Sunday, November 13, 2011

Early Winter

The sky was a dull grey

snowflakes coming down from it, like ash.

A metallic silver pinwheel pinned to a white fence

spinned in an erratic way

trying to free itself from the tape and stick;

in my mind, I took it

and set it free.


it flew south, for me.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


"...[may I] come a little nearer to the instant when [I] will really be the slave-faithfully waiting while the master is absent, watching and listening- ready to open the door to him as soon as he knocks. The master will then make his slave sit down and himself serve him with meat."

The great Jewish writer, Simone Weil, wrote these words. She was, in my opinion, a kind of martyr for the idea of desire for God- more explicitly, a martyr for the baptism of desire. Her writings run with the blood of longing, a longing for truth, and prayer, and beauty. And all this in the world in which we live, where hope is often near-extingushed by the weaknesses and vice of those closest to us: ourselves, our families, and those in the Body of Christ.

In The Republic, Socrates is in dialectic with young politicians over the question of the essence, or eidos, of virtues in the soul. Do they exist? Is there a real, existing good from which these virtues spring? Socrates, I believe, was really asking: does God exist? He asks this question not because he does not know the answer, but because he is one who comes out of the light into the darkness in which his students live and explains to them the things of the light. In reading the dialogues of this great man, one begins to see that, despite the fact that he did not have divine revelation in the same way the Israelites had it, he was given a great grace and gift: he was searching out of the darkness of pagan culture, and yet knew, in some mysterious respect, He who is Goodness. Socrates became the man coming out of the bright light back into the darkness of his culture, and he knew that he could not teach or persuade those in darkness by pulling them into the direct light, by his own efforts, but he must lead, using innate reason and the desire of the soul found in human nature. This is Simone Weil's desire, which comes to life in a watchful, humble, attention: a readiness given by God and nurtured and disciplined by ourselves.

The mission of Socrates, and later, Christian saints (who have the knowledge of faith and sometimes, vision-be it intellectual, spiritual or actual vision) is, in varied ways, to live out that desire for, as Weil puts it, "...the pure image of the unique, eternal, and living Truth, the very Truth that once in a human voice declared, "I am the Truth.'" This Truth is always bound up with, in the person of Christ, agape and all virtue. The saint lives this out by living as St. Francis did, living to love rather than to be loved.

This way of life is life, true life.

No "but" can destroy this truth, but experiences which come with living in community and with ourselves can chip away at our hope, and faith, and even desire for this truth, and this life: experiences as profound as weaknesses and failures in ourselves, a hard marriage, or failures regarding our children; and things less intense, but nonetheless for a person of love and truth profound- like friendships and community life and our work. For instance, I see within myself always a mixed, an adulterated desire to love my friends, those far and near: I desire their good, but when I am hurt by them, or disappointed, or feel that my efforts on their behalf seem to come to nothing, I immediately sense that my love and efforts are much more tied up with my own ego. Sometimes the feeling of failure and discouragement becomes almost overwhelming. The temptation is to give up-which means that I stop believing in that true life of love and goodness, and beauty.

As Socrates spoke to his students about the education of those in darkness, he- as one who had lived long in the light-used the analogy of a man in a dust storm, who hides under the cover of a wall. He is in the midst of swirling, biting injustice, the violence of society all around, hitting him who is a stationary object in the restless, wind-blown fragments of confusion. Socrates says that he would like to stay under the wall and hope only not to enter into the fray and perhaps do injustice to another; for, to Socrates, doing injustice to another is the greatest evil into which one can fall, and so the temptation for those who understand and desire the life of Truth is to simply "check out"- because the ideal seems so hopeless.

But Socrates did not fall to this temptation, even to his last day, when his own city killed him because of the ludicrous charges brought against him of "corrupting the youth" and "impiety towards the gods". We see in the murder of Socrates an example of those who, lost in the dust storm, themselves became the storm; in other words, those who lived in darkness hated the light and quenched it, and would not be guided. Those who will not be guided out of darkness become a party to and source of darkness, and a terrible source of pain and discouragement to those who wish most of all to love them.

I am not a Socrates; I live in a different universe of intelligence and virtue (translation: I am a lot dumber than Socrates). However, I am, I hope, in my better moments, a working part of the Body of Christ. And Socrates was a kind of forerunner of Christ, who is the Good and the Source of that Truth Socrates was searching for and believed in. Now, because I am a daughter of God through grace, I too can intuit, and desire, like Socrates, to live in Truth. And like Socrates, like the saints, I desire to see both the order of love in my own soul, and to see order writ large on my community and writ in delicate, loving lines within those I know-and those I don't.

I do not see truth well, but I desire this. In this world, what follows this desire is the suffering(as it was for Socrates and anyone who desires love, and truth, and beauty), the burden, of seeing most often the opposite of these: selfishness, rationalization and banality. It seems that there is little truth and honor within the average community, and this is but mirrored in my own, often tepid and wicked soul. I cannot speak to my friends, my family, in a truly honest way; for most often, they cannot hear it, nor do they have the profound trust for me needed for hearing hard truth in my words, because they see the same hypocrisy in my life, and they will see this as long as my ego and my self are tied up in my efforts towards the true, good, and beautiful. Also, when do I hear the truth about myself? And if I do, what is my reaction? Most often, to rationalize it into oblivion, either to myself or to the unfortunate person who tried to speak the truth.

It often seems hopeless. One friend believes in Christ but lives a life centered around having the most pleasure possible with the least trouble, even to the point of hurting those who have placed their lives near to his; another will not hear that her children are cruel at times to other children because she feels the fear of being imperfect or ridiculous; in the academic community in which I live and work, there are those (me, too?) who think they are Christians but are living and behaving more as if they are in an intellectual and spiritual class above everyone else; and worst of all, are the times when I've let my own identity be squashed in the desire to maintain social ties- ties which, without love, and truth, mean nothing. And finally, the times when I've committed the worst evil: injustice towards the other, the most important Other being God. The worst sins we deal with in this life are our own, and they are the things we are least able to see, and the things we most refuse to acknowledge even if we do see them. We become our own prisons, and the potential for real evil increases, sometimes, in proportion to the intellectual, physical and spiritual gifts we are given.

We are all, it seems, the blind guides which Socrates warned his interlocutors about: the solution, perhaps, is a radical one. It seems to me that a true guide is one who follows St. Francis' prayer: May I seek more to love than to be loved; may I seek to understand rather than to be understood. This simple desire has a great and deep foundation: the death to oneself. Christ said it a different way: If you seek to save your life, you will lose it. The result of the death to self, the uprooting of self-absorbed, fearful 'love', is the beginning of humility. It is like when one must first dig a deep hole in order to then build a solid foundation. The hole must be there, and deep, and complete, before the virtue and grace of humility can be poured within it. Then on the rock of humility(personified in Christ), and no other, can a house of love, and truth, and beauty be built, a house fit for the Master to enter. And when He does enter, He serves his own servant. This is the way of love.

Only then, when the Master lives in our houses, can we become places of light in a dark cave, and strong bulwarks in the sand storm, and true guides for ourselves and others. Only then will we build true Christian communities, because we will provide a locus and source of grace, and light, and beauty around which a real community can be built. Of course there will always be suffering, and often these communities will in the end be destroyed by the trilogy of selfishness, rationalization and banality (the deflated desire for less than the best good). I think of the pain of St. Francis as he watched his order fracture into contentious camps of the more and the less worldly. But hope lives, because there is another world, the world which Socrates caught a glimpse of, and which we see everyday in the Mass; and as St. Francis knew, when he retreated into his mountain cave and received the wounds of Christ, it is in one's own soul that the light must first penetrate. Therein lies hope. In one's own soul, in that quiet place where the Master waits.

A last word from Simone Weil:

" To be sure in the realm of action we have to do all that is demanded of us, no matter what effort, weariness, and suffering it may cost, for he who disobeys does not love; but after that we are only unprofitable servants. Such service is a condition of love, but it is not enough. What forces the master to make himself the slave of his slave and to love him, has nothing to do with all that. Still less is it the result of a search the servant might have been bold enough to undertake on his own initiative. It is only watching, waiting, attention [desire- my sic]."


Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Winter's Lament

My toes are blue near the ends
Blue, like the lapis shadows thrown by sagebrush in the snow
Water, like my blood, cannot make up its mind
swirling slowly, ineffectually

Will I ever wear open-toed shoes again?
Red and brown toes, like the stones with vines curling round them
Water in my blood, blue and purple
the sunlight holding each molecule tenderly

Love is like that, I think
seasons of sage and snow, white and grey
Water, grace moving slowly, blocked
The soul breaking through, dying on a halcyon day

And then, those days of sandals and blue
and green, and each flower, each wave a lover
and I, I leap like a child again, clothes left in a wake
and I look for You, for you, and you.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Woman with a Hemorrhage

The day dawned hot; the very sky seemed feverish, swirling in hues of yellow, yellow above the yellow dust of the streets, and brown above the brown of houses and trees covered in a light sheen of that same dust. Miriam rose from her semi-recumbant position and looked briefly, carefully, as she always did, across the rooftops fellow to her own: she had slept up here, for the coolness. One of the good things about her illness was that she was largely left alone. Yet this was a bad thing, too, for Miriam was a bright light shining, a woman of deep prayer. She had been praying, but in that odd position of semi-recumbancy, because this position allowed her the least amount of pain.

She stretched as she stood, and then bent over and winced. She had not yet, in the two years since she started bleeding most days instead of just a few days between new moons, learnt to anticipate and avoid these sharp stabs. She tensed and held her position until the throbbing subsided, and then, seeing the sun more insistent in this curried sky, rolled up her pallet-taking more care to move smoothly-and picked her way down the stairs. Each step darkened a little more as she went down, and this always made her think of death, her death which she assumed was coming soon. Somehow, though, she did not fear death, but she did not want to die. She felt the loving, familiar shapes in relief on the stone and sand wall as she descended into the delightful grind of another day.

Miriam was smiling at this incongruency in her thoughts, when she met the eyes of her father looking up at her from the bottom of the stairs. His eyes were like sparkling onyx stones in a wrinkled and long face. Even though they were hard, and full of disappointment at her unclean state, at her returning in shame from her husband’s home, there was love-around the mouth. How she knew this, she could not tell, because he never spoke about it. But it came out also in his actions, for he would let her go out, go to the market attended by one of the children, let her be useful in public. As she came down into the main room of the house, he nodded his head in a silent greeting and left, disappearing out the door in a flash and glow of yellow light.

The other room of the home, the eating and cooking room, was full of light, for it had a smoke-hole in the roof and two windows to further let out the heat. And today these windows and the hole would be needed. Miriam thought of the huge, reed-woven fans of Egypt: one of the strange folk-memoriabilia to survive, along with the flesh-pots, thought Miriam wryly. Her older sister, a widow, was tending the baking of the cakes in the pitted oven and already she was pink and sweaty, for she had started too late this morning, and would have to suffer more heat than usual. She turned when she heard Miriam’s tentative scraping footsteps on the floor. “Miriam,” she quipped, but not unkindly, “wake that sleeper Ruth and go to the market for some beans-plus the usual things," and she sighed: “I have started too late again.” She turned back to the hot pit, and added, “Hurry- before it gets too crowded.” Miriam moved to apologize for not being able to help with the daily cooking, but stopped when she saw her sister’s methodical, kneading movements.

Ten minutes later, Miriam and Ruth, a ten-year old child of Miriam’s sister, walked, and Miriam held a small basket made by herself for her own use-no one else was allowed to touch it; their head-cloths were in place and their feet shod in simple, leather sandals. Miriam mused, as she moved down the street in companionable silence with the little girl, that although she was largely relegated now to silence and the company of children, this was in reality not a lower state. She was lonely sometimes, and sorrowed over the loss of having children herself; but she had learned silence, and the fullness of the Lord in silence. She, a woman! But the tall, stone fences around her, now that she was perpetually unclean, made her unsure as to whether the Lord would actually visit her at all, really. She wondered sometimes, and it brought the deepest swirl, ugly and dark, with putrid bits of real despair, of loneliness, when she thought that she might be cut away from God because the blood would not stop, and the pain grew worse, slowly, like a bite which gets infected and swollen.

A sound like the roar of an angry wind yanked her out of herself. Ruth, her little face blanched, had stopped in the middle of the quiet, gray street and was looking down towards the noises. They were in a narrow passageway between two houses, which would, if followed, open suddenly out into the glare and noise of the market. Miriam motioned to Ruth to follow, and they moved slowly against one wall, so as to be able to look round the corner before descending the two deep steps into the glare and the place of the crowded stalls. There was more than the roar: they could feel, inexplicably, the excitement, the almost desperation, of a roused crowd. This was always frightening, especially in these days of Roman anxiety; for the soldiers, under the recent instabilities in Rome, and the resulting fear of the Governor of Judea, had become more quick to arrest and even quietly murder those who disturbed the peace in their areas.

But when the two looked around the corner, there were no soldiers in sight. Perhaps they’d been drinking the night before and were sluggish in the already insistent and nagging heat. There was a crowd- but not the usual circling, orbiting, quiet crowd of a normal morning; this was a crowd like a clump of bees crawling on a hive, a hive just disturbed by the hand of a desert wanderer: agitated and buzzing, and calling out: “Rabboni! Rabboni!” There was shoving at the outer edges. The stalls were guarded only by women, normally non-descript figures who sat down behind the stalls, preparing the wares. Now they were standing, and staring at the crowd, which was moving now, following something or someone towards the well in the center.

Miraim and Ruth, deciding that there was no real danger but only some great interest which did not concern them, sped towards the stall of the beans. As Ruth picked out the things they needed, putting them in the household basket which she carried, poor little thing, and putting into Miriam’s basket the things she needed for her own meals, they moved from stall to stall and tried to ignore the noise of the crowd. Miriam, though, felt something strange welling up in her. She finally got the courage to ask one of the women at a stall about the disturbance. “Oh,” the woman said, “there is a Rabbi here, a teacher-“ and she bent a little closer, “and some say he heals. That he makes the blind to see, and the lame to walk…as they say,” she shrugged as she said the last words, as if to take herself back out of caring about this. But Miriam felt a shock go through her heart. She quickly motioned for Ruth to sit by the side of the stall and put her basket beside the girl, who obeyed quickly but who had gone now completely white. “Aunt,” Ruth whispered, “Aunt.”

“Wait here, Ruth. But if you do not see me return, run home. Leave my things. It does not matter.” And Miriam turned towards the crowd, which was moving again. It seemed to Miriam that someone new had entered the hive and there was the sound of a wail in the middle. The crowd surged away from the well, headed towards a main street leading away from the market, and this gave Miriam a chance to slip in amongst the followers. There were some other brave women in the crowd, but it was mostly men, with their carefully woven cloaks in blues and rusts and browns. The dust beat up unmercifully into her eyes and mouth. Miriam pulled her head covering close over her face, so that she would not be recognized, and with her adrenaline drowning out the stabs of pain, and despite the blood which she knew was flowing more freely now, she tried to move her way closer to the head of the heaving and hurried cloaks and sandals and past the rough movements of the men. Some pushed her away, and she thought with some sadness, that they did not know that they were touching an unfortunate: a woman, an unclean and useless woman. But she kept on.

At the head of the crowd, behind which all followed in greedy interest, she saw a man, a leader of the synagogue, in earnest conversation with another, shorter man in a poor, off-white cloak. Miriam knew of the leader of the synagogue, and so surmised that he could not be a healer, or she would have been told- it must be the other man. She got closer and closer, partly because of her size- and the agility she’d once used, as a girl, to climb anything and everything, in joyful expectation of a view above the swirling dirt. Now, she used what was left of this child-energy, which had laid hidden by the sorrow of the last two years, as if those two years had given it time to germinate and build up; or perhaps the sorrow and her outcast state had made her care less about the swirling dust and long for what lay beyond. Perhaps she had stopped caring so much what others thought.

She found herself looking at the cloak of the healer, the edge of it trailing just a few inches beyond her reach; no one had noticed her because they were all listening to the pleading conversation of the the synagogue leader and the soft answers of the healer- those listening in were insatiably eating up both the high man’s misfortune, and the wonder of him sharing it so desperately and publicly- and the ill one just a child, and a female child at that- the wonder of it. But Miriam had only grasped bits, for she began to reach out her hand, to touch the rough, off-white fibers which moved with their owner in a peaceful sway. In a long instant, her hand traveled out-just a touch- just-

…the roughness of the garment surprised her; she thought healing would feel like Eastern silk. She felt a fire go through her body, and instantly, her hand moved to her abdomen. She stopped suddenly, bent over, and was knocked side to side by those who were following- but just as Miriam thought she would surely be knocked to the ground, the crowd stopped. There was a silence. And then, a voice of quiet strength.

“Who touched me?” Heavier silence. Miriam felt the blood coursing deeply through her entire being, blood moved by embarrassment, and also, still, the fire. Again the voice rolled out above the crowd: “Who touched me?" Miriam wished that she could just back away quietly; as she began to go, a rumbling started in the crowd, an uncomfortable reaction to intolerable silence, and another voice, in some confusion and rattled tones cried,“Master- look at the crowd! It is pressing all around-“

Miriam stopped moving, because she realized that everyone was quite still, like the leaves on a tree in the silence before a storm, and that any escape on her part would be impossible. She looked around at the feet of those around her, and then pulled her head covering back a little, and straightened up. She dared a glance at the healer, to whom she was now a few yards away. She could only see the side of his head, a side of thick, common brown hair and a beard. Only an instant or so had passed since the last query, and as Miriam inched her way around the obstructing figure in front of her, so that she could get a better view of his face, his quiet voice, with a slight reluctance to it, broke in on the crowd again, and in answer to the other man’s logic: "I felt power go out of me.” The crowd sucked in a communal breath, and the healer said again, with gentleness, “Who touched me?”

At that instant, Miriam had got herself a place for a full view of his face, and when she looked up, she found herself looking into brown, earth-colored eyes, eyes with sorrow and joy woven , eyes that contained the very fire she felt still in her. She followed the gaze with her body and moved towards him, finally kneeling before him in the dust, the sounds of “I did” somehow escaping her lips. The crowd moved back, with more sucking of air, a sucking sound of petrified disdain. Miriam took this all in, but some thread in her stayed with that gaze and she looked at a face which seemed to reflect, and know, the pain of the unwanted.

Not only did the healer look at her, but breaking through a cold, invisible, stone wall put up over millenia, he kneeled in the dust in front of her, and took her hand in his. Quietly, with the softness only deep courage and profound, divine humility can produce, he said, "Your faith has healed you.”

Image: "Woman with a Hemorrhage" by Louis Glanzman

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Exile, The

What does it mean to be an exile? I suppose you'd have to talk to one to understand; perhaps even an interview with an exile wouldn't give you much real information, either. You'd have to have been exiled. But the question is not, "What does it feel like to be an exile?" but rather, "What does it mean?"

"Meaning", used in this question, has the connotation of 'purpose': What is the end, the directing paradigm, the teleology of being an exile?

I can think of many types of exile in my life. First, a very concrete one at age ten, when I was forced to leave Greece, where my heart lived. I have never gotten over this, this splitting of my soul. Do exiles, the more deeply suffering ones, exiles from their home because of war, ever get over it? Do exiles, the political ones, ever get over it? Do exiles, the third-culture kind, like me, ever get over it?

I have read in many stories, especially of the medieval bent, how a hero or villain is "banished" and he pleads, begs, for some other punishment, even death. I have felt my heart go back to that time, at ten, when I also wished to run away from my parents (a child's version of wishing for death) rather than leave my beloved Anatolia, for some foreign place; I had some presentiment that it would not be a place which welcomed me, that I'd be somehow an outcast. I was right. But are we meant to become so entwined with a place, a physical place? What is the mystical connection between ourselves and a place comprised of dirt and rocks with some culture plastered on it? No, I know it is more than that. We are deeply connected to places because we are composite beings, and we humans, because we are also spiritual, imbue places with spiritual realities: even as children, we sense this and connect with all of it much more easily and deeply than we do even as adults. That is why the places and people of our childhoods always retain a certain luminosity, a magic, which never leaves many of us- perhaps until we visit and see its destruction. Then our hearts are broken.

I have also felt exiled from people I've loved. From childhood friends, from those I've loved on the crest of life and lost due to the changing, sometimes inexplicable currents of lives meeting and sundering. I have never forgotten, not in my heart, those moments of joy, and in those memories do I most chafe against a linear existence, one we cannot escape, in which those times of real love, in deep sweetness or in friendship become hard jewels set in the past. We cannot escape the linear nature of our existence; in fact, it has been ordained for our life on earth. So there must be a meaning in it, similar to the meaning of being an exile. Time itself creates the state of being an exile.

There is an old proverb, which I hate: "Love makes time pass, and time makes love pass." I hate it because I think that then it cannot be love. This is speaking more about pleasure, I think. Love does not pass, not real love. But how does an exile from loved ones go on in a healthy way? How does one re-invest, an important stage of grief, if time does not make love pass? And the most important question: how do we truly continue to love if the real person is not with us, at least from time to time? Does it become the unhealthy love between ourselves and a vaporous memory?

I have also been an exile from myself, in those periods when I have tried, for safety or love, to fit into a mold which others set out for me, and consequently lost my own voice. To lose oneself is part of the pain associated with both the concrete, physical exile from the soil we love and the exile from those we've loved and lost. When we left Greece, I had certain knowledge that I'd left part of myself there, that I could no longer live to the rhythm of joy and sunlight, that the sea and the colours of beauty and light were drained from me, and I went on my journey a shell of the person that I was. In rebuilding, trying to fit into a new culture, into an extended family whom I did not know, into a culture which seemed gritty and twisted, I lost myself for many years. I lost my God because I had no real face or voice left with which to know Him. But as my sister, my partner in this loss, once said in a song, "You danced with me, through a bend in time." And He does.

Sin itself, trespassing the moral law, also creates in us an exile from ourselves, from our real face which is always before God, and destroys the true love which is the bridge between ourselves and reality, and the 'other-ness' of those we are called to love as well as the ultimate Other, our God. And sin can take larger, social forms, such as trying to be in the inner circle, to please others for the sake of advancement or to create a facade, becoming a fake of ourselves. All this is deep, hellish exile beside which the physical exile because of war or simple loss becomes a potential portal of growth and hope.

For me, my physical exile from the land of my blood and heart has made me feel like a wanderer, of sorts, on the face of the earth. I have struggled for an identity, and held understandings with other third-culture kids, understandings like the lighting of one candle to another. I have felt myself a citizen more of the world, and had no phobic patriotism which might blind me to the actions of the country in which I hold citizenship. I have become a culture-explorer and discovered richness everywhere; and in the pain, I have grown to understand how to discern bad culture from good, however amateur and often mistaken I've been at times.

There is still the question of exile originating in a linear existence, of the loss of those we love in this life, and the question of how love lives, real love, based in real people and not just memory. I think that there is an essential, real, eternal person inside each of us, and true love, rather than being blind, has true sight. If we love, we can see more like God. We see, if we truly love, the potential, the person that ought to be, whom God wills, whom God is trying to accomplish despite flaws and sin. If we love, we become co-conspirators with God in helping this person become what he or she should be. This is true, I think, for the love of friendship as well as eros, although the love of eros has an arrow-like strength for the melding of two persons into each other, and in a mysterious way, echoes the love of God for the soul, in that in becoming loved by God, we begin to be melded into Him, to become like Him: although mysteriously, this love, if true, and moral, always retains and enhances our uniqueness. Eros, and the love of God, is a beautiful paradox, and the person we love, whether with us in the day-to-day or not, is truly with us in essential things. Is the only thing that can separate us the marring of sin which destroys, in the end, the person meant by God? I do not know, but the person who loves always sees, and hopes, like God always loves and hopes.

So we see something eternal and real, and non-linear, when we love truly. This does not pass with time. There are those whom I have seen again after ten or twenty years, or more, and knew as I knew them so long ago: it is expressed in, "we picked up where we left off". I believe that part of the fear of loving is the fear of the loss of self, of exile, and of loss in a linear existence. But this fear is a half-truth, because in love, we are multiplied, we can become more ourselves even as we give ourselves away, and love does not die or impoverish, even in loss in this life. It is not easy, and there is pain, there is real exile. But there is hope, not necessarily for the consummation of real love in this world, but hope nonetheless. It is why people who have faith in a good God can continue through great loss, and even in time, grow though it.

I have felt my soul stretched and raw, when I've been through a leaving, an exile made necessary by circumstance, sin, or choice-for in every choice there is a yes and a no; and sometimes I have felt that I was, as Bilbo says in The Hobbit, "like butter spread over too much bread"; and like Frodo, feeling that some wounds do not heal with, or in, time. But still, I will to believe in love, in love that does not pass with time, a love found again in the ultimate eucatastrophe, or sudden turn from bad to good, that is found with God after this life. God willing I will make it there, past this exile. I hope it looks like Greece, too.

Perhaps the real meaning of exile, of a linear existence, is to test us in our hope, our love, and to teach us the real meaning of home- for as it is said, and I like this much better, "the darkness helps us to understand the true value of the light." Or something like that. I could change it, like this: "being an exile shows us the true meaning of home."

Or, perhaps, I just want too much and should just be more easy come, easy go. However, like Gandalf says at the end of The Return of the King, "Not all tears are an evil"; in other words, some things, some necessary exiles and goodbyes deserve the honor of tears. To deny this is to become flippant and shallow, I think, or to become a person who embodies the life equivalent of a womanizer. A lifenizer, in the endless search for the easy life, the perfect situation, quick-releasing anything that requires the risk of pain, or exile.

Maybe I can still believe in endless, eternal love, and be the exile of solemn joy traipsing through a field on a full spring day- like the Mole in The Wind in the Willows, who leaves his home and marvels in the River and the Rat, rejoicing in what is, what will be with God. And yet even the loving, happy Mole, upon scenting his old home in the midst of deep winter, weeps about the loss of it after so many months away. And, in one of the most beautiful metaphors on friendship, the Rat puts his impatience with all this weeping aside and helps the Mole find his home; then as they find that his home has been left in a shambles, the Mole weeps again in his shame over having the well-to-do Rat see his humble abode. But the Rat, with true charity, "-praised everything he saw, and said, 'Why Moley, you've a capital little place here! Capital!' " And they feast, as only love can do, on the remains of a sausage. It is a moment of kairos, a time when the love of God breaks through into existence and exile.

For you, you exile full of angst, and sorrow, do you not know, exile, that I know every hair of your head...that I know when each lark falls to the ground, and you, you are worth many of these...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Greece- Day one, two three, themberazi!

I arrived in Athens on Tuesday, June 9. As we landed, I just started crying, and the New York Greeks near me politely stared for a second. It was twenty-four years since I'd last landed there, and that time I was fifteen: when you come back suddenly to a place like this, after so long, you can see yourself, like in a video. And that time, as a fifteen-year old, I was in the throes of that teenage time, where the thoughts in your head about actual reality are much less important to you than your thoughts about what other people are thinking about you.

But now, this time, I come just to be- with Greece, with my sister, and my oldest friend, Iris. When I saw the sea, the brown and green hills, the little vineyards and olive groves, I knew why I'd loved Santa Barbara- there was something there of Greece. As I walked through the joi de vivre energy of the airport, and got my tickets for the bus and felt the humidity, I knew why I'd liked New York; there was something of the people there which reminded me of Greece.

But here, I noticed, as we traveled through Athens toward Syntgma (Constitution) Square, there was that energy of New York, but also a real understanding of leisure; of being. I saw men sitting on benches or cafe tables, and my American instinct thought, "what are they doing just sitting there by themselves?" and then my Greek instinct remembered leisure.

As a child, my sight was much more like my sight now- I am too old to care about what other people think of the way I look, and no one's looking anyway- good thing in a Mediterrenean country; and besides, there's way too much for Greek studs to look at these days- and so, like a child, I bound along, suitcase in tow, delighting in the lucid air, the curry smell, the soft dang of a little church bell, the little shops, rowed one after another down the little, narrow winding streets. I hear my mother telling me to stay on the sidewalk at all costs, as she, amused, watched the little old ladies navigating a jay walking journey with inches to spare. On my own steam now, though, I can trundle down some steps in a small, quiet square and enter an ancient Orthodox church. Now, I know, as I didn't as a child, that I can venerate the icons of Christo Pantocrator, or the Annunciation. The religious landscape of the land of my childhood has become more accessible to me now, and the simple joy this gives me can't really be expressed- it is like a soft breeze of love, coming from the past.

I reach the hotel and my sister is there. How long we've been trying to do something together- and God, in His gifts, gave me this one- to be here in Greece with her! And the cornucopia opens further, when Iris, whom I haven't seen for twenty years, comes to the door the next morning. We spend three hours talking in a taverna next to the ancient Agora, and I imagine Socrates sitting in something like this, quite near, 2300 years or so ago, agitating and educating the populace- with a little wine and olives. We have "cappucino freddo" with the thickest, coldest milk I've ever seen.

We go then to Marylynne's gallery, where twenty-two people, mostly young twenties, are putting up art work, creating art work...the gallery is located in an old apartment building, due for condemnation after the show. There are old, beautiful old doors and shutters; the place has an elegance, and the marble floors, that particular Greek pattern of mottled marble, reminds me of my childhood- I would lay on these floors in the heat of summer, and just think.

A girl from Holland is doing cardboard towers, to be installed on the rooftop; a Japanese girl is creating hundreds of fishwire strings with resin dripped down them; a delightful Englishman from Manchester is putting videos on the wall, and the air of nebulinity, the aura created by a lot of artists together, is thick. Margarita, the curator, a Greek woman closer to our ages, is bustling around in a Greek way- last minute (made time for leisure, see) everything. Marylynne gets down to measuring and working through problems with a plinth. Iris and I, with a futile offer of help, break out into the clear air of simple reality again. I think about how Aristotle wrote about poetry, art, as a teacher, an imitative teacher, for the soul- art as a doctor of sorts; and how so much art has become more a vehicle of expression for the radically individual. And I think about how this can be good, too, although we humans always seem to default into imbalance. Marylynne's work is the most tied to reality, to beauty, as a teacher of order.

We walk through this condemned area, and we begin to understand the riots of a few months past. Hordes of young immigrant men, and Greeks, hang out listlessly( nothing to do with leisure) on the corners, many of them skin on wasted frames, with the occasional desperate face. This is a drug area, and the storekeepers, many of them immgrants, look tired and worn, as if the very air were poison. I feel sad, so sad.

We make our way to the Plaka, the oldest neighborhood, just below the towering figure of the Acropolis. The Acropolis still seems like a beacon of beauty and order, rising like a king above the sprawl of white houses, a sprawl which reaches for twenty miles or so all round. The ancient Agora, below the Acropolis, was a marketplace- but also much more. Here Socrates walked, Aristotle came to the "thinkery" - a civic building set aside for thinking- and Pericles probably had an office here.

To be continued.....when I can get on a computer again!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Do you know how I feel? Deep down?
Now that I am returning to you,
to your brown breasts, salt and olive-scented
to your pearly teeth on the mouth of the sea
But even deeper down, the clarity of the water
which mirrored the child-clarity in me:

I touched every stone and every bloom creeping
out from among their rough faces, in some wall
at the edge of a garden somewhere in the folds
of your dress; I did not need its history.
I named the dirt, a certain tree;
I knew the abalones and the jellyfish knew me
I breathed your air and drank your wine
I danced a dance of the soul with you.

I an exile of thirty years, will you recognize me?
As I roam always, always lonely, on the shoulder of a road
I did not pick out to travel,
will you know me, a woman covered with the dust of others?
did you know I left unwillingly?

The rose-water light of a summer night
ancient Athenian stone ladies caught forever
reflecting light in their own way
like the inside of a white shell
retsina on the Plaka
my sister there
and me

So why do I weep, now, that I am returning?
It is seeing the fingers of God stirring the water
and not being able to get into it because
I am now lame, the free child I was is lost
my heart has been entangled, twisted so often: but at least,
I am weeping.
I am not hard, I hope, too hard, and I will touch
your walls, your flowers...may I be able to float
once again, in your ambrosia depths, and just be
in a horizontal minute of life
my sister there
and me
home, like