Tears, Laughter, and Love

It was the simplest of exchanges. On the day poet Mary Oliver died, I responded to a reader’s acknowledgement of her passing by saying, “Yes, and I was surprised by the depth of my grief. I don’t believe I’ve ever wept at the death of a ‘celebrity’ before.” “I understand,” he said, “and as I’m certain you know, that’s all right.” Smiling, I replied, “Indeed, it is.”
And that would have been that, had I not continued to think about other simple exchanges that have shaped my understanding of life. I’m posting the story of one such exchange today: in memory of Mary Oliver, in honor of Charles Treger, and in appreciation for all who understand the role of beauty, truth, and tears in our lives.

 

Tucked into the heart of an old Houston neighborhood, Villa de Matel gleams with burnished light. Home to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the convent serves the larger community as a place of worship and retreat, as well as being a retirement home for the Sisters.

A large Lombard-Romanesque Chapel designed by architect Maurice J. Sullivan serves as its centerpiece. Consecrated in 1928, it’s noted for high vaulted ceilings, German and Irish stained-glass windows, massive marble pillars, and intricate tile work. Like the Rothko Chapel, another Houston landmark, it’s impressive without being ornate. Its numinous space shimmers in the silence, inviting visitors to pause, rest, and reflect.
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A New Year’s Raid on the Inarticulate

 

The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind attempts to blanket the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.

As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of no-longer and the land of yet-to-be. Perhaps a passing, shadowed thought suggests itself even to revelers in the street:This is the way of life.

Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence even as their elders sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of steaming mud evoke a season’s final turn.

Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against a backdrop of continuous change, torrents of words flow on: a steady sluice of syllables seemingly uncontained. For those who read, and especially for those who write, this flow of language brings solace. Like the river it resembles, language connects and cleaves, cleanses and comforts: nourishing the creativity taking root along its course.

Still, for poets, novelists, and essayists — for every story-teller or myth-maker stepping into or hesitating around this outpouring of words — another truth clamors for recognition.

Words, too, partake of life, rising and falling as surely as any civilization. Syllables rearrange themselves; paragraphs take on life; sentences fade into obscurity. True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words sometimes slip away and are lost: out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination.

Standing between last year’s language and next year’s words, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” whispers of an experience every writer knows:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…

Within the context of his poem, Eliot’s words carry particular meaning. But for writers of any sort, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood truth. Words are not solely ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how twisted beyond recognition or firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners of our mind, words demand respect, and words will have their way.

When the shadow of wordlessness comes upon us, when we sense our  language has grown old and tired as the visions of our spent imaginations, we can be tempted toward a  misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages, we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify that which refuses to be reclaimed. When a loss of language comes, no formula or key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars will guarantee the continued liveliness of our words. Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.

But of course it does not end, for next year’s words await another voice. Emerging words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light lie waiting in the shadows of the coming year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a half-glimpsed moon, they are, in fact, our new year’s words.

Whether and how we will give them voice remains uncertain. Perhaps we will succeed. Perhaps not. But among those who have dared to ford the swiftly-flowing stream of language, some have sent back bulletins from a newly-discovered territory, granting us guidance for our path:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres —
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
                                                                     “East Coker” ~ T.S. Eliot

 

Wisdom: Gift-Wrapped and Waiting

The key sits loosely in its lock, unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves, and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.

In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure — no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes tidied into original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Now and then, two closets nestle side by side. Hers is obvious: ajumble with boxes of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, arranged with more precision, is a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.

Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious, compelling and sancrosanct. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in these weeks before Christmas, a child might be tempted to cross the bounds of caution by the merest whisper of possibility: “There might be presents…” Continue reading

Einstein’s Slippers

I couldn’t help laughing when I saw the photo. Helmeted and harnessed for the occasion, a friend’s sister had thrown English caution to the winds and was celebrating a local festival by zip-lining past the village church.

What caught my attention and made me laugh wasn’t so much the pair of lines stretching down from the steeple, or the absurdity of what seemed to be less-than-hefty pulleys. It was the woman’s footwear — ankle boots, with high heels.

Questioned about her sister’s decision to combine high heels and zip lines, my friend explained that her sister is shorter than many women, and wears heels everywhere. “In fact,” she said, “she may even have heels on her bedroom slippers.”
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