Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What the world needs now ... (Do you know the rest?)

Burn, baby. Photo by Mike G, Flickr.

When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace. -- Jimi Hendrix

Last week, I was walking out of the Metro listening to Fr. Paul Dressler's podcast on active, Christ-like love, and there at the escalator exit stood a melancholy man, in about his early 40s, with a container for change and a sign that read, "I have two small boys..."

I can't tell you what the rest said, though, because I ran away before I read the whole thing.

Such profound hypocrisy in my action (or lack thereof). I had just spent twenty minutes learning about Christ's call to pour out love in the hardest of places, to follow the "map of Jesus," and yet when the moment came to transform words into deeds, I choked. Again. Like always, it seems.

In trying to exert power over my surroundings -- in claiming that I don't want to take my wallet out in public, that I don't have money to spare, that I can't verify if my contribution will be used well -- I end up withholding love. Talk about a losing proposition. Even if my claims are justified, why not choose to exert power in a productive way -- say, for example, offer to buy the man food for his family, direct him to local services more equipped than I to help, or simply listen to his story?

Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved." Imagine if I had embodied love in that moment. Imagine if I did so each day. Imagine if you did so each day. What power would we have then? Infinite power. And with it, infinite peace.

Prayer #286: The Power of Love is a Curious Thing

Pure love is a pot belly stove, round and warm, wamp-wamp-wamp, radiating out to all who pass. And like that cozy stove, those who feel the heat do not take it -- they receive it. Absorb it. They are fueled. They burn in turn.

Am I willing to stoke my own flames? As logs turn to ash in service of heat, will I let You consume me, reduce me to my barest elements? Will You strike the match when I cannot? Together, will we -- can we -- burn enough?

Amen.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What comes from silence

The fog shifts to light ... Photo by Justin Kern, Flickr

HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

-- Wendell Berry, New Collected Poems (via brainpickings.org)

Some more thoughts on the power of silence:

Prayer #285: "Prayers Prayed Back"

God of the interior third place --

It could be the coffee shop, the bookstore, the pub ... or none of the above. I'm searching for my place, the spot where my mumbling, inchoate pleadings can echo back, as if I were standing in an empty and ancient cathedral laid bare by time, with only enough light to outline the pews where I should be sitting.

Insight (I am slowly understanding) does not come gilded or be-bowed. It does not spring forth fully formed. It does not even arrive large enough to see -- more an accumulation of specks pushing through the fibers in the curtain of silence around me, like peckish moths picking at an overripe snack. I sense I must draw the curtain tighter. Yet not too tight -- just enough to allow the lighted dust.

God of the unpretentious revelation, I will gather the breadcrumbs as You drop them. I will guard them. Arrange them. And when the time is right, I will serve them as a feast made holier by its quiet preparation.

Amen.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The genesis of art

Out of chaos ... Illustration by Patrick Hoesly, Flickr.

Step 1 of today's post: Read this passage (emphasis mine).
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." Thus evening came, and morning followed -- the first day.

Then God said, "Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other." And so it happened: God made the dome, and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it. God called the dome "the sky." Evening came, and morning followed -- the second day.

Then God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear." And so it happened: the water under the sky was gathered into its basin, and the dry land appeared. God called the dry land "the earth," and the basin of the water he called "the sea." God saw how good it was. Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it." And so it happened: the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed -- the third day.

Then God said: "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate day from night. Let them mark the fixed times, the days and the years, and serve as luminaries in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth." And so it happened: God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed -- the fourth day.

Then God said, "Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky." And so it happened: God created the great sea monsters and all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems, and all kinds of winged birds. God saw how good it was, and God blessed them, saying, "Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas; and let the birds multiply on the earth." Evening came, and morning followed -- the fifth day.

Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth all kinds of living creatures: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of all kinds." And so it happened: God made all kinds of wild animals, all kinds of cattle, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. God saw how good it was. Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground."

God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." God also said: "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food." And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed -- the sixth day.
Step 2: Let's chat.

Stars shining bright above you. Photo by Pippy, Flickr.

So. Why did I just ask you to read Genesis 1:1-31 from the New American Bible? Because if you have ever created something in your life -- wanted to create something, tried to create something, succeeded in creating something -- you have lived this story.

Let me explain. After nearly three years of study, I am in the final phase of my writing degree, the thesis project of which is to put forth a body of publication-worthy fiction. For the next six months, I will wrangle my stories into works of literary genius (read: passable prose), and those works into a collection. By the end of the process, I will graduate from the program, and then I will start submitting these works to the wider world. And on its way to becoming art, each work is living the Genesis story.

Look for a moment at the bolded statements in the passage above. By my count we have six elements that God deems good -- light; earth and sea; vegetation; stars; sea monsters, swimming creatures, and winged birds; and wild animals, cattle, and creeping things. Then God steps back, surveys what he hath wrought, and deems it all very good.

Steps in a process. Photo by Polpolux !!!, Flickr.

To my mind, each element reflects a critical piece of the act of creation -- not the Biblical version of "creation," but rather the creative births that all artists midwife on a regular basis. For example:

  • Light is the spark, the candle in the coal mine, the brief but vivid hint that something bigger, deeper, richer lies ahead if we keep walking.
  • Earth and sea form the foundations that stay firm beneath our feet and carry us in their currents. They are our envelope, the structure that gives us a cyclical, reliable, immutable space in which to play.
  • Vegetation acts as both fuel and cover. It nourishes us when our energy flags and shelters us when our eyelids droop.
  • Stars symbolize our greater compass, the fiery winks that point toward the meaning of our artistic pursuits. Why must this work live, they ask, and why are you the one to bring it forth?
  • Sea monsters, swimming creatures, and winged birds represent wild leaps, flights of fancy, the spasms of imagination that grip us and help us believe that what we're making is fantastic and beautiful.
  • Wild animals, cattle, and creeping things are whatever keeps us grounded. They are the everyday plod, the humble crawl forward, the fight-or-flight instinct that instinctively moves us -- maybe not always in the direction we want, but still, it's movement.
Then, lastly, we look on everything we have made -- our voice, our message, our art -- and we experience a dizzying moment where the steps gel and the work takes on a very good life independent of our own.

If all goes well with my thesis, my words will transform by the end of it into a new world for reader and writer alike. But unlike the humans in Genesis, I won't have dominion over what is created. Rather, I will watch my art walk off alone into a brave new land born of my mind, not ruled by my hand, and greater than the sum of the acts that formed it.


Prayer #284: On the Seventh Day

On the seventh day my work will be complete.
A nap's in order -- we must celebrate!
My work, however, cannot bear to rest.
Created, it must stretch, inhale, and flex --
a strut of strength within a universe
of countless other works. Art, listen up.
Abundance is your fruit; the fact that you
exist at all illuminates your life.
So revel mightily in your array --
your bursting seeds, slow-creeping things, white wings
that beat against your rib cage. Multiply
at will. Dominion's overrated.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The procession of grief

Go. Photo by Brian Talbot, Flickr

In a day of GPS, Google maps, and smartphones, why do we still have funeral processions?

I asked myself this on a frigid Friday this past February, as I impatiently tapped the gas pedal of my rental car, stuck in the middle of a long row of vehicle-bound mourners for a dear family friend. My four-ways were flashing; the procession tag was stuck in my dash; my youngest cousin was seated beside me, ready for the ride. Our slated route was set to go through neighborhoods in and around the area where I grew up, places I hadn't considered in decades, much less seen. It should take, the funeral director said through my passenger window, 45 minutes.

The line began to move. I followed suit. Within 10 minutes I saw that this endeavor would likely result in gray hair and/or a totaled car. No matter how closely I paid attention or drew Lamaze-like breaths, I could not get into the nonstop flow. The idea of blowing through red lights scraped against every defensive driving muscle I've ever built up; I either hit the brakes too hard (bouncing my petite cousin against her seatbelt) or left too much room between cars (inviting interruption in the link). The result was a herky-jerky, brake-or-bust stumble through the outskirts of Philadelphia -- a display so inept that my parents called me from their car, one length away, to reiterate the rules of procession.

By the time we arrived at the cemetery, I was stressed and sweating. My poor cousin was an unsavory shade of chartreuse. We both leaped from the car the minute I put it in park, not considering how it appeared to look so over-eager at a graveside.

But we made it there. Together. Even though I'd almost rear-ended my own parents at several points, they were now standing with me and dozens of other mourners, united in mourning and remembrance for someone we loved.

Move toward the exit light. Photo by David Goehring, Flickr

Removed from the jerking car, now able to view it at a safe, still distance, I recognized the funeral procession as the vehicular manifestation of grief and consolation. When you are part of a procession, you are not only driving that single route -- you are also entering a long continuum of suffering that stretches far past your personal experience and winds its way back through every other human who has followed a body to its inevitable final stop. You are moving with others who share your emotions, while allowing people outside your insulated cushion to sacrifice a few moments of their day to make your way a little easier at a difficult time.

My defensive driving, it turns out, was too defensive. I was trying too hard to control a process that required me to let go to be effective. Instead, I should have relaxed into the grief, allowed the current to carry me to the cemetery, to our loved one's side one last time.

The minute the final rites ended, my cousin escaped back to her family's car (understandable), and my mother joined me in the rental. As each car passed the cemetery gate and hit the main road, they scattered, charting their own routes to the hall for luncheon. With no procession to lead us back, I fired up the GPS. I obeyed traffic signals. I followed the automated voice's instructions. And it was not as comforting as I once thought.

Prayer #283: Turn ... Up?

In one hundred feet --
enough distance for you
to scream, stall, stew,
hem, haw, hide,
run, rage (but god forbid
respond) --
turn
right into My arms
and you will reach your
destination.

Amen.

Friday, May 01, 2015

What (not) to do when the world is falling apart

Unraveling. Photo by Populux !!!, Flickr

This week, man.

First came the Nepal earthquake. Then the Baltimore riots. Then the Supreme Court hearings on gay marriage. Then a cold. Then my period. And to tie it all up with a neat red bow, today's unbelievable-but-true event: a structural collapse at my office building.

Are all these events on equal footing? Of course not. Do they all contribute to my deepening sensation of helplessness, confusion, tension, anger, and disbelief? You bet.

What's worse is my growing acknowledgement of a hard truth: I have not been brave. At all. Through any of it. Because what did I do after following a classmate's sobering updates from the ground in Nepal? After reading furious headlines and online battles about Baltimore? After evacuating my building and being sent home for the day, laptop still on at my desk, unsure of when we'd be able to return?

I dusted.

Yes, dusted. I attacked the snow-drift levels of dust coating my bookshelf with ferocious vengeance. I vacuumed the floor in wide, cutting jabs. I wiped off the tchotchkes with furious pressure. Hell, I even cleaned the baseboards, laughing maniacally as I sucked hair and skin and dirt -- the detritus of a life unattended -- into oblivion. That's how eager I was to put energy toward restoring order in my life.

I dusted.

What I did not do was donate to relief efforts. Or drive to Baltimore to call for peaceful responses. Or notify newstations about the collapse. Or even take medicine at the early symptoms. On all these occasions I puttered. Hedged. Avoided. What would I add to the conversation? I thought. How can $10 help? Why shouldn't I look out for my own safety? What do I know about it all, anyway?

I was not brave. I saw my role as insignificant, my contributions as futile, and what I saw became reality.

So I dusted. The world is still a mess, and I am still an emotional wreck, but my room is clean for at least the next few days until it's inevitably not. And then I will have to decide again what course of action to take.


Prayer #282: Easy

How easy to give up.

How easy to ignore. Excuse. Hide.

How easy to claim no responsibility, to throw your hands up against the avalanching world and run, knowing that your puny frame is no match for its force.

How easy. Much easier than the hard work of staying. Much easier than the hard work of contributing. Much easier than the hard work of educating yourself and others, confronting tragedy and injustice, and challenging your beliefs and your faith.

How easy to give up.

Easier still never to start.

To the God who knows my hesitation -- push me, trip me, do whatever You need to do to move me forward, as long as I'm not standing here, suspended, unused.

Amen.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

At the ready: How 2014 prepared me for 2015

Just needs the key. Photo by Sean McGrath, Flickr

I am always ready for guests to come over. The rooms, though never immaculate, are presentable. I have food and drink around to share. The kitchen shades are up, so anyone wandering by can peek inside and think, “That looks homey.” My house, in its imperfect and ordinary way, is in a constant state of readiness -- a state that transforms an address into a home.

As I learned in 2014, the state of my heart can be closer to the state of my home than I knew possible. In the year's first half, I rode a wild pendulum of experiences and emotions, from my grandmother’s death to disappointing romances to three beautiful weddings. I cried on a regular basis -- tears of frustration, sorrow, joy -- and wondered with each nose blow where the pendulum was headed next.

The second half of 2015 turned out to be calmer. I stayed in town more, caught up with friends, settled into schoolwork. As I finally found the time to process and evaluate the first six months of the year, I recognized them as the emotional and mental equivalent of spring cleaning: a scouring purge of closets and baseboards so I could see just how space I really had.

For that’s what opened up in my life -- space to reflect, to contemplate, to appreciate, to acknowledge how much was right in my life. And as I pointed to each good thing and named it as such -- the job where I was learning and growing, the coursework where I was pushing and stretching, the relationships where I was loving and investing -- the space expanded. I was leading a full and joyful life, one with movement in all directions, one where the harder moments were tempered by hope and the shinier ones were polished by gratitude.

I was stable. Receptive. Ready.

Ready 4 ... anything, really. Photo by Kevin Dooley, Flickr


Readiness, it turns out (after my usual OED consultation), covers a spectrum of states. It can be “having a desire or need for something, esp. a source of relief or pleasure.” It can mean you’re “inclined, disposed, or apt to do something.” Or it can mean you’re “willing and eager to act when required -- prompt to oblige.”

That said, I did not truly know I was ready until a thing I was ready for happened. Two months before the end of the year, I fell in love. Fulfillment of a long-held desire? Check. Inclination to act on the opportunity? Check. Immediate promptness in obliging? Check, check, check.

I used to think readiness was strictly overt -- that I could direct preparation only toward particular purposes. But as the life-bound arc of 2014 showed me, readiness can be stealthy too. I can leave my heart close at hand, carry on knowing that it’s beating warmly within arm’s reach, and make myself vulnerable in the best way -- by being more open to whatever comes.

The person I have fallen in love with, by the way, was once a Boy Scout. The Scouts’ motto?

"Be prepared.”


Prayer #281: The Ready Path

Set the table. Pick your outfit. Try not to watch the clock. Guests will be arriving soon, except you don’t know who and you don’t know when, and you think you have enough food, but if it turns out you don’t you can always run to the store for more chips. Chips! You forgot the chips. So now guests will come and you’ll give them everything except chips, but that’s ok because you don’t know what they’re expecting of you anyway, so maybe they won’t even want chips, and what they’ll want instead is to say hello and pawn off unwanted and slightly stale holiday cookies. Cookies are better than chips, anyway. The evening (or morning, or week-long extended stay) will turn out fine if cookies are involved. And if your guests come. Which they will. You think. Pull out more silverware. Pick an alternate outfit. Busy yourself with other items on your list. And ask the God who’s sitting in the dustpan you forgot in the hallway to keep you occupied with good thoughts and brave musings until the doorbell rings.

Amen.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

I, Catulla: What Latin subconsciously taught me

A photo posted by Julia Rocchi (@jmrocchi) on


Many high school students give their teachers cards or scented candles at the holidays. I wrote my teachers poems. And no one amassed a larger body of my work than my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Bender.

Over the course of three years, I wrote reams of translations, essays, and parodies inspired by my Latin classes. I couldn’t help myself, really; the material was so rich, the concentration so directed, that not a class went by where I wasn’t inspired by a character, phrase, or technique.

It all came to a head my junior year when I took AP Latin. That’s when we got to the good stuff -- poetry, mainly Horace and Catullus. Everything I loved came together in this one subject: grammar, syntax, vocabulary, scansion, meter, rhyme, imagery, humor, drama, and interpretation. The challenge of making ancient texts accessible to a modern audience fascinated me, and it elevated rote translation homework to the nobility of art.

At the end of the semester, I compiled a little book for Mrs. Bender as a thank-you gift. Titled “I, Catulla: One Latin Student’s Lasting Impressions of Catullus, Horace, and Everything in Between,” the teeny volume comprised six poems, two parodies, and a parting thought. I handed it over to her with great contentment, waved goodbye, and forgot about it.

Cut to 13 years later, when I took a poetry course as part of my graduate writing program. As I pored over our English texts, scribbled notes in the margins, and tapped out iambic pentameter on my thigh, I felt a familiar stirring somewhere in the back of my brain. Writing poetry was whacking a pleasure button I’d long forgotten. Suddenly I was back in the small classroom overlooking the courtyard at my high school, scanning sentences on the board, parsing passages on thematic as well as molecular levels. I heard pencils scratching, loaders scuffing, girls giggling.

It was then I remembered my little book of poems.

A photo posted by Julia Rocchi (@jmrocchi) on


On a whim, I emailed Mrs. Bender and asked if she by any chance had kept my gift to her. A week later, I received a fat envelope in the mail that contained a photocopy of every special piece I’d ever written for her, from an award-winning translation to a Christmas poem not even connected to our class. And there, right on top of the stack, was a standalone poem I did not remember writing -- a translation of Horace Odes III.30 with the end line of I.1 tacked on for emphasis. Here’s how it reads:

I have finished a steadfast monument
more enduring than bronze, and loftier
than regal tips of royal pyramids.
Neither erosive rain nor winds, north-sent,
destroy it, nor can the raging warrior
of countless years -- the flight of time -- corrode.
I will not -- can not! -- die entirely,
for much of me avoids mortal demise.
Instead, my words (and thus my soul) will thrive,
made fresh with future praise as long as he
who worships questions gods within their skies.
I will be sung as one still much alive;
though rustic people heralded my birth,
the royal lines exalt my lasting fame.
O Muse, gain from my achievement rich pride,
and willingly fashion of Delphic earth
a laurel crown befitting my great name!

For I will strike the stars, my head held high.

-- Horace Odes III.30, I.1; trans. Julia Rocchi

I read it once. I read it again. I sat with it in my hands, looking at the undated paper, repeating the words, wondering if I had not just written this the other day and somehow slipped it in the pile.

Because here was a work I composed when I was around 16 years old, based on literature two millennia older than that, and yet the theme and voice and construction felt as familiar and fresh to me as notes I’d jotted yesterday. There was the iambic pentameter I love to scan. There was the rhyme I thrill to include. There was the artist’s statement I constantly refine. And, most telling, there was the fervent, desperate hope that the work would outshine -- and outlive -- me.

In this print-out I’d first produced on my parents’ computer, I saw my entire essence as a writer foretold. At age 16, long before I’d found the words to express my drive, I had heard a kindred spirit echoing across dusty centuries and strove to apply it to my own life in rhythm and verse.

If that’s not a sign you’re on the right path, what is?


Prayer #280: Human Declension

To the Great Translator:

On accusative days, I’m acted on by others, in that they direct and I object.

On dative days, I’m more willing to receive, in that they direct and I accept.

On nominative days, I am a subject all my own -- the lead, the actor, the one who calls the shots.

On ablative days, I become the means -- not the doer, not the deed, but the way.

And on genitive days, I simply am possessed.

But to You, I remain in vocative -- a call, a cry, a name that disappears in the wind and leaves its intonation behind. You capture my substance and my essence. You convey my meaning. You change me in form, but not in ending. For when my piece concludes, Your translation will persist, and the final work is not yet one I know.

Amen.