The American Wedding Picture

The Puritans in early America, I hear, used to fall in love with each other–slowly or quickly, in cold winter days on end or in the long harvests of autumn, in the freshness of springtime or in a summer night’s hot breath of sea-scented forest, of open windows, and open stars–and coming together before the congregation of the church, would announce that they were now married–had pledged their lives before God to each other, could make a home together in laying their heads against the other’s breast, had checked each other this very morning for ticks. And the town would offer baskets of grain and dried fruit, give blankets and down pillows, give geese and chickens, firewood, and ale, and with promises of faithfulness and prayers of blessing, sing songs of sharing in their joy, their sadnesses, and their desires.

We in the United States don’t all share in the simplicity of this Puritan couple and their village, but where does this leave our practice of democracy? When we plan our weddings, how many of us feel a tug to go beyond our means? We’ve rarely dressed like this, looked like this, eaten like this, drunk like this, been photographed like this, and never, possibly, in a more exclusive location, and we’re doing it all of these at once as if, may this never be, we have finally decided to forget, for just one day, our own desires and chosen, at last, to pay into the pool of our friends’ expectations. What do we really want?

I know someone who often serves food at the events she organizes. She believes in table cloths. “Do not ever put food on a table without a table cloth,” she says, adding, “I come from the islands. I know it’s colonial. But this is how I show my hospitality.” Have we reflected enough on this? Is there colonialism in our weddings?

When we picture our weddings, we do we see? Is it the people who have come to support us? Is it the color of the flowers, or the live act of presence in the words of a vow coming out on the breath of the one we love? Do we see table filled with food that simmers and steams, that calls us into pleasure and feeds our souls? Do we hear music that more than singing in our minds but deep inside our hearts and across our bodies we feel, we who carry five, six, seven, eight decades of knowing and being known? Do we feel sweat on our necks when we step from the dance floor or tears that fill our eyes? As if to pull us from our dreaming, a starker image flashes before our eyes. We can’t ignore it for long. It’s what we see before, during, and after the ceremony, the picture that lingers with us, the one presented in the photographs and hung in our hallways. It cuts into focus: our friends and family on either side, standing in a line, wearing identical clothes. It is a powerful image, and if we let it, it will tell us much about who we think we are. Because maybe we really do so love the crispness of the suits and gowns, their softness, their matching colors, maybe “a little riper and more lusty red than that mixed in their cheek,” and reflected across the aisle and above in the curling open of the flowers. We love the look of new shoes as fragrant as the changing sky in the hush before a fall of rain. We love the exquisite beauty of cousins and sisters and brothers, of old and new friends who have traveled across time and fields to spend a day here with us, of companions who, not being the same, fill their clothes differently and, showing us who they are, show us all the kind of friends we want to be. What are saying about here about friendship and our love? And what does it cost us? How much do we spend to show our friends who we are? And when our minds form the stage picture of our wedding, who are we looking at? And who isn’t there?

The first two who loved found each other in a garden. Where before it was not good for the man to be alone, they walked together as far and as wide as the reach of the garden. There were red dawns and shadowy dusks, the smell of vines and screeches of animals, hot afternoons and the sound of breezes under the starlight rustling through the trees, birds who sang and cold fish leaping in the streams, rocky summits, spongy rooted paths, warmth and mists, bark and salty earth, sudden green hillsides and open skies, evening and morning. They delighted in following every path, in tending to every creature, in tasting the fruit from every tree in garden but one.

I had forgotten how long she looked at the fruit. How good it was for food, how pleasing to the eye, how desirable for gaining wisdom. Can they really be like God? Will it really kill her? The fruit’s skin—how delicate, how soft it looked, so perfectly wearing its exquisite colors, now glowing and now softened, unthreatening. And she watched as drips of juice began to fall from the stem. Safety, one said. She counted them. Power, another. She breathed it in. Enough. Enough of food, enough of warmth. Enough of pleasure. I will be enough. She breathed out. We will always be enough. Had she ever seen a fruit so ready to be eaten? Adam had already made up his mind. He was with her. Maybe from a distance he could sense how good this fruit would be. This is your vision, he might have told her, your day. She took some and it, and gave some to him, and he ate it. And how sensational the first taste was. The saltiness, a dash of arrogance, the sweetness, the greed. The hunger. They groaned. Had they ever before eaten like this? Their bodies started to shake, unquestioned strength. Is this what it feels like to know like God? New words formed on their tongues. Oppression. Pain. How quickly the flesh of the fruit turned sour on their teeth. They swallowed it still. Patriarchy. Colonialism. Empire. They took another bite. Images of a damaged garden scraped against their throats. Where was the thrill they had before? It was now too heavy for them. Hopeless. Terror. They each began to cry, and a new idea wrenched in their gut, one that soon filled their bodies, a word so strong that for the first time in their knowing each other it made their eyes dart away from contact and for the first time in their loving made them turn their bodies away in disgust. For the first time they felt shame, and they rushed to put on clothes.

When God came to them, searching for them in the cool of the day, and finding them, asked them, “Who told you that you were naked?” they didn’t have an answer.

But it wasn’t like this before. I remember their encounter. This is what myth does for us when it is true. Back through the generations who have recounted it, we remember their meeting. They took a look at each other from across the garden and, wanting to look closer, were suddenly breath to breath, on every part of their bodies feeling each other’s warmth cross the silence between them. And they began touching. “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” he sang to her. We know that we are naked, and what a delight it is to be made in the image of God. Fitted for no other image. (I’m talking to myself here, too.) The woman did not yet speak. Maybe her words could find no meter. Or maybe we have forgotten her song. But in the years after the garden–the many years, the pain of childbearing, the pain of losing her child, the heartbreak of watching the thorns, “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth,” come and choke the seed of love that was once sown in them–I believe it would bring her joy, mother of us all, to know that the voice of one future distant daughter, a bride, her young life brimming with eagerness, would find her song again. And raising her voice, in words that defy the patriarchy, that allow no sphere for greed, that tear off the shackles of the colonial oppressor, in a vision drenched with the richness of the earth, dripping with the taste of her lover’s body, and saturated with the simplicity of a summer evening–the wedding feasting over, or just begun—to her lover, to her sisters, to us, she sings:

I belong to my lover,
and his desire is for me.
Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside,
let us spend the night in the villages.
Let us go out early to the vineyards
to see if the vines have budded,
if their blossoms have opened,
and if the pomegranates are in bloom—
there I will give you my love.
The mandrakes send out their fragrance,
and at our door is every delicacy,
new as well as old,
that I have stored up for you,
O my beloved.

 

 

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I Love You With…:Confessing Love

I was reading Anne Bogart’s What’s The Story: Essays About Art, Theater And Storytelling on the train, and after reading the following passage, I just had to start writing love poetry. This is the passage. My poem comes after.

“Constantin Stanislavsky articulated the actor’s paradox and dilemma succinctly: you are in a living room and you are about to confess love for the first time to the only other person in the room. The situation is deeply personal, private and exposed. And there are a thousand people watching.”

I thought about what it is like to confess love to someone. 

I love you with all the radio songs of the world
playing through my body. I love you with all
the pieces I thought were dead: dead hands, dead voices,
leaves and walls. I love you with the pain
that finds my lifeblood coursing in my veins
with the love of oceans that rage against the rocks
with a violin that empties its sound in a church
with the voice of an actor speaking from his wound
with the salvation of daybreak rising over graves
with the stirring of freedom that bends us over cliffs
with the wildness of hunger and the thirst of truth
the delight of touching and the gift of rain
the texture of oranges, the strums of mandolins.
I love you with the eagerness of a colt called into spring
with the running of bare feet not fearing splinters
with what used to be my sadness metamorphosed
from clanging tears into the quietness
of morning buds now lifting out their flowers
with the reverence of figures in stained glass
the moment when God’s setting sun breathes through them
with the closeness of a beach up to the water
with the discovery of feelings in a novel
with what used to be anger now defiance
like the tossing of a stallion’s mane
and emptiness into our murmurs together
the lips of friends, the glasses of companions
the newness of warm eggs laid in their straw.
I love you with the eternity of stars
with everything I’ve ever felt or dreamed
or known or ever loved. I love you with
my whole or many hearts or many lives.
I took so long to say to you these words.
But they come only from a breath that rings
my body in my spirit and my truth.
The well was deep. I offer you this drink,
after longing’s exhalation, filled
to sing the very breath of my own heart.

Songs of pain, words about walking

This week I’ve been reading Léonora Miano‘s Contours du jour qui vient. It’s a novel where, in a fictional West African country that resembles Cameroon, a young girl recounts her experiences growing up to her mother who abandoned her. I have found these two passages to be particularly heartbreaking, moving, painful, beautiful, and breathtaking. After reading the second passage, I put the book down open on my leg and started rubbing the pages back and forth as if to warm it, to soothe it, to tend to it. I started to think of how I could use this piece in the creation of theatre. Since I don’t think there is an English translation of this novel, I am sharing these passages here. 

“Sometimes, the fleeting image of another time darts across our eyes. Then we see, in the thick leaves of the large boabas and in the flowering red flamboyants, that one day we had a destiny. We have put it in a tomb. And from this grave where we have buried it so deeply and abandoned it, it cries that it is still moving, that it is there, that it just needs us to give it a chance…We put the palms of our hands over our ears so that we cannot hear anything but the untethered rhythms that we invented for ourselves in order to numb ourselves and unmake ourselves. In our depths, there is nothing left but the cavernous voice of a god of unlove and the false image of a future to achieve in Europe. The baobabs and the flamboyants watch us and their trunks dry up, split themselves from the inside. If they could speak to us, they would tell us that our greatest fault, the perpetual blasphemy that we commit, resides in this inability for us to envision ourselves.”

“I don’t have shoes. They haven’t ever given me any. I walk tiptoe to avoid feeling my feet break apart down the middle, like they do when we walk for too long. The pain is so strong that it feels like my feet are crying. Asphalt comes after the dirt road. On one as on the other, I still feel the heat of the day. Here, the cold gets no lower than fifteen degrees. There is trash on the ground. Shards of glass. Cuttings of wire, hidden splinters waiting where human eyes cannot see them. I walk, watching where I put my feet. The splinters stab me all the same. They sink into my flesh. I do not try to pull them out. We all live with thorns in our body. It is enough to know how to move so that they never reach a vital organ. They stab me. I do not cry. I walk through the city, and I am almost free.”

I will also add that I had the privilege back in college of meeting Leonora Miano and hearing her speak. I wrote down pages of notes, and I think about these words of hers all the time:

“Il faut triompher pour être vraiment eux-mêmes.”

We have to triumph to truly be ourselves.

What I’ve been learning about Jesus’s prayer

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  Pray then like this:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.’

 

I’ve been learning some new things about this prayer this year. I’ve been praying it almost daily since 1996 so this feels like a big deal. The remarks I make below are (mostly) copied from email exchanges with my brother across the months. (Thank you.) I might one of these days write something of fuller length–or maybe have the opportunity to speak and to share my thoughts with a group–but since I try to post something here once a month, I wanted to get these initial ideas out there. What do you think? What have you been learning? Where does this scripture ring true for you? Does it?

1. “Your will be done.”
I am struck by how, in the Lord’s prayer, the things God is expected to do are assumed to be done by human beings. And the many things human beings usually expect to do for themselves and their community become supplications for God to act. Even down to feeding ourselves and resisting temptation. God’s forgiveness, which we would expect him to grant, an action we would expect him to do, seems conditional on our forgiveness. And in a related way can we consider “your kingdom come” to be an action of God’s in this prayer? (Who is doing it? How is it happening? What is the process?) Throughout the rest of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew’s gospel (including, I think, the sermon on the mount) there is an emphasis on God’s will as “being done” by us. Now when I pray this prayer, I have the possibility in mind that I am praying for others and myself to be doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

2. “On earth.”
It feels powerful to me that this prayer teaches us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth.” That his kingdom come on earth. What I mean is, to me it really feels right to pray for things here on earth–timebound, embodied, human earth things, and so I love that this is how Jesus is teaching us to pray. And some people I interact with (mostly people who aren’t Christians but some Christians too, through the ages) seem to suggest that our faith is all about the spiritual, heavenly spaces (in ways that don’t respond to or offer salvation for the pain and suffering of our lives.) It hit me today that that it is RIGHT IN THE PRAYER that Christians have been saying for centuries: your kingdom come on earth!

3. “Our”/”Us”/”We”

In this prayer, we pray to our Father, someone who can be known by all of us. Who is willing to be expressed by our hearts and our breath as belonging to us as we worship, as we hallow, as we speak to our Father together. And we are praying “us.” We are praying “we.” Not any “we” that narrows community, that privileges some over others, and excludes. But, truly, “we.” All of us are required to do his will on earth. All of us are invited to ask for bread. All of us who have been trespassed against. All of us who forgive. All of us who need deliverance from evil. This is a prayer we pray together.

I have prayed this prayer most of my life through an individual lens. I do think the prayer is in fact wide enough to carry each of our individual experiences.  Forgiveness looks different for me than it will for you, just like the hurt of being sinned against, and the consequences for those who are closest to us. Sometimes “I” need to pray this prayer, just as “you” do, and I find “my own” meaning in the prayer.

But if the prayer is in fact wide enough, the truth resonant enough, the kingdom beautiful and good enough, our Father powerful enough and faithful enough, the question this prayer asks me today is, “Are our communities strong enough to pray this prayer together?”

If we are praying “us,” are we strong enough to feel each other’s pain so that it is our own? Are we connected enough to each other’s lives that the bestowing of forgiveness becomes a communal act and that the asking for forgiveness is a collective experience? Are we brave enough to do our Father’s will together? And when we pray this together, are we willing?

Poetry of Desire

Since last week I have been thinking about the nature of desire, the erotic, about sensuality, about longing and love. These ideas have been in the words I say to myself.

From last Monday:

Friends, I came this close today to writing a post about the erotic and desire. I spent the evening reading many of the poems I had written between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six, and I was actually about to post excerpts here. And why? Did I need to be known that much tonight? This afternoon I read Audre Lorde’s essay on the erotic, and it reminded me of my thirst for joy. I was reminded of how, on 11/25 of 2012, it appears, I felt that the desires behind my “eye-sockets”  had been “short-circuited somewhere deep inside,” and that if I was younger and stronger, I had said, I wouldn’t keep staring at “the fixedness of the white plaster in front of me.” I thought today that maybe something in Lorde’s essay could have opened up a window for the things I was thinking and saying back then at a time when–and I can only say this because I spent the evening cringe-reading my poems–I was apparently living in a very tumultuous mode. When reading Mauriac’s “The Desert of Love” recently–with a title like that I should have known–reading phrases like “the heated contemplation,” like “at the point where passion becomes a presence…she coaxed her fire…her love became suffocating,” like “for the rest of his life he would cry her tears on the figures of other women”–I had to put the book down. Just to catch my breath. “I don’t think people are supposed to feel this intensely,” I thought. Nevertheless we do. I did on 11/25/2012. And I will not be sharing any more of that poem.

Then Thursday evening I saw “In/Side” the Alvin Ailey piece. There was purple light on the stage. Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” sang. One man, alone, was flying and writhing. As my professor asked, could we have handled this dance–how loud it was, somehow for only one dancer–if we weren’t twenty-five rows back? I was shedding tears from the second phrase of the song. I just kept crying, and the second it was over, every one, in one instant, had risen to our feet clapping, aching, roaring applause. Listening to the song again, I’m back in that space.

And then tonight, my sister and I have been listening to the Brazilian bossa nova standard “Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar” And here too is Tom Jobim singing it. Something about hearing a man singing it, for me, just brings it all home, how we can bring ourselves to this moment where “I know that I’m going to love you” becomes “I know that I’m going to cry.” It’s like that Linda Ronstadt where she sings, “I think I’m gonna love you” and then “I think it’s gonna hurt me,” and still again, “I think I’m gonna miss you for a long, long time.”

And, finally, a Psalm which also came across my path last week. “My soul thirsts for you,” it says, “My soul will be satisfied with fat and rich food / and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips. / “I will remember you in my bed / and will meditate on you in the watches of the night.”

For you have been my help 
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy
My soul clings to you
Your right hand upholds me

“My soul clings to you.” I think that this is what it’s like to be in love, what it’s like to thirst, what it’s like, finally, to lift our heads, our eyes, to open wide our hearts–the tears, the desire, and the rejoicing–to feel the vibration there in our chests, to let it ring across our bodies, what it’s like to open up our throats, and what it’s like, at last, to sing.

Imitating Hawthorne – The Restaurant

A word about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He writes in a way that I thought only people like Marilynne Robinson could. Just when I thought there weren’t enough words in the language to describe how much we feel, Nathaniel Hawthorne has found them all and rung the dripping water out of them and hung them together out on the line.

“A hundred mysterious years were whispering among the leaves.”

“Here and there, a few drops of this freshness were scattered on a human heart, and gave it youth again, and sympathy with the eternal youth of nature.”

Zora Neale Hurston and Marilynne Robinson.

“…in times when chimney-corners had benches in them, where old people sat poking into the ashes of the past, and raking out traditions, like live coals.”

Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, and Marilynne Robinson.

And then sometimes passage could only have been written by Nathaniel Hawthorne himself:

“However the flowers might have come there, it was both sad and sweet to observe how Nature adopted to herself this desolate, decaying, gusty, rusty, old house of the Pyncheon family; and how the ever-returning Summer did her best to gladden it with tender beauty, and grew melancholy in the effort.”

Just like how George Eliot had those rural English towns. And Edith Wharton had New York. And George Sand will always have Paris. Nathaniel Hawthorne had the forest, the sea breezes, the shadows, the fears, the weightlessness, the darkness, the pleadings to God, the desperations, the courage, the joys, the acts of hopelessness, the house of the seven gables, and the falling of rain.

I’ve written about imitation before. I’m nearing the end of The House of the Seven Gables, and I think it’s telling that when I tried to write about a dream I had a few weeks ago, even though I was writing in French, it came out like this. In my dream, my grandparents had just told me the news, as we walked up the steps to a seafood restaurant in a town on the Oregon coast, that a friend of theirs, a lumberjack with blue eyes, had died. (There is a Don West poem I read in an airport five years ago that has this storyline.) Not knowing how to respond, I asked the hostess for a table. A somewhat mediocre translation follows. This is what I dreamt.

Hier soir j’ai rêvé que je suis allé diner pendant un état de deuil. En entrant dans le restaurant, j’ai présenté à l’hôtesse une feuille de papier marqué de trois mots: “Je suis triste,” aussi  a-t-elle sélectionné pour moi une table près d’une fenêtre immense qui donnait sur la mer. Il y avait une brume et des nuages noirâtres qui pour certains devaient prévenir un orage, mais il me semblait en revanche que rien ne pourrait troublerait la pâleur lourde de la grande surface hautaine. C’était comme si le ciel avait un regard si captivé par les petites lumières nocturnes qui sortaient dans le village, et par les cris de mouettes et par les sons de vagues, qu’il se mit à garder aussi longuement que possible la silence de son calme externe, qu’il tâchait de ne permettre que la fraicheur mouillée de son soupir doux, qu’il ne voulait que soulager, autant qu’il pouvait, les douleurs de tout un monde de violences et de blessures qui surgissaient dans son âme, qui montaient dans sa chair, et qui se dévoilaient en tremblements en dessous dans les reflets d’eau.

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Last night I dreamed that I went to dinner during a time of mourning. Upon entering the restaurant, I presented the hostesswith a piece of paper marked with three words: “I am sad,” and she selected for me a table near a large window overlooking the sea. There was a mist and black clouds, some of which might have signaled a storm, but it seemed to me  that nothing could now upset the heavy pallor of the expansive surface above. It was as if the Sky had a look so captivated by the small nocturnal lights that came out in the village and by the cries of seagulls and the sounds of waves, that he set out to preserve as long as possible the silence of his external calm, that he tried to release no other sound but the wet coolness of his sigh, that he wanted nothing but to soothe, as much as he could, the hurting of a whole world of violence and wounds which stirred in his soul, which rose in his flesh, and which revealed themselves in tremors down below in the reflections of the water.

 

Excerpt of an interview

With Rachmaninoff, Spring of 1909.
Rachmaninoff:
I’m going to put together a piece and it will feel at once like the raising of the final curtain and lowering of hands, like the last tenderly sung word but felt as freshly as the first act of throbbing, like both the thundering of applause–of the kind where purses are dropped about our ankles–and the emptying of a theatre, where programs are scattered about in their paper weight. It will ache with nostalgia and tell of that journey home: the hearers will see the mist rising from morning farms and smell the smoke of wood stoves pouring out of chimneys in the starlight. And it will tell of the moment of return, from the first measure it will sing of it, when everything is laid bare and…and made to smolder. Not in the violence of fire and ash, but like the settling in of afternoon sunlight on the rich red brick in the place where, as Bob Dylan says, “The last radio is playing.” We have at last our first glimpse of home. In a word, it will feel, I hope, like the culmination of our centuries of listening. At least it does so to me. Not of the bowing of our heads into the silence of prayer but of the opening wide of our eyes and our hands together to receive the benediction. The gigue that comes after the minuet. The several kisses of a tear-stained goodbye. The first movement of a piano concerto in d minor!