Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ozarks 27.7.04: Water-Reflected Light, Paths of Mist in Pines

Sunrise at the cabin, compared to sunset: sunset ushers in a cool evening; sunrise touches the cool damp depths of the valley with fingers of warmth. Sunset catches to fire the leaves of the elm beside the mere. As beams of setting sun sparkle on the rippling surface of the water, the leaves and trunk of the tree dance with light, as if the entire tree is illumined by some artificial power source. With the diamond gleam of the green leaves in the setting sun and the play of water-reflected light, day ends in symphony sublime.

Morning sun traces paths of mist down through the pines, onto the cabin’s chimney. I sit now in the first beam of light as the sun rises over the eastern hilltop, though the far western lip of the mere has been lit up for some time now. And as I watch, drops of water fall through the light, evidently from leaves laden with moisture, as a breeze troubles the still air. Like sunset, a sight almost too beautiful for human eyes to see.

+ + + + +

Thoreau, A Walk on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “Alas, the poet too, is, in one sense, a sort of dormouse gone into winter quarters of deep and serene thought, insensible to surrounding circumstances; his words are the relation of his oldest and finest memory, as wisdom drawn from the remotest experience. Other men lead a starved existence, meanwhile, like hawks, that would fain keep on the wing, and trust to pick up a sparrow now and then.”

Which reminds me: the other day, as we drove, we passed a blind man standing very still and silent on the street. It was as if he were intently listening, concentrating on some inner reality to the exclusion of all outer concern . . . .

I see the sun set, rise, as a blind man does.

+ + + + +

Mary Oliver, Long Life: “Surely he was looking for something that would abide beyond the Tuesday or the Saturday.” This vis-à-vis Emerson.

And then this astonishing passage—astonishing because it encapsulates so precisely what I just wrote: “The lofty fun of it is that his ‘appearances’ were all merely material and temporal—brick walls, garden walls, ripening pears—while his facts were all of a shifty vapor and an unauthored good-will—the luminosity of the pears, the music of birds and the wind, the affirmative staring-out light of the night stars.”

+ + + + +

Thoreau, Civil Disobedience: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.”

Monday, December 29, 2008

Ozarks 26.7.04: Joe-Pye Weed and Tiger-Marked Butterflies

At the cabin. We’ve yet to name it Kats Rest. The old sign, Wildernest, still hangs by the roadside, flaking and cracked from gunshot wounds (as I started to write—but can a sign be wounded?).

Or would Katsmere be more appropriate? It’s that mere, constantly moving as water falls into it and wind passes over it, that’s the heart of the cabin.

Wind, water, heart, movement: religiously charged words. Hebrew makes no distinction between breath and spirit/Spirit: ruah serves for all. God’s breath passes constantly over the world, causing it to move with delight. Send forth thy Spirit and we shall be created . . . .

And as Kathleen O’Hara said to me so many years ago, to have a soul like water so still, it mirrors back perfectly sun and sky. Or a soul instantly malleable to God’s breath, to life-giving water flowing in constantly to replenish it.

Steve said it was 62º when we awoke. Amazing for late July. We slept very comfortably with only the fans, and in fact, I got cold in the night. It’s now overcast, heavy rain clouds scudding by but dropping no rain.

Thoughts of Philander constantly. I must shut it out of heart and mind and let inner work clear my soul enough, this vacation week, that I’ll know what to do. Anything I think now leads to a mathematical equation that’s like a vise: quit, and preserve sanity and integrity, but have no health insurance or salary, leaving Steve with the whole burden, and playing into their hands. Fight, take pride in doing so, but know it’s a losing battle, and self-destruct even as I fight. And how fight there . . . and at Belmont . . . and at RAIN? What’s left of me, for me, except all fight?

+ + + + +

Still thinking of that recent dream about Sophia. Is this a specific wisdom dwelling inside me? The specific wisdom that is an ancient Celtic or Druidic presence in my soul—if passed on from Kate Ryan to Hattie Batchelor, then Celtic?

It’s perhaps that old woman—perhaps even an actual ancestor—that I saw once in a dream, walking up an Irish field to a byre in mist; she turned her head, shrouded by a shawl, and I looked her full in her blue eyes. Or she’s the fey old woman, Nora Bonesteel, in Sharyn McCrumb’s novels.

I contact this wisdom here in a landscape so like ones my Irish, Scottish, and perhaps English ancestors would have known: the lichen-covered rocks, the tree-clad hills, the waterfall. Poulnassy waterfall is very near Inchacarran, whence the Ryans came here. I think often of Val Ryan when I’m here, and of the stone on which he carved or had carved Bridget’s memorial. It looks to have come from the mountains.

At the opening of his chapter on beans, Thoreau speaks of how he was actually re-visiting a childhood scene, in going to Walden. His flute was waking echoes of the very waters he had seen first as a four-year-old boy.

+ + + + +

The butterflies have been working the joe-pye weed from—when? sunup? certainly from full sun—until now, about 5 P.M., when I see them no more. They’re all shapes, sizes, colors—black with yellow marking; black with blue (iridescent) patterns; ditto with swallowtails; creamy bright yellow; a startling blue purple—the latter two very small; tawny orange with tiger markings.

They love to sit on the sun-heated sandstone and fan out their wings. Why, I wonder?

Oh, I misspoke. Here’s a latecomer, small, black with orange spots. It’s landing on a tad of paper on the porch. Brassie takes offense at this and snaps, repeatedly, thankfully not catching it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ozarks 26-27.6.04: Christianity and Candles

26.6.04

Kats Rest again—the boys, Luke, Colin, and Pat with us. And I have done research and confirmed I’m wrong about Walpurgisnacht. It’s actually May Day eve, I think, so April. So it competes with the Marian cult, the crowning of the Virgin, which sacralizes all those old pagan May customs.

Today would have been Simpson’s 53rd birthday. R.I.P.

Thoreau, Walden, “Solitude”: “I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.”

27.6.04

“I believe that the more one loves, the more one will act; for that love is only a feeling I would never recognize as love . . .” (van Gogh to Theo, May 1883).

Sun just now in the pines atop the hill on the eastern horizon. Cool and clear—amazing for late June. A west wind came yesterday and swept the storms away—or at least the external ones.

There seems always one inside me. I awake at various times, pain and numbness hither and yon . . . .

I seemed at dawn to hear a howling in the woods—wolf? Aren’t they all gone from here (but can they migrate back)? Coyote? Brassie seemed to hear and be disturbed by it.

One faint trickle of sunlight on my journal now. I think of Wilson Bachelor’s eulogy for his sister Sarah, who had been blind and deaf many years, how he says she’d walk into the sun she couldn’t see and say, “Oh, the blessed sunlight!”

Sun now a radiant necklace, jewels of rarest glory, across the neck of the pines. The sky cloudless and cerulean blue except for a trail of airplane smoke streaking down the eastern sky, now illumined by the sun.

Again, the way I sit here and see first one tiny spot, one tree, one tuft of upthrust plants catch fire, makes me feel as if I’m in an inverted bowl. This green glade is the world. The sky’s its bottom.

+ + + + +

“There is commonly sufficient space about us. Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. The thick wood is not just at our door, nor the pond, but somewhat is always clearing, familiar and worn by us, appropriated and fenced in some way, and reclaimed from Nature. For what reason have I this vast range and circuit, some square miles of unfrequented forest, for my privacy, abandoned to me by men?” (Thoreau, Walden, “Solitude”).

+ + + + +

Ah. Blessed sun, now shining directly on my face. Must be about 8:45.

I dreamt somehow of work, the transition, dreams both foreboding and soothing, which I cannot recapture. . . . Of how some of the operators there would go so far as to erase the hard drives of their computers. Thought also of Andrews and his emailing Pelt to call me a perverted little weasel, and to speak of R.’s drinking. And of M.B. Ross and K. Mitchell and L. Chapman when we were in Salt Lake and news of the downsizing broke. What unadmirable human beings.

Thinking also of that catechism for Catholic voters which speaks of abortion as a “non-negotiable,” and Hoefling’s praise of Jugis, who protected Littleton right up to the audits—effectively lying. She also supports Solari in his lies.

Where is the center of moral gravity in such a church? For my money, the bishops’ willingness to lie is much more damaging to the church and morally reprehensible than those who support gay marriage.

This ecclesiology that seeks to turn the R.C. church into a Republican country club, with behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, and strategic lies: it’s utterly despicable. And yet these same folks claim they’re defending tradition.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ozarks 21.10.04 and 24.10.04: Fall-Turning Cypress and Brown Rice Stubble

Going to the cabin today is crazy. We’re missing all kinds of things at the college. Yet I feel I can do no other. I feel leaden, locked into fate. I have to get away. I’m frantic for rest—for time to read, sleep, dream, write, pray. I am no use to the college if I let it and its problems consume me alive and ravage my soul.

And the gorgeous beauty of this day! Blue tones predominate in the palette, especially as we crossed the Arkansas River, where a fine haze shrouded the encircling hills, turning sky, river, and treetops into a wreath of blue into which muted fall colors were set.

The varied and rich beauty of this day—a day that never will be again, whose combination of light and moisture is unique to this day—praises the Lord. Rich stands of fall-turning cypress in Lake Conway and past Pickles Gap; glinting scimitars of water in brown rice stubble in the beautiful, fertile valley between Little Rock and Conway.

+ + + + +

Light: the unexpected gift. After three overcast days, to see bright sun beaming into our valley, illuminating the hillside across the creek with its carpet of brown leaves. The gray tree trunks are alive with light; every striation, every protrusion, every lichenous patch is sharply illuminated. The layers of sandstone, darkly shaded or brightly lit, etched in detail more exquisite than jeweler’s work.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ozarks 20.6.04: Odd-Fellow Society and Summer Solstice

“But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society” (Thoreau, Walden, “The Village”).

+ + + + +

Brassie almost stepped over the porch edge into the stream bed this a.m. With her cobby, compact build and age, it surely would have been the end of her.

It reminded me of the time Arabella tipped over a cliff’s edge in Allsopp Park. Far below was the creek, which she could see and evidently thought she’d amble to as she headed off the trail . . .

little realizing that the trail was atop a cliff overhanging the water. So she found herself instantly in mid-air, as we, screaming with anxiety, saw a very surprised-looking dog seemingly hang for a moment in the air, ears flapping at right angles to her body. Arabella was a big girl: with a whomp and a whoosh, down she fell into the stream, legs splayed apart in a last-ditch attempt to have some purchase on anything other than air.

Fortunately, she was not hurt, though her ego may have been a bit bruised. She came up the hill with a chastened grin on her muzzle, having proven, once again, how this particular golden retriever had no difficulty at all in being the dumb blonde of the canine family. All she needed were a pair of big sunglasses, a floppy straw hat, and a piña colada with a straw connected to her mouth, to complete the illusion.

+ + + + +

Do writers write their way through and out of misery? Or is it that the writing diverts a writer from facing the misery evenly and directly?

Ah! Sun and blue sky atop the mountain to the southeast, the first today. It’s like a crown. Some bird with a rake-like trill in a treetop on this north bank is ratcheting up its song as the sun seeks to break through the clouds. Sun means everything to birds, as it rises and sets.

Tomorrow is the summer solstice, St. John’s eve. Am I correct in remembering it’s also Walpurgisnacht? No, I don’t think so. Those fires—do they go back to the Celts? Is this day somehow connected to Lughnasa? I remember we were in the Oberpfalz one summer as the evening neared, and could see the wood stacked for the fire.

It was eerie to see, and I was glad to be shot of it as the day itself neared. Shades of Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery”: we, the two Ausländer, the tight-knit little village with its Denkmal marking the spot where a sizable group of Hussites—men, women, and children—were slaughtered during the Hussite period.

There is that need of human communities to target someone: the thirst of the dirty institutions and desperate odd-fellow society to assure conformity, often by picking a hapless victim to demonstrate what will happen if one refuses to belong. That need makes one anxious when the tight-knit community with a history of slaughter celebrates rituals of belonging.

And with St. John’s eve competing with ancient memories like Walpurgisnacht and Lughnasa, Christianity with paganism, how can the fires not recall the Inquisition? We need our witches—someone to pin the blame on. We cannot permit midnight revels of scantily clad women. Allow that, as the sun shines at midnight and nature appears to have turned itself inside out, and anything might follow.

Catholicism has barely begun to reflect on these mechanisms, and the sin they so seductively enfold, because it has only begun to discover the social sciences. The great liberal theologians of the 20th century—Rahner, Tracy, Longergan, even Metz—all presume a model innocent of such social-anthropological insights.

As a result, their doctrine of sin is attenuated. Yes, celebrate God’s redemptive, sacramental presence everywhere in the world. But do so with an awareness of what original sin really means—of what it is we need to be redeemed from: not merely the sin that turns humans individually from the mark, but the sweet, sickening carrion whiff of corruption that inhabits all human associations, including the church. All are born in sin. Every human society is built, somewhere, on bones, on blood.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ozarks 19.6.04: Warning Bullfrog, Yellow Palette

At Kats Rest. First time we’ve been here since fall. When I watched Steve walk across the creek yesterday evening—hobble is more accurate—I realized how old we’re getting, how our days are limited and precious. May they not be spent in tedious and wasteful bickering.

Yesterday would have been my father’s 84th birthday. Requiescat in pace.

He died so young. What would his life have been, had he lived? It hits me so strongly today as I sit facing east, listening to the creek babble, and what must be a bullfrog warning me it’s his territory, I think: life is a gift. Each day. To sense/acknowledge that, to feel the deep green enter the bone: even the recognition is a gift.

Of my family, why are Philip and I left? Philip must ask the same, but I doubt he thinks of the question in familial terms.

I feel . . . almost spared, as if an epidemic such as the smallpox has swept through, and only I’m left. Why? Why me? No illumination breaks forth. I read this morning the passage about Jesus as the light of the world, from John. What does it mean, concretely, vocationally, for me to hear this? How am I sent forth as light-giver and light-bearer?

These questions acute because in three weeks, the president is effectively gone. Our last visit here, we had no expectation of such crisis. Now we’re in it—again.

+ + + + +

The Appalachians have more blue and green, the Ozarks more yellow in their color palette. The Ozarks are clearly drier, something one recognizes as summer nears and the creek beside Kats Rest diminishes.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ozarks 18.10.04: Old Gold Lichen and Life-Breathing Creeks

On this morning of constantly shifting light, our little valley is one moment crowned with a nimbus of gold-imbued haze, the next plunged into darkness. The bowl of the dell becomes green and gold glinting off each other, and then a dreamscape, formed as if I close my eyes.

Just now, a patch of blue above, and sun almost breaking through the swiftly scudding cumulus cloud. But the light’s milky, muted, turning the lichen that dots the rocks on the slope to the creek into old gold. Now again the dark, and the lichen’s a glowing blue-green against rain-darkened sandstone. Since I’ve been sitting early today, wind has shifted from east, bearing rain, to west, sweeping clouds away. I feel it on my back now, funneled down the stream bed.

Such beauty the world over. I’ve stood beside creeks like this in Ireland, Steve’s ancestral village in the Vulkaneifel, and in Salzburg. Everywhere that swiftly flowing water is not impeded or dirtied by human hand, it is veritable life. It breathes; it sings; it seeks a home.

People talk of gathering thoughts as if they’re so many sheep on a hillside, to be folded into a pen. Easier, though, to harness the wind, or to still one tiniest drop of this rushing rain-swollen creek. Stream of consciousness is not just an apt metaphor: it’s a scientifically precise term.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ozarks 15-16.10.04: Red Enameled Berries and Wagging Fingers

The phrase “refulgent splendor” was made for today’s sunrise. It needs a Greek Orthodox choir chanting in that excited, ecstatic way—a pulsing, pounding crescendo—to celebrate it. The sunrise seems to flow from my dreams . . . of going into a Presbyterian church whose interior is all hammered bronze, or the Episcopal church, which is Baroque, white plaster with intricate pastel ornamentation.

+ + + + +

Sitting at Kats Rest watching the waterfall, which keeps cutting deeper into the overhang that forms it, so that now it’s a chute. Soon it will be a gully of some sort.

Thoughts in the dark of the moon. Another church dream last night—this time that old trope of going to communion. I get to the communion station, and, without warning, there are no more hosts. No announcement—only a switch to another place . . . .

+ + + + +

Purple stars and spikes of aster. Wind pouring from the south as the sun westers, presaging change, rain again in a day or so. Still, the sky’s brilliantly blue and the air crisp and spicy as newly picked apples, or pumpkins touched by frost.

Along the road, red leaves and cones of sumac. The dogwood on the north side of the creek has brilliant red enameled berries.

Listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing “Goody, Goody” as we drove up here, a sudden ray of illumination of my parents’ murky past. I think of this as one of those warm, fuzzy songs my mother sang to us when we were children, akin to “Little Brown Jug” or “Three Little Fishes.”

I can see her now, how she’d wag her finger as she sang, “So you gave her your heart, too, just as I gave mine to you. And she broke it in little pieces . . . . Hooray and hallelujah, you had it coming to you . . . . Goody, goody.”

As I listened carefully to the entire song for the first time in years, I suddenly realized my mother was singing those jubilant (those bitter and reproachful) words not to us children, but to my father.

How many other Southern children my age cut their teeth on that song, imbibing generous doses of maternal poison along with the mock gaiety of the finger wagging, the jazzy beat? How many other Southern women of the post-World War II period sang this song for their husbands, dancing on their heads with glee?

+ + + + +

It’s the poetry of Catholicism I miss—simple homely things turned holy, frail plain earthy vessels of the divine: water, fire, salt, oil, bread, wine. A listening ear becomes the portal to God’s heart in confession, gentle caressing hands a sign of God’s sending forth and commissioning in confirmation, or of God’s healing and promise to abide with us in our journey in the last rites.

But the hands now administering these rites! And the mouths now speaking the words!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ozarks 13.11.04: Honey-Colored Rocks, Swift Creeks

We’re at Kats Rest now. A beautiful November day, cold with high wisps of cirrhus clouds. I love this time when leaves have fallen and the lambent late-afternoon light of autumn brings honey to the surface in colors of fallen leaves and sandstone on the hillside east of the creek. Already as noon nears, the sun is westering to the mountaintop opposite, and will go down.

We’re here only a few hours. Joe’s fiddling with the well—some malfunction of the pump—and Steve’s starting coals for steak. We’ve brought along the leek and potato soup I made two nights ago.

I’ve started a fire in the fireplace, and it’s burning proudly and casting quite a heat already. I’m in a chair in front of it. The waterfall’s roaring with great force down its chute.

I have a cup of tea beside me, and Steve’s brought a glass of red wine. What more could a body want?

My soul is rested. Just coming here—especially in a season I love so well—makes me feel alive again, rest somewhere deep inside. I need this place, its gifts to me. I thought, as we drove down the steep road here, that it’s a retreat place. Sacraments are wonderful, and it would be grant to have a priest here to sustain us with holy bread. But this holy spot—its honey-colored rocks, its deep spirit-laving waters, its fern fronds beside swift clean creeks, its silence and remoteness—it, too, nourishes spirit.

As I write this, the fire shifts and a large log comes careening forward. I take the fire poker and try to shift it back, making a bollocks of the procedure. Now the inner core of the fire is opened and released, burning fiercely. So our hearts and minds and souls, if we can clear the obstructions . . . .

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

San Antonio 20.11.04: Pigeons in the Cypress and Midrash Babblers

San Antonio: at Starbuck’s overlooking the river, as pigeons fly between the cypresses and then roost on the ledge of the balcony where we sit. One is tipping between my feet, its orange-brown eye cocked curiously at me, as it hopes for a handout. We’re having only coffee, unfortunately.

I’ve just seen Ellen L. and Mary Rose D’. walking arm in arm the other side of the river. Mary Rose is supporting Ellen. I’d heard the latter has Parkinson’s.

Two talking heads from AAR—babbling midrash, Talmud—behind me, talking in nasal Midwestern accents. “Are you game?” “I’m game, I’m game.” “Do you go to Princeton for this?” “The group makes all the difference.”

Beside us, a group of 20-somethings, male and female, talking about being in the Air Force and planning a hot-tub party. They probably voted for Bush.

My life is a misspent waste. I loathe the religious studies academy. I’m being supplanted in society by mindless barbarians who talk values but live Hobbes and Hugh Heffner.

I no longer have any sense at all of what brought me to the study of religion as a profession. I have no formal religious life. I write nothing. I’m involved in no scholarly dialogues.

Mark S. made a remark yesterday that cut to the quick. No one came to our workshop, and he blamed me. It was because I’m not a star, he said, as P. O’Connell K. and Jan S. are.

Thinking about it, I realize 1) he’s right, and 2) I can no longer take it. I don’t want to work at P. anymore. I’m tired—sick and tired—of existing to please others . . . . Not a word I write seems true . . . .

Monday, December 15, 2008

Salt Lake City 12.3.04 and 12.8.04: Dry Bread and Majestic Mountains

Yesterday, as we got off the plane in Salt Lake City and I went into the airport bathroom, I thought, “The ugly treatment of gays by the church has seemed wrong to me because it violates all canons of compassion.”

But now I see that it equally robs the church of poetry and mystery. It robs the church of God. This ill-treatment is possible only in a world that has all the answers, a world where everything is tightly ordered and controlled.

Such a world has no need of God. And as I write that, I think, “My words are dry, lifeless bread crumbled in my parched mouth. They seem to touch no core of spirit, nor to come from such a core.” This is what oppression accomplishes.

My heart is sore. Steve said as we traveled that it’s as if a mean and hostile spirit is released in the land. One feels it on a plane full of folks headed to the Mormon holy city. People are using the election, the anti-gay marriage amendments, the “values” vote, to bring hatred and discrimination out of the closet. ABC and CBS announced yesterday that they will not accept ads by the United Church of Christ decrying church discrimination against gays.

The psalm I read today—109—seems to echo this social context. The pious one is surrounded by taunters who are willing to lie about him. Look at the concerted effort now to smear the reputation of Matthew Shepard and imply that he somehow earned his murder. Or, as I have learned, the attempt to paint that cold-blooded murder of a black teenaged boy in my hometown when I was in high school as drug-related.

Who hears the voice of those murdered in hate crimes disguised as “rational” acts of violence against scum?

The psalmist says, “Let them know that it is your hand, that you, O Lord, have done it. They may curse, but you will bless . . . .”

+ + + + +

The beauty of the mountains ringing the city this winter morning: gray, slate blue, astonishingly white, particularly where the sun picks out mountaintops or dales.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Winchester, Virginia 3.9.07: Prancing Fawns, Absent God

Now in Winchester, Virginia, having driven (beginning 27.8.07) to Walterboro, SC, Edenton, NC, Williamsburg, VA, and now Winchester.

A pilgrimage journey, which began as we prayed a bit in St. Paul’s church in Edenton. Both Steve and I happened to open the bibles at the back of the pews to the Old 100th psalm—reassurance that the Lord doth us make and for his flock doth us take: therefore jubilate Deo.

I seem called in some way I can barely perceive to connect to my disparate spiritual roots. While we were in Edenton, we drove across to Bertie Co. to Scotch Hall, first settled by William Maule, who was, I have to think, a relative of my ancestor George Strachan through Maule’s mother Barbara Strachan.

We found Scotch Hall only fortuitously, by the kind intervention of an elderly librarian and a lady in the library—genteel old Southern ladies. They gave us precise instructions.

As we neared it, we came to a little chapel with a graveyard for the Lockharts and Maules who lived in Scotch Hall after William Maule and his family. As we neared the chapel, two little fawns pranced across the road: hinds’ feet in high places (though this was a very low one).

The chapel was deeply restful, breezes from Batchelor’s Bay sweeping around it. George Strachan lived just west of here on the Cashie. I know he must have been often to this spot. My Anglican roots, led a sheep in that particular flock.

Then in Williamsburg, we go to Bruton Parish and sit in one of those box-pew things, and I notice I’m sitting in a box that has a plaque showing that Paul Carrington sat there as burgess. Inside the box is a plaque saying George Clinton Batchelor had donated furnishings for the box. The Paul Carrington who was burgess was a son or grandson of Paul Carrington and Henningham Codrington, my ancestors. And George C. Batchelor is surely one of my Virginia Batchelor relatives, somehow—two more small reminders to pursue my religious roots on this trip.

We prayed a bit in the Bruton church, reading the Old 100th again.

As we drove north and neared Staunton, I told Steve I believed Tinkling Spring Presbyterian church, where my Kerr and Pickens ancestors were baptized, was somewhere near here, and wouldn’t it be nice to see. But how? I had no directions.

Near Staunton, Steve got off the highway to buy gas. I happened to see the road we crossed as we exited the freeway was Tinkling Spring. Steve asked in the filling station about a church of that name. They pointed across the road.

Gorgeous church, cemetery on a hillside. We went inside. Deeply peaceful. Read Jeremiah 31 with its promise to return the blind and the lame home, to live by brooks of water on a level road, to ransom Israel and guard Israel as a shepherd the flock. Again, roots . . . .

And today, Hopewell Friends’ Meeting, where my McKay and Jobe ancestors would have attended meetings.

Okay. Here’s the thing. All this sounds so pious, so clear, so smug, so certain. And yet our lives aren’t. They’re all too often shitty.

What we experience far more are the aporias, the inexplicable gaps in history caused by outright cruelty and malice. We grapple with the absence of God, with the dearth of any religious language to speak of the experience of being gay in a church that savages gay people.

Home? It’s all I’ve ever sought. Still waters, green pastures, God’s guiding hand . . . .

But where and how? How to sustain life in such a savage church and world?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Daytona Beach 22.9.05: Skull Beneath the Skin. And God?

Writing from Daytona: and now another very fierce hurricane, Rita, is approaching the shores of Texas. If two (or more?) catastrophic hurricanes hit this season, what will the consequences to the U.S. be, I wonder?

Katrina showed what a thin, illusory line exists between our “civilization” and chaos. Watching footage of New Orleans after the storm was almost like watching footage from Nazi Germany: glittering Berlin cabarets become grim Auschwitz death camps.

It may be that what these hurricanes are showing us is that, as a nation, we live a much closer step than we realize to the gaping chasm of incivility. We speak of the decline of civility as if it’s a lapse of manners—the failure to send a thank-you note for a dinner invitation.

But civility may, in the long run, be about something much deeper: the ability of people to live together without murdering one other. It’s easy to grin and bow when times are good. It’s when things fall apart that the skull beneath the grin shows itself.

If hurricanes—a series of them—disrupt the oil industry and decimate major urban areas connected to that industry, we may, all of us, see privation and need unprecedented in the U.S. in many years. And with the disruptions and dislocations, a decline in civility that surpasses anything the manners mavens have even begun to dream of.

If nothing else, Katrina and events preceding it have shown us that the robber barons of the oil industry—Bush & Co.—have themselves, not the body politic and civil society, at heart. They’ll gladly take the money and run, leaving the rest of us high and dry—or low and wet, as the case may be.

The ferocity with which Rita is arriving on the heels of Katrina makes me wonder. It makes me wonder about the mysterious spike in oil prices this summer. It makes me wonder about the war in Iraq.

How much of hurricane devastation can be predicted? I know that meteorology is an inexact science. I also know that scientists have predicted the development of a period of proliferating—and more ferocious—hurricanes.

Though Bush & Co. have pooh-poohed global warming (it’s their oil industry that is largely responsible for it, after all), could they have known more than the rest of us about these coming storms? And their disruption of oil production and delivery?

Sadly, in times of disaster, the rich inevitably find a way to enrich themselves more. They’re already doing so with Katrina and will do so after Rita. And at the expense of all of us, I fear.

And God? The biblical questions of good, evil, justice? St. Simon Wiesenthal, pray for us.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Daytona Beach 7.7.05 and 10.7.05: Flea-Free Beds, The Screamer and the Chatterer

Traveling: en route to Daytona Beach for meetings. In the company of travelers: that rather banal phrase somehow resonates for me today. The journey of life, in which we are never alone. I’m aware especially of how ever other traveler shares my aches, pains, angst—in his or her own way.

It’s consoling to think this. I look at men as fat and aged as I, and I think, “I’m not the only one on this planet who bears some pain.”

At the end of the day, every Chaucerian pilgrim has tired feet, weary eyes, perhaps an aching head. We all long for a comfortable bed free of fleas, and, we hope, without too many bedfellows. And now my pen runs out of ink.

+ + + + +

The trip: I had the ill fortune to be seated not once but twice in front of misbehaving children. On today’s flight from Cincinnati to Little Rock, I was in front of a Screamer—a carrot-topped little tyke who was already warming up in the waiting room.

There, she toddled to a bank of pay phones beside me and proceeded to pull them off their hooks as her indulgent papa watched, well, indulgently. Having taken them from their cradles, she then banged them stoutly against the sides of the phone booths. Nary word from papa, sitting splay-legged and grinning across the way.

As the flight neared, she was put into a stroller and commenced to scream, sharply and with apparent connection to her ensconcement in the stroller. The screams were absolutely ear-splitting and erratically timed, so that you couldn’t predict when they’d come and so brace yourself. They were obviously sheer theater.

And so it continued on the plane. I’d just begin to sink into my book when a spine-snapping shriek would commence right behind me. Intermittently, the shrieks would be replaced by sharp kicks, right in my kidneys.

I finally had enough of the latter and leaned back suddenly and viciously just as she launched a kick. Perhaps her father, in whose lap she was sitting, realized then I didn’t welcome the kidney jabs, because they ceased.

What can he have been thinking?

From Atlanta to Daytona, a little boy 4 or 5 sat behind us and me and spoke/sang/vocalized non-stop in a high, voluble monotone. He was a Chatterer. When he ran out of words to say, he flapped his lips in a machine-running sound brbrbrbr, or sang a version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” with words known only to himself, apparently.

His nanny, as it appeared the woman with him was, sat beside him murmuring dreamy replies and never once informing him that she could hear perfectly well if he lowered his voice 8 decibels.

The monologue went something like this:

God! That puddle is so big I’d have to put on my bathing suit to go through it!!

We’re so high the houses look like pieces in an Erector set.

God! That cloud’s a tyrannosaurus rex!!


Brbrbrbr. I’ve been lurking on the nailroad, all the liplong way.


Is it supper or lunch? When did we eat breakfast? We got up so early, didn’t we?


Brbrbrbr. I’ve been snurking on the tailtoad, all the middling ray.


Does the sea go on forever? Can I see dolphins and sharks from here?


God! I can’t wait to get my hands on that beach!!! No supper for me, just a sandwich on the beach . . . .


On and on and on, until we landed and the beach claimed him . . . .

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Port Orange, Florida 2.7.06 and 3.1.07: Light and Dark, Constantly and Everywhere.

A tree in the back garden—kind?—of which I can see only the trunk from inside or from the back porch. It’s ornamented with the thick tendrils of an old vine that someone must have killed to save the tree’s life. The vine, running like a gray stream up the trunk, is beautiful.

There are two trunks flowing together. All is flow actually—vine and tree.

And somehow emblematic of my life, so that the trunks of the tree draw my attention. They catch every shaft of the sunlight that is so fierce here on non-rainy days. . . .

+ + + + +

The banana tree blown over by the Christmas day storm: Steve had laid it across the bottom of the trees already there. They now look like a tired old lady who, at the end of a long day, has rolled her stockings down to her ankles, as she sinks into an easy chair to rest.

Sun coming up through a gap in the trees to the southeast. The high palmetto and dark pine catch its light and obscure it. The oak tree, festooned by vines, is set afire by light.

This life: the interplay of light and dark, constantly and everywhere.

Monday, December 8, 2008

In Midwinter: An Advent Poem from New Orleans

Winter sky.
Bare branches
Backs arched up, out.
A cat licking its paws
In the yard next door.
The pink of slavequarter walls
Made nacreous by failing day.

And I.

What voice sings within me
And in the glory of shifting light
Atop the oak, amidst its limbs?

Why does the common grace
Of closing year
Return me to myself and hope
Amidst the ruins?

Out of the East war threatens.
Westward ride the Horsemen.

And I sit
Wait
Wonder.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Journaling Scholar

The dreams we cherish most, they're like stones well-worn by constant rubbing of our hands. But black, pedestrian, not glamorous. And we keep them in tattered old felt bags, afraid to bring them out too often. Who knows when the magic will wear off, as it has with everything else in our lives?


I write this by the yellow deck light,
As I sit under my redbud canopy.
The heart-shaped leaves reach my knees,
One after another on thin, recumbent branches.
A few~~not many~~cicadas sing.
Through the green before me
Someone's yard light glimmers quietly
Like the lamp that lures the children
To the old witch in the wood.


The only breeze is from the air-conditioner motor
That just kicked on noisily, obtrusively.
Otherwise, so still it is, so quiet,
So removed from hustle and bustle.
Dogs in the distance bark dreamily,
Out of sheer obligation,
For no reason at all.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Poems from Nassau, Bahamas

Totus Mundus Exilium Est


This day:
This all-I-ever-see,
My eyes unhinged from urgency
As ghouls grin through my door:


This wind rustling wild lace skirts
Over the island, atop Fox Hill
On the monks' bare heads.


Nassau at church,
Repenting the poinciana's scarlet hair,
Palm trees welcoming whatever comes
Sundays, sun days,
Their own way,
Fronds the aboriginal shutter,
Now permitting, now occluding
Play of air and light,
Coconuts dangling in the tree's scrotum,
Emitting their musky man smell
All over New Providence.


+ + + + +

Talking Bahamian


In a word is everything.


Redolence:


Of jasmine haunting the night air
That troubles this island hilltop
While sun dies.


Clarity:


Of the crystalline moon
Suppliant before the light,
Riding on its side
To the sky's ridgepole.


Enchantment:


Of ghosts from slave coffles,
Chains clanking all the land over,
White eyes shining endlessly
In the night,
In the jasmine's bloom,
In the moon's clean edge.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Frankfurt 5.8.1998: Homeward Bound, Bound by Home

Sitting in Frankfurt airport waiting for the flight to Atlanta, which is not to board for another two hours. Thinking of how I hate endings, have most problems with them in anything I wrote. And yet I seem fatally attracted to them, too, or at least to the closure they represent. That restlessness at the core of my being, waiting and seeking for what?

Traveling to Europe this time felt like some kind of end—an end in a beginning. And now here the trip is over, and I’m asking end questions again, with no sense of where they’re going. Of where I’m going . . . .

+ + + + +

Just taking off, an hour late, to discover my pen has leaked everywhere. Hands patched with black, as is this paper.

The people behind me—man, woman—have been giggling like teenagers since before the flight began. I’m disposed not to like them because she kicked my seat with unnecessary aggressiveness several times before we were in the air. And the sexual tension between them is so undisguised, so adolescent. Graceless . . . .

He’s a native of the Florida panhandle, a career soldier and “brat,” whose “dad” was an officer. (I know more about them than I’d choose to know.) He persistently uses a “have went” construction. He’s proud to be an Amurkun, and laid it on thick when the flight attendant told him he could be nothing else with that accent.

She’s a German citizen, but speaks a flawless colloquial anywhere-cool Americanese. She’s going to “the States” because of an 85-year old somebody (grandmother?) who needs assistance.

He speaks, and she brays falsely at what he says. She speaks, and he laughs suavely at her jokes. From what I overheard, I’d imagined they were in their 30s at best. But I’ve just gotten up to go to the bathroom, and am shocked to see they’re 50 or so.

And so it goes. Homeward bound. And bound by home.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bad Boll 8.1.1998

I gave my paper yesterday. People have had nice things to say about it. Last night, a group asked if I have through of writing a novel.

Before this, during Marjorie Suchocki’s plenary paper, I wrote a note to myself: “If I cannot tell my own story, then what story can I tell? And how can I tell my story if no way opens?”

In the past, I would have construed all this in terms of vocation/calling. Now that language seems empty to me, or, more precisely, the universe (imaginative? metaphysical?) to which it has reference no longer seems to exist for me.

Perhaps I’ve courted my story and danger for too long, not consciously, but just by the way I’ve lived. In such a life, clarity is not often available. And yet clarity’s what I most need now—neat mathematical clarity of the sort that places all the pieces in the puzzle, just so.

But have I foreclosed myself to such clarity precisely by that courting of mystery and danger? And how laughable to talk about my dull middle-aged life as one of mystery and danger. It certainly wouldn’t appear that way to many people. But to me, it does, from the inside. Mystery in the danger in the sense that I’ve never quite settled for . . . answers. And how desperately one needs . . . answers as one grows old.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bad Boll 30.7.1998: Healing Springs and Living Wine

Evening of a rainy day spent in the Swabian Alb. I’m sitting at the open window looking out at the ridge line behind the academy at Bad Boll A moment ago still, unwilling mist was rising from a point in the trees, very appealing to the eye, suggesting the Ur-roots of German culture (I’m overusing that Ur word in this journal, aren’t I?). Now it’s almost, but not quite, obliterated by heavy rain. I imagine some presence there, rising from the mist.

On the windowsill a glass of Württemberger Riesling. I like to see how it catched the light that’s still strong despite the rain. Wine does look alive under such circumstances, as the oenophiles maintain. This wine—Stetterner Wartbühl—is not bad, perhaps just the way to celebrate such an ordinary, extraordinary, evening.

I’m enjoying the time alone after too much intense time with too many people. The rain, the guttering sound of it on all sides, the evening light, the now clearing skies, the wine: all make me content to be here, just here, at this window now.

Opening the bible, I turn to Luke 8, where Jesus casts out demons and heals the woman with the flow of blood. Lately, I keep coming to passages about healing. Why? I don’t feel much healed. To the contrary, I feel roiled with deep emotions, among with self-loathing and envy predominate, at academic conferences. It’s so easy for the macho-hetero sexist big boys, and they’re so oblivious to the torments they inflict, as they babble on about overcoming sexism and fostering inclusivity.

Is everything in this spot contrived to bring healing, this ancient Kurort? Do some places have a kind of “natural” healing virtue? A psychotherapist at the conference tells me there are ancient holy wells and springs under all the great cathedrals . . . .

+ + + + +

Moving to full night now. I’ve been lying in bed reading David Leavitt’s While England Sleeps and watching the falling, rain-ridden and haunted light ring fascinating changes on the stucco walls of the two buildings to be glimpsed through the window.

One has cream-colored walls, the other yellow, though the point of it all is that, in this brief space of time, they’ve become so many different colors it’s hard to tell what either “really” is. A luminous yellow and gold, under the brown and red tile roofs they have; then a pink and a faded dusky tawny color. And now a rather ominous bleached white next to a nondescript brown, the windows of the buildings sullen sore eyes without sight, gazing vacantly into the distance.

With such light, such buildings, no wonder Central Europeans can so easily conjure up vampires.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bad Boll 29.7.1998: Dark Mountains, Neat Villages

At Bad Boll now for the second day. We spent both days in Bubsheim, Steve’s Kuld Ur-village (at least, the village to which he’s traced his earliest roots—to the early 1600s—in the Schwäbische Alb just east of Rotweil.

An interesting area, different again from many we’ve been in. Very Swabian, I suppose, without knowing much about it. Bädecker says Swabians tend to farm part-time on small land holdings, while having other jobs. That seems to be borne out by all we’ve seen—no large farms, just orchards on the hillsides, and higher up (as at Bubsheim), what seem to be unfenced pastures. And in every village, small factories making clothes, metal parts of machines, etc.

So the people seem to bear out the notion that Swabians are hard-working, thrifty, etc. The villages exceedingly neat, physically pretty, but a bit drab in the human sense, with no shopping area. Bubsheim has no shops at all, in fact, and no restaurant, though it’s a large (and obviously more prosperous) village than many we’ve been in.

The lack of a shopping area—or any focus (the church is on the perimeter of the village)—gives the place a forlorn feel. One scarcely sees people anywhere, and at noon all’s eerily quiet, with shutters over windows.

The countryside, by contrast, is beautiful—dark mountains in the distance, those large pastures, a cool breeze sweeping over all. But in winter, mustn’t it often be bleak—or have been, before travel could occur?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Braunschweig 26.7.1998: Fledermäuse and Moses

Feeling very out of sorts today, after two nights of too little sleep, with nightmares and anxieties.

What to say? A flea market in Braunschweig yesterday with Mareile, where Steve and I bought a small painted pottery pitcher for Mareile, of the sort she collects, and one for ourselves, along with a bowl from the Tyrol. Two days before, in Braunschweig, we had bought at an antique shop an art nouveau/Jugendstil trivet with a swan on a blue and yellow background, and silver edging. Also bought a set of those lace and embroidery edgings for cupboard shelves one finds in Germany, with little sayings worked into them.

After the flea market, wurst with brötchen—clearly Mareile’s attempt to please us, since I can’t imagine her eating such food, at picnic tables surrounded by gabbling shoppers. Then back home, where we cleaned house, had a siesta, and worked in the garden.

After a dinner of leftover pizza and pasta, back into Braunschweig, where we walked a bit in a pretty park with a rather frightening black obelisk, a military monument, in its center. Very Prussian, severe, formal, earnest to a fault . . . . More walking in the city, and then we ended up in the Magniviertel where Mareile and I had glasses of a good crisp Mosel wine, and Steve a local beer. Back home for a bit more wine (red) as we sat together while full night fell, on the patio with a candle burning. A good end to a good day, as we watched bats flit overhead—Fledermaus or pippistrella, as the Italians call them, according to Mareile.

Today, Mass at the Dominican parish, an ugly concrete barn of a place from the 1950s, with bleak angular crosses and stations of the cross, and a little Marian chapel with the most hideous Madonna I’ve ever seen, all gold and bug-eyed, looking like an alien creature from a Hollywood science fiction film.

We spoke with the priest afterward. He told us he believes some blessing for gay couples will one day be sanctioned by the church. As he said, the irony now is that the church blesses everything—autos, soft drink machines, crops—but not two men or two women together.

Then a walk around the Teich of a former Cistercian abbey, Riddagshausen, outside Braunschweig. It left me cold, as the ruins of Cistercian places in Ireland don’t do. Why the difference? In part, I think, because the place is not a ruin, but a Protestant church that continues to be used, with Protestant iconography that clashes with the vestiges of monastic life—heavy gravestones of various local gentry and abbots, as the pastor continued (continues) to be called after the dissolution of the monastery. The pulpit has an ornately carved Moses, with the ten commandments, holding up the pulpit itself—almost funny in its earnestness and its intent to reduce everything to this one literal root.

Then back home, where T. and B. have arrived. Mareile told me yesterday B. descends from both Franz Josef and wife Cissy. She seems nice, unassuming and rather plain, with front teeth at odds with each other and a dent running the length of her nose.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Braunschweig 25.7.1998: Amber Skylights and Clacking Hedgehogs

To Braunschweig yesterday to see the Dom—again, since Mareile took us on a tour of it the first time, we were here. I wanted to see the famous Imervard crucifix again.

As cathedrals go, it’s . . . engaging? I don’t have a cathedral language, because, despite all my attempts to appreciate them, cathedrals still simply leave me cold. I can’t connect to this expression of medieval faith—to medieval faith insofar as it’s embodied in cathedrals. Nothing I experience as faith seems reflected in those high cold spaces glittering with jeweled glass, echoing with sound, commemorating noble men and women, but, nowhere, those built these palaces.

Even as art, I just don’t quite get them. It’s always as if I’m reading a language I’m supposed to know, but don’t quite.

What appealed to me in Braunschweig: the austere chalkstone, with its soft marl and muted lights; the clear windows in the walls—an innovation, but one to my taste, modifying the gloom of most cathedral interiors; and of course the crucifix.

Not quite sure why I like the latter. Perhaps because I’ve been told to marvel at it, I try to do so, without ever being sure what makes it marvelous. I like the austere, no-nonsense, Saxon way its massive height and breadth are displayed against a plain white wall. I like the face, which seems simultaneously rapt away to heaven and fully aware of all those who gaze on it, all those it lifts up to God in its act of obedience. And the flowing, highly stylized robes seem to me both to prefigure humanism, and—somehow—to reinforce the hieratic mystery of the crucifixion, as those flowing lines in Celtic iconography are said to bespeak the numinous power of the saint around whom they flow.

Mareile took us to sit in front of the crucifix for about 10 minutes, saying not a word—just the right way to do it. She has such class: that overworked and slightly ridiculous phrase out of a 1940s film is the only way I know how to describe it. I wasn’t at all surprised to find yesterday that she’d gone to a finishing school in England run by the Madames de Sacre Coeur. That erect carriage, the intelligent, ladylike piety, the cultivated air, say it all. Was it they who taught her to forgo escalators, to climb stairs without touching the banister, to shudder at the very idea of eating ice cream on the streets (which Steve and I boorishly did after the cathedral tour)?

Not at all a surprise, then, to hear that not only is her son T. married to an aristocrat; so is P. It’s actually the latter who married a von Buhlow. T.’s wife B. is a descendant of the Austrian royal family, of Elizabeth wife of Franz Joseph.

After hearing of these connections, I asked Maria last night how it happened that two of her brothers married aristocrats: do Mareille or Walter have noble blood? No, Maria said, we’ve just a very special family. It’s that special, aristocratic, quality in Mareile I’ve tried to describe—a natural aristocracy.

After the crucifix, a tour of the eerie crypt of the Dom, full of the coffins of dukes and duchesses of Braunschweig. Mareile took us into a passageway leading to the tombs of Henry the Lion and Matilda, built by Hitler when he sought to legitimize National Socialism by appealing to luridly romanticized notions of the German past.

The place was eerie to the extreme: all heavy black squares of rock glinting with feldspar, with black grouting. Vents here and here had crosses atop crosses, the bottom ones turned upside down. Over the tombs themselves, a skylight of amber seemed to flicker like fire, like an implacable fiery eye. I didn’t like the place, and wanted out immediately. My flesh crawled.

Mareile had told us on our last visit to the cathedral that Hitler had used it for mystic rituals designed to access the power of Henry. He was evidently disappointed when he opened the tomb and found Henry to be a small man, and not the giant Teuton of the master race in its Ur-days. A brochure in the crypt said that Hitler used the Henry myth to justify his Lebensraum policy in the Slavic lands, claiming that Henry had Christianized these, and hence it was fitting that a Reich founded on him should take these lands over.

After Braunschweig, home for a pizza and pasta supper on the terrace with Maria, while Mareile attended a party—Steve’s birthday supper. A nice evening, ending with the coming of a hedgehog to the rhododendrons around the terrace. We heard it rustling and clacking against the leaves, and saw them moving. Finally we got up and peered in, and there it sat, very docile, watching us. Maria put out a bowl of milk for it, and I went to bed, to dream horrible nightmares.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Braunschweig 24.7.1998: Precious Purple, and Blue Angels

Yesterday a trip with Mareile to Wolfenbüttel, where she works in the Herzog August Bibliothek. We toured it in the late afternoon, as rain poured down outside. (People are beginning to complain bitterly of the rain, saying it has ruined gardens and crops.)

Library interesting, and Mareile a marvelous tour guide. I was particularly interested in a bible from Reichenau, a monastery in the Bodensee area that had a particular style of religious art, in which scenes were reduced to a symbolic essence. In the one we saw—the angel meeting the two Marys—Jesus’s resurrection was signified by his grave clothes rolled into a ball and left in the empty tomb.

On the facing page was an oval of gorgeous purple, leaning more to red than to blue, appearing like faded silk with ripples. Mareile explained that purple was, into the Middle Ages, a more expensive color than silver or gold, because it came only from a certain “snail” (squid?) of the Mediterranean, whose ink, on contact with air, turns this color.

She went on to say that because of the preciousness of purple, the Roman Emperors permitted no one else to wear it except themselves, the senators being allowed only a border of it on their robes. Mareile thinks this is why the Roman Catholic church uses a variant of the purple for cardinals’ robes.

All of which made me think of the color purple and its significance for gay life and culture. I had just told Mareile of Judy Grahn’s theory about the liminal significance of purple. She seemed interested.

More gorgeous and curious things in the library, including a 16th-century Portuguese navigational map for the journey around Africa and on to India, then we went on into Wolfenbüttel, where we stepped inside the hof of the schloss of the Duke of Braunschweig, and then visited the town. It has pleasing fachwerk houses in abundance, and seemed to have that air, not quite cheerful, but solid and serene, that one finds in these regions. The Saxon air?

After Wolfenbüttel, back here for abendbrot at friends’ of Mareile’s—Wolfgang and Anka. He’s a Braunschweig gardener, she Marile’s closest friend, her heart-and-soul friend, as Mareile describes her. Wolfgang showed us the garden, which is arranged to open into wheat fields by way of two pools, water gardens full of cattails and water flowers. There was also an interesting sculpture, two blue metal pieces about 10 feet long, mounted so that they moved like wings. Wolfgang refers to it as an angel.

We ate in a garden house with open sides, under an arbor of white wisteria that became very fragrant as night went on, in the cool damp air. Anka and Wolfgang’s daughter Katrina, who lives next door, joined us. She, too, is a gardener, and is taking over her father’s practice as he retires. She’s unmarried, has short hair, with an athletic body and a long, mannish stride, and an unnerving directness and unnerving frank gaze.

Anka and Wolfgang very pleasant: both humorous and quick to laugh, he a bit sly and merry, she slow and . . . well, Saxon . . . solid and serene. Abendbrot fairly ordinary, with salamis, cheeses, boiled eggs, a tuna salad with chopped onion and dressing, a salad of cottage cheese and chives, a paté adorned with sprigs of thyme from the garden, and the tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad that’s becoming ubiquitous with German upper crusty circles.

Is it that the Germans are simply unimaginative when it comes to food? Or do they like sameness, the reassurance of stability a predictable meal brings? On the one hand, there’s that admirable sociability the Germans insist on when eating and drinking. But on the other hand, there’s the appalling dullness of it all—the monochromatic food eaten over and over again, always in abundance, with a kind of dreamy self-absorption and much earnest talk. This hardly elevates mealtimes to occasions of wit, sparkle, and gustatory excitement. And perhaps that’s the point: everything in German life seems designed to mute, to order, to control, to assure that nothing unpredictable occurs.

Ah, well. Kind of these genial, cultured people to invite us to dinner, and a good time was had by all, followed by schnapps (plum) in Katrina’s garden, where two large pots of angel’s trumpet stand, not yet blooming. We picked up apples from the ground to make applesauce, and then visited the family’s sheep at a little pasture with more apple trees and lots of undergrowth. Then to Mascherode . . . .

(And the abendbrot wine redeemed the good if uninspired food: a white dry Muscat from the Tyrol, with a Tyrol red I didn’t try after I saw it poured. It had that weak color of German red wine, the color that promises insipidity. The white was very good, and served cooler than is usual in Germany, where many people seem to take cellar temperature for chilled.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Braunschweig 23.7.1998: Inge's Rescue and Little Red

More Mareile stories. It seems that after the war she and her family were hungry. They had prayed for the Americans, father than the Russians, to liberate them. When the troops came, they instructed families to pull down their black-out shades as the troops came through Königslutter. Mareile peeked out of the corner of a shade and saw black soldiers in a truck—the first black people she had ever seen. Later, she and her brothers went to the barracks and begged for food, saying, “I have hunger.” When her mother found out they’d begged, she was furious. The black soldiers called Mareile “little red.” She liked their friendliness.

Care packages of food and clothes came from America. Mareile’s family were virtually the only Catholics in town who weren’t refugees from the east. The priest refused to give them food and clothes, reserving these for refugees. Because the family were truly hungry, Mareile’s mother begged. At this, the priest said they could have a package, if the mother came by night so no one would see her. It was full of glorious food, things unattainable in Germany: raisins, white flour, chocolate (Mareile claps her hands and her eyes dance as she tells this).

There were no shoes to be bought. If one bartered an item of one’s own at some exchange center, one could obtain shoes, etc. All Mareile had to barter was her doll. She did so, for shoes. Each day she’d go to the shop to visit Inge, looking for her in the display window. One day, Inge was gone. That Christmas, Mareile received her as a gift. A friend of her mother’s had bought her, to keep for Mareile. Mareile still has Inge—as Maria says, “Inge still lives.”

Because the family’s house had been bombed (in one night, 20,000 people died in Braunschweig), all their clothes were destroyed. When Mareile’s father returned from the war, he had nothing to wear. A neighbor’s husband had been in the SS. She gave one of his uniforms of black wool to Mareile’s father: the best material in der Welt, Mareile says. Her mother turned the uniform inside out, and it became a new suit for the father, with tailoring. Mareile received a new coat from a care package, all gray wool and too small. Her mother sewed brown fabric onto the sleeves and hem, to lengthen the coat. Mareile wore it for years—ganz schick!

Mareile’s father was a judge in Braunschweig. As Hitler rose to power, the father didn’t want to serve a state ruled by Hitler. He moved the family to Königslutter, resigning his job. People told him he was crazy to forfeit his career.

And more on yesterday: after the tour of Königslutter, Mareile drove us back to Mascherode by way of the Elmwald, from which the chalky stone for the Königslutter cathedral was mined. She told us that after the war, people would forage for mushrooms and fireweood in the forest. She and Walter spent many days hiking there.

It is a beautiful forest, with a mix of conifers and deciduous trees. After we passed through it, we entered very attractive farmland, with rolling hills of cattle and horses—something like Virginia. In the flatter land near Braunschweig, as one descends from the mountains in which the Elmwald is found, sugar beets and grain grow, along with asparagus. Mareile tells us that this sandy and peaty soil is the most fertile in Germany. Here great-grandfather came here in the 19th century, from Thuringia, to seek work in the Braunschweig factories. Catholic families in southern Germany migrated in this period, as the many children overtaxed the farms, causing the land to be divided and divided again. Unlike the Protestant proletariat, though, the Catholic workers avoided some dehumanizing aspects of industrialization, Mariele thinks, since the church kept community and spiritual life alive for them.

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Like so much about the war in Europe, what Belmont Abbey did just ever quite make sense. If I tell myself they abused so many people because they were financially insecure, then I remember the wealth the monks have. If I say they persecuted people, then I have to ask how the rest of the faculty stood by passively as this was done. No answer is ever sufficient, just as with attempts to explain or understand what went on in Germany from 1920 to 1945.

Is it better, then, to live in the questions, than to have the answers? Am I nobler and deeper for being perplexed? Or is my refusal to forget, to settle for life-as-it-is, a sign of some dis-ease, some craving for a security life never affords anyone, inside myself?

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Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark (London: Vintage, 1997):

“Much of it must have been ornament, people making strange little alliances in their heads between things they had heard or read about, seeking to assert themselves in those endless conversations, implying they were in the know, there was much else they could tell but . . . ." (pp. 182-3).

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Mareile again: We didn’t know what was happening to the Jews. We knew they’d been sent away, yes, but often one by one, so no one noticed. My parents said that it only began to be clear to them, what was happening, shortly before the war.

Then, after the war, our school was forced to watch films showing in detail what had been done. I cried and cried. After that, whenever I had any pain, I told myself, It can’t be as bad as what the Jews suffered. When I had dental work done, I didn’t have an anaesthetic, because no pain I experienced could be as bad as theirs.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Braunschweig 22.7.1998: Oasis of Roses, Hunting Hares

Sitting in Mareile’s garden in Mascherode—a fine, hot, cloudless day already, early in the morning. What . . . cultivated, in every sense . . . lives these cultivated Europeans live. The garden is tended to, meals are social occasions, every room has nosegays of old roses. With Mareile, one always feels as if body and spirit sing in harmony. Here life is so expressive, so much a movement of cultivated spirit out into a a corporeal world experienced not as threat but as grace. A catholic world: something one never quite forgets with Mareile, since her piety is always to the fore, but never quite obtrusive.

I’ve noticed (looking furtively and guiltily) that Mareile’s desk in her sitting room has a little shrine to Walter. Interspersed with photographs of Walter (a pensive side-view against a sky, a garden picture of him bending over a laughing Mareile in a lawn chaise longue), are postcards of the Sorrowful Mother, of the Pietà, of the crucifixion. One is a close-up of a weeping Madonna. All are pictures of medieval wood carvings. One daren’t mention these. This is a private shrine, albeit one shared, since it sits in a family room.

That’s how it is, always, with Mareile—much is said, without having to be spoken . . . .

In the midst of all this, in this oasis of roses, ranunculi, and hortensia, I think about the fate family is, and wonder what to do about that fate. Or can one do anything about it? Isn’t that the point of fate: it’s fated; it’s inexorable and foreordained. One can only undergo it, either defiantly or with submission. Mareile could not change the brute fact of Walter’s death, any more than the Mater Dolorosa could prevent her son’s crucifixion.

The air in which I think these thoughts seems so crystalline, so serene, because I’m away from my family. But how different it is when I’m “at home” . . . .

But perhaps what the mind can’t think through, the heart can try to resolve. In dreams, for example: as I write about my fate and my family, I think of a fragment of a dream I had last night. I was in a very ancient chapel that ran underground, with no roof . . . .

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Last night, Mareile told us of a priest in Berlin—“just an ordinary pastor, not an activist”—who was beheaded by the Nazis. Nobody was certain of the reason: perhaps it was because spies in his congregation construed his sermons as critique of the Reich; or perhaps it was due to a comment he made in a home he visited. There, he saw a crucifix with a picture of Hitler on one side and Göbbels on the other. He remarked, “Just as before, Jesus hangs between two thieves.”

Today, as we looked at the Alte Linde, the Kaiser Lothar Linde in the Domyard in Königslutter, Mareile told us of a teacher she had there, Thelo. Before the war he was a painter. When Hitler came to power, the modernist art Thelo painted was condemned as decadent, and he was forced to quit painting.

Thelo then became a teacher. As a degradation, he was assigned the task of teaching slow children. Somehow Mareile also became his pupil. On certain Protestant holidays, she and the few other Catholic children in the school would be taught by him. Then, the whole day, he’d tell fairy tales.

People in Könighlutter said that Thelo was odd. His windows had no curtains. He was a Quaker. Years later, after she had married and Thelo was an old man, Mariele drove with her children to see him. He had resumed painting, and she wanted to buy a picture of his. Not having much money, she chose the smallest one. When she found it was only 50 DM, she wished she had chosen a larger one.

(Mariele just showed it to us. It’s a configuration of squares, red, purple, yellow, orange, against a black background. There are a few gold squares as well. Mareile said it reminds her of Klee; it did me, too.)

The Dom in Königslutter was interesting, and made more interesting than it might have been by Mareile. It’s Romanesque, a very pure Romanesque, with an astonishing cloister, whose pillars twist and turn with every manner of design. Along the way, the side capitals are also ornately detailed. At either end are figures holding up capitals and looking full-face at the viewer. Mareile said it’s unknown if they’re reference to the God Wotan, or the carver himself. By legend, they’re carved by a master and his apprentice.

On an outer wall of the church was a wonderful hunter’s frieze, in which men—from either side—set dogs on animals. One side shows a rabbit being pursued, caught, carried on a pole by the hunter. Then all of a sudden, the reversal: the hunter’s on the ground, the hare’s tying him up hand and foot, atop him.

I asked Mareile if the frieze was simply a whimsical thing, or meant to speak some symbolic lesson. She said the latter. I thought of poor pursued nature avenging itself on its pursuers. A guidebook I’ve just consulted says it’s a memento mori message.

The linden, too, was fabulous—older than the church, it’s thought, and gnarled and virtually hollow inside, with iron bars to protect its hollow areas, and concrete to fill some of them. One low limb is held up by a kind of red metal pillar.

Mareile told us that, on certain occasions, the school would bring the children to the tree, to form a ring about it and dance in honor of the ancient Kaiser—a vestige of the Maibaum in these Protestant lands?