Sunday, July 12, 2015


Romanesque arches,
Cathedral and Basilica of St Francis,
Santa Fe, New Mexico

“From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.” 

--Wallace Stevens

 I heard this on a lecture while driving today.  The source of poetry (and all creative activity) seen in the disjunction between us and our location (in time and space, in history, in society) and ourselves.  We do not own the place in which we live; indeed, what do we own at all?  We are located within it and we are faced with the task of deciding how to relate to it.  We must create meaning in the context where we find ourselves.

How do we read "and, much more, not ourselves?"  What governs that syntactically?  Do we not live in ourselves?  Or do we not own ourselves? [Please do not take this in tangents about how we need to resist those who would presume to own us or tell us what to do with out bodies or our lives. I feel certain Stevens is writing about our relationship to ourselves.]

However we construe the poet's words, it should not be difficult to posit with him that we are somehow out of joint, out of place, not at home in our world (however broadly or narrowly defined) or in our own skin.  This is our basic human dilemma and "hard it is."  From this the poem springs.

Poiesis, the act of making or creating, is a Greek term from which we derive poem/poetry.  A huge chunk of what makes us human is the self-reflective ability to create.  We not only create tools but also complex language systems for communication.  We create physical structures and social customs.  At the core is our attempt to create meaning.

I suspect Stevens has this in mind.  We write poetry (and create narratives) to bring meaning from that which seems random, unconnected, and perhaps meaningless.  We witness a scene and instinctively build a story about it.  We crave beginnings, developments, and conclusions.

My poem, my creation, my invented narrative, my story is my attempt to make sense of the context of my life, how I relate to my place, this place I do not own.  I develop a sequential tale that tells me who I am and how I am related.  Together we develop collective narratives, the mythoi of our families, our clans, our neighborhoods, our schools, our circles of friends, our towns and nations.  And those collective constructs take on a life of their own and form another sort of place we do not own and we struggle to know how we relate, or do not, in those contexts.

Since I was in junior high school I have used poetry to explore my feelings.  No poem, however well crafted its meter and rhyme or however innovative its free form, can capture me or my feelings, but when I put words on paper I have a tool to approximate what I think is going on and I can look at it, react to it,  and take advantage of its framework to see what was unspoken or spoken amiss.

I have also written short stories and novels.  I love the characters in my novels and keep discovering things about them.  They all arise from within me more, I think, than they do from outer observation.  I see and hear people and their behaviors and some get written into the text but I have to own these figures as parts of myself.  Brave and noble parts, twisted and evil parts, broken and yearning parts, inspired and transcendent parts.  Perhaps as time goes by I will understand better how the novels make meaning out of life.  So far, I know they do and catch snippets of it.

A chuckle just arose.  In my early books I mention characters or situations that are left open-ended, but are actually spinning out threads for potential exploration in future books.  Remember how I mentioned above that we like a beginning, middle, and end?  It is hard to leave something unresolved.  Very hard.  We struggle with ambiguity and even more with not knowing.

My patio this evening during a thundershower

Here, for the moment, is my physical place and also my emotional place.  What meaning do I create?  What poem am I writing?  How do I tell the story of my journey to this moment?  This is fascinating because that narrative changes as my perspective alters.  My evaluation of past episodes can shift from "that was pleasant or positive" to "that, now that I think about it, was deadly."  And vice versa, as we recognize the gifts we received from difficult moments and persons.

Blessings on y'all as you compose the poems of your lives.

--the BB

Sunday, July 05, 2015


An exodus is a "going out," as one might gather from the major narrative known by that name.  It is a compound of two Greek words, one meaning "out of" and one meaning "road/way." 

I have been struck in the past two days by the contrast between my life journey and the Odyssey.  Wily Ulysses had a long and adventure-filled journey home but it was a journey BACK to Ithaca.  My life has been a journey AWAY from Fresno.  Looking back at old journals as well as the course of my life, it seems I knew it long ago.


I continued climbing, occasionally glancing back down and out to the sea.
Well, not really—it was just a small bay. But beyond, out where those little fishing boats were headed, was the sea. And above the sea were clouds stretched across the sky like last Wednesday’s washing. Or perhaps the thousand sails of another fleet, navigating the winds alone without the water.
            The rocks were getting steeper as I turned my back to the sun—the sun, which seemed to lay its flat hand on me and push down, down, back where I came from.  But I had no more to do with that little village.  So I climbed, climbed, climbed,
κατά τὸ βοριά, ξένος.

29 May 1965

This is from the end of my freshman year in college. The closing phrase is adapted from the first poem in the Mythistorema series by George Seferis: κατά τὸ βοριά, ξένοι  (northwards, strangers).  Here I recast it in the singular.  I am journeying alone, a stranger.

We had taken a break in classical Greek the second semester and read some of these poems, a bit of modern Greek for different.  I still have the ditto sheet text in Greek and my translating notes, tucked in a copy of Seferis’ poems in English.  For some reason this phrase lodged itself in my memory and has been with me now for fifty years.

I have removed the opening fragment of this since it seems stupid and irrelevant now.  The rest of this handwritten page in my journal still speaks.


The commonplace divergence of two ways
respects itself and forces men to choose
the roads they travel. Each choice means they lose
the other way, the speculative days
they might have lived, companions they’d have met
and shared these journeys with.  But none should call
his path the poorer for the loss, for all
that he has gained in what he chose, and yet
shall gain, exceeds in its reality
each ‘might have been.”  Thus, with finality,
I go another way than yours, alone.
I ask no absolution, as my own
quietus I have made, I ask but peace,
and friendship when the bitterness shall cease.

4 January 1972

This is a sonnet written in my final year of seminary.  I can think of a particular context for the poem but now I see a larger theme.  "Thus, with finality, I go another way than yours, alone," really leaps out.

Roots Redefined

I felt I was a son of the soil,
The dusty earth of the San Joaquin Valley
Where Thompson seedless grapes were raised
Then sun-dried into raisins.
This was one of the ways
That Mother Earth spoke to me
And held me firm.

And on Sierra hillsides
Amid pine duff and fallen cones
Where firs and wildflowers also grew
And there were great slabs of granite;
This too was my terroir,
Soil of my vintage.

But there were toxins,
Perhaps not in the soil but in the air I breathed,
A miasma of true believers,
Of the resentful obedient,
And the broken soul.
Dreamers came to California
And dreams died or were surrendered.
Maybe now I understand
Dante’s judgment on the broken vow.

My grapes now grow in New Mexico,
A conscious homage to ancestors
Yet my soul’s feet are not drawn
To walk the earth between the vines
In that distant place,
That Golgotha where men were crucified
But women will not weep,
Where souls are dry and thirsty.

My garden is in high grassland
Far from the place of my first birth,
Mercifully separated by miles.

The first shaking of dust was when I left
To go to college, and another was when
I crossed the ocean for France
To return a stranger to family.
Another was the adamant refusal
To return after dropping out.
Sleeping in the streets of LA
Would have been preferable to such a death.

When I chose New Mexico and left my past behind
It was a mighty shaking of the dirt from my feet.
Perhaps it was then that the powdered soil
of the Valley no longer claimed me.

My home is here, anchored on east and west
by the Sandias and the volcanoes,
Nourished by the Rio, graced by boundless sky.
The moon is closer here; the heart is freer.
Art is valued here and some still dream.

I left the prisons of family,
Of rigid doctrine, of propriety
Without regret.  I like my life.
My garden flowers and bears fruit.
This is home.  My family now is one I choose.
No accident of birth or choice of others defines it.

A few close friends and wonderful acquaintances,
Tasks I enjoy, nourishment for the soul—
All this is mine.  Here I am eager to live
Sans peur et sans reproche.
I am free to change my own narrative.
I leave Chorazin and Bethsaida to their own fates.

3 July 2015

This is a backward look, and forward.  My roots are no longer in California; they are in the Rio Grande valley. It is a reflective, wistful, and angry poem.  I recall thinking to myself (not sharing with anyone), "What am I running from?" This was in the early 80s.  The answer that came was this: "myself." Well, I am not running any more.  I feel at home, I like myself and my own company.  All those rounds of shaking the dust from my feet and moving on...make me shake my head and let out a small sigh now.

I have been sad this evening, sensitive to abiding wounds and the drive to keep migrating.  This post is about finding peace in one's journey.

I conclude with a sonnet that is the story of almost every LGBTQ person.  It alludes to The Chronicles of Mídhris and Ian Dyrnedon, who slipped through the dimensions and found himself in a parallel world, never to return to earth.

I have a family

In truth, I have an earthly family
as Ian has a Mithron one. It works
like this. Whatever DNA now lurks
within us, here’s the charming oddity:
for all that blood or forming may have done
our kin is now the people we have found
or have found us in life’s great whirling round.
Together we hold hands beneath the sun
and moon and stars with fierce united hearts.
We have a history, a journey shared.
We face each other, souls so fully bared
that life no longer lies in scattered parts
but in a new and glorious chosen whole.
We’re a forever family of soul.

2 July 2015

 --the BB

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Back on 17 October I posted a photo of me in my clerical collar that was taken for a parish directory and said that on many levels I could not recognize myself in it and that it creeped the hell out of me.  The photo seemed to be from a long time ago in a galaxy far away and I think what struck me (and this was extremely personal) was a sense that it seems to me that I was desperately trying to fulfill some social expectation in the role of parish priest. Something was uncomfortable, trying too hard.  I can see it in that photo and feel it in memory and even in my body.

Not long thereafter I came across this photo and had a very different reaction.

This was taken on 8 December 1990, the day I was ordained a priest.  I am setting the Table at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.  I don't know if you can see it in this photo but I see nothing but serenity.  I believe it is objectively there and I know it was there subjectively.  One of my memories of that day was being in a state of complete peace throughout the day.  No jitters, no apprehension, just utter calm.

This photo was not posed; it was a candid shot taken by a friend.  I was not trying to DO.  I was at peace BEING.  This was not about any social role; it was a sacred role.  I was a servant of the Altar, of the Church, and of God - without effort, without falsehood.  The feelings I have when I see this photo are overwhelmingly positive. Such a great counterpoint to my reactions to the other photo, taken later in time but stumbled upon recently prior to this one.

To my left, as I type this in my office, hangs my ordination certificate, pictured above.  It is almost a year since I performed any priestly function within the walls of a church or any other ecclesiastical context.  Do I still minister?  Yes, on almost a daily basis, as I seek to live God's love as a presence among others.  I console the sorrowing, encourage those cast down, affirm the hesitant, and celebrate with the joyous.  I offer context, proclaim blessing, and occasionally swing an avuncular two-by-four upside the heads of people I care about.  I try to stand by those going through difficult transitions.  Sometimes I even mention God, but most of what I say applies with equal comfort to Christians, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, agnostics, what have you.

For all that I feel distant from Church in any form these days, this photo has reminded me of the deepest and truest aspects of my vocation and my identity.  I recognize myself in this photo, easily and comfortably, without hesitation or anxiety.  It feels good to do so.

And this final photo is me this evening, lying on the couch and playing with selfies, snapping myself with my downstairs "kids."  In the front row are Lucille, Harry, Maggie, Mimi, Belle, Barbara, and Nevsky.  In the middle and back rows are Markus, Hephzibah, Smokey, Zotney, Carlo, Anthony, Haimish, Snort, and Jeffrey.  If I missed anyone, my apologies.  The other half of the family is in my bedroom.  I certainly recognize myself in this playful old codger and it is the same person as the priest at the Altar.

Not every stage of the interior journey is fraught with peril or pain.  Some is simply a joy.

Buona notte, tutti quanti!

--the BB

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Non c'è piú Troia

This is a photo I took from the opening scenes of The Trojan Women, the 1971 film by Cacoyannis.  The film is drawn from the play by the same name written by Euripides and produced in 415 BCE.  Athens was engaged in the Peloponnesian War.  Earlier that year the Athenians had captured and slaughtered the people of the island of Melos and Euripides may have been using the legend of Troy to hold a mirror to his fellow Athenians.  If one ever wants a dramatic reminder of the cost of war, this play and this movie can help.

We focus on the women of Troy, now facing slavery in a foreign land.  Hecuba is the first to speak, she who was the queen of fabled Troy and who has watched her husband and children slain.  She has yet more grief ahead.  In the movie Katherine Hepburn plays this role quite movingly. We see her first as a heap of black rags beside the destroyed city gate, struggling to rise.


να, δύσδαιμον, πεδόθεν κεφαλή:
πάειρε δέρην: οκέτι Τροία
τάδε κα βασιλς σμεν Τροίας.
μεταβαλλομένου δαίμονος νέχου.
πλε κατ πορθμόν, πλε κατ δαίμονα,
μηδ προσίστω πρραν βιότου
πρς κμα πλέουσα τύχαισιν.
αα αα.

Up from the ground—O weary head, O breaking neck.
This is no longer Troy.  And we are not
the lords of Troy.
Endure.  The ways of fate are the ways of the wind.
Drift with the stream—drift with fate.
No use to turn the prow to breast the waves.
Let the boat go as it chances.
Sorrow, my sorrow.
[Translated by Edith Hamilton]

Euripides, The Trojan Women, 98-105

This is an expression of Troy's destruction that I painted in acrylic on canvas last night.  It is a first stab at understanding my own experience of the Fall of Troy.

You see, clear back in the eleventh grade I was taking Latin and we were reading The Aeneid of Vergil.  We read books I, II, IV, and VI that year.  Book Two recounts the fall of Troy from the viewpoint of Aeneas, a Trojan prince and warrior.  The Greeks do not come off well in this version, a Roman version and part of imperial propaganda that traces the Caesars back to Troy through Aeneas.

I would have been sixteen.  One night or weekend as I lay on my bed translating for class, I came to the death of Priam, King of Troy.  His wife, Hecuba, was gathered with their daughters in a sacred space, clutching the household gods.  Priam attempts to don his long-unused armor and Hecuba says, in modern parlance, "Hang it up, old man; it's all over."  As if that moment of despair were not enough, one of their many sons enters, chased by the son of Achilles.  Their son is slain before their eyes and when Priam reproaches the young warrior he is slain in turn, sent to join Achilles in Hades, beheaded right at the altar of Zeus.  As I translated this scene I wept.  I have never forgotten this.

Decades later I occasionally joined my friend Bill for his tutoring sessions in Spanish.  One of his tutors was not familiar with the story of Troy and I proposed that my assignment for that week be translating the same scene into Spanish.  I pulled out the Latin text and one or two English translations, my Spanish dictionary, and the best grammar and style I could muster.  As I rendered that scene into formal Spanish... I wept again.

The women heading into slavery, again from the movie.

If you are wondering, yes: now that I am studying Italian I hope to translate the same scene from the Latin into the best Italian I can muster before the end of the spring semester.

Since my high school days I have read all of the extant Greek tragedies (do not be all that impressed; there are only twenty-one of them) at least once, and some multiple times.  I have viewed live theatre productions of some of them and movie versions of several as well.  I love these powerful works of art.  Beyond that, however, anything related to the cycle of Troy touches me deeply and personally.  To this day I often become quite emotional discussing this and how it moves me.  A simple phrase can choke me up.

Which raises the question--especially now when I have begun the project of rereading The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid--why does this speak so profoundly and upset me so readily?  After all, I just confessed some of this in my oral presentation in Italian class and choked up several times this past week.  I do not propose to expose all my issues here; for all my sharing, this is a public forum and I am aware of that. But I can say a few things.

Asia in general, and Troy specifically, represented a number of things to the ancient Greeks.  (The following is my impression based on things I have heard and read but I could be corrected by scholars in the classics.  Nonetheless, we are speaking about my inner reality, so my impression counts in any case.) The East was the region of the exotic and the mysterious.  It represented the Other and thus could both fascinate and repel.  The fascination for Orientalia in Western painting and music (Madama Butterfly and Mikado, anyone?) testifies to an abiding aspect of this.  Troy and Asia  represented wealth to be envied and plundered. There was also the element of the untamed, the irrational, the sexual, and the feminine.  It was Tiamat and Leviathan, the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece and Medea, the sorceress who showed Jason how to steal the fleece.  Where but in Asia could a degenerate prince be raised who would violate hospitality and either seduce or kidnap another man's wife? (I write of Paris of Troy and Menelaus' wife Helen, of course.)

The lot of the losers, then and now, is typically death, exile, and slavery.  Nowadays it may be cultural exile and economic slavery, but the themes remain the same.  As the Romans summed it up: Vae victis! Woe to the conquered!

So then, what is Troy to western culture?  It has been a major theme in western culture since the time of Homer, providing material for all the arts down to the present day.  I would say the fall of Troy represents the death of a dream.  It was portrayed in ancient time as noble and civilized.  Even in the Greek Iliad, the Trojan hero Homer appears far more noble than the Greek hero Achilles.  Something exotic and rich and beautiful (and perhaps a bit wild) was destroyed, never to rise again.  It could not be overcome without deceit and would probably have prevailed if Fate and the gods had not decreed otherwise.  The Greek victory, that must have tasted sweet after ten years of fighting far from home, proved bitter for their homecoming was a rather fruitless and ugly one.

And for me?  Troy is some mythic symbol of all that wild, passionate, exotic, rich, vibrant energy in me that leads me to assert, repeatedly, que tengo alma latina en cuerpo sueco (that I have a Latin soul in a Swedish body).  No matter what my DNA may say, I am a passionate Mediterranean with little tolerance for the cold and dull (nor do I care for beer or hard liquor).  Bring me the sunshine, wine, olive oil, the savory variety of herbs; in one nod to being Swedish, throw in lots of butter.  I want music with rich rhythm that makes my hips twitch, even if I don't get up and dance.  I do not want to be tamed. (Huge understatement.)  And every situation, institution, context, or person in my life who has sought to tame me has felt to me like Greeks, stealing my Palladium, defiling my altars, slaughtering my warrior spirit, and carrying what is left of me into captivity and exile.  Troy, for me, is personal.

The three views above are of the statue by Bernini that depicts Aeneas fleeing the ruins of Troy.  On his shoulder he carries his father, Anchises, who holds the lares and penates (household gods).  At his side is Ascanius, his son.  Past, present, and future are represented and the very flesh of the three reflects--in the medium of marble!--the sagging flesh of the aged, the muscled strength of one in his prime, and the tender and slightly chubby body of childhood.  The expressions are powerful.  Ascanius seems to have the slightly lost incomprehension of a child, aware that things are very wrong but still innocent of the totality of horror from which he now flees.  Aeneas seems rather in shock, moving forward, aware yet not allowing himself fully to feel.  From one side Anchises seemed, to me, to have the the look of someone who has seen and suffered everything and knows loss beyond telling; from another angle he has a fierceness, looking forward to whatever unknown fate awaits him and his family.

When I entered the room in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, where this statue is housed, I needed no label to tell me what I was looking at.  This is in my blood.  After walking around it a bit, I stood and recited lines from The Aeneid (in Latin, of course--thank you Mrs. Wiley).  Tears streamed down my cheeks and I did not care who saw me.  All the irrevocable loss and the vast unknown future in every story, and that story, and my story was there.

We cannot live in the dream, we have to live into our destiny, much as Aeneas did.  We cannot stay in Troy, nor in Carthage.  The Lavinian shore awaits us, whatever that may be in your story or mine.  But we live with the memory of the dream and we know what has been lost (if we allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel it).  In an earlier post I wrote of how exile, loss, and journey are themes that run through my novels and also in the poems and writings I did when I was in my twenties.

Almost every time I refer to the following, I choke up.

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. 

 Queen Dido of Carthage has asked Aeneas, at a banquet, to tell of Troy's fall.  He begins with the phrase, "You have commanded me, O Queen, to renew an unspeakable sorrow."  I managed to type that in English without getting misty, but don't ask me to recite it in Latin.

For whatever complex set of reasons, some of which I understand, I bear in my soul abiding grief over Troy because Troy is a symbol of all the sorrow of my life and of the world.  At least that is how it speaks to me.

Aeneas also said, to his companions after a shipwreck, "Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit."  "Perhaps some day even these things will bring joy as they are remembered."  LOL.  I have not yet gotten there.  Nonetheless, I receive each day as a gift and rejoice to be alive.

--the BB

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Il difensore nascosto

[Spoiler alert, but by the time that book is published you will have forgotten.]
In volume eight of The Chronicles of Mídhris a devastating magical fire is unleashed.  It spreads like the shock waves of an atomic blast and lays waste an immense territory.  The flames are magenta and violet.  Its southern spread is mostly stopped by rivers but at one point where the River Gethwick meanders about the castle at Hurnen the flames, which clearly have a will of their own, gather like a giant wave poised to crash across the river and destroy Hurnen and beyond.

A foreign monk who had arrived with merchants stands on the battlements with anxious watchers.  Bystanders and even a few soldiers flee as the threat increases.  The first draft of the tale, from about 1974, continues as follows:

"In clear, unwavering pure Old Mithron, which only he and the elements understood, he forbade the fire to touch Hurnen, since [H] was dead and he, Matija of Burnley and Dyrnmantle, was now master of the keep.  The violet flames hung in the air, wavering, struggling to blast Hurnen from existence.
     "'You shall not!' he cried out, and the fire withdrew, scattering crimson sparks in the air.  Then it dimmed, grew small, and faded to embers on the far shore.  The monk lowered his arms and turned to behold a courtyard full of kneeling villagers and of soldiers with swords drawn."

Evocative of Gandalf crying, "You shall not pass!" is it not?  But it is my own.

Sir Matija, as he was known among the Isseni spies and Perrine merchants, is Matthew Roger Deveril from our own world, a California boy (of sorts) with bloodlines from all over Europe.

His great grandmère, shown in the lower right, was a wise woman to whom people turned for herbs and secret knowledge.  The only thing that kept her from being denounced as a witch was her friendship with the village priest's mistress. She often went out at night and sometimes her daughter secretly followed. The little girl was enchanted by what she witnessed, though she did not understand it.  Berthe would sing to the stars. She also sometimes found an unusual plant with star-shaped flowers.

Readers of Darkslayer will understand that Ian's family were not the only ones who had links between Earth and the planet of which Mídhris was but one region.

For all that, Matt was never viewed as something special.  Yes, he was on the football team and rather handsome but he was just the good guy down the street.  It was not fame or glamor or anything unusual that appealed to Gwyn Owens but rather his solidity.  When her world was shaken he was always there for her.  Yet he was called to Mídhris as surely as she was, lured or driven by the Stars, and in his long journey there he found unusual powers and inner resources within himself. And when it came time to defend the one he loved, he stood, alone, against the Great Devastation.   For a brief while he became a mighty usjeva, a person of power.  Who knows how the blood of star singers, penitentes, gypsies, and mystics combined in him and became potentiated by the forces of that magical other world?  But happen it did, and was remembered in the arms granted to him: Per chevron Or et Vert du Roi, over all a Sword erect with a blade argent, pommel and haft Or, the blade surrounded by flames Gules.  The field or gold and olive green borrowed the colors of his lady, Gwyn, fellow student at UCLA and Terran Margravine of Wolmsley through her Mithron genes.  The sword that evokes cherubim guarding Eden speaks of his ability to establish an inviolable barrier.

We do not all get to be superheroes but we love them in our comic books and movies.

Matt acted out of a love that would dare anything to protect his beloved.  Whether we turn into heroes in the eyes of the world or not, we all have something of this in us.  Most parents strive mightily to protect their children from harm and equip them to survive (and thrive) in the world, even though we all know that no one can keep anyone perfectly safe from accidents and tragedies, large and small.  But we try.

Matt came to mind when pondering the issue of standing up to defend what matters and who matters.

I have something of a mama bear in me when it comes to people I care about.  You do not want to hurt them because I will want to hurt you.  I may not act that out but I will want to.  It is my knee-jerk response and it can be ferocious and mindless. On at least one occasion I even ran into the face of unknown danger to rescue a damsel in distress and she was only a neighbor.  I gave no thought to it; I responded by instinct.  In fact, I roared as I did so.  I am also pretty good at being there for consolation and encouragement when friends and loved ones are discouraged or hurt.

When it comes time to stand up for myself, to defend myself, to be fierce on my own behalf: not so much.  Slowly getting better at it.  The challenge is that just as I might not hesitate to roar and rush in for someone else, it does not even occur to me that I can stand up and roar on my own behalf.  An immense conscious effort is required for me to say, "No!"

Granted, I can be stubborn, self-indulgent, and passive aggressive.  Those are hardly healthy ways of standing up for myself, of defining salutary balance and appropriate boundaries.  Lots of work remains.

May we all find the hidden defender within ourselves when that is needed.  We don't usually need a superhero but we do need the courage of love.  Including love for ourselves.

--the BB

Saturday, October 25, 2014

e quelli lo uccisero

The tomb of Héloise and Abailard
19th century, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

By the time I learned about Peter Abailard (also spelled Abelard), I became a fan.  There are many reasons.  He was a brilliant theologian who attracted students to Paris.  He was willing to think outside the box.  In his work Sic et Non (Yes and No) he took theological propositions and argued both sides, showing how logic could be used to analyze a question.  Of course, not simply taking the approved position could, and did, get him trouble with church authorities.  He questioned the usual theories of atonement, most of which posited the need for something to happen in order to change God's stance toward sinners.  He proposed what came to be known as "the moral theory" of atonement in which God did not need propitiation but we needed to have a change of heart.  When we look at Christ on the Cross we see how every much God loves us and are moved to return to God.  THAT was a breath of fresh air to me in seminary, especially since I had been raised on the penal substitutionary theory (a judicial penalty must be paid to satisfy God's justice and Jesus paid the price so we could be acquitted) as the only acceptable theory ever held.  It was so nice to study the history of doctrine and learn that all kinds of ideas have been put forth to explain how we are reconciled to God in Christ (and all of them have shortcomings).

Peter was not only a brilliant scholar, philosopher, theologian, and teacher, he was also a poet and a lover.  He wrote numerous hymns, some of which are still sung in hymnals today.  And he and a certain student were the most famous lovers of his era.  Héloise was a brilliant and charismatic student, and they fell in love, had a child named Astrolabe, and were secretly married.  Her uncle had Peter captured and castrated.  The two lovers were parted and she became a nun and later abbess.  They had a great correspondence and the hymns he wrote were for the convent of the Paraclete where Héloise was.

Centuries later their bodies were reunited and buried in Paris.  Although I lifted the photo from the web, I have my own photos of this tomb and of the roses I laid there (but they are on another computer).

Did I mention that Peter was falsely accused of holding unorthodox views, was hounded by none other than Bernanrd of Clairvaux, and condemned at two church councils?  Well, I saved the best for last, I guess.  You will not be surprised that I have never recognized Bernard as a saint for this one reason alone and that I keep Abailard's death day as a feast.

Abailard was a square peg in a world of round holes.

And so am I.

In claiming my selfhood and the right to be myself, I say to the entire world, "Fuck all your round holes!"

If you detect some anger there, you have clued in accurately.  And if you suspect some pain underlying that anger you are correct once more.  It is not that I am furious at this particular moment, I am fairly calmly writing of an ongoing existential stance.

In earlier essays I spoke of how I unconsciously, automatically, reflexively adapted my words, behavior, and expressions to please others, even when the others were not really asking that of me.  Most of my life has been spent trying to trim my peg to fit into holes shaped by, determined by, ordained by others.  Most of us have an experience of this since we are all unique.  But I had it in spades.  I never had the inner strength and clear identity to say, "Not my hole, not a fit, not even going to bother."  Even now it is a victory, large or small, every time I say "no."

To this day, when pressed to imagine my life had I made other choices I seem to slam into an impenetrable blank wall.  As imaginative and creative as I am, I have immense difficulty imagining a life other than the one I have led.

The photo of me in clericals, properly posed for a church directory, creeped me out because I saw myself rip-sawed, adze-hewn, and savaged to fit a round hole.  Trying so very hard to be a good parish priest and a right proper Episcopalian.  My therapist helped me reframe how I saw that photo, shifting it from, if you will, some Hallowe'en monster that terrifies me into a human, me, who had been shaped into something that was not quite true.  Violated.  A part of myself that desperately needs to be loved, pitied, grieved for, understood, healed.

I mentioned today on Facebook that I am too quick (and I would add too facile) to jump in with counter instances, balance, defense. In an earlier post I spoke of how I tried to be, and often was, a good priest.  But that is glossing over the violence, the damage, the abiding pain, and fires of rage I almost never acknowledge.

One of Abailard's hymns, sung during Holy Week, is this:

Solus ad victimam procedis, Domine,
Morti te offerens quam venis tollere;
Quid nos miserrimi possumus dicere
Qui quae commisimus scimus te luere?

Nostra sunt, Domine, nostra sunt crimina:
Quid tua criminum facis supplicia?
Quibus sic compati fac nostra pectora
Ut vel compassio digna sit venia.

Nox ista flebilis praesensque triduum
Quod demorabitur fletus sit vesperum,
Donec laetitiae mane gratissimum
Surgente, Domine, sit maestis redditum.

Tu tibi compati sic fac nos, Domine,
Tuae participes ut simus gloriae;
Sic praesens triduum in luctu ducere,
Ut visum tribuas paschalis gratiae.

Francis Bland Tucker's translation, the best known, is this:

Alone thou goest forth,
O Lord, in sacrifice to die;
Is this thy sorrow naught to us
who pass unheeding by?

Our sins, not thine, thou bearest, Lord;
make us thy sorrow feel,
Till through our pity and our shame
love answers love's appeal.

This is earth's darkest hour, but thou
dost light and life restore;
Then let all praise be given thee
who livest evermore.

Grant us with thee to suffer pain
that, as we share this hour,
Thy cross may bring us to thy joy
and resurrection power.

Episcopalians can find this in The Hymnal 1982, Hymn # 164, sung to the tune Bangor.

I have no messianic pretensions or delusions and am NOT comparing myself to Jesus.  But I am identifying with this much: "Alone thou goest forth in sacrifice."

In an earlier post I included my poem based on the Sacrifice of Isaac and noted that it was written for all the sons sacrificed to their fathers demons where no ram was provided at the last moment, no angel cried, "Stop."  It is a universal theme, endlessly repeated.  Whether it is the unfulfilled dreams or the unrecognized demons of the older generation, sons and daughters get offered up over and over again.

It seemed to me that everyone expected great things from me.  How could I let them down?  And I had a mystical sense of divine calling in an era and a specific religious culture where that took very few forms.  I remember how, at age 15-16, I read about the life of pastors and thought to myself, though I never dared utter it to anyone, "O hell no!  I cannot imagine anything more dreary." (Welcome to the Confessions of not-Augustine!)  But if not a pastor, then a missionary or an evangelist.  The evangelists I knew were all pretty much used-card salesman, including the one who most influenced me who had been precisely that.  The whole dramatic building up of guilt and crisis in others and then offering them a one-size-fits-all remedy (only it doesn't), seemed too fucking manipulative to me.  I insert the expletive to underscore my distaste then and now. And missionary?  The Wycliffe Bible Translators had the appeal of my love of languages and linguistics.  But you have the same manipulation combined with exotic climes and customs and foods.  I was way too damned picky an eater and too comfortable living in California, thanks.  God may have been calling, but I was not leaping with joy, eager to cry, "Here am I, Lord, send me!"

It seemed that faithfulness to God involved a price and, like it or not, I signed up to pay it.  I persevered in the path toward ordination, not once but twice: first as a Baptist then as an Episcopalian.

But here is my dirty little secret that I am now admitting: the Church has always been too small for me.

That is not a self-aggrandizing statement, though it could be read that way.  Remember, I am now and always have been a nature mystic.  Rigid boundaries, orthodoxies, and structures do not mesh will with mystics and never have.  I follow Peter Abailard in rejecting simple answers and definitely fall in the moral theory of atonement school, which remains a minority view in most denominations.  I worship the Cosmic Christ, that Word through whom all things come into being and that Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world; and the Universal Spirit that permeates all things, simultaneously bringing forth endless variety while binding all into a great unity; and a transcendent Creator who cannot be captured in any words or categories.  I encounter the Divine everywhere. The Church is just a tiny part of Creation; the God who is everywhere is mostly somewhere besides Church.

Yes, symbolically and emotionally I remain a Trinitarian.

The irony is that for someone who, at some level, has always known the Church was too small, too narrow, too inadequate, I plunged into it with fervor.  I specialized in biblical studies and like any good Baptist I knew the Bible really well.  I have read it ALL the way through multiple times, even the endless begats. Next I turned to Church history and really loved it.  If you had a question about what something means, or why we do something in the liturgy, or how we came to believe something, I probably had an answer.  I wanted to know and I loved to share. And then, gradually over the last fifteen years, all that became increasingly irrelevant to me, no matter how deeply formed I am by it all.

Speaking of Scripture.... You know how different passages resonate in different ways under different circumstances?  Allow me to share a parable:

Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”
When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
-Mark 12.1-12
 Again, I am not identifying with the only son (or the Only Son), or desirous of playing with full allegory, or anything like that.  Just saying that the following words and images came to mind as I thought about my clergy photo:
beat over the head
I was not physically beaten but there are those who witnessed me being emotionally beaten and bullied.  I was literally and publicly insulted.  And my spirit was killed a thousand times from my teens into my sixties.  I need to sit with this reality, feel it, honor it, grieve it, and allow it to heal. In this essay I have brought it out into the light and air so it no longer suppurates.

That is why I recoiled from the photo.  That is why I have given away almost all my vestments and want to unload my theological library.  That is why I do not attend church.  There is too much history there.

I am a square peg.  God made me that way, I like being that way, and I intend to rejoice in that which God has made.

And if anyone has some round holes that need filling, let them find a round peg.  I am no longer available.

--the BB

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Il ritorno

Outline map of Mídhris

I spoke a little last night of voyages and homecoming, of the protagonists of my fiction and myself. There are a few more thoughts to share on this theme.

Ian Dyrnedon, aka Darkslayer, is torn from his home in Yorkshire and never returns to earth. He and most of his companions, who became known as the Light Bearers, are so changed by their experience that they are touched by a restlessness. (Spoiler alert: I am about to share something that happens in the fourth book, as yet unwritten.) They end up migrating from the Forest of Norrast southward to Wolmsley Wood, which is central in later tales.  Ian is forced by circumstances to make his home among the people who took him in and to join other migrants in creating yet another home in new territory.

Grevedan Deveril, my alter ego and the fictional redactor of the entire series, crosses between worlds and spends years in Mídhris before crossing back to earth.  As with all the characters in the series, he has no control over this "slipping between dimensions."  There are locations where it is more likely to happen and individuals to whom it is more likely to happen but nobody wills it into occurring. Grev thrives in Mídhris as a scholar and historian and has a great love affair there.  It is doubtful he would have returned to earth if left to his own devices.  If he could return, he would but once he finds himself back in Central California there is no chance of seeing Mídhris again.  All he has left is his own memory of it (mercifully a photographic memory) and family stories.

A sketch of Grev's arms from the early 1970s

I chuckle as I look at Grev's coat of arms.  From his mother he derives the honorary title and the great oak tree (there go my trees again!) and from his father the flaming sword expressive of the cherubim guarding Eden and Matt's role in the Great Fire.  A home among the trees (my "treehouse" among the alders in Hercules?).  Exile and unspeakable loss.  The crest of the earthly line of Wolmsley is a blossom of Hermann's Peace, a magical flower with its own tale to tell, a tale of reconciliation and healing.  The motto is from Hosea 14.7: "They that dwell under his shadow shall return" (Authorized Version).  That theme is taken from the story of St Mirksel the Healer, of exiles returning to the land.

Looking at this fictional series as a reflection on myself is a fascinating exercise. There is a magical parallel world that may echo my ability to dissociate from my present circumstances.  There is loss of family and fostering in an alien society that may echo my being adopted.  The personal and psychological displacement of characters in the tales is immense and often irrevocable.  Narrative tension and storytelling adventure dictate restlessness and many journeys and what does this say about me?

A factor in writing this fantasy series that I find fascinating is how much of the storyline arises from my attempting to answer questions.  The family trees that I have developed are treated as fixed historical data to which I almost never make changes, though I keep adding to them.  I ask myself what becomes of Ian's descendants.  Where do they scatter? Whom do they marry?  How does the bloodline run from Ian all the way to Grev?  If Ian finds himself in Norrast, why do we encounter his family in the Isenwild and Wolmsley Wood centuries later?  What happens to the earthly line of the Dyrnedon family and how do the Mithron and Terran lines cross and mingle?  It is akin to solving a multidimensional puzzle.

It is usually only after spinning out a narrative that I can look back and see what I have just revealed (even if cryptically) about myself.  It is interesting as I go through this current exercise.  Looking at various segments of my life I do see the continuing threads that weave it all together. That helps make sense of the journey and of myself.

One could also say that the psychological exploration that I am doing now is really groundwork for returning to the series.  I yearn for a "ritorno" (return, homecoming) to writing this fictional opus.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
- T. S. Eliot, "East Coker," Four Quartets

--the BB

Musa, quell’uom di moltiforme ingegno

Be forewarned. The following is not a coherent essay but a collage of thoughts around the theme of coming home from a journey and being at home.  It is rather disjointed but I am not going to labor over it. [The title is the opening of the Odyssey in Italian.]

As I turn to the Odyssey, I am confronted with the theme of the "nostos" (νοστος)" "homecoming" if you will.  As Wikipedia puts it: "the idea of returning home from a long journey."   That is what the Odyssey is all about and many mythic contexts would suggest that is what our life is all about.

When I began a bedtime story that would turn into The Adventures of Jonathan Grubbley, way back in November 1972, I turned to Liz, who was working on her master's degree in folklore and mythology, and asked her for a story line.  She suggested the hero quest, and that is what the bedtime story became, my tongue very firmly planted in cheek.  It was very silly and lots of fun for all of us, but clearly the tale of a hero's journey, even if the hero happened to be a ten-year-old boy who was bored on a rainy day.

It is pretty damned hard to escape archetypes.  Young Jonathan wound up in the middle of my cycle of tales while his ancestor Ian turned into the hero of an epic poem.  Ian's tale launches the entire cycle and proves a deadly serious journey, sending Ian forth to battle an evil that threatens his world, rounded out in his journey home.  It is a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, in which his adventures shape him from a lost boy into a remarkable man.

Then there is Grev, descended from both Ian and Jonathan, whose own journey rounds out the Chronicles, shaping and shattering him in the process, leaving him and the reader to ponder all that is gained and lost, then make of it what meaning we may.

I have commented that Ian is who I wish I were and Grev is who I am.  Well, Grevedan Deveril is my alter ego (and nom de plume).  And Jonathan's tale could easily have been one of the tales with which I entertained my nieces and nephews half a century ago (though it actually beguiled graduate students who needed a break from studies).

All these stories are inevitably woven from my own life journey, the sources and people and events that enriched me and my imagination. All that has formed (or deformed) me becomes grist for the tales, ground together, leavened, and turned by the mysterious alchemy of storytelling into narratives that do not sound anything like my life and yet are totally my life.  As some of the opening lines of the Odyssey put it:
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
So, what of homecoming?

Odysseus and the Sirens

This particular graphic leads me to think about the Sirens as figures of whatever might lure me to my destruction.  In light of recent posts here, that could well be whatever has enticed me, or tried to entice me, from being true to myself.  Having talked about that already, I won't develop it here, only note it since it is a powerful image from myth.

 Ascension of Christ by Bagong Kussudiardja, Indonesia

Most of my past sermons on the Feast of the Ascension have used the image of homecoming, not merely Jesus returning to his Father but, since by the incarnation and his baptism he has united all creation and humanity to himself, the return of humanity and all creation to the Creator.

Not that homecoming is necessarily all fun and games. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus slaughters all his wife's suitors.  Their behavior had unsettled society in Ithaca, overturning all that was right and proper and healthy, and when Penelope's husband, and the true king, returns he sets things right again with a bloody vengeance.  Lord of the Rings fans know The Return of the King is not a walk in the park.

In Darkslayer I tell of a young boy who, by accident (or the will of the Stars), finds himself separated from all he calls home, torn forever from family and early eighteenth century England.  He must now live his life in another world, among a forest people and a warrior society.  He is accepted, beloved, and celebrated. He and his wife are best friends as well as lovers and, the initial adventure completed, they live a happy life.  She has one nagging anxiety: that he will be taken from her world as suddenly as he was taken from his original world.  He sees more than most people see and his mind is often very far away.  At the end of book two she asks if he is truly happy. Given all he has lost and gained, he has to think about it.  His home is now with her and their children.  Oh, he answers "yes."  I am a romantic; what did you expect?

But it is not a simple or easy answer.

The question all this poses for me tonight is not whether I am happy (I am ) but where do I feel at home?  Am I a perpetual wanderer who can never settle?  Can I put down roots and feel a sense of belonging and peace?

I have wandered and every time I moved it seemed not all that difficult to move on.  Bill will tell you that this very passive Taurus needed two years (and almost dynamite) to get him from Los Angeles to the East Bay.  Well, LA was the big city after life in Central California.  It had represented freedom and new life to me.  Once in the Bay Area I quickly realized how good it was to be there instead of Smogsville. Still, I was able to pick up and move on.

Part of me still misses our home in El Cerrito, though I am very glad now to be in New Mexico.

I do feel at home in my back yard.  It is a little oasis that I have developed over the years.  It was a sandbox and in April 2007 it looked like this:

Only one tree in that photo survives, lol.

I certainly have a sense that I love this spot and do not want to leave it.

In this first year of being a student at the University of New Mexico, I find the campus growing on me.  From the perimeter it is not very attractive, but when you get into the heart of the campus it is really quite nice.  Yes, once again I am bonding with landscape... with TREES.  But also with the sense of a place of learning, of youthful energy and potential.  It is very invigorating.  I would not call UNM home but I do feel that I am where I ought to be.

Those who have watched my posts at Facebook will recognize how many times I post shots of the mountains and sky here in Albuquerque and comment "I love where I live."  I do.  I feel deeply anchored by the mountains to the east, the volcanoes to the west, and the Rio Grande running from north to south.  I love the cycle of the seasons here: not harsh seasons but real seasons, nonetheless.

I do sense rightness and belonging.  Am I at home?  Probably as much as I have ever been. Although I love traveling, I have no urge to move.  Have I come to a resting place?  Well, right now I am at a wrestling place, not a resting place, yet I have a sense of contentment.  My journey is far from over.

Where, besides here, have I felt at home?

Evidently in the landscape of my dreams, discussed earlier.

In the hills around Hume Lake when I have been by myself: just me and nature.

At Mount Calvary before the fire, when the monastery and the Order of the Holy Cross provided a spiritual home for a pilgrim whom most considered neither fish nor fowl (no longer a Baptist but not really an Anglican).

Interestingly, though not a surprise to me, I feel very much at home here:

Yes, in the heart of Paris. Though I am not a citizen of France, nor a native or resident of Paris, when I am in that city I feel at home.  There is, for me, a rightness about being there. Something simply unquestioned.  I feel safe in Paris, comfortable, at ease.

I have only been there four times.  The first was in December 1967 as a young student, completely on my own for the first time in my life.  Yes, I was anxious, but also excited.  The second time was in the summer of 1969 when I served as an interpreter for a group of fresh high school graduates on a church tour that included helping to build a church in northern France and attending a conference in Switzerland.  We were only in Paris three days.  In 2012 Bill and I spent twelve nights in an apartment and caught as many sights as we had energy for, soaking up museums and architecture.  Then last May I spent twelve nights in the same apartment, on my own with no agenda, no timetable, and no responsibilities to anyone but myself.  Just like that first time forty-seven years earlier.

In sum, I think I have felt at home where I could be me.

To the extent that I feel sufficiently strong, free, and unanxious these days, I am increasingly just myself and thus increasingly at home. Because home is ultimately right where we are, and we must be at home within ourselves.

May we all welcome ourselves because journeying can be hard.

--the BB