Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Montréal, Québec, Canada 12.12.94: Winter Rooftops, Claustrophobic Apartments

In Montréal, watching steam (or is it smoke?) waft lazily out of chimneys in Snowdon on a rather cold (-20◦) morning. We’re in the 20th-story apartment of G. and S. Baum.

This is a difficult trip. In fact, I feel close to tears as I write, for no specific reason that I can identify. First, there’s the fact that things haven’t been good between Steve and me for weeks now, since Chicago and AAR.

There, Steve became distant, an old disappearing act. When this happens, it happens: no amount of anguished remonstration of fury can call him back. He recedes the more one rages. The receding confirms his cold power over me.

It’s not as if this distance marks every aspect of his relationship to me. That’s what’s maddening about it: it’s an inner inaccessibility that can go hand-in-hand with outer physical attentiveness.

I’m convinced, after enduring this vanishing-act business for years, that he doesn’t understand it, either—at least its roots. In the case of Chicago, I think one of its triggers was job interviews. They elicit all the old anxieties about how to identify ourselves in the workplace, and all Steve’s old strategies of blame, inherited from his father: if you weren’t attached to me (incubus to host), how I’d soar. What prancing white stallions would bear me on my mission.

Then, curiously (or not so curiously), when we went to the gay men’s seminar dinner at Chicago, Steve was wired. There was an element of forced gaiety about his behavior the whole evening.

So, long story short, we’ve spent the intervening weeks arguing fiercely, as we hadn’t done in some time now. In the Baltimore airport on the way to Montréal, got so bad I just walked away. He’s just not here, and when I try to share, he fidgets with a suitcase lock or blows his nose. Always.

Needless to say, then, being in G.’s and S.’s four-room apartment is painful in the extreme. The freak on exhibit. This is Steve’s country and not mine. This is where he betrayed me with R. and W. This is where he throve, to the extent that he tailored himself to straight male expectations, and I

Monday, March 30, 2009

New York City 25.11. and 28.11.1994: No More Secret Deaths and Gay Pilgrimage

En route to New York City to see “Angels in America.” Since first hearing of the play, seeing a documentary re: its staging, and reading about it, I’ve wanted to see it. A kind of gay pilgrimage . . . . I’m really attracted by the theme—a gay fantasia on American history, its appeal to Ernst Bloch, the Southern background of its author. However, reading the play was something of a disappointment—i.e., I found nothing of Bloch in it, really.

Now, I’m wondering why I even wanted to make this trip. Two days of cooking and cleaning for Thanksgiving, and I’m exhausted. All the old gnawing, relentless questions and hungers—about the Belmont Abbey experience, and above all about what to do next, where to go. I feel so irrevocably defeated. I try to see it otherwise, to feel otherwise, but how can I—no job, and no one interested in me, apparently.

+ + + + +

Just ready to take off from La Guardia. A stimulating, but exhausting, evening after we went to the matinee of part 2 of “Angels,” “Perestroika.” Afterwards, we went to the apartment of Chuck’s friend Jeff L., who lives with his lover Moïses K., a Venezuelan of Jewish descent, on the upper west side.

We were to have dinner with them and Amanda, a woman with whom Jeff works at their “nighttime” job. She has a “daytime” job at a toy-maker’s, he at Estée Lauder.

But the evening got very late, and as we were to go back to Queen’s—an hour’s train ride—and would have awakened Mr. B., we stayed at Jeff’s and Moïses’s and got practically no sleep—stayed up talking.

Something prompted me to tell them our story, and they were taken with it. Moïses said it should be a play, and asked me to write it. I have no talent in that area, I feel quite sure.

“Angels”: wonderful. Exhilarating. Uplifting. Autobiographical. The line in the epilogue—“We refused to die secret deaths any more”—knocked me off my feet. That Blochian emphasis on “a kind of painful progress” in the world, on the forward-spinning of things . . . .

How to translate that insight, the refusal to die a secret death anymore, into action at Belmont Abbey College? To die a secret death makes it so easy for them. It facilitates everything—their lies, their secrets, their silences.

If this experience was a pilgrimage, then what must I take home from it? How am I a different person as a result of my pilgrimage? I feel so tired, so ignoble, yet Moïses and Amanda think otherwise: they spoke of Steve’s and my life as a heroic love story, a beautiful one . . . . I wish I were able to see things that way.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Chicago 21.11.1994: Rachel Weeping and Christic Misfits

Here at AAR, as always, I compare myself with my classmates, most of whom—almost all of whom—are tenured and secure. They write and study in relative peace. . . . None has endured the egregiously punitive behavior of Belmont Abbey. . . .

What is prayer, that yields no sense of connection to a listening ear? What can prayer be, as one screams over and over into the dark, and no help comes?

Steve pointed this out to me: as we sat talking today, a woman in a motorized wheelchair whizzed past. She was apparently totally paralyzed, able to operate the machine with only a single finger. Her head lolled back on the wheelchair’s headrest. She was smiling.

She was also wheeling recklessly, at high speed, through a maze of tables and chairs. She seemed to enjoy doing this, even to relish a bit the fright she gave others.

Steve saw the scene as Flannery O’Connoresque. He spoke of the woman as a christic misfit, who inhabits a salvific space.

I don’t know any long what such language means. At one time, I would have resonated with such pious discourse. Now, I don’t want to hear it. If it means that she’s already all broken, and so has nothing to fear as she rides fearlessly and smiling down the hallway—if that’s salvific grace—then I have to ask why God must go to such extremes, to save.

If this rhetoric means that we’re all essentially broken, and must find signs of transcendence amidst our brokenness, then I just don’t want to hear that bourgeois existential garbage. It’s just not true—most of the straight men who are legion at AAR are far from broken, except in some evanescent, hopelessly subjective sense. They’re atop, astride, the world. This existential rhetoric is a sentimental gloss on bourgeois, patriarchal capitalism, something that intends for us to prescind from critique and hope piously that we’ll all be as fortunate as those who have, ostensibly, “made it” by sheer dint of hard work and chutzpah.

Without liberation, with seeing my oppressors routed and their oppression overturned, I don’t know how to believe. I don’t know how to pray, except to beg—Who? What?—for liberation from my oppression.

+ + + + +

A whirlwind tour of the Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and modern wings of the Chicago Art Institute. Writing now in retrospect . . . .

The painting that reached out and grabbed me was a recently acquired Chagall. It’s a crucifixion of the Jewish Jesus, with scenes of German soldiers et al. despoiling synagogues, desecrating Jewish cemeteries, burning Jewish houses. Rachel and the patriarchs hover behind and above the cross, mourning. Jesus wears various insignia that identify him as Jewish.

Why did this grab me? The obvious religious themes, of course, their subversive-critical application, the theme of dispossession that keeps luring my heart so (why? the flight to spirit and from soul, à la Thomas Moore?).

And there’s Chagall himself—the bittersweet and yet dionysiac vision, and specifically, this vision applied to village life, folk life. Even in the cows and byres, peasants with clumsy hobnail boots fly. Beside the Chagall stained windows in the museum, a plaque with Chagall saying that he prefers a life into which surprise always intrudes. The joyousness (and deep sympathy) of this vision.

What sustains it? What theology lies at its roots? I need to read Chagall’s account of his childhood, which I have at home.

The van Goghs stood out for me, too. Even in the early “serene” phase, such incipient sadness. In the light, the air, the pitiless sky, there’s often that unmitigated loneliness of an Edward Hopper urban landscape.

It doesn’t escape my attention that I’m drawn, filing to the magnet, by the tragic, by dispossession, early death, talent unrealized. Why? Am I the perpetual adolescent, nurturing dreams of tragic-romantic self-torture, in order to escape adult male responsibility? To a great extent, social and ecclesial structures make gay men unfulfilled adolescents. We need desperately to rebel vs. the stifling images of male sobriety and success foisted on us by straight men. But we also need to do this as those who’ve achieved belonging in the world of straight men.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 21.5.93: Stodgy Meals and Clerical Chitchat

Sitting again on the wall outside our room looking down at the bush around the bottom of the monastery’s hill on the southeast.

One of my horrendous nights, when every nerve feels wound to breaking point. A wretched meal of some unidentifiable meat ground to a paste and made into a kind of meatloaf didn’t help. The meat or starch extender was noisomely stale, and there were bone fragments throughout.

Yesterday, lunch at Reggie D.’s, a former student of Steve’s who is now pastor of St. Bede’s church. Curiously, we’ve had neither fish nor conch since we’ve been here—beef one night, lamb the next, mystery meat last night, and chicken at Reggie’s. Curious because surely fish is easier to come by on a small island, and other meats are imported.

Reggie’s cousin, a Msgr. M., also there. A type of officious cleric I dislike. He sat down and took our measure with cold appraising eyes for awhile, but when he discovered Steve is a St. John’s grad, as he is, and that we know his classmate Michael V., he warmed up.

But even then an air of forced gaiety that I so dislike at clerical luncheons. Quotes from Shakespeare. Stories re: a time when he was subdeacon at St. John’s and sang at a liturgy at St. Benedict’s for the 600 nuns. When he sang Dominus vobiscum and they chanted Et cum spiritu tuo, he was (unconsciously) so beguiled by their massive soprano response, that he sang his next lines falsetto, and they twittered. All this acted out with fluttering eyelashes and hands before the mouth, but no giving away of self, no letting down the guard. As befits the vicar general of the diocese, for that’s what he is.

Would non-Euro-American Catholicism have generated these third-world replicas of Euro-American church politicians? Oops, better back up. Would third-world Catholicism have generated these replicas of Euro-American clerics, had they not been trained in the first world? And do I dislike them more because they’re black men and some racist person inside me wants black men to be submissive?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 20.5.93: Carpets of Many Colors and Sinuous Bridges

There are times when a body simply needs to be body, to sit in this south Bahamian wind, fresh off the sea, just a hint of tropical sultriness. To be bathed in wind, each tired pore seeking to open itself to the rushing breeze. And yet how hard to let go of possessive, always jealous and fruitful, intellect, the watcher at the gate of all experience.

+ + + + +

As I look now at my pleasantly bright shirt, with its patches of orange, yellow, rose, aquamarine, all made more luminous by the light of the Bahamian sun which, even filtered through the windows, still searches everything out, I think of a time when I was in high school and wanted a new rug for my bedroom.

I found one in a catalogue, a pastiche of bright colors, a patchwork quilt of color which now I would find hideous but then thought beautiful. I asked for it. My mother said no, the cost was too much. I begged. She ordered the rug. It came, and it was not what I had asked for, but a somber blue rug she had substituted, because it was cheaper.

To think of this makes me think of the pain we all endure growing up, and of how all poetry, all poiesis, is somehow a sinuous bridge from the lamentable pain of existence, to meaning. Poetry is a footbridge thrown over the chasm, the dark abyss—as shaky and tenuous as a rope bridge over an Andean pass. I see it in my mind, the call to let even such a childish hurt as that of the many-colored carpet, be a poem, a reaching over to the infinite from the absurdity of my life, my heart.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 19.5.1993: Bare Ruined Churches and Cerulean Waters

Sitting on a wall outside St. Augustine’s monastery, on what’s the highest point in the city, Nassau. I’m facing north, and the sun’s not too hot, both because it’s only 8:30 A.M. and because there’s a right nice cloud cover. A very pleasant breeze at my back. The hilltop seems to catch breezes. We walked last night, and the whole area was cool and breezy. Benedictus montes amavit, Bernardus valles.

We spent yesterday getting acclimated. Arrived at about 1 P.M. and Steve’s great uncle George Wolf picked us up. He’s a “typical” German male from Minnesota—very interested in being in control. The other monks, particularly the younger ones, have said as much. Food for thought: what’s perhaps ethically appropriate in one generation (the macho masterful control expected of the pioneer/missionary) is not for the next (post-hippie, post 60s youth). But also food for thought in that the church has yet to understand the sea-changes of the 60s, and much of the conflict I feel is with an institution will dominated by those who think à la macho pioneer/missionary. John Paul II as a reasserter of threatened masculinity, Paul VI as sensitive feminine.

Anyway, the Bahamas. The soil is rocky and thin, and the vegetation—especially here, on this dry hilltop—surprisingly desert-like. There’s a plant I know only as Moses-in-the-basket, a sedum-like plant with fleshy leaves, long and tapered, purple beneath and green above. Is it called Rhoeo spathacea? For some reason, that name sticks in my mind.

There’s aloe vera and cactus, but are these native, or did the monks plant them? An aloe I looked at last night had two brown lizards with sharply pointed tails a-rest on its leaves, as if they were cushions.

Fr. George pointed out a red-flowering tree called Poinciana. It, too, is desert-like: rises to an umbrella shape, with a bare shapely trunk something like crepe myrtle. The flowers are cup-shaped but frilly, in stiff up-pointed brackets. Why do I think of it as euphorbia—E. resplendens? I must break a branch and see if it’s milky.

And, of course, there’s croton, chenille plant (both grown as shrubs), lovely purple and magenta bougainvillea, which is grown both as a vine and a shrub, Confederate jasmine, Mexican coral vine. There’s a tree just beginning to bloom, which George calls showers of gold—showy yellow clusters of bloom—and there’s a tree with white blossoms that’s just stopping blooming, called Bohemia.

In the midst of this, third-world chaos and decay. The monastery typifies this. It’s a huge complex of buildings, most of which were never completed and, most appropriate of all, the church itself never finished. All built in the 40s when Catholicism seemed serenely triumphant, stable, semper virens et vivens, and vocations were flocking.

And yet: the buildings are now almost empty, almost bereft of humanity, except for aging monks of the macho pioneer/missionary variety, who lived in bemused isolation as the world they inhabited and built falls apart around them.

George Wolf says when he came to Nassau in 1944 the population was 24,000. Today, it’s 175,000. As one drives through the neighborhoods of the city, which is (as with the island itself) 90% black, one sees shanty after shanty, doors open, tattered lace curtains at the only window, debris on the street everywhere, men gathered on stoops of liquor stores. It could be New Orleans.

The church lives uneasily in this society. Vatican II troubled its untroubled complicity with imperialism. A history of Bahamian Catholicism Before lent us, Upon These Rocks, by Coleman Barry—is full of pictures of monks with British royalty, monks with British governors, monks with Clare Booth Luce, monks with white people, happy black people with baskets of pineapple on their heads.

And, boom, Vatican II, exodus of monks and nuns in droves, empty white palaces atop hills, teeming colored populations down below in slums. The younger monks are all reading Donald Goergen’s Sexual Celibate. Though most are now black or Indian (from Trinidad), with the exception of young white monks sent in from St. John’s, the “native” vocations go up to St. John’s for study and novitiate, and come back talking about how beer in the Bahamas costs $3 bucks a bottle.

O my people, what have I done to you, in what have I offended you? Answer me. The novum never comes except with death, decay, struggle. . . .

+ + + + +

Lying on beach on Paradise Island, full sun, mid-afternoon. The sky is lovely, full of cumulus clouds, but still deep blue, and the water—indescribably clear, blue green. A young woman to my right is shamelessly topless, a German (?) gay couple, one with long blond curly hair, the other with slicked back dark hair, in the water ahead of us. Not bottomless, sadly.

+ + + + +

Back at St. Augustine’s, reading Rilke’s Stories of God, which are full of wonderful Rilkean apercus, but are on the whole strange to me. Not because they’re strange, but I’m reading out of duty and not delight.

Perhaps appropriately, thinking of mystery, and especially how American Catholics so quantify and oppress things into one shape alone that they have no sense of people’s mysterious depths.

Sent Joe M. a birthday card today, with the El Dorado poem I’ve tried desultorily to finish in this journal, and can’t. . . . I can’t get it right: it’s a poem re: loss of innocence, love, youth.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Asheville, North Carolina 18.3.93: Appalachian Spring and Winter of Discontent

Back from the blizzard. For the week of 7-14, I had won the use of the college’s timeshare condominium in Asheville. On the 12th, it began to snow in the evening. All night, it thundered, lightened, and poured snow from the sky, as the wind blew fiercely.

In the morning, there was over a foot of snow on the ground. It snowed steadily all day, and the wind continued to blow heavily, so that by night there were nearly three feet of snow, and, in places, drifts of four feet and more. At one point, we tried to go out and walk, but as we did so, we knew that we were in a blizzard, and turned back.

From Saturday to Tuesday evening, we could not drive out. We had been scheduled to leave on Sunday, but all roads were closed out of Asheville then, and, in any case, we could not have gone, because the narrow, winding path back to the condo was under a ton of snow.

By Monday, we walked to the store and could see traffic moving, but it was not till Tuesday that the hotel cleared the road to the condos. Then we had no trouble driving on the freeway, though there was still snow all the way to Spartanburg.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Washington, D.C. 20.2.1993: Neocon Boors, Silent Chapels

Steve gone, and I alone in the hotel room. He’s at an interview. . . .

I made a point today of going to the Georgetown campus chapel and praying as devoutly as I could for a sign to light my way, for help, for wisdom to discern, for new doors to open. Somehow I thought as I prayed of some utopian “high” place—a place ringed by hills, with meadows and orchards and gray stone buildings, a place to write. Fantasy, I fear—a sheer fantasy. But some place I could wish to find, to settle in with my books and plans to write, before my life is over. . . .

+ + + + +

Just returned from supper. Seated behind me an obnoxious Baltimore family. Pater familias told a joke re: how a class in Virginia was asked recently who said, “Four score and seven years ago.” The only student to raise her hand was a Japanese exchange student, who said Lincoln, then gave the date. Teacher scolded the class and turned to the blackboard, and a boy yells, “F—k the Japs.” Teacher turns to ask, “Who said that?” Boy yells, Harry S. Truman, 1945.”

A conversation ensued re: how we had to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then it gets to the recent convention of conservatives in D.C. The family was apparently there. Mater familias quotes with approval Oliver North, who said we must take this country back from the homoerotic ethic and return it to its Judaeo-Christian ethical roots.

Bombing the Japs? Insulting gays with impunity—since this loud conversation took place in a restaurant in a mixed neighborhood, where the Blade is available in the restaurant lobby? These boors, and their relatives across the land, who are legion, represent the Judaeo-Christian ethic? They proceeded to laugh re: how the first child can come anytime, the rest nine months at a time, so it’s not transgression of sexual norms in general that disturbs them.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Washington, D.C. 18-19.2.1993: Drowning Dreams and Watching Angels

At the Hirshorn Museum, after a morning in the National Archives, and very weary, dissociated.

All night, I dreamt I was writing some kind of “breakthrough” letter to the college, saying now is a time of national debate, and also of crisis for the college.

For both reasons, discussion of the college’s identity seems imperative. Yet it’s being blocked, often by demonizing of the new, and by sheer refusal to discuss, as we manage conflict.

This is unjust. A college is a community—bound together, etymologically—and requires free shared discourse to be what it purports to be. Moreover, refusal to discuss covertly privileges a few, and allows power centers to manipulate, rather than invite discussion.

+ + + + +

At National Gallery of Art. Very moved by a series of allegorical paintings by Thomas Cole, 1842, on the four phases of life. In each, a guardian angel—in childhood, with the child; in youth, on the shore as the youth’s boat pushes off on the river of life; in midlife, watching solicitously from the clouds as the boat shoots dark rapids to a dark ocean; in old age, rejoining the boat as it enters the ocean.

There’s a type of thought about pictography. Not a new notion, I know—evident to anyone who looks at any primitive” art, that we depict in order to think. And yet think very differently from anything commonly called rationality now.

This is thought of the dark, moist, fertile self below rationality. Because it’s powerful thought, we need to suppress art in our “civilizations” of technocratic managerialism.

I don’t know how to give myself to the thought of the dark, camera oscura, pictographic self. It kills me to do so. I do so only in painful and voluptuous dreams in which any sense of self I have is so painfully fragmented and shattered, that it’s almost a violent wrenching of my body—literally so, some days—to awake. I drown in dreams, in a stream that seeps simultaneously into every crack and crevice of my being, showing me mad illuminations of the many facets of my experience that I simply cannot tolerate, or seem to connect in daytime without actually going mad.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New Orleans 13.3.1994: Wild Synchronicities, A Room of One's Own

At New Orleans airport, waiting for our flight and bathing in glorious sunshine over my shoulders, from the high clear windows and sparsely clouded blue sky.

Wondering how one becomes a cloister to oneself, a reserve of green peace and recollection in which a fountain flows quietly, unobtrusively, regenerating all around it even when the world beyond the walls is mere chaos. A not inappropriate question in the madness that is New Orleans, the insanity that is New Orleans Catholicism. . . .

What does it all mean? Over and over in our days in New Orleans, it has been that experience about which I’ve been writing—circles of my life overlapping with and opening onto other circles.

E.g., Sean D. asked Steve if he can share our story with Luis C. Ralph went to high school with Luis in Concord . . . . Would anyone reading this journal even realize how wildly coincidental all this is?

Also, Bill A. and Stan K. both mentioned Jean M. and her trip to Russia—less coincidental, but nonetheless striking. (Bill does hilarious imitations of Jean M. talking about needing new dripes for her parlor. Doesn't totally remove the pain from her ugly behavior towards me on that trip, but it does allow me to put it into perspective.)

And on Thursday, we had coffee with Clarita R., who recommended I write Bard College for a job—a place I’d never heard of. That night at supper, Stan K. referred to Bard; then before bedtime, I read James Merrill’s memoir, A Different Person, and came on a passage about—yep, Bard College.

What does it all mean? Or does it have to mean? Why did R., the Trinitarian with whom Bill A. lives, and whom Landrum picked up in Audubon Park, mention Kyle S. last night?

I feel I could develop mad, crazed theories to account for all this synchronicity. Or I can simply live in the current producing these eddies. My fear about the latter is that all insight and enthusiasm seems immediately to be swallowed up by the everyday, once I return to it.

I have to think I’m in a moment of extraordinary grace, whose contours I simply cannot discern. In such a moment, we must pray to be like those paper things that catch wind and sing.

Writing, my heart tells me, is key to all this. We went to Beckham’s Books yesterday, and Cary B. and his partner Alton C. almost begged us to return to New Orleans, though we hardly know them. They’ve bought a house two blocks from our Dorgenois house.

Somehow, this stirred in me again that deep, deep sense that I’m to write. I want so much to have time, space, freedom, to write. If I have that, I feel nothing can stop me: it’ll pour out.

Time/space/freedom from the church and the persona I’ve been forced to adopt as a gay theologian who sees and can’t say what he sees, in this structure. I just don’t want to babble it anymore, or be inside it. If anything, I want to look on it all with wry, amused irony.

(If the church comes to me, after I’ve written, and lets me be me, and teach from that vantage point, well, then . . . .)

Time/space/freedom: money. I need it with an almost physical hunger. Never thought I’d feel this way; it’s so crassly materialistic. But I need it to buy the freedom from the material that I need in order to write, to be free of crippling anxiety, to have a secure place, to be surrounded by some peace and beauty and tranquility, to be free to travel. And yet what fantasies! As if what we need drops down from heaven as we need it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

New Orleans 11.3.1994: Dream Claims and Soul Windows

What claim do my dreams have on me? What claim do any dreams—or does anything—have on me? I feel such dearth of soul.

At face value, they seem so simple, so banal—as I myself am. Guilt associated with sex since puberty, sibling rivalry, a sense of being out of control re: being gay and Christian. I don’t know how to relate what these windows show about my inner soul with anything in my external life.

Except. I was intensely nervous most of yesterday, especially when the Jesuits at Loyola suggested Steve and I go to Africa and work in their missions. A building nervousness, lunching in Thomas Hall and then meeting with LIM faculty. The old symptoms, for the old reasons: who am I in this setting, as a gay theologian?

Then I awoke today angry at Steve and have remained so all day—at his unresponsiveness, inaccessibility, slowness. Or is it anger at myself? Am I inaccessible to myself, obtuse and confused?

The soul window provided by dreams seems to show me some things that are underneath all that I feel and think and experience now. I’m not sure they’re “related” at all—it’s as if the blockage of so much in my life, of fruitful introspection, vision, forward movement, opens up vistas on energies always present inside. . . .

Could I take this story and turn it into a story re: energy, and not re: blockage and confusion?

Friday, March 13, 2009

New Orleans 10.3.1994: Scheming Bishops and People's Liturgies

I need to pay more attention to what is comprised by the act of listening. Somehow, reason—Enlightenment reason as a tool of domination—is connected to this interest, for me. Listening and domination are antithetical to one another. In order to become a culture (or church) able to listen, we have to reject the dominative impulse in Enlightenment reason.

+ + + + +

Yesterday, Sean D. told Steve he has been disciplined because he invited an AIDS patient to speak to the seminarians’ spiritual formation group, as well as a Pax Christi person who spoke about the people’s liturgy. When seminarians complained to conservative bishops, Sean’s office was split in half, and W. Maestri took over the spiritual formation work.

Then, oddly, in the evening as we had dinner with Al A., Al told us that John B. had spoken to the seminarians at St. Ben’s re: Al’s people’s liturgy, and T. Rodi responded with a letter informing them that the liturgy is unorthodox. Two more names from our past flowing together with the present: Sean, a friend of C.J. McNaspy from our present, and T. Rodi, our bête noire at Notre Dame who even then was headed to a suave, good-looking bishopric, and John B., husband of Karen C.

What can it all mean? It’s as if I’m inside something whose contours I can only barely see. But as M. Wolf said yesterday, if we could see, we’d be dead.

Yesterday, Kathleen also showed us the newsletter H. Cohen sends out for his “Closer Walk” ministries. It has a column written by him screaming about birth control, militant homosexuals, the threat to the family, which is the cornerstone of American society, and on and on. It screams about being “truly” Catholic with the pope, Splendor Veritatis, etc., etc. Clearly, lots of money backs all this tripe, like the money (Paul N.’s) that bought Hannan a personal radio station.

What does it all mean? The only way I think I can hope to “figure it out” (how little the phrase fits) is to tell the story from inside, as I see it, tracing the contours with my hands in darkness. M. Wolf says we must speak now. She says Schulte is eager, eager to hear the CUF people. Al A. says he and other theologians have gotten warnings from Schulte, saying that he is bishop and they answer to his definition of orthodoxy. Al’s was in a hand-addressed envelope, unlike others’, a sign of the special attention his radicalism merits. Schulte has spies in Al’s classes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Orleans 8.3.1994: Sweet Mockingbirds and Paschal Mysteries

Sitting out back at Kathleen and Abner’s, in their patio with its carved Porta Coeli sign and odorous dog turds on the bricks. Ivy and Moses-in-the-basket spill over the walls. On the drunken trollop’s side of the house, a baby screams frantically. On the other side, the bearded Yankee neighbor is assiduously cleaning house. I see the cabinet open, with its array of cleaning stuffs. I’m embarrassed to see him, since Steve and I have just been arguing, I raising my voice shrewishly.

Pleasant March sky. A mockingbird singing very sweetly behind me, and some more raucous bird (a jay?) cawing nearby.

I think of all the sad days I sat reading and writing in just this spot in 1984 when Steve left me here, as I struggled to write the dissertation. I decade later, I feel no wiser. It was Holy Week when I arrived in 1984: a long paschal mystery since then. I just don’t see its meaning.

To wit: yesterday, Pat R. called Kathleen and Abner to ask for our phone number. It was the first time we’d heard from him since 1978, when we lost contact . . . .

This makes me ponder even more a question I ponder and ponder after my talk the other night, when people from every layer of my life came to hear the lecture—Bill D. from my undergrad days (saying, Why is Bill Lindsey not a symbol of Loyola’s achievement?), Rick B. from the prayer group days, LIM students, Dorothy M. from my time teaching at St. Dominic’s.

What does it all mean? What’s the claim of all this life-lived on me? I’d like to see each layer as separate, each episode as a closed book. Now they’re all flowing together.

I can only conclude that flow is the word. As I wrote in my journal soon after New Year’s in 1993, when I was about to get the terminal contract, something flows strongly under my life, through it. A river, grace, life itself, in its sweet, strange, maddening incomprehensibility.

And in, through, every life. It’s so chastening, and yet so endearing, to see that, somehow, I’ve touched some of those I’ve taught in a way that influences their lives. Deep calling to deep; the depths running underneath my existence eddying and pooling with their depths.

Where to go with this; what to do with it? I don’t see. Thomas Moore says that, in being baptized, Jesus gave himself to the stream. I would (I hope) do so, if I knew how, where. I don’t see.

But maybe this is what this awful time is about, in part. It’s about letting oneself be carried by that river even when one doesn’t see. It’s about learning how life is a force running through one’s limited temporal-spatial boundaries.

I keep thinking of Rilke, and the call to be conscious, the struggle to live so stretched awake that we see, hear, taste, feel. We bought the Robert Bly translation of Rilke the other day, and I was bowled over by his title poem for the songs collection—if we don’t sing, what’s left to us?

And a tiny slug just fell on this journal as I closed it, reminding me that corruption trials through every word I wrote, because my heart is corrupted—with self-infatuation. And my pen suddenly drips black ink. My words, my thought, my heart are hardly sine macula.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New Orleans 6.3.1994: Race Matters and Postmodern Play

Sunday morning, 9 A.M. on Kathleen and Abner’s stoop. Next door, three feet away, as New Orleans houses are built, a baby voices its presence to the soft sunshine. Its mama mocks it, repeating its up-reaching sounds with bass, down-going ones.

Two nights ago, the mama and her boyfriend fought so fiercely the police were called. We had seen them earlier in the day—she a tubby-gutted slattern with round face, dirty askew brown hair, tired, mean brown eyes, a twisted toothless mouth, cigarette hanging out; he a blond cherub spoiled, years her junior, fresh-faced with blue eyes, already going paunchy, sucking on his own cigarette. Real New Orleans. Jesus would have loved them. I have trouble doing so.

The fight was drunken and cacophonous. She screamed vituperations in gutter language, while he demanded she let in the pregnant cat. When the police came, he was outside (2 A.M.) on the stoop, told them he was the husband. Abner and Kathleen says this happens often.

It’s New Orleans, 1994, year of our Lord, Morial Jr., just elected mayor last night. Not much can be done about the decline of traditional neighborhoods here, though I hope Morial will give it a shot. This neighborhood, solidly lower middle-class when we lived here 20 years ago (but even then grudgingly accepting a first wave of displaced Cubans) is now virtually all black. The whites who remain are utterly déclassé, like Kathleen and Abner’s neighbors, remnants of the 1950s neighborhood trapped on this reef as history washes their children to Kenner, Chalmette, and the idyllic North Shore, as t.v. newscasters now urge us to call across the lake.

Rather than remain in these neighborhoods and rub shoulders with Cubans and people of color, white families have fled. And in doing so, have left the city deprived of an important tax base, full of social problems that they blame on race rather than on their own abandonment of the city.

Through it all, New Orleans is always so vital—the squirrel scratching its way up and down the twist of tree limbs across the street, pigeons hurling like suddenly alarmed dignitaries onto the spiky green leaves of the loquat, a mockingbird displaying its white stripes in delighted flight onto the grass of the vacant lot.

I love the mild air, the slowness with which light comes and goes each day, even the raucousness of it all. I don’t like the litter, the burnt-out faces of the trapped poor folks, the bitter hard ones of the Metairie grandparents we saw last night as we had supper on Veterans. Talk about postmodernism.

Steve’s definition of postmodernism: seeing Schindler’s List in a bookstore yesterday, he said, “Oh, they’ve made a book out of that movie.”

Lots of impressions, too many to do justice. LIM nice to me. M. Dumestre introduced me as a New Orleanian, serious scholar, gentle person. Oodles of my students there, all sweet, solicitous, eager to touch and hug in that New Orleans way: M. Wolf, P. Hennican (sporting a Peggy Wilson sticker: her sister-in-law), D. Thompson, B. Dwyer, D. Kouris, D. McCloskey.

The latter amusing with her chunky little body in black tights surmounted by a bright red t-shirt with a beaded Indian thing around her neck, punk-red hair, huge asymmetrical earrings. A statement, and an A for effort, if not fashion savvy. She was back from a trip to El Salvador, where she picked coffee with Salvadoran workers. Then home to New Orleans to a dinner where she dined with people from the Salvadoran embassy, who cooed soft Hispanic horror at her poor scratched white arms, and recoiled in astonishment when she told them how she had incurred the scars. The ambassador made a joke of it: “I knew our economy was bad; I didn’t know we were importing American labor, though.”

. . .

Abner just drove up. Neighbor on the other side lamenting the election—a bearded 40ish man with a Yankee accent, who said, “For the first time in New Orleans history, there’s not a white male government—only one white male elected.” To which Abner replied, “Well, they can’t do a worse job than the previous government. We’ll see what they’ll do.”

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New Orleans, En Route 4.3.1994: Golden Expectations Become Hamburg Drizzle

En route to New Orleans, in the plane somewhere over western Carolina or eastern Georgia. I’m to give a lecture tonight, a workshop tomorrow, then a much-needed vacation with Steve, who’s on break next week.

Taking off, I think of the Bahamas, the clear light there last summer, the dishabille of the baseball diamond we walked each evening, with its spiky tufts of tenacious tropical grass. I think of the wind atop Fox Hill, the mysterious scent of the frangipani, the owl that stared us down from the monastery’s unfinished bell tower.

Then I think of rainy, gloomy Hamburg, the two awful Chinese meals Steve and I had there in restaurants that smelled of urine, where the waiters preferred to speak English. I think of the musty inn we stayed at in Dreis in the Eifel, with its frightful furnishings like something from a Fred Flintstone set, skins nailed to interior walls, clashing violently with those nubby polyester bedclothes the 1960s called modern.

Displacement. That curious excitement of displacement I feel whenever I travel. The golden expectations that soon become Hamburg drizzle or Dreis furnishings. I’m not sure what to make of it. As I read James Merrill’s memoir, A Different Person, how he sought displacement in Europe as a young gay man, I wonder if it’s inherent in being gay. Totus mundus exilium est: yes, it’s the displacement of oppression and the doors it closes to “normalcy” and privilege; and it’s the displacement of being denied family—in traditional senses of the word.

But is it also that displacement of being . . . genderless, betwixt and between, not one nor the other, at least, in societal myths about a gay orientation? Is that why W.E.B. DuBois’s idea of double consciousness appeals so? Like blacks, gay people live that strange phenomenon.

I know there’s lots of power there, in not quite belonging: Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Jesus and the reign of God, St. Francis and his father, any woman you can name, practically. But I don’t know how to access that power. I want to belong and not belong, to have security and be free to critique.

I wait for . . . what? To have some vague sense of who I am, I reckon. Speaking, as I will tonight, in this vague floating space that is my life and identity now—it’s very anxiety-provoking, to put it mildly. I don’t float well; I’m not a very spiritually mature person.

+ + + + +

Leave taking is always hard for me. Sugar’s reproachful eyes through the gate, the tick of the clock in the still house and rust stains in the sink. But today, the purple buds of the Japanese magnolia, big and fat against a not too well matched blue sky. They’ll open while we’re away, as they did last year. This is a poem, if I could write it . . . .

Monday, March 9, 2009

New Orleans 4.7.94: Still Bayous and Dark Coffee

Steve and I up early to walk along the bayou (St. John) and in City Park. I feel some spiritual depth calling to me here, these days. The bayou focuses that call, as it often did for me when we lived in New Orleans, and I wrote poems in my head as we walked on its banks. Followed by coffee at Café du Monde, in that still, cool time around dawn before it’s tourist-crowded.

But times away from home, like this teaching stint in New Orleans, draw out the worst between Steve and me—naked cor ad cor loquitur, and one cannot predict what will happen. The sameness of it all is so boring, so maddening—he says, I say, we say, like some rote chant. That book title, The Dance of Anger, is appropriate—it is a dance, a relentless two-step in which one can never improvise, or fling oneself into the cosmic polka with abandon.

Glad abandon: those old sucker words still get me, with all their self-deception. With Steve, what palls is precisely what drew me to him in the first place—the masculine control. But such sly control, that never really takes control . . . .

Of course, when people argue so hopelessly and for so long about such small things, the argument is really about something else. Control, I guess. If what we hate in others is our own shadow, then it’s I who am conflicted over control. I want to give myself (with glad abandon), but I’m afraid to do so. Afraid I’ll be summarily shaken and my slumber dissipated—as by my mother when I was an infant.

Do the deep traumas inside us ever heal?

+ + + + +


A thought re: my trip to Russia, why it was so painful:

Travelers in foreign lands experience a curious duality: their skin becomes simultaneously transparent and impermeable. To those in whose midst they walk, all their inner mechanisms are exposed, like clocks whose faces are removed. But for the tourist, there is the experience of extreme frustration, as one seeks to connect to foreigners, and finds one’s thoughts cannot pass thick membranes of language and custom, of one’s own skin.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Atlanta, Georgia: 25.5.1994: Rice Connections, Family Connections

A good day, a pleasant one. We researched again today, all day, at the Georgia Archives, and I found a lot of treasures, family documents . . . .

After working all day, we went to an Indian restaurant on Peachtree—Raja something or other. We had a vegetable plate of appetizers, papadums, lamb, banana, and coconut curry, a biryani of chicken, rice and peanuts (! yes, not almonds), paratha, and beer. Scrumptious. The biryani makes me think of all the cuisines that flavor rice with some sauce, and serve it with bits of meat and lots of vegetables. One gets a flavorful, filling, and balanced meal that way, and it’s not expensive. E.g., arroz con pollo, which is cooked by a technique similar to that of biryani, and pilaf, which must be the Persian antecedent of biryani, and which becomes purloo in the South, where the Indian dish marries with the Spanish and becomes Spanish rice.

(Not so strange, really, if one thinks of the Arabian roots of Spanish rice cuisine.) But the tomato’s, of course, New World. And surely jambalaya is a south Louisiana version of arroz con pollo or paella (and what’s the connection between those two?)—despite all those fanciful south Louisiana legends of Indian (i.e., native American) origin. And then all the Chinese rice dishes like fried rice, congee, the hot pot, etc.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Atlanta, Georgia 23.5.1994: Family Ghosts and Faded Tombstones

Walnut Fork church near Braselton, Georgia: I did a rubbing of Jacob Braselton, Sr.’s, tombstone. Could not get one of Jacob, Jr., and wife Mary Bryson. Their stones are flat, the faux-crypt style, and badly worn—even more so than a few years ago when I was here. Mary’s appears not to have an inscription, as her will stipulates: she asks to be brought back to Walnut Fork church (she was then living in Lumpkin County) and buried beside her husband, with a monument similar to his, but no inscription. The plot of Jacob, Mary, and their infant granddaughter Margaret has a marker saying it was restored by Leita Green Braselton and her sister Nell.

Today is the anniversary of my grandmother’s death in 1968, which was Ascension Thursday that year. Requiescat in pace.

Last night, dinner at a restaurant on Peachtree called Grand China. It was a charmed experience. The owner, a Mrs. Tse-Chih Chang, brought us to our table and stood talking for half an hour—about ghosts in her house (one is a monk), about how her grandfather became sick and needed blood, so her grandmother went into the kitchen and chopped off her finger and fed him three cups of her blood, and so forth.*

Then she ordered for us—chicken in black bean sauce, ginger shrimps, and sizzling rice soup. It was a real treat for Pentecost day.

I awoke today on this first vacation day thinking how important it is to tell my story, to write. If I’m to have any peace with the familial ghosts that entrance me, I must meet them daily in fantasy, and write about the encounter, no matter where it leads me—even to the “dread essence beyond logic,” as Nikos Kazantzakis calls that spiritual stream that rushes underneath our lives.

*And am I crazy, or has Amy Tan not written stories very much like these? Are they stories that run through a number of Chinese-American families, then?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Virginia and North Carolina 11.8.94: Old Diaries and Country Churches

After a drive through the mountains, we went to Richmond and cloistered ourselves two days in the state library, state history museum, and archives. Some fascinating stuff—most alluring to me, an account book kept by Caleb Lindsey of Gloucester-Essex County in the late 1600s. To hold it in my hands . . . . I photocopied from it a “recete” for beer, from early 1700s when the book had come into the hands of Caleb’s son James.

After Richmond, a day in Norfolk. Pretty weather, clear, not too hot. A ghastly seafood dinner for which we paid too much in the expectation we needed to “treat” ourselves. One of those all-you-can-eat buffet deals with people clustered like locusts around steam tables, picking at this and that. Why can’t I learn, I’m not an all-you-can-eat buffet type? The night before, we had had a wonderful Vietnamese meal in the Fan district of Richmond for half the price: cold spring rolls, cabbage, carrot, chicken, and peanut slaw, shrimp, crab, and noodle soup, and skewered charcoal-roasted pork on noodles with fish sauce, mint, coriander, bean sprouts. Just as Duong and Phuong prepare it . . . .

Then drove back yesterday, stopping briefly in Windsor to visit the little Episcopal church and talk to Harry Lewis T. re: Monk ancestry, then to Nash County, Spring Hope, to talk to people about the Batchelors. And home. . . . .

In the car on the way home, Steve driving, I took out letters Daddy wrote from World War II and surprised myself by crying as I read them. Don’t know why. I suppose it’s the sense of loss—of his loss, his not ever having achieved anything near his measure. In some ways, this felt like the first real mourning I’d ever done for him—perhaps precipitated by my own corner-turning experiences of late.

And now. As I walked this morning, thought of the Shannon Faulkner case. Janet Reno recently said, ostensibly, that men who broke the gender barrier to become nurses are not required to put on dresses.

The point, it seems to me, is that the hierarchical male power structure Faulkner threatens must humiliate her. If it cannot exclude, then it must demonstrate its ultimate control over her and others by setting up a ritual of humiliation/subordination.

The head-shaving ritual already has that symbolism, for male cadets. It’s to initiate the cadet into the power structure, at the entry level. The whole structure passes power down, top to bottom, and requires subordination. It won’t work if one questions this requirement, or the motives or character of those above oneself.

Thus, it requires a tutelage in being subordinated, not questioning authority, accepting command, as a preliminary to one’s movement up. It requires that one learn to be pummeled, so that one may learn to pummel. It functions this way in any male hierarchical structure, whether church, university, corporation, or military.

This system doesn’t care about what people in “feminized” occupations—e.g., nursing—do. Men who become nurses are perceived as stepping down. No need to humiliate them. For men who seek to step up, such humiliation is extremely important, as an initiation into power.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Doughton State Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina 7.-8.8.1994: Lambent World, Plaited Hills

At Bluffs Lodge, Doughton State Park, where Steve and I spent time last fall. Just had to get away. A harrowing day, about which I won’t write, as it’s late in the evening.

Morning now, Doughton Park. Thinking of that passage in Thoreau I love so, as I watch the hills, mist silently capturing trees on their crests: how all the world flows, in creation, so that the lapsed world becomes lambent. The hills of the Blue Ridge, as they dwindle to dale and fold here at its northern North Carolina boundary, say this to me so powerfully, with their glad unfolding as they lie plaited over the earth.

This beauty. I respond to it. So do many others. That tells me there must be something in some landscapes that speaks insistently to the human heart, to some types of human hearts.

+ + + + +

Nature: it used to have such healing strength for me. Where has that strength gone? As I read Mary Oliver, I sense that at least part of the answer lies in the extent to which I’ve permitted myself to live only in the rational, professional, ultimately self-obsessed, brain. My sympathy for mute creatures diminishes as a result, in direct proportion to this extent.

+ + + + +

Freedom: have I bought what little freedom I have at too great cost? More and more, I feel like a character in an Edith Wharton novel, who has tried to kick over the traces, made a bit of freedom for herself, but doesn’t know what on earth to do with it now, such a strange creature she has become to all the world else. Or like what’s her name in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.

But I like that sense of being true to what most deeply impels me, compels me, inside. Fulminate as he will, the Pope can’t convince me that this is not conscience, this impulsion to truth, freedom, love. Perhaps my problem is that I’m too conscious . . . . .