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

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.

Everyday Anthems

a woman sat atop the glossy bench,

and I averted my eyes like a wild thing,

glimpsed myself in a shopwindow

without a spark of recognition

until it all came rushing in,

there and back again

from that widening gyre where

synapses crackle and fly like fireworks

— oh, this is me, now.

ragged and composed, yes.

now, this is me. oh —

shining like some newly-minted anthem,

                                                                 (we fought for this)

                                                    fizzing like the sea of the flapper’s fluted glass

                                                                                                                              (we drink to this).

 

lapwing cacophony, a twiggy nest

in the branches initially beyond my reach.

sandwiches as sacraments; prayers like butterknives.

 

the crooked man with a limp

         rushes ahead to open the door wide,

                                          and i, fumbling, sashay inside.

                 the biography of a kindred spirit

                                                                                               is lonely, on clearance — $2.51.

 

coins jingle then nestle in my palm:

a shoddy imitation of the solar system.

the universe abounds in a teacup

but constrained, maimed.

Holy Week: Curious Communion

The wind skimmed over the lake and tousled our hair, tugging at our billowy clothes and uniting us all in a delicious shiver. There would have been the linger of a characteristic Chicago chill if there had been no sun, but, praise God, the sun made a triumphant appearance for the first time in ages, and we were eager sunbathers, spread out upon the soft picnic blanket like languid tortoises. Everything was adazzle — the concave landscape, the bottle of sparkling cider, the slim, mature glasses we borrowed and tried so very hard not to break, us. We were incandescently alive in the fullest springtime sense: doubled over with laugher and squinting amiably with uplifted hands to block the sun’s rays or wave at passing dogs tethered to their owners as we talked about the future in between fistfuls of ripe blueberries. We had all brought what we could, each person with something unique to offer; it was not much to behold, but it was a merry little feast, steeped in gratitude. It has been ever on my mind since — the preparation, the retrieval, the unfurling, the reveal. I had wrapped the delicate glasses tenderly in white cloth to prevent their clinking and rolling and the blueberries from leaking violet. As I carefully unwrapped these picnic treasures and set aside the unsullied white linens, I couldn’t help but think of Easter and the empty tomb and the risen Christ, of a broken body and broken bread. How fitting that it was a blissful Sunday afternoon when we so unwittingly partook of our curious communion. I recently read (and deeply enjoyed) Andre Dubus’ Meditations from a Movable Chair, in which he writes, “The Communion is with us and it is ordinary. To me, that is the essential beauty: we receive it with wandering minds, and distracted flesh, in the same way we receive the sun and sky… The Communion with God is simple so we will not be dazzled; so we can eat and drink His love and still go about our lives; so our souls will burn slowly rather than blaze.”

Meet Me Next to the Nymphéas

My feet know the way,

and I trust them.

It is a humble, everyday sort of magic, I suppose.

And so, at last, with their guidance, I wander into the hushed gallery

and am bewitched afresh — utterly, completely, hopelessly.

My eyes blur with sudden tears,

and I am alchemy of emotion.

I breathe in greens, lavenders, golds;

I exhale serenity.

Hello, old friend. It’s me. I’ve come to stay awhile.