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.

Some Sheep

183118Today at noon mass, our flock was 70% hidden crazies and 30% out of the closet crazies.  It was great.  One thing I’ve always loved about the cathedral in Kansas City is that, being downtown, it attracts walk-ins.  One thing I like about church is it’s almost impossible to get kicked out (witness, sadly, lunatic shooters being welcomed).  Without that everyone’s welcome, though, we have nothing.  Everyone.  Welcome.  Seriously.

One sheep piped up before the service, and during the sermon, when us subtler crazies were trying to enjoy being very quiet and listening to our priest talk very seriously about serious things.  After church, another lamb insisted on writing down a recipe for me, and telling me how good it would be for me, apropos of absolutely nothing, and reading back the recipe with careful directions and injunctions about how my health would be so improved.

Most of us are so conniving in our ways of getting attention, a kind word, a listen.  On occasion it’s a pleasure to interact with people who are completely out in the open.  I would like to talk to you about something.  Okay.

I know this must be much harder on the clergy, who can attract and maintain a group of people who are practically speaking, unreliable, people who are without resources.  In fact, you are not sure their disconnection won’t turn violent or destructive.  We never know about any of us.

Anyway that is the church to me, for sure, straight up, crazy, emotionally disturbed people that we all are, welcomed and put up with, we try to figure out what people have to offer our community and use it.

One of our lambs is amazing at prayer.  He has no self-consciousness about it.  And he requests hugs, which means that I don’t have to wonder, he asks, and I get one.  I’m too uptight to ask.

It seems a distinct pleasure to have a moment with crazy people since in New York, there are so many of them, and you encounter them often in places where you are both trapped, i.e., the subway.  I am reluctant to engage them in conversation.  It breaks the social code of the train which is that we won’t add to the crazy if we don’t have to.  I have prayed for them.

My crazy: I have not done enough to get a new job.  I won’t get a job.  I will get one, it will be awful.  I have to go back to New York.  No one loves me there.  I am never happy there.  What will I do in that week before school starts?  I’ll have to stay busy.  No, it’s not good to stay busy, just take it as it comes.  I am never happy here, either, anyway.  Why is life so hard.  At least I had a fun time last night.  That was really fun.  I should just have more fun.  I need to pay my rent.  And that was only while the priest was blessing the communion stuff.

So I knelt an extra moment after I got my bread and wine.

Priest talked about prayer today, that your actions come from prayer.  That being a praying person makes good things happen.  I would prefer to try to make good things happen on my own, and then complain to God that they are not happening in the way I want.

It’s an interesting thought, though.

I guess when I am at the monastery, as I will be next week, there is a lot of prayer, not like long dialogues, but so much quiet I can hear my thoughts and there is space between them.  It’s not always comfortable.  One of the great gifts of the place is that it is immediately clear, from how fast I walk from my car to get the keys to my room, that I am the craziest person on the property.  The most mixed up, the most unconscious, the most making a scene to hide the fact that I don’t even know how I feel or what I think.

Everything that hurts pops up at some point.  At some point, I’ll have a good cry.  But I always leave there having my head on straight, my heart turned forward.

Image: Standing Sheep, possibly by Nicola Vassalo, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On Bishop Finn

I was sitting at church listening to a priest talk Bible tonight when I thought, I really don’t believe in clergy.  Awkward.  Especially as it is my secret retirement plan to become clergy.

Our priest is kind and thoughtful and smart, I should say, nothing against her, or any of the other clergy I love, but the whole concept.  I don’t know.

Perhaps it is common knowledge my thoughts on bishops are, Why?  And the idea that they are all knighted one after another from St. Peter is a lovely but silly idea.  I mean, spiritually, tradition passed down, sure, but who ever knew God, capital G, to be contained to ceremonies and handshakes?

And the idea of a pope is actually offensive to me.  Seeing the pope, when I was in Rome, all I could think was that people thought he was closer to God than I was, and that is offensive.

My Lutheran upbringing either formed me well, or fit me well, maybe both: we had bishops in administrative form only, in my experience anyone could hand out communion if she said the right words, and in a pinch, anyone could baptize, leading us to enjoy baptizing (some of) our cats.

(Later I turned Episcopalian so I could kneel and kiss crosses.  Basically.)

Today Bishop Finn resigned.  Finn has been a specter hanging over many of my Kansas City Catholic (and former Catholic) friends.  Any time we talked church matters, I would express my sympathy.  I have no personal outrage about his particular crimes– he enabled awful things to continue, and he was caught, and he was punished.  I heard and felt just as much sense of disrespect, that in a position of leadership he had directed and not led.  That he did not listen.  He kept his position of leadership and was unable to rebuild relationships within the church.  That’s what really gets me.

A long time ago he should have seen he was making his people weaker, not stronger.  When people aren’t listened to, it creates an incubator for infection.

I don’t believe anyone has authority on spiritual matters.  I do listen to people whose sense of these things is in harmony with my own spiritual experience.  I listen to strangers.  I listen to my life, and texts, particularly The Bible, but other works of art, too.

On the subject of clergy, then, I am an extremist sort of Protestant, I wish we would rotate who did the ceremony and who gave the speech.  But then I know a lot of people don’t want any responsibility like that, don’t feel qualified.  Maybe they should.

I just hate the sort of hierarchy that naturally follows from one person being the person up front all the time.

Again I love many people who are clergy, and becoming so, people who seem perfect for such a role, ready to be nurturers and speakers and contemplative, it is not about that, the effect on them, so much as it is the effect it seems to have on others.  As many times as clergy tell people they are not God, people want them to be.

Jesus had the same problem.

I know: now I’m really in trouble.

The leadership part of teaching weighs on me, and I’m constantly reevaluating it, what is my responsibility, what is the kids’.  What do I have to offer them.  When to step back and let them make a mess.  When to discuss and when to just say no.  Oldest child stuff, too. Problems with authority and problems being authority.

Anyway I know that listening is always where to begin.  It starts relationships, offers possibility for diagnosis, and sometimes even cure.

National Catholic Reporter on Finn’s Resignation


ES6273Since I went to Rosh Hashanah services lo those many years ago, and saw how everyone came and went, got what they wanted, wandered as they needed to, over hours and hours and hours, I wanted services so outrageously long that maybe I would have time to get myself straight.  Today our Good Friday was a solid three hours.  For the first hour, I tried to get myself back in my body (always troublesome for us over-thinkers), for the second hour, I calmed down my thoughts some and actually could listen to the empty space we had.  The third hour was nice.  I faded in and out like humans do.

Going to an Episcopal church gave me long, long services to give me enough room to spread out, and the kissing of the cross, another ritual I first saw in a Jewish context, on Simchat Torah when everyone passed around the Torah and kissed it, one of the most beautiful religious experiences I’ve ever had.  We all kissed it, I figured I was good to go, I liked some additional scriptures, too– who doesn’t?

This year at Good Friday I was backstage, lined up with the others in black robes, other servers, the choir, at our church there is this narrow corridor which really feels backstage, has wood paneling on both sides, for us to get past each other we had to squash ourselves back and politely hold our breath.

During the service I held a crucifix for people to venerate, that is, to kneel in front of, or touch, or kiss.  At the cathedral in Kansas City, it’s usual to take your moment or two, there is a kneeler, you can pray a while, though I always feel self-conscious about taking too long, the cross is almost human-sized, you can light a candle and leave it, there is no Jesus on the cross, and there is an unbearably sad cello solo while all this is happening.  Here in Brooklyn, no one took more than a second, it was a crucifix, that is, Jesus was on there, the cross was pale wood, I noticed mostly his feet, because you always watch those when someone is dying, to see how close they are, often the feet change, and his knees, because, you know, my knees.

A mom taught her son how to do it.  Not on the Jesus part, on the bottom part of the cross, just wood.  Person after person, and I thought, when I wasn’t wanting to cry, that they could be giving each other colds.  But all those lips on the wood, elderly ladies and the young boy whose Mom said, “Then you go like this.”

I wasn’t sure how much of the experience I was allowed to have, since I was serving, how much I was leading, serving, making things happen, and how much I could participate.  My view, instead of the front of the church, purple wrap with Jesus theoretically under there, my view was the congregation, the stained glass windows that are just designs, the window in the back that is boarded over as it is repaired.  I could look back over my shoulder to see the gold and the angels, my favorite view in that church.  I got to see how many people had their eyes closed, and knelt, and folded their hands, and bent over low in their seats.  Several.

I just went ahead and knelt down to make sure I got communion when it was time.  I didn’t know if I was supposed to, if I was supposed to wait to the end or something, but I wasn’t going to mess around with that.  I need all the help I can get.

I took the crucifix up to the altar to set it down, I kissed my hand and touched it to the cross where most of the rest of us had kissed it.  They kissed with their lips.  I am too shy.

It makes clear sense to kiss the Torah, it makes less sense to kiss a representation of an execution device.  I don’t know exactly what we mean by it, but I know such tenderness and such horror close together is good.

Last night at Maundy Thursday, they stripped the altar, and as I watched them fold the linens that go on the altar, I thought about the sheets over my grandma when she was dying, how they twice a day moved her, turned her, resettled her on her bed because she couldn’t move herself, she was dreaming.  And the sheets on the beds in the hospitals where my friend was for such a long time.  And how when I leave the monastery, I strip my bed, put my sheets in the pillowcase, and remake the bed, praying for the next person who will sleep in it.  This is their ritual for leaving.

Image: The Thrown Kiss, Johann Joachi Kandler, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


DP277997Lent brought me to my knees.

I went back to work Tuesday distrustful.  I walked to the subway Wednesday with my right knee only a little sore.  I guess I am going to live.

I did not give anything up for Lent, or add any practice.  When my grandma died, the day after Ash Wednesday, it was clear that Lent would be mourning for me without any additional work.

I got a ten-minute massage every week of Lent, though.  Here it is easy and fairly cheap to get the chair massage.  I’m sure all six of those helped.  I’m just estimating there were six.  Three in Brooklyn, two in Manhattan, one in an airport on my way back to or back from New York.  Who knows where.

I’ve made uncomfortable friends with looking for another job next year, and with my grandma being dead.  I dream it out, sometimes.  I’ve never had one of those communicate-with-dead-people dreams (maybe those are for people who have some unresolved business with the dead, and I never have).  Mine are just about the person being dead, and thinking about that.  Years ago, I dreamt my great-grandparents were at their farmhouse kitchen table as usual, both of the half-rotten, great-grandma trying to serve me vanilla ice cream, and I had to tell her, “Look, you’re dead.”

The work of changing, the work of grieving.  “The work” is festishy in education circles, now, maybe everywhere, I hate its Yankee obsessive feel, the way only a Yankee obsessive can.  But what else?  The stuff there is to do.  The swimming or the treading water or the sinking or the napping.

Parent-teacher conferences, meeting with kid who refuses to do anything for me, the tangle of what that means for me, for him, for his angry parents.  I’m supposed to inspire him, he’s supposed to want to better himself, his parents are supposed to get him to behave outside their home.  None of this is happening.  The flinch when parent says, “This is my fault.  I made a mistake.  I told him about my mistakes, now he thinks he’ll go the same way, that this can be fixed.”  What was the mistake?  It takes less for me to spin off into wondering at what connects to what, what touches what.

Teaching, education, is more art than science.  We have some ideas of how it works, sure, but there is never a control, there is never one best way, these are humans in all their complexity we are dealing with here, especially with kids, kids whose brains are under construction.  The longer I am teaching the less power I think I have, we all have.  Which doesn’t mean I don’t try as much, or work as hard.  It’s just not for the same reasons.

Lent art, not science, have faith in the rituals, they work, but don’t expect old lessons apply, Lent neither a trial run nor a proof.

Priest said if you believe God is real, that is faith, that is enough.  I don’t know what “real” is, there I am spun off again.

My grandmother, more dead than she was on Ash Wednesday, me more hurt and more healed.  And my knees will support Holy Week.

Image: Alfred Stieglitz, “The Swimming Lesson,” Metropolitan Museum of Art.


jungleWe breathed the thick air of the jungle of Omaha, the day after Grandma’s funeral.

There were fuzzy gibbons, one of them with a baby hooked to her, and we looked hard at the two of them, my mother, my sisters, me, us four.

We walked through the butterfly house, watching our feet to not crush anyone.  We stepped through sliding doors into the butterfly check room, where there were mirrors, and a woman in a wheelchair told us to look ourselves over, check our pockets for butterflies.

I read Ecclesiastes, as I had at Grandpa’s funeral, same podium, same passage, me twice as old.  My hair is shorter, blonder, I have wrinkles that stay between my eyebrows and my forehead, and you can see now on my jaw, where it will sag.

I spent the mass looking mostly at unpainted wooden St. Joseph, just as I did twenty years before, because their Jesus there looks too pained, St. Joseph with his carpentry square, useless old St. Joseph, there to teach Jesus nothing he needs to know.

My reading included cryptic bit: “Every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God. I know that, whatever God does, it will be for ever.”  I emphasized the drink.  What the rest of it meant, who knew?

I experienced the pleasure of, for two solid days, having the circus of my extended family around me, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, great-aunt, second cousins, cousins removed, everyone someone to talk to, one baby to kiss, two toddlers to chase, one wore a cape. “You can’t catch me!”  We could, we didn’t.

Just the four of us saw her at the mortuary in her casket.  I touched the dead her, just a bit, to say hi, not much, you know you can mess the body up, there is makeup on her hands.

I was once criticized for wishing aloud death was more real, less made up.  And now I like makeup for dead people, why not?  At the grave, though, we did not stay to see it lowered, a stranger, a man, stayed alone, not that we wouldn’t have, but it was snowing and so cold we were pressed as tight as New Yorkers under the green tent while the priest zipped through what should be said, my sister was next to me and her legs spasmed from the cold, our breath hurt to take in.

We got back into the cars and Grandma went down on her own, not that she needed us.

Back at the wacky hotel, where all the rooms were named after U.S. presidents, my family took over the breakfast room with beer and tequila and whiskey and our traditional trivia competition, louder than it’s ever been.  I was very wrong about one question, one of my cousins correctly answered first man in space, my sister was robbed of who invented the television.

The butterflies sat on trays, on browned bananas and slices of fruit.  The macaws in the jungle picked pieces of fruit off of wires hung for them.  We had lunch in a room overlooking the jungle exhibits, I ate a yellow banana, two tacos, and burned Spanish rice.  The gibbons were still swinging and pausing and looking back at us.

Soap And Stones

As I was driving to noon mass for the feast of St. John (in the beginning was the word, a phrase for which I took two years of ancient Greek to read), I realized there wouldn’t be any, because it was Saturday.  This is a special day for writers, well, for me, I don’t know that any other writer cares.  I parked at the cathedral, there was only one car, the door was locked, I couldn’t even get to see the cat.  A lady in the one car opened her door and asked if she could help me.  Maybe I should have said, “Let me in!  I must pray!  It is my day!”  But I was a normal person and said I figured there wasn’t noon mass, she said yes.

I tried a couple of Catholic churches, and they don’t do noon mass on Saturdays, either.  Well, it’s less fun to get communion there with the new nice pope, anyway.

I drove to the little modern art museum (it’s contemporary, I know, but I like the word modern and I hate contemporary, it sounds horrible, like coughing).

So  my friend who got hurt is still six kinds of messed up.  It was a car accident.  I haven’t driven since.  I don’t have a car.  I drove today.  Since I was about 22, I’ve worried about someone I know being in a terrible car accident.  I’ve known plenty of people who have here and there done some recreational drunk driving.  And when I actually do know someone who is terribly hurt, it was daytime, some crazy person hit him, there was no speeding or risk taking, just being out in the world, just not hiding under your bed.

My dad and stepmom got on a plane this morning.  They’re fine.

My little city has: the Western Auto sign, which I will paint when I get home, back to New York I mean.  It has Lamar’s Doughnuts, big pieces of grass with nothing on them at all, big roads with almost no one driving on them almost all the time, 80% of the people I love, coffeehouse tables as big as Montana.

photo 3 (1)Then they have a painting of part of the Kennedy assassination.

Who knows?  Who can know?  What was he doing there?  At that exact wrong moment?

You try to be careful.  Then you don’t, because it doesn’t matter, and it feels good not to be careful, to deliberately not be careful, to drive 80 instead of 70.

I have returned to reading Shambhala by Chogyam Trungpa.  He is a silly cheerful Buddhist, a hippie Buddhist who thinks deep down we are all good.  I believe very deeply that deep down we are all good, and also that deep down we are very evil, it depends on the day.  Christianity will raise you to think you are not good, my parents told me I was good, and the church also told me God loved me very much, it was confusing.

Anyway Trungpa writes that the cure for fear is overcoming hope.

I have worked on hope a lot, mostly in the spinster/barren woman/no one will ever love me worries.  Well: I have worked on them, and they have worked on me.

photo 1The other piece I loved is a big wall piece made of soap dishes.  Most of the soap dishes have worn pieces of soap in them, some of the have stones.  The soap, you know, had been held in hands, you could tell.

Why were you there then?  I almost moved into an apartment facing Hyde Park, but I thought the rent was too much.  Instead I moved into the carriages house and a million things happened as a result of that, many of them fulfilling dreams I didn’t know I had, most of them related to Gertrude Stein.

I was on an important first date, and I said, “Who’s your favorite painter?”  and he said he didn’t know, and that was the wrong answer.  What if he had answered sooner, faster, because he did have favorite painters?

I was reading Incredibly Fast and Super Close, I mean Wicked Close and Hella Loud, I mean: Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close (for a laugh, try to get a group of people to come up with this title without enlisting technology)  it didn’t occur to me until later that this was a bad book for a New Yorker to be reading when she flies out of New York.  Think of all the planes that didn’t crash, though, all the people who were nowhere near downtown that day.

All those times we got drunk, we fell, physically and in love, we yelled and said terrible things but did see each other again and made up, we lusted after each other and gave in or did not give in, trusted each other and were let down, trusted each other and were not, we decided our friends were all wrong for us and we would snub them, we decided our friends were the most important thing.  All those times were soap in the hand.

The stones get worn, too.  It just takes longer.

Soap and stones piece is “Used and Worn” by June Ahrens.  Kennedy assassination painting is “Continental II” by Christopher Brown.  Both currently up at the Kemper.