Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Come and See, Friends: Coming Out as a Christian, 1st Installment

...contemporary Christianity has lost its way. Christians don't wake up every morning thinking about how to become a more decent human being. Instead, they wake up trying to "work on their relationship with God" which very often has nothing to do with treating people better. How could such a confusion have occurred? How did we end up going so wrong? Richard Beck, "The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity"

I am a Christian. Why is that so hard to say? Why do I have to clear my throat, stammer, and sit here at the computer, feeling slammed by the negative (to me) cultural associations with Christianity? 

Me and the Rev. Paula Robinson, All Saints' Day, 2008. 

"You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked

as Christ's own for ever. Amen."

One reason I feel a catch in my throat is that my father is Jewish, and I identify as a secular Jew. Much to both my father and my Christian mother's dismay, in 2004, I began study to be a bat-mitzvah. But—I like to quip—a funny thing happened on the way to the bat-mitzvah, and I got baptized instead—which was not exactly on my to-do list. Though history shows the devastation that results from the faith's split, I take every opportunity to say that Christianity is a development of Judaism. Though many translations and teachings obscure the fact, the bible was written by Jews for Jews about Jews, as these essential verses from Matthew demonstrate:

Rabbi, which is the great commandment in the Torah? And Yeshua said to them, 
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart 
And with all your soul and with all your mind." 
This is the great and first commandment.
And the second is like it:  
"Love your neighbor like yourself." All the law 
And all the prophets hang on these two commandments. 

 Oy vey, have I got problems—first, there's the ancestral problem, then there's progressive problem: I am continually distressed by the way that Rabbi Jesus's words and message are distorted by others who call themselves Christians. One way of summarizing Richard Beck's complaint about contemporary Christianity would be to say that some Christians take to heart the first part of the great commandment of the Torah, but not the second, though the ethical imperative to love others is repeated throughout the bible. In that it can be seen as divisive, my last sentence is in itself a distortion, I am sad to say. God's Politics and Tikkun Daily are among my suggested blogs is because it makes me feel less—ah-hem—apologetic to be one many people of faith who works to heal the world. But that last sentence is not quite what I want to say.  Even people who strenuously disagree can come together to heal the world—take for example, Habitat for Humanity, which people support from across the political/religious spectrum—and for which we at Calvary Episcopal Church are holding a fund-raising chili supper, on Friday, January 27th, from 4:30-8:00 p.m. Okay, enough throat-clearing—end of apologia, preamble, handwringing—let me write about last Wednesday night at Calvary.
Christmas Greens at Calvary
 Every Wednesday night at 5:30, a small group of us regularly gathers for the Holy Eucharist, with anointing and prayers for healing. Just as our Sunday service, with music and singing, coffee and socializing, is a staple of my spiritual life, so, too, is Wednesday's short, quiet service. Usually the sermon is more informal, spoken from notes, and delivered mid-nave rather than from the pulpit. Since we are past Christmas, when Mary J and I settled in our usual pew, I noticed the garlands of greens have been taken down and missed breathing in their smellWe are in Epiphany, now, Ordinary Time, whose color is green: in place of white cloths are our needlepointed greens—Rejoice on the lectern, I am the vine, you are the branches on the altar frontal, and The Lord delights in you on the lectern. 
I am the vine, you are the branches
There is so much to love here: "ordinary time," the way the colors change with the calendar, the wood and stones and the stained glass. With every service my senses take in the familiar, and discover something new. Today looking up at our vaulted wooden ceiling, I discovered carved scroll on-lays in the corners of the trusses. I love to search around to remind myself of these descriptive words: nave, frontal, vaulted, scrolls, on-lays, trusses—what abundance for a poet.     

Father Knute is an excellent writer and rhetorician, so I "don't have to check my brains at the door," as Robin Williams jokes in his Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian. Last Wednesday, he gave a simple sermon on the lessons. He pointed out that Nathaniel the skeptic comes to faith through a friend, as some of us do. When Phillip tells him that Jesus is the prophesied one, Nathaniel says, "Can anything good come out Nazareth?" Phillip replies, "Come and see." Father Knute told us about a college friend who came back from vacation changed and happier. When Knute asked why, the friend said he'd found Jesus. And Knute thought to himself, "Oh, no"—that's the kind of moment in a sermon that makes Episcopalians feel good, at least those who—like me—are reluctant converts. But his friend, like Phillip, managed to get him to "come and see," and now he's a priest. We chuckled when he said, "The word evangelism makes Episcopalians uncomfortable," which made some of us—me, for example—more comfortable. He ended the sermon by suggesting that we could invite a friend who'd never experienced "Christian fellowship" (another uncomfortable term for me) to our chili supper, "Invite a friend. Come and see."     
Ordinary Time
     I'm not doing a very good job of explaining why Father Knute's short and informal sermon was so powerful—maybe it was moving because it was unwritten, spoken between friends. He asked, "How did you come to faith? Did Jesus speak to you directly? Or was it through a friend?" Yes and yes. Well, I could fill a book with my faith journey (and would like to one day), but last Wednesday, my epiphany was the memory of an earlier one that came via a friend, Jan Fuller, fourteen years ago, Easter. At the time, Jan was the chaplain at Hollins University. I had a job interview there and stayed the weekend so our two families could spend some time together. I went to Jan's Easter sermon because I wanted to hear my friend preach. Much to my surprise, I cried all the way through service—the prayers, the hymns, and especially the sermon. 
     I couldn't figure out what had happened. I wasn't accustomed to people who talked about God, except abstractly or academically.  I was socialized to think that people like me didn't believe in God. I wasn't disrespectful of religious people. I just didn't imagine that faith was an option. Many years before Easter of 1998, when I was in college, my boyfriend and I were playing frisbee on the green, when a young man approached us with a clipboard. "Do you mind if I ask you a question for a survey I'm conducting?
     "Do you believe in God?"
     "Yes," my boyfriend replied. I was stunned. Could someone I loved and respected and even shared a bed with believe in God? 
     "Did you mean it?" I asked, when our statistician had gone.
     "Mean what?"
     "You believe in God?"
    When I returned to Lewisburg from my Hollins interview, I was at a garden gathering of some Bucknell colleagues and their families. My host I'll call Linda. Once when my father was visiting, he'd said something disparaging about faith, assuming, of course, that no one present was religious. "I'm very devout," she said. Confounded as I was, when I saw a way, I drew her aside. I confided, "You're one of the few people I know who won't think I'm crazy," and told her what had happened on Easter.  
     "Yes, I know. It's very powerful, " she said quietly, as if my story had happened to her, too, and to others.
     Perhaps if I'd stayed in Lewisburg, I would have continued my conversation with Linda, or if I'd gotten the job at Hollins, I'd have spoken with Jan or attended more services. But a couple months later, I moved to South Dakota, and a year after that to Las Vegas. I explained my Easter experience to myself metaphorically. I was in transition, sad to leave Bucknell where I'd taught for five years. I had a baby. Easter is about renewal and hope. The sermon had been about the spring, the flowers, seasons, the cycles of life. In 2008, having come to faith, I asked Jan to send me that sermon. There was nothing metaphorical about it, nothing about spring. No, the sermon, "A Life of Surprise," began with angels saving all the people when their church was struck by a tornado, just the kind of thing that would bring out the sneering skeptic in me. "My friends, Jesus is alive!"" I can now hear Jan proclaiming. "If Jesus is alive, he is not just a figure of the past, not merely a memory we can analyze and manipulate." Here's a bit more:

Rev. Dr. Jan Fuller
     It will be a life of surprise, if Jesus is alive and we want to be his friends. We already know that every real and lasting friendship means living with surprises. No friend is that predictable, that unchanging, that imprisoned except the dead. The same is true for Jesus. He is constant and surprising, alive and well, unbound and free, unlimited and lovely.
      We could act like he was dead and not subject ourselves to the roller coaster of friendship with him. Or we could embrace him alive, and turn in shock and surprise every time he calls out our name. Sometimes he’ll look like the gardener, sometimes the poor, sometimes a burning bush, sometimes a child, sometimes an ancient, the wind, the inner voice, the prophetic call, angels holding up threatening walls. It will all be surprise—joyous, challenging surprise.

Jan says that icky thing about about being friends with Jesus—and I cried "holy tears" all the way through the sermon? I liked Richard Beck's crotchety essay (see this post's epigraph) because it takes issue with people who focus on a friendship with God instead being a friend to others. Beck also says, "I truly want people to spend time working on their relationship with God. I just want them to do it by taking the time to care about the person standing right in front of them." Jan says the same thing in more beautiful ways when she says that Jesus will look like a gardner or the poor. And, looking back on Jesus as "a figure of the past" that I can analyze, so does the Christ:

This is my command,
That you love each other as I have loved you...
You are my friends if you do what I command you... I have called friends
Because all things I heard from my father
I have made known to you.

Franz Wright, in his essay, "Language as Sacrament in the New Testament,"writes that he finds this passage in John (differently translated) "staggering": "what we are now presented with is a universe in which we are not alone, but one which says, 'You are my friends.' Think of it." I do think of it. I think that the staggering part is that friendship with Jesus means loving as much as God, the whole universe manifested in each person. We are called to find the friend in everyone, no exceptions. I look at these words and I think they are abstract.
     Let me try again. On Wednesday nights, when we kneel at the communion rail and the celebrant presses oil on our foreheads, "I anoint you for healing," Mary J and I lay our hands on each other's shoulders. We are close friends. We know each other well. Something in Father Knute's sermon emboldened our little group, and made us free to love. When he anointed us, a man I don't know well, a regular on Wednesdays, came up behind us and laid a hand on each of our shoulders. Maybe that's embarrassing to some, old hat to others. I think it's healing, simple connection.
     Let me try again. When I lived in Greece for nineteen months, my then husband and I broke up. It was winter and I went to Serifos, the island where my family and I have lived summers since the 70s. Everyone asked, "Eise kala?" Are you well? They didn't ask for details—which was a relief—they just offered human comfort. One evening, I was in a bar, talking to the owner. I told him how grateful I was that people cared. "Eise diki mas," he said. You're one of ours. 
     I don't think you need to go to church or a synagogue or a mosque or any house of worship to be one of ours. You are one of ours. You are.
     So if you live in Columbia, consider coming to the chili supper and helping Habitat for Humanity. No one will invade your personal space, try to convert you, or lay a unwanted healing hand on you. You might find a friend or two, have a good talk, spiritual or not. You might be surprised. Come and see.
I am the vine, you are the branches. John 15:5

Monday, January 16, 2012

Days of 1964 in Bloomington, Indiana: A Poem in Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Elm Heights School Building.
It is now Harmony School.

I am usually reluctant to say that events recounted in my poems really happened, but this is a true story. In 1957, state law barred school segregation. Nonetheless, as my childhood experience attests, de facto segregation was still in force in the 60s.  In 1966, when we moved into our home in Heritage Woods, a Bloomington suburb, my father tells me that covenants were still on the books that banned African-Americans and Jews from living there. Such covenants were illegal by then, and it is indicative of the cultural climate that even in an enlightened university town, the covenants had not been removed. 

Days of 1964 in Bloomington, Indiana

With kids I was so shy I couldn’t speak.
“Turn around and quit staring,” they commanded.
My father told me I was beautiful
and they ridiculed my looks: “Your nose is big.”
My mother loved my long hair and they asked
if she used it as a mop. I threw away

the sack lunch my grandmother had packed after
they said our food was gross. I couldn’t hide
my Greek family, though Mom’s proper English
was fluent. When children came to my house,
they twanged, “Whad yer mother say? She tawks funny.”
“You got a pin?” meant “Do you have a pen?”

They’d been taught a grammar other than ours.
Brenda and I talked, though. We walked to school
and back, then played together until dark.
Her dad showed us how our hands could create
animal shadows on the wall. A seagull
flew into the night the ceiling held.

Little Bunny Foo Foo bopped the field mice.
The fairy warned him three times to behave—
isn’t that right?—his goon face loomed! We yelled
the moral, “Hare today and goon tomorrow!”
Our third grade teacher was Mrs. McMillan.
She was pretty, her beautiful blond hair

teased in a French twist. She never had art
when she grew up, so we got something new
each week—finger paints, oil pastels, collage.
Homework was write a poem about the way
a color feels, and I wrote “Blue Is Greece.”
Safe places were her classroom, the library,

and home. Late afternoons we filed downstairs
to pick our books. The librarian’s helper
had earned a reward for good citizenship.
The chosen boy proudly stamped the due dates.
He had crewcut hair—ugly style, I thought.
“I won’t check out a book for any nigger.”

A grown-up supervised. I can’t be certain
if she admonished the boy, “Do your job right.”
What I remember most is Brenda’s plaintive
question: “I’m not a nigger, am I, Kiki?
I guess she had been spared the word till then,
and I had not yet witnessed it. I answered,

“No, you’re not,” helpless. Who could free my friend
Brenda from her unchosen role? The only
black child at Elm Heights School. Some say, reflecting
back on those days, “I was ashamed,” as if
obliged, as if our color bound us. Brenda
and I stood close, allies. Seeing her hurt,

I felt afraid, more foreign, not shame.
Our friendship was an invisible castle.
Our guests flew in on falling maple leaves.
We divided people into mean and kind.
That boy raised cruel came from the other side
and spoke the language we’d already vowed

never to understand, never to speak.
We held hands in line, waiting to be dismissed.
I can still feel her skin. Our hands were dry
from late autumn. We walked home with no thought
of history, that we’d taken our places,
citizens in the Great Society.

Brenda’s mom was fast with grilled cheese sandwiches.
We squeezed on too much ketchup, ate them right up.
Then we kneeled before the window. The sill
was our own stage; the afternoon, our floods.
Our shadowed hands held figurines whom we
moved in a play we made up as we went.

—Aliki Barnstone, from Bright Body (White Pine, 2011)


Monday, January 9, 2012

New Year's Resolution # 1: Spiritual Practice & Presence

Woody Guthrie's 1943 "New Years Rulin's." Found in one of his journals dated January 1st, 1943.
Woody Guthrie Archives Notebook Series 1, Item 13, Pages 36-37

From Lewis Carroll's original manuscript, "Alice's Adventures Under Ground."
Source: Lenny's Alice-in-Wonderland site

We are nine days into the 2012 New Year, and my clock is off. I intended to get up early, breathe, meditate, do some sun salutations, pray, and begin the day right. Instead, I've been staying up until the early morning - three, four, even five o'clock—and then sleeping fitfully until sometimes—horrors!—the early afternoon. 2011 is gone, but the sad, sometimes traumatic memories of it are not. In answer to my last sentence, a part of me—Aliki in the rabbit hole, scolding herself for crying—retorts So what? The whole point of spiritual practice is to find the peace within so you can deal with inevitable suffering and trauma. Then again, maybe spiritual practice, for perfectionist, self-scolding people like me, is about accepting, peacefully, these thoughts, and detaching from them, and even laughing at them.  Yes, I've been conducting this nonsensical underground dialogue with myself for a very long time. In fact, I just heard one of my own poems speak in my head, which is probably not the best thing to admit. These are two stanzas from "What's the Matter?"—a probably too-long poem that appears in my book, Blue Earth (but not in my New & Selected—Why would I select a self-chastising poem? Wouldn't that make me like Alice who "remembered boxing her own ears for having been unkind to herself"?):

He’s got his hands on his hips
and walks toward the child who retreats
out of sight and reappears in the hall
around the corner. I guess he’s been bad.
I know what it’s like to be bad.
Sometimes you can’t help it.
I’m sitting on the fire escape. What good
is a wooden fire escape? These questions

I can’t help asking may have answers
that don’t matter. What’s the matter?
I want to go upstairs or outside
and down the street to another city
or even another house. So what
if there’s so much to do?
I wish I could laugh at myself
but am complaining, which only keeps me here...

Jorge Luis Borges & Willis Barnstone
on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires, 1975
     Well, now my modesty is kicking in, and I wonder: Is quoting my own poem—even if I don't think it's one of my best—shameless (shameful?) self-promotion? I'm reminded of a trip I took with my dad and Jorge Luis Borges to Madison, Wisconsin—must have been around 1980. They were touring the country, doing public interviews, often with several others. On this particular occasion, Alastair Reid asked Borges a question that the sage humbly twisted around in order to mock his interlocutor. Reid quipped, "Borges, sometimes you wield your modesty like a club." As if to enact the observation, Borges stood up with a grin and bowed deeply, and we were lost in another of his cerebral labyrinths: his proud gesture, with its humiliating humility, charmed and repelled us—or at least me. 
     After the lecture, I was given the privilege of being Borges' seeing-eye-girl. I guided him down windy State Street, with piles of lake-effect snow on either side of us. I'd accompanied my father to several Borges events. I'd read Borges' work, in my dad's lovely translations, and in college. I remember the discussion we had when read Borges' Labyrinths for one of several courses I took with Arnold Weinstein, whom I adored. One of the students complained that the work was difficult to relate to. Borges the human being seemed absent, except as a clever mind. I launched into a passionate defense of the man I'd not yet met, pointing to this or that passage. I remember Professor Weinstein listening to us, attentively, with an encouraging little smile on his face. He responded to each of us, showing us both our perceptions opened up the text. More importantly, he gave us permission to connect art to our own lives. In his recent book, A Scream Goes through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life, my professor writes:  

In art we can find and tap into a reservoir of feeling, and this encounter not only breaks open our solitude but also makes audible and visible to us the emotional lines of force that bathe individual life, separate us, yet connect us to one another. Art and literature are the ears we do not have, to hear the sounds of sentience, the emotions of others, and even our own; they are the eyes we do not always have, that can look beneath the surface to see revealed the currents of feeling that lie beneath our words, our actions, and our separate states, and also to delineate the larger community in which emotions inscribe us.

I can't remember what I said, except that Borges's story, "Funes the Memorious," was present in my mind then, as now, as always. Funes was a man who remembered everything:

     With no effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.
     The wary light of dawn entered the earthen patio.

Professor Weinstein sat on a chair and some of us were sprawled on the floor. I can still feel myself cross-legged on the floor, discovering what I hoped to give to my students one day, which might be the courage to guide them inside the enigma, and not to have answers. I wish I'd said—maybe I did—"When 'the wary light of dawn entered the earthen patio' I was shaken. The  image is unforgettable. Literally, I can't forget—even if I can't recall the Spanish or English words—tormented Funes, the genius idiot, lying on his cot, sleepless, when the morning light enters to reveal still more minutia. Dawn enters him like another soul that all his life he will hold within, without connection. I was learning to teach what I love, even if—at times, but only at times—what I love is the tragic recognition of the absence of love. 
      Jorge Luis Borges was holding my arm, talking, and I was saying something in response, trying to remember every word. One day at a moment like this one, his sentences would present themselves and I'd record them. I remember steering the great writer away from the nearly black slick of ice at the curb. I remember he wasn't very tall. I remember feeling non-existent in his presence or absence or whatever it was, and the more I tried to remember our conversation, if you could call it that, the more quickly his words abstracted into the frozen gray sky. 
     Maybe Borges was unhappy and confessed his soul when he wrote this sonnet, one of my favorites:


I have committed the worst sin of all
That a man can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Drag me and mercilessly let me fall.
My parents bred and bore me for a higher
Faith in the human game of nights and days;
For earth, for air, for water, and for fire.
I let them down. I wasn't happy. My ways
Have not fulfilled their youthful hope. I gave
My mind to the symmetric stubborness
Of art, and all its webs of pettiness.
They willed me bravery. I wasn't brave.
It never leaves my side, since I began:
This shadow of having been a brooding man.
tr. Willis Barnstone

T.S. Eliot plaque in our Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, MO,
where I was confirmed, as a member of Calvary Episcopal Church.
      But I digress, which reminds of T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock," and annoys me. "Is it perfume from a dress / that makes me digress."  Why does that prig sing in me so loud, so much? I half-stole his rhyme in these lines from one of my poems: "How about I take off // my dress / in my distress? // or we take a sexy digression /on another question?" I was going to say that I was a good girl to steal and follow Eliot's advice, "Good poets borrow, great poets steal," but—because I google mid-sentence—thanks to Nancy Prager, I just discovered that people have been misquoting Eliot for years. He actually wrote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least different." Yeah, you pretentious snob, at least my lines are different. 
     Eliot's biography pisses me off even more than Borges the man disappointed me. (Arnold Weinstein's enthusiasm and idealism set me up, and now I'm passing down the legacy and setting up my students.) Why did the poet I loved so much as a college student have to be a despicable antisemite? Why was he so awful to his wife? Why is it so funny when my former student Ron Salutsky quips "Eliot is the only major British author from Missouri"?  Oh, Lord have mercy! I'm about to quote myself again—These questions // I can’t help asking may have answers / that don’t matter. What’s the matter? I love (most of) T.S. Eliot's poetry, and he's one of my greatest influences, so what does it matter that I don't like him so much as a person ? Who am I to judge? I never knew him. What does it matter that people I've known, looked up to, and emulated have been absent or selfish or not quite truthful? I don't know, but I can't help asking. 
      What were my New Year's resolutions again? Practice yoga, meditate, pray, sing, and exercise every day. Post on my blog once a week. Be present.

I've been trying to come back to the beginning of this post, so I can go to bed, where my husband is waiting. (I started writing this post on the 8th, re-entered it on the 9th; now that it's almost 1:30 a.m., it's officially the 10th, our wedding anniversary.) I began with New Years' resolutions and spiritual practice and my disappointment that, despite my best intentions, I stay up late and mourn and ruminate. I fail to accept my flaws or those of the people I love and then judge myself for failing to be peaceful, just like Alice boxing her own ears for being unkind to herself. 

     Borges, maybe you were sweeter than I remember. You are with me now and ever, you and Funes. Peace be with you.
     Mr. Eliot, like you I was raised Unitarian and converted to Anglicanism. Unlike you, my father is a Jew. I hope you are eating the spiritual food with the Jews in Heaven, and are seated somewhere near the right hand of the Rabbi Jesus. Peace be with you.
     All you that I now name in the silence of my heart, forgive me for not forgiving deeply enough. Peace be with you

     I'm going upstairs now to say the goodnight rhyme to my daughter, as I have every night of her life, even if she's asleep already. Good night, sleep night—don't the bedbugs bite—see you in the morning light. I love you very much—have sweet dreams. 
     I'm going upstairs now to give my husband a happy anniversary present, my presence.
     I want to make art, and find the peace and presence not to feel remorse that I gave My mind to the symmetric stubborness / Of art, and all its webs of pettiness.
     I resolve to stop writing now and make the circle of life and art whole.