Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Italian chefs from Egypt. The peoples of Ecuador. Mean, helpless old ladies. Mongolian Barbeque. Even so.

In Allison, Connected, Italian chefs from Egypt, Jonah, Mongolian Barbeque, Old ladies, Raymond Carver, Robin Dembroff, Simon, The peoples of Ecuador, Uncategorized on 31 August 2011 at 10:29 AM

My family are Latinos, which means that even though the invitation to the Mongolian Barbeque says 6:30 PM (just thirty minutes before our one-year-old usually goes off to sleep), they begin to show well after 7:15 PM, except us, except us, since a few weeks earlier we were eating at the Italian place, to wish my mother and stepfather well, to say goodbyes before they went off to Italy for three months, that restaurant owned by an expert Italian chef from Egypt, where the food was perfect but the kids went nuts, screaming, throwing food, pounding the table, spilling drinks, finding seven hundred ways to ruin a nice evening at an Italian restaurant, so that we received from other patrons (and gave right back to them) all kinds of dirty looks, so that even this old lady told my one-year-old nephew, “My God. Can’t you just shut up?” and I gave her a long, cold What the fuck, grandma, you wanna start something? stare, until she quietly went back to drinking her old lady’s milk with her old lady’s pills. So, tonight, when my brother invites us out to dinner at the Mongolian Barbeque at 6:30 PM, we show up early, very early for Latinos, at 6:00 PM, and we feed our kids, and we stuff our faces, and we wait around like a bunch of idiot gringos for the Latinos to show up. Does this strategy work? Almost. By the time the peoples of Ecuador arrive to eat, our kids have already eaten, are therefore not grumpy, and we believe we, the parents, are in control. We believe we are geniuses, that this night is an enormous success. And we look around to confirm that there are no old ladies to intimidate. But the peoples of Ecuador have brought their children, and these children see my children, and they play with my children, and, now that it’s getting late for children, this evening at the Mongolian Barbeque  becomes like a slumber party, with screaming and running and strange secret games long into the night. And Jonah, my three-year-old, who can blame him, who can say it could go any other way, gets himself into some trouble, because it is so late, and because he hits, and because he screams, and because he scratches, and because he kicks, and because he bites, and because he is three years old late at night with cousins and children, and his little child’s body does not know how to behave in a Mongolian Barbeque where there are no slides or wide open places to kick a ball. So he disobeys. And we tell him No. We walk him outside. We have a time-out. We come back inside. We tell him No. We bring him back outside. We spank. We bring him back inside. We tell him No. We bring him back outside. And it is late in the evening now, and we are driving home, and it is after the trouble, after our words together, after the time-outs, after the spankings, after his biting and hitting and kicking and screaming and telling children mean words. The night is quiet, and we drive silently along the road. And Jonah says, “I have to stop doing those bad things. I have to stop doing those bad things. But I just can’t.” I hear him say this, and I hear him repeat it, and I ask him questions, and Alli asks him questions, and he keeps saying it, keeps saying, “I just can’t, I just can’t.” I am moved to tears, and Alli holds his hand, saying, “We know. Mom and Dad know. We are the same way. It’s so hard, isn’t it, Jonah, to stop doing bad things. But do you know that we love you, Jonah, and that we are always connected.” And Jonah says, “I just can’t stop,” but then he repeats after Alli, “We are always connected.”

The past few days, I have been thinking about that night, about how rich and beautiful it was, about how my son taught me about honesty, and love, and the sickness of my inward life, how he taught me about my God who loves me and forgives me and abides even in my sickness. And then something else came to mind, an old student, Robin Dembroff, who, just before graduation, was inducted into the college’s honors society. She asked me to be the one to induct her into it, so I did. And this is the speech I wrote to do it:

Robin Dembroff is the smartest student I have taught, the one I thought about when, preparing for class, my anxiety would rise about my whether I know…more than they know. All professors know this feeling, know those moments: moments of faking it, of saying “I don’t know” in four-syllable words, of believing that any second now the game is up, moments of, “How long do I have look up and away, and say ‘ontological’ and ‘soteriology’ –so I can just—get—out—of—this?” It was her face I saw, her questions I imagined, her possible objections or obscure facts that made me afraid.

For this reason, I am glad to be rid of her.

She is very smart, the best kind of student. And every teacher she’s had knows it. In this regard, then, she belongs in the EKE. And for this she deserves our recognition, deserves this ceremony, deserves my personal and heartfelt congratulations:

Congratulations, Robin. This is a big deal. A wonderful achievement. Thank you for being so smart, for taking so much time, for devoting yourself to such difficult questions, for being such a good writer and thinker, for being so creative, for being the kind of student who intimidates me.

But your being smart, or my being your professor of smart stuff—these are not why you asked me to be here. My standing here has almost nothing to do with smart stuff.

And I want to honor that. And I want to spend my time talking about you in ways I know match your reason for my standing up here.

There is a very short poem by the great storyteller Raymond Carver. Carver: that reformed and recovered drunk, that cheat, that neglectful father, that abusive husband, that generally mean person. The poem is called “Late Fragment,” which he wrote at the end of his life, just before lung cancer killed him. This is how it goes:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Carver, the brilliant storyteller and worst kind of person, who told his own life without excuses, presenting himself in his stories as the worst kind of person, finally found recovery, found a great deal of reconciliation, and, eventually, he found himself beloved on the earth—even so. It’s in the even so that his life story is told here, in the even so that my and your and Robin’s lives are told. We are suffering, wandering, confused, hurt—and hurtful—we are the kinds of people who, left to ourselves, are no better or hardly better than Carver ever was. And, even so, even so, we are beloved.

This is why Robin wants me up here. Because of even so.

To be honored in front of so many, to be told Good job, and Congratulations, and We think you’re something else!—it’s a kind of love, or a stand-in for it. At the very least, it’s like love. Because it’s people giving you this big good thing.

And in its being like love, this smart stuff event, I think Robin made the mistake of putting up in front of you someone who almost has nothing to do with her smart stuff, but someone who has seen her through years of her learning her own belovedness; someone who would assume her smart stuff and then ignore it; someone who will instead tell you about her belovedness even so.

Last year, Robin wrote love-letter-paintings to many, if not all, of the Torrey faculty, these people who represented to her smart stuff and even so. Her friend Renee painted likenesses, and then Robin wrote the words over the painted image. Here is what she wrote on mine:

Of course, he says. Of course, yes. Fingers skim along rows of bindings, pulling down certain volumes. Not that he means to read from each one. He wants to remember them, delight in them and, most of all, simply have them in his hands. He arranges the books in a careful stack on his desk and, each time he lays one down, talks about a particular section and the author’s particular genius. Always in particulars. And this—amazing. Amazing. He extracts a book and, for the slightest instant, pauses to feel its weight in his hand. While he tells me about the text, he turns the pages over, one by one, only to have their texture between his fingers. The rustle is warm and familiar. His eye skims passages, head shaking with awe. Does he know the corners of his mouth arch this way every time a familiar text is in his hands? Or how many students have learned to love fitting words through witnessing this expression? To find richness in so many things… We see it most when he looks at his son. Or hear it when his voice cracks, and he laughs at the remembering of himself. He leans back and is still. Now. Space to wordlessly revisit where we have been. Words are beautiful, but only as signs to wordlessness. I remember. Now. I am beginning to understand where understanding ends. He knows this place, and that is how he brought us here. Now. Nothing but to sit here and process. To process without being alone. To not be alone as the end of the question. And then—slight lean forward. I know the drill. Social etiquette for time awareness. My appointment should have ended long ago. I motion as if to leave, but when I blink, he’s leaned back again. A gentle, but defiant flash passes through his eyes. No, no, wrong, it says. Things can be different. He searches for something until he finds it. And then his finger jabs a page and slides the book to me. Read that, he says. Everything is in that ‘even so,’ he says. It’s wonderful, really. Even so. Wonderful. Even so.

And so, Robin: No, you are not alone. I hear you. I am connected to you. My wife, my in-laws, and I—we love you. You are a part of our family. You are a gift to me as much as I am a gift to you. You are a gift to this institution, to your teachers, to your friends, to your family, to our Lord. You are beloved on the earth. Even so.


My wife. My sons. And too much poop in the world.

In Allison, Breath, Jonah, Poop, Simon, Stillness on 6 August 2011 at 12:14 PM

This one son of mine is very beautiful, and this other son of mine is also very beautiful. The one son talks, runs, argues, falls, cries, tells stories, asks to be wiped after he poops. Two days ago he came up behind me and hugged me and said, Dad, you smell like poop. I told him it must be the coffee I was just drinking. He said, No, it’s poop. I did not tell him, but I wanted to tell him, that he smells like poop all the time, the jerk.

This other son of mine, the younger one, the one-year-old, doesn’t talk much yet, says in mumbles and slurs things like Balloon, and Juice, and Mama, and Rock. He falls very often, and he cries. In the two months he’s been walking, three times he’s fallen so that his nose bled, once in church, and he cried and cried, and his shirt was blood-covered, and his fingers and hands—from wiping the blood away—dried red and sticky. For the rest of the day after my wife stopped the bleeding, his nose looked as though little red boogers had just stopped short of falling out.

And then this wife. This wife of mine. Who loves me. Who loves our boys. Who takes care of our boys. Who feeds them. Clothes them. Bathes them. Disciplines them. Asks them questions. Takes them to the park. Knows their favorite frozen yogurt. Knows their favorite bath toys. Who screams to me, Carlos! Simon just pooped in the tub! Who says, Do you think he has a concussion? Who says, Jonah is driving me crazy!

She wakes up every morning, puts Simon to her breast, nurses him, makes him laugh, comforts him, warms him, makes sounds only they two understand, and, while I shower and dress and eat and scoot off to write stories in the morning, she is with them, holding them, teaching them, cooking for them, cleaning up after them, inventing worlds and games with them, is their spiritual advisor and personal chef, and I cannot imagine a lovelier mother, a more present mother, a mother so selfless. She is devoted, like prayer, to this family, to these—all three of us—boys, devoted to us, our smells and poop and screams and nose bleeds, to our hunger and demands and messes, to our long and endless noise.

And what. What do I say about it. There are mornings I get into the car, mornings I’m driving after she drove the same car last night—maybe home from her sister’s house after a long night of talking, or maybe after a quick evening run to buy a bottle of wine. And whenever I step into the car, turn the key, adjust the mirrors, I notice this universal truth: when Allison was the last person to drive this car, and drive alone, the radio is off.

I turn the car on. I hear nothing. I hear silence.

So I am reminded. Reminded of my boys, reminded of me. Reminded of our demands and noise. Reminded of the chaos my wife looks after and manages, keeping us in order. Reminded of how much we talk about poop. Reminded that she has two sons and a husband whose imaginations and curiosities and desires fill her ears and arms with all—kinds—of—stuff.

And then this silence. These right turns, these left turns. With nothing in her ears anymore. Just street, just freeway, just road. I imagine her closing her eyes and opening her eyes, breathing slowly, giving thanks, not making a sound. Here now she is a mystic, present with God, breathing slowly, gratefully, as she pulls back into our driveway, just one more minute, just one more minute, just one more minute, until we come upon her again to help us and comfort us.

The real stuff that is out there wanting to be known. You know. Poetry. Landscapes. Persons.

In Breath, C.S. Lewis, Dante, Dionysius, Genesis, Herman Melville, Landscape, Myth, Paul Simon, Plato, Robert Frost, Story, T.S. Eliot, The Voice and Arms of God, Walt Whitman on 2 August 2011 at 3:16 PM

Dante’s 14th century poem, The Divine Comedy, begins with a man “midway” through his life—and he’s walking down the road.

In medieval Italy, in Florence (or, in Dante’s case at the time, just outside Florence), looking out his window, looking up at the stars every night, these hillsides and mountains provide him with just the images he needs to create a confused lost cowardly road-walking man who cannot find his way, who descends into hell, who comes out the other side into purgatory, to climb this mountain (the first-ever image of purgatory as a mountain going up, borrowing from Dionysius, borrowing from Plato), who then leaves the mountain with Beatrice, his great love on earth, to go up, up, up, to find God in the heavens among the stars. Looking around and up, Italy provides Dante with the landscape to render the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

T.S. Eliot’s early 20th century, modern poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, begins with a man midway through his life (“with a bald spot in the middle of my head”)—and he’s walking down the road.

Now we are in 20th century London, and instead of a road that leads into hell, a road that goes up a mountain and finally into heaven—there is this confused lost cowardly road-walking man who cannot find his way: who does not, in the end, find his Beatrice, who cannot profess his love to a woman, because, in short, he was afraid. And now, in 20th century London, here is the same journey (with a different ending, yes), and here again the landscape just outside Eliot’s house provides him with the entire range of emotion—or the potential of it—all of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

Paul Simon’s 1986 pop hit, “You Can Call Me Al,” begins with a man midway through his life (“soft in the middle now”)—and he’s walking down the road.

Here now we are in rock n roll, surrounded by saxophones and bass players, and he’s rewriting Dante’s Comedy, rewriting Eliot’s Love Song, asking Beatrice (“Betty”) to be his bodyguard (as she is for Dante in the Comedy), inviting her to call him “Al” (or, as in Eliot’s poem J. “Alfred” Prufrock). Here instead of Dante’s terza rima (the rhyme pattern Dante invented to push the poem forward on its journey), and instead of Eliot’s sometimes-iambic, sometimes-free verse, sometimes-rhyming, sometimes-not-rhyming, stream-of-conscious poetry (participating in the innovations of modern poetry), we have a rock n roll legend using his own landscape—the 1-4-5 chords of the blues—and we have him taking his confused lost cowardly road-walking man up, up, up, like Dante did, finally “spinning in infinity,” saying, “Amen, Hallelujah,” but rendering everything in the stream-of-conscious style that Eliot used, borrowing from both poems and pushing them into the rock n roll landscape. And here again, built into the landscape, here is the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

So what of it.

In the novel I am writing—set first in Ecuador where my father grew up, then in Hermosa Beach where I grew up—I believe all the world is there, the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love. I believe that the landscape, that any landscape, provides us with all the metaphors necessary to create full persons who love and hate and worry and want.

In 2007, I traveled to Ecuador to see it, smell it, feel it with my own hands, to eat its food, to touch the low clouds from the mountainsides of Quito, to feel the danger of the night streets in Guayaquil, to see for myself the rows of whorehouses, to climb the giant hill overlooking the bay, so that its landscape—and, by its landscape, all the truths of the universe—could make their way into my chest and belly.

But then the great nature poet, Robert Frost, once said, “I guess I’m not a nature poet. I’ve only written two poems without a human being in them. Only two.” But now I’m thinking, if Frost is not a nature poet, then who can be one?

So then I think: Maybe no one. Maybe we look at nature to get at true stuff, and so does Frost. Nature helps us make the images we need for the metaphors that build up art, that build up persons.

Then there is this. C.S. Lewis points out in his book The Four Loves:

If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach. The tendency to take her as a teacher is obviously very easily grafted on to the experience we call “love of nature.” But it is only a graft. While we are actually subjected to them, the “moods” and “spirits” of nature point no morals. Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, somber desolation are flung at you. Make what you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, “Look. Listen. Attend.”

The fact that this imperative is so often misinterpreted and sets people making theologies and pantheologies and antitheologies—all of which can be debunked—does not really touch the central experience itself. What nature-lovers—whether they are Wordsworthians or people with “dark gods in their blood”—get from nature is an iconography, a language of images. I do not mean simply visual images; it is the “moods” or “spirits” themselves—the powerful expositions of terror, gloom, jocundity, cruelty, lust, innocence, purity—that are the images. In them each man can clothe his own belief. We must learn our theology or philosophy elsewhere (not surprisingly, we often learn them from theologians and philosophers).

But nature cannot—can it?—be neutral! If the Hebrews were right, then the world is a breath from God’s own mouth, and in the world, in any part of this world, we can find God himself. Nature, then, helps us find God.

And yet in our landscapes we find so many different gods.

So, what do I see when I look at a landscape, look at the coast I grew up on, look at the Guayaquil my father grew up in, look at the suburbs where I live now—knowing that here is where all the world’s truths exist while simultaneously knowing that there is such little hope, among so many found gods and truths, to find any kind of truth?

I write stories, and I write stories about persons, and I write stories in language and images that come from the landscape that creates the persons: nature, landscape, any landscape, provides me with the range of experience, all of suffering and hope and mystery and love outside my window waiting to be seen and felt and tasted and heard—and I render it onto the page. All the world’s truths are here in God’s breath, in the world around me. Let us agree that while there is maybe no such thing as the nature poet, nature provides us with the metaphors we’re building persons with. And, even though different poets, from their views of nature and landscapes, build different kinds of persons (nature and persons in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick are much less generous than in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself) Lewis, though he is right, is also wrong. Because nature, God’s own breath, cannot be neutral.

So may I learn to see rightly, to find the world’s truths in the landscape, to render all the emotions we can feel, to get every fingernail and drop of blood, to get them right, and, while these are spoken by me and come from the view I alone have of these landscapes, may they be of God’s own breath.