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


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.”


“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

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.


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


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


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.