Wind

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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.

Get and Take

DP210179The woman was pleased that I was buying an umbrella.  I had just splashed through Rockefeller Center, in three inches of rain, this made me laugh.  Nothing was making me laugh at all, only actually wading in my sandals, running between the buildings there.

“Once we sold almost every umbrella we had, to this whole bus of people from China,” she said.  She was so pleased, and so pleasant, I wondered if she had stock in the store, or the umbrella company.

That afternoon I was going to meet all these agents who could either tell me my life was worth living or not.  So I thought I would try to calm down.

Under the red umbrella, I crossed the street to the cathedral.  They were starting a service.  I didn’t have time to stay for the service.  I stopped at the St. John altar.

I did not believe in anything, except maybe I did believe in St. John, I felt nothing was his fault, not that I was again without a job, my career a mess, or that my ovaries had given up, or that, the previous evening, after I got home, I flossed and a crown popped right out of the row of my teeth.  I don’t belong here! the crown said, just as I had crowned a whole afternoon of def con anxiety and thirty read-throughs, editing every other time and making marks for pauses and longer beats, then careful ingestion of exactly one and a half glasses of wine while I waited to go on so that I could stand in front of people and look and sound spontaneous and fresh and people could say to me, “You’re a natural performer.”

They were being kind, I know, but I was ungrateful and wanted to hear, “You worked really hard and persevered through the train you wanted to take not running and having to walk extra blocks, as usual, going the wrong way first, in the rain, in heels, on the brick and uneven streets of downtown, and you showed up late even though you thought people who are late for their own readings ought to be shot, what disrespect, what disrespect, why can’t you get it together?”

The sign at the St. John altar said candles $2, I realized I didn’t care what the sign said, I took out all my change and plunked it through the slot and took the candle and lit it, and God, the church universal, or St. John himself could take it up with me later that it wasn’t $2.

I got a pew and started the service with everyone, sang the parts.

I lost my St. John medal about six months after I moved here.

On my way out of the cathedral, I turned into the gift shop and in a revolving case there was a St. John medal, a heavy one on a heavy chain, right there.

I went to the counter and asked for it.  The woman brought back a Joan of Arc medal, which was more than a little weird because the novel I was trying to get an agent to want to sell, thus telling me my life was worth living, the novel is about Joan of Arc (obliquely).

“No,” I said, “John.”  Then I wondered if I should have bought the Joan one.

She brought back the John, I gave her a credit card because I am so out of my mind with exhaustion my checking account has too much money in it, I don’t know why, but I’m expecting that means any moment I will be overdrawn because of something I forgot.

I went back to the agent meetings.  They went well.  I enjoy talking about my work.

At the end of the meetings, a woman I had been talking with was suddenly a friend and we walked to an outdoor cafe and ordered drinks.  She talked very fast and so did I and we had plenty to talk about.  The waiter asked us to pay because he said it was about to rain.  Then the heavens did open up, we leaned back under our umbrella and still we were misted.  Heavy rain in New York City means nothing.  When you are from tornado territory, nothing less than Shiva-level destruction impresses.

I got back to Brooklyn and in the last block before I was home, I looked over at a huge rainbow, I could see because there is a school across the street from us, an open piece of land, giving us some sky, and a huge rainbow.

 

Happy postscript: the crown that fell out was just a temporary one.  Dentist stuck it back on in five minutes and $50.

Image: “Man With Umbrella In Times Square,” Ted Croner, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sheets

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.

Necessity

dynamiteWhen you sit next to a kid who tells you he wants to drop out of school, you worry a little about what to say, this is what makes some people praying people.  “I know you can make money doing things that are illegal, but doesn’t  pretty much everyone who’s doing that stuff eventually go to prison? ”

Long pauses.  Wait almost too long for the kid to talk.

“And then you can’t get a real job after that?”  Sit next to kid, facing the same direction.  “I mean, I hate it, I wish it wasn’t that way, but that’s the way it is, isn’t it?  But you have to make your own decision.  You’re almost an adult.  It’s up to you.”

I know this is the right way, that is, the honest, loving one.  Still, I shake off my hands afterward, as if they are wet.

After my friend was hurt, I prayed The Great Litany.  That is what it is there for.  It is very long, in church we only do it at the Easter Vigil when we are pulling out all the stops. The next day, it was a Monday, I went into a shop that looked wholly foreign to me, a white Protestant girl, a storefront looking so handmade as much does here, shelves full of prayer candles, odd pieces of fabric, African masks, the door would not shut properly, the clerk had just asked the previous person in there to shut it.  In the city, doors don’t close.

Most of your usual saint choices were on the shelf: Our Lady of Various Things, Jude, and then one had the devil on it, and one had money, which made me feel dirty.  Then there was Saint Francis.  He was fine.  My friend loves animals more than people.  So do I.  I bought the St. Francis candle.  It only has prayers in Spanish.  I do not speak Spanish.  St. Francis would have to operate without me.  The clerk wrapped my candle in white paper and I carried it home against my chest.  It felt like fat dynamite.  It was cold.

The kid keeps coming to school, so there’s that.

I kept lighting the candle every evening.  I stopped formal praying.  I have a hard time believing something bad actually happened, I keep hearing about it, waiting to believe it.  It’s too crazy to have feelings about, too crazy to believe.

And it is near Christmas, and I get frightened that I have no babies, that maybe I never will, I also hear about this and don’t quite believe it.  We read the Elizabeth parts of the Bible, with old Elizabeth miraculously having her baby.

And I think, the time we would get together at Christmas, with my friend, we won’t do that.  We won’t be sitting in our usual restaurant at our usual fourtop with the French cafe chairs, shooting the shit and making fun of each other for the things we have been making fun of each other for for a long time, since we were young adults, now we are just adults.  He won’t order a beer.

One of my students has gotten it in his head I revise things 25 times.  Probably because I said this.  I don’t know what I say.  “Ms Schurman had her writing published, but she had to revise it 25 times.”  Sure.  Twenty-five.  That’s it.

We beseech thee mercifully to incline thing ear to use who have now made our prayers and supplications unto thee; and grant that those things which we have asked faithfully according to thy will, may be obtained effectually, to the relief of our necessity, and to the setting forth of thy glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

It’s always the long-term that interests me.  How long you can be friends with someone.  How long you can teach.  Can you write a book, a whole book.  Can you stick it out.  When someone is hurt, when people grieve, it is an explosion with a long road away from it.

Image: Double-Flash Photograph of a No. 8 Du Pont Dynamite Cap, Harold Edgerton, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Speak Tenderly

glassesThis week: the social worker was trying to talk to this woman with her eye swollen out of her head, the woman was thrusting her cell phone at this very young social worker demanding she talk to her dad.   The hospital security guards talked about what to have for dinner.  A college girl from Columbia waited for her dad, and then her dad put his jacket over his face and lay down to wait.  The receptionist called people to tell them what time to be there for their surgeries.  A guy I wasn’t sure if he was homeless ate a banana and then he picked up all his stuff to leave and clearly he was homeless and keeping himself together very well.

I typed up a unit plan for the Aeneid and played Candy Crush until it wasn’t fun anymore and squinted because the light hurt my right eye.  I was so pissed this was taking so long, waiting is one of my primary anxiety triggers, that is why I try always to be late for everything.  All elsewhere around the city people were marching and chanting and yelling and lying down in streets because a cop who killed a guy had not been indicted.  I saw one of their signs resting against a newspaper stand the next morning when I was walking to work.

Also this week: one of my students sat toward the back.  Was trembling.  I know what to do.  At least not to make things worse.  Sit next to.  Pat on arm.  Tell everything will be okay.  Let friend take over.  Compliment friend later when he rejoins class.  Thank him.  Go back and offer to listen to problem.  Student tells me what I already know: cousin was stabbed, can’t get cousin on the phone.  I told student you can’t use your phone in the hospital, I was sure cousin was fine.

I still haven’t really felt this.  It takes time.

After spending last Friday night throwing up and hoping to throw up and wandering my dad’s house looking for some kind of medicine maybe I should take, I pulled myself out of my brother’s old bunk bed with the model planes flying above me and the giant stuffed pony on the top bunk watching me like some kind of creep to be driven to the Christmas tree farm where we talked with Jack Russell’s son (Jack Russell died last year) about the prospects for keeping the tree farm open, and how much water the baby trees need.  My mother took the tree home, I went back to the bed with the model planes above it.

At church tonight we didn’t pray together for Eric Garner’s family, or the police, or the city, it is unusual for us not to be on something like this, but we are between priests.  We did have Isaiah, though: “A voice says cry out! and I said, ‘What shall I cry?  All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.”  Or perhaps you would prefer: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

I heard our neighbors knew Eric Garner, went to barbecues with him.

I told people who were going to the protests that I hoped it would be fulfilling.  I think it was like telling people I hoped a funeral would be good.  Some funerals are better than others.

In my advisory, we watched the CNN video about the Garner verdict and I told my students black kids look like my kids to me.  They talked some, too, and then they wanted to play Uno and loud music which I generally don’t like except for the new Beyonce song, that I might like.  “Oh, my God, Ms Schurman, you know this song?”  And we talked about the video, I liked it, she hated it.

I’ve been wearing my glasses for a week now, very unusual.  I had eye problems that made doctors forbid me to wear contacts, but it’s been years.  I used to put them in to go dancing, against medical advice, I couldn’t stand the idea of going out, dressed up, in glasses, I did not feel pretty in glasses, also the way we danced glasses would sweat or fly off my face.  This week the problem has been that it has rained.  Without an umbrella on Friday night it got hard to see, walking from the subway home.  I just took them off.  Nice, rain on your face, when it is not too cold and you know you are going home.  I could hardly see at all, blurs of red tail lights and smears of yellow streetlight and none of the sidewalk cracks.  I got there anyway.

Image: Spectacles, Met Museum Online collection, gift of Mr. Alfred M. F. Kiddle, 1940

Virgin Birth

I don’t know what possessed me to watch the documentary “The Business of Being Born.”  Several women give birth at home in this movie, and you see every detail of how it happens.  I wondered– very theoretically since I currently am in no danger of giving birth– whether labor is more like getting a root canal, or more like mourning.  Is it pain that is bearable, or worth feeling?

Then the Advent reading about the angel coming to Mary struck me differently.  She was going to have a baby.  Probably without an epidural.  And childbirth back then was Russian roulette.  Many women died.  Giving birth might even be scarier than thinking your baby was a God/human hybrid.  Who knows?

We obsess about the “virgin” angle, which, if it’s even accurate from a storytelling perspective, doesn’t necessarily have much to do with sex.   It just makes good use of the ancient “oops, it must have been [a] god who impregnated me” narrative.  Knowing that creation can come from an individual plus God, rather than the community, is a new idea.

Around Jesus’ time, there is a new individualism in the religious movements.  You are more than your place in the group.  Mary is about to become a singular celebrity.  You can see all the glory and tenderness of individualism, and all the disconnected brokenness are just around the corner.  You can do it!  You can make things that express all the wonders of your talent and your experience!  On the other hand, you can’t be your tribe, or whose son you are.  You will have to make your own way.

Christmas isn’t Easter.  The secular parts of Christmas are so awesome that the religious parts struggle to compete, even for us religious types.  And the theological significance, compared to Easter, is thin.  Jesus was born.  Good for him.

The religious sentiment I have at Christmas is about God being in the love of small, vulnerable things.  Christmas is the church holiday that’s about babies.  It is so dangerous to love the vulnerable.  Yet people love children, especially, at Christmas, and sometimes they even love their own desire to help, and their own soft, optimistic natures.  Watching people create and give, even when they are afraid or in pain, is all that gets us through dark winter.

Mummified

For all we know, the soul of Perneb is wandering around, flustered, like a smoker without a Quik Trip at 3 am.  Perneb believed, or at least some of his friends and family believed, that he needed a tomb with a false door to keep his soul nourished.  Unfortunately, Mr. Edward S. Harkness gave Perneb’s tomb to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1913, and they hauled it over to New York City, stone by stone.

What if someone bought your dad’s grave and took it apart and sent it far away, so you couldn’t leave flowers?  What if we moved the Jews out of Jerusalem and told them Beijing is just as good?  What if we turned the Lincoln Memorial into a casino?  How close in time or space do people have to be to earn our respect?  How long dead is dead enough to be disregarded?

In Chicago, at the Field Museum, visitors circulate past at least a dozen dead bodies.  The ancient Egyptians felt like bodies were important.  So important that they carefully preserved them.  Their religious beliefs don’t matter to us, though.  For us, their religion is foolish and primitive, and their execution of religious ritual is only something to be studied and gawked at.  Mummies of men, women, and children are on display.  Some people say, “Ooh, gross, spooky.”  Some people look soberly at death.

I wouldn’t have such a problem with this if I weren’t well aware that many people find my religion foolish and primitive.  Our main story is about a guy coming back from the dead, a motif so common in the ancient world as to be wholly unremarkable.  In fact, the ancient Egyptians used that story too, it’s just that their guy was named “Osiris,” and he appears bandaged up, returning to his beloved wife, in a tender alternate version of the Jesus story.  Death can’t beat us.  Human love is powerful.  That’s what they believed.  That’s what I believe.

The mummies in Chicago are residents of a Natural History Museum, and they certainly are history.  Many places, though, including Kansas City, mummies are in art museums.  What makes a mummy art?  It wasn’t intended for display.  It was intended for burial.  I don’t understand how it could be art any more than a corpse straight from Newcomer’s Funeral Home.  There is an art to caring for and decorating the dead.  My great-grandfather was that sort of artist.  I’m just not sure it’s an art that belongs in a museum.

I suspect that the preservation of the body is not necessary for the health of the soul.  It does say something about us, though, that we have rather recently come to show some meager respect to Native American religious beliefs, and continue to show absolutely none to people whose cultures have died or morphed beyond recognition.  Separating who you respect from who you don’t is a dangerous game.

Perneb’s name means “my Lord has come forth to me.”  He worked in the court, robing and crowning the king.  We don’t know a lot else about him.  It’s possible he’d even be pleased about his change of eternal address.  I hope that, like me, he loves being in New York.