Gutter Prayer

You held what was before you in your hands, giving of your heart until it was done.

Let’s touch them, you said. Of the disposable––the lonely, too.

Never eat a single mouthful, your mother told you, unless you share it.

When asked for beliefs, you disappointed. Only here, only this.

It’s not that you hadn’t sought more. It’s not that you hadn’t gazed into the heavens with an aching heart, waiting for some response. Finding nothing only made the ache worse, so you turned what you had of longing to those who mirrored it, to offer the comfort you would seek.

I remember the time. It was a year of massacre, mass suicide, mass extinction. The machine won the chess game. I was finding Joan Didion, the epigraph from Yeats framing her chronicle of the end of an era of wild hope. For? The promise of a new age, Turning and turning, some human achievement promised, but the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

It wasn’t going to work, was it? Meaning, any of the ideas.

You were done with ideas, too. Only love, you offered. Only this.

Unbreak my heart, we sang, our fragile candles in the wind. We were building a mystery, but it seemed to be swallowing us whole, like Jonah’s whale, the secret gardens of our imagined inheritance forever a million miles away.

No, you insisted. Only here. You held what was before you in your hands, giving of your heart until it was done.

And wasn’t this the ultimate hope, some finite relief to our dreams of immortality? That there was something we could do, really do––not dream, not imagine, not vision our way into or out of–– with all its messy, mundane details, its fluid and its stink, its inevitable decay, and the inevitable rejuvenation of this endless, wanting need? We could meet it just as endlessly until we couldn’t anymore, until we could be relieved of the pressure of our promise, swallowed back into the great void you saw everywhere, especially when you sought an answer or a cosmic face toward which to offer your prayers. Only here, you said. Only these outstretched hands. 

We could meet them, again and again. This you can do, you showed us. This you can do until you are done.

This morning, I am reminded that on this day, in 1997, Mother Teresa died, so I am considering the legacy of her life.

Bury My Ash and Plant a Tree

What if we gave it up, this whole habit of protecting these temporary husks?

I have an idea.

About what?

How to die.

Please. I’m trying to just––

No, it’s about that too, hear me out. Let’s not put these bodies in boxes when we’re done with them.

Ah, the boxes. What size, what wood, what level of cushioning? Where to put the box, and what shoes?

Let’s give it up, that whole thing.

You mean––?

The whole habit of protection, when it comes to these temporary husks.

From?

The inevitable ends we want to rage against. The humiliation of decay.

Not to mention of a bare face, unpainted.

Exactly. What were we doing with all of that, anyway?

What were we hoping to keep?

Look at the fate of cut flowers, gathered with the same impulse. I mean––

Any vase, however flimsy, will outlast its contents, destined in most cases to wind up broken.

Or on a Goodwill shelf with a sticker.

Let’s try something else. What if we burned as we lived, saving none?

Fuel for the living. What if––

we used the container we keep––

––for growing, instead?

With all the dirt, filth, worms––

Husks of fruit––

Let the falling seeds have at it.

If I’m going anyway, let me spend what I have on the living.

Here it is, take it. This hand.

Not to chain, but to comfort.

Yes, and this face. Not to photograph,

To hold a gaze. These eyes, even.

Don’t cover them with coins. 

Eat this vision, I am giving it up.

Don’t strike me down.

Don’t box and bury me. 

Let the fire eat my excess.

Let me prefer this and the way it reduces

––my body from its confines, to magnify

––Its purpose?

Infinitely. Then put me at the base of a tree.

Let me be dust. I am going now. Hold none of me.

In the spring, I will bloom for you, reminding you back.

To what?

To an original question: what is beauty without death?

To make it something we ache to be, hold; being held inside it, holding.

Wait. It comes for you also, but also coming is this impossible bloom. 

A thousand bursts. Like cotton balls when you squint, in baby-blanket pink.

Rest against this trunk.

Of my shade. There will be nothing to hold

but there you will be, cool inside it.

Cool from burning?

Yes, you will be cooling from the burning

there, in the shade of my ash, for a little while.

And you will welcome me there?

Yes.

For how long?

How long will you stay? Don’t answer.

Why not?

Because when the time comes, you will burn it all up again. 

But––

Still, I will be at the end of the burn and the beginning of this tree––this cooling shade, waiting.

Wait.

This post is inspired by an article I read this morning in My Modern Met (one of my go-to haunts for inspiration), about new environmentally friendly developments in burial rituals: vertical gravesites, human compost, and the option of burying ashes at the base of a new-planted tree.

Cohesion

There are techniques you can use to wrestle free from an alligator, evade a charging reindeer, an angry gorilla, a runaway camel, and killer bees.

You can survive a shark attack by hitting back, a giant octopus by pulling away. Do not go limp. Try somersaults and aim for the surface. If lobsters escape in the kitchen, it’s okay. You can retrieve them. Use a pot lid to herd and wear oven mitts. Grab from behind. 

There are methods, you know, for discouraging an attack by mountain lion Hold your ground. Do not run. Do not crouch or turn.  If wearing a jacket, open it out to appear larger than you are. 

There are techniques you can use to wrestle free from an alligator, evade a charging reindeer, an angry gorilla, a runaway camel, and killer bees. If there are piranhas in the river, you can cross at night.

You can avoid sinking in quicksand if you carry a stout pole. You can smother a grease fire with baking soda.

You can land a hang glider in a wind shear, survive a riptide, drive in a blizzard, find water on a desert island. 

Name another disaster. I bet there’s a way. But what do you do when it doesn’t come? How do you survive the space between calamities? What do you do with the sudden shattering behind the next breath when the laughing child before you, so suffused in the laughter of the moment, claps his hands to announce, “Again!”

*Ideas for this list were culled from The Complete Worst-Case Survival Handbook, by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. Chronicle Books, 1999.

In Loving Attention

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day.

It’s easy and expected to underestimate the value of giving our full attention generously and with love. So many forces in the world can work to divide us from ourselves and each other. Plenty profit from engineering more advanced ways to do just that. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into a habit of looking where we are expected to look. Fortunately, it’s not actually that hard to do the opposite, and look with intention. Most of us just need regular reminders, that this is one of the most valuable acts we can do. 

Considering this at the start of a very full week, I am remembering how moved I was when I discovered the work of artist Marina Abramović through a video about her 2010 MoMA exhibition, The Artist is Present. Here’s a description of this installation:

“The work was inspired by her belief that stretching the length of a performance beyond expectations serves to alter our perception of time and foster a deeper engagement in the experience. Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”

Rebecca Taylor at smart history.org describing Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present.”

Abramović speaks about her work with trust, vulnerability, and connection in her 2010 TED talk:

Poet John Clare has written, “Poets love nature and themselves are love.” These lines can be powerful reminder for an artist in any medium. These words remind me back to back to deliberate absorption, which is very different than being absorbed into the pull of endless tasks and distractions. 

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day. The work of a generous artist, offering presence and attention, never fails to remind me back to this. As Greg Boyle, one of my favorite artists of the heart has observed, “We are here to return ourselves to one another.”

So today, my focus is on returning. Not once, but over and over again. The beauty of intentional attention is that its rewards are immediately apparent. We have only to try giving it, to be reminded back to why it matters. We have only to offer ourselves fully, to be returned.

The Spectacle and the Living

In the day of the spectacle, paying deep attention is a radical act.

On this day in 1936, the Olympic Games opened in Berlin. Adolf Hitler presided over the opening ceremonies. He had gone to great pains to outdo the Los Angeles stadium of 1932, building a track and field stadium to seat 100,000 spectators, among other impressive arenas. It was the first televised Olympics, the first torch relay, and the Nazi Chancellor saw the games as a tremendous opportunity to promote his nationalist agenda.

He didn’t speak of killing or deathcamps. He just made sure that Jewish athletes were barred or otherwise prevented from competing. He tied the image of the noble and beautiful athlete to state power and his voice to high-minded ideals invoking language of unity, proclaiming, “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.”  It’s fair to assume that if he couldn’t stir millions with invocations like this, he wouldn’t have been in a position to orchestrate the terrors that followed. With this in mind, it’s worth considering and reconsidering what moves us, in order to notice who and what gets erased when the primary motivating impulse is grandiosity.

After the games, the Olympic Village was repurposed for use by Nazi armed forces, as a camp, an infantry training school, and a hospital. Because of World War II, there would not be another Olympics for twelve years.

Also on this day, in 1981, MTV began broadcasting. The first video to be aired was “Video Killed the Radio Star” from The Buggles, featuring these famous lines:

In my mind and in my car

We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

Pictures came and broke your heart

Put the blame on VCR.

The line of connection is the power of the image. It calls to mind Marshall McLuhan’s reminder that “The medium is the message,” and it’s worth noting the relevance, considering the diverse anxieties of living in an age where the speed and proliferation of messages is so omnipresent. Many a would-be dictator has benefited from the reality of censorship through noise. From the standpoint of anyone doing creative work: of art, education, growth, a movement–– sheer noise is one of the chief weapons of the anti-life force of the machine that works to prevent this growth. Soul and species survival, in this era, necessitates certain questions: what invisible truths are living behind what is projected in this moment? Who and what is not featured? Who and what is erased? 

Erasure is diffuse and happens most effectively when it can go undetected. Any ecosystem that supports the systematic erasure of certain life forms above others is by nature unstable in ways that threaten the entire ecosystem. Where certain lives are systematically erased, all lives live under constant surveillance and threat of erasure. It’s one thing to talk about fighting for life, about defending the threatened, but the problem with this rhetoric is that both invoke the same tired images of victory and conquest that support the erasure at hand. We can’t defend what we’re not noticing. To look well and deeply is an act of courage and humility. So is listening. 

Also on this day, Carlton Douglas Ridenhour was born in Queens, NY. He would later adopt the stage name Chuck D., form the group Public Enemy in 1985, and rise to international fame while delivering a call to social consciousness and resistance against the forces of state-sanctioned violence and racialized social control. In the summer of 1989, the group released “Fight the Power” with this timely message:

You say what is this?

My beloved let’s get down to business

Mental self-defensive fitness

Don’t rush the show

You gotta go for what you know

Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be

Lemme hear you say

Fight the power

In an age of senseless invisible killing on a global scale, with the stakes as high as they have ever been, the act of paying attention becomes a radical act. It’s tempting and gratifying to the ego to invoke the same tired images of the fight, the raised torch, the path to victory.  But the spectacle is not in service of life. The spectacle, as employed today, is generally in service of another agenda. Spectacle in and of itself is not necessarily the problem, but it’s not the solution, either. You could argue that the lyrics above, powerful as they are, are part and parcel with spectacle.  

A spectacle designed to move people to resist corrupt power systems, in a world of spectacle, is important and necessary, but the real work is deeper. Children, for example, who need lots of care, will celebrate the wild, crazy uncle that comes to visit every so often, who raises them high in the air, gives piggy-back rides, speaks in funny voices, and feeds them candy before leaving. The kids are reaffirmed with a sense of magic and possibility, but they’d likely be in danger if they were left solely in his care. The care is the slow, unglamourous, painstaking work of the sleep-deprived parent, day in and day out, one ordinary moment at a time. 

What to do with these torches, these stirrings to victory, the way they are all wrapped up in our idea of transcendence? A good symbol is better repurposed than neglected. One suggestion may be, to bring the torch lower–– maybe to the level of the campfire.  To create a space for the opposite of spectacle, where the quiet magic lives, so real we can almost miss it. A place of listening and sharing, under the common sky, unified by a sense of being small beneath it. And against all the spectacles of false strength, to recognize a common fragility, and a call to protect what needs protecting, not with the posture of a blowhard pretend strongman, but through the patient, slow-moving, and restorative acts of the nurturer.

What We Miss When We’re Not Looking

We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  

This is a story about loss and healing, adapted from a story I read in the Salem News earlier this week.

God forbid, Mary would think, at the slightest thought of cat against car. She would take off her own shirt, wrap the body, clutch it to her chest. Use her own mouth as needed. A soft toothbrush would be better, to mimic the mother’s tongue. She would rock and hold and hum, use a dropper to feed if she had to, until well.

But when Max disappeared, there was no body, only an open screen, as if to say, here is the trace of love leaving, and it reminded her back to similar spaces, too many to count. The cool side of the bed, the left-behind toys, the unnecessary landline that only solicitors called, which she kept active anyway, just in case.

Max, she called. Max! He did not come. She called every shelter, even a pet psychic. She walked the neighborhood. She drove the surrounding neighborhoods.  She looked differently at every bush, every alley and drainpipe, gulley and ditch.

Phonecall, phonecall, phonecall. Hour, hour, day. Weeks, then months. Then it was years. An ache like that will swallow a person whole unless they find something else to do with it.

She found some others with similar aches, needing someplace to put them. They went about finding the lost kittens. They brushed them with toothbrushes, wrapped them in clean towels, bottle fed them until they could eat. They paired them with the mother cats who had lost their babies. They took in dogs, too. A few birds. They took in so many that they needed a bigger space. They became an organization, a shelter, an adoption center, a rescue for animals and each other. 

Max, by the way, came back. This was six years later. He had fleas in his ear but was otherwise fine. 

I can’t help but wonder how much good would never have happened if Max hadn’t decided to go and stay missing when he did. About all the littles that would have died in the elements, undiscovered, if no one was looking with such an ache. Or about all the lonely people wandering without any place to put their dangerous aches, becoming dangers to themselves and others. All that needed saving, left untended. All the answers to other questions, left undiscovered without the first one, Where is Max?

The pleas of others that might have been missed, except that someone was listening in earnest, for answers to their own.  I’m reminded how often I’ve been moved by loss and heartbreak, into places I would otherwise never have found.  I suspect that much of the visible light in others is a function of what escapes through the breaks.

If Max had not returned, this would still be a redemption story, but I wouldn’t know it. Not because there wasn’t a shelter created after he left, but because the creation of the shelter was something long and slow, and not the sort of event that lends itself to a story in the news. A disaster works for a story, if not its aftermath. Same with a sudden victory. The essentials are there – who, what, where, and when, at least, if not why. 

Growth in numbers is a news story. But numbers are abstractions, not living things. When it comes to the healing and growth of living things and human creations, sometimes there is only a why, to begin with. Who, what, where, when – these emerge over time, and they tend to be diffuse, influenced by many people, doing many things, in numerous places and ways, over and across time, slowly, in ways that are neither sudden nor singular nor dramatic. In fact, if you show up looking for something on which to report, in any given growth area, what you find may look like nothing at all.  Loving patience is a practice, and as such it is almost never a happening. Loving patience is what allows the living to grow and heal. We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  The question is ever, What’s Happening?  and the answers we tend to find in response tend to be the ones that have us perpetually missing the greater possibilities in a given moment. 

Real growth and real change is slow work, and often looks like nothing to report. Unless you look hard and long, the way only someone with a full or aching heart will do, unable to stop.

The story that inspired this post can be found here. I’ve taken liberties with names, backgrounds, and imaginative elements, as appropriate for my wondering purposes. 

For the Love of A Child

This is for the way that she did not know any better then, but to say to another who had made her laugh over graham crackers and apple juice, I love you.

I’d like to celebrate the child today. Whose first impulse, when making a first card for a classmate, upon receiving a first-ever invitation to a school-friend birthday party, was to pull out all the best markers, draw the best hearts and rainbows she could think of, and write “I LOVE YOU” in her best capital letters. This for Joseph G., in kindergarten, and the party was at the McDonald’s in Yonkers, the big one with the yellow slide and the Hamburglar tower with the shiny metal ladder up the middle.

This is for the way that she did not know any better then, but to say to another who had made her laugh over graham crackers and apple juice, I love you.

And for the stoic acceptance with which she nodded silently when informed gently that such expressions, outside of family, would not do. She did as instructed, keeping “I LOVE” and adding an “R” to “YOU” and “PARTY” to the end of the sentence, making it a very strange sentence for someone to write prior to attending the party. I love your party, it said now. That’s better, she heard.

She quietly understood how it was apparently better to seem as though you were confused about delineations between past, present, and future, than prone to flourishing expressions of love. She quietly understood, in that brief edit, how much of herself would have to be muted or cause for shame. Who didn’t even know the half of it, then. Who went to the party and smiled through what could not be expressed, and somehow survived to adulthood.

This is for her, and those like her, shamed out of their best impulses at an early age: to love, to make for others lovingly, and to give these loving gifts away. To share generously from a place of abundance, not fear; play, not decorum; love, not positioning. I want to call her back. I want to relearn what she knew before she knew what was expected.