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.

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.

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.”

March 18: Israel

And so we return as Cyrus decreed,

creeping forth on bended knee,

seeking a once-home robbed of all hospitality

and ground devoid of fertile recompense.

 

We are the lost and aimless ones,

displaced, sent on mission of grace,

chosen, cast away, chosen again,

thrice-whipped and humbled.

 

We speak not

but carry sanctuary stones

on our aching backs.

March 5: Eve

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’’ ‘You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”        -Genesis 3:1-6 (NIV)

You were so lithe, so small.

We shared an elegance, you and I —

an acuity I did not find in Adam.

So I viewed us, vowed us, fastened as friends

for nothing ever seemed amiss in the garden —

all was emerald, juniper, moonstone awake,

a shining under the sun that dazzled without blinding.

 

For God was like that

when He walked among us,

so tender-softly you could not hear the

blades of grass bend beneath His feet.

You were just as quiet, but not soft.

You came with your violent geometry,

all diamonds and angles and sin,

and from A to B

 

                                                           we fell.

An Experiment in Midrash

Inspired by the beautiful words of Amy Bornman (https://www.amybornman.com/) of All Well Workshop and Marie Howe, I decided to design a project for myself in the month of March to allow for consistent moments in my days dedicated to rest, renewal, prayer, and quiet meditation. I had the opportunity to participate in an unforgettable poetry seminar last semester that nurtured my ardent love of the art and exposed me to Marie Howe’s Magdalene and her Mary persona poems in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. As I furthered my search in this genre, I encountered similar captivating poetry by Madeleine L’Engle, and it astonished me that, even with a tale told over and over like the birth of Christ, there was still so much content left to be creatively explored. As members of the Church, we know all about the manger and the angels and the frankincense and myrrh… but what about Mary? What were her excitements and doubts and fears and dreams? We sing together at Christmas, “Mary, did you know?” and I think she knew. I think she knew and felt so much about who her son was destined to be, though we never explicitly discover this. We are simply told that she “treasured up all of these things in her heart.” Midrash allows us to ponder what Mary pondered.

I am now one week into “Midrash March” — a poetic experiment intended to motivate me to delve into passages of Old Testament Scripture, derive new meaning there, and seek to give a voice to the (often minimized) women of the Bible through poetry. My goal is to write one midrash poem per day on a different biblical passage throughout March. In my Old Testament class, I have been struck by the sheer amount of women mentioned in the selections we are assigned. Yet many are present merely as the mothers of sons or as the wives of husbands, and their own thoughts and desires are seldom expressed. Midrash serves as liberation for these women from the constraints of a patriarchal society that often commodified them. Now, you may be wondering what exactly “midrash” is. It is a traditionally Jewish practice focused on attempts to interpret and apply the texts of the Torah/Old Testament to our modern age. These efforts may be literary, musical, or artistic in nature — often reconciling the holy with the mundane. By engaging with a sacred text and wrestling with its implications, we thereby affirm its sanctity and relevance in our lives. Midrash is a task to be undergone with awe for we stand in the presence of a living, active God who has proven to be faithful throughout the ages.