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.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Love is for the weak

Imperfect. Photo by Dan Iggers

“Let us love, since our heart is made for nothing else.”
-- St. Therese Lisieux

Love is for the weak, who cry from bed for water though the nightstand holds a glass.

Love is for the hunted, who chew their cuds in open glades, forgetting they are prey.

Love is for the brittle, who snap at slightest pressure, crack, and clatter to the floor.

Love is for the wounded, who slump against the barricades and weep to lift the flag.

Love is for the dim, who do their homework every night and always get it wrong.

Love is for the lost, who dropped their map 10 miles back and can’t recall the turn.

Love is for the snitch and the stool pigeon, the turncoat and the tattletale, the liar and the loser. It is for the snookered, the cynical, the spooked. The shivering and the shabby, cranky and conceited, bloated and boorish. Love is for the slack-jawed, cross-eyed, weak-kneed, yellow-bellied, chicken-livered folks. For the bland. The forgettable. The forgotten.

Love is for those who say they don’t want it, and for those who won’t say they need it.

Love is for anyone but the whole.


Prayer #279: Let Us Love

I can never love as You love -- a gulping love, a saturating love, an inundating love we call "love" only because we have no other word to capture the deluge. No, I am merely a chipped cup, long emptied of unmemorable contents, now gathering dust in a neglected cabinet, alone except for the cobwebs.

But even in this forgotten corner, pour out of me what I don’t think I have. Let me sit filled, because I’m not alone, not really. Millions of hands jostle just outside the handle, blindly groping for something, anything, to slake their thirst, and all I need do is inch closer and nudge open the door.

Amen.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

At the quarry (or, Thoughts on our mutual foregone conclusions)

Which way up? Photo by Marlon Malabanan, Flickr

"I tell students who want to major in English, 'You're majoring in death.' This is why I'm not a guidance counselor." -- Billy Collins

We cannot see the bottom. Long ago,
men mined this pit for pittance. Who was it
who spotted pleasure in the void, who softened
thuggish crags with borrowed water, docks,
and rope swings? Doesn't matter. We float now,
white legs astride our Skittle-hued noodles
that pop the choppy surface leagues away
from scars of arcing picks and dynamite.

Our conversation turns to space. "How big
is it?" one asks. "What lies beyond its edge?"
another says. "If it's expanding, then
what in?" a third pipes up. In unison,
we shake our heads and cluck. None of us knows.
Besides, the rays are warm. The water cools.
The rope swing sways. We know the bottom's there.


Prayer #278: The Clock Puncher's Lament

The sensation that comes from contemplating nothingness is orgasmic -- a torrid rush of abandon and abandonment, of being wrung out and draped yet not pinned enough to the clothesline to stay on in the twisting breeze. The prevailing winds will carry me with or without my consent, so I'd prefer to leave with grace and dignity intact, perhaps even with a spirit of adventure.

But I'm not there yet. I am merely a void-gazer in danger of becoming a clock puncher, a drone too preoccupied with the end result to optimize the process.

God of a beyond I haven't breached, ground me in my own existence. Let my heartbeat underscore me, my sentience gird me. Catch my timecard in Your breath and whisk it far beyond my reach, so that I chase You, not it.

Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Shall we be brave today?

Dark side/light side. Photo by Daniele Nicolucci, Flickr


To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? ...

--
Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Shall we be brave today?
Shall we stare that great white in the eye?
Shall we ball up our fists
And give him a kiss
So the joy that he feels make him cry?

Shall we be brave today?
Shall we fend off the alien queen?
Shall we set guns to stun
And blast her with fun
So she no longer wants to be mean?

Shall we be brave today?
Shall we take the old Bogeyman on?
Shall we hide late at night
And share our flashlights
So he learns to look forward to dawn?

Shall we be brave today?
Shall we tackle our everyday fears?
Shall we turn on the news,
Face truth (though we bruise),
So we act overtop of our tears?

Shall we be brave today?
We shall own the unpopular truth
That the world's dipped in black
But we can fight back
And help others be brave today, too.


Prayer #277: "Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles"

When the wrenching events of the day scratch our eyes and claw our hearts, let us not stick our heads in the nearest sandbox, but rather find, descry, and face the dark horse galloping across our floating rock, drumming its thunderous hooves against the shrinking grass.

Let us devote our flash-in-the-pan lives to obstructing its path and making it question -- if only for a snorting, sweating second -- if it would do better to halt. For in that second we have hope, and in that second the grass transforms to steel.

Amen.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The insignificant other

Significant? Photo by Mandy Jansen, Flickr

We will do, we will hope, we will live,
We will rest in the hearts of remembering men
Who saw us as we passed.
-- from “You,” by Carl Sandburg

In historic preservation, places being considered for the National Register must identify their period of significance, or the span of time in which whatever makes the place noteworthy occurred. It could be an event, a person, a distinctive characteristic, even “the potential to yield important information.”

As the National Park Service puts it, “Events and associations with historic properties are finite; most properties have a clearly definable period of significance.”

People, however, are not buildings. We are far from finite (barring, of course, the mortal coil), and bring with us myriad ways, modes, traits, and choices that vary our levels of significance to different people at different points in our lives.

Why, then, do we as a society perpetuate the phrase “significant other?” Here’s my thinking:

  • If we were to apply a preservation context to this phrase, we are saying that this person (the SO) has a clearly defined period of significance. Yet we’re currently in the midst of our time with them. We have no knowledge of how long or to what degree they will remain significant. Instead, we make a big call in real time – always a risky, potentially inaccurate move.
  • To call someone a significant other is to assume that we have already identified what makes them noteworthy for us. In the best case scenario, they are significant because we love them and have entered into a fulfilling, meaningful relationship. In the worst case scenario, they are significant because they have a pulse and we bring them to parties. The former is uplifting; the latter, dispiriting.
  • The very phrase negates itself. Significant implies that this person is worthy of attention, that they carry influence in our life, that they have made an impression. But then we tack on other, a xenophobic word choice that smacks of separatism and opposite-ness, alluding to a foreign object that has somehow wiggled its way into our bloodstreams and staked out parasitic ground, a stranger that gains a body only when it is part of a pair. So when we say “significant other,” we’re really saying “noteworthy nothing.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “insignificant.”

Huddle up. Photo by Keith Williams, Flickr

I don’t want to be considered insignificant to people I care about, nor do I want to burden an insignificant interloper with a phrase that simultaneously inflates and removes his importance. If someone’s name is going to be attached to mine in conversation or on the fronts of envelopes, then I want him to be an equal, fully formed person -- not a check through a box, not a stroke for my ego, and certainly not a lazy, imprecise shorthand for “not single.”

So what am I asking for here? I want us all to acknowledge that any person, romantic or otherwise, who we let across our welcome mats will enjoy a period of significance in our lives, and that if we’ve let them in that far to begin with, then they can never truly be other to us again.

What’s more, we are far from other to ourselves. Our personal periods of significance last as long as we believe them to be so -- hopefully from the day we come out to the day we croak. And when we have each deemed ourselves significant -- as independent, cultivated, substantial people with “important information” always bubbling up -- we will stand marked as so.

Please, let’s retire "significant other." It speaks nothing to the power true relationships hold, and even less about the value we place in ourselves.


Prayer #276: The Welcome Mat at the Castle Gates

I’ve laid the welcome mat outside the gates.
(My gators ate the first one, but I will
Not be deterred.) It rests there, flat and striped,
Beyond the sulfur moat that belches fumes,
Beneath the poison arrows that land true,
Beside the wobbly ladders doomed to fall,
Far from the cauldrons bloated with hot tar.
For I, with wisdom gleaned from faith alone,
Know that the person who can reach the mat
And ring the doorbell, interrupting lunch,
Deserves to join me in the peaceful courtyard,
Take the other armchair at the hearth,
And help me find rooms even I’ve not seen.

Amen.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Spine of steel: My grandmother's legacy in death and life

Grandmom Helen at her 90th birthday

“Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices. But they were made out of thin invisible steel.” -- Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The blue-eyed teen -- Elena by birth, Helen in Americanese, Len to her four brothers -- wanted more than anything to sing. Blessed with a clear, lovely voice, she sang around the house, she sang at church, she sang in the hopes of being known for singing.

Her crowning achievement was having a solo lead in the chorus at Helen Fleischer Vocational School where she attended. The group was practicing extra hard because they’d been recruited to sing a jingle on the radio. A real jingle, for a real company. And who would be featured but Len herself?

Every week her older brother Joe, a pleasant and dutiful bodyguard, accompanied her on the trolley to practice where she let her voice soar out the open window on the assurance that her big break was coming. Every week her immigrant parents waved goodbye to her as she headed to Callowhill. Every week the chorus got better, and the recording date drew nearer, and Helen’s dream grew bigger.

But when the day of the recording finally arrived, Helen’s mother stopped her on her way out the door. “You can’t go,” she said in Italian.

“Why?” Helen’s hand tightened on the doorknob.

“Because you’ll be discovered,” her mother replied, “and then you’ll go into show business. So no. You will not sing today.”

Helen was the only daughter of immigrants, and only daughters of immigrants do not say no. So she stayed home, safe from the grasping clutch of immoral show business, wishing she were caught.

Len

Over the years I heard my grandmother tell the story of her big solo many times. The budding writer in me detected (or likely added) a twinge of resentment to her voice; she could have been a star, after all.

In the space after the story closed, when Grandmom would bounce her hands in her lap and sigh in perpetual resignation, I always found myself willing her alternate universe to unfurl. I wanted Helen-the-teenager to sneak out of the house against her mother’s wishes, to catch the trolley without the aid of her brother, to burst into the studio just as the suits were threatening to cancel the whole deal, and to trill in front of her astonished and delighted classmates, “I’m here, gentlemen! Shall we begin?”

Cue music. Fame. Fulfillment.

Instead, she married at 18 and started having babies during wartime. She raised eight children, the oldest and youngest two decades apart. She worked nights at Strawbridge & Clothier to help make ends meet, and exercised her considerable sewing skills on the side. Even after her retirement, she cared for her dying mother and ailing brothers and boomerang children and my grandfather, always my grandfather, for nearly 70 years.

At her funeral service, the priest went into great detail about how Helen had done “exactly what God asked of her.” She worked hard, gave abundantly, loved evidently, kept the faith, and sacrificed. Sacrificed, sacrificed, sacrificed.

Then my father, her son-in-law, gave a lovely tribute at the luncheon: “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.’ Helen’s family is her institution. All of us here are her shadow.” Shadow upon shadow upon shadow.

Behind him a projector screen scrolled through photos of her long life. Every time a new picture flicked up, I saw a different relative reflected in her face. In almost every picture she was laughing, smiling, playing at the beach, squeezing a baby. Baby after baby after baby.

Nona, Mom, Grandmom, me, 1983

More than anything, I want a four-generation photograph. My grandmother would be sitting in the middle, the place of honor. My mother and I would stand at her shoulders, looking over the baby girl she’d hold in her arms. My baby girl, the one who seems far from materializing at this moment in time. The one I haven’t met yet, might never meet, and that my grandmother will definitely not meet. Not now, anyway. Not on this earth.

My rational side chides me, You had 30 years with her! Most of your cousins’ kids won’t get to meet her either! But when I picture that never-to-be snapshot, that image which will never circle on a screen in front of people who ooh and point and say “she looks like...,” I see evidence. Evidence that I’ve married and procreated in a reasonable enough timeframe to enable such a photo in the first place. Evidence that I am fully participating in the proper generational channels. Evidence that I’ve done my womanly duty and entered the cycle of nurturing sacrifice.

Let the record show that my grandmother never put this pressure on me. She didn’t always directly grasp my single, educated, living-in-a-different-city life, but she supported me and took pleasure in my adventures. I alone am responsible for my angst.

And why do I torture myself so? To what end? When I look at my grandmother’s long life, I cannot recognize one minute, much less a day, when someone didn’t require her, a minute where she could escape for two seconds and be alone with her own thoughts and needs. A minute where she was wholly herself -- not a wife, not a mother, not a Helen, just her.

Do I want that? What if she wanted more, or something else? Did it keep her up at night? Color her days? Recast her goals?

In these wonderings, I could be projecting my own neuroses on a woman from a different generation who probably didn't have the time or energy to ask herself these questions. Or maybe they are the musings of someone overwhelmed by all the ways 90 years of life could go, and terrified she will end up on a path she doesn’t want, thwarted by bad timing, good intentions, or basic, run-of-the-mill fate.

Beach time with Grandmom, 1984

I sang at Helen’s funeral Mass, as did several of my aunts and uncles. Despite the earnest efforts of my crying relatives and the priest’s insistence on throat-closing incense, I kept it together throughout the service. Once the final organ chord faded, however, I stepped down from the altar and burst into the tears that had threatened since the moment I watched her casket closing and saw her favorite coffee mug tucked in the corner. One of my cousins appeared and let me sob and snot on her shoulder.

“You did a great job up there,” she said, handing me tissues. “It’s so funny -- everyone has the same voice. You can tell we’re related.”

Everyone has the same voice. That is, we have Grandmom’s voice.

Beach time with Grandmom, 24 years later

I will never know how my grandmother’s life would have progressed had she performed her solo. I know what her life ultimately did entail -- hard work, resilience, stubbornness, courage, sacrifice, faith, love. By all appearances she believed in herself and stood by her choices. Who am I, then, to take that from her?

I bend at my waist, not with my knees. I use everything I have until five years past the end of its given life. I cook all my meals from scratch. I sing with a natural vibrato. I firmly believe I know the best and most efficient way to do everything. I am, in genetics and practice, Helen’s granddaughter.

And the same self-belief that fueled my grandmother -- the same confidence in her abilities, even if the opportunity to exercise them isn’t always present or taken -- is alive and well in me. We can make anything work. Maybe that’s why I wanted my four-generation picture. To show my daughter what a steel spine looks like when it comes adorned with clear blue eyes.

Next time I’m at the beach or over my stove or on the porch -- all sacred spaces to a woman who didn’t often have space -- I will draw a deep breath and sing whatever solo strikes me. Whether I am single or married, published or well-traveled, content or seeking, I will take that moment on my grandmother’s behalf, for any and all moments she had to miss, for any and all moments she managed to capture, and I’ll thank her for showing me that I can become the woman -- the person -- I choose to be.



Prayer #275: Say Hi to the Ocean for Me

You are already far out to sea, the farthest I've ever seen you. As I watch you swim, I think of Esther Williams -- elegant, timeless, at home in a fluid, unpredictable world.

I haven't earned my mermaid tail yet, so I remain land-locked, a sub-par siren who shrieks at people she loves when she sees them dip beneath an unnerving wave the way you just did, dropping from my sight for a heart-halting minute.

The tides, in their wisdom, tell me I should let you go. But I'm afraid. Only a breath ago we were running our hands through the breakers, raising them high over our heads on our way back to the blanket, tucking into a cooler full of salami-and-Jersey-tomato sandwiches before our beach nap. Yet now the current flows between us with an undeniable strength only you are equipped to handle, while I am forced to watch and fret from shore.

Promise me that when you reach your destination -- the one you're stroking toward, the one I can't yet see -- promise me that you will turn around and wave, twice. Promise me that after all your deep breathing and disciplined kicks, you will pull yourself up to rest and bask in the magnitude of what you've accomplished.

I, in the meantime, will shade my eyes and follow you in memory alone, my gaze a lifeline you no longer need but will hold onto anyway, because that's what love is.

Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Patience is a snack-maker

Roll with it. Photo by kattebelletje
Patience knows she’ll trip if she moves faster than the confines of her shrinking, rickety body allow, so she grips handrails, deliberates her steps, and accepts elbows when they are extended. You never knew her young and assume she was at some point, but you wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’d been born old. She has that eternal way about her, the same as an ancient tortoise that floats effortlessly through its existence and seems to get a quiet thrill out of confounding expectations. You once asked Patience her age; she laughed the question away and told you to help her up out of her recliner.

Whenever you stop by she invites you in for a snack, and whenever you offer to help her make it (selfishly, so you can leave on time for your next appointment), she sweetly refuses.

“I’ve got it, dear. It will be just a minute.”

She gestures toward a kitchen chair and, reluctantly, you pull it out to sit. From that vantage point, with your foot tapping at a woodpecker’s pace, you watch the slowest snack in the world take shape. A sliced apple, first peeled; chunked cheddar; pepperoni sawed in pieces; cookies liberated from the jar on top of the fridge. Every kitchen implement is within arm’s reach, a mere tug or stretch away. Her extra-support sneakers squeak an erratic beat. She hums while she works.

Snack time. Photo by mac.rj, Flickr

There, with the late afternoon sun moving in a fuzzy patch across the linoleum, with the drowsy refrigerator snoring in the corner, with the nubs of the lopsided seat cushion burrowing into your skin, you breathe -- in, out, in, out -- until your rhythm joins the room’s, and you all exhale together, forgetful of the snack. The joy becomes the task itself, never mind the outcome.

At some point, she puts the plate in front of you. You don’t notice it appear or hear it clink. What you do see is Patience seated across from you (when did she sit?), hands folded, beaming. You smile back.

“It’s good to sit a minute,” you tell her. “I’m glad you came.”

She laughs, nudges the plate closer. “My dear, you came to me.”

“So I did!” And you, suddenly ravenous, reach for the cheese.


Prayer #274: “T.T.T.”

T. T. T.

Put up in a place
where it's easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
T. T. T.

When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it's well to remember that
Things Take Time!


{Piet Hein}

---

I want all bad things over.
I want all good things now.

I want the bus without the stop.
The rest without the nap.
The chapter without the page.
The party without the prep.

Life, however, takes time. Uses it, in fact. Consumes it. Violently, forcefully, carefully, casually -- no matter the how, it sucks in the hours and spits them out dejuiced, putting them toward a recipe I’ve never followed.

So I can tap or stop my watch all I want, but maybe I should keep watch instead: Play the sous chef who relinquishes control. Prep only the ingredients that sit before me. Pray the results are edible.

Amen.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The peach pit of desire: An anxious meditation on wanting to want

This is the pit. Photo by quinn.anya, Flickr

You wonder how you swallowed the pit in the first place.

Did it drop into your salad the day you ate your lunch out in the park and were people-watching with such intense focus that it snuck into your power greens undetected and waited for the free elevator ride down your esophagus? Did it crawl up the stairs from the kitchen the night you were restless with fitful dreams of romantic escapades and worst-case scenarios, and did it take advantage of your suctioning snores to slide down the hatch? Maybe, barring reasonable explanations such as these, you caught it from someone on the bus?

Regardless of its provenance, you're stuck with it. A peach pit. A ridged, rough, round peach pit in -- where else? -- the pit of your stomach.

You're never not aware it's there. The dumb, solid mass thunks without thought against various organs, making you pee, vomit, or double over without warning. You lose sleep, because if you lie on your side, it sits on your kidney; if you lie on your back, it bounces along your spine; and if you lie on your stomach, it pokes out far enough through your abdomen to form a divet in your mattress that you struggle to explain to guests and visitors.

Pit in the pit. Photo by Lauren(elle)n, Flickr


The peach pit has one of two routes available to it, and by extension, to you:

Option #1: It takes root. Then you have a large tree growing up through your esophagus and out of your mouth, and that tree will bear soft, fuzzy, sweet fruit all around your head that, when ripe, will beckon to be plucked. After this point there will be no avoiding it at social gatherings; people, even oblivious ones, will be able to recognize you're in bloom. This scenario sounds uncomfortable, but in fact you welcome it, as it means the strange fruit has amounted to something in its inanimate life.

Option #2: It doesn't take root. What then? You have to rid your body of this dud, and you know the process of expulsion will bring pain akin to childbirth. But you also know that the short-term suffering, however excruciating, will pale in comparison to the more subtle yet exponentially more terrible long-term agony of feeling that corrugated nugget rattle around your empty stomach for the rest of time, a hollow reminder of potential unrealized.

Either way, you're screwed. It's simply a degree of how happily so.

Pit in negative space. Photo by happeningfish, Flickr

Despite the peach pit's regular rate of recurrence in the general population, healing is self-directed and self-administered. The first step is admitting to yourself that despite the discomfort and uncertainty, you want the pit. Or, more accurately, you want what it portends. You want the energy your body is pouring into this surprise visitor to pay off. You want the tree, the fruit, the admiring nods. You want to want, and to have that want fulfilled.

But hope has a unique strain of masochism, and the peach pit carries it. Even when you reach the point you know the pit is stillborn, even when your brain is signaling your gut to get rid of the damn thing already, you insist on keeping it around just a little longer, just in case. You aren't ready to accept the truth, nor are you ready to make room for a new pit (no human can comfortably house two at any given point). You want to want, and to have that want fulfilled.

Sometimes you manage to direct the peach pit's fate. Sometimes other events or circumstances choose the outcome for you. The pit blossoms, or it passes, but eventually it will do one of the two, and your main role is to regard it as it does.

It won't be the first pit you swallow. Still, you always hope it's the last -- not because you want it gone, but because you want it to stay for good.

Pit rising. Photo by mattlemmon


Prayer #273: Clingstone

Don't let me strangle what is not mine to hold.

Don't let me grab and cling, grasp and clutch. Let's be classy about it. More composed.

Fat chance.

Better instead for You to pull my fingers out of this fist, one by one, until they splay beside each other relaxed and united in their capacity to bear an unknown weight. Then, gently turn my palms upward -- a firm twist at the wrist, Your hands warm against mine, to leave me open to all the good I can't predict.

For if I must be greedy, may I be greedy for the absolute best -- the love, the compassion, the depth of emotion that only a life fully felt can give.

And if I must be grubby, may I be grubby with the finest mess -- the questions, the wonders, the unscripted mudpies that only a life fully carried can grant.

One day I will hand this beautiful burden back to You and say, "I have held it as long and as high as I could. Please accept what I tried to do." Today is not that day. Today, rather, is when my greedy, grubby mitts learn to let go to receive.

Amen.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dispatch from Camp Lonelyhearts

Camp Lonelyhearts. Photo by khowaga1, Flickr

Captain’s Log, Feb. 14, 20-- CE
Elevation: 2,000 ft. above sea level

Location: Yurt

The natives grow more restless by the day. All they’ve had to sustain them recently in terms of interpersonal communications are a few vague trail markers and some generic clapping at the last tribal dance that could have applied to anyone in attendance. These brief encounters have not satisfied their need for emotional connection or moved them anywhere closer to their stated goals of finding a proper mate. (Note: We must assume they stated these goals. In truth, we witnessed only stick-thumping, grunting, and some rather rude hand gestures.)

They seem to be in a state of constant irritation, unmitigated by the obvious fact that they are surrounded by a close-knit community who supports and cares for them and would never let them go hungry or be dragged off by a wild boar without at least some semblance of a fight. Some of the more irritated members have taken to sitting on distant hilltops and gazing for hours, chin in hand, at the empty, dusty vistas. Others eat whatever food they can reach, no matter how short village supplies are, while others lock themselves away in their huts during daylight hours, rarely to be seen or heard.

When one such self-isolator left for a brief trip to the loo, we confiscated a small stack of crude stick figure drawings that, with their angry expressions and depiction of tears flooding from eye sockets, appeared to indicate angst. We attempted to communicate with her about the drawings upon her return, but she burst into an incomprehensible screaming rage and ran back into the hut alone. Had there been a door, we’re certain she would have slammed it.

In pursuit. Photo by Wyoming_Jackrabbit, Flickr

In what is likely a breach of scientific ethics, we have tried at various intervals to match-make tribe members, urging them to recognize the complementary mates in their midst. Alas, our efforts have borne scant fruit. It strikes us that the closer a tribe member is to another, the harder it becomes for him or her to recognize the inherent compatibility of their pairing. They will pine for the other and exhibit jealous behavior if the other should take up with another potential mate; yet if the other does express desire, he (or she) is immediately, coldly spurned. It could very well be our language barrier presenting itself, but the natives don’t seem to know what they want. As of this entry, we have not arrived at any clear conclusion about their reasoning.

Some members have successfully paired off on their own – “success” in this case ranging from “actively engaged with and attentive to one’s mate” to “tolerating them.” Occasionally we observe the pairs interceding in the affairs of those they care most about, such as inviting the interested person and his/her object of interest along on the same hunting party, wherein the paired couples, with poor acting skills, stay a notable and obvious 10 feet away from the as-yet-unpaired couple and whisper back and forth to each other, presumably about how well they’re getting on (or not). It has been a consistent observation from our field staff that such outings rarely work, though efforts appear appreciated in the short term.

The cue for copulation. Photo by whl.travel, Flickr

Even in the absence of lifelong mating, a fair amount of copulation happens throughout the village. This frequent and persistent activity seems to happen with or without stated commitment, and in fact seems to have a frequency level inversely proportional to the commitment level. (We’re still analyzing the data and hope to report more conclusive results at next entry.) Strangely, the heightened level of copulation, particularly on feast days and in cold weather, does not seem to markedly increase the natives’ long-term happiness, while the paired couples -- whom we regularly observe sitting outside their huts staring at sunsets and munching nuts -- appear blissful and content. The research team intends to probe further into this inexplicable phenomenon, tentatively titled the “Copulation < Nuts Paradigm.”

Of late, the natives appear to be moving toward a less personal system where they can anonymously share information with a disinterested and automated third party – in this case, a baboon – who then ascertains through a mysterious but undoubtedly rigorous and not at all random process which participant might fit well with another. To date, one out of sixteen attempted couples has permanently mated. The rest continue to visit the baboon; they appear hopeful and only mildly panicked.

Prayer #272: Love Alone

To be lonely is to be without company. To feel cut off. Apart.

To be alone, however, can mean to be incomparable. Unique. Separated from others, but in a way that distinguishes you.

How fitting, then, that You alone ensure I will never be lonely. You alone are love.

Amen.

Monday, February 03, 2014

How to stay married (according to my parents)

Dancing in a conga line since 1979!

Today my parents celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. For those of you who don't know my parents, this factoid might not interest you. But it should, because my parents provide an excellent example of what real marriage looks like.

As this marital milestone approached, I found myself thinking about how I perceive my parents' relationship, how it has affected my life, and what lessons I can take from them. For example:
  1. I see them as two loving, imperfect people in a loving, imperfect union.
  2. I grew up enveloped by their evident love and affection for each other. I also saw the less pretty, more stressful moments, reminding me that parents are people, too.
  3. Thanks to them I've learned that love deserves display, affection requires sharing, words are worth saying, truth needs telling, forgiveness demands granting, and date nights ALWAYS need calendaring.

But I was observing all these points as the child of a partnership, not a partner in the partnership. So I decided to go straight to the source and find out what it looked like from the inside.

I emailed each parent separately, not divulging that I was asking the other parent the same question. My initial prompt: What would you like to tell (Mom/Dad) that you haven't said to (her/him) yet in 35 years of marriage?

Both responded quickly with nearly identical answers (sign #1 that you've been married for 35 years):

  • "I don't know what I can tell you that I haven't said in 35 years. You know how open we are with each other."
  • "The only answer I could come up with is that I have nothing to tell your Dad that has not already been said. I think that is a somewhat remarkable achievement. I never planned to make sure that I would tell him everything -- our relationship just creates an atmosphere that is honest and safe and open. And just so you don’t think all communications were romantic ones, sometimes things were hard to say. I thought about the fact that I would have no regrets if your Dad was not here with me tomorrow. Just the other night, in the dark movie theater, we marveled at the fact that we have been married for 35 years (met 40 years ago this coming October) and we both agreed—without missing a beat—that you and your brother are our greatest achievement. I know that there is more to be said in the years ahead, and I am certain we will say it!"


As lovely as these answers were, I wanted more. Back to the drawing board I went, and came away with a second prompt: What would you like the next 35 years to look like with Mom/Dad?

This one went over much better. My mother answered first:

I really liked this question... I think I told you once that when Dad and I were talking about getting married, I had this vivid image of the two of us as very old people holding hands and just being together. I knew then that I should marry him. It’s pretty simple: I want the next 35 years to look like the first 35 -- lots of surprises, fun times that bring us closer, sad times that bring us even closer still, new things to learn, trips to be taken, good food to cook and then eat with gusto, watching you and your brother grow in every way and sharing in it with you, being graceful about growing older, lots of photos snapped of the many important events that will occur, and most important of all -- still laughing like we did when we first met. It is the first thing that drew me to Dad and it is still the thing that keeps me happiest. So, I guess I want to be laughing with Dad for the next 35 years. Pretty simple.

Then my father, who addressed my mother directly:

We are now married for 35 years. This is a long way from our first date when, being the romantic that I am, I took you to see “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” by Sam Peckinpah. As I survey what we have done in that time, I know it has been all that I would have hoped and more than I could have dreamed. In the first 15 years, my work led us to live in six different houses. Still, we were always able to build a home for ourselves and the kids in all those locations. We encountered many troubles, yet we never lost our ability to laugh. And as we lived through the same recessions and ebbs and flows that everyone else did over that time, we always felt rich, as we knew that we had those things that matter.

Now I envision the next 35 years, and I see that we’re putting the finishing touches on the foundation of that next phase of our lives. Will we work? Definitely… just not at our current jobs. I picture you as a docent in some appropriate museum, and everyone will be fighting to be in your queue because you will still be so damned pretty. I’ll probably be writing to, talking to, consulting to anyone who will listen to me. I’m sure I’ll be the cute codger who tweets and self-publishes e-books (low barrier to entry on those).

What is most important is that we’ve had lots of practice in the ways we will inevitably spend our time. Taking in the arts, especially running to learn about the next big thing. Singing a cappella. Traveling, whether to keep long-time relationships alive, or seeing something new, whether it is the pyramids, Alaska, or a tango festival. Most likely, we’ll know how to be content with being together.

We know how to build a life, a 35-story building under construction one story at a time through courtship, through our wedding and raising two wonderful children. One story at a time, three decades later, we got to where we are today. And now we are prepared for Maslow’s period of self-actualization. I can’t wait.


You know what the best part of these answers is, aside from the flirting and lurving and cuteness? The best part is, I knew what they were going to say. Not because my parents are boring and predictable, but because they have always lived their marriage out in the open. My brother and I witnessed tickles at the sink, strained conversations, cuddling on the couch, moments of panic, love notes on Post-Its, bad days, good days, blah days, extraordinary days -- the million points of minutiae that comprise a life lived together.

Now that I'm a grown woman who better understands just how hard relationships are, you better believe I'm taking notes. But for all the critical lessons and important observations, it seems that a good marriage -- according to my parents, anyway -- can be boiled down to six key tenets:

  • I love you.
  • I want you.
  • I like you.
  • You're funny.
  • We did it!
  • Let's keep going!

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thank you for being the collective YOU. Now get going on the next 35 years, you crazy kids! [Ed. note: XOXOXOXO]


Prayer #271: Let's Build a Life

To my spouse, whoever you may be:

Let's build a life, one story at a time.

One inside joke, one special date, one memory at a time.

One fight, one makeup, one crying jag, one sidesplitter, one lesson at a time.

One table, one couch, one move, one home, one animal, one child, one stage at a time.

One card, one heartache, one surprise, one load, one list, one Monday, one meal, one morning, one moment at a time.

Let's build a life, one story at a time, and let's tell it like we mean it.

Amen. 
 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Poem for a snowy day

"The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches." -- e.e. cummings

Snow upon arrival. Photo by Phil Roeder, Flickr

The Snowflakes' Exhortation

We're urging you to please hang up the day.
Yes, leave it there, beside the entranceway,
no bother if it puddles on the floor.
Hang up your schedule, your to-the-minute plans,
come back outside and downward drift with us
instead, come join our dainty slam dance.
Wind, all tug-of-war tyrannical,
will bellow, try to grab our thin barbed arms
but fail: You can't contain the infinite.
Our invitation's in the whispered whoosh,
our rushing, hushing hurtle toward the earth
that never ends in craters or kabooms.
What comes down can't go up, we like to say.
Accumulate with us, then. Settle in.

Prayer #270: Snow Day

No quiet like snow quiet, an icy genteel finger landing on your lips to signal you to hush. Hush your worries, hush your fears, just watch ... watch the swirling curling, the disorderly design, the tiny specks that mine what little light is left and stir dim hours.

May peace be to our hearts what snow is to our eyes -- chaos frozen to magnify perfection.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Speak of the devil: A short, incomplete, unqualified meditation on evil

Evil is this guy. Photo by Manachar Bandicoot, Flickr

What is evil?

Evil is non-existent.

Evil is relative.

Evil is universal.

Evil is the darkness.

Evil is sin.

Evil is the devil.

Evil is amorality.

Evil is intentional malevolence.

Evil is "non-good."

Evil is the lacking of good.

Evil is defective good.

Evil is balanced against good.

Evil is the "dualistic antagonistic opposite of good."

Evil is the result of a mistaken concept of good.

Evil “is a way of marking the fact that it shatters our trust in the world.”

Evil is contrary to God.

Evil is deviation from the character or will of God.

Evil is forsaking God.

Evil is the absence of God.

See/hear/speak no evil ... and look disinterested while doing it. Photo by sanjitbakshi, Flickr

All these statements are drawn from various world religions and philosophies. If the last one is true -- that evil is the absence of God -- then contemplating evil's nature makes me feel profoundly lonely.

You'd think evil, be it physical, moral, or metaphysical, would first frighten or devastate me. And it does, especially when it happens on a scale that overwhelms my puny human notions of what our infinite universe and sentient selves are capable of inflicting, such as when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines or Syria's chemical attacks were revealed in grisly detail.

But evil is also isolating. Whether you qualify only acts as evil or view "evilness" as an independent entity, evildoing sets both the doer and the done-upon apart. They have now participated in the inexplicable, in a force all humans experience at one point or another but cannot always define. They are marked. We are marked. Our separation is simply a matter of degree.

It's easy (I hope) to say no to "traditional" evil as Moses' tablets outline -- murder, theft, adultery, etc. Yet we say no to light, to good, to the fullness of joy in a thousand small ways every day -- with pettiness, recrimination, selfishness, pride -- and it puts us in hell of a different sort: at arm's length from a divine, heart-scorching love.

My priest was preaching on this topic last weekend, and he said, "You don't have to earn God's love. You have it." So I take that to mean I have to choose God's love. Choose it over temptation. Weakness. Inadequacy. Despair. And yes, evil.

It's a tall order in a disheartening world. But then I think about how lonely I felt simply imagining a life apart from light, not to mention living apart from it. So it makes the choice easier, if not the acts.

Believe me, I'm nowhere close to digesting the enormity of evil in any of its explanations or situations. I just know I don't to be more marked than I already am.

Prayer #269: The Fourth Wise Monkey

Mizaru shields his eyes, lives sight unseen.
Kikazaru blocks his ears, lives sound unheard.
Iwazaru tapes his mouth, lives word unsaid.
Make me Shizaru, who crosses arms
and lives with evil deed undid.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Which memories are worth the amber? (Or, Why I dread framing projects)

Work in progress. Always. Photo by Brightworks School, Flickr

I have visited Pinterest twice since the day I created my account. I wear solid-colored pants and tops so I don't have to match prints. And when it comes to framing and displaying art, I shut down completely.

As regular readers of IMS know, it took me FOUR. FRICKIN. YEARS. to hang pictures in my bedroom. I enjoyed them for a year and a half, and then I moved to the bedroom upstairs, so all the pictures came down again. Now the mish-mash of frames, tchotchkes, and mementos roams homeless once more, and I'm again overwhelmed by the prospect of piecing the decorative experience together.

Why do I, a project-oriented individual, procrastinate so badly on this particular endeavor? After all, it's just holes in walls. Nothing irreparable. Nothing irreversible. Don't like it? Move it! Get something new? Replace the old! Yet I treat it like brain surgery: Do it right the first time, or forever regret the consequences.

However, with this last wrenching move that undid the puttering of four years in an afternoon, I was able to name what bothers me about framing projects: deciding what to keep visible, and what to pack away -- or worse, discard.

Empty frames. Photo by udge, Flickr

As I sifted through box and box, I found wall hangings, bells, fabric birds, die-cut cards, vintage ads I picked up at Eastern Market, brochure covers, calendar pages, a "bird house for fleas," a Goofy figurine, cross-stitches ... the list goes on. The years unfolded before me as I went. My first love gave me this street sign. My youth group framed this pledge. I found this wind chime in the stairwell of my college apartment.

To say no to something -- to say that it no longer merited display -- felt to me like rejecting those memories. Though I hadn't looked at many of these items in upwards of 10 years, I was looking at them now, and by virtue of looking at them now I was remembering circumstances and bygones and vistas I had let slip.

"Good thing I kept these boxes!" I thought. "Otherwise, my entire past would disappear!"

"Oh, so you didn't remember any of your past until this moment?" said my subconscious.

I thought for a moment. The objects were reminding me of specific details, but not the overarching experience. My first love will forever be printed on my heart. My youth group changed the way I look at Catholicism among my peers. I could tell you how every dinner party at my college apartment played out if you dropped me there today.

My subconscious piped up again. "So what you're saying is, you don't really need the items. You already remember these things, deep down."

"Shut up, Subconscious," I snapped. "You can't ask me to kill my darlings! You can't have me promote some memories over others. I need to remember all of it. Experiencing it the first time isn't enough. I need to relive, and relive, and relive, just in case ..."

But Subconscious had made its point. I knew what I had to do. I had to -- have to -- say goodbye.

Crooked is beautiful, too. Photo by seyed mostafa zamani, Flickr

There's now a box in a corner of my room collecting said goodbyes. As I select what to frame, or think about what I might want to display in the future, I put anything that no longer has a home in this humble receptacle. The items will go to Goodwill eventually, where nice people will find them and perhaps wonder why someone gave such-and-such up.

I gave it up, gentle buyer, to teach myself a lesson: that I am allowed to change what I'm invested in, what I care to remind myself of, and what I want to reinforce about my personal history. And as I will always be changing, varying how I reflect my dynamism externally does not invalidate or diminish what I have cherished or exhibited up to this point.

What's more, shedding reminders of more painful episodes can release me from bad memories or self-recrimination, plus I'm leaving wall space for what's to come. So even at its worst, my framing project is merely annoying me, while at its best it can capture the joy and beauty of my present.

I vow today not to wait four years to have my art around me again (making this latest round practically instantaneous by comparison). I will unwrap lovely memories and display resonant moments and re-encounter the art that never loses its ability to move me. Why delay joy like that?

See? I'm learning. Just as my subconscious promised. Just as I'll remember the next time this project rolls around.

Prayer #268: True Remembering

Joy scars you. I'm quick to point out angry sores and raised marks where pain once thwarted healing, but transcendent moments are just as branded on my skin.

Every time I laugh, I bruise. Every time I love, I burn. Your presence has marked me. It covers me with reminders of passion.

I fear I'll run out of skin -- out of memory -- but You assure me that true remembering is boundless. Day by day, lump by lump, You build me, so all I ever need to do is look at myself and see the artwork You have wrought.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The orangutan's gaze: A call to interior solitude

Captured reflection. Photo by csaveanu, Flickr

We saw the crowd before we saw the orangutan. My friends and I had just stepped into the malodorous Great Ape House at the National Zoo, trying to warm up a bit before continuing down the Zoolights path. The gorillas were already asleep, draped over hammocks, entangled in limbs, with one stately silverback sleeping upright in the back corner. But in the far right corner where the orangutans live, a formidable crowd was forming around one enclosure pane.

We saw his jutting jaw before we saw his body. The dusky orange male, looking like a shag carpet on holiday, stood on the ledge against the glass. His fists were raised and pressed at his eye level, and he kept turning his formidable underbite back and forth, back and forth, to survey the buzzing onlookers.

One friend and I horned our way into the corner of the gathering and put our foreheads close to the glass. His jaw snapped in our direction; we were in his line of sight. He two-stepped along the ledge to where we stood and solemnly regarded us. His chin was now parallel to the ground, his eyes focused on us.

I couldn't read his expression. Was he suspicious? Playful? Mocking? Was he wondering why so many bundled humans were pressed against his wall so late at night? Was he derisive because we couldn't tell time, didn't dress properly for his stinky home, weren't free to play like he was?

Two young boys darted around us and broke our gaze. His jaw turned elsewhere. I walked away. But I've found myself thinking about him since then. Had he wanted to stay up late? Were we visitors intriguing, annoying, or both? Would he remember tomorrow how today was different? Or would he not notice in the first place?

Obscured vision. Photo by Wiblick, Flickr
At the turn of another year when resolutions promulgate change, clog social feeds, and pit us all against each other in public self-improvement plans, I find myself wanting to be more like the oranguatan at the National Zoo. I want to put a wall of glass between myself and the world's increasing noise. A wall because I need space, silence, structure, solitude. But glass because I also need community, communication, connection, and clarity.

New York Times contributor Sherry Turkle started to get to what's been bothering me in a December 2013 op-ed about "The Documented Life," our society's growing propensity to interrupt our experiences to record them. She says (emphasis mine):
We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions anymore. But they make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything. [...] 
These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device. In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts: It does honor to what we are thinking about. It does honor to ourselves. 
Some people may argue that posting or sharing our thoughts right away honors them through broadcast. I don't agree. Good thinking takes time. Consider the root of ruminate -- to chew the cud. True contemplation requires you to return to a thought, look at it from different angles, and let it stew in a dusty corner of your mind where it meets other, seemingly unrelated thoughts and then produces wisdom beyond your initial burst of inspiration.

That's the point when we do the most honor to our thoughts -- when we give them air and room, when we trust them to live and walk on their own. In doing so we're saying we trust ourselves as well, that we believe ourselves capable of arriving at greater, deeper truths. (Louis C.K. says it best, actually, and he also quotes Bruce Springsteen.)

High-wire act. Photo by Rik Goldman, Flickr

Part of my pull toward interior solitude -- creating space within you -- is also coming from my personal attempts to establish a writing routine. (My behavioral-based resolution for 2014? "Write every day -- at least 20 minutes, at least 300 words.") The more books I read on how to write, the more I hear a consistent refrain: Observe, observe, observe. Observe the world around you. Observe details and reactions. Observe your own feelings.

But here's what scares me about observation: It often requires not participating. Like, you're standing there, you're physically present, but you're listening. Not thinking about your next witty remark, not reviewing your to-do list, just paying attention to what's happening around you.

At this point you're probably thinking, "Julia's a creeper and I'm never getting drinks with her again because I'll end up in her novel." That's not what I'm saying. (Though your story about the cat in the drainpipe might end up in something. Sorry.) I'm saying that observation helps you communciate better. It cultivates your private self and adds substance -- elements which ultimately make whatever it is you have to say more meaningful.

Author Jonathan Franzen explains the "private self" concept well in this Atlantic article "How to Write: A Year in Advice":
So even as I spend half my day on the Internet—doing email, buying plane tickets, ordering stuff online, looking at bird pictures, all of it—I personally need to be careful to restrict my access. I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from. The more I’m pulled out of that, the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. As a writer, I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to. I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there.
Hopefully, what you'll find in your own soul is substance -- the meaty, surprising, important stuff. The stuff that connects us on a universal level. I want to get good stuff out of myself. So I should put good stuff in. Right?

Good stuff in ... Photo by mirsasha, Flickr

I have found myself rooting for substance lately like a pig on a truffle hunt, and I've often come up short -- mainly, I think, because I have too many inputs, too little time, and not enough curatorial selectivity over the rotating exhibit that is my life. So now I'm examining the quality of whatever I'm consuming, be it mental, physical, commercial, or emotional.What will push me toward a fuller, smarter version of myself? What is worth the effort of consumption? What might I make of it?

Granted, not everything will pass muster, and fluff has its place. After all, where would I be without the brain-escaping pleasures of Downton Abbey? I just want to change the proportions. More good stuff in, more good stuff out. Simple to outline. Ridiculously hard to practice in an over-saturated life.

Then we arrive at the plain, sniveling truth: The quest for interior solitude scares me shitless. A friend asked today, "I have a life philosophy to 'follow the fear.' What do you think about doing that?" I stammered some inane, so-half-baked-it's-raw response about healthy vs. unhealthy risk, how fear can protect you, blah blah blah, neglecting to mention that this fundamental shift is happening at my core yet I'm terrified because a) I know it has to happen, b) I have no idea what will happen next, yet c) I'm fairly certain it's going to hurt.

I know I will benefit from space and silence. But asking for these things -- and making room in my life for them -- requires loss. I will have to sacrifice time and much-loved activities. I will need the willpower and discipline to restructure my days and hold myself to stronger standards. I will have to say no to myself and others so I can say yes to ... what, exactly? The unknown quotient intimidates me. I don't know what I'm expecting to emerge. I just know I need to see if anything does.

Now my orangutan/glass wall/wisdom of the great apes analogy breaks down, because the orangutan will never tell us what he's learned. He'll spend the rest of his days in his enclosure, wholly unto himself, and we'll never know what made his life meaningful to him.

This is where I, the human, win. After standing on the ledge with my fists against the glass, trying to make sense of the colorful babble happening a pane away, I will get to leave the zoo and share what I saw in captivity -- and ultimately be freer for it.

Seeing past the glass. Photo by GraphicReality, Flickr

Prayer #267: Monkey Business

Give me the courage to press against the glass containing me. Squint my eyes to see. Strain my ears to hear. Shape my lips to speak. Curl my hands in tight fists around the truth when it scurries past, and with it firmly in my grasp, help me beat it on the pane so hard I break through into the shocked crowd -- stunned to see in their midst an unformed beast taken aback by its own strength, surrounded by shards of what once was a wall, ready to lay bare what it heard howling in the night.

Amen.