attention, art, & love: quarantine thoughts

“The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?

My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.

Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.” —Marie Howe

***

“Daddy, she looks like a good person. Doesn’t she look like a good person?” The little boy chattering in the Target shopping cart, gripping a toy shaped like a beige egg, suddenly turns his clairvoyant eyes towards me. A good person. I smile broadly behind the gray confines of my mask and hope that a timid wave and a softening in my eyes can somehow be enough to convey a burst of joy. Soon, their cart rolls out of view, and I realize with a start that I will never know what was trapped within that egg, aching to emerge.

***

“Art. Love. What’s the difference, really?” My friend says with a shrug, and when he smiles his eyes crumple into celebratory lines, like confetti mid-descent.

***

A few nights back, I had a dream that I was running, breathless, from something or someone. The only shelter was the church ahead, but I was barefoot; I couldn’t enter without shoes. My friend appeared in an adjacent doorway and kindly gave me his sneakers without a second thought. I rushed inside, only to see a face turn away in hurt.

***

December 9th, 2019:

“I bumped into a friend today, dressed brightly and carrying an umbrella. I rushed over to huddle under too, and we laughed when it bopped my head. We spoke of those graduating in December and exchanged a mutual frazzled look. We both expressed how charmed we are to be waiting ’till May, delaying the inevitable, taking our time with growing old. We parted ways. The rain fell.

Now I am sitting at Blackberry Market, and, though it is echoey and empty and strange, it is altogether like a second home. I think the baristas know me (embarrassing or flattering?) and my signature mug by now. I’ve settled in, to this seat, yes, but also here at large. It is making sense to me now. I drove friends to the store yesterday and knew the twists and turns and street names—no GPS needed. More friends stayed in my apartment until 2:00 am because they couldn’t bear to leave; they told me it felt like home, and I could see in their eyes that they were hungry for belonging. We listened to my Frank Sinatra Christmas vinyl and jazz and then fell into comfortable, companionable silence. I went off to bed, and a few still lingered there. As I drifted off to sleep, I bemusedly thought about this feeling—like that of a parent with children sleeping over. I fell asleep to the lullaby of whispered conversation and spurts of contained laughter. Tenderness.”

***

Lady Bird: “Well, I was just describing it.”

Sister Sarah Joan: “Well, it comes across as love.”

Lady Bird: “Sure, I guess I pay attention.”

Sister Sarah Joan: “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”

***

January 13th, 2020, four months ago, first day of final semester:

“I make small talk with the girl beside me at the CPO window. We shared a ride together once from Midway; her friend drove us and insisted on me not paying. I smile and turn to leave, and she shouts after me: ‘Take care!’ I didn’t expect it, but it rings in my ears as I step out into the grey afternoon.

I drive to Twice as Nice and find that the dress I’ve been pining over for weeks is gone. I buy a cozy grey sweater instead and pay in all quarters. The woman at the register excitedly exclaims that they are just what she needs. She is almost out of quarters, she says. And pennies.

We are always filling in the gaps, whether we know it or not. I am amazed today by how we are able to be so many things to so many people, shifting and morphing in and out—how God stitches us into the complexity of His story. We may never know when our presence, our words, or our actions turn out to be exactly what someone else needs.

Earlier, in chapel, Dr. Ryken said, ‘It is when we reach the end of our own limited resources that God is able to do all that He can do.'”

***

“We have so little of each other, now… Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy? These fleeting temples we make together when we say, ‘Here, have my seat,’ ‘Go ahead—you first,’ ‘I like your hat.'”—Danusha Lameris

***

Another dream: On a road trip, I suddenly realized my luggage had mysteriously vanished from the car. Then, I could see it, there, waiting for me along the sidewalk. We were in bumper-to-bumper traffic, so I jumped out of the vehicle and barreled after it. The black form kept getting further and further away, and I turned to see the car had left me behind.

***

JO: “Perhaps… perhaps I was too quick in turning him down.”

MARMEE: “Do you love him?”

JO: “If he asked me again, I think I would say yes… Do you think he’ll ask me again?”

MARMEE: “But do you love him?”

JO (tearing up): “I care more to be loved. I want to be loved.”

MARMEE: “That is not the same as loving.”

JO (crying, trying to explain herself to herself): “You know, I just feel like women… they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it, but… I am so lonely.”

***

“I know you are reading this poem / as the underground train loses momentum and before running / up the stairs / toward a new kind of love. / I know you are reading this poem listening for something torn / between bitterness and hope / turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse. / I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else / left to read.” —Adrienne Rich

very blessed

“I’m very blessed,” you say over the phone and mean it.

It is Good Friday, and one of the lines from Eliot’s “East Coker” has been ricocheting in your mind for hours. Last year, you knelt before the cross after a three hour long service and cried. Your hand was over your friend’s. A stranger’s cupped your own. His body was broken. Crumbled bread, spilled wine. Your body felt broken, limping slightly towards the stage with a tender inevitability. You have been thinking about lost things and about how Eliot, regardless of your own opinions about his overly-lauded oeuvre, is a prophet. A month from now, graduation. A month ago, Scotland. A kind of eternity between.

“Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

Resolving the enigma of the fever chart…

To be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital

Endowed by the ruined millionaire,

Wherein, if we do well, we shall

Die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere…

The dripping blood our only drink,

The bloody flesh our only food:

In spite of which we like to think

That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—

Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.” — T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”

4.10.20

the curvature of a spotted feline back

shudders against crossed legs. she is

asleep, purring and dream-twitching.

very blessed. you remember in physics

learning about sound waves, how the hum

of a cat’s purr has special healing properties,

can strengthen bones, lessen the risk of heart attack,

abiding within the frequencies of 20-140 Hertz.

very blessed. like the berries, cherries, and peaches

blending together just right to bless the body.

like the long-awaited phone call, like light streaming

through the window onto these small potted plants,

as they reach heavenward, grow without striving.

sweetbitter (4/1/20)

Happy National Poetry Month!

meditation #1:

a handful of berries in the morning,

bitter then sweet in alternating grace.

they lie, smooth as pebbles, trembling slow.

these are the days that must happen to you,

and these are the fruits placed in front of us:

the chaff and Chaucer’s sentence al sooth.

you are you, neither Socrates nor Persephone.

you are the grinning totem, the lodestar.

 

so the sunlight falls across us in waves,

cleansing us for we expect nothing in particular,

tugging us nearer to the start of all things,

and nearer still to the stirring of branches above,

of wildflower yearning and velvet bees abuzz.

in the realm of sweetbitter, think not of me.

isolation & the in-between

“The world has been turned upside down.” Everyone keeps saying this, and I acknowledge the rattled sentiment — I feel it too — but something isn’t quite right about the statement’s rise and fall. Then again, I’ve always been too particular about words. What would I prefer? I have no exact answer, not yet. Perhaps: The world has been adjusted to some inferior angle. Tilted just so. While everything at first glance appears remarkably familiar and mundane, all of the books are slipping off of shelves. The plates and cups are tumbling, shattering upon the floor. A disturbance subtle but devastating. People must grope their way forward, clutching slanted walls and doorknobs, tripping, alone, in slow motion.

✤ ✤ ✤

Nature is winning our staring contest. I awoke the other morning, startled to see a stink bug atop one of my grey pillows, its antennae bobbing up and down. Its gaze was level with my own, and we remained in a cocoon of silence — until I rolled out of bed, unnerved. I did not see it again. This happened with a bird also. Perhaps it was the mockingbird that lives in the magnolia tree outside and sings at all hours. It was there, in the rain, when I arose, looking in from its perch outside my window. When it saw its gaze was now returned, it departed in a wingbeat. Is it an intimacy to be so surveyed?

✤ ✤ ✤

I miss my roommate and I’s shared silence. She would awake early to an alarm that sounded like birdsong and slip into the kitchen to eat the oatmeal she set out in preparation the night before. She would sip her tea in the living room’s quietude. I would awake later to a song from Moonrise Kingdom, the instruments entering one by one, softly and then in crescendo. I’d grab a protein bar from the kitchen, then shower — with music if especially tired, maybe Tennis or the Pride & Prejudice soundtrack. Then, we would swap. She would use the bathroom to get ready while I had my tea and put on my makeup. Such simple, seamless formulas. I did not realize until the end how gorgeous the morning light was, filtering through our sheer white curtains. I remember how we both giggled, eyes wide, when we looked around the bare room at first, tallying what we would need, and spoke in unison. Curtains? Yes. Added to the list. “Sheer.” We both said. A pause. “White?” She asked. I nodded, amazed, “Yes, you read my mind.”

✤ ✤ ✤

There is a cardinal that keeps flying into our downstairs windows. When I arrived home for quarantine, I was mystified by our house’s new haphazard decorations. My parents had crumpled up scrap paper into butterfly shapes, tying them to strings to hang outside. This effort, however, proved to be no deterrent for the persistent bird. I believe she is protecting her nest, though we have seen no sign of it. Perhaps she sees the glint of red in the window and rushes forward, in vain, towards herself, thinking she will defend her young. When I hear her slam against the glass, my heart sinks. At first, I was determined to charge forward each time she approached, distracting her and sending her flying away to safety. Now, I have grown tired. She will go away but always returns — thump, thump, thump. Maybe she has a death wish, but surely there are easier ways to die.

✤ ✤ ✤

What is a group of ladybugs called? I Google. A loveliness. A group of ladybugs is called a loveliness. I really cannot believe I didn’t come across this knowledge earlier. Well, the loveliness of ladybugs will not leave my bedroom. They fly into my hair with a low hum and fall into my tea whenever I leave a mug unattended. They gather on my windowpane as if in gossip and circle each other like bumper cars, buzzing when they happen to meet. I desperately want to like them, but I can only think of the odd pink ladybug that bit me on the arm as a child.

✤ ✤ ✤

I read a thread on Twitter from a historian in Boston encouraging people to document these tumultuous times, especially women. “You are living through a major historical event.” To do so digitally is acceptable, but writing with paper and pen is preferred. You can donate the diaries to archives when you die. “Personal stories don’t make it into the history books unless people are writing them down in the first place.” So, I suppose I am writing for me and for her and her and her. “Throughout history, women’s letters and journals often provided the only real information of their lives in different eras.”

✤ ✤ ✤

Just in case. We go just in case, driving to the small building on the outskirts of town, guided by the orange traffic cones. The cough has lingered for a week. No fever. It is raining hard, and the nurse approaches with a black umbrella. She asks a few basic questions and writes my name down incorrectly. Matteo. Another nurse approaches, the one who will perform the deed, and asks me to tilt my car seat back. We have had the car for years, but still I fumble along the side of the seat, confused. A single lever. Nothing works. The nurse sighs behind her mask. “That’s okay. I just wanted to make it easier.” The panic begins to flutter, vacillating just below the surface. So, now it will not be easy. “Can you take your glasses off, sweetie?” I do, folding them up slowly and feeling more naked and defenseless by the moment. She wants to start with the left nostril first, and this, for some reason, throws me off guard. Why the left? I’m left-handed. I want to blurt out, as if that makes any difference. Does that mean it should be the opposite order? I am so used to things being opposite what they are. I clutch the notch in the car door and brace myself, but I am not prepared. The entire process burns, and I can feel myself pulling away, giving in to some inner instinctual part of me born to protect from pain. The seconds stretch on. It feels as if she is reaching upwards towards my brain, like a stubborn parasite. Once she is done with the left, she says the right nostril must follow, with the same oozing swab. This side is somehow worse, and, later, I spot blood on my tissue when I sneeze. A constant metallic smell. I thank the nurse, several times, though I am not sure how I form the words to do so. As we pull away, some strange tide within me surges upwards, and I collapse into sobs. I do not know why I am crying, and this alarm only makes me cry more. I think there is something about the process of taking that demolishes me inside. Blood samples. My wisdom teeth. It is all the same. Each time, my body fights. My body loses. It mourns in waves.

✤ ✤ ✤

Dodie sings softly live, strumming her ukulele on my phone screen. A friend leads an impromptu worship session with her husband. I realize more than ever that there are bridges spanning all these isolated in-betweens. “Find comfort in that we are all in the house of God.” The pastor says on Sunday, “One house with many rooms.”

consolation of

It feels trivial to be writing about writing, but

here I am.

I am twenty-one. It is February. Neither of these facts feel true.

“Are you going to do something with your writing?” A friend asked me. I stared blankly. Surely, I already was. Surely, writing itself is an act and sharing it another. “Are you going to publish any of it?” My mind sputtered. “I don’t know. Maybe, but not yet.”

themes of childhood & womanhood, loss of innocence, pureness of vision,

seeking, pilgrimage, moments of religious significance

dreamlike. psychological insight. elegance of diction. both strength & weakness.

“You are so brave.” Several people have said this, eyes wide, when I explain that I want an adventure for a life, that I cannot stay here, that I will cross an ocean. I do not feel brave, have never felt particularly brave.

There is no sun.

It is the longest cloudy spell Chicago has seen in over twenty-two years. I feel its weight.

My world is white and grey, bifurcated by dark skeletons of trees.

I’m reading Bluets. It felt so strange last night. I watched the Dutch Blitz cards flash and glasses clink, and I kept expecting someone to launch into a monologue on Boethius or Sharon Olds or St. Catherine of Siena. I kept waiting for wisdom. I have always abhorred small talk, but now I feel that I am ruined forever. Especially after Boston. I sat; I ate my gluten-free cookies.

I wonder what my color would be.

“My consuming desire is… to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.” Sylvia Plath understands. She understands many things.

A prayer I barely remember writing:

Spark kindred joy in me and gift me a gaze that sees the good in all things. Provide me with an inner elevation of the mundane. Give me the courage it takes to consume my daily bread, to rise once again, to creep through the opaque winter dawn and put on my woolen socks. Beg me to join the dance and make me come alight. Fill in the gaps, O God, and meet me in my unbelief.

 

December 1, 2019: all that I can give

The first day of Advent —

and I look down at my hands,

sparkling with pine tree sap

from ornaments bedecked high,

and begin to know what it means

to need darkness to appreciate light.

 

The airport’s hallways are endless,

like purgatory, I think to myself,

circular, as Dante intended —

never-ending and buzzing with the noise

of a thousand mumbled epiphanies.

A man jogs by. I wonder what he is running from, where and who he is running to. We are both liminal and infinite. Liminally infinite. We are sleeplessly awake. The bleary masses, hurrying across the finish line, limping, with the wannest and weariest of smiles.

Dizzying screens flash, staccato. Cameras clash. And we are all publicly private, together.

I think of Christ entering into the chaos too,

born near the dungheap, beneath eons of stars long dead. Dwelling in our midst, in our misery, in our everyday grey, in the twist of a night’s extended flight delay. He is here.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

60 books, 365 days: 2019

2019. 60 books. About 12,927 pages read.

The champions? The works of literature that live on in my mind? Here they lie.

  • A Severe Mercy
  • Mary Oliver’s poetry
  • The Bell Jar (again)
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • She Who Is
  • T.S. Eliot’s poetry
  • The Glass Menagerie
  • Six of Crows & Crooked Kingdom
  • Franny and Zooey
  • Purple Hibiscus
  • Rilke’s poetry
  • The Wildwood Trilogy
  • The Testaments

For a complete list, check my Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2019/8615040

2020, cheers to you! May you bring even more stories and magic and beauty.

Ramblings on Manna, Milk, & Honey

Only God. Things are coming together in a way that can only be defined by the divine.

I opened the Bible today and started reading, listless and tired. The end of Leviticus was before me and, soon, Numbers. “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” I jumped. This was the same verse mentioned in church on Sunday. One of the worship leaders had quoted this verse, explaining: “This idea of ‘being seen as a grasshopper’ was entirely in their head. They had come into the land as spies, and they were not caught. They hadn’t really been seen at all. Often the Enemy attempts to make us feel less than, to trap us in feelings of fear and inadequacy, until we become convinced that we are only a grasshopper and everyone else knows it too.” [paraphrased]

A mere paragraph before this, Numbers 13:27 reads: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey!” Well, it’s pretty strange that my mentor and I literally decided today that we are meeting for a farewell lunch tomorrow at a restaurant called Milk and Honey?! It was the only restaurant in the vicinity I could find with a menu suited to my dietary restrictions, so, in a way, it is a promised land for me.

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” My mom brought up this prayer from Numbers 6 recently, and we were trying to remember the exact wording… and I suddenly stumbled upon it in the text today. We also had a conversation over dinner a few days ago where I brought up the motif of the Lord hiding His face in the Old Testament when the Israelites disobey vs. the radiance His face brings. When the Lord hides his face, His people are abandoned and in darkness and cry out, as in the Psalms. In contrast, “My servant Moses… with him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord.” However, intimacy and closeness with the Lord, like that of Moses, leads to abundant, undeniable light.

On Sunday morning, I did not want to leave my bed. I unlocked my phone, peering through bleary eyes, and opened Twitter, only to be instantly devastated by the news of the two latest shootings: 250 in the 215 days of 2019. I felt sick, stupefied, and unmoored. Now, as I write this, there have been 255 total recorded shootings in the United States. I wanted to cave inward and pull up my grey blanket to shut out the light. “I don’t want to go church.” I thought stubbornly. Even churches aren’t safe anymore. So many lives were just lost, have been lost, will be lost. How could prayers ever be enough? I just wanted to grieve, alone. “What better place to go now than to Church?” The Holy Spirit gently prodded. I rolled out of bed.

Toni Morrison died today, and I feel an ache deep in my soul. I feel an ache for so many things that are lost — the lives taken every day by gun violence, the innocence of the children sleeping on concrete floors in cages at the border, the humanity of our nation. In church, the sermon halted to let worship take over. How could it not? We were all searching, all wanting to find, all needing to be filled beyond our own strength in order to cope, to act, to be light in these times. People filled the aisles, getting down on their knees. Women wept. Men stood, arms outstretched to the sky in surrender. How could they not? I read an article recently about how the planet’s current condition is what it was not supposed to be until 2070. We are outliving our stay here, desecrating the gift we were tasked to steward. I don’t know if I want children anymore. How could I?

On Sunday, the pastor mentioned the Lord’s promise to heal the land, once His people turned in repentance and pledged themselves to Him. Leviticus 26:42 reinforces this, “I will remember my covenant… and I will remember the land.” Lord, we are believing this.  We can do nothing but believe this; in our turbulent present, please hold us fast to Your promises. Let our amen to Your will be deafening. Help us to collectively draw so near to You that we are blinding in these dark days. Empower us to create a new resonance — to pray and worship and abide as we call our senators, as we boldly stand up to corruption. The pursuit of holiness and the pursuit of justice are ever-intertwined.

I realized today for the first time that manna could have been anything. Why did God choose to send down manna, of all things, from heaven? It could have been any culinary wonder of His own creation. A new kind of fruit, perhaps.

Why manna? Simple sustenance. Daily bread. Communion fare.

I had something else that I was supposed to write, but these words were louder.

Rue for You

“I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly / As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands… / I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty. / How free it is, you have no idea how free——”

Fragments of Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” came to me today as I laid, supine, in the dim office, full of waiting. My body was humming. I became an itch. It was hard to breathe.
There was a vial in my left hand, and the other arm, outstretched, was draped like Ophelia’s. There must have been something to its geometry for I stopped, agog, heart quickening, when I noticed the likeness — transported back to the Tate Britain.
It was her portrait I lingered at the longest in the gallery dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelites, and I perched nearby with my eyes scarcely departing from her frame. I attempted to sketch her but could not do her justice. She was so vivid. It was a Millais.
I had written a paper on her suicide — well, on how it wasn’t really a suicide at all yet was, subconsciously — and Hamlet was fresh in my mind. I could still remember the symbolism behind all of the flowers and herbs in her garland. Daises, rue, rosemary, violets, fennel.

“It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them / Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet… / The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me. / Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.”

Ophelia did not know death was coming and yet, deep down, she sensed it all along. I am sure all of Shakespeare’s characters are haunted by that sense of perpetual morality, aware somehow that he could, in an instant, scratch their name from the script, blot their character out.
I didn’t know death was coming either and yet I did. I felt it deeply, primitively, fearfully.
I think that I always, to an extent, feel it, fear it. La même chose. And here it appears, garish, in the most unexpected of forms. Now I mourn the loss of the things
I did not cherish in their proper time, and the tears are bitter — full of Gatsby’s longing.
I think that his life will end tonight, but I pray that he does not leave this hollow world alone. I hope an inward part of him is soothed, guided, surrounded, comforted. Once of one stubborn mind, united in motion and quickness of being, in freedom and play, I mourn the death of an extension of myself. I hope he is able to greet the midnight hour when he quietly bids farewell.
Until then, the night is pregnant with untrodden paths and unspoken words, and,
alack, I drown, singing — desperate to fill the years of silence.

Summer 2019 Goals

As June quickly approaches, I have had these goals in mind for optimizing the rest of my summer. I am posting them for accountability purposes and because it was exceedingly beneficial as a first step to organize them here and articulate them in writing.

  • Write poetry daily.
  • Limit my social media time (collectively, on all apps) to an hour or less each day.
  • Prioritize reading books for fun in spare moments. (More books, less Netflix.)
  • Stay hydrated! Drink more water (and still lots of tea, of course).
  • Spend more intentional time with God.
  • Exercise consistently (gym 2x per week, skating 1x per week, and yoga/stretching/at-home exercises daily).
  • Attend NAET appointments 1-2x per week to (hopefully) knock out food allergies.
  • Maintain an A in all of my summer classes.
  • Research travel details for an exciting August trip.
  • Complete my internship work on the upcoming OSGEMEOS and Turner exhibitions.

Do you have any specific goals for this summer? Any books you’re dying to read or places you’re yearning to travel? Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to see!