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It’s all over the news. Social media, too. People screaming at one another, slapping, beating, threatening, harassing…and for what? For wearing the “wrong” T-shirt. For trying to go swimming at the local pool. For wearing a hijab. For being brown-skinned.

When all we can do is lash out at one another for being “different,” we are in the deepest of deep trouble. If interculturalism teaches us anything, it’s that no two of us are exactly the same. Unless we can deal with that, we are in for one heck of a free-for-all. And nobody is safe.

Forget about beating
swords into ploughshares;
let’s focus on the lightest
of legerdemain, on simple
manipulation of the bones.
Let us turn fists into flattened hands.
Let us bring to each other our brokenness,
our humility. Let us be weak. Mild. Silent.
Let us bow to the God in one another.
And if we cannot, we must lie down at once:
We are already dead.

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We are picking our teams
(red team, blue team)
with alacrity (rushing to
curry favor with the captain
of choice) in louder and louder
voices (playground voices;
no one listens to inside voices anymore)
touting superiority of size, of mind, of soul,
of strength and riches and greed and hatred.
We are choosing sides for a most important game.

The only trouble is
Jesus keeps getting picked last.

My friend Alice is collecting answers to the above question. Feel free to chime in. As for me, I always speak most clearly in poetry.

Providence is the hand of God in the world.
It is like the wind: You cannot see it,
you can only see what it does
(stir a sailboat, rustle a leaf
loosed from a tree),
and even this is best glimpsed
in your memory’s rear view mirror.
It is a confetti storm of pieces of paper,
a single word printed on each,
that somehow settles into a book.
You could have read it weeks ago,
but your eyes were not ready.
It is the tiniest movement of a fly
on a leaf that sends a drop of water
skittering to the ground below where
a seed has been mislaid, unlikely to ever
make anything of itself. Instead it flowers.
Perhaps it will be a rose, perhaps a cactus.
But even that will make sense when you are
lost in the desert, and in falling over, parched,
you break open the limb of a saguaro and there is water
cool and reviving, inside.*

 

 

* Just a metaphor. Do not do this in real life.

 

 

In a new story I’m writing, one of the characters is an older Chinese woman. I searched “older women in Chinese culture 2018,” but couldn’t find anything relevant.

Ten pages of results yielded articles about a teenager’s prom dress causing controversy and the fact that educated, professional women in China aren’t marrying these days, but nothing about what life is like today for a women of 65. On page 13 of the search results, I did find an interesting article about how a three-digit “social score” can change the course of a person’s life in China, but still, nothing about the experience of older women.

It shouldn’t take miles of search pages to find out the most basic facts about older women in China. Should it? It’s disheartening that the algorithm we all rely on to bring us the world is leaving out large chunks of humanity. At least older people and women as a group can exist online. Can’t they?

But then again, do we ever really see each other?

Last year during a MOOC about poetry, I watched a terrific video lecture from poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Despite viewing it many times, I didn’t realize that she had on a bow tie, even though it’s obviously a bow tie. My mind assumed it was a scarf. Why? Because I like scarves. I wear scarves. I knit scarves. I was wearing a scarf as I was watching the video. Later, I realized that this poet identifies as gender non-conforming. All I saw was my own worldview.

No matter how open-minded we may think we are, we always see the picture through our own frame. Like a reverse selfie of sorts. Maybe we all need to be double-exposed to new ideas to view the world as a group-photo waiting to happen.

When Jeannie says it, she means saints, a concept new to her; in her Protestant experience, prayer is “you and Jesus, no one else.” But a brush with Catholicism brought with it the idea of saints as intercessors, friends who sit on your shoulder and pray alongside you. Now Jeannie asks for a few good words every now and again from her new friend, St. Mother Theodore Guerin. But the way she expressed her good fortune (see title above) provoked, yes, a poem.

How do you acquire them
and where do they perch?
Do you feel them as a brush of wings
against your shoulder, or as a rush of wind,
hot, like breath, and intimate? Have they
set up shop (prayers, five cents each, like
a comic strip psychiatry stand) or —
are your insistent wishes just a blip in their routine,
something to do on the way to the fishing hole,
the café, the clean white shops of heaven?
Whatever. The machinery of it is unimportant.
What counts is the concern, unfathomable,
laughable, even, of a child, a nun, a martyr,
of those who burned or hung, lay with lepers
or led armies into battle, who died in perfect faith,
reaching across immeasurable time, to chime in
a single good word: Amen. I thank them for their
affirmation; I hope to join the chorus one day.

What is the difference between poem and prayer? The older I get, the more I think there is none. I was raised on both: My mother, a devout Catholic, read poetry to us kids from the time we were tiny. And I mean real poems — Wordsworth, Poe, Coleridge, Whitman. By the time I could read, these poems were as familiar and dear to me as any fairy tale or nursery rhyme.

When I started writing poetry (at age 6), it didn’t occur to me my own poems could be prayers, mostly because I wrote about nonspiritual stuff — my toys, Christmas, flights of fancy. It was only when I got a gig writing nondenominational prayers that I realized: If the intention is there, poem is prayer.

Word is word, whether
molded by mouth or hammered,
hewn, by hand. And all words rise,
sure as heat, the heavens
being the only landing strip
for such strange dirigibles.
Voices are louder, quicker
to pierce Paradise, but clumsy, too,
all diphthong and sibilant s’s.
Written, words fly graceful as doves,
land, preening, offer themselves
as white sacrifices. The God of Words
collects them, views their pulsing hearts
thanks them and sends them home.

First of all, destroy
anything that tells you
precisely what beautiful is.
Quit looking at women on TV
or on movie screens except
as some rare form of fauna,
unobtainable and therefore
non-aspirational. Wear only
what you like, what makes you
comfortable. Groom yourself
for your own approval. Look
people in the eye. Smile. If they
don’t smile back, don’t take it
personally. In fact, take nothing
personally. Get out of your head.
Live in the world, not in the confines
of your body. Notice. Learn. If you
want to know how you look, ask a
dog of whom you’re fond. He will be honest.
Otherwise, never think about yourself again,
except in terms of happiness and peace.
Don’t stew if you find you have neither.
Instead, collect good moments, until
you find enough to string together into
a lifetime. Eat whatever you want. Love fiercely.
In the end, wrecked, in bed, ready to slough off
life entirely, you will be beautiful. Radiant.
God will sigh at the sight of you. And you
will know what you were all along.

I’ve just returned from a long car trip, a trip whose sole purpose seems to have been to remind me that I am old. Well, older, anyway. For instance, I remember how easy it was to genuflect when I was a child — a quick bob with one knee and right back up again. I was as bendable as new grass, as light as a reed, so thin my sister and I were not allowed to look into the windows of the local health club (out of sheer childish curiosity) because it offended those inside. How on earth, I used to think, can it be difficult to genuflect?

The words come back to haunt me as I use the pew to lever myself into and out of that once-effortless pose. It’s not so easy anymore.

It’s funny to imagine a God who is ageless. Wasn’t he my companion as a child, as a 20-something, navigating the newness of adulthood, and now an aging friend who provides a shoulder to lean on as necessary? Won’t God still be there as I totter into old age? And all the time, always, God is my friend, my compatriot, the pal I vent to when my shoulders ache and I realize that typing 100 words a minute was less a feat than a doorway to carpal tunnel. God grows old with me, yet is eternally young, ready to support the next new life and the next and the next.

My body announces itself
with pops and groans,
a one-woman band of
complaints and aggravations.
Ankle, knee, neck, feet.
Bones aren’t built to last.
They snap like chalk, crumble
to dust. My foot comes up,
senses a thousand ways to stumble.
Yet at my elbow, a light touch:
lifting. My foot comes down;
God gives me ground to stand on.
Each step’s a new wonder;
with practice, I’ll fly.

I’m still feeling a little high from Easter. If you’ve never been to a Catholic Easter Vigil mass, you’re missing out! A bonfire is set ablaze, parishioners with lit candles enter a darkened church, the pastor intones a Passover-flavored litany…people are baptized! The saints are celebrated! Baptismal vows are renewed! It is all a bit dizzying. But it got me contemplating eternity, which is, after all, what we all hope to savor as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection. Forever is, as Prince once observed, “a mighty long time.” What will we do with it?

One thing’s for sure: We will not be bored. I feel quite sure that time will lose meaning in Paradise, especially with whole universes to explore and a history of people to meet. As for my plans? Well, maybe I’ll start small.

When eternity comes
(if I am fit to meet it)
I will lie on my belly
in a field of grass.
I will take 10,000 years
to know a single blade.
I will memorize its particular
shade of green, watch it
bend in wind, predict its
dance. See dew settle on it,
or rain. 10,000 years will suffice
to know its root, the angle of its taper,
its scent and relation to its neighbors.
I will fix myself on this blade until
I know it so intimately that
no other blade of grass
could ever be mistaken
for it. And then (only then)
I will move on to the
next blade.

I’m not ready yet. For Easter, that is. Or maybe I’m too ready. It’s hard to tell. Certainly, Lent has been a rocky path, fraught with revelation and woe. I feel as though my body has been washed up on the shore of Holy Thursday, and I haven’t a clue what to do next. Wash some feet? Build a radio out of coconuts?

Lent is not supposed to be a time of despair. It is, in fact, a glorious time, in which we celebrate what Jesus was willing to do for us: He suffered; we got life eternal. Quite possibly the best deal in history, and we didn’t have to lift a finger. Still, it’s hard not to feel mixed emotions.

Why are we placed in this state of contradiction?
The daffodils say spring but the sky says winter.
We are dying. We are never dying at all.
We are rising like bread; we are falling like rain.
Somehow Good Friday amends into Easter —
a miracle, clearly, but sudden. So sudden.
Do we sit at the tomb till we’re ready? Or
do we wonder at apparitions? Run tell the gospel
or wait for a Pentecost just beyond our line of sight?
Salvation comes at a gallop. I mouth prayers
and hope for the courage to jump on.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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