  We watch for whales.

 For example, my grandmother requested her deathbed in the sunlight.  Or, after my first, failed engagement, I sought out the ocean day after day, driving to Galveston even when I should have been teaching or writing.  Or, not long before my grandmother’s death, my family gathered in Provincetown, MA where we also watched whales (well, they watched, I puked over the side of the boat).  And after my grandmother’s death, my father, mother, brother and I traveled to the mother country.  In Ireland, we visited the Cliffs of Moher. Ben and I crawled to the edge and peeked our heads over to see the sea 390 feet below us. Even the photograph of this event—our bodies tiny specks against nature’s majesty—induces in me a severe vertigo.  My mother can’t look at the photo. What in the world, she says now, what was I thinking letting my children do something so dangerous?

But something in us seeks out the sublimity of nature in the face of grief, uncertainty, and fear. Alain deBotton writes in his superb essay, “On the Sublime”, that he traveled to the desert of Sinai, “to be made to feel small.”  He brings as his guides the writings of Edmund Burke and the Book of Job.  But I’ll get back to Job.

 Let me start here.  The Gospel of Mark has two different endings—a shorter ending and a longer ending.  The King James Bible includes both endings.  Ancient Greek authorities bring the book to a close at 16:8.  Others include verses 9-20, but mark them as doubtful—the second ending mixes motifs from other gospels, and most likely a later theologian or scholar with some kind of agenda added those last lines in after the fact, a benign or malignant agenda, I cannot say.  The shorter version ends this way:

So they went out and

fled from the tomb, for terror and amaze-

ment had seized them; and they said

nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

I like this version.  I like that the story of Jesus’ resurrection ends with the word, afraid.  I like that the “they” in the story refers to three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome, who arrived at the empty tomb first.  To women first, God revealed his foremost miracle.

They were afraid.

But I don’t think the author of Mark uses the word afraid in the way we typically define the word, and to prove my theory I’m going to refer to the Hebrew Bible and engage in a modified form of Jewish study called midrash, a method by which one may take seemingly unrelated sentences in the Bible and compare them to find deeper meaning.

I’m going to go back to Israel’s wisdom literature, specifically Proverbs and the Book of Job.  (Who is afraid if not Job?)

Proverbs begins with this sentence, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  One could misinterpret this line as a warning against education or secularism, but that would be careless.  The theologian, Marcus J. Borg offers us a better reading of that line.  He says:

 The phrase “fear of the LORD” does not mean “fright”, as one might be frightened of a tyrannical ruler or parent.  Rather, it refers to awe, wonder, and reverence…

If we apply Borg’s definition of “fright” to the last line of the Gospel of Mark, we might read the women’s reaction to Jesus’ empty tomb not as fear so much as a feeling of smallness; like all of us they shuddered a bit to feel their own frailty in the face of the unexplainable.  But Mark states that the women felt both terror and amazement. Inside that final word, afraid, might actually live the cure to fear and anxiety.   The “bigness” of a resurrection, or any witnessed miracle, might relieve us from the error of thinking we have total control over our lives. This strikes me as an important realization for the religious and non-religious alike, a realization that de Botton affirms in “On the Sublime” by explaining that fear make us feel insignificant in a way that shuts us down, while awe makes us feel insignificant in a way that opens us up.

And when Job finally asks God that painful and universal question, “Where were you while I suffered?” God replies by pointing to the sublime, those mysterious creations that beguile us: the stars, the clouds, the desert, the plumage of the ostrich, the wild mane of the horse, the mountains and rivers, and yes, the Leviathan, which some scholars interpret as the “great whale.”

 Anyone in my immediate family will tell you that the first emotion you experience upon spotting a humpback whale 50 yards from the cliffs’ edge or 50 yards from your one-man kayak resembles fear—the enormity of the animal and the shock of its presence stuns you; you want to step or paddle quickly backwards—but if you sit with that feeling, moving outside yourself as you observe the other, bigger creature simply live its life, that first feeling swells in your chest, spreads and diffuses until your blood slows and endorphins rush.  You won’t feel fear at all, but awe and amazement.  You will think you witnessed a miracle.  You will feel small, and you will receive that smallness as a consolation, a momentary remedy to the rows and rows of canned goods and beauty products and baby food and the rainbow array of Tom’s shoes hanging accusingly from their hooks with all their implied restrictions and responsibilities.

 Amen.

Sermon in which I Ordain Myself

Because some things require a pulpit.  


Because some things scream, say me.  Teach me.   I have something to say.  I have something to teach you.  Yes, little ol’ me.  Yes, you.  There in the front row.  Upright and early.  And you in the back row too.  Reluctant and late.  Especially you folks sheltered snugly in the middle rows—noncommittal, passive doubters, the whole lot of you.  Thinking you’ll slip by on the sly.  For a long time I hid too.


Because I want my words to sniff you out.


Because I want my words to redirect their paths like tiny Doppler radars toward your heartstorms.


Because I want a pulpit.  (I say that as though it is an easy thing for a woman to say.)


Because I want a flock: with wings not wool.  


Because every good woman has a story.  She understands her story as part of a community story.  Her story is intimate, private, and also shared.  Her story is a small circle inside rings of concentric circles: family, neighborhood, city, state, nation, world, out and out like that into the universal.  A story needs a beginning, but not necessarily an end.  The beginning of my story will always be: I loved my grandmother.


Because I loved my grandmother.  When my younger brother and I stayed with her in the house in Richardson, Texas, we looked forward most to the off-white bedspreads on our matching twin sleepers in the small room that faced the front yard.  During the day we built mansions out of playing cards and watched them crumble onto the lush carpet in the den.  Or we counted the beads inside a smoky red blown-glass bowl on the side table and touched every pretty thing twice.  Because she let us. She never stooped so low as to speak a don’t touch that or be careful.  Somehow we intuited that in her eyes we reigned as Most Precious Objects in the house. 


At night, we knelt at one twin bed, the three of us—me, Ben, Grandma—in a semi-pious line, our elbows atop the mattress. 


“Which do you want to say?” Grandma asked me.  “The Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary?”


The Hail Mary was shorter, but more obscure, and I wanted to please her. 


We’d get part way through, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, and then–


A stifled laugh, a squirm fest, her unruffled voice. 


“Ben, say the words with us.”


Ben never knew the words.  To this day, I’m not sure why.  He could handle The Lord’s Prayer, although for a long time he misheard hallowed for Harold, as in “Harold be thy name.”  I still like to imagine God as such an everyman: Harold.  


When I ask him about the Hail Mary now, in our thirties, he says, “I don’t know.  It’s weird stuff, really, to make children say.  Fruit of thy womb?   All that tortured syntax.”


I liked the Hail Mary.  I liked the line he always forgot, blessed art thou amongst women.  Perhaps at that age I needed to believe the world might single me out from my kind: more beautiful, more talented, more sacred


My grandmother died of ovarian cancer the year before I began confirmation classes at St. Thomas More Catholic Church.  My reverence for that process betrayed less about my faith in God than my nostalgia for her voice in my little ear, “Which prayer do you want to say?”  Mr. Nelson, my confirmation teacher, wrote me a note that I kept for many years afterward.  It read:


I have this idea that some people have the Holy Spirit in them only after confirmation, and some have the Holy Spirit in them always.  You, Casey, are of the latter type.


Because if I have anything resembling the Holy Spirit in me, it will reveal itself as the breath of women past moving through my lungs, down the long hallway of my throat toward the light, their exhalations a mist that loosens the corners of my rust-red lips.


Because I hear voices.


Because I have a voice.


Because vocation means a “summons” or “spiritual calling,” from the Latin vocationem (nom. vocatio), “a calling,” from vocatus “called,” pp. of vocare “to call.”


Sing to me of the girl, Grandma, the girl of twists and turns.


Because a man I loved once complained that he felt I was lecturing him when really I wanted to talk out some big ideas.


Because if I’m going to be perceived as lecturing, I might as well have a pulpit, a little authority.


Because my grandmother’s memory authorizes me.


Because the word author lives inside the word author-ity the way I live inside my memory of her.  The way I wear her cool blue beads on my hot chest or push my nail beds into the soft bristles of her silver brush.


Because I respect form.  Because I need a new form, something novel that is not a novel.

Because things change.


Because some things never change.


Because she raised me Catholic, and even now I tend to respect authority when it implies a learned-ness, when that authority has been rightly earned and rightly employed.  I don’t want Joe-Schmoe down the street interpreting anything for me, especially any bible.


Because many Joe Schmoes preach.  Because many people abuse the church-pulpit, the chalkboard-pulpit, the page-pulpit too.


Because I have no idea what I’m doing (which is still such an easy thing for a woman to say).


Because I row out and out to drift on the fickle waters of the blank page and I wait and wait for the words to spawn and swim up so I may offer something of myself to the people I love. 


Because I am like a fisherman or sea-shepherd.  I am trawling for words; I am corralling them, I am searching for her.


Because my story is our story.   


Because we do not know when we are young that the body is an archive. That after years of amnesia, the body, without warning, will kneel down.  The body will remember and repeat its earliest prayers, and that those fledgling prayers do not change much over time, but only reach higher and higher toward heaven from their stubborn roots.


Blessed art thou amongst women. 


Amen.