Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ozarks 30.3.03: Bee Balm and Chimney Rocks

My 53rd birthday. When we got up at 6:30, it was 28◦ outside. Did it freeze in Little Rock? I hope not, or our new spring seedlings will suffer. . . .

Flowers blooming on my birthday this year at the cabin: bird’s-foot violet (V. pedata), rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), and toothwort (Dentaria laciniata). Fiddleheads also coming up, tiny sprigs of bergamot, and some kind of flag all along the creek. I can’t wait to see what these look like.

I transplanted one bird’s-foot violet to the head of the outside steps. May it live and thrive. We found it in a patch near the chimney rocks when we climbed there yesterday. Amazing, eerie formations that seem to go on and on back from the road. Otherwise, bird’s-foot violet not nearly so common as in Pulaski Co. around Pinnacle Mtn. or in Grant Co. on the road to Orion.

There’s some lacy small fernlike plant coming up all over, which I’ve not seen before. The lichens and moss not nearly so spectacular as several weeks ago.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ozarks 29.3.03: Sarvisberry Blossom, Ephemeral Gifts

This day thirty 53 years ago my mother was preparing to give birth to me. How afraid she must have been with me the first. And the pain. . . .

All these thoughts in the beauty of the Ozarks, where we glimpsed bird’s-foot violets as we drove near the chimney rocks yesterday. I see some kind of flag coming up along the creek, and am curious to know what it will turn out to be. Rue anemone is blooming everywhere—pink, white, pinky-white. And big bright sprays of sarvisberry blossom in the woods.

It’s a clear day, and if we climb high, we’ll no doubt see more of them at overlook points. I also want to see the violets again. Would it be kosher to dig some up? I think they’re almost impossible to transplant.

And all along, I’m talking around what’s in my heart. That’s in part because I don’t know what’s there. Elation, certainly, to have and be in such a place. Elation at the gifts that have dropped into our laps.

At the same time, the very receiving of them—the outlay of money, even if it’s money we inherited from Kat; the new balance (or unbalancing) they effect in our lives; this cabin, land, car—the very gift of them is unsettling and causes me deep anxiety.

I feel that, in growing to old age, I’m growing away from anything that has ever been familiar to me. My loved ones are gone—they recede as I go forward. . . .

And as I write, sun suddenly reaches our valley, pale gold against the still bare trees, all shades of gray and gray-green. I’ll never see the sun on these trees just this way again.

And that’s perhaps what frustrates. All changes. All passes. All is new, and all is dying. I pore over Ecclesiastes, and I don’t know how to absorb that message of . . . acceptance? Impassivity and celebration of the ephemeral gift of life at the same time? I don’t know how to be a Buddhist accepting what is and at the same time a Jew or Christian struggling against injustice.

+ + + + +

Interesting. I read today Mary Oliver’s poem “The Return” in her What Do We Know? (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2002), which says,

Rumi the poet was a scholar also/But Shams, his friend, was an angel./By which I don’t mean anything patient or sweet (p. 9).

Also this wonderful set of lines re: her lying back to back with a seal pup on a beach:

. . . and maybe/our breathing together was some kind of heavenly conversation/in God’s delicate and magnifying language, the one/we don’t dare speak out loud, not yet (ibid.).

+ + + + +

As we walked today, it occurred to me what it is in part, the great anxiety: it’s that things seem to be going too well, and I expect the boom to fall. The . . . I don’t know the word: success? luck? . . . is deeply unsettling. It demands something beyond my normal rut.

And I don’t know what.

I also find it very difficult to imagine good can come without evil following. Telling myself this is a typical emotional dynamic in the lives of people raised with familial alcoholism doesn’t help.

Can I expect, in the same year, to buy a marvelous cabin, land, car, and have anything else good happen to me (justice with Alice Gray, with Belmont Abbey)? Life seldom gives anyone such marvelous gifts all at once. And if it does, it exacts a terrible price.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Little Rock, Arkansas 28.3.03: Angels Again and Used Silk Shirts

All religious traditions have versions of the meeting-angels-unaware story. Yesterday after lunch, Steve and I stop in at Saver’s. As I paw through shirts, a black man, elderly, begins talking to me, showing me a silk shirt he’s bought for himself.

He tells me he’s 82, was at Ft. Roots (evidently as an orderly) from the beginning, before they found all the “zines” that control folks’ behavior. He shows me a book he’s buying that indicates health is in the mind, the attitude. He reads a blurb—two people can have the same diagnosis, and one lives, the other dies: it’s all in the attitude.

He talks and talks. He was in the Pacific in WWII. (He’d be my father’s age.) I become afraid, back off. To illustrate a point, he touches my arm, pinches me. I’m terrified.

Finally, Steve tells me we must go. My heart thuds as I walk away.

Perhaps I met an angel unaware, a version of my father on a day I’d just said to Steve, “Who ever cared about me as a child? Certainly not my father, who slammed car doors on my hands out of sheer carelessness.”

If it was an angel I met yesterday, lesson to notice: I’m terrified of angels. I do wonder if this poor man had been at Ft. Roots in another capacity.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Charlotte, North Carolina 21-23.3.03: Souls for Sale, Grits and Tomatoes

The text of Ecclesiastes I read today says that, of course, it’s better to have light than dark, to be wise than a fool. Then it undercuts that proclamation by saying both the wise man and the fool end in the grave. How to dispose oneself meanwhile?

As I fly to Charlotte, where I keep hoping to see justice shine—one day!—like noonday sun, why am I taking this trip now? The Observer just printed one of their fluff pieces yet again re: the Catholic church in Charlotte, almost exactly a week after the one announcing Doherty’s firing. This spoke of how Catholic schools are booming. This certainly conduces to making me feel defeated. Same old Charlotte: souls for sale, to anyone with money to buy.

+ + + + +

I watched a woman eat this morning, with great relish, a platter of grits with tomato slices and a fried egg. She carefully cut the egg and tomatoes into bits, mixed them into the grits, and ate. It looked delicious. She was a small gamin blond woman with a pixie haircut, mischievous shy smile, dancing eyes, and very wrinkled face and arms, like a smoker’s skin.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ozarks 16.3.03: Silver-Leaf Lichen and Starry Mosses

The new cabin—right outside our doorstep are at least five distinctly different mosses. One is the velvet green moss of lore, the kind you imagine when you read an English mystery novel set in a moss-covered cemetery.

Another—tiny light green stars in clumps, set among yet another brownish-red moss that runs from the base of a tree. Then there’s a slightly twiggy green moss with a pile like carpet, and one small splotch of a graybeard variety like Spanish moss growing on the ground.

Oh, and up the hillside, I see beautiful gray lichen like silver leaf to be applied to a statue, growing amidst the venerable green moss. And is that a separate variety up the hill, that seems to have tiny . . . blooms (does moss bloom?) . . . or is it the star kind again? My eyes are not good enough to see.

The stones on which I’m sitting are foliated with the lichen, but now on closer inspection it’s a very pale green with lacy edges. One could write a treatise on the mosses and lichens alone, which grow at the doorstep.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

San Francisco 24-27.11.03: Mary's Blue Cape, Swooping Gulls

In San Francisco now, or, to be exact, Oakland. We’re at the Dominicans’ house of study, which is perched on the rim of the mountain behind Our Lady of Lourdes church. . . . And here I sit. That lull that the day after Thanksgiving is, for the non-shopper. Outside, the spire (? Is it, or does a shape of this sort have another name?) of Lourdes church blue on blue, dark blue trim on light, with a Mary symbol, a capital M with a cross inside it, and 3 fleurs-de-lis beneath. It’s beautiful atop the white tower.

I don’t know what else to do today, except try to capture some of the flux, try to be the negative on which light leaves its fleeting photographic shadow. Below, the slatey brown-blue lake relatively unruffled, except for here a breeze, there a V a swimming duck leaves behind, amazingly larger and larger, for such a small thing. Where trees are, on the banks, dark smudges in the water like smoke, like bruises. Gulls alone serene in their ceaseless swoop above the lake, but they, too, self-involved, a predatory search.

Nothing stays the same: not the wind throwing its words away on the water’s nameless scrawl, nor the light that glances between scudding clouds on the face of the lake and is gone forever.

Buddhists would find here a life lesson. I find it simply, sheerly, appalling. How to be incarnate, incarnational,and see the flesh as mere flux? How to love at all, if one does so?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Washington, D.C. 23.7.93: Angelic Messages and Green Shutters

At Barnes Exhibit, National Gallery of Art: Van Gogh, “Joseph Etienne Roulin, 1889,” is van Gogh himself—red eyes staring out frankly, the unappreciated artist, with a stylized iconographic background moving from yellow-green to yellow, with flowers and flourishes—the angelic message is the artist’s reward.

Picasso, “Acrobat and Young Harlequins” (1905): and so another harlequin to add to my imaginative collection of that fascinating image . . . .

The Matisses: the great surprise. Color used to idealize rooms “decorated” as an ideal statement of how life should be—people bleeding green light, decked in garish colors no one can even possibly imagine, sitting in rooms suffused by lavender light through green shutters.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Washington, D.C. 20.7.93: Solidarity and Death Carts

We’re now en route to D.C. with Steve’s aunts and cousin, all Benedictine nuns. I’ve rarely had such a sense of expectancy on a trip, as if the trip itself confirms that I’m now cresting a hill, and see a new inviting terrain below. It has been a hard uphill battle. I’ve struggled mightily, and I’m scarred, winded, and weary. But I feel there’s something new for me as I crest the hill.


At Holocaust Museum: we have to tell our stories. Every device possible will be used to keep us from doing so, from believing we have a story, from thinking it important.

The unwillingness of other nations, including those who purported to denounce the Holocaust, to take in Jewish refugees: when one is classified in a negative social category, stigmatized, even one’s “supporters” assume one is at least partially guilty. Nothing short of solidarity suffices. Solidarity is not what one gets when one gets “objective” “sympathetic” analysis and “support” premised on these.

Techniques of bullying used: silencing, shaming, suppressing questions, managing information. All this characterized my experience at Belmont Abbey College.

+ + + + +

On Touching a Theresienstadt Death Cart

Touch is always the last thing to go.

Sight fails, ears stop.
Still, we reach out to hold:
The final semaphore of love.

We kiss the dying one
As eyes shut,
Heart stops its beat,
And breath flies forth.

Our lips, our fingers know.

They grasp the lover's soul
Until they loose their grip
And break the bond.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Salt Lake City 27.11.07: Skeins of Meaning and Family History

In Salt Lake City again. I keep hearing in my mind’s ear something Peterson Toscano said on a program I watched recently, a video of a conference for survivors of ex-gay “ministry.” He said that out story is extremely powerful, when we tell it.

So why am I here? To learn to tell my story. To spot my story. To follow threads that tell me I have a story.

So much conduces to delude, to convince those of us shoved to the margins that we don’t have a story. Story empowers. It frames existence. Better, it provides a skein that gives meaning to the disparate threads of existence.

For those whose story has the power to challenge dominant narratives, it’s crucially important for the makers of the dominant narrative to try to thwart our ability to see strands of meaning in our lives. It’s important to keep us from retrieving those strands and weaving them into a coherent narrative.

It’s important to convince us that our lives have no meaning except that imposed by the makers and keepers of the dominant narrative. If we are to have stories at all, we must accept them as given to us, imposed on us. And those narratives will naturally distort the significance of our real stories and subject them to normative social meaning.

This is one reason I do family history—to learn to tell stories. I’m retrieving stories of people who, in many cases, were robbed of their ability to find and tell their own stories.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Salt Lake City 27.11.06: Gift of Snow and Cool Viennese Wine

Just in from walking in a slushy snowfall. What a treat, a gift, to see snow.

We also discovered a little Viennese bistro on Main St. and had a delicious meal of wienerschnitzel, sauerbraten, with blaukraut and speckböhnen (me) and lauchen and spätzle. Then we finished off with sinfully wonderful linzertorte, nicely seasoned with cinnamon and lemon zest. The schnitzel was fried in butter and was magnificent.

All this with two glasses of Grüner Veltliner in tall green-stemmed glasses, tart and cool—the very taste of a Viennese summer. It brought back happy memories of enjoying this wine the summer we were in Vienna.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Salt Lake City 26.11.06: Salt Lake Sunday and Singing Moon

Sunday in Salt Lake. Not so sibilant as it sounds—not silky, sexy, smooth, seductive. Just a big blank to be gotten through.

But the mountains continue to encircle the city, and I find comfort therein. Not because of the traditional Judaeo-Christian notion that they remind us of God’s encircling arms. But because they’re a spiritual alternative to the city—something older, more pristine, wilder. They remind me of a spiritual presence that will far outlast the flimsy grid of this holy city of which the Mormons are so proud.

And the moon, night after night, a thin crescent in the deep ink-black sky over the city . . . . It sings all night calling us to prayer and transforming dreams. And here’s how it appeared last night to the native people living in the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai (journal includes here a clipping of a photograph from Sunday’s Salt Lake Tribune).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Salt Lake City 25.11.06: Calling Angels and Trumpeting Mountains

Time here is becoming my annual retreat. As I write, I’m facing both the temple and the mountains beyond—the latter far more compelling spiritually, though the trumpeting angel atop one of the temple spires is alluring.

We recently discovered Jane Sidbery’s song “Calling All Angels” on a “Six Feet Under” episode, and I’ve been singing it in my head ever since. And oh my God, is this why I keep running into bizarre characters these days? On the plane, a drunk babbling woman wanting to talk to me. In the LDS library, a crazy worker who began speaking nonsense and fixing me with a stark stare as he did so. Last night after supper, a man panhandling, face framed by a hood, making it look as if he had on a white mask.

I’m ashamed to say I almost ran from him. Running from angels . . . .

Into my obtuse stubbornness, the world of the Lord bursts today in psalm 82: “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless, maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. . . . Rise up, o God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.”

An ominous psalm, since calling on God to judge the earth means calling on God to judge myself. But a salient, sobering reminder that God does care passionately about justice, in all nations.

And the mountains ring the city, silent sentinels, their deep voices trumpeting ever louder than the angel’s trump, from earth’s depths.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Minnesota 16.6.93 (2): Ruined Barns and Dancing in the Ruins

I thought of all this yesterday when we walked to the K. farm, a little paradise that once functioned as a virtually self-sufficient “monastic” community complete with workshop, beehives, smokehouse, etc. It’s now lived on by Glenn and Linda, who have a trailer and teach at the local community college, and who farm with Louis. And by Joseph, who pursues an almost eremitical existence in the old K. house, where he has kept everything virtually as it has been from the late 19th century.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Minnesota 16.6.93: Opera on the Farm and Marcel Waves

Writing all this on the day of the opera performance. What an experience so far. Here’s this American-icon opera being performed at the farm of a gay dairy farmer. This farmer lives in a two-story late-19th century house he got for free when he saw an ad in the paper saying the house could be had for the taking, if someone would haul it away.

The farmer has renovated the house completely, has built a porch on. He has sewn poofy floral curtains with valances and flounces and curls. He has painted the rooms bright outré colors, furnished them with male torsos of store mannequins and other kicky, kitschy knickknacks bought at garage sales and resale shops. He jokes—half jokes—that one day he’ll open a gay b and b for Red Lake Falls.

Red Lake Falls: a French-Canadian, German Catholic settlement in a sea of Norwegian Lutherans. Families up to the 1960s of 10, 12, 23, 4 or 5 of which always became nuns or priests. A European Catholicism with a strong German-Austrian choral tradition, a focus on liturgy rather than ironclad morality, especially in the sexual area.

But nonetheless American, and intensely so, as the assimilationist impulse took over between the two wars. Mot people of our generation had grandparents who grew up speaking French or German, parents who grew up hearing and understanding the old language, but ashamed to speak it. The children now learn their ancestral languages, if at all, in college, and/or when they travel or live in Europe for a while.

It’s in this community, on this farm, that the opera is to be performed. It’s directed by a gay director, the chair of the music department at -----, a senior professor, married with a child. The lead male vocalist is a stunning handsome young gay man who grew up on an organic farm in North Dakota and who plays a heterosexual love role in the opera.

The music department chair at -----, who got the opera for Louis’s farm, is also gay. The Chronicle for Higher Education has sent a reporter to cover the story. Soon after the reporter met me, he told me he had once fallen in love with a waiter named Chuck in Little Rock. He sports two earrings in his right ear.

The local area has contributed a cast of supporting singers, dancers. These are predominantly short, stocky, marcelled French Canadian women in prim-flowered aprons of bright colors clashing with the exercised, larger floral patterns of their frocks. This is the 1940s look the opera demands. One wonders what they would think if they knew that all this culture is transmitted to them by faggots. Do they know and choose not to? If they knew, would they accept and affirm, as long as one was not in their face? Would they turn disdainful, become righteous?

What it feels like is being on the cusp of a cultural revolution of epic proportions. The arts languish for lack of money; Reaganonomics have pulled the plug on them, and their economic life ebbs away, pulse-beat by pulse-beat.

So the Minn. Opera Company has decided to take its show on the road, bring music to the people. And the people—bless their little homophobic, heartland souls—want it, love the party, seem ready to sing and dance.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Minnesota 14.6.93: Sweet Honey and Lilac Nimbus

Just north of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. It’s 9:30 P.M. An extraordinary sunset. We were listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock sing a love song, “Sometime,” and the sun began to move to the horizon, coming beneath the heavy cloud cover.

Through most of the state, it has been darkly overcast, with a strong northwest wind, cold and almost snowy looking. When the sun broke through clouds, the effect was indescribable. A strong rose glow where the sun itself was, but as we went downhill and lost the sun, a lilac, purple, mauve radiance thrown up onto the cloud cover, and shining in a nimbus over the hilltop, silhouetting dark firs, lighter deciduous trees, none of which every fully lost their green color.

This happened over and over as we mounted hills and drove down to vales. To say it was like one of those guidepost magazines one sees at Easter would be to cheapen it all. But In a way it was—although no photographers’ tricks here. It just was that way, air so pure it picked up and helped illuminate every ray of light.

Beside this, how trifling and even petulant all I wrote today in this journal. People fail one, but the land and the earth . . . . It makes me feel so still inside, the song, the sunset. I wept as I drove.

I try to understand, analyze (control) too much. I need just to let it be, to let it speak.

Yes, this is a time in my life, and I can’t evade it. But understanding it won’t save me, or make me do the “right” thing. And yes, in some sense my whole life is bound up in what I decide now, because playtime’s over—we live once and then die.

And yes, I’ve had a destiny laid on me which I barely comprehend.

But it must come to me, keep coming to me. I can’t make it happen, or happen my way, via some cheap magician’s trick. I have to place myself interiorly and exteriorly where it can come to me.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Minnesota 14.6.93: Exotic Normalcy and Squares Within Squares

Just north of some little town as pretty and poisonous as a Norman Rockwell picture, called Charles City, Iowa. One passes dairy bars named Kum and Go, antique shoppes, rows—never any other planting configuration—of stiff, spiky peonies.

Growl, grumble. The Midwest fascinates with its straight lines and squares, and its exotic normalcy lived within those squares. Land laid off and sold by grid in the period when sections were offered for sale; the whole state of Iowa is practically a square, with little square counties all over the large papa square.

Squares within squares. Would anyone dare plant those omnipresent, drab and gloomy evergreens that surround upper Midwest houses in funereal rows, in anything but a straight line? Or peonies in a semicircle?

The people who live in this square world have so little curiosity about the Other. We ate at a café in Moscow, Iowa: would you care for coffee (!) with lunch? Homemade pie? Steve says he felt unscrutinized. I, too, but I think it’s because the squared existence and wintry climate make people so intensely private that they simply lack curiosity, imagination, about the Other. Not just the exotic traveling-through Other, but one’s family members and neighbors.

I suppose at some level I resent people’s luxury to retain such “normalcy” in a culture of rapid change, where the Other intrudes everywhere. I know, of course, people here now have t.v. They travel. Their children go off to college, then to live in exotic places like Belmont, NC, in exotic arrangements like gay marriages.

But, still, all’s so repressively neat, ordered, same. And yet full of that dark brooding insanity that eats at America’s heart, inside the black-blood crevices of it. All Jane Smiley did in A Thousand Acres is take snapshots of what’s around her. That's the genius of her work: snapshots of exotic normalcy. If people want to understand the real America, the place where we live and move and have our being, let them come to the Midwest.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Minnesota 13.6.1993: Marauding Wind, Bowls of Sky

En route to Minnesota for the performance of Copland’s “Tender Land” at Louis’s farm. We spent the night in Knoxville, and are now a few miles south of Mt. Vernon, Illinois. A journey from dark, misty, tree-shrouded hills to more and more sky, land so flat the sky can only be a bowl over it, the sun an imperious lamp-lord, the wind a fierce, prowling marauder.

As my purple prose may hint, I want to read. Suddenly, hungrily, as I write this, Willa Cather. But also a whole self-indulgent spate of English novels from the early 1900s, like Zuleika Dobson (again)—froth to drug and dull me to the world’s pain. And for some reason (again) Balzac’s Comédie Humaine. Dare I try it in French this time around?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 25.5.1993: Thin New Moon, Curious Owl

I write now as night falls, a thin new moon high in the sky, which is still a dome of light above the already dark island. Am I mistaken, or is it not so at home, that the land lies dark while the sky remains lit?

And oh!—wonder—an owl just flew overhead, looked us over carefully, and went through the never-completed church tower beneath which we sit. Fr. George had told us today they live in the tower, and we might hear them creek at night. And we had just done so, and were debating whether it were a bat that had made the sound when, lo, Steve saw the owl circling. I looked up and saw its curious (and curiously miffed) face watching us as it flew overhead. Evidently it’s not pleased we’ve invaded its domain.

Why do some occurrences suddenly feel so right, so portentous, so full of revelatory import, that they simultaneously wrench us from the ordinary and home our hearts to themselves. This owl. This night. This crystalline moon. If only I could know. And so make of the everyday art, meaning, sense, beauty.

But to do so, I think I need a thread of continuity in my terribly savaged life. Have I for a long time thought that one must invite the extraordinary by remaining outside the ordinary? If so, I now think that one can do this only at increasingly great cost, as one ages. There must be some routine, some easy chair and fireplace, to fall back on, if one wants to string together the epiphanies and leave something behind.

(Yet I’m not sure I’ve avoided settling down. It’s more that a callous church and society have refused to accord me a place, to see that there’s something of worth in the bizarre shell beyond which they don’t care to look.)

Salve nos, Domine. Here’s the perpetual quandary of my existence so far: try as I might, I’ve not found an armchair or fireplace. And I can’t for the life of me find a way. If I’ve ever prayed for anything, for any salvation, it’s for this dilemma to be resolved. What Belmont Abbey has done to me cuts to the quick of my life, heart, soul.

Do you hear, Lord?

Under the moon, nothing is clear, yet all things come to light. Under the moon, all is dark, yet nothing is hidden. Under the moon, there are no answers and only questions, yet all is revealed.

+ + + + +

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.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 24.5.1993: Flying Priests and African Deacons

Mel, the prior, an Irishman, took us to the casino to gamble last night. En route he talked re: the missionary activities of the monks. Each weekend 4 or 5 of them fly to the outlying islands of Exuma, Eleuthera, San Salvador, etc., to celebrate liturgy. Some fly in the monastery’s private plane (Bro. Barry Gearman, pilot), others on the Bahamian airline.

Steve asked Mel if this is relaxing. He said no, quite strenuous, because there’s a Saturday evening Mass, then there are Sunday ones, and there’s often the need to pick up or carry people here and there.

What strikes me is the ecclesiological underpinning—the underpinning of ecclesiological assumptions—on which all this depends. Why should a church assume the necessity of a community of North American missionaries (themselves kept viable by infusions from St. John’s) to wear themselves out traveling all over the vicinity on weekends celebrating the liturgy, when surely there would be someone in the local churches (i.e., at the parish level) capable of doing so?

This is a church stuck permanently in the missionary phase, unable to indigenize, not so much because of a dearth of talent (“native vocations”), as because the ecclesiology mandated from/by Rome cannot conceive of empowering local churches via the ordination of those called in the church, but not susceptible to formation in the traditional seminary pattern.

In this sense, then, the problems of the missionary church are also those of long-established churches, such as that of the U.S. These problems have perhaps been thought about more acutely in the missionary setting (e.g., by Vincent Donovan), probably because the disparity, the injustice of “denying” ordination to “natives,” is so glaring here. But they are our problems, too, in the sense that we can’t see how graced married men, openly and actively gay men in committed relationships, and women are—called, gifted for a church that is unable, or better, unwilling, to avail itself of their talents.

So much is staked on a system of seminary formation, and a particular historical view of ministry, that has outlived its usefulness. And so much is so invested, because the church wants power to be centralized, “orderly,” ultimately, in imperial mode.

+ + + + +

At Mass yesterday, I was struck by how African (as opposed to African American) some of the people—especially a deacon—looked. This led me to think about parallels between the aspirations of gay and black people to liberation.

I’m convinced that there’s more to be thought about here, particularly from the standpoint of one who lived through the Civil Rights struggle in the South. Perhaps because blacks did not often hear what we said entre nous behind closed doors, they fail to see the evident connections they often repudiate and deny today.

To wit. Jonathan Z. Smith says somewhere that the otherness which most perplexes and troubles us is that which is closest to us—the otherness of one who’s like us in obvious ways, but radically different in other ways.

I believe that this has much to do with why Southerners resisted integration in the 50s and 60s. What I recall being said again and again in those years was that a) we would betray our ancestors if we gave in to civil rights demands and b) nothing would ever be the same again. All would be different.

I think that the latter objection was by far the prevailing source of opposition. Among white Southerners there was a sense that, once one allowed the color line (v. W.E.D. Dubois) to be transgressed, a radical revolution would occur in Southern culture. Of course this would be an economic and class revolution. But it would be, above all, a cultural one. One could not calculate the consequences of letting the despised and inferiorized Other in, where s/he had been barred before.

And an Other that troubled us greatly because this Other was so like us. S/he was human, ate, breathed, slept, nurtured our children, cooked our meals, made love with us, cleaned our houses, tended our gardens. We had known the humanity of this Other for some 350 years. This Other human differed physically from us in only the most inconsequential ways, when all was said and done—in skin color, hair texture, physiognomy.

But these differences were a cipher, a shorthand, for other cultural differences we fancied (both rightly and hysterically) to be more enormous. And it was those differences we most feared: integrate the schools, and the race will be mongrelized; delicate blond white girls will be consumed by the voracious sexual appetite of black boys; the toilets will transmit venereal diseases; our youth will learn to cuss; we’ll have to call Beulah Mrs. Jameson.

In what we said—my aunt Pauline, Christmas, 1957: “I’ll be a segregationist till I die, because Daddy was; but if I were colored, I’d be out there in the front lines marching for my rights”—we revealed how much this Otherness was, essentially, the Otherness of one like us. And we revealed this in what we did not say, in the subtext, the words beneath the words. An otherness that, because it was human otherness, could not fail to affect us, but because it was the Otherness of ones who were also very different, would change us radically.

So it is today with societal resistance to gay people.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 23.5.1993: Mourning Doves and Coconut -Scented Air

The anniversary of my grandmother’s death, 25 years ago, on Ascension Thursday, which is celebrated today in the Bahamas Catholic community.

The air this morning smells faintly of coconut and spice. The wind is very strong and cool. Coconut palms dance and rattle in the breeze, which may be why I associate its smell with them. Mourning doves call insistently, surprisingly loudly, in the bush at the bottom of the hill all around the monastery.

I’m still headachy, a headache that never goes away with sleep or rest, and so I fear it’s due to high blood pressure. All the trips I’ve made in recent years, when I’ve had my pressure taken, it was high. . . .

Through it all, I want to hear God’s word. Ausculte, says Benedict’s rule. And yet God speaks most powerfully not in the storms or high wind, but in the still small voice—a voice of a small girl, the text about Elijah says.

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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.

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Poetry, good poetry, is what happens when details matter—this three, that happening, nothing else. Poetry is thus the speaking World, World as Word and Sacrament.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 22.5.1993: Cracked Conch and Ascension Feasts

There comes a time when every story must be heard. For Steve and me, that time is now. We’ve spent some years now trying to hear, to discern. This time seems like kairos.

+ + + + +

An unremarkable day. I slept badly again, and am headachy and tired as I write at sundown, when nice breezes blow from the sea at the end of a very hot and dry day.

In the morning, we walked around the school’s track and up and down the hill behind the monastery bakery. Then at 1 P.M. our student Patricia S. picked us up for dinner at her house, where we had cracked conch, crab salad, fired chicken, green salad, sliced tomatoes, mixed vegetables, peas and rice, and canned peaches for dessert.

After dinner Patricia’s father Wilton drove us around the city, and then back just in time for the monastic supper—lamb chops stewed with onion, tomato, and bell pepper, cole slaw, boiled fish, cauliflower and cheese, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and wine. Not sure, but this may be a feast for Ascension Day, since Ascension is celebrated on Sunday here, and it’s Saturday evening.

And then wild dreams of being chased by my Aunt Billie, who wanted to draw blood from my veins. I flew away from her, discarding clunky black shoes and keeping my red silk slippers instead . . . .

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 21.5.1993 (2): First Morns of Creation, Fragrant Jasmine

After lunch, to the beach, this time a private beach off Cable Beach, a posh area of resorts, well-kept manors, luxury hotels. All this of course in striking contrast to the black-belt area of the city in which Reggie’s parish is, and through which we drove to get to the beach.

The beach is attached to a large house that seems to be used as a guesthouse for well-heeled tourists. A Maria someone owns it, and lets clergy use it. We got the key from the caretaker, a short Eastern European or German woman named Tanya who apologized for her muumuu, and who stumped about in heavy shoes misshapen by her thick ankles. Even though the dress was designed to drape loosely, it caught across her breasts and under her arms to trap rolls of fat.

She had hooded, heavy-lidded brown eyes, dyed red hair, a hook nose, and pretensions to culture. She bemoaned crime, and said the best protection is awareness and caution. She was actually rather nice, and I’m being a bitch in writing this description of her.

The water—indescribably blue and limpid. Where it meets the horizon it gives the deeply blue and clear sky just the faintest blush of pink, as if this scene, this sea and this sky, still recall the first morns of creation.

And one can float so easily in it, because of its salinity. And float and paddle we did for several hours.

Then Reggie drove us back through the black belt at rush hour. At one point, to avoid a parade, we detoured back in little lanes barely large enough for a car, let alone the St. Bede’s band.

One sees all the squalor of the third-world city, or the American inner city: half-finished, one-room houses with dirty sofas filling up their interior, tattered and soiled lace curtains at their one window. Everywhere Pepsi cans, broken concrete, paper, pools of dirty water, a few scraggly trees trying to survive in the muck, neglect, and smog, which is shockingly thick.

Yet at one moment, as we had stopped at a light, I looked up at the clear sky with its just-falling light of afternoon and saw a tree ready to leaf, and thought, “I’ll never see a sky just this shade, a tree just this shape against it, again.” A rare moment of feeling here, unhalved, not the observer, but the belonger . . . .

Evening, a stroll. We picked jasmine of intense—partly cinnamon, partly anise—fragrance. We met Mel, the prior, who told us of trees soon to bloom—frangipani, which he says if of intense fragrance and is thus planted in groves around temples in India, a “poor man’s orchid” tree. He pointed out an African tulip tree that had bloomed in January, and showed us papaya, grapefruit, tamarind, and mango trees, none of which bears in this season. Maybe some of the tawdriness of life in the city is mitigated by the tropical flowers. We’re here at the tail end of the dry season.

Reggie used a few interesting dialect words yesterday—She’s docking me (which he said means avoiding, pronouncing the v Cockney fashion as w, where he pronounces w’s with a slight v sound, as American black folks sometimes do); conchy Joe (white Bahamians); reds (black Bahamians with considerable white blood).

I’ve tried to sketch a poinciana tree in full bloom, just below the unfinished bell-tower of the church, but can’t get it right. The top of the tree is much flatter, so that the blooms appear as it were in a flat circle wide out from the tree’s trunk. The tree has the general shape—and leaf—of a mimosa in the South, though far fewer leaves, at least when in blossom.