Sunday, September 30, 2007

Poems for Jesus: #4, A Day of Sacraments

Listen to this post:

I get up in the morning, pull back the bedclothes
And I think of how you rose from slumbering death,
To leave the linens folded in the tomb.

I step into the shower, turn the water scalding
And I think of how you wash my feet,
And every part

I get on the bus and pay the fare, five quarters in a slot
And I think of how you've bought me with your own blood
Calvary's currency

I eat my lunch, some lentil soup, a bit of bread
And I think of how you laid your body down
The bread broken, the wine poured out

We stop our work to pause and pray
I think of what I've heard you say
Where two or more are gathered

I pedal up Columbia Hill, breaking in a sweat
And I think how you went up on a donkey's back,
with cheers
And later with a crossbeam on your own,
with jeers

I look out at the stars studding your great black sky
And I think you were there when each one found its place
Its wheel on which to spin

I lay down again in my own narrow bed,
For sleep's refreshment
And I think of how, oh someday soon in the span of time, Jesus,
I will wake up for the first time, when you wake me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

If a golf course maintenance worker answers my cell phone . . .

That's only because the last and most notably creative place I decided to lose my cell phone was on the green of a golf course in Sterling.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lesson from an Egret

Listen to this post:

Algonkian Regional Park
Loudon County, Virginia

The Potomac loafs along beside me, a river without appointments to keep. In the woods, a crow protests indignantly. A man's voice crosses the water from three orange canoes. It's clearly Spanish, though the words are indistinct. Next a woman answers him with a voice like a vigorous fountain, its qualities magnified where its meaning is lost. An ember-bright leaf pirouettes in an eddy. The canoes round a bend and are gone. The air smells greenly of damp.

And still the egret stands like a statue of a bird, and not a real bird at all. He makes me think of a tall, gaunt wizard from a fairy tale, with a gray cloak and a nose of perposterous length. Fifteen minutes ago, he careened from the bank, beating his great, pinioned wings against the air like two silken battering rams, across the dazed black reflection of the trees on the Maryland shore. He came to rest on a shelf of rock, and there froze, unruffled as a photograph. He waited, ever so long, while I watched him peer into the mellow current.

At once he stirs and steps into the water, wading with imperial self-possession on his three-pronged, dragonish feet. The water could not tremble less at the passage of his stilt legs as he stalks his supper. His neck arches like the bending of a lithe bow, one of a piece with the snapping arrow of his beak. He gives a loud cry with no music in it, a squawk like a startled old man, a sound I must take for egret joy. He uncoils his neck. Like an idea in motion, too quick for my sight, he plunges his dark head into the flow and pulls it back with a writhing fish.

I want to be more like the egret, with the patience to be still without exhaustion, to never mind the idle currents or be dazzled by the glamour of light on water; but, knowing the good thing I wait for, to coil my hope in constant readiness, and to act in brave certitude when it comes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hello, Old Friend

I remember this feeling, these smells, but they creep over me with a fresh joy: the cool, corrupted scent of leaves and earth, the starched crispness of the air, like a glass of ice tea after the long, langurous day that was the summer.

I remember this feeling, and it binds me to itself and all of its memories: the eyes sneaking downward to close, the limbs dull and spent, the mind wandering, staggering down blind alleys of thought, the sleep that is never quite as much as I would have liked -- or needed, the exhaustion that is somehow sweet and thrilling.

What can I say to it, but "Hello, old friend"?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Conclusion: The Curse of the Hall of Nations

I crossed the lush red carpet and followed the sound, faint but growing, of a crooner cradling the microphone in his fat brown palms. None of my friends had arrived. I stuffed my purse under some ivy in a planter and wove my way through the spectators, limping every so slightly.

I milled on the edge, near the band, where the good dancers find their partners. I tapped my toes, trying at once to look nonchalant and eager to dance, tossing my gaze and reeling it back in like a fly fisherman, waiting for the first WWII veteran or gawky college freshman to ask me to the floor. After three dances, my foot was hurting considerably, but I paid it little heed; it was an annoyance.

Meg arrived, and we danced together for a bit. She continues to be the best male lead east of the Mississippi, and, when she returns to England soon, the best one east of the Atlantic. She obligingly spun me around a bit, but my shoe fell off in the middle of the song. I bent down to put it back on, and realized that something was very wrong.

My toe was the color of a Japanese eggplant. It was so entirely unexpected that I stared at it for a while, like a botanist considering a startling purple orchid. Then I connected the pain in my foot with this arresting visual, and I decided I had better sit down.

I hobbled over to a planter and sat down on the edge to enjoy the music. A female security guard made me move, so I hobbled a bit further, fished my purse from the sea of ivy, and pondered what to do next. Brandi and Aaron were there, too. Brandi, seven months pregnant, was not about to dance, so she fetched me a cup of ice from the bar. I balanced a cube on my toe and hoped, rather than believed, that it would help matters.

Meg returned to the floor, and I listened piningly to the next few songs. Bethany arrived with Brian, and after admiring the new pigmentation of my broken digit, they went off to dance as well. That did it.

I put my shoes back on, headed gingerly back to the edge of the crowd, and danced until the band went home.

I paid for it later. The rest of the weekend I spent glued to the couch with my foot elevated and wrapped in white gauze, though I avoided the doctor's office. (It's hard to get me into the emergency room unless loss of life is imminent.)It was worth it. And besides, I got rested.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Pair of Mirrors

In honor of class starting this week, here is the essay I submitted with my grad school application. No subject seems to be as inexhaustible as writing about writing, like the vanishing horizons in a pair of mirrors staring at each other . . .

What I read these days seems to matter less than where I read it. I have felt aware that my context, from my physical location to my mental state to that day’s headline in the Washington Post, lays half the foundation for meaning. If I read God on the Dock, collected essays by C.S. Lewis, in the aisle of Borders, it rings with Lewis’s wit and integrity of thought. If I read it in the middle of the Shenandoah Wilderness, ten miles from anything else that goes on two legs, in a tent by a river on a night of bitter Feburary cold, and the tent has sepulchral dimensions as I lie in the embalming warmth that my body radiates, and if I read by the light of a lamp that I wear on my head like a coal miner, than I clutch at the words in the pale blue orb of my headlamp. They become a cup of reason and thick-blooded humanness against the freezing dark.

And if I read Orwell’s “The Politics of the English Language” in my bedroom, still lodged in the agony of pantyhose but too weary to extricate myself, if I have spent all day reading memorandums in the garbled, bloodless English of business, then I soak in the words as in a steaming bath, and rejoice to find someone defending the English language. Someone needs to speak for the lovely and subtle words that are every day badgered and molested, kidnapped, assassinated and forced to misrepresent themselves. I say the following not to demean faith, but in acknowledgment of the power of language: Orwell is to the English language as Moses was to the Hebrew religion. His five pragmatic rules about language, our medium of meaning, guard it from the sacrileges that the novice writer itches to inflict, as surely as the Ten Commandments sought to hedge the Hebrew faith, the repository of Judaic meaning, from Canaan’s diluting influence.

I have often transgressed Orwell’s code. “Pretentious diction.” “Dying metaphors.” “Verbal false limbs.” “Staleness of imagery.” “Lack of precision.” I fell back on these sloppy faults many times in high school and college to camouflage any lack of understanding. To be frank, I was taught to do so. What you lack in original thought, make up in complex sentence structure. If the College Board readers are in a hurry, and we all knew that they were, they might mistake our inflated vocabulary and token classical references for actual insight. They did. But some writing was always about more that academic survival. It was about the man on the beach who, after an epileptic fit, drowned in two inches of water while we watched the lifeguards fail to revive him. It was about the vine-choked mountain behind my house where I contracted poison ivy – three times – and could not stop climbing it. It was, for a hormone-saturated interval, about my selfish and torrid fits of despair. Mostly, It was about was the parable that seemed to underlie everything I saw and to glue together its disparate shards. The literary chicaneries I had acquired only muddied such thoughts.

Some things we do out of love. Some things we do because we are forced to do them. Others, we do out of mindless ease from birth, and whether they become a joy or a drudgery depends on whether we tune the skill. We all breathe, but most of us draw quick, shallow, oxygen-poor sips of air. Only a few widen their lungs like inflating balloons to take sensuous gulps of atmosphere.

By the time I was eight, in an act that sealed my fate, I had begun reading books without pictures. In the summer after fourth grade, I swallowed volumes of Dickens (It gave me marvelous hangovers) and L.M. Montgomery. I stole my older sister’s assigned school readings and secreted them to my bedroom. I read the encyclopedia, starting with aardvarks. The contours of fiction blurred so that sometimes, the character in a book slipped into my bedtime prayers. Good reading has been my most intensive, useful, and unrelenting instruction in good writing. Writing at home was its own experimental education. I wrote gushy poems about kittens and morbid short stories about car accidents and comas. I recreated the styles and plots of my favorite authors (some uncharitable playmates put me on trial for “plaigarism” during recess.) I wrote stories and poems as birthday presents. This worked out well, since I had no income and my mother seemed to think it was charming. I wrote plenty of sentimental excrement that ought to made into a towering bonfire, but some things turned out well. When I entered eighth grade, my English teacher presented me with an ultimatum – either I would write the school play for that year, or we would put on a production of Pinocchio. I hate Pinocchio, and that was that.

As my education became more formal, I picked up the bad habits I still have to think about avoiding. But I kept pursuing writing, and I kept knowing that I would, someday, somehow, be a writer, however foggily I understood what it meant. Sometimes, I felt more as though writing pursued me. I took an internship at a bank in San Francisco that hired me to do 5,000 lines of data entry into an Excel spreadsheet. By the end of the summer, I was writing articles about commercial real estate banking for the company website.

I majored in English at Georgetown university. I took courses like Non-fiction as a Literary Form, Scriptwriting, Screenwriting, Advanced Non-fiction Writing Seminar. I also took a writing course in Italy called “Writing Italy” through Georgetown’s study abroad program at Villa Le Balze in Florence, Italy. I had a professor who made me rewrite the lyrics to Cole Porter songs, just to teach me about the importance of rhythm, and another who played recordings of Dadaist poetry just to convey the emotional punch of pure sound.

All the electrical wiring and light bulbs in the world are useless, unless someone flips the switch. In acquiring the machinery of a writer’s craft, the arsenal of rhetorical devices, I had wandered from that underlying parable, those beguiling disparate shards glued together. Degree in hand, I needed something to write about. I needed something to flip the switch.

When my father told me that he had Lou Gherig’s disease, I started a blog to keep from the jagged edge of insanity. All death is hard, but Lou Gherig’s is a master at inflicting human suffering, a virtuoso disease. His flesh seemed to melt into the ether as if an invisible spider feasted on his limbs. I wrote him “The Moon Song” to say good-bye him, but also to transfuse my blood into his veins.

When I traveled to Greece, Albania, and Macedonia with an NGO, the Greek director told me about the need for doctors, teachers, engineers, and human rights activtists, I paused. I cannot set a bone. I cannot teach a class, build road, or lobby the United Nations. My sparkly liberal arts education looked all at once dull and unwieldly. In the van between border checks, the director told her stories, stories that died maddeningly into the air as I listened, stories that mattered – cynicism be damned. Here was a problem I could do something about. We decided to write a book together. On the side, I am writing that book, writing articles for a start-up magazine, and still blogging, though I spend my professional life trying to pump an aesthetic soul into e-mails and survey reports.

I have written a little bit of everything, from Dadaist imitations to those commercial real estate articles, but the longer I go, the more creative or literary nonfiction draws me like a paper clip to a magnet. I love this genre because it is about the intersection of fact and soul, that parable written into and with and through the slipshod world. To discover it is like hearing the secret message when you play an album backwards. Creative nonfiction, done well, straddles the abstract and the earth, telling us the profound things with tangible elements. Human beings, clothed in flesh, compound sight and belief. If you tell a man about existential loneliness, he will nod politely; if you tell him something he can feel in his bones, like staring at the stars winking in the infinite cold, and feeling the indifference of the universe to his termite life, then he may understand what you mean.

That difference is vital. So many people grind out numb lives. A grand story is washing over us and we are missing it, daily and tragically. It is the stories we miss that transfix me. It must have started with my great-grandmother locked away in a nursing home. She was little more than bones with the flesh shrunken greedily back into her core, but she had so many stories. Unbelievable stories. It was like picking blackberries from a vine in July. They fell off. If we knew those stories, knew how to tell them and listen to them, we might be a little more awake, a little more clear, a little more human. And because they are true, they compel us.

My aspirations as a grad student are: 1) to have the opportunity to grow as a writer by being intelligently criticized (My support base has always been wildly enthusiastic, but irreparably blinded by genetic affinity.) 2) to keep writing! I think about writing and I talk about writing, but sometimes, between a full-time job and cooking myself meals and vacuuming the cat hair off the furniture, it’s hard to sit down and do it. I am afraid that if I let the muscles sit idle for too long, writing will become the road that diverged in the yellow wood that I did not take. 3) to work on this whole thing of becoming a “writer” that is, being published (that intimidating “p” word) and having “clips” and a “portfolio,” working with pitches and deadlines and editors and innumerable drafts.

As a writer, I would like to do freelance work of all kinds of nonfiction, essays, memoir, biography, travel, literary journalism, and creative nonfiction. I love the research component that inherently goes into such pieces. But even if I am never published, that Shangri-La and Holy Grail wrapped into one for writers, there is, as Orwell impressed, an inherent gift for those who master the thoughtful use of language. To write clearly, to do without the “prefabricated henhouses” of first resort in the English language, is the first step towards thinking clearly, about myself and my world.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Why Not to Write Thank-You Notes, or The Curse of the Hall of Nations

I don't like vacations very much. Oh, I'm as glad as anyone when the Office of Personnel Management (the august body that determines government snow days) decides that a quarter inch of sugary snow should shut everything down. But actual inactivity (otherwise termed rest) I usually find quite repulsive. Which is why, I think, God let me break my toe.

Once a year, on a Saturday evening in early September, the Kennedy Center hosts a free evening of swing dancing on the River Terrace. To my great chagrin, and to my discredit as a professed aficionado, I had not been swing dancing since I moved. I leapt at this opportunity to hear the Tom Cunningham Orchestra. I plyed my friends for weeks with the absolute necessity of joining me. I compared the twirling virtues of this skirt and that.

Then, this past Saturday, I wrote a thank-you note and went barefoot to the mailbox. I have one incurable habit inculcated by twenty years of West Coast living - I think shoes a great evil. On my way, I stubbed my toe. It smarted something awful, but so do all stubbed toes. I walked it off, dropped my letter in the box, and returned to the apartment. I showered and dressed in a brown, flouncy skirt that seems to induce a sashay in my steps. The evening was fine, so I set out to walk to the Kennedy Center just across the river, a distance of some 3 or 4 miles. By the time I got there, my foot was rather sore where I had stubbed it, but I didn't think too much about it. The river, a great blackness spangled with lantern light, lay like a mirror perpetually in the act of being shattered. The mild air begged to atone for summer's retreating brutality. And the music floated to me across the Hall of Nations.

I entered the great Hall of Nations, and I passed the memorial Margaret Zellers water fountain, where in September 2004, the last year that I came, Meg passed out with unbearable abdominal pain after the closing Lindy Hop. I spent the remainder of that evening with an incoming freshman, whose name I do not remember now, at Meg's bedside at the George Washington Hopsital urgent care, where we had all gone as a merry party in an ambulance.

To be continued . . .