Tag Archives: faith

Liturgy, a short story

The faith grew from inside my bones, starting with incense, candles, and bells. I loved the magic of my church. First down the aisle came the Verger. Then came the majestic candles and banners, singers and acolytes, and the hypnotic clouds of incense from a swinging ball. Then came the Assisting Father, the bearer of the holy Gospels, and lastly the Celebrant Father. The sweet fog of the incense hung in the air like a cloud of God, making everything in my head holy… making me, myself, holy. Holy: as in whole, complete, well-loved.

It all helped me pray. I prayed for lots of things, on my knees, eyes closed, hands together, kneeling in the pew. I just knew someday I would live in a convent castle, and be the bride of Jesus. But at the same time I was always a tiny bit afraid I might speak out loud; what if I said a bad word? Even in elementary school, I understood this fear should be irrational and unlikely.

But it wasn’t! My little brother had once, when he was under the age of two, shouted the word “fuck” while the Congregation knelt with their heads-bowed, palms pressed, in one of the dramatic kneeling sections of the service. And my baby brother’s voice was so bright, so free, so joyous… that even the Celebrant Father couldn’t keep from laughing.

Everybody laughed. Including the Assisting Father, who was round as a ball and wore his red hair shaggy, and had round, hippie glasses. It may have been High Church Episcopalian, but it was still Fort Lauderdale in the 60s. Thank god my little brother didn’t do that when I got Confirmed by the Bishop was my only thought!

“Jesus loved children,” said the Celebrant Father, and the service flowed on without a hitch.

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When Things Got Too Weird For Ripley (Believe It Or Not)

hiroshima & nagasaki survivor

When Things Got Too Weird For Ripley (Believe It Or Not)

Notwithstanding the fact that he still received more letters every year than anyone on earth, including Santa Claus (Believe It Or Not), his sinking fits of despair started to occur with frightening regularity, after the war. On his way to the far East, for the first time since Pearl Harbor Day, he stood on the naked, turkey-breast hull of the sunken battleship Arizona, looking down at his own well-shod feet as though the rolled steel were transparent. He could see the innocently disarrayed skeletons of the young men entombed inside (Believe It Or Not). His full, delicate lips, firmly closed, covering his distinctive, protruding teeth. He was speechless for the first time, in fifty-odd years.

Oddly, he couldn’t take his mind off his Tibetan skull-bowl, back home. He felt the hinged roof of the bowl under his cold fingers, he tasted warm, sacramental blood and wine, mixed in equal parts, sharp and bitter against the roof of his mouth like the blade of a rusty, iron sword. For the microphones, he read aloud the notes he had with him, but his voice wasn’t Ripley’s anymore, it was the gentle, quavery voice of an old, old man.

Since his first success, he had been a hard-working, hard-playing man, with the immodest tastes of an oriental emperor. He earned a million dollars a year, and knew how to spend it. On better days, he’d have six smart, well-dressed women under his roof, for energetic conversation, for private fun and games. Out on his secluded spit of land in the middle of Oyster Bay, they’d barbecue whole pigs, split sides of beef, and the flavor of the smoked flesh he tore into was marvelous, marvelous.

Later that day, continuing his flight from Hawaii to Japan, he lost track of where he was for a few moments, and through his puffy, heavy lids, the woman bending over him with the pitcher of pink lemonade looked exactly like the love of his life, dead ten years that month of cancer. Dear, sweet, Ola, he almost said, but caught himself. Though his temples sweated copiously, he refused to soil his handkerchief, letting his shirt become wet, stiff with his salt.

His live radio broadcast, next morning, from Hiroshima’s approximate ground zero, wasn’t easy, not with him sitting at a card table, fumbling with watches frozen at the moment of detonation, staring at a vaporized child’s wool-and-silk-ribbon slippers, retrieved intact from the dunes of sticky ash (Believe It Or Not); the only artifact to survive the blast for many thousands of square yards. He haggled over price and bought it for his newest museum, opening the next month in Las Vegas.

As long as he could remember, he’d been happily locked in an embrace with the whole odd, eclectic world, savoring each one-of-a-kind moment his physical bulk passed through. Here at Hiroshima, for the first time, that innocent enthusiasm which had brought him so very far from Riverside, California seemed to encircle his tired neck like one of the great unwieldy money-stones of New Zealand, giving little joy.

Upon reaching his final destination, Shanghai, he saw his dearest, most beloved city in a panic: everyone knew the Reds were marching down from the hills. It was only a matter of time before the soul of China became engorged and insensible with Mao’s revolution. Voracious appetite of old absent, he forced down a quart of sticky rice with Seven Delicacies for show, for form, so as not to upset his agent.

A week later, back in New York, for the second time he faltered while on the air, then passed out, slithering to the floor in his fine wool suit like a large scrubbed potato, hands scrabbling against the studio floor, grasping the taped microphone cords with a syncopated rhythm, his young female assistant staring at him like a ritual mask, her mouth a lipsticked slash of fear, babbling nonsense until they thought to turn the mike off: the perils of live broadcasting.

That very night, Rip called his next-door neighbors from the hospital; I’m getting out of here tomorrow morning, he said. I’m taking us on a long vacation, God knows we all deserve it. He hung up the black phone and leaned back, dead before his head touched the pillow. Years later, his dearest friends all said it was a blessing he didn’t live to see how the world changed. The world changed and made his collection of physical oddities seem, by comparison (Believe It Or Not) warm, safe, what we dream of when we dream of heaven, not one of us doubting for a minute, anymore, that fact is stranger than fiction.

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Giant Redwoods, a poem

illustration muir woods 2

Giant Redwoods

(Statements in italics taken from Ethics, by Baruch de Spinoza)

Look farther and farther toward thin blue sky, until the green feathery tops of the trees are like the northern pole on some dream planet.  Put the anger back in its bottle. These trees are generous.  Hatred can never be good.

Your carsickness from the ride up the mountain begins to fade, leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo not unlike your first religious fervor.  Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

When have you not been afraid?  The random can be scrutinized for meaning, the puzzle solved, when surveyed long & carefully enough.  Anything may be accidentally the cause of either hope or fear.

These trees have plenty of time.  As a child, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours, wishing you could marry him  — wondering what it was that made him love you.  Could you sacrifice yourself for the sins of the world, if it was that simple & necessary? Cathedrals turn us small and vulnerable again, for reasons both blessed & cursed.  Devotion is love towards an object which astonishes us.

Vague, starry eyes like yours feel at home here; the air is weighty, burdensome & solemn. You’ve loved trees before; this is different.  These trees have plenty of time – more time than you.  If we love a thing which is like ourselves, we endeavor as much as possible to make it love us in return.

Your nerves are suddenly frozen, by the unaccustomed richness of perfect light.  Your guide is tall & slender, hesitant to speak.  Her mother has the tattooed forearm of a Polish Jew of a certain age.  The knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sorrow.  Sorrow is [a hu]man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  She touches your wrist, and for a moment, you, too, want to grow taller, leaving the surface of the earth behind forever.  Shyly, she picks up a tiny pinecone, smaller than a toy.  You both laugh when she tells you this is their seed.  Joy is [a hu]man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  And all around, their wise, fallen, hollow bodies litter the ground like the bones of saints.  Childlike, you understand a wish to die here, never to leave this hush.  They’re only trees – your neck bent back as far as it will go; only trees, yet wondering if the giants can hear your thoughts.  Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  Love and desire may be excessive.  When the mind imagines its own weakness, it necessarily sorrows.

Is there anything we have less power over than our own tongues?  These trees have plenty of time, growing wise as the Buddha, in their silence.

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Conjoined Twins, a poem

illustration-conjoined-twins

Conjoined Twins, a poem

Her entire pregnancy was uneventful until the second stage
of labor. Mother pushed and pushed, but we babies could not
budge. Surgeons came, made quick cuts necessary to disengage
us from the womb — found our joined skulls, an impudent topknot.

Mother wouldn’t let them separate us, she said the risk
outweighed the benefits. We learned to walk as best we
could; I, the taller, faced front in hopeful arabesque
while Sister followed. She didn’t mind, droll legatee

of my cranium, girl I never see. Despite our closeness,
we live in opposite ways; I view her face only in mirrors,
with my one good eye — our skin melts together, flawless,
pearly. A nice thing is, we never suffered night terrors.

We have never been alone. When they say, look, Siamese
twins, I want to scream. That is not the proper name for
our arrangement. Sister says, let them talk — I think she’s
crazy to let it pass, but I don’t say that. A big furor

won’t help at all. One trick we are good at is peace.
Negotiation has been our forte since that first incomplete
division; the moment each cell refused the other’s release.
We have minds of our own, thank god, and life is sweet

when you know where you’re bound. I go off to work,
Sister goes too. I sing while I type up my data, she reads
her mysteries, we break for lunch. My boss goes berserk
every once in a while; he’s got the same kinds of needs

for perfection we all possess. The one worry I have
not tamed is which of us will die first. I hope
it’s not me — how would she walk? I am the brave
one, the one who catches bugs. I would try to cope

without her. Once, in the night when she fell sick
with the flu, I held her until the shaking stopped,
until the fever broke. I wondered then, all dyadic
jokes aside, what if we had been cut apart, clipped

early into two separate forms? If it ever comes, will life
on my own be any easier? I’d save some of her long hair,
for sweet remembrance. She’d be a sharp phantom pain, a wolf-
gray stone with my birthday — my head a floating solitaire.

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Notes From The Unconscious, a poem

illustration-notes-from-the-unconscious

Notes From The Unconscious

Run me languid over a rusty road,
and you behind, laughing to pursue…
Take only my smooth love chain,
kiss me softly, without injury.

I am essential and lusty…
I will drive through it for her leg diamonds,
and use him at those bare places.
To sea and gone were the sweet peach thousand.

The blood goddess is frantic…
She knows how hard loving is.
All delicate language has arms of iron, so
sing elaborate love from your tongue.

How have I dreamed sordid roses?
Rob them of a tiny pink eternity….
As bees nuzzle, so shall I dive into you,
and sniff your scent like a mama bear.

A man I used to know lives less than anyone
under wool suits. He rips up rocks
as meat, then he must finger petals.
He has no idea this is happening.

For years, I floated bitter in a black lake…
I said, please, no beating,
leave out the ugly juice,
don’t make me drink any more.

No one listened. My eyes turned
red like woman vision…
I am still weaker & falling,
after death, beauty may ache raw & blue.

He let a void crush what we incubated….
Did it in my white bed.
One milk moan from an infants’
fresh red lips, haunting me forever.
Boil away the mist with lick power.
Heave away or use an apparatus….
Near the TV, these fiddles cry for feet
to dance and obliterate pain.

Our sad summer was like a repulsive
shadow of fluff. I floated like a dandelion seed.
But winter could recall a sweet day chant
with cool water, trips to the country like lazy sun…

Did the purple smear on the wall show size?
Why can the mad beautiful boy shake?
I watch a friend produce a luscious lie.
None trudge after me, but time will swim easy…

Blow your smoky symphony,
my green cloud angel,
and put the sacred blaze against a woman,
melting her like caramel.

Dirt will come and time bring ice,
so heal your broken voice, shed the marble
surrounding you like a deep bone prison,
while I bleed champagne.

Ask your heart to squirm, remember
the ship of spring, seek air blue kisses,
pierce the morning, know the color of liquid
magic, speak in a velvet stream, and love me.

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Latin Epidemics, a poem

mane-placidus-et-gnosce-latinLatin Epidemics

Everyone’s caught this bug, talking to the dead, palms upturned.
Hope, long dead, the naked white bones a comfort; leaving homes,
wives, husbands, dreaming toward love; signs of birth.

People so disciplined, so filled with the rules of grammar; staying
married for life, or at least a day. A good day, kiss-filled; warm,
moist lips, not bloodless, cold & grey. How did we catch the fever?

Dreams uncatchable, passion withers; too much hope, too much
trust. Not much honesty; not much logic; a man wanted his wife
to talk to him. A woman wanted her husband to stroke her cheek

with his finger as if she was a flower, a child wanted her mommy
to drink less, wanted his daddy to stay longer… words come easier,
etched on lead sheets thrown into a sacred spring, asking favors of gods.

May he who stole my dog be plagued with gout; may she who
laughed at my husband grow warts on her nose… in a millennium,
nothing has changed except the curses, the fashion, the cheese & wine.

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She Hates Numbers

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Temporal Lobe Epilepsy With Localized/Partial Seizures, a personal essay

illustration temporal lobe epilepsy

I couldn’t go to work today. COULD NOT go. Me. Me! Me!!! The Me I know as Miss Responsible (at least before), or Miss “Took Copious Notes and Asked Earnest Questions of Every Professor She Ever Had” (at least before), or Miss Order of the Coif & Law Review (at least before), Miss Top 5% (at least before)… I COULD NOT go. I could not go, as surely as if I had been very heavily & securely shackled and chained to my bedroom floor with no tools of any kind within reach.

Then, abruptly at 12:11 p.m. – perhaps because Miss Self-Blaming loves to make Miss Responsible feel horrible because she has not done anything productive on this (fucking difficult) day, I am suddenly ORDERED (by a part of myself I don’t know, and, frankly, do not ever want to know) to write about “temporal lobe epilepsy with localized/partial seizures.” This particular moment — Wednesday, August 12, 2015, 12:11 p.m., convinces me that my entire universe — the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, and the creative — has turned into one long, very long, seemingly endless, “temporal lobe epilepsy with localized/partial seizures” episode… at least for right now.

Helpless to help myself, mostly, except for a stubborn, almost instinctual, ability for self-care, feeding & watering. I’m conscious, but either (1) not able to speak aloud, or (2) uncontrollably babbling each & every random thought my storming brain generates. That’s how you can think of a seizure: an electrical storm in the brain. Complete, sometimes, with inner thunder & lightning & high winds. I sometimes wear earplugs, or I sometimes listen to the music I love — and there is a lot of music I love — loud enough to drown out all the sounds that go along with being in a room in a house in a city on planet Earth in the calendar year 2015. Block out the loud, the abrupt, the frightening; nurture the calm, the logical, the safe.

What has saved me thus far, mostly, is the fortunate fact that even in this fucked-up state I can still write — albeit with tons of spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. At these moments, in particular, I thank God for the generations of computer whiz kids, who gave us things like word processing, complete with editing capabilities, and pretty good grammar & spellcheck. I thank them for these things because another aspect of these seizures is a barely functioning short term memory, and a dreamlike, almost hallucinatory perception of myself and my surroundings… very vivid while it’s happening, and very ass-kicking after it’s over. I do not recommend it as a way of life, or even as a temporary experiment.

I think, but do not yet know for sure, that my “temporal lobe epilepsy with localized/partial seizures” may be permanent, and treatable only with an alarming number of drugs, needing to be taken as many as four times a day. This entire state of affairs is due to the fact that I required brain surgery for a nonmalignant, though large, tumor, which was between, or around, or next to, my frontal and temporal lobes, and as a special bonus, was wrapped around the main aorta of my brain and my right optic nerve. The other permanent souvenir of my tumor and surgery is a 50% vision loss, more or less, in my right eye, and a funky-looking scar on my head that usually isn’t visible (thank god!) because I have very thick, coarse, wavy hair. Horsehair, I used to call it, and I am profoundly grateful for it now, for without it I would remind people of Frankenstein, and quite possibly frighten some children.

I’ve tried to write this without it sounding like a 30’s blues song… what comes to mind is “Down The Big Road Blues,” by Mattie Delaney (born 1905). When I am in this state I find myself missing my daughters… when they were children especially. I miss so many things about them! I miss listening to music or watching a movie or playing a game or just talking with them. They love music, and singing, and laughing, and playing Scrabble intensely. Aren’t the intimate connections, with our intimates & beloveds, what make life worth living? I am so humbly grateful for my beloved partner, my daughters, my dearest human & animal friends, my fellow creatives & nonconformists.

Without all of you, I would be lost. As part of a team — even if it’s only a team in my imagination — I am able to keep doing the next necessary thing, whatever that may be. Sometimes it’s cleaning the floor. Sometimes it’s snuggling my dog. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes it’s reading. Sometimes it’s meditation. Sometimes it is putting my arms around a living, breathing, warm human. My daughters, as babies, taught me the value of plain old physical closeness to someone we love as we love ourselves. So, I say to myself… “Shoot The Loop,” just like the Acoustic Alchemy song my beloved partner introduced me to.

Thank you for your time and attention. May your day be blessed with clear thinking and right action and peace. May you, may I, and may all the human world keep on waking up from our “very long dream,” into a brilliant and fascinating future. Fascinating. Brilliant. All of us.

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The Way of Tiny Swordfish, a prose poem

The Way of Tiny Swordfish, a prose poem

Sitting in the living room next to the indoor fish pond.  Watching the tiny swordfish jump up the miniature rock waterfall, knowing and empathizing with their drive to go somewhere farther along, somewhere even unknown, somewhere presently unattainable.

Sitting on the floor next to the black Naugahyde, Father-Knows-Best chair and matching ottoman, which no one actually ever sat in, as if knowing we were not worthy occupants.  Wanting a father badly, asking my stepfather if I could call him Daddy.  My mother made me ask him myself, but I wanted her to ask him for me!

They married when I was four, then went away to New York City – actually the Dick Van Dyke show suburb of New Rochelle – for a year, while I lived with my grandmother.  My mother worked as an “executive” secretary for Norelco, and every time I saw the commercial with Santa riding the Norelco razor down the snowbank I swelled with pride.

I started kindergarten at four, Catholic school.  Nursery school, kindergarten, and first grade with the Catholics.  They say if they have you until age seven, they have you for life.  Saint Teresa for Halloween!  I came home, told Mommy I couldn’t wait to die and go to Heaven, so I could be with Jesus; pictures of Jesus taped to the headboard of my four-poster bed.  Mommy said, “That’s enough Catholic school!”  So public school for second grade.

Loving the families shown in black-and-white on TV, where the biggest problem was fighting over your curfew, getting a bad grade on a test, not being allowed to go to some party where, in the end, father knew best because some kids got in a car wreck either on the way there, or after.

Having a kitchen where there were no roaches living in the toaster, or the silverware drawer.  Where I could ask my mother for advice, and not have it be wrong, not have it break my heart.  Dreaming of and longing for a life of being saved and shepherded by your parents, like on TV.  Trusting their wisdom.  I wanted to trust mine.

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Divine Love, Divine Hate, an essay

illustration divine love divine hate

Divine Love, Divine Hate, an essay

Scientists have of late discovered that music stimulates the same areas of the brain as food and sex. That’s why listening to music can bring a chill, raise the small hairs on the back of the neck. That’s why music demands — and gets — our closest attention. You need me, the music calls, you need me to survive, to perpetuate your species. Without me, you will have less well-being, less pleasure and satisfaction. What a design! Food, sex and — music.

The pleasure centers of the brain — the reptilian, primitive intelligence — is not involved in abstract thought but entrusted with the very essence of staying alive. Yet the impulses and desires which originate there find means of expression in our higher intelligence. Food and sex are necessary for survival, so necessary that sometimes it seems as though the whole human world, all human society and culture, can be thought of as nothing more than an interesting mechanism to keep us supplied with food and sex.

The appreciation of music springs from that same primal area of the brain — could this possibly mean there must be a God, after all — a God who gave us another instinct, one for pleasure and beauty, in addition to our basic instincts to survive? Music, a divine invention with no practical purpose. No purpose at all other than to inspire in us joy, mystery, fear and abandon.

Think of all the emotions we can express with food, sex and music:   passion, joy, disinterest, experimentation, violence, anger, tenderness, wistfulness, meditation, transcendence. Food, sex and music can be used to communicate, even intensify, all these emotions, yet the trio can also be used to push us past all of these feelings to a region of Godlike rationality and knowledge. Yes, occasionally our existence becomes clear, understood fully until surface complexity falls away into the deeper simplicity of detached understanding. A strangely quiet joy — a joy beyond anything prosaic.

A poetic joy, able to recreate itself in the mind forever. Sometimes the memory of such enlightenment is what keeps us going when the enlightenment itself feels as far away as Uranus or Pluto — as cold, as unreachable. Remembering how once we held it in our bodies and it filled us so there was nothing empty, noting lacking, nothing to fear — not even death. It is a knowledge, a contentment, which infants possess without awareness. To possess this peace with awareness is the greatest achievement, but one which few people are able to sustain for long. We hold it and fall in love with it and in an instant it twists out of our hands and flashes off into the distance like an agile, silvery minnow. Enlightenment as God’s minnow. Look at it too closely, try to keep it too long, and you may never see it again.

I myself have only a rather wobbly faith in God’s existence, but I nonetheless feel pity for people who declare without hesitation that nothing divine exists. What a drab, ugly world their interior castles must be, with only themselves for company.

The divine cannot be ruled out. We cannot know what exists beyond our senses.   Certainly people have been enraptured by the idea of divinity — especially, most recently, the notions of divine anger, divine vengeance — modern terrorists have embraced these, but without embracing the corresponding ideas of divine love and divine compassion. Yes, people have fastened their wills on the idea of divine judgment, but they have ignored completely divine forgiveness.

The cockroach is as marvelous a creation as anything — see it scuttle away from the light, a most marvelous mechanism, see it copulate, see it reproduce itself, see it taste its food with pleasure twinkling in its delicate, wavelike feelers. No less miraculous than us. But we have an ability the cockroach does not have — to be self-aware of our divine impulses — our duty as human beings is to dive both below and above our own ordinary human consciousness. To bring all our unconscious knowledge and desires into to the conscious realm — both those desires labeled primitive and those labeled exalted.

Some elements of love are to be found in the roach. It loves its life: flees from danger, attempts to avoid harm, and tries to survive no matter what the odds. This is where the terrorists have failed. They have embraced only half the divine order — divine hate — the half that appeals to them more and suits their political purposes. They need to stretch themselves, accept all things God has created — even those they find distasteful or abhorrent — and leave the judging to God. They need to cultivate in themselves divine compassion and divine love. Terrorists profess they love God, but they do not love God’s creation — therefore that love is flawed, is not really love at all. Their love has turned inside out into hate.

They need to learn from the cockroach, as do we all. We possess vast potential for divine virtue, yet are so capable of falling into the abyss of pride. These terrorists have fallen, and they are trying to pull us down with them. We must not surrender to only part of the divine order. We must catch ourselves with the feelers of the insect before we tumble too far.

I cannot blame anyone who feels the need to destroy the terrorists. I feel that need myself, the blood lust of anger and retribution. But we must find a response pleasing to the divine. That is what prayer is — thinking about what a divinely perfect being might do, waiting for the small voice to tell us the right way to handle this new permutation of evil — without ourselves falling under its wicked spell.

This is what all religious searching has been aimed at. Whether we believe God exists or not — we can imagine God, as God might exist. Sometimes it is better to die than to kill the blameless. We can feel such things in our deepest selves, and these places are just as important to reach with the conscious mind as the highest levels of abstract thought.

We can imagine God, we can love God, we can honor God, and that is what matters most, not whether God truly exists. Good and evil, love and hate, right and wrong, call it whatever you like. It is our uniquely human gift, our uniquely human burden. Did we ask for this? Be careful what you wish for, goes the old admonition. Would I rather be my dog, or my cat? Sometimes I envy their peace of mind. They don’t know about world wars. But my most divine pleasures, feeling them and knowing that I am pleased, and knowing why — in this way I have my cake and eat it, too. The lure of that apple in the garden is a lovely allegory, whether it happened or not — we invented it. This is the quality of our humanity which we can never give back, no matter how much we might want to.

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