Season books and eponymous poem

Good grief, I almost forgot to re-post the eponymous poem!

I received a volume of Rowan Williams poetry for Christmas, and have been distracted by that.  His “Flight Path” in that volume reminds me of some of the haunting ‘walking dead’ scenes from the Justin Kurzel film of Macbeth that we saw on Boxing Day.

Other Christmas books included Dave Walker’s newest collection, Heroes of the Coffee Rota (which is fabulous), Terry Eagleton’s Hope Without Optimism, James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are, and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes.  In recent reads, I highly recommend Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy to those among us who preserve a sense of humor about anxiety disorders and don’t mind a certain amount of foul language.   A new-to-me poet is Jane Kenyon, whom I discovered via a The Religious Imagineer post. Re-posting here “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years…

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper…

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me…

I am food on the prisoner’s plate…

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills…

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge…

I am the heart, contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest…

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow…

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit…

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…

— Jane Kenyon, “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”

The Retrieval System

Maxine Kumin and I go way back.  She came to talk to my English class when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, probably almost 40 years ago now.  Mostly I remember that there was something vaguely subversive about her and that my English teacher was excited and proud and nervous.

I liked whatever it was the poet-lady read to us, and I remembered her visit.  Years later as an undergraduate in Cambridge, Massachusetts I frequented Groliers, the poetry book store.  When I tried out (unsuccessfully) for The Advocate, the literary magazine whose alumni included TS Eliot and e e cummings, it was a book of Maxine Kumin’s poetry that I reviewed for them: her then recently-published The Retrieval System.

At the time, I thought I understood it.  Perhaps I liked it, sensed its authenticity perhaps, but no, I really didn’t get it.  Not the way I do now.

The Retrieval System came out when Maxine Kumin (who died earlier this year at the age of 88) was about 50.  She was reflecting on the suicide of a close friend, the growing-away of her young adult children, the memories of her deceased parents, the changes in her body, and what it was like to still be married.  Now I get it.  For her, animals were the retrieval system that recalled for her the people who had left her life:

“For example,
the wethered goat who runs free in pasture and stable
with his flecked, agate eyes and his minus-sign pupils
blats in the tiny voice of my former piano teacher…“

In honor of all those whose young adult children are coming home for the holidays and whose deceased parents are not, I offer these two gems from this collection.

Changing the Children
Anger does this.
Wishing the furious wish
turns the son into a crow
the daughter, a porcupine.

Soon enough, no matter how
we want them to be happy
our little loved ones, no
matter how we prod them
into our sun that it may
shine on them, they whine
to stand in the dry-goods store.
Fury slams in.
The willful fury befalls.

Now the varnish-black son in a tree
crow the berater, denounces the race
of fathers and the golden daughter
all arched bristle and quill
leaves scribbles on the tree bark
writing how The Nameless One
accosted her in the dark.

How put an end to this cruel spell?
Drop the son from the tree with a rifle.
Introduce maggots under his feathers
to eat down to the pure bone of boy.

In spring when the porcupine comes
all stealth and waddle to feed on the willows
stun her with one blow of the sledge
and the entrapped girl will fly out
crying Daddy! or Danny!
or is it Darling?
and we will live all in bliss
for a year and a day until
the legitimate rage of parents
speeds the lad off this time
in the uniform of a toad
who spews a contagion of warts
while the girl contracts to a spider
forced to spin from her midseam
the saliva of false repentance.

Eventually we get them back.
Now they are grown up.
They are much like ourselves.
They wake mornings beyond cure,
not a virgin among them.
We are civil to one another.
We stand in the kitchen
sIicing bread, drying spoons,
and tuning in to the weather.

My Father’s Neckties

Last night my color-blind chain-smoking father
who has been dead for fourteen years
stepped up out of a basement tie shop
downtown and did not recognize me.
The number he was wearing was as terrible
as any from my girlhood, a time of
ugly ties and acrimony; six or seven
blue lightning bolts outlined in yellow.
Although this was my home town it was tacky
and unfamiliar, it was Rabat or Gibraltar
Daddy smoking his habitual
square-in-the-mouth cigarette and coughing
ashes down the lightning jags. He was
my age exactly, it was wordless, a window
opening on an interior we both knew
where we had loved each other, keeping it quiet.
Why do I wait years and years to dream this outcome?
My brothers, in whose dreams he must as surely
turn up wearing rep ties or polka dots clumsily
knotted, do not speak of their encounters.
When we die, all four of us, in
whatever sequence, the designs
will fall off like face masks
and the rayon ravel from this hazy version
of a man who wore hard colors recklessly
and hid out in the foreign
bargain basements of his feelings.

Better Really Late than Never?

I planted a vegetable garden today.  Late August is not a traditional garden-planting time in Hardiness Zone 7. I recognize that.  But yesterday when I went to the local five and dime (yes, we still have one) to get a new nightlight for the bathroom, they had Brussels Sprout sets out, and I bit.

For the last several years I have relied on the all-volunteer vegetable garden.  Tomatoes in particular have been quite prolific, popping up in some odd places, but producing good quantities of fruit late in the summer.  Squashes of various sorts, too.  This year we had cilantro and tomatoes early on, but they didn’t make it.  The weeds grew up and choked them.  Now there’s something that may turn into a pumpkin inching out into the lawn in back.  Whatever it is, it’s about the size of a softball, and growing every day.

When I got back home with my nightlight and the three Brussels Sprout seedlings, I wasn’t sure what I would do with them.  There are no prepared vegetable beds in my yard.  Our very small yard is shared out among grass, liriope, azaleas, and weeds.  In the end, that one impulse purchase, something less than $3, had me raking and forking and digging and pulling and turning and hunting for the mosquito repellent and the garden hose nozzle for quite a while this afternoon.  I was sweaty and uncomfortable, but now I feel greatly and delightfully restored.

The book of Genesis sends some decidedly mixed messages about gardening.  On the one hand, gardening seems to be humanity’s primary vocation.

  Gen. 2:15  The LORD God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.

On the other hand, the punishment for disobedience to God is, pretty much, more gardening.  It’s actually the garden soil, not Adam who is cursed, but still,

Gen. 3:17 cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you will eat from it
every day of your life.
Gen. 3:18 Weeds and thistles will grow for you,
even as you eat the field’s plants;
Gen. 3:19 by the sweat of your face
you will eat bread—
until you return to the fertile land,
since from it you were taken;
you are soil,
to the soil you will return.”

Gen. 3:23 So GOD expelled them from the Garden of Eden and sent them to work the ground, the same dirt out of which they’d been made.

Later on when the prototypical gardener, Cain, comes up against the prototypical herder, Abel, it’s the gardener who loses out and the garden soil that once again bears the brunt of the punishment.  God tells Abel,

Gen. 4:12  “When you farm the fertile land, it will no longer grow anything for you, and you will become a roving nomad on the earth.”

Most of the work I put in this afternoon was an effort to make good soil.  Jesus had a thing or two to say about the importance of good soil.  Maybe that’s why it’s so satisfying to work in the garden.

Now, I wonder how lucky I’m going to be with these Brussels Sprouts?  I’ve given them the best soil I can.


My favorite person at my sending parish died last week, and her funeral was today.  The daughter, sister, and mother of Episcopal priests, she was my most ardent supporter in my sometimes slow and halting progress towards postulancy and (D.v.) ordination.  I sat with her every week in church, and we spent hours and hours talking in the sacristy as we cleaned up after the last service of the day on ‘our’ Altar Guild Sundays.

Those talks, and the ones we had at her house with her beloved chihuahua, Noel Coward, sitting between us, never failed to cheer me over the last several years.  We laughed together about the “Old White Women for Obama” tee-shirts that she and another octogenarian friend had made; we rejoiced together about the adventures of our children and (her) grandchildren; we marveled together at the wonders of the communion of saints and all those whom we loved, past and present, near and far.

The week before she died, I was away on retreat at a monastery.  Something suddenly compelled me to go to the monastery’s gift shop and get a postcard to send to her.  Although I got it in the mail the next day, it arrived too late.  Nonetheless, I recognized the ‘communion’ of saints was indeed communing in my desire to write to her at that moment.

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to ask her some ‘serious’ questions as part of a class I was taking on ‘Aging in America.’  We talked about disappointments and set-backs, but she felt so blessed in her life that we couldn’t dwell long on those topics.  The little triplets next door and their charming German au pair, funny stories from her life as an Army wife, and even the spiritual blessings surrounding her husband’s early death from a brain tumor kept surfacing in our conversation. She told me then that her intent was to live long enough to vote for the first woman president.  I certainly wish she had!

Her funeral today was packed with friends and well-wishers.  Her grand-children served at the altar and as pall-bearers.  Her dearest friend preached, and her children were mobbed with expressions of love and support.  Having participated in greeting the body and praying for her before the service, I was given the honor of dismissing the congregation at the conclusion of the service.  It was a beautiful but heart-wrenching way to conclude my last service at my sending parish as I set forth to do the work she encouraged me to do on the path to postulated ordination.

God rest her soul.  May she rest in peace and rise in glory.


Complex flavors

It’s been a couple years now since I resolved to start keeping some of my journal on-line as a blog, and I really haven’t done too well with that, but like cooking, gardening, and keeping house, writing has wormed its way back into my daily routines this summer as I have unwound a little bit.  One of the things I have started to notice as I unwind is a desire for more complex flavors in my food.  When I’m really on a roll during the school year, I (mostly) cheerfully consider a Clif bar or a Snickers and a diet Coke to be a meal.   Then in the summer I typically don’t much feel like heating up the kitchen up by really cooking.  Last night the hankering for complexity won out.

The result: a dahl with radish and a Bengali-inspired curry of eggplant and greens over short-grain brown rice followed by a modification of Cardinal Peaches.  It really hit the spot.  Easy and simple are good, but I was no longer in the mood for salads, grilled meat and vegetable, and other minimally-prepared stuff.  I was seeking food that takes more time, trouble, and ingredients.  Last night’s meal wasn’t a huge, trash-the-kitchen affair, but it took on-and-off effort much of the day, and was worth the effort.

The day before I had made custard the “look, Ma, no hands” way (without cornstarch) from my grandmother’s 1920 Fannie Farmer cookbook.  I had let it go just a couple of seconds too long so it was ever so slightly grainy and not quite firmly-enough set.  Nevertheless, I had persevered and made Peach Pudding with it, substituting almond macaroons for cake and using almond flavoring instead of vanilla.  For last night’s dessert, I made Cardinal Peaches just as Delia Smith says to, but then pureed a left-over serving of the peach pudding, complete with peaches, macaroons, and custard to use as pouring custard over the peaches.  That was really good.

Because I’m not allowed spicy foods at the moment, I had to tinker a bit with the Baigan Sak recipe.  In the end all I did to reduce the heat was to use orange bell pepper in place of the chile peppers.  Instead of a package of frozen spinach, I tossed in a big box of baby cooking greens, which gave the whole thing more variety.  It was attractive, and still complex and tasty.  Even with a reduced heat-quotient, the dahl was a excellent complement.

If only I could keep this momentum up during the school year…


Christmas family research

A  mother of four living apparently living apart from her husband and working as a dressmaker in Muirhead, Minnesota, a young couple in a coal-miners’ neighborhood in King County, Washington with a female Swedish lodger, an older couple in the same county with eleven surviving children, a stenographer and his wife in Leavenworth, Kansas, a farmer and his consumptive wife traveling through Indian territory to the south of Kansas and missing their young sons, newlyweds from Scotland living in Minneapolis, a young couple from Ohio with a small daughter, and a wealthy couple in Virginia with their only living child, a 7-year-old boy.  What do these folks have in common?  They are all my children’s great-great grandparents (alternatively, they are the parents of my and my husband’s grandparents), as they found themselves in the year 1900.

For the last few years, Christmas has been a time at which I spend some time doing genealogical research.  I’m not sure exactly what the fascination is. I have relatively few living relatives: a father, two first cousins, one second cousin, and two children.  There’s something about the stories of these distant ancestors, though, that draws me in.

Accordingly, I have added a page to this site entitled, ‘Family History,’ where I have linked to a searchable report that Reunion genealogy software generates.

Advent 2013

Elsewhere on this site I have a mirror of my parish’s Advent Resources page.

Here I am offering a link to my seminary class’s blog of meditations on the Daily Office readings for the season.


Living in Our New Village

It can be great fun to discover connections among the different little sections of one’s life.  For several weeks I have been acting as an editorial “mid-wife” as a friend writes a paper that he will present at a scholarly conference in Serbia this week.   The conference is put on by the Ecclesiological Investigations Network and the paper discusses the work of a number of contemporary philosophers and social critics.

I now know infinitely more than I did before about the works of Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt, Antoni Negri, Jacob Taubes, and others.  It’s heady stuff.  Agamben in particular is hard to read.  But the ideas are fascinating and many of the issues swirl around the relationship between the individual and society and what happens when individuals associate with one another–to what extent are their individual characteristics erased or subsumed in a crowd? What authority does the crowd have?  How is it constituted?

The paper itself deals mostly with how a number of atheistic thinkers have made use of theological texts and examples, particularly those of St. Paul and St. Francis, to help them construct their political critiques.  The communities envisioned by both Paul and Francis have characteristics that appeal to radical and Marxist thinkers today, and those thinkers’ ideas, in turn, have relevance for ecclesiologists as they imagine the sort of community to which we are called in Christ.

Anyhow, the paper is pretty well “birthed” now, and it and its author are on their way to Belgrade.  So this morning I turned to another project, that of re-upping my certification as an IRB member.  I need to review and be re-tested on issues of confidentiality, privacy, regulations, and ethics in medical research involving human subjects.

The re-certification material is mostly pretty dry stuff, paragraphs of bureaucratese tested with little multiple-choice quizzes.  But the section on genetic research in human populations caught my attention.  The last few weeks spent with Agamben’s concerns about how the state inappropriately asserts authority over issues of “bare life” suddenly gave life and color to the issue of valid consent for tissue-banking.

Before now I had more or less despaired of the idea of valid consent in these issues and had felt that the concerns raised so stridently by privacy advocates were quaint and probably correct, but basically unaddressable.  They were not quite in the same category as lining your hat with tin foil so that Big Brother couldn’t direct your thoughts, but close.

I do not think that we will hold back the tide of information about individuals that is now available through genomics.  There are similar issues surrounding surveillance and image profiling techniques. Even if we could “unlearn” what we have learned, I believe the potential therapeutic and public safety “benefits” of these technologies will be judged by society to out-weigh the privacy and confidentiality concerns.

I find a useful corrective to some these concerns in a consideration of the correlations between our situation today and that pertaining in the small village communities of an admittedly fictionalized pre-industrial past.  A lot of our genetic information is already out there in the social field.  Some of it we wear on our sleeves, as it were–our skin color, obesity, eyesight, etc.  In those communities other people would have known a fair bit about our family history, too.  They would have known that we came from a family of drunks, or of people who tended to “go crazy,” or to die young, or whatever.  Of course, one difference from our situation today is that you could theoretically escape from the fictionalized village–you could run away to become anonymous or to reinvent yourself.  But the idea of real anonymity seems to me to be an invention of a brief moment in time, confined to and dependent upon the modern urban environment.

We are each of us more unavoidably social constucts than we have been at any time since the days of that village, and “our village” is now global in scope.  The broad and ultimately unsecureable availability of all this information about our genetic and physical characteristics means that we need to imagine a new relationship to the concepts of privacy and individuality.

Here the ideas I was exposed to over the last few weeks illuminate my thoughts.   Perhaps these concerns would be less daunting, less oppressive, if viewed from a perspective where life is something to be shared, not owned or hoarded.    If it turned out we could live as though it was not a zero-sum game, with my use of life and resources meaning an unavoidable depletion of your life and resources.  Here are two contemporary atheistic commentators writing on this very subject.  Are they perhaps describing the very community that the body of Christ is meant to be?

[The] most precious legacy of Franciscanism, to which the West must return ever anew to contend with it as its undeferrable task [is] how to think a form-of-life, a human life entirely removed from the grasp of the law and a use of bodies and of the world that would never be substantiated into an appropriation. That is to say again: to think life as that which is never given as property but only as a common use.

Such a task will demand the elaboration of a theory of use—of which Western philosophy lacks even the most elementary principles—and, moving forward from that a critique of the operative and governmental ontology that continues, under various disguises, to determine the destiny of the human species.

–Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty

There is an ancient legend that might serve to illuminate the future life of communist militancy: that of Saint Francis of Assisi, Consider his work. To denounce the poverty of the multitude he adopted that common condition and discovered there the ontological power of a new society. The communist militant does the same, identifying in the common condition of the multitude its enormous wealth. Francis in opposition to nascent capitalism refused every instrumental discipline, and in opposition to the mortification of the flesh (in poverty and in the constituted order) he posed a joyous life, including all of being and nature, the animals, sister moon, brother sun, the birds of the field, the poor and exploited humans, together against the will of power an corruption.  Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in Francis’s situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being.

–Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire.




Psalm 16:6


My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

One of my original thoughts for the use of this space was to collect scraps of thought, epiphanies, and meditations coming out of lectio divina.  I haven’t really gotten off the ground with that idea, although I have those sorts of things scattered about in notebooks.  (Hence the idea of collecting them where I might be able to find them…)

This morning, however, my attention snagged on the Psalm in Morning Prayer.  First there is a clear image–that ‘pleasant land’ is for me a pasture, sunlit and viewed from across a dip and just below it.  The fence is visible along the left side, and hills in the distance beyond.  Something yellow is blooming in it, but low and just in a few spots.  That fence must be the enclosing  ‘boundaries’ of the Psalm.

The ‘goodly heritage’ feels like the communion of saints, or the cloud of witnesses.  Reassuring and benign, like all my grandparents’ grandparents who have lovingly left me this pleasant land as a gift and are watching with anticipation to see how I will use it.   I feel very much like the recipient of this pleasant land.  I don’t feel anything about being its steward, about preparing it to give to my children’s children.  I’m the child, right now.

Of course, in actual historical fact, my grandparents and their grandparents weren’t all exactly reassuring and benign, but this mental image must be about ancestors in the faith.  And it’s within the faith that I am most likely to claim an identity as a child.  It’s also the case that I am soon to be given (D.v.) a pleasant land, a piece of good, workable land, and sent out to make use of it as a new priest.

I almost put ‘cultivate’ there in that last sentence, but my image is one of a pasture, not arable land.  What difference could that signify, I wonder? My image doesn’t have a herd or a flock in it.  I am to be pastor, not a plower.  Pastors aren’t about the land, that which is enclosed by fences, the boundaries.  (Although Jesus says he is the gate.)  Is there something there about minding my own business (the flock) and leaving the earth, the sun, the rain, and the flowers to God to nurture?  That part is a gift; the part I earn or labor for is the flock?

I’ve wandered a long way now.


Eponymous poem….

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.  There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.  Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.  But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays.  The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this.  To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened.  Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering.  So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine.  In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance.  The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

–W.H. Auden, Christmas Oratorio