Archive for the ‘Jonah’ Category

Things I believe are the same as or different than things you believe. Even so, even so! —Some notes on so-called Christian art.

In Anxiety, Awesome Your Life, Carolyn Elliott, Christian Art, Christianity, Constantine, David Hume, Disney Movies, Epistle to Diognetus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Genesis, Homer, Immanuel Kant, Jesus, John Milton, John Steinbeck, Jonah, Leo Tolstoy, Making a Mistake, Michelangelo, Moses, Myth, Plato, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rene Descartes, Rumi, Saint Aquinas, Sigmund Freud, Socrates, Soren Kierkegaard, Story, T.S. Eliot, Tertullian, The Way, Walt Whitman, What can Christian art do better?, William Blake, William Faulkner on 22 June 2012 at 7:20 PM

Recently, a journalist asked me to respond to the following question: What can “Christian Art” (i.e., art marketed by Christians for Christians) do better? But my ideas were snipped from the article. Therefore: I thank you, Technology, and I thank you, Democratization of Ideas via the Internet: my full response is below.

The question itself—What can “Christian art” (i.e., art marketed by Christians for Christians) do better?—assumes at least two things I do not like to assume: one, that art belongs to markets, and two, that we uphold as a thing-to-be-bettering this category of art called “Christian art.”

I’d like to make it clear, then, that while I believe the above question comes from a good, sincere, loving and lovely place, from true intentions, the truest kind, that it comes also from the honest human search for good and beautiful things—still, it misunderstands quite a lot, too.

I want to speak into what I perceive as those misunderstandings.

In a very old Christian document, the Epistle to Diognetus, there is a description of Christians from the very earliest days of Christianity, a beautiful description of the Way of Christianity—which lays down how different Christians were from the rest of the world:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.

In a very real sense, then, there are some things that separate “us” from “them.” And I do want to uphold this difference. It is there; it is real.

And to some degree we can expect artists who identify themselves as Christians to create art in a Way different from their non-Christian colleagues. Still, if Christianity is true, then Christianity is Truth, is the Way of the world, is—beneath the name “Christianity” which might make it seem like just one way among many ways—a true description of God’s creation and His actions within human history.

What Christians are devoted to, then, is not a set of creeds, not theology, but something much bigger, much deeper, much richer: we are devoted, above all, to Truth; to abiding in the mysteries before us in our journeys; to the world as God made it; to the Way the world goes; to seeking out all that is good and true and beautiful; and devoted, as we go along the Way, to becoming so good, so true, so beautiful. Christians, then, are not actually devoted to Christianity, but Reality.

Jesus Christ—this life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension—is not merely an excuse for Christians to cultivate a set of peculiar practices and disciplines, not an excuse to gather on Sundays and pray in unison; rather Jesus Christ is the purpose of history, is the focal point of the universe. If Christianity is true, then the laws of physics and mathematics, the laws of thought, art, music, poetry—that is, all real things—are united in Christ. Nothing separates itself from Him. All true things belong to the Way. They only ever speak His name.

Tertullian, many years ago, said something similar:

Though under the oppressive bondage of the body, though led astray by depraving customs, though enervated by lusts and passions, though in slavery to false gods; yet, whenever the soul comes to itself, as out of a sleep, or a sickness, and attains something of its natural soundness, it speaks to God; using no other word, because this is the peculiar name of the true God. “God is great and good.”—“Which may God give,” are the words on every lip. It bears witness, too, that God is judge, exclaiming, “God sees,” and, “I commend myself to God,” and, “God will repay me.” O noble testimony of the soul by nature Christian! Then, too, in using such words as these, it looks not to the Capitol, but to the heavens. It knows that there is the throne of the living God, as from Him and from thence itself came down. (Apology, Chapter 17)

And If Christianity is true, and if the soul is as Tertullian says, “by nature Christian,” then we should create, make, build, express, sing—with Christ at the center. We should seek God’s face in all things, that so in making art—in our reading and writing and philosophy, in our history and rhetoric and theology, in covering the canvas with paint, in putting together notes to form a melody, we aim ourselves at, as Jesus’ first disciples used to call it, the Way, and we belong to it, to Truth, to Goodness, to Beauty—to their unity in one person, who is God.

Still, of course, we are not the only religious folks—or nonreligious folks—who claim to have the In on Truth—and this is a great cause of anxiety for many Christians; it has been for centuries. Many, many evils have been committed because of this anxiety, in Jesus’ name. And this anxiety is responsible for, among many other horrors, the creation of the category of art called “Christian art.”

The history of Christianity since Constantine’s time, as Christians gained more and more power throughout the earth, is one of increasing anxiety—so much so that, in contrast to the description of Christianity in the Epistle to Diognetus, Christianity grew into a system, among other things, of political presumption, one whose presumption was so great that, by the 17th Century in England, it was not a matter of whether Christian ideology should be in power but whose Christian ideology would be in power—an absolute reversal of Christianity’s earliest days, when “Christian” and “power” were—politically, at least—opposites.

England’s 16th and 17th centuries—the centuries of Bloody Mary and Queen Elizabeth, of the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell, and, incidentally, of the height of epic poetry in John Milton’s Paradise Lost—were a kind of climax of Christian political power, during which many questions about Christianity and power were raised, debated, and fought over, and killed for.

I have a rehearsed conversation with my four-year-old son, Jonah, a conversation we’ve practiced since he began watching Disney movies about two years ago—Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Lion King, etc.—about their heroes and villains:

“What does Snow White want?” I ask him.

“She wants love.”

“And what does the evil Queen want?”

“She wants power.”

“But what does the Queen really want?”

“Love.”

“What does that mean?”

“She’s making a mistake.”

We, in great part—as Americans; as capitalists; as Protestants who conceive of ourselves as participating in a marketplace of religions and ideas; as ones whose historical era follows that so-called Age of Enlightenment; as ones who compete, compete, compete!—we have inherited many bad questions from that time: questions of whose Christianity was right; questions that increasingly fragmented the Church rather than questions that moved it towards unity; questions of precisely which Christians should be anathematized or executed; questions of whose Christianity should be at the head of the state; questions of whether to abandon one’s home country where one kind of Christianity was the head of the state, in order to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and install another kind of Christianity as the head of the state; and, incidentally, for artists like John Milton, questions of how to use his Christian art to “justify the ways of God to men.”

In demanding so often and so loudly and sometimes so violently to justify the ways of God, we have stirred up great anxiety in ourselves, anxiety of the presumption of power, anxiety of sustaining that power, anxiety that separates rather than unites, anxiety that creates strange categories like “Christian art.”

We practice this anxiety when we agree to make the question about “our” art as opposed to “their” art, when we agree to enter “our” art into the “market,” and when we compete, compete, compete! with other ideologies and philosophies for wall space, airtime, pages in a literary journal. And we begin to exist as though in a parallel universe, in some club, in an other place, rather than generously and peacefully offering our artistic expressions to the world alongside the world’s artists—as Christian physicists work alongside atheist physicists, towards one ultimate truth—no matter one’s creed, in the continued efforts of moving toward all that is true, all that is real, always creating, always becoming, always finding and making beauty, which is how to love as God loves.

I said above:

If Christianity is true, then the laws of physics and mathematics, the laws of thought, art, music, poetry—that is, all real things—are united in Christ. There is no real thing that separates itself from Him; rather all true things belong to the Way, and only ever speak His name.

In one context—the context of Christians with other Christians—these words comfort us. They are the kind of words we speak to one another in Bible studies, after church, in conversations at restaurants, to assure and to be assured that what we believe is true, to remember that the soul is indeed by nature Christian, to remind us of our rich heritage, to show one another that what we hope in has the depth and beauty of something worth hoping in.

But in another context—say, in what many Christians perceive to be the hostile media, in academia, among the believers of other religions, among atheists—we so easily lose our cool. We become agitated. We “stand up for what we believe.” And we forget the deep consolations of what we have told one another in those conversations during Bible study, the comforting reassurances of all the beautiful truths we believe in. And we grow anxious. And our inheritance stirs up within us.

I believe we must remember that no one would speak seriously of “Christian physics” or “Christian mathematics,” or “Christian chemistry.” There is no such thing as “Christian logic.” We speak about physics, mathematics, chemistry, logic, et al.—disciplines united to Christ, as art is united to Christ—without anxiety, and we rightly encourage curiosity, creativity, and exploration, because to call something true is good enough.

So this is a mistake of “Christian art,” and of Christianity in the past few centuries, which is our inheritance: like Snow White’s wicked stepmother, like Simba’s uncle Scar, like Madam Mim and Maleficent: we mistake power for love. We generate anxiety that, by its nature, alienates rather than unifies. By isolating ourselves into categories such as “Christian art,” we refuse to accept peacefully the world as it is. Rather than abide in the inherent vulnerability all artists are exposed to when they create something new, we instead isolate ourselves from the world, anxiously preserving among ourselves what little power we have left. Then, as though to console ourselves, now falsely, we call it “Christian art.”

And we are making a mistake.

Carolyn Elliott, in her brilliant book Awesome Your Life: the Artist’s Antidote to Suffering Genius, gets it right:

The only reason to read or write poetry at all is to be helped on your own trip towards becoming a poet in this strong sense.

A poet is not an insipid person who writes nice verses and gets them published to widespread approval in pretentious magazines among polite professors.

A poet is a soul-maker. She’s a dynamic force that radically changes the movement of thought and imagination within her generation. A real poet is a shaman and a healer, a warrior and a scientist, a philosopher and a living dream. She might write some verses or she might not. The verses might be published or they might not. This has exactly no consequence or bearing for the poet’s actual purpose and mission, which is to bring soul into the world, by whatever means available and necessary.

I realized that the reason I’m completely uninterested in most work produced self-consciously as “art” is that such work tends to configure itself in a manner that aims to be legible within the present system—the mad world. As such, even if it offers to communicate high ideals, it leaves me rather cold, because such ideals are betrayed by the very fact that the work presents itself as a cultural commodity rather than a pure gift.

Too often, this kind of work lacks an essential generosity—it offers itself for the sake of being seen and admired rather than for the sake of giving forth love and power to its receiver.

I reflect, for example, that one of my most favorite poets, Rumi, gave his poems out wildly and freely.

Creative work is most inspiring and most exciting when it offers to freely lead us towards the realization of our best possibilities. I suggest that if you’ve ever felt in any way creatively under-realized or blocked, perhaps the source of your discomfort is that you’ve sought to make something that we will recognize as valuable “art” within our present condition rather than seeking to make or do things that call both you and us to our gift nature, our genius—a state where we are empowered, expanding, free, realized. (Kindle Locations 426-433, 513-523)

And so let us remember what William Faulkner said in his speech at the Nobel banquet, that “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” And there is what John Steinbeck said in the dedication of his great novel, East of Eden. As the story goes, the dedication is referring to the first finished draft of the novel, which he had placed inside a wooden box, so that its recipient, Pascal Covici—or Pat, as Steinbeck called him—could open the box and read this note, the dedication, on top. The note says,

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“What for?”
“To put things in.”
“What things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.

If Christianity is true, and if the soul is by nature Christian, then we are here—as human persons, all—to deepen our understanding of, and our interactions with God, ourselves, and the world; and, as artists, to make our creations in the Way of the world. We are here to find the truths of “the human heart in conflict with itself,” to understand “pain and excitement” and “the pleasure of design and some despair.”

As we make art, as we explore ideas, let us make these, the words of T.S. Eliot, our aesthetic goal and personal goal:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. (Four Quartets)

Artists, all artists, do something very difficult, which is to learn how to engage, confront, wonder at, reflect upon, and thank God for the beauty and glory of existence in its entire—the good stuff and the painful stuff. This takes knowledge of the world, of ourselves, and of God as we—and they—really are.

Our part as artists, readers, critics, theorists, philosophers, conversationalists—seekers, makers, listeners, pray-ers—both personally and aesthetically, is to pay very close attention to the world around us, and to devote ourselves to our inward life; then, as a result of these two working in conjunction, while we bring beautiful stuff into the world (a kind of funnel), we bring also God’s kingdom, we bring goodness, truth, and beauty, we paint His face, we shine His light, in new and surprising ways.

Moreover, let us remember: if the soul is by nature Christian, then “God has set eternity” into the hearts of all people, that they may seek His truths, just as He gave Himself personally to a man from the East, who was Job, this righteous man not of Abraham’s line; just as He sent Jonah to the Assyrians and Daniel to the Babylonians; just as He allowed wise astrologers to elude Herod and find the newborn King; just as He allowed the Roman centurion to proclaim, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” If Christianity is true, then the search for God is available to all who live, and we must accept this generously, and trust God’s movements without anxiety, without entering into the resentments of competition, without primarily giving ourselves over to the market, and seek instead to encounter Him in all places, in all art, in all creation and culture, since God speaks and works not only within those who call themselves “Christian.”

If Christianity is true, and if the soul is by nature Christian, then we—whether theist or atheist, whether Christian or Sufi—in our artistic expressions are aimed at revealing the truths of creation. Great literature, great philosophy, great paintings, great music—these are the result of human acts of creation, of making sense of “pain and excitement,” and, no matter the title of one’s “system,” God keeps at us. God shakes us up. God chases us down.

It is the Way of the world.

Additionally, even though we may not be in “agreement” with some great art, even though we find ourselves in contention with Homer or Aquinas or Descartes or Tolstoy or Nietzsche or Freud, God does not require that we be in agreement, because art, whether beautiful or ugly or good or bad, is nonetheless a part of our growing up in the Way.

Let us remember that art is not itself the Way: art is only ever at best in conversation with the Way.

Art, our best metaphors, our best images, our best rhythms for the Way the world goes, is really a conversation: these metaphors, images, and rhythms create tensions that press on us, press us into uncomfortable and important, press us into gruesome, and, in the end—through honest and open dialectic, through wrestling, through prayer—press us finally into loving circumstances.

The conversations of art, the hundreds and thousands of ways to approach art, the hot debate we get ourselves into, the wonder we experience, the drop of the stomach as we stand before Michelangelo’s David: these are the search for truth, for ourselves, for God, these conversations with the Way, in the Way—because God, because the Way the world goes, these are always here, always moving, always chasing us down—whether or not the art is “Christian”—because we believe the soul is by nature Christian.

So we artists, and we who receive art into our lives, let us open ourselves up to art, to the conversations, to the questions. Let us make friends with those who disagree with us. Let us look for and unite to the goodness in all things. Let us move always along and into the Way, always willing to be in conversation. Then we might be free of our inheritance—free of that anxiety of the ages: if we are open, generous, loving, powerless.

Let us, as Kierkegaard says, seek rather to “rest transparently in the Power that established you,” than, as Milton demanded, to “justify the ways of God to men.”

Without anxiety, but with generosity, let us enter the human experience as God established it, and let us love and hate and admire and pity characters of all great stories; let us simultaneously uphold aspects of Blake and Whitman in one hand while upholding aspects of Descartes, Hume, and Kant in the other; let us love Milton’s rhythms, his worship, while we pity his sexism and his anxiety; let us love Odysseus’s search for home and love Achilles’s final compassion, while we love also Plato’s attempt to usurp the Athens founded on Homer’s poems, that Athens that executed Socrates; let us see and love and hate and admire and pity, finally, the Adam and Eve in every great work, and let us see ourselves truly as we see them: persons we love who make mistakes, in order to love God’s creation while we hate what we’ve done to it. Let us continually be in search of Jesus who rescues His creation, yes, yes, in search of Jesus even as we have already found Him—wherever He is expressed, in any and all paintings and music and storytelling.

Let us study and create according Faulkner’s instruction, Steinbeck’s standard, and Eliot’s exploration: Everything is here—good, bad, shame, wonder, the human heart in conflict with itself, exploring, returning—

“Then” Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “from His place of ambush, God leapt out.”

So this is art as we should begin to see it—this is literature, music, painting, philosophy, history, theology, rhetoric at their best, apart from anxiety, apart from the marketplace: in the end, there is only ever one Conversation, one Goodness, one Beauty, one Truth to surround and uphold all truths—God leaping out.

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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.

Peculiar Graces: New beginnings (by Allison)

In Allison, Jonah, Peculiar Graces, Simon, Uncategorized, Written by Allison on 27 September 2009 at 8:51 AM

This is a tad bit embarrassing, that we call this thing a blog and never, I mean never post on it. But, we can redeem ourselves, right? And what better reason do we have now that Jonah is a two and never a dull moment. I could write about what he is doing at any given time and it would most likely be worth at least a chuckle. Oh, and also, we are expecting another little person now. It is so weird to say this, and I only say it to myself and God because it doesn’t feel quite official or real yet even, but, ahem…. I have two children. There. I said it. And here’s another truism. I love saying that. We (all three of us) are pretty darn excited to be starting this new journey. It will be my birthday in a few days, and for one of my gifts (my husband is so sweet) he gave me Saturday night off, and Sunday too, to just go and be and do things I like to do. I found that during the first 20 minutes in the car, alone, I had the realization that through all of the chaos of being a mom of a two year old, and just being busy now a days, I hadn’t really taken the time to “be” with this new little one. I hadn’t talked to it yet. From the day I found out I was pregnant with Jonah, it was all I could think of. I was always rubbing my belly and telling him things, narrating what song was on the radio for him, or just telling him how excited I was to feel him move. I felt sad that I hadn’t done this yet with kid # 2. Of course it makes sense that things are busy, and that being only 5 weeks I still have plenty of time to do these things, but I couldn’t help but feel some of my own childhood sensitivities about being the second child. All of this might be a big pregnancy hormone induced, overreaction, but I felt a special connection with this little one. I felt like saying to it, and I did, we are going to get each other. We will have a special connection. We are both second children, and I fell close to you in that.

So there you have it, these are some of the things going on. We are also desperately going through names in which Carlos and I cannot agree on to save our lives. But thankfully, we have plenty of time. Jonah just had his 2 year photos taken by a good friend of ours, Elizabeth Thompson. If anyone needs photography she is outstanding. Will post these pics soon.

-Alli

Peculiar Graces: Chest

In Jonah, Peculiar Graces, Uncategorized on 7 June 2008 at 7:15 AM

Friends,

When I was younger and had no wife and no child, no girlfriend, no job, no prospects, I sometimes imagined what it would be like to be a dad. After lamenting for a little while, since being a dad seems to entail the rest of that list, I imagined that probably one of the best parts of being a dad was letting your son or daughter sleep on your chest, while you, too, slept. I imagined this being such a good part of being a dad in part, I think, because of the blurry memories I had of sleeping on my own dad’s chest.

Lately, rather than put him down in his bed for his morning nap, I have put Jonah on my chest. We sleep together on a reclining chair, his baby snores putting me to sleep, his little fist clutching a snag of my T-shirt.

Let me tell you, it is every bit as good, even better, than I’d imagined. At times I reflect that I have come through all kinds of painful things, had to endure years of things I won’t talk about here, but things that are nonetheless very painful. Then, sometimes, especially when I am lying down with Jonah and he’s sleeping on my chest, I am aware that all that past pain was worth it, that I would do it all again in a second, if it meant that I could arrive again at getting to be Jonah’s dad. What a gift he is.

Carlos

Peculiar Graces: Dark, Dark Nights

In Allison, Connected, Jonah, Myth, Peculiar Graces, Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on 30 October 2007 at 9:40 PM

The hardest thing I have ever known is to become a parent. Fifteen years ago I became a high schooler; that was pretty hard. Then came college, which was harder; but then, after a while, if I’m honest with you, it got easy. After graduation, becoming a teacher was hard, too, but eventually it was manageable. Then Alli and I married, and I turned into a husband: Wow—now that’s still very, very hard. But Parent, being the parent, being the dad, being so powerlessly in love with this vulnerable, crying, helpless, beautiful, loud need wrapped in personhood…I mean, it’s just the hardest thing I have ever imagined, and the hardest thing I have ever done.

I sit back to reflect on it for a moment, in order to come up with the words, with the images, to prove to you by way of metaphor that I’m telling the truth, to show you, to make you aware in a way that is just right, in a way that would explain it perfectly, clearly, even for those of you who aren’t parents yet. I reflect on just how hard it is. I think of the nights, of the loneliness of night when no one is around but the three of us, darkness everywhere and a hungry baby. I want to make you understand. But my arms dangle, and they hang—limply—at my sides. They become numb. I am tired. My shoulders hurt. I find I can’t even type the words to describe it. And anyway I am wordless for it, unable to describe anything this hard, and so typing wouldn’t do any good anyhow. And yet, here they are: the words have appeared. Somehow the words are brought to the page.

Maybe that is how I feel.

Sure, of course, I love him. His smells are everywhere in the house. On my hands. On my shirt. In the living room. In the kitchen near his baby’s bottles and baby’s bath and baby’s towel. They are there when I do the dishes, and when the laundry is folded by the couch. I have never been more aware of my gratitude, or more conscious of my love, or closer to the belief that my love is a thing in my chest, something I could take out and show to him if he asked to see it, its weight and size, its rounded edges, the hardness and softness of it at the same time, its willingness to sacrifice or change shape at his will, for his safety, for his pleasure.

Or maybe I believe that my love is my chest itself, and its heaving is proof enough.

Several days ago he gave out his first social smile—to me. He looked me in the eye as I sat down next to Alli on the couch, who was holding him. I had put my finger in his hand—a cheap trick to make myself feel loved, really, since it’s a reflex for him to grab onto me—and he turned his head to see me. He looked, and he looked, and then he gave a sign of recognition. Something in his face changed as if to say, You. And, in a moment, he smiled. He held it for about seven seconds. He was smiling at me, right at my face. This was not gas, or poop. This was us. You could not talk about the energy and warmth I felt throughout my body when it happened, since really it is unspeakable. I love my son. You know that, and I know that, and there is no question about the matter.

Still, my son suffers. He has colic, or something like it, and we know this because every night he cries and he cries and he cries. This—watching him cry without end—this is pain I have never felt, every night.

It is pain I have never seen before either, because even in marriage, in this relationship we call our most intimate, even here with my wife, both of us have had the decency to hide some of our pain from the other.

But this one, this Jonah, he cries and he cries, and he continues to cry, and sometimes there is no consoling him.

I walk around with him, and I hold him to me, but he pushes away. So I bounce him, up and down, up and down, but he waves his arms and he kicks his legs. Then, because the walking around hasn’t worked, I sit down with him, but he writhes, and he wiggles, back and forth, arching his back, kicking his legs some more. I stand up again, and I hold him up and out, so he’s facing the world. Maybe something out there will calm him, yes—but his eyes fill with terror, and he holds his arms out as though he wants to feel more secure.

So I turn him around to face my chest, but he presses his face into my shirt, shaking his head back and forth, rubbing his face against me, pushing his face deeper and deeper into my chest, and I feel the heat from his face, that hot breath leaving his mouth, the sobs, the air that leaves his body like desperation, and all the time the voice, the pain, those high-pitched notes that carry through the rooms of our house, through my head and down my back, into my stomach and legs, Dad, help me, I hurt, I hurt, I need help, please help me. He hides nothing. He grieves everything. He has been born into this world with a mountain of pain, and he is honest enough to let it show. And I can’t do anything, Jonah. I can’t do anything at all. What can I do? I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried it all.

Now metaphors are not good ways, I know, to establish something as a fact. Just because this something is like that other thing does not mean that either is true, I am aware. So please do not misunderstand me.

Still, I am about to make a metaphor, but by no means do I believe that the likeness between the two makes one of them any truer. However, if the facts of the matter are true, and if the likeness is right, then metaphors are very good teachers, are they not?

The work of metaphors, then, is to clarify the truth, not to establish it. I understand this—let that be known.

A few nights ago, Jonah was crying. Alli, who wakes up with him early every morning, was pooped by now, and rightfully so, for she is this family’s anchor, its strength. She gives too much, which is what mothers by nature do. Mothers might be the most powerful force in nature, and Alli is no exception. By now, though, she had worked beyond her ability, and so I had sent her off to sleep.

It was now just we two, Jonah and Dad, and the dark, and the sounds he was making long into the night.

I held him in my arms.

He cried.

I bounced him.

He cried.

I moved him to face the world.

He cried.

I moved him to face my chest.

He cried.

He was hiding nothing. He was grieving everything. He had a mountain of pain to carry, and he was being honest with me, letting it show.

And I couldn’t do anything.

So I began to whisper very softly into his ear, Jonah, I’m here with you. This is me, it’s your dad. I’m here. I’m right here. Jonah, do you hear me? Jonah, I’m here.

We walked around and around the kitchen, because at night it’s the darkest room of the house, and darkness brings sleep—it says so in all the baby books. Here we were, in the darkness of night, around and around and around the kitchen, around and around for a long time, and he’s crying like always, and I’m whispering to him, I know, son. I know. It’s so hard. It’s so so hard. But here I am. Here I am with you.

Did I think he could understand me? And if he could understand me, could he hear me over his cries? I suppose part of me hoped he would. I held him close to me, and still he kept crying.

And for a moment, I will tell you, because this is the truth I believe in, and this, you might have guessed, is the metaphor I was working up to: I understood the reason for Christ. I understood that I would give anything to help my son, that I would give up all my possessions, all my relationships, and even give up my own existence, if only Jonah could be made to have what he needed. I would do anything to climb down through my years of knowing and experience, and I would join him in his babyness, and I would take it all onto me, because I want him to experience relief.

When he suffers, I suffer. But I would suffer all the more if only his suffering would stop.

This understanding came in a moment, and then, in a moment again, it was gone.

I know: Not everyone who will read this believes in the same truth claims that I do, and so I do not want to offend. Please, if you want to, consider it a nice metaphor, a silly way for me to cling to hope in the midst of hopelessness, a foolishness, a game, or a way for me to deceive myself into believing that existence makes sense; in short—call it a pretty form of denial.

But, again, if the truth of the world is that Jesus somehow offers us relief, that in the midst of all this suffering, in the midst of all these cries—there is hope, that somehow by this offering we are able to connect, and to receive grace, to reconcile one to another and to God in heaven, and finally to live without alienation, and if there is in fact a God who wants to use this universe to demonstrate his love for creation, then this parenthood, this being the dad, this hardest best thing—has made itself to me a picture of God’s love which illuminates truth beyond my wildest imaginations. And for a moment I see the love, I understand the love, and I feel the love—all the love in the universe which surrounds me, and surrounds you, and surrounds us all. And my heart grows big with thanks.

Peculiar Graces: Twenty-Thousand Roads I Went Down, Down, Down, and They All Led Me Straight Back Home to You

In Allison, Jonah, Peculiar Graces, Pitt, Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on 10 September 2007 at 3:44 PM

We are home. And we want to say thank you. Thank you, all you people who wrote to us and called us, to offer your friendship and support and love: for three days Alli and I saw only one another, and nurses, and doctors, and thermometers, and machines that go Ping!, but, for all that isolation, still we felt surrounded, and we felt your care, and your concern, and your happiness; that is to say, you have been with us nonetheless, and we are grateful. Every five or ten minutes, it seemed, there was a new little note to read, or another voicemail to hear, and man, I can’t tell you how good it felt to know you were thinking of us.

Thank you, all you who came to our house, while we were still in the hospital, to give us meals—we found them in our fridge when we got home (which means now we’re changing the location of our “secret” key), and we can’t wait to eat.

Thank you, all you who walked our dogs, those poor, pitiful creatures whom we used to call The Kids, and now whom we just call The Dogs.

Thank you to whoever washed our dishes. That was an enormous help.

Thank you, Lisa, for making the banner.

Thank you, Jillian and Hillary, for the card and the flowers.

I named this blog thing Peculiar Graces. That is not a secret. You see the title above. But let me tell you a little about it, so I can make my point. It’s a phrase from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, one which is very beautiful. Adam and Eve are in the Garden, still innocent. It’s the morning, and Adam has just woken up. He looks at Eve, who is still sleeping, and having bad dreams. Adam, whose sleep was “airy light,” has been taking in the glory of the morning, which brought him all kinds of wonder, but

…So much the more
His wonder was to find unawakened Eve
With tresses discomposed and glowing cheek
As through unquiet rest. He on his side
Leaning half-raised with looks of cordial love
Hung over her enamored and beheld
Beauty which whether waking or asleep
Shot forth peculiar graces.

And so I want to tell you: this, by those words, feels like my new life. I am surrounded by peculiar graces everywhere. By Alli’s face during labor, every time she pushed, every time she bore down—that sad and pretty pain, how awful, how gracious, how vulnerable—and her face seemed at once to rule the world and to beg me for help. By bringing her food and water and everything else she asks for. By lack of sleep. By watching Alli nurse our son. By hearing him moan when he’s cold. By letting him suck the tip of my nose because he’s rooting, and Alli is on her way. By watching him sleep.

In just three days, in only these past three days—I have been told one thousand secrets. They are secrets now that seem I have known forever, secrets I wish I could tell to everybody. They are peculiar graces shot forth: they began when I watched Alli’s face in delivery—when I understood all of existence, when I understood Adam watching Eve—and they move forward into all those years I cannot see now, but which I feel every time I hold my son.

Please, if you are in town, come visit us. If you aren’t in town, come anyway. I want to show him to you, and I want to tell you everything I have ever known: This is my son. This is my son. This is my son.

Peculiar Graces: So Now Then

In Allison, Jonah, Peculiar Graces, Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on 8 September 2007 at 10:03 AM

He has arrived. Alli pushed for about an hour, and he came out crying right away. Six pounds, six ounces, and hairy like a monkey: a true Delgado.

More soon.

Love to you.

Peculiar Graces: Soon And Very Soon

In Allison, Jonah, Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on 8 September 2007 at 7:06 AM


Okay: Last time we checked (and by we I mean—the doctor), Alli was dilated to 9cm. This is close. We are getting there. She’s sleeping now. In the next couple of hours, we’re thinking, maybe: Push. Woo!

Peculiar Graces: Two Poems for Right Now

In Allison, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jonah, Peculiar Graces, Rudyard Kipling, Uncategorized on 8 September 2007 at 4:34 AM


We Were Very Tired, We Were Very Merry

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.


We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, ‘Good morrow, mother!’ to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, ‘God bless you!’ for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

If
by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master,
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!