Icons are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible.
—Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons
In his book of meditations on the icons of 15th-century Russian artist Andrei Rublev's, theologian Henri Nouwen says this about the iconographer’s famous “Christ the Redeemer:”
When I first saw… I had the distinct sense that the face of Christ appears in the midst of great chaos. A sad but beautiful face looks at us through the ruins of the world.
You are frightened
when you first realize something
is gone, when the strings that hold now
to then are snapped, leaving you
somewhere above ground with nowhere to land,
nothing to hold onto.
From my desk in the laundry room, I can watch the sunset as it stretches across the sky toward my north-facing door. Each sunset is the waning of a day, just one of the repeated patterns of loss in our lives. Loss is a near constant companion to us all. Even in a newborn’s first moments he begins to lose time. From then on, loss shadows us. The turtle dies, whose tiny movements we watched from above his plastic island and tap-water bay; the bird we rescued from a parking lot never unfolds his wings again; we lose our first grandparent; and one day we walk out the door of our childhood home into the beckoning world.
“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
I administer these words to my body like a balm as I heave and weave, clambering up mountains, hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail, the Rockies, the Adirondack High Peaks.
“The body interacts and changes places with apparel as we wear it, changing ruffle to ankle, in the vision of one motion. We let it affect the way we move, the way we interact, the way we shape affection, the means by which we negotiate other’s opinions of our social standing, the way we cognize our own body.”
As one who doesn’t typically pay a great deal of attention to the act of dressing, I have an ambiguous relationship with clothing. In fact, I often catch myself contemplating the necessity of clothing in negative terms, partly because over the years I have become increasingly aware of the class distinctions and identity communicating elements inherent in clothing choices. My mindset has been slowly changing though, in large part thanks to a generous benefactor of luxurious hand-me-downs.
It’s no secret that we live in a culture that idolizes productivity and ability and youth. Ours is a culture of ideals. We set up shrines to perfect skin, lithe bodies, and Instagrammable-health.
One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God ... everything does.
Do you remember playing with a gyroscope as a kid? You’d snap the string, lean down eye level with the table, and watch it spin on its axis until the momentum slowed and it wobbled to a stop. The gyroscope’s movements are the same ones that weave through our lives. It appears balanced enough, but the view from the axis can look like a lot of frantic spinning.
I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.
—Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
A few years ago, in the interest of honing a short story that I considered decent (which it turned out not to be, particularly), I attended the legendary Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico—that annual summer gathering at St. John’s College of Christian (or not) poets, painters, musicians, and budding screenplay and fiction writers. That year, prolific novelist Bret Lott facilitated the fiction workshop. Every morning before our class began the round of shock therapy euphemistically called “peer critique,” Professor Lott offered short, helpful lectures on writing while we all drank coffee and breathed in the signature Santa Fe scent of burnt brick and piñon that wafted through the open windows of our classroom. All his teaching was good, but these years later I don’t remember much of what the good professor said.
I remember the first time I experienced the blunt heaviness of homesickness: the pulsing desire to return to the place of belonging, to people who care, and an environment that’s safe. I was in grade two and had been away from my family for about five days at a non-profit kid’s camp a few hours away. Curiously, the wumping of homeward ache didn’t hit me until after arriving at my friend’s house, where I awaited mom to pick me up. Suddenly, less than half an hour from home, the telltale symptoms of loneliness started leaking out my eyes. I remember my friend’s gentle dad leaving a message on my parents’ machine, “come whenever you can, I think someone is quite homesick.”
There’s a lot that no one ever tells you. No one ever told me how despair can get physical, muscle in and sprawl heavy across the chest.
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
— John Keats
In a September post, I wrote about how artists like John Muth, John Cage, and Suzanne Cleary open doors for us to explore what inhabits silence: movement in John Muth’s brushstrokes; sounds coming to life in Cage’s silent concert halls; or the feeling of suspended time in Suzanne Cleary’s poem “Elm Street.” Again, silence draws me back, this time, into its depths.
I am sometimes embarrassed when I remember how important a certain book was to me five years ago. Amplify that embarrassment exponentially for each year closer to high school. The embarrassment comes partly, I think, from what the earth-shattering import I gave to this or that book says about what I had read up to that point in my life.
For many trades, the practice of apprenticing has been an established method of imparting instruction from expert to apprentice. The learned takes the initiate under her or his wing, and over a period of time, something is imparted to the apprentice. Whether this is knowledge about gardening, mechanics, pottery or something else, the apprenticing system has proven successful when a skill has been imparted.
Through illness, man comes back to himself.
— St. Serpahim of Sarov
Very recently, a three-day illness sent me to the wall. Suffice it to say there were woes and throes and flues and vertigo aplenty, of an intensity I’d never before experienced. For once, I don’t need to resort to hyperbole when I claim that I didn’t move. If I tried to, I immediately checked into another dimension where the ceiling spun above me like time-lapse footage of star trails on steroids. Every minute was an hour, or no time at all, and the slightest noise devolved to cacophony and new frontiers of vertigo. Trying to imagine life outside my closed bedroom door was akin to planning a tea party on the backside of Jupiter. In short, I was completely disoriented.
"I stood upon the edge where the mist ascended" . . . "Light! more light!" . . . "I've lived the parting hour to see / Of one I would have died to save." . . . "I found the arrow, still unbroke." ...
I watched and heard my students say these lines, and so many more, one day in January. They were embodying poems they'd learned by heart, each one saying two: one of 25 lines or fewer, and one composed before the twentieth century was. We were following the rules of Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The trouble with T.S Eliot’s reputation, many writers have said, is that his early work has been explored (think “The Wasteland”) while the later has been ignored. This has changed somewhat lately, but it’s still fairly pervasive. For example, in many poetry anthologies – the place where students get their first taste of poetry – it will be the younger, non-believing rather nihilistic Eliot they are introduced to. It’s not too often that something like the Four Quartets will be provided. Nope, the concluding sentiment received will be, likely, from “The Hollow Men”:
“This is the way the world ends (x3)
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
"I come into the peace of wild things." — Wendell Berry
Have you ever listened to an instrumental version of a song that’s familiar to you and realized, while you’re humming along, singing the words in your head, that a younger person, hearing the same version, would have no idea that there are words to it? You would be experiencing the same song, but at different levels.
When I think of metaphors for our identity—the prismatic, shifting, layered, being-becoming self—I sometimes think of landscapes with peaks and valleys, or three-dimensional stained-glass kaleidoscopes, or even the deep expanse of space.
A few years ago, my school brought a young man named Liam Robinson to America. He hails from Lincolnshire, England, and makes his way by teaching English longsword dancing and performing folk songs he's gathered from his home country and from every country in which he's found a home in song.
Today, I sit on the bed, looking at the piles of laundry. There is a pile on my right. There is a pile on my left, and there is a pile on the bed. Afternoon happens to be when I am at my weakest. The pain is like a splinter I can’t get out of my thumb, but in this case, that splinter is wedged deep in the space between my condyles and my skull. The diagnosis I’ve been given is idiopathic condylar resorption—in other words, my jaw joint is disintegrating, along with the condyles. “Idiopathic” simply means no one knows why.
“A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”
I grew up in the suburbs. Those places where you could only see distance if you looked up, because the houses and yards and hedges of your neighbors and their neighbors became the extent of your horizon. These views were vastly different from the ones that inspired Coleridge and Wordsworth on their walking tour through moorland and woodland, and along the coast of Bristol Channel. They weren’t like Emily Dickinson’s views at the Homestead, where she wandered through orchard and gardens, tending the flowers that thrived in her poetry. And they’re not the English countryside Tolkien knew as a child that charmed his Hobbits’ Shire.