Monday, May 28, 2007

Poems for Jesus: #3

Just That Kind

So this is your mercy, then
The double blind
The double bind
You put yourself through
Your mercy does cruel things to you
But you're just that kind
That's what I'm thinking when
I'm eating pods
And turning clods
And all the gold's run through
So I turn back to home and you
But you're just that kind

My Leo Tolstoy Vendetta

I am not at all shy about hating Leo Tolstoy.

At this very moment, I could list off half a dozen literature professors I had in college who would lecture me soundly that I don't really hate Leo Tolstoy, that perhaps I dislike a particular work of Tolstoy, or have a bone to pick with Tolstoy the author as opposed to Tolstoy the historical figure (as if Tolstoy the author were the evil twin of Tolstoy the man). But I find that my bloodthirsty rage against Tolstoy is not half so satisfying when I give way to such pedantic discriminations, so I'll just go ahead and say that I hate Leo Tolstoy, and if this particular DWM (dead white male) were loafing around St Petersburg today, this LWF (living white female) would hop on the first transatlantic flight for the singular satisfaction of punching him in the nose.

The infamous, nefarious, and otherwise intolerable crime for which I cannot forgive Mr. Tolstoy is that of having written War and Peace. Now, I'll surmise that for most of us, this quintessential Russian novel, longer than the Bible, falls under the category of books that everyone would like to have read, but no one wants to read. (For the record, I do like some things that Tolstoy has written. He has some first-rate short stories with which I can find no fault.) During an ill-fated trip to the bookstore recently, I picked up a copy of War and Peace, a delicate little 5-lb tome, to make myself feel better about the otherwise fluffy fare I was purchasing, in the same way a dieter might eat 5 lbs of lima beans to assuage their conscience concerning a piece of German chocolate cake.

My first charge against the Mr. Tolstoy is this: War and Peace entirely ruined my Memorial Day Weekend. Tolstoy lured me so effortlessly into a flood of Russian dissipation and depression that it was all I could do, on this loveliest of four-day weekends, not to compensatorily imbibe large volumes of vodka. Without my here rehashing 1100 pages of plot about Rostovs and Borises, Sophias and Natashas, you would have to read it yourself to understand, and if you've ever experienced any suicidal ideation, I beg of you not to attempt it.

My second charge against Mr. Tolstoy is this: He's way too damn good of a novelist. Yes, I said damn. He breaks every single rule that I know of. Instead of sticking to one point of view, he introduces hundreds of intricately imagined characters with such brilliancy that I feel sucked into the vortex of their psyche, drowned in their guilt and their downward slide. He drones on for epic lengths about parties and balls, dinners and pointless affairs of state, as if he wanted to cover eight years of boring Russian domestic life in real time. No major publishing house in our sound byte age, I venture to guess, would have found any place for this novel of novels but the waste basket. But it is perfect. As a novel, absolutely perfect, because it thrusts myself and all mankind into the light of day, with all its pettiness and haunted searching and irrational loves. That is why I could not put it down, even while I was busy wanting to burn it in some satisfyingly intricate way. It was like reading my life.

Nobody, Mr. Tolstoy, should be that good.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Step in the Dark

It's hard to wait well, especially because in the short term, the most profound satisfaction in waiting is derived from doing it poorly (ie griping to your family, the mailman, the grocery bagger, and the cable repair guy about how miserably impatient you feel). But I think it would be worth learning to wait well - I say this hypothetically, I'm a lousy waiter - because so much of our lives is spent waiting . . . to meet The One, to marry The One, to get that guy/girl your married to get their act together, to have children, to get promoted, to feel a speck of joy, and, if we are lucky and survive all that waiting, to die. All through the years, we wait. Heaven is this - the arrival of all that, in our inmost being, we have waited for our entire lives, and never quite found.

At this particular moment in time, I am waiting to learn whether or not I was accepted to the Johns Hopkins MA Writing program. The tentative plan is to take one course per semester (fall, spring, summer) while still working until I can complete my master's degree. It would take three years, but hopefully I could avoid being in debt by doing it slowly. I've actually had some people advise me against entering such a program, but it's the only way I know to stab at the thing I love best to do, and someday want to do all the live long day. It's a step, even if it's just a step in the dark.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Not Mickey Mantle

The last time I touched a softball bat was March of 1995. I played slow-pitch softball with dire little-girl intensity for three seasons. By the time I was nine, I was on the All-Star team. The next season, I fell apart completely. I shivered in the batter's box, praying that every pitch would miss the strike zone and I would have the good fortune to walk. One defense, I went from being a reliable shortstop to a rank outfielder. I cried my way through game after game, while my parents watched from the bleachers and tried miserably to do nothing about it.

Halfway through the season, I quit the team. I don't know when in my life I've felt more like a complete failure. The motivational poster in my elementary school hallway, "The only way to fail is to quit," confirmed these self-effacing sentiments. A month later, on a family vacation to Santa Cruz, someone discovered that I'd gone horribly near-sighted, and I couldn't catch or hit the ball primarily because I couldn't see it. So my personal tragedy became, in hindsight at least, a morose little comedy.

When IJM's Joe Jordano, our resident bass-voiced, brillo-haired Italian, organized this year's softball team, I decided to join in hopes of redeeming my ignonimous past. We had our first game last night at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue in DC. We were soundly pummeled by another corporate team all dressed in orange, 9-3. But I don't know when I've ever enjoyed playing softball more. A quarter mile away, the Washington Monument glowed fleshly pink in the sunset, rising from the ground like a granite sword piercing a green scabbard. Canadian geese drummed the air with their wings, and airplanes, soundless and slow at this distance, wheeled toward their hangars at the National Airport like great metal cows coming home. In the middle of these pleasant reflections, an aluminum CRACK announced the oncoming grounder. I woke up long enough to chase it and throw it to the cutoff man. Then back to daydreaming in righfield.

As it turns out, I can still catch and hit. As long as the flyball's not too high, the grounder's not too gnarly, and the pitch is gently lobbed. I never said I was Mickey Mantle.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I'm a sucker for old stone churches, so when I saw the stately Gothic spires of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, I followed them down Nicollet Mall to Twelth Avenue. The main entrance to the sanctuary was locked, but little arrows led me around to the the other side (the church occupied an entire city block), where I could enter past a receptionists's desk. I crept into the sanctuary. My mouth fell open and I gasped. Just as quickly, I shut it again, noticing too women wending between the pews checking to make sure that the little half-sized pencils were sitting properly in their holes in the backs of the pews.

I wish I had words for the loveliness of the inside of that church, oval like the inside of an Easter egg, and colored as brightly by the strong noonday sun stained with intricately leaded glass. Over the galley, a massive corona of purple irises inlaid with butterflies. Majestic saints and golden columns. I wish had the words for it, but truthfully I don't.

Monday, May 14, 2007

If an Ethiopian Answers My Cell Phone

Dear readers,

There are three possible reasons that a strange Ethiopian will answer my cell phone if you call it.

A) I have signed up at the last minute for a humanitarian mission to the Horn of Africa, but I have been captured and am being held for ransom by a gang of international terrorists in Addis Ababa.

B)I have fallen madly in love with my Amharic-speaking neighbor from down the hall, we have decided to elope, and he is holding all my calls.

C) I took a taxi to the airport this morning, driven by an Ethiopian driver, and I left my cell phone in the backseat of his car.

A or B would be much more exciting, but the answer, as you might have guessed (I'd be troubled if you were thinking A or B), is C. So if you call my cell phone and an Ethiopian answers, don't be surprised. I won't be able to pick it up until Friday.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Broken Point

Past the breaking point, there is the broken point, where all the striving gives way to an utter stall, an exhalation that echoes in the dark. Saturday night. 9:30. I've paid twenty dollars to be let back into my apartment (in my general distraction, I've left the keys at the office again.) I wither onto the sofa. Bethany vacuumed the livingroom before she left for chapter camp, a brief mercy. A thunderstorm is growling over Arlington, shaking the trees, plunking heavy drops against the windowpane. I want to cry from excess of exhaustion, the way a small child cries, not from any specific motive, but because there seems to be nothing left to do.

But I love the broken point. I do. It is precisely here, at the breach in the wall, that my God slips in to find me, where there is nothing to drown out his red-letter whispers. Oh, joy.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Breaking Point

Waking up is a wearied acquiesence to the onslaught of daylight.

Minneapolis. 467 guests. May 15.

Orlando. 450 guests. May 17.

The last hurdle is so near, but I find myself gauging my remaining strength, and despairing that it will not be enough to get me there. That shortfall would usually mean a bout of tears or a case of the flu (A convenient, temporary sickness can be embraced like a brother if you're tired enough.), neither of which would presently be very helpful or permissible.

How can I speak of the difficulty of so good a thing? I cannot contend with the point of what I do; I cannot resist the sight of the blurred eyes from a brothel photo, their compelling prods to expend myself like so much water until my head bobs in front of my computer screen, hour after hour in a dayless week without the prospect of a weekend. But I am human and I am tired, and it grows hourly harder not to whine. I suppose I'm already whining.

Connie likes to lecture me on time management and setting personal boundaries, like in the car last night before she dropped me off at the Dorch. She must feel like she's talking to a boulder. I can feel myself glazing over, uncomprehending. Who does she want me to say no to? Her? Which off the impending urgencies shall I slough off? And onto whom? We are all rats that will not leave the ship.

As soon as I ask the question, I am haunted by the line, "Cast your cares upon him, because he cares for you." And my soul answers back, "Even these?"

Perhaps I shall have to start trying it, as little as I understand it. Soon enough, I shall hit the breaking point. It will not be pretty.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Good Mundane

It's been amost a year since I moved here, so inflated with the expectancy of new things that I could hardly sleep. I remember that someone once told me I was brave for picking up and relocating so suddenly. I never found much valor in the act, because there was never much fear to deter me.

And now, one day is very much like another. I have worn myself into a comfortable groove. Few new people. There are, I will admit, new places, but I visit them like a sailor stepping off the familar bulk of a ship, superficially, before turning back to the sameness of the sea. The tasks that I took so much trouble to learn I now do on auto-pilot. Restlessness set it at 9 months of work. In my own self-analysis, I think I must still be timing my life to the school year, when I was never expected to stick to anything for more than nine months at a time.

These days, I find it takes the most courage not to climb new mountains, but to stay doggedly at the good, mundane thing already in progress. To not lose the grandeur of this sight because I have seen it before. To do the thing again and again, and to not grow tired of doing it well. Perhaps the most heroic achievements in this world are not one-time acts of bravery, the defining moment when you hoist the flag on some Iwo Jima, but the persistent, drawn-out good deeds that hardly seem good in their middle. Raising a child. Caring for a sick person. Rising, like sun and moon, to light the same old orb. Gary likes to say that half the battle in life is just showing up, day after day. Jesus likes to say that those that put a hand to the plow oughn't to look back.

Monday, May 7, 2007

For My Sister's Son

To my sister's son,

In one month we expect your arrival. You will go from a warm, comfortable, quiet pocket, where you ruminated on the sound of your mother's heartbeat, and you will have a terrifying exodus into another reality, a loud place with assaulting smells and piercing lights and cold gusts of air. You will have to cry to get your food, your warmth, your oxygen, that things that used to come you intravenously, in capillary caravans. But you will get used to it. You will have a good mother, and a good father, and they will wrap you in felt blankets and cradle you, because your mother knows all about oxytocin and bonding and ventral contact. Your mother went to Cornell (and so did your father - that's where he fell in love with her), you know, even if that doesn't mean much to you now. They will keep you at just the distance that your wary eyes, getting used to all this glimmer and contrast and shape, can focus on the beautiful symmetry of their faces. And right away, you will know how to grasp their fingers.

Judging from your parents, you'll be a very good-looking boy, but don't ever worry about that. From the very moment that you're born, we will declare you to be the most beautiful thing in the universe, even though you maybe a little wrinkled and pink and egg-shaped. That comes of being new to the neighborhood. And if we think you're beautiful from the start, imagine how much more handsome you'll get!

And you'll grow! How fast you'll grow! You will crawl and walk and scrape your knees and play with the cardboard packaging instead of your presents the day after Christmas. You will learn how to spell words like Mississippi, and you will learn how to mock the Harvard hockey team, and you will be Joseph in the Sunday school nativity, and you will learn to drive a tractor.

And you'll have cousins. How soon I cannot promise, but I'll do my best.

And oh, my sister's son, you will have love. You will have the love of your grandmother Shannon, with its strength like granite and its tenderness like rain. You will have the love of your parents, whick you will never know the bottom of. You will have the love of your aunts and uncles from every side. (Even before you're born, I am your partisan, your cheerleader, your storyteller, and you have an entire valley of relatives whole introduce you to El Sarape.) You will have the love of God and all his angels, and you will spend eternity trying to bend your mind around it.

Come right on time, but make it soon, my sister's son.


My first thought to zip though my mind this morning was, "Dear God, no!" Judging by the fact that it was past dawn, I knew that I had slept too late. Last week, I focused all my energies on Seattle, which was just as I should have done, but next week I have Minneapolis and Orlando, large banquets both, and challenging because one in a new city and the other one is overflowing with uber-rich corporate sponsors that can't afford to be slighted. All of which means I will eking every day for each possible moment of work, and makes me frenzied and a little disgruntled, and all the more prone to error and misjudgment. But listen to me. Have I forgotten who is my God? Dear God, no.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Someday House

Someday I will have a house, a rambling, Victorian house, with back staircases and tall windows and a decrepit dumbwaiter, like one of those that has a flag flying over it on embassy row. It will be in the middle of the city, so there might not be a garden, but there will be little balconies overflowing with green things, and a sun room with potted palms and rocking chairs. And I will fill the house with strangers, every room. They will be foreign students, professors on sabbatical, missionaries waiting to deploy, an old woman whose basement has flooded. They will be people "in between," people who need a place to be loved and cared for a while. We will put in an industrial-sized clotheswasher and a kitchen that would make Julia Childs weep for joy. We will eat together in a big dining room, and afterwards we will tell stories and sing songs and read books. It won't cost hardly anything to live there, because it will be the ministry of a church, a church's way of extending hospitality (either that, or I will have become a famous author, and we will all live off the royalties ;)

That is what I dream.

Friday, May 4, 2007


When mentioning David Conrad Thoner to a stranger, I speak with succint, clinical precision about "my father" and "his long illness", I suppose to spare them the embarrassment of expressing appropriate sympathy, or to spare myself the vulnerability of grief. It's just as well. Some pains are too intimate for everyday wear.

But in the ocassional moderated reference to "my father," God forbid that I should forget when I called him Dad, or Daddy. There is a tremor in the last. Father is a word that establishes hierarchy, a word or lineage and distance, a parlor word. Dad is a word at once careful and casual, neither too intimate nor too removed, a word that I could say over my shoulder walking out the door. But daddy. Daddy is a word for a dependent child, a word of dangerous vulnerability, and trust, that if it were not so joyful, would be terrifying indeed.

This is a daddy story.

No one could ever accuse me of patience, especially when it comes to giving gifts, and more so when I made the gift, and still more when the gift is for someone I love. When I was ten years old, I took a piece of thick, fibrous paper from the art shelf at the bottom of the linen closet, the kind of paper that traps a water bead. Hunched at the dining room table, I painted with water colors for a full day until I had a group of ducks swimming in a marsh. I decided to give it to Mommy for her birthday and Mother's day, which usually fall within a few days of each other. (I had done dioramas for the last several holidays, and it seemed like it was time to make a change.)

All it needed was a frame. I went into the garage where I knew I could find some wood scraps, odds and ends left over from my daddy's construction projects.That and a fingerful of Elmer's woodglue were all I needed. The pieces I found were the wrong size. They wouldn't fit together properly without additional cutting. Undaunted, I grabbed a pencil and a handsaw, made a few marks, and set to work. I moved the saw back and forth, listening to it whine like an asthma attack while I struggled to reposition my grip on the sweaty handle. I barely made a fleck of sawdust. The concrete floor of the garage bore into my shins and the tops of my bare feet.

Daddy's silhouette, battered thumbs, longs arms balanced on the meat on his shoulders, blokced the side door of the garage.

The whining stopped.

"What are you doing?"

Silent, I consider the fold of his sinewy arms, choosing the details to win his sympathy.

"Making a frame. For Mommy's birthday presence."

The whining starts again. I look down at the crooked pink pencil mark and clamp my fingers over the wood, holding it down as if it were an enemy to be strangled.

"I can help you. There's a better way to do this."

I bristled. I liked my solitude, my resourcefulness, my struggle. I liked him at an appropriate distance. But on this occasion he persisted. He took the saw from me. He laid aside the wood glue. He admired the ducks. I remember to this day the tone of his voice while he praised them and studied them, as though it were a map of some new star. He put me in the car and drove me the arts and crafts store. He led me to the back where a woman in a dark blue smock presided over lustrous right angles of picture frame samples. I would have wanted one of the ornate frames, dripping with gold spray paint and fake antique finishing, but they looked expensive, and I had an old woman's abhorrence of spending money. Besides, the ducks, biological innovations all, would have been overwhelmed by so much gilded melodrama. In the end, Daddy helped me pick an off-white matting and a dark mahogany-colored frame, as thick as my Daddy's thumb, flattened out by errant hammer blows. Behind the glass, behind the matting, my ducks looked calmer, more sure of their pedigree. I was so immensely pleased that, although it was the 7th of March, and not thr 13th of May, I only held out for three days before begging Mommy to open the present and let us both enjoy my warmth and pleasure in giving the gift.

I forgot about that story, the trivial chapter of domestic history, for over 10 years. But of a sudden it returned like a road unexpectedly looping back on itself. When I thought of it, I also thought about The Hiding Place. I have read the covers off of two paperback copies. In the early chapters, Corrie Ten Boom remembers anecdotes from her girlhood, little matters, unremarkable exchanges with her father, that proved themselves parable and prophecy as her life unfolded. My Daddy was no "Grand Old Man of Harlem," like Corrie's elderly watchmaker papa. But as soon as the memory was given back to me, its parable announced itself, as if to say, "Nothing is wasted, lost or forgotten!"

The meaning, if I may claim it, was this: We are works of art, you and I, innovations in the sphere, unprecedented acts of the Godhead, and we are meant as love gifts for the Creator. However smudged the imago dei, we sense its presence, and we struggle to frame it. Well, we have these scraps, we say. They are not quite at the right angle, and the grains do not match, but we set to work, industriously sawing away to frame our lives with some of the elegance and glory that our spirits insist we were born to reflect. And then Daddy comes in. We wish him distant (hardly Daddy) but not too distant (not quite father). We want Dad, benevolent, consoling, malleable. But in he comes, with a tender disregard for all we thought he was going to do for us, tossing away the scraps we have labored over to such ill effect, rubbing the dried glue from our spent fingers, and imploring us to let him help, to let him frame the life he formed, the better to offset it beauty, to underline the its dignity.

Beloved, let us be framed.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Blue Vistas from the North Tower

In the 1900 block of Fifth Avenue, two towers of the Westin Seattle rasp the sky, two beehives of concrete and winking glass. Each tower, north and south, has forty-six floors containing thirteen rooms. On the thirty-eigth floor of the north tower at 42 minutes past dawn, I admire the cool blue vista as the city melts into a May morning. Muscular clouds thwart the emptiness of the sky. A glittering boa of headlights, ever weaker, marks the trek of commuters.

When I came to Seattle, it was raining. Wind minced the Sound into frothy whitecaps. The Sheraton did not have room for us, so we got wet and chilled jumping in and out of taxis until we settled like damp birds at the Westin. In light of the weather, I decided to skip the trip to the original Starbucks and Pike's Fish Market, where I am told they juggle halibut like a nautical Cirque de Soleil. After a steaming shower, I felt restored enough to appreciate the simple fact that it was raining in Seattle (have you ever known the joy of a place being true to character?), and to enjoy the invigorating view of mountains that wreathe the city like a promise of grandeur.

I took the bus to Yarrow Point, just around the corner from where the Microsoft barons subsist in a 66,000 square foot auditorium (for surely such a dimension cannot be a house!). Wesley Jo came and found me. She took me off to her rented house onto the shore of Lake Washington. The first thing I saw was a pink dogwood tree rejoicing in the backyard. The second was Raymond, her husband, who looked, as always, like a male clothing advertisement, even in a Rosie the Riveter apron. "We can do it!" the apron proclaimed while he gave me a hug and went to make sure he had not burned the tortillas.

How can I say it? It is good to be among old friends. It is like finding a forgotten picture of yourself in which you look surprisingly young and happy.

After a dinner of ceviche ("This is only a variation of ceviche," Raymond demurred, "a Mexican sort of ceviche" as if to temper my enthusiasm) and shrimp fajitas, we retired to the living room to read the compline by candelight, pressed arm to arm beneath a quilt, and then to look at their wedding pictures. A beach of parchment sand on Florida's eastern shore. A loose and easy sunset. Shoeless vows. Seagrass, tender fingers on the guitar, and a raucous tango on the hard-bought wooden dance floor.

The showed me the sanctuary where they and Mary hold contemplative services on Sunday mornings after breakfast, a fellowship of three. Raymond laid out for me his animal skins, a zebra and a blue wildebeest (he did not bother with the ostrich), with which he plans to upholster some chairs.

Over some petite servings of chocolate ice cream, they asked me how I am handling my twenties. Hmm. I do not yet know whether I am comfortable addressing my life in decades instead of the usual increments. A season, at most a year.

The blues are now clear greens, translucent yellows, muffled greens and baked burgundies. The wind dies, and the American flag on a neighboring building hangs now like a limp hand, now like a salutation to someone it might recognize.

Starbucks baristas brew venti caramel macchiatos on a hundred street corners. Seagulls wheel far below me to pick up the crumbs of someone's dry croissant. Traffic moves. I sigh and yawn and smile. Another day, another banquet. Good morning, Seattle.