Maybe you did not go to church because God lets crazy people shoot fifty strangers.  I have not been going because God has ruined my life in other ways.


I walked into a church, a church where no one knew me, so maybe I would feel different, and an usher told me not to sit down because they were in the middle of reading the lesson.  Wouldn’t it be much less disruptive to let me sit down than to tell me not to?  What kind of person tells people not to sit in church?  It wasn’t even the gospel.  I was going to leave.

I wasn’t going to leave.

The lesson was about Ahab and Jezebel and a garden, a long lesson no one would want to talk about.  I had to confirm it was really about Ahab, and I didn’t just have Ahab on my mind, the way I always do when I am downtown, in Melville’s neighborhood.

I sat.  On one side of me, a woman who also was doing the whole thing, on the other, a woman who didn’t seem to know the drill.  In front of us, three people who were Asian and  just sat.  It’s a funny phenomena, here where churches are tourist attractions, so that church, and the big cathedrals, are both holy places and places people come to see holiness played out.  Through the whole service, there was a group of people in back taking photos.  The woman next to me was texting someone.

This is all fine, it’s just weird.

Why were they there?  We were animals in the zoo?  In Asia, we would go to temples and take photos and not pray.  Why was I there?  To feel better for a minute, to feel not trapped in being angry the church I had joined, that no one might notice I was gone, so petty.  Or I was there because I had several times hit this church after a bad day, it was on my way home from my Manhattan job, and the side chapel is small and sweet and quiet, and the subway is right there, and it was bigger and more fancy town than my church.

The priest had to talk about the shooting.  I had heard something bad in a minute of NPR.  I am in full self-protection/healing mode, which means No politics, but still I had heard that.  I hadn’t heard it was a gay club.

I’ve spent some small happy times in gay bars for the dancing or the singing.  The reason a gay bar feels so safe is that I figure everyone there is at peace with him/herself, they had to work harder to become so, and they value tolerance more than other people, so I feel safe.

Like people should feel safe at church, but then, it’s been a year since another lunatic shot up a Bible study.

I got communion. I got to sing.  I didn’t feel particularly better about God, in a narrative sense, but I did feel that things that hurt me were like pieces of armor or extra bones that I could shake off, rather than a part of my structure.

I was not feeling brave enough to go to doughnut time afterward.

I went down to the water.  I am preparing this costume for the Mermaid Parade next week. I am going as The Sea.  So it was research.  What is water?  It has four or five inch ruffles of white foam from the wind and the passings of the jet skis and the ferry and the Statue cruise boats, which could be rendered with white acrylic paint and dabbing with a bristly brush.  I was watching the happy painter earlier in the week.  His technique could help me.

Monday I went to the East River and looked out at it for a while.  My anxiety brain cloud has been reactivating ferociously, so I was looking at the East River and waiting for my good drugs to take effect.  It was windy that day, walking out on a pier to be surrounded by water.

It was so windy today, I lay back on a bench, with the Statue of Liberty to my left, and even though I was holding it down, the wind was so strong, my skirt a sail, it blew up and I was glad I wore clean and uninteresting underwear.

I don’t think a single soul noticed.

The priest said we can’t let people who use freedom another way take it away from us.  What freedom really means.  FDR’s four freedoms: of speech, of worship, from want, from fear.  Why does God let people do that, frighten us for their freedom.  Why do we let them?

I am used to wind.  I don’t know why now I need water, water does scare me, big quantities of it seem like too much, for this midwesterner.  It never scares me as much as buildings too big or too much sky, though.  I was always a good swimmer, in my dreams, I can always breathe underwater.

Image: “Evening Wind,” Edward Hopper, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Hook


2001_433_158_O1 (1)If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace. – Martin Luther

I should not watch so much television.  Like, not two or three hours at a time.

I should not use television as a crutch.  Like, take laptop into the kitchen while I do the dishes.

I should not have to listen to podcasts to fall asleep.  I should leave the big open quiet space to fall asleep in.

Today is the feast of Martin Luther.  Luther fought so hard to get people off the hook, to insist that God loved people and wanted them without any cause, and he simultaneously put other people firmly on the hook: himself, and people who were Jewish.  All his life he struggled to believe God could actually love and forgive him.  And one of his works, famous even among the ample literature of anti-Semitism for its venom, was entitled, “On the Jews and their Lies.”

Does someone always have to be beaten?  Christianity tries to get past that, in many ways moves past the idea of a scapegoat, in its more mystical theologies.  It wasn’t that Jesus had to die, it was that everything dies, and the way people believed that life was still real, and encouragement and mercy were still real, even after their hero died, that was resurrection.

Letting shit go.  Letting you be yourself, no matter how much of a mess that might be.  Not yourself after a long walk or paying the bills.  Letting things go hopefully.  Maybe if you let things go it would be all right.

For Lent I am giving up nothing, but trying regularly to let myself off the hook.  To find comfort where it is safe and petty, and be satisfied with my weakness.  To do some of the 30 days of yoga series I found and liked online, but also be completely fine with not doing them all, not doing them every day, and maybe dropping it entirely if it starts to feel wrong.

For Lent to let it be winter, it is, and to be aware of, but not grabby about, spring.  A true grace.

Image: Hook, bronze, 500 BC-300 AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


photo-4From an interview with James Baldwin, just after the death of Dr. King:

Baldwin: It is not the black people who have to cool it, because they won’t.

Interviewer: Aren’t they the ones getting hurt the most, though?

Baldwin: That would depend on point of view.  You know, I’m not at all sure that we are the ones who are being hurt the most.  In fact, I’m sure we’re not.  We are the ones who are dying the fastest.

Yesterday I took this long walk in Manhattan from Chelsea to Chinatown, not because they both start with “Ch.”  Purple tulips, one lady with purple hair, one sign with a curl as one of its letters.  The townhouse Edward Hopper painted in, it is on Washington Square Park.  I climbed the steps to see the plaque that explained this, and stood on his stoop a minute.  I planned only to see things I hadn’t seen before, which was more difficult than I thought it would be.  I accidentally walked by the same pharmacy that always makes me think, what a fancy pharmacy, my doctor’s office, and a restaurant I ate in 1996.

Interviewer: Let’s talk about the average citizen, the white man… what should he be doing?

Baldwin: If he feels he wants to save his country, he should be talking to his neighbors and talking to his children….

Interviewer: What should he be telling his neighbors?

Baldwin: That if I go under in this country, I, the black man, he goes too.

I asked three of my students what they thought about the trouble in Baltimore.  Two of them had opinions.  One of them knew someone in Baltimore.  One was like, what?  I told him to look it up.  I printed off that interview with Baldwin, and an excerpt from The Fire Next Time, and I sat and read both with a pencil in hand.

This is from The Fire Next Time:

Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any [white] people ot treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that.

Five Bradford pear trees are blooming just outside the school, every time I go out they are there, a white not of purity or emptiness, but of unsplit light, these bloomed branches pressed against the sky so blue it is almost pink.  I walked under them, looked up at them, on my way to buy lunch for myself and a friend.

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this– which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never– the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

“It looks like it’s gonna rain,” one of my students said.

“No, it doesn’t,” I said.

“No, it doesn’t,” another kid said.

She looked again at the pink-blue sky.  “Oh, I guess not.”

Something very sinister happpens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.

The thing right now is “deez nuts,” that is what the kids are saying, pretty much every day, someone, and today I said, “That’s so last week,” and a kid considered, accepted that perhaps this was true, the saying was worn out.

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

I saw also that my heart was full of little holes, pinpricks, and this is why it has trouble holding things, sometimes.

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.  If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.


photo-3The carpet and the kneelers are red.  The Christ holds a big blank ball.  Presumably, the world.

One of the graves in the Trinity churchyard is for a fictional character.  “Charlotte Temple” was a character in Charlotte, a Tale of Truth, published 1791.  The sign says, “Legend has it that the name…was carved by a bored stone cutter while working on the church.  It is unknown if anyone is interred in the vault beneath the stone.”

The subway preacher begins in Manhattan, singing of the glory of God, but by Brooklyn God will punish both you and your enemies.  In the most amazing way, everyone is listening yet only one person shows it, one responder to call.  I stand.  I think about his arguments and my thumb plays swap the colors on my phone.

The spring means you can see the graveyard.  The cemetery was founded in 1697. My ancestor, Harmen Schurman, died in New Amsterdam in 1649.  In spite of the great age of the stones in the place, the first Schurman in Manhattan had already been dead for more than forty years when the first grave was dug.  They have those kindly skulls, the inscription “Here lies the body of…” as if you weren’t sure what might be buried in a graveyard.

One of them has a wholesome warning about how even you, dear reader, will die.  That is William Bradford, publisher.  Bradford knew Benjamin Franklin.  Bradford lived on Stone Street, which is where I had lunch today.  He printed the first book in New York City.

Last night I read one of the stories of Christ appearing to the disciples after the crucifixion.  It says that they thought Christ was a ghost, and he had to prove he wasn’t.  Thus, ghosts are real.  No one said they weren’t.

The graveyard has free wi-fi, so a woman was holding up an iPad and having some sort of work meeting on a bench.  A tree with white blossoms was blossoming.  Tulip arms were up, but not heads.

I ate lunch with my colleague and we told stories and we really enjoy each others’ stories.  When we came out of the restaurant the brick street was full of not just tables and awnings but everyone at lunch and free.

When you see the Christ with the world, you might recall he said, “My burden is light.”



imagesThe wine at the Foxhead is just like the wine at St. Mary’s.  At the Foxhead, I got a history the place and the owners from the small crew sitting at the bar, and I got directions to the haunted place in town where I should go.  At St. Mary’s I got a dark bit of the gospel the priest wisely avoided preaching on, instead he told us we should notice God around us, fine reminder, and a view of their panoply of saints in their 150-year-old Irish/German sanctuary.  Wine both places.

The first time I came to Iowa, I was scared, and then delighted that there was nothing to be afraid of.  The second time I came, my teacher told me I had already written a novel, and I should seek an agent.  This time, I know both how delightful it is here, and how hard the work is.  It is harder than you can think about without feeling a little sick.  I know that although behind me is a great deal of rejection, there is a lot more ahead, too, and that is the way it is, not just for me, but for everyone, not just for writers, but for, you know, all of us, actually that is the best-case scenario.

The river here just goes and goes.  I have a river view, through a big window with a marble ledge where Maimonedes sits.  I bought him here, at the junk shop between the Foxhead and St. Mary’s.  He is home.  He is sitting on the windowsill cross-legged and unresponsive when questioned about his homecoming.

I keep hoping to catch the river stopped, taking a break, and every time I look, at noon, at seven, at two a.m., it is still on its way.

There are bunnies here who breathe quickly and have lopsided tails.  There are chickadees who hop to half a roll and hop away when you get too close, they will come back in a second.

The river is very fast and very high.

I am sad I didn’t sell my last book, and sad that good things seem to take so much work, except when they don’t, like being here in this nice hotel in what I feel is the friendliest place on earth, to me and for me, with plenty of time to get done what needs to get done, including drinks at the Foxhead and noon mass.  What is there to be sad about, then?  A few things.

Maimonedes has no opinion.

Walking home from dinner with a friend, dinner with a friend so easy to find here, so nice, after time talking writing and writing time, so nice, on my way to do the night’s reading in my beautiful white hotel room, I saw a convertible with the top down go by and thought, I wish I could be driving a convertible today, that was so great, what could be better.  My (former) convertible was at that moment in the parking garage half a block away.

I am tired, that it is so much creative effort to make a new life, and I think of writing another book, the mountain of it, and how it might hurt at the end, it will hurt at the end, whether or not you sell it, you still must let it go on its way and that is hard, too, and it does make me feel a little sick.

I meet with my teacher and he is encouraging and sympathetic.  I tell him this is helpful, although it feels like he is saying what he is saying from the other side of the street, and I wish I felt like we were sitting at the same table which we are, in the back of a coffeehouse, in wooden chairs.

Everyone is kind to me, including myself, as I eat good meals and walk and lie in sun doing nothing.  And take myself to the Foxhead, and to St. Mary’s, where in a painting above the altar, Mary and Elizabeth meet, both pregnant, and both more than a little scared.


photo-2What I moved to Brooklyn was: three of my paintings, my great-grandmother’s dresser, three busts (Schumann, Chopin, Shakespeare), my yellow foo dogs (look it up), and the lamp I bought the day that Grandma died in an effort to make myself feel better, the lamp which I immediately broke on the threshold of my apartment building and spent the evening gluing back together.

Somehow this filled a van.

What did not fit in the van is in the storage unit in Lenexa.  My boxes and I, we hadn’t seen each other since September, when I was so dazed I would say I was only sort of alive.  I was, in the clinical sense, alive.

I’m enjoying “Walking Dead” now because I get what it is to be only sort of alive.

My box of Bastille Day supplies happened to be up front, too, so I took three tiles of scenes of Paris and my cheese plates.  I found two smaller paintings whose compositions I still liked, and a finger bowl made of blue and white ceramic that I used to keep rings and necklace charms in.  I found the red lacquer tray that was one of my ex’s best gifts to me.

It was chilly, fifty degrees and gray, and I had chatted a bit with the people who worked there, about payments and codes, and changing my address.  The roll-up door was orange.  Very orange.

I felt so sad for my books.  There was no reason to open any of their boxes.  Books are dead technology, now, anyway, but my books remind me of what I’ve read.  And they are good insulation.  When I had a grown-up sized bed, there were usually books in bed with me.  I liked knowing I could run my hand along all their spines to find some idea I had forgotten and needed.

And there are a few special ones: my autographed Cider House Rules and my autographed Frederick, my Oxford Study Bible with many notes, my green Complete Works of Shakespeare, a ridiculous book, but one I did use to read most of Shakespeare when I took that class, my many-times-read Two Part Invention, with ideas about love I used to love, Katharine Graham’s autobiography that I have and could still read over and over, Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing that I can’t read anymore because they taste too much like me now.

Yes, they also show and prove that I am a literate and educated person, that I have read quite a bit, and it’s hard to separate my egotism about them from the comfort.

The metal of that rolling door was cold, I was chilly, it was grey.  To leave, I pulled up to the gate, and sat there a minute.  A guy in his car nearby pointed out the place to enter the code.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Last time I was here, I was moving, and I didn’t know what was going on.”

photo-3I thought I might go hunt down, grab, and hug my cat until he whimpered, but I happened to drive right near the Shawnee Indian Mission.  I wrote about it a few months ago.  Although the whole area I grew up in is named after this place, I didn’t know much about it.

I pulled up to one of the brick buildings, and there was a sign in the window that said, “PRIVATE RESIDENCE.  See museum for admittance.”  The area around the mission is now some of the ritziest neighborhoods in Kansas City.  It’s the capital of getting pulled over because your tags have expired.  It is rolling hills, curled and braided residential streets, lots of green, many pretty little creeks, lots of big pretty trees.

There was one of those creeks running between two buildings of the mission.  I forgot how that was part of where I grew up.  There was a creek behind my elementary school, next to my middle school, and these were places foxes lived, and there was a little cheerful bit of water.  A creek (not a stream or a crick) is the size of water I enjoy.  Lakes are too big, the sea is certainly unnecessarily large.

I walked over to another brick building, and that was where the museum was.  I opened the door and walked through the museum shop.  A man walked in and asked what I needed, and I told him I wanted to pay someone the $5 admittance fee.  He got an old lady to come over.  She told me there was a wonderful 20-minute video, led me to a hard wooden pew, and started it up before I could tell her I was not sure I intended to spend 20 minutes there.

photo-4Johnson of Johnson County, a Methodist minister who got the grant to open a mission school near Westport.  His previous mission was not a great location.  They boarded Indian boys and girls, made them speak English, taught them to read and write and make shoes and do farm work.  Mostly they were Shawnee, east coast Indians who had been moved at least once, and were about to be moved one last time, to Oklahoma.  There were kids from other tribes, too, and white kids went to school with them.  For a little while, they also had a high school.

The ethics of having a mission at all, the idea of this government education for those kids, and how the students were treated, was there to be read about.  Maybe not enough, or maybe not well enough, but I don’t know enough about it to judge.

For a little while, in those buildings, they held the first Kansas Territorial Legislature, known now as the Bogus Legislature since the Union won the war.  The Bogus Legislature set up some laws forbidding the aiding of escaped slaves.  They, like Johnson himself, were pro-slavery.  Johnson had six slaves.  When Kansas went free and the war got going, he changed his tune and got on the right side of things.  Two of his sons fought for the Union, and one for the Confederacy.  For a little while, Union soldiers were stationed there just in case something happened– a lot happened on the Kansas-Missouri border– but nothing happened there.

For a while, one of the buildings was a roadhouse with fried chicken and (then) illegal liquor.

It made sense to me that I remembered so little about the place.  I had gone there in fourth grade, and the history is confusing enough for adults.

It was as confused as I felt, and troubled with loss, which also felt right.  People displaced, not sure where they belong, things beautiful like little spring streams and the daffodils up, but also the fields still dead, still brown.

I had planned to let myself be sad during Lent.  I had thought a lot, before I moved, about “losing your life to save it.”  I am still amazed at how great my life was in Kansas City, and how I had to walk away from it.  I still don’t really understand.

Good Friday today, and I got my cello and kneeling and cross-kissing and candle-lighting.  I’m always awed by it.  I’m always relieved to be able to go somewhere and be sad without feeling ungrateful or like I’m bringing someone else’s party down.

I feel like New York and Kansas City have joint custody of me.  I’ve done that before.  Much as my parents regretted it, it wasn’t all bad.

Getting older, you can feel sadder at Good Friday.  I have parts of my heart open now, it echoes in me now when people talk about missing home, students who miss their home countries or home towns.

I know about feeling torn, from when I was a kid, and the good news is, it makes you bigger.

Up North

10245589_10202571474742369_529858406_nIt took me an hour to get up to the Bronx.  Why is it “the”?

I had bribed myself with latte and bagel.  I was barely awake enough to read, but there I was with my magazine reading about terms for causes of death in 16th century England: “blasted,” “cut of the stone,” “rising of the lights,” “overjoy,” “planet-struck,” “devoured by lice.”  Why was I reading about death when I felt so shitty?  The latte was barely helping.

Across Brooklyn, all the way up Manhattan, under another river, and the second-to-last stop on the line, way up north there, I got off the train.  The way I held my coffee as I walked next to a lady made her turn to me and say, “I thought you were going to hand me your coffee, and I almost took it!”

We chuckled, and I said, “Do you want some?”

“No, I’ve had too much already,” she said.

“Me, too,” I said.

“And if it has sugar in it….”

“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m just cream.”

“Me, too,” she said.

I have the idea that I’d rather be robbed in the Bronx than anywhere else.

I walked past the B train watering hole, where a million B trains were resting up for next week’s commute, and I arrived at the college where I was leading a session at this conference.  My peoples were all twenty minutes early. I said hi and started messing with my stuff as if messing with it was very important, showed I was thoroughly prepared.

I decided to go to the bathroom although I did not have to go to the bathroom.

I returned from the bathroom.  I wouldn’t say I was nervous, I just recognized that when I walked back in the room, it was up to me to set everyone at ease.  I said it was making me feel weird that they were sitting in student desks facing me, and that we needed to make a circle, so we did that, and as usual that improved everything.

I asked how the keynote speaker was.  I have vowed to never listen to another keynote speaker, as I do not like speakers, they bore me.Someone said the keynote speaker was very good, very funny, and someone else said he didn’t know we could skip the keynote, which I found funny.  Like they took attendance at the speech.  Maybe they did.  I wasn’t there.

The gospel that weekend was about Lazarus, the story about how Jesus lets Lazarus die, Jesus cries, Jesus tells Lazarus to come out, and the formerly-dead guy walks out in his shroud and someone has to help him take off his death clothes because he surely can’t see.

You have to let things die.  Sometimes death asks for permission.

I went on to the second session, where I would merely be a participant, and I took the wrong stairs and down this crazy hallway where Tinkerbell sounds (“turn the page when the chimes ring like this”) and other weird ding-dongs went off as I moved down, below blue and green bulbs that had replaced the usual long fluorescents.  If the lights hadn’t been different, and I hadn’t seen the plaque on the wall explaining it was an art piece, I might have thought I was losing my mind.


I made it to the second session and skipped the last session, too, because I am a bad person who doesn’t care if anyone takes attendance and my head almost, but not quite, hurt.  I walked back to the train, past the Lehman College cornfield (seriously), found myself a train that was awake, and set my head against the metal side of the train car and closed my eyes for the hour ride home.

At 17oish street a lady pulled her cart up next to me and sat next to me.  Until we got to the Village, every time the doors closed at the usual speed, she would moan, “Come on!” or “Oh, God!” as if this was exceedingly painful to her.  I couldn’t decide how crazy this made her.

For two days after this I lay in bed eating crackers and ice cream and listening to the radio.  My nose ran down the inside of my throat.  Once I took a shower and got dressed and then lay down again before I got to shoes.  I was not, though, “cut of the stone,” or “devoured by lice.”

When I could stay awake but not move, I watched episodes of “The Walking Dead,” although I knew it would lead to suspecting everyone on the street of being a zombie, the same way I used to imagine everyone was either a cop or a drug dealer while I was watching “The Wire.”

A show of varying quality, I was pleased by a scene in which some zombies, who have been protected and preserved by the man who was a husband or father to them in life, watches helplessly as they are all shot in the head.

It’s sad, but not sad.

There’s always a lot of dead around.  They may or may not need permission.


Note: “The” Bronx is likely so called because people were referring to “the Bronx River.”