In like a Lion

Well dear interwebs, so ends my first week back in the saddle. Not with a bang, but a whimper unfortunately. It’s Friday, and all over the world people are turning to the interweb for a distraction to get them through the last 8 hours of the work week, and what do I have to offer them?

Squat.

Well, Friday is always a good day to tell a day dreamy story and to pretend to be all writerly and stuff. So pull up a chair and pour yourself a cup of coffee and I’ll dig something out from the archives. Got to be something in one of these old boxes…

“There once was a man from Nantucket…” Oops! Not that one. This is a PG13 rated blog.

Ahh! Here we go. A few weeks late for the occasion, but looking out the window at the ashen clouds today, it seems appropriate. But first a poem to get us in the mood. Stop me in you think that you’ve heard this one before.

Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium – by James Wright
Dark cypresses–
The world is uneasily happy;
It will all be forgotten.
–Theodore Storm

Mother of roots, you have not seeded
The tall ashes of loneliness
For me. Therefore,
Now I go.
If I knew the name,
Your name, all trellises of vineyards and old fire
Would quicken to shake terribly my
Earth, mother of spiraling searches, terrible
Fable of calcium, girl. I crept this afternoon
In weeds once more,
Casual, daydreaming you might not strike
Me down. Mother of window sills and journeys,
Hallower of searching hands,
The sight of my blind man makes me want to weep.
Tiller of waves or whatever, woman or man,
Mother of roots or father of diamonds,
Look: I am nothing.
I do not even have ashes to rub into my eyes.

-James Wright

 

We search the windblown fields, and the coal dark forests, stand on the edge of wide oceans of tears, and rend our clothes.
It’s been 50 years, and we still don’t know her name.
“Calcium”, the wind whispers.
Waves lick at the shore, tires wash up on the rocky beach. I put a bottle to my mouth to keep the fire inside.
The broken windows of the mills peer down, the blackened hulks of the furnaces turn a darker shade of rust. Lives poured like molten steel from the ladles, and love flamed red around the edges. In less than a century it all fell dark. Now only the weeds remember.
In hot Latin countries penitents still beat their backs with willow branches, until drops of blood bloom like roses. Here the flowers push their heads through the concrete, and declare their victory.
Even the names of the rich, carved in granite on the mausoleum have begun to fade.
The roofs collapse, the concrete cracks. Not even the calculations of the engineers can deny death forever.
In the end, there is only bone and sky.
The fire gone, the night cold,
I kneel on the ground, and stir the ashes.

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Boo Radley Summers

Do you remember when life was simple? When you woke up in the morning, lay in bed watching the sunlight streaming into the bedroom, and wondered what you should play today?

They say that youth is wasted on the young. I’m not so sure. The kids sure seem to enjoy it. And they are still kids. Nine and Ten, the height of childhood, old enough to ride the big rides at the Amusement Park, and still young enough to squeal with delicious terror. Adulthood is something enigmatic and distant, like a mountain range that never seems to get any closer. Yet mystery still lurks in the shadows, even though you feel protected and immortal. Oh, those Boo Radley summers. They lasted an eternity.

You never see the end coming. It comes on so slow, you look up one day and it is there. When I was a kid I used to have a re-occurring dream. In it I was playing with the kids on Prospect out in the middle of the street like we always did. When looking up through the ceiling of maples I saw a spaceship descending slowly, coming for us. Suddenly, I was overcome with fear, and began running for home, looking up to see the ship advancing on us. Suddenly the world was different, the reality that we knew was over and a new one was descending out of the sky. I never understood that dream, but in true Ray Bradbury fashion, I think I get it now.

The ship descending slowly towards us was adolescence. Like adolescence it never announces it’s coming until you realize one day it has arrived. Then everything changes. From age 13 until 17, our bodies convulse, and transform like Dr. Jeckl becoming Mr. Hyde. We become grotesques, long legged, knobby knees, our bodies too big and awkward for us to control. The face that looks back at us from the mirror takes on different proportions. Our noses, and ears suddenly stick out like a caricature.

I can remember the trips to Dr. Trifthauser’s. From 6th to 10th grade, I made a monthly visit to sit in that chair and have my braces torqued and adjusted. It was a form of medieval torture, as if the good Doctor, in his garish golf pants, were trying to extract a confession from me. Six chairs in a big room, facing a wall lined with one long carpeted bench, on which the youth of Batavia sat in silence, waiting for their turn. Kids from every elementary school in town, all together in the torture chamber on the second flood while their Mom’s waited outside.

In some ways, the Orthodontists’ office was the symbolic event that revealed the bonds between us and our families were about to be supplanted by bonds between us and our fellow prisoners, in a coming of age ritual that never made the pages of the National Geographics hanging in the magazine rack. For six years we would be prisoners in our own bodies. Serving time as the Inquisitor did his best to extract a confession for crimes we had yet to commit. Is there anything more unjust in life than adolescence? Is it any wonder that when we are finally released we go crazy with our new found freedom, and race headlong to try out the tools of adulthood which we are so unprepared to use?

So let the kids play. Let them be kids. It will be over all too soon. All we can do is to love them, and prepare them for what lies ahead. There is no point in telling them. They wouldn’t believe us if we did.

Our Lady of Perpetual Hope

They have been there forever. Sometimes I wonder if they were there before the church was built. From my first day as an altar boy in the 4th grade, I can remember them, sitting out in the darkened pews before 7:00am mass, praying silently on their rosary beads as I went about my chores getting the altar ready. Setting out the water and the wine, lighting the candles, waiting for the nicotine smell of Father coming in from the rectory to turn on the lights. I could see them out there in the darkness, stiff as statues, silently rubbing their wrinkled hands over the time worn beads, their lips moving slightly to the imperceptible repetition of the prayers.

I always seemed to draw the 7 am mass, not because of an affinity for rising before dawn, but because Fr. Fred knew my Mom could be counted on to get me there. I hated being woken from the warmth of my bed before the sun had risen, and be driven to St. Joe’s to serve. Sleepily buttoning my black cassock, and pulling a white surplus over my head, I would go about my rounds fifteen minutes before Mass was due to start, but already they were there. They were always there.

I served for six years, until I was so tall the altar boys cassacks no longer fit. By the time I stopped, I had grown from a shy fourth grader into an awkward teenager. My schedule was taken up with practices, and high school sports, and I was embarrassed to be seen by girls at Sunday Mass. Quitting was a relief. Mass had become tedious to me. Something I did by rote. The mystery of the ritual, and the tradition had long since grown stale, and  become yet another thing I slept walked through, like preparing the altar in the pre-dawn dark. Surely those old woman sitting out there in the pews were sleep walking too. How else could they be there, day after day, repeating the prayers, and reliving the mysteries for literal decades.

As I grew older, I drifted further and further away from the faith, until a funny thing happened. As I turned thirty, and began a family of my own I started returning. Slowly at first, but eventually with deeper and deeper hunger to understand. Not just to sleep walk through the mysteries, but to understand them intellectually, and spiritually. Like a diver swimming at a great depth, I could sense a lightness above me, and I began to swim toward it.

Sometimes lethargy overcomes me, and I need to consciously shake myself from sleep to overcome it, but I have returned to the surface of the faith now, and I can’t see myself ever straying from it again. One day, entering the Chapel early for an Ash Wednesday service, I was startled to see them. There they were, as old as I remembered them. Kneeling and sitting quietly in the dark, counting the prayers as if they had never left.

In St. Joseph’s, St. Anthony’s, St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart, and in churches far beyond Batavia, they still kneel in the dark, praying. They are older now, which is hard to imagine, as they seemed ancient then. Stoop shouldered from years of carrying around the weight of their families on their backs, they have suffered long, and silently. They have watched their children fade, and disappear, from the pews beside them, like swimmers slipping beneath the waves. They have buried parents, husbands, children, and even grandchildren, but still they come each morning to kneel and pray. Sitting there quietly in the dark, their fingers work slowly on their rosaries. Knitting their prayers together, one bead at a time, until the mysteries reach like fishing lines, stretching back through the cold, dark years, their crosses like hooks glistening in the predawn candlelight, tethering us to a past we have long since forgotten, if we ever truly knew it.

 

(Originally posted – Nov 12, 2009)

Quo Vadis?

The rain drips down on the tin roof of the neighbor’s garden shed.  I close my eyes, and hope the day will pass me by.

Not me Lord.

Not today.

Just let me lay here in bed listening to the rain like a Mother’s heartbeat.

But I surrender to the yoke of responsibility, and climb from my sleep warm bed, to face another day.

The rain falls steady against the windshield. As soon as the wipers swab them clear, they return, to run in rivulets of tears.

The city is just a shadow behind a veil of green water. The clouds float like grey bubbles in a dishwashers sink. I drive on beneath them, leaving plumes of water like rooster tails behind me.

Wash us clean.

Let our tears soak like raindrops into the loamy soil. Let them water our love.

We live.

We suffer.

We love.

This is what makes us human.

Turning willingly, towards our cross,

This is what makes us divine.

Icarus

for Francesco

The buildings rise like wooden blocks stacked one upon the other, clinging to this impossible slope. The afternoon sun warms the stones, and peeling stucco. You run your hand across their rough face, and feel the heat burning like blood within. In this shimmering summer heat, people take refuge in the oasis of shadows under doorways, and passages. The streets so narrow, even a donkey would struggle to pass.

As you climb, your foot slips on the dusty cobbles, rounded smooth from the passage of feet, and time. The slap of the fountain echoes down the alleyways, as the women gather around to collect cool water from deep within the mountain. At the end of this crooked lane lies the steps to the Castello, overgrown with weeds. No one goes there now but children, and dreamers.

You climb the last few steps past the walls of the town, and turn, looking out over the cracked red tile roofs. The patchwork green of the valley is ringed by a crown of hills, set against the faded blue of the cloudless sky.

Rolling up from below, the peel of the church bells tolling the Angelus. This is the noon hour, the axis of the day. Women bless themselves above the wash tubs, and pause to pray. Even the barefoot children stop their clamor, aware of something watching from above.

You look beyond the crown of hills, to the bald mountains rising in the summer haze. No snows are left to feed the rocky streams, just the seeping of springs, like blood from within the stones.

High above a hawk is turning in the sky, rising on the warm breath of the village as it exhales.

You close your eyes against the brilliance of the sun, and dream of flight.

Monuments

I wrote this post over a year and a half ago. I am reposting it today in honor of a friend’s father who passed away this weekend. David, our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

When we are infants they are giants to us. Booming voices that echo around the periphery of our Mother’s world. We come to learn their smiles, and their laughter, and the feel of their rough hands.

When we are toddlers they are the kings of the world. All knowing, and all powerful. They can swing us over their heads, and make us laugh like no other. As we grow we come to learn their place as Atlas, holding up our world upon their backs. They are gone from us more often than Mom, but we learn to listen for the sound of their car in the driveway. We become aware that there is something hard in their world that takes place when they are gone, even if we can’t understand it. We see the exhaustion and the pain slip out when they are too tired to hold it in. We become little weathermen, reading the moods that blow like weather systems across the map of their face.

They teach us not with words, but with action. How to start a lawn mower, handle a tool, drive a car. They are the silent owners of the mechanical world, masters of a knowledge that isn’t taught in school. We are in awe of their ability to restore everything to wholeness.

Once we become teenagers we see that they are human, and we never forgive them for it.

As we ourselves age, they become part of the background of the family. Like the house, and the car, and the great edifices upon which the history of the family is acted out. They become an anachronism, a source of laughter for the way they dress, talk, and act. Men out of time, in an age they no longer understand. We begin to see their frailties. We roll our eyes and sigh.

Then they begin to appear like ghosts in the mirror. We catch glimpse of them in the corner of our eyes. Slowly we come to understand what it must have been like. We find a new appreciation for the sacrifices that they made, that we never knew, because they never once complained. If we are lucky, we have time to say thank you before they are gone.

All too soon, they are gone, and we are left with a face in the mirror that conjures up memories. So we smile through the tears at the memories, and dig deep within us to live up to the example that they set before us when we weren’t looking, like granite monuments to inspire us. We hope that somewhere they can see us, and know. And we pick up their shop worn tools, close our eyes, and using our memory of those strong hands, we set to work chiseling out our own monument.