bildungsroman

Transmuted. I am simplifying its weight. I am subtraction; I am a sum. Mary Oliver’s words come to me as I gather up the rippling landscape of sheets, hem in hand: “I don’t want to lose a single thread / from the intricate brocade of this happiness. / I want to remember everything.”

***

The old man, Alan, sits beside me on the beach. I’m disturbing your reading, he says. A statement, not quite an apology. I close the Fitzgerald novel and place it beside me, It’s alright; I’ve read it before. He looks at me as if afresh. Your face is thin… Vous êtes très élégante. You look a bit like my mother. She had long fingers. She played piano, you know.

***

When a journey has charted its route, then comes the moment of clarity: I was singing my goodbye every step of the way. A petulant thistle scratches my ankle each time I hang laundry in the garden to dry, an ever-misstep. These patterns reek of constellations, mistakes yet fluttering like benedictions. Alison Brackenbury writes, “Geraniums / crumpled, brilliant, soaring out of water, / all sprigs which I have sliced off by mistake / in careless gardening, Now they thrive for days, / things done in error, the odd corners / of our lives, which flower and flower.” This is an ode to freshly baked buns and loaves, plum windfall, the pleading meow outside the door. This is a tender farewell. Here and no other, I awakened to light streaming through gauzy curtains while, outside, branches (their shadows) danced.

***

“You changed me, you should remember me. / I remember I had gone out / to walk in the garden. As before into / the streets of the city, into / the bedroom of that first apartment. / And yes, I was alone; / how could I not be?” -Louise Glück, “Seizure”

***

I dreamt again for the first time in ages, color after nights of blank darkness, a yawning abyss of rest in which to sink like a stone. The you that wasn’t really you, just a figment, you, they, looked into my eyes and asked softly, desiring nothing, Are you okay? The day that followed, I glimpsed the fox again, perhaps the same one that once startled me in the garden, peering intently through my kitchen window at night. It paused before crossing the road in the August dusk, waiting just long enough for me to catch sight. Summer had fled without reproach, and I was draped in my wool coat. When I beheld my friend again earlier that afternoon for the first time since January, we ran a little into each other’s arms. It was like that, I think. Immodest joy. We had weathered barrenness, the bleak winter. Look at us! she said. We made it.

***

“All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking… / Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances… / There are moments when the body is as numinous / as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. / Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, / saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.” -Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

***

In the dead of night, before the royal coffin journeyed from Balmoral to Holyrood, a small mourning procession disturbed my sleep: a black car and kilted soldiers, trailed by policemen on horses—hooves ringing out over cobblestones. I lay abed, insomniac, thinking in fragments of Plath, “Love is a shadow. / How you lie and cry after it / Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse. / All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously, / till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf, / Echoing, echoing.” Always this poem, an elm expanding its roots.

***

“I / enter, without retreat or help from history, / the days of no day, my earth / of no earth, I re-enter / the city in which I love you. / And I never believed that the multitude / of dreams and many words were vain.” -Li-Young Lee, “The City in Which I Love You”

***

How many raindrops ’til rainfall? Passerby barrel past, chins tucked in upturned collars. How many brisk and misty days until summer surrenders to autumn? O, fickle gradient of seasons. Such obscurification from the thing itself—an image of an image of an image. Robert Hass penned an explanation to Czesław Miłosz on the poetic difference between o! and oh!—one being an invocation, a declaration of wonder or fierce longing, and the other a thought cut short in a moment of consuming surprise.

***
“In a dream, rain ran past me. / Half-shouting, half stumbling. Tripping over its dress of rain. / Beauty always seems to rush straight through me. On its way to someplace else… / In a dream, I walk across a plain carrying books filled with flowers. / People in books carry tulips and secrets and handwritten letters to each other. / Maybe my life is trying to tell me something. These days, / I want to wander. But the past still needs me.” -Hua Xi, “The Past Still Needs Me”

***

The night before leaving the coast, I hardly slept. Scrubbing and cleaning and packing away memories, followed by tossing and turning with dreams of overflow, too many possessions. I do not want this many things to name me, a small lopsided kingdom. In that kitchen, a friend said she believed love was the center of everything. In those months, I grew accustomed to seagull chatter, corpulent spiders, and the rickety dresser. I read Dickinson’s envelope poems and knitted hats. Students would go skateboarding down North Street in the wee hours or singing merrily offkey. My world turned there, found its axis in a hospitable solitude.

A year ago, when the man of kindness dropped off the last of my things, he enveloped me in a warm hug at the threshold before he turned to go. I think you will be very happy here, he said.

***

“I grew up with horses and poems / when that was the time for that… / Women have houses now, and children. / I live alone in a kind of luxury. / I wake when I feel like it, / read what Rilke wrote to Tsvetaeva, / At night I watch the apartments / whose windows are still lit / after midnight. I fell in love. / I believed people. And even now / I love the yellow light shining / down on the dirty brick wall.” -Linda Gregg, “Staying After”

***

The German word Bildungsroman means “novel of education” or “novel of formation.” A common variation of the Bildungsroman is the Künstlerroman, a novel dealing with the formative years of an artist. There are four traditional stages found within a Bildungsroman: loss, journey, conflict and personal growth, and maturity. The Bildungsroman traditionally ends on a positive note, though its action may be tempered by resignation and nostalgia.

solstice, binding

You’ve picked quite a time to come visit. The weather ripples unseasonably warm, overzealous June heat usually reserved for dog days of August and July. Dog days: a phenomenon concerning stars and ancient Rome more than panting caninesthe transit of Sirius, brightest star after the sun. This fickle summer arrives in solstice and swelter but has already been felt over and over, already sweat out through every pore.

***

[a small breath prayer, composed in motion]

Inhale: You are a great mystery, God.

Exhale: I do not need all of the answers.

***

Each day, I glide among constellations of my own making, webs linking others through mere perception; gaze and assumption operate like twin heartbeats. On the street, I construe, construct, and elude: passerby seen as best friends, father and son, a couple. How many times am I wrong? Naming for convenience, weaving fables in the absence of piercing truth. I do not want to build my life on such inaccuracies, these minute adjustments and formulas. But what else is there? In what other way can we know the world?

***

“I am content because before me looms the hope of love. / I do not yet have it; I do not yet have it. / It is a bird strong enough to lead me by the rope it bites; / unless I pull, it is strong enough for me. / I do worry the end of my days might come / and I will not yet have it. But even then I will be brave / upon my deathbed, and why shouldn’t I be? / I held things here, and I felt them. / And to all I felt I will whisper hosanna for goodbye. / It is sweet to think of myself, alone at that very moment, / able to say such a thing / to all that was my life, / to all that was not.”

Katie Ford, “Psalm 40”

***

On the bridge’s arc, past flickering golden hour and pavement’s radiating heat, I felt peace with tender step come knocking. I said, Come in at last. I said, I am so very tired of fighting.

***

“I lay out under / A separate sun. Both of us are fine / With this. We picked our place / Under the lid of god and we shut / Our eyes to it every night. That’s what it means / To have loved goodlyto meet / Fate in a lavender hall and walk / Right past it, the white train quivering, / Nostalgia in your wake” Camonghne Felix, “Why I Loved Him”

***

I am gazing at the meadow where little cousins sought fireflies, my fingertips raspberry-stained. I am half-sun and half-shadow, twisting away from insects—the ants that infiltrate the kitchen but shun cinnamon, doggedly swarming up the wall. I am reading words I have read before, knowing they will mean something else now. I am turning the page.

How lush the world is, / how full of things that don’t belong to me—”

***

“it might be years / before you turn and stop, startled / by the sweet and sudden smell of sheets snapping / in the sun, and the drunken lilac, prairie purple, / blooming, by the doorway, because you planted it” Marie Howe, “Keeping Still”

***

Ammi: known as false Queen Anne’s lace or bishop’s weed, a member of the carrot family, a cold-tolerant wildflower, that which constitutes the field; when its unassuming sap meets human skin in sunlight, it can scar and blister for months…

***

“even / a small purple artichoke / boiled / in its own bittered / and darkening / waters / grows tender, / grows tender and sweet / patience, I think, / my species / keep testing the spiny leaves / the spiny heart” —Jane Hirshfield, “My Species”

***

One day of sun, and the world is pure again—it has aspirations. My tote bag crunches rhythmically, the spoils of a picnic grocery run shuffling for space. I am here and here and here. I am far from where I envisioned; I am exactly where I started; I am where I am meant to be.

I am a shadow, moving. My presence here evokes an absence elsewhere, and I see my silhouette bob along the leaves and friends of weeds, across from the cemetery walls too high to climb.

***

“But this morning, a kind day has descended, from nowhere, / and making coffee in the usual way, measuring grounds / with the wooden spoon, I remembered, / this is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture / after gesture, what else can we know of safety / or of fruitfulness?” —Marie Howe, “From Nowhere”

***

On the pier, we nibbled snacks like unanticipated communion—a punnet of blueberries and a delicious orange olive oil doughnut, drawn and quartered. One of our napkins blew into the lake, scarcely a lake but a sea, though I soon leaned over to fetch it as we laughed and a watching man on the shore gave us an enthusiastic thumbs up. I have a theory that perhaps the world awakens at sunset; regardless, we were thinking more than ever of color then. You said I am the grey-blue of my eyes, notes assuring calm and clarity. You are harder to place, the effervescent orange and fuchsia of hibiscus and California poppies. Life is but moments: moments destined to end, moments destined to be lived a hundred times over.

***

Words scribbled, prophetic, in the beginning of May: “May something come of my emptiness. May the Lord make more of my emptiness than I could with my fullness.”

celandine green

“It’s all with me,” I think. Nothing of necessity has been left behind, despite the phantom fear of loss. Four trains later, Cambridge. Squinting into the sun against my hand, the act creates a tilting plane; devoted light, travelling far, flows around and through.

***

“Life has suddenly become overcrowded. Too many people I can care for are swarming in and filling up my chest. Too many things I want to do are rushing headlong into my new life for reasons unknown to me. All of a sudden my new life is like a field overgrown with strange flowers and exotic grasses or the shimmering, starry sky of my unbridled imagination…” -Qiu Miaojin, Last Words from Montmartre, 30

***

The child tilts forward too fully, face pressed to the daffodil without restraint. His mother laughs and laughs, and I chuckle too, mere passerby to the scene. A robin perches along the path, assessing me from its twig, and I want to reach out, could almost bridge the distance, but I know the gesture would rupture the magic and I would lose its intelligent gaze. I would miss what it might dare to call to within myself. I feel such a well of love towards such things, towards the small woman with the cane in the gallery. She enters and her phone begins to ring, a tinkling music box melody. When she answers, her voice is surprisingly strong and merry, and I glance up from Woolf’s On Being Ill. The division of body and mind, illness as opening a place of interiority. “You’ve caught me at a very good place,” the woman says.

***

“Spring, summer, autumn, winter: / each season brings / its particular birds, whom I feed with crumbs. / …I am alone, I write nothing, / I thank / the gods for this great breadth / of empty light.” -Denise Levertov, “The Poet’s Late Autumn”

***

Regardless of season, the river keeps rushing, and my life decidedly means both everything and nothing. It is the greatest mystery and boundless act of hope. There was ice here before, in that other life. Winter. I remember a tender breaking, the musicality and abstraction of pools divided into fractals. Upon them lies no reflection, no finite substantiation.

***

“God hid himself so that the world could be seen / if he’d made himself known there would only be him / and who in his presence would notice the ant / […] love that is invisible / hides nothing” -Jan Twardowski, “The World”

***

In the atrium filling with shadows, I set down my teacup with a clatter.

Jià 嫁, meaning: to marry out of one’s home.

Gei 给, meaning: to give, given.

Qǔ 娶, meaning: to take a bride.

In Mandarin, men take a bride; women are given, poured out, no longer belonging, a farewell.

“After the ceremony, the bride’s family empties a pail of water as the couple departs,” she explains.

“Why? Is that a form of purification ritual?”

“No, no. It’s a very bittersweet moment. The water from the pail can never return.”

***

There is something even about bitterness that is sweet to me now. Is that what growing up means? To begin to savor all, praising a thing precisely for its absence, realizing what it is not and that this opposite has already been yours in a myriad of ways. The juxtaposition had its joys too, its shortcomings. After years of shunning espresso, now I make the pilgrimage to my local café and order a flat white or a latte and sit, expectant. Last time, the barista, mug in hand, winked at me across the room rather than shouting my name, and I smiled. It was not even the promise of something; it was the assurance of being seen.

***

“This earth, our only / This four-cornered honeycomb / Flooded with nectar and tombed / Foolishly, as bees drown / Tipsy on the sweetness of our little apocalypse / She spoke the Lord’s words without looking / Sound of sandpaper and butter over heat / Sound of butterflies landing / Sound of sweet pea and peony” -Sarah Beth Spraggins, “Crescent”

***

National COVID Memorial Wall, London: Along the Thames, the painted scarlet hearts stretch onward for blocks amid wilted bouquets, tealights, and Sharpie scrawlings: Always in our hearts. Darling. Loved and missed forever. Mum. I’m sorry you died alone. I miss you every day. Grandad. Rest in peace. An extraordinary man. In loving memory. No matter what. Remember them. A year after its creation, so many hearts are empty; so many are full.

***

“Near the wall of a house painted / to look like stone, / I saw visions of God. / […] Love is not the last room: there are others / after it, the whole length of the corridor / that has no end.” -Yehuda Amichai, “Near the Wall of a House”

***

There is a softness I know / and another I might be— / this is an endless parting.

***

In the crisp evening, shivering beneath my coat, a book nestled beneath my arm, the thought arrived. I was unprepared. I had been waiting, mesmerized by illuminated windows.

I’m going to write a novel.

***

By the river, your fingertips rest upon my shoulder, and I am so thankful. To be here. A friend.

starling murmuration

These words have been fully formed since October, but I felt they needed a little extra time to incubate. As I walked the streets of Edinburgh a few days ago, I spotted starlings coalescing over rooftops, swirling in shapes and mystery—there for a moment and then gone. Quietly, strangely, I knew it was time.

“To love God through and across the destruction of Troy and of Carthage—and with no consolation. Love is not consolation, it is light.” -Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

***

The two small children, boy and girl, screech in glee as they race each other across the grass. Their mother follows behind as they raucously, inevitably, stray too far. They are babbling cheerily and pointing at the towering buildings as bees rustle in the flowers. The mother takes their hands, leading them away from my perch on the stone steps and the book I’ve glanced up from in enchanted interest. She smiles apologetically, “I’m sorry. I hope you didn’t come here for peace.” I smile and try to reassure her that all is well. I want to say: No, I did not come here for peace at all. I’ve seen enough of that.

***

Second rain. Is there a word for the drops that fall from trees, belated and too soon? When the clouds have parted and drifting passerby are caught unawares. I cannot help but flinch as a cold droplet falls upon my head, betrayed even as the sun peeks through truant autumn leavesthese boughs, a vessel of shelter then exposure. I think of how God must feel all of our suffering firsthow He has and didages before it reaches us and again when we meet.

***

It spins like a wheel inside you: green yellow, green blue,
green beautiful green.
It’s simple: it isn’t over, it’s just begun. It’s green. It’s still green.
-Richard Siken, “Meanwhile”

***

Illness. Ache in the chest. Do not bend, do not speak.

Listless, in bed, a return to Plath’s “Fever 103°:”

“Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves…

Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on…

I am too pure for you or anyone.
Your body
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern——

Does not my heat astound you! And my light!
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.”

***

Solace:

If I am sad, I can walk in any direction and find a bookshop, a church, a sculpture, a garden.

***

Praise God for bookshops with interminable hallways, slanted stacks, and mysterious basement catacombs. Praise God for conversations on Woolf and contemporary poetry. Praise God for all of the friends I haven’t met yet, for a family that can be hinted even in a day. Praise God for the grace in offering a teapot, a cup, the everyday mercy of honey dissolving in tea. Praise God for and through the hardest no. “It’s a shame as I’m sure you would have been a great success.”

***

“How privileged you are, to be passionately / clinging to what you love; / the forfeit of hope has not destroyed you. / Maestoso, doloroso: / This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us. / Surely it is a privilege to approach the end / still believing in something.” -Louise Glück, “October”

***

to desire / to turn

“Instead of ‘desire,’ [Katherine Bushnell] preferred to translate the word in Genesis 3:16 as ‘turning.'” –The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr

[Middle English desiren, from Old French desirer, from Latin dēsīderāre, to observe or feel the absence of, miss, desire : dē-, de- + sīderāre (as in cōnsīderāre, to observe attentively, contemplate)]

The original sense perhaps being “await what the stars will bring,” from the phrase de sidere “from the stars,” from sidus (genitive sideris) “heavenly body, star, constellation.”

***

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
. -T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”

***

In the dream, I am a filmstar and the scene begins and I don’t know any of my lines, never knew them to begin with. In the dream, there is a murder to solve and a house of many corridors and something lurking in the shadows. In the dream, we are slow dancing in an empty room and tears begin to fall silently, abstract on your shoulder.

***

“The train to Aberdeen is delayed. This is due to… a person being hit by a train.” The automated voice ricochets, repeating its dirge over and over at intervals, bluntly, blindly. “They really don’t need to say that every time, do they?” the older woman next to me murmurs on the platform. As strangers, we exist in the shadow of grief, a forlorn obituary for the unknown traveller.

***

Siken’s “Scheherazade” plays often in the background of my mind, pure autumn notes:

“Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.
It’s not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere,
it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,
how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple
to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
we’re inconsolable.
Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we’ll never get used to it.”

dewdrop architecture

It is the weather for dreaming, for forsaking obligation,

for hiking one’s skirt above the knees, for basking in the sun.

Give me my girlhood again, freckles and scarred knee, with calloused bare feet and eyes bright.

I’ve read the dictionary through, and, all things considered, I would rather be a rainstorm.

***

“And when they fly an airplane, they use something called a gyroscope,” the old man explains to the little boy. The canal is blinding in the sun, and two women are paddling a kayak, chatting about a garden party. I walk without a sense of destination, passing sunbathers in parks and small dogs. It is enough to exist on an unsullied afternoon, to drift in spite of self. The houseboats bob gently, and church steeples rise above the fronds at the water’s edge. Seated under the bridge, a group of men are speaking an unfamiliar language as they eat their lunch, and I rest in the words I cannot understand, in the sweetness of language as muffled melody, free from connotation. And the Word was good, the reversal of polarity guiding me homeward.

Precession – a change in the direction of the axis of a rotating object, as seen in gyroscopes

***

We stumble over the term, squinting in the sun. Désindustrialisation. Cognates, but the cadence is different between our languages. “Deindustrialization,” I say to her, noting the crisp rise and fall. Then, j’essaie in French, syllable by syllable. The ending is familiar, but, somewhere in the middle, the word becomes unwieldy in my mouth. The mind falters. We are like children then, laughing and puckering our lips and slowly pondering the unsayable.

***

When I desire to unlock my front door with the glacial key, I must unpack everything else first—the lanyard perpetually moored in the bottom of my tote bag. Rummaging, then removing: water bottle, books, wallet, laptop. These relics sit in scattered array on the ground as I fumble for a glimpse of Monet’s waterlilies, plumbing the depths of receipts and tissues. My Eiffel Tower charm is gone; it fell off weeks ago. And isn’t it always the same? Before entering every new thing, I have to remove the old, feel its heft, examine what is left and why. Who was I then? Who am I now? What do I want? What am I carrying? I know how to twist the skeleton key now, the proper flick of the wrist. A trick that took me ages. Can you tell me if there is any other way?

***

Tell me what you know of rot. The phrase births from nowhere and haunts me for days, demanding tribute. I am scribbling on the back of an envelope in the hushed library. My feet pounding on the pavement. I am sprinkling sugar over sickly fruit. Plath’s wedding ring is up for auction, and, in the case of unlimited funds, I would buy the letter she wrote Ted on her typewriter: “A clear miraculous guileless blue day with heather-colored asters, shining chestnuts breaking from green pods (I wait till after dark to collect these) and rooks clacking like bright scraped metal; I find myself walking straight, talking incessantly to you and myself… I have very simply never felt this way before, and what I and we must do is fight and live with these floods of strange feeling; my whole life, being, breathing, thinking, sleeping, and eating, has somehow, in the course of these last months, become indissolubly welded to you… I love you like fury.”

***

I shelter beneath the canopy of giant prehistoric plants, maneuvering carefully to avoid the barbs and thorns that snatch. I am chlorophyll-stained with light in the dress with the mended sleeve. “You’re green,” he says suddenly with a laugh, looking up from the camera. An unearthly emerald halo filters through the leaves, and I sneeze for the rest of the afternoon, baptized in pollen. Seek me in gilded gardens, vines unfurling like hidden ink in candlelight.

sea garden

The Lord God is a sun and shield… He will withhold no good thing.” -Psalm 84:11

Yesterday: one of those afternoons with glimmers of satisfaction, reflections of abundance that dazzle worn eyes, like those dancing upon a trout-filled river. Bustling home from the library, with books by H.D. and Rilke tucked under my arm. The bundle of daffodils (on sale) I simply could not resist, existing in scattered vases now. Brighten, rejoice, usher in. The cashier paused when she spotted them, cradling their radiance in her hands, and leaned forward to sniff–her tired expression easing into delight. We said so little but knew so much in that fleeting instant of tender human recognition. “Daffodils are my mother’s favorite,” I explained. “They’re mine too,” she answered, passing the blossoms to me for safekeeping. Shine, now, shine.

Scrolling, searching for olive oil cake recipes. With apples? Lemon? Matcha? I settle on one with crushed raspberries and orange zest. My second knitted hat: now complete, in a mustard yellow only Van Gogh has taught me to love. There was just enough yarn. I kept praying it would be so, calculating with every stitch. Please be enough or it will have all been for nothing. Ever afraid of the undoing, of fraying ends unmet. It was enough. What more can I say? It was enough.

Kindness in every face. Free vegan cookies from the man who always takes my coffee order: an oat milk chai with a dash of cinnamon. Talking with a friend about the places that shape us, about letting go. She remarks that she is in a phase of life where she has two paths for her next step, each leading to an entirely different life. She could be content with each, but they remain wholly different. Therein, she would be different. I nod and listen, understanding her ache more than I can express. Somehow, it all comes back to Plath and the fig tree, always.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was… amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was… a pack of lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” -Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

A bowl full of clementines, a bowl full of pears. My friend’s cactus, Bert, awaiting her return from England. The precarious pile of books by my bed: Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity; Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader; Letters to a Young Poet; Memorial; Every Riven Thing. These are moments I’ll never get back, and I wish I could fully live them. Sometimes I do. Someone said the other day that we are all trapped in “survival mode,” experiencing collective trauma, and we cannot begin healing until the trauma is over. After all, a wound cannot close with the knife still inside. Like Danez Smith, I pray ruin ends here. Let this be the healing / & if not let it be.

“Right when I first saw you, I knew you were a writer.” “Really?”

Stained Glass & the Sea

“All my life, so far, I have loved more than one thing.” -Mary Oliver

***

Typing away, then so easily distracted. Distracted by beauty, for always and always. I turn to my left, peering up at the stained glass. An image of Mary and Martha with Jesus placed between, a conduit of peace and token of abiding. There is such history here, and I am so small, and it makes me want to throw my hands in the air (to celebrate? to despair at the passage of time?).

***

Reading Audre Lorde while my mind is elsewhere, a page turning, an electric shock:

“To Martha: A New Year”

“As you search over this year / with eyes your heart has / sharpened / remember longing. / …places do not change / so much / as what we seek in them / and faith will serve / along the way / to somewhere else / where work begins” (46).

***

“But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.'” -Luke 10:40-42 (NIV)

***

“When the train stops, the woman said, you must get on it. But how will I know, the child asked, it is the right train? It will be the right train, said the woman, because it is the right time.” -Louise Glück, “Utopia”

***

The air by the sea surrounds me, clinging like a veil. The calm before the storm. I can see lights sparkle across the water in some unknown city. On one of my walks, a little boy screamed, “I can hear the Highlands from here!” And his parents laughed and laughed, “That’s a little too far away, buddy.” “I can hear!” He replied. His adamant belief does not seem so ridiculous in the suspension between twilight and darkness; it all feels tremulously close, close enough to embrace. My mind flits to what Beth said a few nights back, about baptism in the trust sense being immersion. And with each step I think, Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now, as Plath did. This mist is baptism over and over, a cloying grace we are walking in and through.

***

“I taught myself to live simply and wisely, / to look at the sky and pray to God, / and to wander long before evening / to tire my useless sadness.” -Anna Akhmatova, page 26 of Selected Poems

***

The child gazes up at me, brimming with misplaced confidence and clenching his toy truck. “Mama!” He cries, not quite shouting but jubilant. I exchange an amused glance with his father and chuckle behind my mask. “No, that’s not your mama,” he says gently as they walk on. I wave at the child, and he looks back, looks back.

Every day, I see friends and acquaintances growing, encompassing worlds. Their faces are radiant, like saints, and I wonder what they know now, what Mary once knew. They have entered somewhere I cannot follow.

***

“I don’t speak with anyone for a week. / I just sit on a stone by the sea.” -Anna Akhmatova, 50

***

January: Reading the Psalms when I wake and before I rest, praying for courage, for trust, for solace. Earth has nothing I desire but you. Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. As for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more. Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again. Praise be to the Lord, our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.

***

Juggling my groceries, I am a sight as I march home in the cold, bearing a full tote bag and carrying a bottle of kombucha and a chicken breast. Up the stairs, to the fridge, bag emptied. Then, the buzzer goes off in my flat. The sound of a man, babbling in a thick Scottish accent, and all I can make out is “I saw a girl just now” and “gift” and “church” repeated emphatically. Bewildered, I let him into the hallway. We stand apart, masked, and he leaves a blue bag behind, thanking me again and again. The church was locked. No one there. He could not get in. He lives elsewhere. He is entrusting me as a messenger. Of what? A quick peek inside the bag reveals a cross, swaddled in tissue paper. And a note: To the Church. From Robert.

***

“I thrived. I lived / not completely alone, alone / but not completely, strangers / surging around me. / That’s what the sea is: / we exist in secret.” -Louise Glück, “Formaggio”

***

Anna Akhmatova, a prolific Russian poet who lived through the Stalinist terror, wrote that hope sings but remains “endlessly evasive.” But I think that, sometimes, hope finds us.

***

Lockdown Playlist:

Dreaming of what I can do now
To carry some kindness and love
And reminders that the pain will die down
I walk and I read, I spend time in the sea

-“As Alone,” Florist

She said I care too much these days
About my place in this ball of yarn
There’s not a lot that I can boast
I water plants and make French toast

-“Miss Misanthrope,” Jealous of the Birds

lift my eyes

It is getting harder and harder to get out of bed.

“Why?” I think. Then, “To go where? To see whom?” Lockdown. Again.

This afternoon, I rolled out of the warm covers, exchanged pajama pants for jeans, and bundled up, shuffling down to West Sands. Along the way, I pass my favorite coffee shop, which was supposed to reopen today. Its interior remains dim, with a new paper sign saying they will hopefully be back in February. I think of all the shattered plans, and there are many.

The streets are sparse, and the beach is even emptier. A family climbs a nearby boulder, one element of the worn barrier against the sea. I walk along the edge, in the wrong shoes for exploring, and sit, cradled by a curvature in the rocks—not sheltered from the wind exactly but blocked from the view of passerby. Thus situated, I resignedly observe the tide come in slow, and the few silhouettes on the beach pass and pass, trudging despite unamiable forces of wind and sand. The wind is fierce but not at its fiercest, and I close my eyes, willing it to whistle through my skull, to rush through, so sharp and frigid and pure, zephyring out my crammed notions and questions and fears. The ocean seems as expansive as misery, and just as grey, and I want to cry; I want it so badly that it makes it nearly impossible to occur—wretched paradox. “God, where are you?” I ask, and only the waves answer. I rest in the reverberation, feeling heavy and prematurely wizened while seagulls cruise and glide in front of me, alighting in squadrons within shallow tidal pools. Fleetingly, I long to be a bird.

A sudden inner thought, like a cloud bursting with rain: “I will remember the works of the Lord in the land of the living.” [Later, I realized that my brain or heart or a combination of the two had merged Psalm 27 and 77—”I will remember the works of the Lord” (77) and “I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (27)—both of which I’ve read recently.] Then, I lifted my eyes, noticing distant hills I had never before spotted on prior beach walks due to obscuring mist from the waves. Beyond Tentsmuir Forest, snowy hilltops arise—arresting and majestic. Glancing behind me, perhaps to see what else I may have missed, I turn from the shade of my chilly perch just in time to see the sun peek triumphantly above the clouds, in a blinding halo. Words form in my heart from a quiet elsewhere: “Step into the light.” Despite the gravity of the moment, my thoughts flit to the numbness creeping into my hands, and I know I cannot stay. As I step into the sun, the small black bird keeping me company tries to follow.

“We hope for magic; mystery endures.” -Mary Oliver

***

A note based on recent observations: In many ways, this is not a time of easy answers, only multiplying questions. Everyone is going through a degree of torture right now, and denying that fact is blind, foolish, and insensitive. As we enter 2021, we have all lost someone or something. I am deeply thankful that this world is not my home and that I am able to live established in the knowledge I do not walk alone. I can lay my worries and mourning at the feet of a Savior who has intimately known this pain already and rejoice that the extremities of hurt or despair we feel can never compare to the boundless joy that is coming.

While these times are “unprecedented” to us, they are known by God.

cosmic ache

Words I find myself repeating quietly on walks by the river: “The world doesn’t know / what to do with my love. Because it isn’t used to / being loved… I hope it’s love. I’m trying really hard / to make it love. I said no more severity. I said it severely / and slept through all my appointments.” -Richard Siken, War of the Foxes, 40

***

The exhale you didn’t know you were holding. The early twilight. The candle flickering. The music on for dancing. The fragrant apple crumble coming out of the oven, slightly burnt but already beloved.

***

“I had nothing to build with. / It was winter: I couldn’t imagine / anything but the past. I couldn’t even / imagine the past, if it came to that. / And I didn’t know how I came here. / Everyone else much further along. / I was back at the beginning / at a time in life we can’t remember beginnings.” -Louise Glück, Vita Nova, 38

***

On Bonfire Night, a sudden flurry of sound—the harried rush to rest one’s elbows on the windowsill like a child at first snow. The fireworks are rising over Castle Sands, in arcs of red and gold. Several heartbeats brimming with light and pitch, then darkness again.

***

When Brigit Pegeen Kelly wrote “These are the long weeks. The weeks / of waiting. Let them be / Longer. Let the days smolder” (68), she might as well have been talking about Advent. I think of Tish Harrison Warren’s wording: a cosmic ache.

***

“Can this be paradise, with so much loss / in it? / Paradise / is defined by loss. / Is loss. / Is.” -Margaret Atwood

***

At the Kelvingrove Museum, I stood there the longest—in front of James Guthrie’s In the Orchard. Art has the strange and wonderful power to arrest you, drawing you near in surreptitious magnetism. The painting is giant, spanning an entire wall, crafted in hues of emerald and umber. I couldn’t stop looking at the girl, kneeling in a black dress, her face inscrutable and resigned. She seemed as if deep in thought, or perhaps she had just stopped crying. The boy extends his basket of apples, looking down passively. She is the focal point, and even the geese in the background incline their heads, eager to see what will happen next. It is a story told a thousand times over but each time rewritten. The girl extends her arm, preparing to place an apple into the basket, pausing just before. A recreation of Eden. She seems to sense all that hangs in the balance. She is striking a deal and knows not what comes next. She is bonded now. Her eyes fix on the apple, even as she clutches another with her left hand, as if reconsidering. She does not want to let go. An analogy for love?

***

A quote from The Great Gatsby so beautiful it haunts: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.”

***

In the cathedral yesterday, tears came. Unexpected visitors, unexpected guests. Months since I had partaken in communion. The priest saw me outside, craning my neck and trying to capture the arcs of stone while waiting for a friend. “Taking pictures, eh?” he said with a chuckle, and I shrugged, sheepish, “It’s a gorgeous building.” It was when the children came filing in, knotted to each other or hovering mothers and fathers. It was when the priest knelt in his violet robe to look a little girl in the eye, a toddler with messy blonde hair and her fingers in her mouth. He gave her the body of Christ, solemnly and joyfully at once, and her mother smiled on, pregnant with another. And I thought of Mary. And the violinist played on, a melody searing and true. And I could hear the music all around but could not see the source, so I turned to my friend at last: “Where’s the violinist?” I asked, bewildered. “Oh, just behind the column. You simply can’t see her yet.” And the music filled the room. And I felt as if my life couldn’t quite be my life, as if I’d been inserted into a film unawares. And I knew there was a lesson in it all—if only I could find it, if only I could write about it.

***

“I want to leave / no one behind. / To keep / & be kept. / The way a field turns / its secrets / into peonies. The way light / keeps its shadow / by swallowing it.” -Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 39

***

Why is it that I read Louise Glück’s Vita Nova over and over these days but, when my friend asks me what it is about, I cannot answer? All I can say: “Memory.”

***

“He changes times and seasons… He reveals deep and hidden things.” -Daniel 2:21,22a (NIV)

***

“Dear [G]od, if you are a season, let it be the one I passed through / to get here. / Here. That’s all I wanted to be. / I promise.” -Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 72

***

Anne Carson writes in “The Glass Essay” about women with a vocation of anger, but I think there’s a vocation of remembrance too—and I think it aches.

***

When Glück writes, You changed me, you should remember me.

When Glück writes, I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. Then I moved to Cambridge.

***

I want to be crammed so full of beauty that it overflows.

trust & boxes within boxes

The lone bus jostles up and down erratically, and the tremors seem to rattle every bone in our bodies as we hurtle along the curvature of rural Scottish roads. Here, there is a stone bridge. There, a flock of sheep calmly grazing. We pass them by, not wholly neglectful as a collective but hurried, unchanging. One pothole proves to be particularly vengeful, causing all passengers to grasp for nearby means of support—an armrest, a pole, or, for one woman, her dog—and I feel transported, as in movies where the scene suddenly changes. I am once again on the Metra on a blustery Chicago day. Emma is talking to me excitedly about the links between music and neuroscience. She says we’ll travel Europe together one day and smiles.

***

I keep having dreams about everyone I’ve left behind.

***

Mary Magdalene clutches the feet of Christ, bathing them in tears. The adjacent museum chat label says she is “the very personification of sorrow and repentance.” I cannot look away from her face—her mouth is agape, and I wonder what she cries out for or if she can find no words.

***

On West Sands, yesterday, after the brutal wind and rain: a rainbow.

***

Something tugs me into the graveyard upon the hill. It is quiet and still, looking out over the sapphire coastline. “Thou art with me.” I read the headstones slowly as I pass. Some are too worn, ancient and eroded by the forces of wind and rain. Around a corner of the crumbling cathedral wall, I find the thing I was searching for without knowing it, the thing pulling me in somehow. Wilhelmina Barns Graham, Artist of St Andrews, 1912-2004. The scholarship that I received is in her name, honoring her legacy as a woman abstract artist. The tipping of the scales. The catalyst of my decision to come to Scotland after all. It can all be traced back to her. I get down on my knees in the grass and thank her for being a part of God’s goodness and pray for her soul and the lives impacted by her art, feeling a little silly but also overwhelmingly grateful.

***

“My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us. I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from. There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise; but I cannot do it. Yet at some insipid moment when I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted. I am not a philosopher or I could understand these things. If I knew all of myself, dear God… what would I be then?” —Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal, 7

***

“The Flight of the Swallows” (1906) by John Henry Lorimer. Four girls in white gossamer gowns cluster near an opulent window. Long shadows fall upon the roof outside. The swallows are leaving, taking wing just beyond the pane, and the light is golden but soon to fade. Gilded mirrors refract the dying light, and one of the girls sits apart, her face in her hands, and cries. A French quotation inscribed on the bronze frame speaks of the loss of innocence.

***

Lord, my BRP isn’t here yet. I need the BRP to open a bank account. I need a bank account to receive my student loan surplus. I need the student loan surplus to pay my rent. I need the bank account to get a contactless debit card. I need the debit card to take the bus, purchase a new phone plan, and pay for my utilities. I need the big spiders gone in my apartment. I need the power to come back on because I need to use my fridge and washing machine. I need—

And God says, Do you think I do not already know what you need, dear one?

And are you so sure those are your true needs after all?

***

“My mind is in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box. Dear God, please give me as much air as it is not presumptuous to ask for. Please let some light shine out of all the things around me.” —Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal, 17

***

“For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
    for my hope is from him.
 He only is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
    pour out your heart before him;
    God is a refuge for us. Selah.” —Psalm 62:5-6,8 (ESV)