Prayer, Dogs, and Acting Training

“You get a feeling when you look back on life that that’s all God really wants from us, to live inside a body he made and enjoy the story and bond with us through the experience.” Donald Miller

A reflection Someone told me that I was being vulnerable in my writing the other day, and I thanked them, but I was pretty silent and listened to them talk because I was sure that my writing had not been vulnerable, even if the work of writing had been. There is writing that is the body, that is the blood singing in our veins. It’s easier just to do provocation and words. It’s easier to give only a record of the body, of the heart: how many times this week I have washed my hair, what I have eaten for pleasure, how many miles I have walked. Not how many breaths I have taken along the way or what the breaths felt like in my chest. It’s easy to talk about clothes and dressing and undressing. It’s harder to put the next thing on. How hard it is for me to show the transformation.

I have had the idea that we of any community can be helped if we can sometimes see the journeys of transition that others are undertaking. I was thinking, specifically, that I would like to know more of the content of people’s prayers. So, in an effort to be more vulnerable in my writing, and to lead in giving an example, I’m going to do my best to share a prayer I prayed to God a few weeks ago, one that I was formed in writing. This is exposing part of my core–not the core of muscles and skin that I like to flex in front of the mirror–but the fluffy dog core that those silly dogs are always outdoing themselves to present to us, even if we are just walking by. I’m not even going to pretend that I’m comfortable sharing this here without a paragraph’s work of weird dog analogies and other disclaiming that, evidently, is still going. And, as I pause to affirm my valuing of liturgical, communal forms of prayer, those prayers that reach across, that reach outward, that in reaching lead into higher and deeper tension and wrestling and searching (like Psalm 74), I acknowledge that this one is more (unabashedly?) personal. I might also insert myself into the prayer again, using parentheses, to highlight the moments that weren’t as real, for those who care to interest themselves. I might do that a lot.

Well, here goes.

A prayer “Jesus, (ok good start) please help me to get through that experience of feeling guilt and hardness, your hardness coming down on me all the time–at junctures–The anxiety. It makes me sad to think that this is my reality when there could be joy and pleasure –like brother puppies together I don’t know     I give these thoughts to you these dreams Awaken me to starlight To memory of sleeping bags (I spelt bags wrong) To imagined first kisses. (The following is when I thought I was being to individualistic and tried to correct myself:) And to justice and life and freedom for your church and your community your people Forgive me…Welcome me Lord, I welcome you. (Ok, back on course:) To share in life with you. The green forest spots of summer. Steam rising. Jesus I used to know these. Awaken me, Lord. Call to me in moonlight. Call to me like the voice of birds. I love you. I don’t ever want to forget you love me.      And jazz. Let there be jazz here.”

An actor’s warmup As you stand, feel your feet rooted deep into the earth. Deep breath in, and release. Feel the crown around your head lifted upward into the sky. Breathe in, release. Breathe in, release. And, as you expand your chest, hold your heart open to the world, open to receive and open to give. Breathe in, release. Breathe in, release.

This is what it’s like.



This year’s top 5.

Three Guineas – Virginia Woolf

Not a book of a year but of a lifetime. Every segment of British society in examined. She champions girls’ education, exposes corporate greed, challenges the rituals of the patriarchy down to the very clothes men wear in the military, the university, and the workplace, quotes Jesus, sings with Antigone, and made me laugh out loud in an airport. Writing in 1938 she combats fascism. She critiques Hitler, Mussolini, and the thinkers in her own country who share their views on the sphere of women, by name. She proves in 145 pages (and many footnotes) that the cause(s) of women in our society–maybe in any society–are at the very heart of the pursuit of justice, peace, and freedom from tyranny.

Sermons for Farmers – Charles Spurgeon

I don’t know if I’ve heard a male preacher whose sermons this consistently provide illustrations first for women and then for men, or for poorer folks and then for wealthier. He makes inclusion–and everything else…cracking jokes, saying fourteen breathtaking things about a three-word image, quoting Shakespeare–look doable.

Gilead – Marylinne Robinson

I tuned in late to the game, but they’re still playing baseball in the furniture of their minds, trying to forgive each other and believe in joy, laughing in the rain and weeping in pantries, rereading sermons, watching the sun go down and the moon come up at the same time, and handling, rearing back, and hurling the world’s biggest questions down to the last inning of the last page.

Teaching to Transgress – bell hooks

I also have come to bell hooks late. Among so many things this book has taught me about race, class, feminism, and American schools, this book has shown me that teaching is an embodied practice, that theory is a social practice, and that learning is a liberatory practice.

Boule de Suif – Guy de Maupassant

I do not have words to describe how hungry, literally hungry this short story made me feel, or how I had to look away and, figuratively, catch my breath because the language was so beautiful, or how it made me angry, how it explored every class-based interaction, and jolted me to amazement in every paragraph, how it foresaw today’s microbrewery culture (the phrase “le Pale-Ale et la Revolution” actually occurs), and how as I constantly tried to orient myself and gain some footing, it kept me guessing till the last word. Most of French literature is about war and class. This is as good as it gets.

Twenty or so things you can write on a plastic cup other than your name this holiday season

Plastic cups photograph

One time someone called me Henry for a week (that’s not my name), and it was because I had written “Henry” on a red plastic cup to differentiate it from everyone else’s. When she finally confronted me about it, I stated as honestly as I could, “I just can’t write my own name.”

Another time–I was already beginning to work out a theory of non-identification at gatherings where drinks our served in plastic glasses–I was expanding on this theme. Lauren nodded in agreement, and turning her plastic cup around to show me the name, said, “Yes. And I don’t even know who Katie is. I found this at the sink.” Theory, as bell hooks points out, is a social practice. And in the interest of bearing no ill-will towards the ones who named us, it’s not just non-identification.

Hakuin wrote, ‘If you forget yourself, you become the universe.’ That mysterious factor of surrender, the creative surprise that releases us and opens us up, spontaneously allows something to arise.
Stephen Nachmanovitch Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art

The season of sharpies and plastics is upon us, and I think it’s high time we shook things up a little bit, let things rise to the surface, experienced surrender, opened ourselves to the “plentiful imagery of the world.”  It’s high time we identified with the universe. And when we shake the trees, who knows what will fall out of our consciousness. I’ve been “Baby” before. I’ve also been “Arturo” and “Felicia.” But I recommend starting with your own culture. Write down the name of your first dog. Write down the name of your great grandmother. I can’t, but write it in the cyrillic alphabet. And move beyond the personal. Write down “San Leandro.” Write down “Jamaica Plain.” Write down “Tolstoy’s Russia.” Go deeper. What political theory are you invested in? Write down “Consent of the governed.” Write down “All human life is but one life.” Write down “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Too universal? Because isn’t Thanksgiving at least in part an American holiday? Show your patriotism: “We cannot hallow this ground.” A haunting phrase. Walk up to that person whose cup reads “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Make sure you’ve read the Lincoln book. (I haven’t.) Talk about America. And if there must be poetry, let there be poetry. “The lips of time leech to the fountainhead,” you can say. Or “como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.” Write down, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding.” If the music fills you, “No Woman No Cry,” “Palestrina,” and “The _______ album.” Choose your own heart. And, for the times you just need to get really practical: “License plate number DR4183M your lights are on!” “Wash, rinse, repeat,” (another haunting phrase) or, more directly, “Tanya, remember to feed the fish!”

But lest we forget the hidden, the transformative power of naming…

Are names more properly said to be the names of things, or of our ideas of things?
John Stuart Mill A Sytem of Logic: Of Names

Last night, alone in my house, chairs arranged for playable action, tables set for festivities, plates and serving bowls filled with the best that Trader Joe’s can offer, water hissing in the kettle, I etched into the ridges of the inaugural cup a simple statement of truth: the word “Sunset,” a name for myself. And when I held the marker to the crystal-cut plastic (I’m cheap but I’m not that cheap) and prepared to fill its curvature with my own linear sign…in that moment I knew, in the depths my heart lives in, that part of me was this vision of my boyhood curiosity, this landscape of adolescent loneliness, this image of adulthood longing: I was the organ of the sky being played on by a wind of yellow light.

Poème d’octobre: A translation

Sometimes I think I feel the most like myself while riding on a train. I wrote this Sunday afternoon coming home from New York, not on a train but on a Greyhound bus. It rained the whole time. The English translation follows.

“Poème d’octobre”

J’en ai marre des feuilles mortes. Elles sont biens des feuilles, elles connaissaient une fois la tendresse du soleil, elles savaient bien sûr respirer, absorber, plier, répondre. Une fois. Mais nous promenons dans cette saison un jardin de morts, d’odeurs de la tristesse, de regrets. Nous nous trouvons seules au fond imprévisible du musée, entourée de peintures desséchées, de paysages dénaturés, de fictions désespérées. Les odeurs me fait dégueuler. Les images me piquent. Je m’en fou de la décomposition d’automne.

Vous allez encore vous promener dans cette forêt, ressentir la fraicheur de ces bois. Dans les ombres sous les arbres vous reprendrez du repos. Des ouvertures ensoleillées vous surprendront.

Vous aurez du courage en trouvant les beaux anciens chemins même de sentir les parfums des morts. Parmi les feuilles vous allez trouver le pardon. Dans l’acte de pardonner vous n’allez pas vous faire peur.

Les silences vous offriront le calme pour lequel vous avez tant agacé. La musique de vent, le noir du soir vous accorderont la paix.

Vous allez monter dans les hauteurs. Votre regard va percer des branches. Vous aurez le droit de contempler les paysages lointains.

Vous verrez les étoiles. Vous tremblerez dans la lumière. Votre cœur aura des rêves d’automne dans l’abri d’une nuit profonde …

Nous nous touchons les mains.

Je lui fais un regard et tiens la main qui reste ouverte,
celle qui a saigné autant que les yeux.

Il m’invite à déshabiller,
lui qui a déjà mis ses robes,
en me montrant leur tissue léger.

Entouré d’un multitude frères et sœurs
aussi nombreux que les chambres de la forêt,
doucement, pleinement, et sachant que je révèlerais mes blessures
j’enlève mes vêtements, mes peurs si proches
qu’ils ont imprimés leur marques sur la peau,
mes feuilles mortes et meurtrières.

Une fois nus, nous montons ensemble
dans la robe de tissu rayonnant,
celle où est brodé le longueur de nos histoires,
structurée dans le profondeur de nos pardons,
façonnée à l’ampleur de nos amours.

Liés, nous dansons jusqu’à l’aube.

“October Poem”

I’m sick of dead leaves. They are leaves. They once knew the tenderness of the sun. They knew how to breathe, absorb, bend, respond. Once. But in this season we walk a garden of deaths, scents of sadness, regrets. We find ourselves alone in the back corner of a museum, surrounded by dried up paintings, denatured landscapes, desperate fictions. The smells sicken me. The pictures sting. I’ve had enough of the decomposition of the fall.

You will still walk in this forest, feel the freshness of these woods. In the shadows under the trees you will rest. Openings filled with sunlight will surprise you.

You will have courage in finding the beautiful old paths, enough even to smell the scents of deaths. Among the leaves you will find forgiveness. In the act of forgiving you will not give yourself fear.

The silences will offer you the calm for which you have so long agitated. The wind’s music, the evening darkness will grant you peace.

You will go up in the heights. Your eyes will pierce branches. The distant landscapes you will have the right to contemplate.

You will see the stars. You will tremble in the light. Your heart will have dreams of autumn in the shelter of a deep night …

Our hands touch each other.

I give him a look and hold his hand which remains open,
the one that bled as much as his eyes.

He invites me to undress,
he who has already put on his robes,
showing me their light fabric.

Surrounded by a multitude of brothers and sisters
as numerous as the rooms of the forest,
gently, fully, knowing that I am revealing my wounds,
I take off my clothes, my fears so close
that they have printed their marks on the skin,
my dead and murderous leaves.

Once naked, we rise together in the robe of radiant fabric,
the one that is embroidered with the length of our stories,
structured in the depths of our forgiveness,
shaped to the fullness of our loves.

Linked, we dance until dawn.

Virginia Woolf Taught Me How To Small Talk

I’m still recovering from that dinner scene, and I read To the Lighthouse months ago, this spring.

The hosts are not talking. The teenaged lovers are late. Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes are fumbling at conversation. And Charles Tansley is sitting in judgment on them all, brooding. Don’t we all have a part of him in us? The student, the bitter young man who had never been to a circus as a child, who had worked his way up, he keeps telling himself, on his own, whose grandfather had been a fisherman. He is delighting, too, that he can later tell his friends that, at a dinner among people of a class who possess the freedom to speak their minds, they are talking such nonsense.

And they are. Mrs. Ramsay, the hostess, is orchestrating the chitchat, but her mind is elsewhere. In fact, she is desperate: her husband across the table isn’t talking. And is it forgiveness she needs from him or does she need to forgive him? Like the husband in Mrs. Dalloway, she cannot bring herself to tell her spouse in words of the love she feels for him. And Mr. Bankes, forcing himself to be charming, feels nothing for the woman sitting next to him. He fears the dinner party will discover that he would rather spend this evening, any evening, in his chair with a book, in silence. And so, they talk nonsense: Mrs. Ramsay suggests that Mr. Bankes must not like sitting in the garden.

But what the brooding Charles Tansley misses is that Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes are resorting to a language of which he knows no word. Imagine a roomful of people in incomprehension, Virginia Woolf says. They speak French, because that, at least, is a language everyone will know.

Perhaps it is bad French; French may not contain the words that express the speaker’s thoughts; nevertheless speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity. Replying to her in the same language, Mr. Bankes said, “No, not at all,” and Mr. Tansley, who had no knowledge of this language, even spoke thus in words of one syllable, at once suspected its insincerity.

This passage opened a door for me. Not until the reading of this book had I engaged with this dinner guest reality, had felt so urgently this need for a group of people to talk. And never before had I viewed small talk as a remedy to this blight of social dis-ease.

As Mrs. Ramsay says to Lilly Briscoe, but with only a glance, “I am drowning, my dear, in seas of fire. Unless you apply some balm to the anguish of this hour and say something nice to that young man there, life will run upon the rocks–indeed I hear the grating and the growling at this minute.”

am a theatre person. I’m comfortable in silence. I can look at you and say nothing. If it sounds fun I can “become aware of the architecture in the space,” letting my soft gaze rest on the beams of the ceiling, or I can let my thoughts return gently to my own breath. I can even communicate for half hours in groanings and song-moans, and I can look you in the eye and say, “I love you” or “I need __________ (anything–sex, love, wealth, weapons, fire, blood, diamonds, a baby to hold, my papers back–you fill in the blank)” with a straight face, in complete honesty. I’m also a spiritual person. Like I get it: the apostle Paul wants the church in Ephesus to speak to each other in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making music in their hearts to the Lord. I think I can do that.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we have to relate to each other like normal people. We have to have a relationship with conventionality. Everyone knows we can create space; sometimes we have to fill it.

So that is why I will be talking with you about the orange line and the transit system in Milwaukee. You say they have a church on every corner? I’ll crack a joke, the obvious one, the one that probably stopped being said seven years ago, about how nowadays it’s more like a Starbucks on every corner. And I’ll laugh at my own joke, louder than you. I’ll even prepare to mention that I rode the trains once in St. Louis. I’ll shake your hand when I get off the bus. You can’t offer me your right hand because it’s full, but you’ll say, “Sorry for the left hand” and you’ll mean it, and I’ll be thankful that you helped me endure an unexpected journey on the shuttle on the last leg of my ride home.*

*This happened. All of it, I’m sad to say.

That’s why I’ll ask you about your sister–you have a sister, right? And talk about the bug that’s going around. I’ll say things like, “Yeah, that post-Labor-Day bug” that “everyone got,” and I’ll say it like any part of that made sense. Yeah I’ll talk about flu shots with you. I’ll even tell you where the CVS I got it at is. You’ll nod and murmur agreement. You’ll be complicit in the conversation.

You’ll ask me what my plans are for the weekend. I wouldn’t have thought to ask that. I think that’s almost invasive, especially on a Wednesday, but I’ll try to come up with something, even if I end up risking a conversation about Trader Joe’s or the Giants. We’ll probably talk about how good rest is always and how good friends are or how good we thought the weather was going to be.

Actually, so many things will be considered good. Your new job. My reasons for leaving California. People’s reasons for moving away or to California. The amount of homework you–in general–didn’t do. The amount of overachieving I–in general–did do. How you and I are feeling about the reading we did or didn’t do, right now or in any part of our histories in school. The number of people in my church. The different number of people in your church.*

*Both were considered ideal. Say what you wish about small talk, it is not narrow.

Your name again. My name again. Me not wanting to say I’m bad with names, but since you said it, we should probably have a moment of solidarity about this. In fact, us at names is the only thing we can agree on as being unequivocally bad. Nevertheless so many things are hard. Your job. Actually, your job must be hard. So is being far from your aging parents. (In some cultures that’s necessary to state in a first conversation. We don’t want anyone to think we are heartless.) Having a car is hard. Not having a car must be hard. Both are still “worth it.” In truth, so many things can be both hard and worth it. Like cooking for oneself or doing meal prep in advance or buying crockpot recipe books at yard sales or trying to make time to go to Disneyland (who am I talking to?). And depending on the day, the same can be said for walking in the rain or learning how to live in drought or being a San Francisco baseball fan.

Is small talk worth it? Virginia Woolf narrates that Lily Briscoe, the young artist that Mrs. Ramsay had compelled with that powerful glance to say something to Charles Tansley, had indeed succumbed. She engages the man who had before been rude to her, asking him (“quickly, kindly”) if he will take her to the lighthouse, and he tells her about sailing with his grandfather, about how he learned to swim. He regains his pride. He enters life.

“But,” Lily asks, “what haven’t I paid?” At what what cost? “She had not been sincere.”

Small talk, if we are to allow it, if we are to value it, if we are to embrace it because we cannot yet embrace each other, must be sincere. If we are to entreat each other with words because we sense that there are connections more meaningful in this moment than breaths, then let our words be heartfelt. And if we need our rambling agreements, our surface street witticisms, to orient us in all our fragility and triumph together in space, then let us, by all means, talk on.

But let us be sincere. Let us always be sincere. The rest, as Hamlet tells us, is silence.


Driving in Central Pennsylvania

zvrftcf2jkn1wwrx1vxcWho among us have not gotten lost driving home from Harrisburg? Like the paths in an old garden, the highways twist themselves away from the town, clinging to, parting from, braiding themselves with the Susquehanna river, where the exit signs are just whispers from behind the oleanders, luring travelers to turn right, daring them to stay their course, offering used-car dealerships, promising orientation. Even the Statue of Liberty once lost her way among these paths, now planted upon rocks in the heart of the river, facing south with homeward longing, never to return. Look it up.

This is a story I keep going back to, the afternoon I took a wrong turn after leaving Harrisburg. I had just taken the Praxis test of basic skills, and so the three-hour silence of staring at questions on a computer screen gave way to the road’s silence, an October drive in central Pennsylvania.


There is a stretch of the highway that follows the Juniata River, a tributary to the Susquehanna and, as it leads to State College and beyond, brings its drivers to the edge of existence. This was at least my experience of the canyons, the yellow soil and the drying grass, the brown riverbed, the convoluted plunging of river water, the emptying branches in the hills and the orange leaves. There was not a single farmhouse, only occasional bridges crossing the channel of river, the old rusting bridges and modern suspension bridges sitting side by side. To the left, a territory marker of green pines enclosed my looking out. I curved up around the hills at my right. I thought that this must have been what it felt like to American navigators, of whom I have heard an account, to ride through Montana for the first time, or maybe to any earlier explorers who walked in its rippling mass of rock and silence and trees. The isolation. The joyous emptiness. The wonder. I have never been to Montana.

I awakened from my dreaming numbness to worry if this stretch of road was in fact wrong highway. I couldn’t have missed all this beauty on the way down to Harrisburg. This seemed more unlikely every five minutes I didn’t see something I knew. I scanned my memory for landmarks I would be able to recall, but familiarity was starting to feel less and less like a trustworthy authority. In honesty, all I could remember were the sex shops and topless clubs, of which there were several, between Harrisburg and home. Had I finally reached that point in my adulthood where I could pass each of these without remarking on them? I started to guess that I was headed to State College and not back home. Was I close? State College has a Chipotle. If I can get there, I know how to get to Bucknell. That’s an extra hour and a half or so. Is it better than turning around and risking a complete trip back through Harrisburg? And we all know how that goes. I had thought that as long as I stuck to the Susquehanna, as long as this was the branch I wanted, the one that would bring me past the porn shops, I would be fine. These are the thoughts we have to have when we are lost. The sunlight was still glowing in the hills. It wasn’t the danger of night but the danger of loneliness. I don’t remember if I had seen another car since leaving town, but it would have been rare.

I turned around and headed back. I ignored some highways branching off to the east. I couldn’t afford to compound my disorientation. One of the suspension bridges led into a town. I could see its buildings through the trees as I approached. Gently, I pulled off the highway and onto the bridge with a sense of trespass. I crossed over the river under a tunnel of green metal and tree branches and, eyeing a gas station directly on the other side, I continued into the town.

In my telling of this moment since, I have suggested what was truly in the essence of my living of the moment then, that this was not a town that existed in any reality that I had known. It felt possible to me that this town was a thing of magic, one of those hidden places known from literature and all storytelling, if old Pennsylvania towns could be these kingdoms apart, these islands across the river that offer sanctuary to wanderers, to weary travelers in search of or fleeing from home. I had the feeling, and have since had the dread, that if I passed by that way again I would never be able to recover that town, just an empty bridge leading to a stillness in the tangle of woods.

But forgive this indulgence. The town of N—- does exist. Its high school has a show choir, a competitive sports program, and a gym. The music teacher directs musicals from the last ten years. Whether these rambling uncertainties were the thoughts of an outsider forever unfit to make a home in the back roads of central Pennsylvania or if this consciousness was induced by the taking of three-hour test that so proved my very ability to teach in this community I leave to the people of N—– to answer.

The afternoon light hung around the shadows in the town square and gleamed richly on the brick walls of every building. Cars circled. People stepped out of storefronts with large glass windows. Traffic lights changed. I came back to the gas station.

Not parking at the pump, I worried that I should be asking for help without offering any trade. I was obsessed, in those days, with the idea of exchange. I was also mindful of how some of my black classmates might have felt, have said they do feel, at the prospect of asking for directions at a gas station in a largely white rural town. Pennsylvania was a northern state, but Confederate flags are about as numerous as historical signposts indicating stops on the underground railroad, not that I saw either that day. I felt degree of safety, too, as a man. So, with a mixture of gratitude and guilt, and not without a sense of discomfort at having to ask directions of strangers, I stepped out of my car.

An attendant walked towards me as I approached. He was thin, teenaged. I asked him if he could point me towards Highway 15 North. He didn’t have an answer. How about Selinsgrove? I didn’t expect him to have recognized Lewisburg. He brought me over to the owner, an older man, possibly his father.

“He’s trying to get to–where was it–?”

“Selignsgrove. Highway 15,” I said. “Well, I’m trying to get to Lewisburg.”

The man collected his thoughts.

“Ok,” he said, “You’re gonna wanna cross this bridge and follow this highway straight towards Highway 11/15. You’ll run right into it.”

“Ok, just across this bridge and go straight?”

“Just cross this bridge and go straight.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I got back in my car.

There’s a Jack London story where a man freezes to death in Yukon territory, believing himself lost. When he dies, his dog runs up the familiar path of sounds and smells to the camp they had set out from that morning. I drove twenty minutes and hit highway 11/15. Selinsgrove was another half hour and just beyond, my own college town.

I wondered–and this knowingly, having heard of research done by Pennsylvania geographers about the sense of place and the social bonds that hold the communities of these towns together–if that teenager who tried to help me had ever crossed that bridge leading away from his town. He has no doubt stepped on the other side. How could he not have? But would he have had reason to? I have since consulted maps. Crossing that river, we see the sudden spiraling of state parks and forests, the great bending already underway of geosynclinal valleys, the topographical undulations leading away from Harrisburg and the East and down into the bulkier Appalachians. I wonder if crossing that bridge is more than just a psychological barrier, of the kind I imagine it would be for youngsters of any river town, but a departure from one set of cultures to the next, if places like Selinsgrove, Sunbury, Bloomsburg, and Williamsport were as exotic to him as his town felt to me when I drove in, if the sound of Highway 11-15 felt as fantastical as the vision of afternoon sunlight on the red brick, if my life was as incomprehensible to him as his was to me.

Yesterday I was talking with a professor about teaching license requirements in Massachusetts. He suggested that I might be a good resource for my classmates, given my familiarity with the process of taking educator tests, the CTEL, the Praxis 1 and 2. “You know, it’s a little strange that we require all those tests for certification.”

“Well, someone has to get paid,” I joked. “At least that’s my cynical side.” I believe I stole that line from a professor I had back in Pennsylvania. He agreed.

I was thinking about driving in central Pennsylvania, about the trees and the slopes of earth and rock and leaves, about the teenager at the gas station, about coal towns and river towns, and about the friends I haven’t seen in years.

Two poems of love and marriage: Translations


1. Les vœux

Une fois je t’ai promis le tout
quand je t’ai offert ma vie.

Je t’ai promis les nuits et les soirées,
les matins ensoleillées, les journées de pluie.

Je t’ai offert la bouche qui sait désirer,
le front qui sait rêver dans tes caresses,
les bras qui gardent leur chaleur.

Je t’ai offert des sensations et des sensitivités
des mots justes et des sonorités.
Le lustre et les sauvageries une fois je t’ai représentés.

Je t’ai promis l’amour sous la souffrance,
le cœur qui ne cesse pas de se donner.
Les pleures et les regards ne t’ai-je pas jurés ?
Les yeux qui comptent les larmes,
mes propres sentiments ne t’ai-je pas offerts ?

Accepte donc la totalité de mes promesses,
l’addition, la somme, le début et la fin du compte.

Veuille recevoir alors la signe de mes promesses,
la main droite tremblante, la vérité blessante, la sincérité.

Et je te supplie, chère toi qui as déjà mon cœur,
qui as mes veines, mon souffle et mon sang,
d’entendre la voix de mon serment,
celle-là tout bas,
comme si elle venait de lointain,
obscurée de doutes,
celle-là que peut-être tu trouves trop tendre,
celle-là qui ne cesse pas de poser la question,
celle-là qui attend de toi une réponse.

Notre vie ensemble n’est-elle pas qu’une promesse ?

1. Vows (English translation)

I once promised you everything when I offered you my life. 

I promised you nights and evenings, sunny mornings and days of rain.

I offered you a mouth that knows desire, a brow that can dream in your caresses, and arms that can keep us warm.

I offered you sensations and sensitivites, right words and sonorities. Of brightness and wildness I gave you a vision.

I promised you love underneath suffering, a heart that never ceases to give of itself. Didn’t I promise you weaping and eyes that see you and eyes that count tears. Have I not offered my own feelings ?

Accept, then, the totality of my promesses, the sum, the bill, the beginning and end of the account.

Receive the sign of my promesses, a trembling right hand, truth that hurts, and my sincerity.

And I beseech you, you my dearest who have already my heart, you who have my veins, my blood and my breath, to hear the voice of my pledge to you—the voice soft and low as if it were coming from far off, obscured by my doubts, the voice that maybe you have found too tender, the one that will not stop asking the question, the one that is waiting for a response :

Tell me, is are life together not a promise?

2. La fête

Qu’il y aient à notre mariage des violons,
des bouquets de fleurs et des parfums de roses,
à chaque table des tintements de verres.

Qu’il y aient des costumes gris et des tissus légères,
de nouvelles robes et des aromes de cuir.
Pour chaque jubilation, une danse.
et pour chaque silence, une pause.
De la fraicheur à chaque fenêtre
et à chaque table une carafe d’eau.
Que les danseurs viennent mouiller leurs lèvres desséchées.

À tous ceux qui veulent causer, un partenaire.
À tous ceux qui veulent danser, des battements de cœur.
Et à tous ceux qui veulent en contempler, des points d’or
au moment où la marée nuageuse révèle ses perles.

Et que nous quittions, ma chère, la salle de danse,
avant que les pétales sortent de leur bouquets et les carafes se vident.
Avant les tremblements de branches
et les premiers soupirs du vent,
avant l’avance rosâtre aux champs
et les premières étoiles aux cieux,
que nous retrouvions notre propre espace de cœur.
Là nous nous donnerons notre amour.

Que nous nous offrions nos chuchotements
alors que les cadences des violons commencent à s’allonger.

Car notre amour est comme une fleur rare
si fine et si inconnue
qu’elle n’a qu’un seul nom dans une seule langue.
Or, notre amour est comme un chant,
si intime, si inscrutable
qu’elle ne fait aucun rythme ni aucun sens
aux ceux qui en déchiffreraient.
Mais que nous sachions, ma chère, mon cœur à moi,
quand nous partageons nos secrets
que nous touchons un amour de si sacré et de si commun
que les amoureux de tous les pays
ont pour lui leur propres adresses,
leurs propres salutations,
leurs propres tendres noms.

Que cet amour soit suffisamment grand pour entourer
un univers de solitude et de pertes dans son étendue.
Que le vent du soir, mêlé à la musique,
soulage chaque blessure.
Qu’ils trouve à chaque souffrance un regard,
à chaque espoir un accord.

Qu’il y aient des violons et des extases,
des saveurs, des danses et des parfums,
des carafes d’eau et des perles d’étoiles
l’entrechoquement de verres, des roses, des rires,
et à chaque table, des rêves du cœur.

2. The feast (English translation)

May our wedding have violins,
bouquets of flowers and perfumes of roses,
at each table the clinking of glasses.

Let there be gray suits and light fabric,
new dresses and smells of leather.
For each cry of joy a dance,
for each silence, a moment of stillness.
At every window may there be cool air
and at each table a carafe of water.
May the dancers moisten their dried lips.

To all who want to talk, may there be a partner.
To all who want to danse, stirrings of the heart.
And to all who would contemplate it, points of gold
at the moment when the tide of clouds reveals its pearls.

And let us, my love, leave the dance hall
before the petals spring from their bouqets and the carafes run dry.
Before the trembling of the branches
and the first sighs of the evening wind,
before the fields are filled with their pink
and the skies are filled with stars,
may we find our heart’s own space.
There, we will give each other our love.

When the cadences of violins begin their lengthening
let us offer each other our whispers.

For our love is like a rare flower
so fine, so unfamiliar
that it has only one name in one language.
Or it could be that our love is like a song,
so intimate and inscrutable
that it makes no sense or rhythm
to those who would decipher it.
But may we know, my love, my own heart,
when we share our secrets
that we touch a love so sacred, so common
that those who love from every country
have for it their own titles,
their own greetings,
and their own tender names.

May this love be big enough to circle
a world of losses and loneliness in its reach.
May the evening wind, mingled with violin music,
salve each wound.
May those who suffer find one who sees them,
and may those who hope find an answer.

Let there be violins and ecstasies,
flavors, dances, and perfumes,
carafes of water and pearls of stars,
the clinking of glasses, roses and laughs,
and at each table, dreams from the heart.