Seen and Unseen

When the saints come marching in.

The Lives of the Saints is a book that captured my childhood imagination, perhaps because it reads like a catalogue of horrific challenges and mystical superpowers. Opening the illustrated version felt somewhat transgressive, like indulging in an arcane comic book. I first found it in the rectory waiting room while I waited for my grandparents, and again in the home of the sisters, where we brought ice cream and visited and sometimes attended midday mass in the chapel. It was the 1980s, and I was ignorant of most of what the adults of my parents’ generation seemed to discuss. What was it? I don’t remember, only that their conversations and general absorptions seemed tied to being in the world in ways that didn’t make much sense to me, and the inscrutability of adult life tended to make me anxious when I considered that one day I would have to become one. 

I was aware that I was a hopeless sinner, guilty of fighting with my sisters and of gluttony around Halloween candy and holiday desserts, and of wondering, during the high point of a Mass, whether my grandparents would be moved to make a stop at the deli on Post Road after church, visions of poppyseed buns dancing in my head when it should have been the mystery of transubstantiation of the body and blood.  It was doubtful I had any of the merits of a saint, and yet their strangeness made more sense to me than what passed for normalcy.

The saints, as I read them, tended toward singular obsessions: Francis with his poverty and love of creatures, Bernadette with her daily visits to the water at Lourdes, Eustachius who became transfixed by a vision of the savior in the antlers of a deer. I was awed by, and felt oddly familiar with, their various intensities, and with how they tended to give themselves over to visions that ran parallel to this world while being apart from what was generally taken to be real. These were my people, I thought, even though, given my accumulation of sin, I knew I had no right. But I didn’t get the impression that any of these saints spent much time worrying about sins. They were too busy with their visions and singular obsessions, so it seemed possible that if we met, they would welcome me into their community of oddball misfits. 

To mark the occasion, I opened my old copy this morning. I made the grave mistake, when I found it used on amazon a few years ago, of neglecting to specify the illustrated version, so my stodgy copy bears little resemblance to the book of wonders I remember. My point, as it often is when I am looking for these Breadcrumbs, was to gather what phrases seemed useful, regarding the celebrations that mark All Saints and All Souls Day. Here’s what I found:

For the martyrs whose names are not recorded, and the children lost in innocence, for those who died in a state of grace known only to them and the angels who carried them home, who remembered and held us in their intercessions, and for all the souls, that they may be loosed. Let us bear in mind the dead, holding them in our earnest intentions. Remember.

Rock News

Late-breaking developments in geologic time.

Today brings a preference for those sorts of conversations where it is understood that “recent news” refers to that which began to develop in the last one to two million years, such as the last ice age or interglacial period, or the rising of granitic mass of upstart mountain ranges.

For example, since the Pacific Plate beneath San Diego is drifting northwest as it grinds against the North American Plate at a rate of about two inches per year, forecasters are predicting that in fourteen million years, the southmost major city of the golden state will be a good deal north of San Francisco. Roads and aqueducts will obviously need some restructuring. It is unclear what current commissioners of infrastructure development and transportation are doing to address the issue.

Worldly-wise love to speak of pressing issues, but on a literal level it seems that the shifting of plates floating over the molten layer of planet should qualify here, except for the fact that one gets accustomed to speaking of it’s composition in familiar cliché’s like the ground beneath my feet

Confidence is one thing, but smug complacency is another. I like the confidence of the child who calmly and steadfastly articulates a vision of the universe in crayon. As in, here is the bottom of a rectangle of white paper. Here is a box of eight colors. This brown horizontal line, the beginning of earth. These vertical hash marks, assorted vegetation. These longer ones, trees, and so on: sky, clouds, people with wheels for feet, legs and arms extending directly from their heads. 

Give me this, or talk of volcanic islands sprouting in the ocean, their collisions into the mainland. Let’s discuss the movement and crystallization of molten earth, the nibbling friction of wind and water and other erosive forces, in concert with pressure and time, the undressing of earth’s layers, exposing batholith and other decadent depictions of time. 

Let us banter about the goings-on among granodiorite, of tonalite trysts; may the gossip of the moment feature gabbro rock and scintillating details about sandstone, shale; a conference of conglomerate, an expose on metavolcanic rocks metamorphosed with the last island collision. That’s the news I need today.

Second Looks

The trick is to learn how to look from a distance while close to the pieces, and to account for the movement of light.

Huh.

What?

There are faces.

I don’t see any. 

Look here. You can’t see them as a collective. Go one at a time. 

All I see is wallpaper.

Step back. There is a face.

I’m not––

It’s in the shadows.

The face is?

The shadows make the features. It only works at a distance.

Like memory?

Exactly.

I read something about mosaics recently, just like that. By someone who was learning the art. How the trick is to learn how to look from a distance while close to the pieces, and to account for the movement of light.

There’s a little winged man in the garden sometimes. 

––The art of broken parts, she said.

In the clouds, a giraffe. The lights in the sky, like a bird in flight.

There’s a green haired man in the rocks.

Madonna in a gourd, toast Jesus, the grilled cheese miracle.

There’s a rabbit on the moon. Or a man.

A man, you think?

Well, a face anyway. Like this. Step back a little more. Right here. Relax your eyes, like a cat.

I ––oh. Wow.

Yes.

It’s there.

Right there.

I almost missed it.

Keep looking.

Notes:

This piece is inspired by an article about artist Lee Wagstaff’s recent work, in which “hidden faces” emerge from canvases of repeating geometric patterns, and also by an article about the human tendency to see patterns.

Margherita Cole’s September 29th article in My Modern Met: “Hypnotic Portrait Paintings are Based on AI Generated Faces.” 

Larry Sessions’s Earthsky article, “Seeing Things That Aren’t There? It’s Called Pareidolia,” (November 2020)

The reference to mosaics is inspired by Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World

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.

How We Once Faced

Imagining behind the veils we saw everywhere.

In early spring, we sat on a south facing

bench above the water and the topic was

veils, what they may keep and then

reveal of promises and mysteries.

They were everywhere, suggesting

kaleidoscopic arrays of faces around us,

spreading themselves wide like arms 

to the histories we’d lost,  

collapsed inside the buds 

of new expressions, blooming, 

and they were in the water, too, 

rippling after fish jumps, after 

the stones we threw like hopeful

singers in the night, at bedroom 

windows, begging them to hear 

and wake before our eyes, to open 

the windows and show themselves again.

Wayfaring Stranger

If survival depended on passing, I could hold my tongue and hold on.

I didn’t hear the phrase The world is not my home until Tom Waits sang it to me, and I was well into my twenties by then. The track was “Come on Up to the House” on Mule Variations and I repeated it endlessly. It felt like having my deepest fears and most urgent longings sung back to me in a dream. Since the age of consciousness, I had approached the prospect of living here like I imagined an alien would do. The word had seared like a branding iron the first time I felt it, but later, I could not say with confidence that it was misapplied.

If survival depended on passing, I could hold my tongue and hold on. So, this is what I did. Most days I was preoccupied with fantasies of release.

Is it time? How about now?

Meanwhile, I followed directions, set alarms, ran miles, earned credits, aimed at pleasing men, but there must have been some innate alien nature shining through. Too bad, I thought then, when I was still hoping to accumulate enough proof of being of this world that I would be absolved, somehow, of the obligation to hang on. I kept at it constantly because it seemed like a very short slide from stagnation to oblivion.

I dreamed of blinding interruptions, of being stopped by someone who knew how to look, who would stop me and say, There. You are already there. And so I would be, Here.

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. 

Family Albums

You think you know someone, and then here is a whole other person.

One possibility, when it comes to telling what is commonly called one’s “own” story, is to take one’s own memory out entirely, and is to limit yourself to the favorite anecdotes of family members. A person can create childhood memories based entirely on the number of times a given story has been told. 

Parents can be especially amusing sources of these tales. The time you had your mother, eight months pregnant with your sister, just up three flights to the third-floor apartment with the laundry, go back to the basement to retrieve your imaginary friend. Another time you were in hysterics because your father sat on that same friend. 

How you cried when the street sweeping truck came by, the horrible beep-beep truck, you called it. And there was that redheaded boy, do you remember? He would push you down, take your shovel, walk away, and you would sit there, not wailing, just quietly sad.

“Bubbling” by Kimli on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

And the gravy! How you loved it with croutons from a box. Your concerns over the new baby, over your mother getting up and down the stairs. Your favorite hiding place behind the couch. How you could speak nonstop or not at all.

Huh, I think, remembering by power of suggestion what it would never have occurred to me to know on my own. You think you know someone, and then here is a whole other person. The fact that there were even specific moments to remember is what really gets me. I recall only a constant susurration of light and color, sound and touch. It lends credence to the idea that a person may have parallel simultaneous lives: the one they remembered, and the one I felt I was living. They have images, even pictures, and there I am, and it must have been me in that bowl haircut with those eyes looking back, holding the garden hose, but all I remember is the colors of light filtering through shallow water, and the way I would fly in my dreams. Palms and fingers in bright paint, and the hollow space among bushes in the back yard. How I would go in and wait there. The sense that I had of finding a secret, tiny room in an endless forever, and it was quiet all around, and safe except for the possibility of snakes and other monsters I had not seen except on TV and in books.

Funny, the pictures they show. This is what is, this is what was. They shaped me then, as they do still, these stills. But the image I had was constant, and I wasn’t in it because there was me watching, squinting sometimes, as I took in was the shifting light and colors on the surface of an ever-moving stream, wondering about the world just beneath it. 

Up, up!

You could feel it, the way no one could help themselves, the way we were laid bare in our reaching wonder.

Here’s an idea: consider something you used to do often. Or be. Trace a line of relevance to the moment. 

Once I was a runner. Once titled, there were days when I would put off beginning, and it would take me until late afternoon just to put on my shoes. Then there were also moments near sunset, and into twilight, when I could not bear to stop. I knew there was a risk of injury; I knew that these would come later, and they did, but in those extra dusk miles: five, ten, fifteen, I would feel the potential forevers in each stride, and all I wanted to do — all I had ever and would ever want to do, it seemed then as much as now — is keep reaching. The difference between running and walking is the liftoff. In a walk, one foot remains always on the ground. But in a run, there is this moment– and it gets shorter and shorter as age advances and pace slows — when neither touches. There was something about that moment, how quick it would come and go, that invited repetition, as if with enough practice, it was possible to leave entirely, and float somewhere just beyond gravity’s reach. 

 “shades of sunset” by July Dominique on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license.

I am no longer a runner, just a lady who runs on days when this is scheduled––jogs, even,  an observer might say. There’s nothing loaded about it, just exercise. But the reaching part, that doesn’t leave. I thought of this as we walked and ran among the streams and streams of other pilgrims, up the long hill, to see the big sky. How we waited for the telescope. Is it time? Is that it? What is that? The faces, bathed in dusk light, everyone looking, pointing.  You could feel it, the way no one could help themselves, the way we were laid bare in our reaching wonder.

We looked and looked. It went on. Gravity holding us where we stood, tethering the moon in its orbit. There was Venus, and was that Mars or a satellite? It was our eyes we looked with, and of course whatever we could find for looking through. But it was something else doing the reaching, as it always was. She was now my height but once she had held her arms up and the fingertips of her widespread hands did not reach past my legs, singing out, “Up! Up!”

Story and Mystery (Part 2)

For me, the point was to reveal what I hoped might be, some dazzling “is” beneath the rush of being that I considered alternately terrifying, mundane, and dizzying.

Occasionally, a writer will be punished for writing fictions of the ingredients of real lives. I know no one who writes without doing this, and yet it remains an area under surveillance. One is at risk, it seems, of being found out. It is not clear for what: fictionalizing “the real” or realizing the fiction. Whatever the case, I may as well report myself ahead of time, as I have no knack for the genre called fantasy, even though constructing elaborate fantasies is something I do as easily and regularly as making meals. 

Which is real? Is bread a dinner food, or breakfast, or a snack? I can answer neither question to any degree of satisfaction. Once, to support a friend going without bread, I gave it up. It was short-lived and made me very sad. Why were we doing this? I could not remember. I suspect the same would happen if I tried to abstain from the imaginative realm where I spend most of my waking hours, which is no more separate from “real life” than bread can be, from any category of meal.

Story comes from shaping moments in language into a form. It’s the easiest thing in the world, said someone I did not fundamentally trust. He seemed often to be deliberately lying, in ways that puzzled me. I could more easily understand an unconscious lie or the ones of omission when the telling of a whole truth would just be so much, but the accumulation of so many deliberate ones for no apparent reason was confusing. But, he most likely had reasons of his own, I just didn’t know them. If he did, I thought he might know better than anyone how fraught storytelling was. But there I go, making assumptions about motives and even about the accessibility of truth. 

For me, the point was to reveal what I hoped might be, some dazzling “is” beneath the rush of being that I considered alternately terrifying, mundane, and dizzying. For him, “story” may have meant something else entirely, as it does to many. Simple entertainment is a valid impulse. I am also reminded of the way that, in certain circles, a child accused of “telling stories” will be punished, because the act is deemed synonymous with lying, and in this way a child “telling stories” is considered a danger, to themselves and to others, because they can obscure whole parts of their being, their doings, and their knowledge, beneath a cloak of invisibility.

Which would you be if you could be anything? – a common playground question, shimmering with the terror and delight of never-ending possibilities. 

––Invisible, or able to fly? What made it a great question was how almost everyone had wanted each of these and both, with urgency at different times. 

But which one? This was one question that I never had to waffle over. The answer was always and easily flight, the soaring, butterfly-stomached, kiting lens, the viscous air like water and me with outstretched arms, floating and turning in it. An escape whenever needed, as in dreams when the “bad guys” gave chase. 

This is the funny part, I think now. Not that I wanted to escape, or to soar, but that I believed that I might get there by working over a tale, into some truth ––not something shaped on a whim, but something revealed, by polishing the stone until the gem shines through ; by peeling back the layers to reveal the fruit––as if what was covered in flesh and alligator skin, in armor and bruises and tearstained, turned-away faces, in layers of sediment and dirt, was actually a hollow-boned, feathered body, mostly heart and wing, made for song, soaring flight, and for carrying the endless metaphors we were always tying them, passing back and forth like food to each other as we were waited in our nests, un-feathered and unwieldy bodies, bound to fall quickly as soon as we leaped, and unable to avoid the need to do so, knowing that we had at least one thing, however small, over the birds, and this was a capacity for turning even an act of falling into a story of flight.