"And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love." William Blake.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Murder Most Foul, some disconnected thoughts and quotes.

Twas my last year at Purdue University and a pro-life group gathered outside the English hall with six foot tall signs printed with photos of severed bodies that in truth are the size of a dime. They meant... something. I want to be able to say, "They meant well." Even I, a seamless garment pro-lifer, against capital punishment, euthanasia, war, suicide, assisted suicide, and abortion, puked in my throat, choked and thought, "this will only wound, not heal."

Dr. King wrote the words 
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Sara Manguso wrote in Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend, that her friend's suicide made that option unavailable to her. I keep asking when that option will be unavailable to me. These times try my soul. Last weekend I found the most elegiac place to die. And today, on my run, I saw myself, like Judas, running headlong off the cliff to dash myself against the stone. What does being against all violence look like?
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that, wrote Dr. King. 
The light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, wrote St. John of our Lord, the true Word who saves.
Last night, I broached the topic of the materiality of our thoughts, which Elder-now-Saint Porphyrios talks about in Wounded by Love. Elder Zaccharias wrote a whole book Our Thoughts Determine our Lives. The podcast Invisibilia  explored this from a scientific standpoint. I encountered Emerson's quote at the outset of "Self-Reliance" -- and here we are. What does it mean to wish that our brother gets his just-desserts? What does it mean to hate? To hate ourselves or another? 
That quote from Emerson in "Self-Reliance:" Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. --

From Wounded By Love, select quotes on materiality and danger in judgmental thoughts.

"Above everything is love. The thing that must concern you, my children, is love for the other person, of this soul. Whatever we do, whether it is prayer or offering advice or pointing out some error, let us do it with love. Without love prayer is of no benefit, advice is hurtful and pointing out errors is harmful and destructive to the other person who senses whether we love him or not and reacts accordingly. Love, love, love! Love for our brother prepares us to love Christ more. Isn’t that perfect? Let us scatter our love selflessly to all, without regard to the way they act towards us." [p. 181]

Let’s have love, meekness and peace. In that way we help our brother when he is possessed by evil. Our example radiates mystically, and not only when the person is present, but also when he is not. Let us strive to radiate our good will. Even when we say something about a person whose way of life does not meet with our approval, the person is aware of it and we repel him. Whereas, if we are compassionate and forgive him then we influence him — just as evil influences him — even if he does not see us.

We shouldn’t be enraged by people who blaspheme or who speak and act against God and the Church. Such rage is harmful. We may hate the words and the malice behind them, but we must not hate the person who spoke them nor become enraged against him. Rather we should pray for him. A Christian has love and graciousness and should behave accordingly.
What will make suicide unavailable to me? Self-annihilation. For there brothers and sisters annihilated daily by no will of their own. When I go, Dear Lord, let it be under the wheels of this dark age, in place of another who needed to go on.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

It's been a week, folks

I wrote an essay that started as a poem years ago, called King Tut's Nubian and now I refer you to it because it provides context for this post.

It's been a week, folks. Usually on weeks like this, I look for full moons, but I've been grading till wee hours of the morning and too depressed to get out of bed for my usual dawnbreak runs. I'm not superstitious but I believe in magnetic forces. Some include:

  • I've worked and worked and worked to grade and conference with all my students so they can be successful at 11th grade writing standards.-- I internalize all these messages about teachers who don't try enough. Try this. Try carrying between 220 and 300 students on your gradebook. Do the math on reading papers carefully, holding them against a rubric and knowing that 70% of first drafts don't meet higher than a D standard. Not proficient. Now, I have to help these kids see this without robbing their dignity and help them see how to fix it. That takes conferences. Conferences take time. Right after they turn in their papers, my school -- a virtual school where kids do most work from home without me or a parent there -- assigns the unit test. If they didn't give half a rat's buttcheek on the paper, they gave less to the test. Even they are fried. One of my team members resigned. And we'd just welcomed a teacher to drop our loads from three hundred to two hundred. Now what?
  • My daughter seems alone at school and had a tough summer. I'm a worried momma. I want her happy. When I have a week like this, I almost hold my breath to hear who will have cancer, more cancer, more double-toil-and-trouble. Maybe it's the disturbance in the force, coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, most of the Middle East. 
  • It was the Elevation of the Cross Feast. This is the feast where we read the OT story about the Jewish people looking upon the snake on the staff to be saved and we are reminded to look at the Cross at Christ upon it. Huh. Every year something overwhelms me and I'm caught looking up at the Cross with the same desperation. It's no cheeky easy solution. I look at it with anger and hurt and sneering. So, God. Why again?
  • And, I just get depressed. Regularly and more so as the years go by. I've always been depressed. Now, I get panic attacks and depression. 
  • My health issues flared up enough that I had to crash my dear friends' home tonight on a run and beg to use her loo. She rescued me cheerfully. I love you, dear friend. I've only done that two other times in the eight years I've been running. It's so humiliating. Not as humiliating as pooing yourself in the middle of a half-marathon though. That's worse. Oh, dear dear GI.
In that, I spent one whole day rebuffing all the love my husband and son gave me. Backrub, mom? I shrugged it off. Eye-contact, darling? Couldn't make it. I slinked up and down stairs without so much as a hello.
 But why acid-burn others with my despair? So I told my husband I'd try to kick around in the dark for my big girl knickers. He came alongside me. God should give that man a medal when we get to heaven. He's put up with me for over twenty years. I told him it could get bad way back, while we were still dating. Neither of us knew how crappy I'd get, literally and metaphorically. Lots of couples don't make it. If anyone asks how we do, I point at him. And God, and some friends.

Like my friends Luke and Janna. On the anniversary of their Aiden's death, they wrote me, not I them. Luke sent a playlist which I pulled up when I went for a prescription jog. That's where I pretend I popped an anti-depressant and I turn up music loud and run. Hard.

I tried that again tonight but there was the poo thing. TMI? Just wait till I write about my colonoscopy next week. This is my third in a decade. The docs hate me because I never go fully under anesthesia. I start a conversation just when they think I'm out. It weirds them.

Luke wrote a great blog tonight, so this response is really a push for you to go to his post "Sorrow, Shrapnel, and A-D." Read it. He wrote about Aiden's death, about losing his other (god) kids, about his own struggles with anxiety and despair. As I read his words, I thought of last spring, when one of my fellow parishioners stopped to scrape me off the sidewalk. I'd sat down there so light-headed from my panic attack that I thought I'd lose consciousness and fall into the road. I thought of Luke and Janna's quiet way of being. These people not only save my life, they exemplify what happens when we get up and keep going. In Luke's words,
"In doing so, I have also discovered that most of the people I have looked to for my own inspiration are deeply flawed and hurt individuals themselves, but more importantly, those who allowed their pain to help shape them by dealing with the sorrow shrapnel as it surfaced, and letting Grace, as U2 says so well, “…make beauty out of ugly things.” 

So here's to a brother and a family in Christ who are like brothers and sisters. To a friend whose birthday is today and knows what it's like to fight melancholy and care for people with mental illness. To another friend whose family struggles with mental illness.  To the friend who parents an autistic child and lets us into her house every week to see what we can learn from it. To siblings and siblings-in-law who let me fall apart and give sound responses. I'm not calling you out to embarrass you. I owe my life to you. I owe my life to the friend parenting a recovering cutter and alcoholic. I owe another friend, facing divorce with shrapnel and grace. I owe cousins, uncles, and siblings with cancer and mental illness who keep on soldiering for Christ. When I'm rooting around for my big girl knickers, hoping they say it's saturday, I turn up my music and keep the beat. Maybe tomorrow I'll have slept enough to scrape you up when you need it. Maybe. I hope so.

I owe all to my God who in the words of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, "knows the multitude of my evil-doings."
 You also know my wounds, and You see my bruises.But You also know my faith, and You behold my willingness, and You hear my sighs.
Nothing escapes You, my God, my Maker, my Redeemer, not even a tear-drop, nor part of a drop.
Your eyes know what I have not achieved, and in Your book things not yet done are written by You.
See my depression, and see how great is my trouble: 

King Tut's Nubian

While we lived in Pennsylvania, I took my middle school daughter to see the King Tut's Exhibit. We paid a pretty penny to wander for an hour among gilt sarcophagi and intricate jewelry. Within a few minutes, Layla raced ahead of me, bored as myself but so childlike she didn't care to get her money's worth.

Take away the glittering neon and the homage to the Pharoah felt a bit like our visit to Times Square. Oh, look at what rich people stock pile. Look what happens to it after they die. Meh. I lingered to get my money's worth, like a girl trying to savor a six-dollar slice of cheesecake while the scent of NY trash wafts by.

Not that the Tut exhibit smelled of dust. But there was no head-heart connection. I couldn't conjure the wonder at what the powerful do with their wealth. Only one piece impassioned me. Without the Nubian staff to snag my imagination, I might have felt like any children's museum in the country had as good a replica.

That Nubian girl, fashioned at the curve of the staff head, fluttered in my sensations. I had a kind of synethesia in the back of my head. She looked first like a dancer or mermaid splashing with such perfect grace, such beauty in her back bend. She was in a copper dress. Her shoulders squared. She was anguishingly slender, beautiful to behold and the longer I admired her the greater my confusion of pain and sweetness. The perfect curve from crown of her noble head, her brow, her nose, her lips, that chin, all more lovely than I remembered Barbies and ballerina dancers, I stared until she became the truth and horror. She looked without looking. She hides pain behind beauty and pride. Tut had bent her to breaking. She held hands behind her shoulder blades and copper links hind her upper arms. Her hands were turned back, Her thumbs  she folded as if her muscles seized. Powerless.

The sign said Tut had this staff fashioned to show he'd bent the backs of the noble race of Nubians who marched against him. He destroyed their dignity by making them his slaves and bending them to breaking. Because he wished it. Because he had the power.

I began to cry as I cry. Not sobs. Not weeping. A mere swollen eye. Burning salt. A wounding. Looking up on her pain felt like seeing myself as I felt doing my job.

She was my poetry. The metaphor of me. I would have broken the glass in a fantasy, stolen her, taken her to a farrier and begged him to give her enough warm to be made straight again. I could no more straighten her than I can or have straightened me. I am still such a slave.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


When we passed into Mexico, south of Chula Vista in July, my husband looked around and saw that it was beautiful. All that God created.

Until we crossed the border the teenagers in our van -- a SKV  they called it, which stood for serial killer van -- looked out onto a concrete Euphrates flowing south to Tijuana. They looked upon the fish. Chevies. Mercedes. Audis. Sonatas. CRV's. They looked out of the side-slanted windows, into the eyes of these animals. Carp. Guppies. Druggies. Warlords. Boreds. Gangstas. Smugglers. Mothers. The collective teenage consciousness in our white whale looked out on the paradise my husband saw and declared it rife with weakness and duplicitous motives.

North of the border boasted the best of human superiority. Grand villas. Manicured. Landscaped. Cultivated. Controlled. Balanced. South of the border broadcast the bildungsroman of humankind. On its way to civilization, greatness mashed against trash. Homes founded on piles of tires. Towers of hotels arrested a floor or two short. Rebar crowns and tin slips, pavement dying away to dust. Below the cat calling billboards -- autoplastía, anaplastía, abogado immigracíon, -- men walk down the dust between our highway and the eyesore of concrete and wire between us and them.

"Really?" I am flabbergasted. "Why do you think it's beautiful?" But the kids jabber too loud to answer and he's soaking up the vista. And calling it beautiful.


The square mile looks the same as it did when I saw it first four years ago. I drove a rented guppy with my daughter in the front passenger seat, two boys from our Midwestern church in the backseat. The guppy's transmission choked on dust. I prayed the white whale in front wouldn't race away from us, The white whale behind us would let us be a barnacle on its nose if this transmission failed. I divided my energy between observation, the art of a writer, and driving, the responsibility of a team leader.

To be fair, the first trip into Tijuana was 2011. Even our town in Indiana looked like hell. 2008 came, stole our bread, stole our factories. Thrifty scared and bored, people in our town built labs in their attics for cash and entertainment. Our century's version of a still, my generation's version of hooch kills as many of us, or more. Houses blow up, or burn. Back home our main street looked like an abandoned Western town. The saloons, the lawyers, insurance agencies, pawnbrokers, tanning shops and motley folks put out their wares. Mostly everything looked beautifully abandoned.

Imagine Tijuana in that. In Mexico during the crisis, the government made the Tortilla Act. Farmers south sold their corn north of the border. Corn for ethanol sold better than corn for food. The two room, concrete-and-chicken-wire houses we came to build protected a family's claim. They squatted in something more permanent than tin and tarp.


The tires that triggered quiet "ah's" and "that house is literally built on" from the teens, those were part of well-designed repurposed buildings. The longer we rode, the more I saw rows of white and vibrantly painted homes inside compounds. To me, Tijuana had burst forth. It was reaching towards beautiful. More like the pretty side by side compounds of Guatemala City's neighborhoods, which I'd seen only once.

I traveled to Guatemala City in August of 2011, a few weeks after we returned from Mexico. For both my husband and me, this was a first. Our first travels out of the US. When we disembarked in Guatemala City, we walked past armed soldiers across the tarmac. Guns and guards seemed to swarm. I thought of New Orleans after Katrina, images I'd seen, not experienced. Now I walked among guards who couldn't care if I spoke only English.

My husband says he found Guatemala hard to look upon with love. I saw its zoologico and the uniformed students, waiting to see if today the striking teachers would show up to unlock their schools. I saw uniformity, not graffiti and dust. I went to bed at night inside the twenty foot high cinderblock walls surrounding the Hogar Raphael. The shipping trucks rattled until late. They picked up Sears furniture from the factories nearby. Nightclubs on the four corners of the compound took over the noisemaking around midnight. I heard weeping and music, hollering and fighting.

"Once, we found a knife in the grass," said Madre Ivonne, the nun who supervised the hogar. A man had been murdered on the other side of the wall. I thought about that every night as I fell asleep. I felt safe because we had check in with the armed guard at the steel gate of the compound, even with Jorge driving. Jorge was Madre Ivonne's brother.

 At four am, I woke up because no one sang, hollered, honked or cranked an engine. I heard clicking across my floor. I flicked on the switch. Large black beetles skittered under the crack into the jardín separating my room from my husband's. I shut off the light. They came back like that every night. I shuddered thinking of them ending up in my luggage, but what bothered me more was the wire in my showerhead. It heated my water at the spigot, but if it shorted I would be electrocuted. Our handyman warned me to take a cold shower before trying to fix anything myself. No worries, Joe, I thought. I would moan my way through a cold shower, wash away a little sweat and dust, and huddle in my covers. And flick on the lights if the beetles sounded too close. 

Several nights in a row, I did just that. But one night, when I flipped off my switch at ten pm, light seeped through cracks above me. I'd never seen it before. A swishing sound and dust sprinkled down on me. Like a subtle hint, I understood that I had someone above, the older hogar girls or Madre Ivonne. My late night light defense against the beetles probably disturbed the sleeper above.

 I loved Guatemala City, even Zona Una, even though the mothers said they had to get the kids out of there, it was just too ugly, too dangerous.

Coming home this summer, my husband told everyone he thought Mexico was beautiful.

 "I thought Guatemala was more beautiful myself," I said.

"I didn't," I take his response as a bit defensive, a kind of retort, as if we a have passive resistance to the mystery of beauty we each see. It's not true  but he sees something so expansive he has yet to capture the beauty, though he's been playing with lyrics and chords to get it across. "Whatever is lovely, whatever is true, think on such things," admonishes Paul, a writer, a saint and sinner too. We're all reaching to these mysteries, I think. It's no easy task wrestling with beauty. Sometimes it's easier to entertain with dust than mystery, with violence and ugliness rather that what is lovely and faithful.