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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Senza riserve

This fountain was on the street where we stayed in Rome in April 2011.  I love the simplicity of something so delightful. Somehow this photo seemed apt for what follows.

There is a bit of free verse that I wrote, I believe, in 1965.  I had taken a bucolic scene with lots of green grasses and blue sky and silhouetted trees from some magazine, trimmed it so it came to a point on top, then sliced it in vertical thirds.  In my imagination it had become three portions of a stained-glass window, a triptych from nature.  And alongside those three sections, taped onto lined pages, I wrote.  This is the third section:

And this is the poem on that page.  I do not deem the first two sections worth preserving or commenting on, but this captures something that I consider significant.

this little corner
all i ask
to infinitely live
its finite bounds--
this limited expanse
shall ever be
i limits share--
to care a lot
about a little thing
is more than
suffice but well
a little song to sing
without reserve
without a fear--
this little corner
the world
my altar

I had not yet read Teilhard's Hymn to the Universe, his offering of the world itself when he lacked bread and wine to celebrate the Mass.  But yes, the closeted Baptist boy was showing his sacramental, yea even Catholic, leanings that early.

As in earlier posts, I shall indulge in my own commentary because the point of this exercise is not to tell any reader what they should find in my old poems but to explore what I find in them that is meaningful to me today, especially as I look back over my life.

To see the infinite in the finite is a very sacramental view of existence.  If, as we proclaim in the Sanctus, "heaven and earth are full of [God's] glory," then the smallest, meanest particle is imbued with the Shekinah.  The Jerusalem Temple does not contain the divine presence anymore than a random strange quark.  So within finite bounds one can encounter the infinite and as one participates in the divine Life, as I believe all creation does, then one may infinitely live even within the confines of time and space as we experience them.  Even in this I could recognize the truth that God is God and I am not.  I share limits, but that is all right.  That is both profoundly challenging (I am but a fragment of Creation's grand dance, partial, incomplete, broken, and mortal) and yet this cannot undercut my connection with all that has been, is, or ever shall be.

I really like the segment that reads: "to care a lot/ about a little thing/ is more than/ amplitude." That captures so much for me.  It speaks deeply, affirmatively, and joyously.

The current reflections are all designed to help me understand what has led me away from myself, tempted me, coerced me, or misled me to try to be something other than who I most truly am.  It seems that given my obnoxiously quick intellect, my easy tuning into to the feelings of other people, and my desire to please and to help, I was a perfect project for those who wanted to make something grand of me.  Someone who would go far in this world.  Be some kind of success.  Do great things.  My pediatrician said, "If you want to be a missionary, fine, be a medical missionary."  Well, as with any good Jewish mother (and she was one), the dream of a doctor is always there, right?  My sense of a religious vocation was distressing to many. Shouldn't I be something more prestigious? But if a pastor (which was respectable but hardly the image of a huge success or of someone who would change the world), at least a pastor of a very large successful (bourgeois, respectable, wealthy) congregation, OK?  And yes, that latter image was expressly put forth by my parents.

And yet, as this poem clearly articulates, I really would be happy with a small corner of the earth, and my introverted self would certainly be more at ease.  I did not want to stride forth on some grand stage.  I felt as though so many people (teachers, counselors, family, etc.) wanted me to 'BE SOMETHING," something more than I really wanted.  Dang, if I could have been a high school teacher like Mr. Amend, who could passionately share not just knowledge but the love of knowledge and of the riches of human culture, and seen lights come on in the eyes of students, I think it would have been awesome.  Granted, as the years went by he was bitterly disillusioned in the educational endeavor and that remains a sadness on my own heart for his sake, and for what students who followed us seemed unable to receive from him.

I would probably have been happy as a college instructor.  Not a full professor.  Fuck committee meetings and the pressure to publish or perish.  That is not me.  I do not want to be a front-line researcher (and I knew that full well when I was in a doctoral program).  I wanted to be the popularizer who could take the research others do and share it in a way that others could enjoy the fruits of that research.  And I knew and articulated that when I was in grad school.

As a clergyman I never wanted to be rector of what we call a "cardinal parish."  A smaller church was always much more to my liking.  I did not want the pressures to succeed in some corporate business model (the curse of the church in so many ways these days).  And some of the greatest joy in my years as a priest were the moments when I could see by an expression or hear in a tone of voice that something "connected" for someone.  Something made sense, some context for a life was gained, some new meaning discovered, some new inner strength revealed, some hope kindled, some fountain of grace unblocked so forgiveness and healing and new life could happen.  As someone who has been a teacher all my life no matter what work I ostensibly did, I knew I was only the midwife and that was plenty for me.

So here I am, still yearning to get to the rest of my novels, or as many as I can write.  I can hardly call them some "little song" and yet they are not aimed for the rungs of great literature.  I still wish that what I write as fiction will constitute some "rollicking good tales" that entertain.  I am confident they can also encourage, challenge, inspire, move, and exalt the reader as well, but the first rule is that the tale must engage and entertain. That would be my little song and it would suffice.  I do know that as I wrote the early seeds of the series and as whole books take shape, I write without reserve and without a fear. This fantasy parallel world is my little corner (and it is just a corner of the parallel planet).  It is my altar on which I offer up my vision, my wisdom (such as it is), my tears and my joys: a gift given with a free and open heart to whosoever will enjoy it.

I know I had a sense of being groomed for great things.  I hated and resented it. Fiercely and bitterly but never spoke of this to any one. So my walls grew higher and thicker and stronger.  And this may be why so many of my carefree dreams are set in the geography of my pre-adolescent years, before the pressure came. And the anxiety dreams are set in high school and college.

If one examines what gives me joy...
If one looks at the subjects of my photographs...
So often it is just details or the everyday.

to care a lot
about a little thing
is more than

--the BB

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ora sei un sconosciuto

I have already confessed a great fondness for the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. They arrived, if you will, at just the right moment in my life.  I was young, impressionable, and all that, of course. Additionally, the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements all provided a variety and richness beyond the simpler rock and roll I knew up to that point.    I think "texture" may be the category I am seeking here.  My ears and mind encountered a musical texture that I had unknowingly yearned for.

Be that as it may, another of their songs popped into my head this evening as I was looking at another segment of my life.

"The Dangling Conversation"

It's a still life water color,
Of a now late afternoon,
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room.
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
The borders of our lives.

And you read your Emily Dickinson,
And I my Robert Frost,
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we've lost.
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm,
Couplets out of rhyme,
In syncopated time
And the dangled conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives.

Yes, we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
"Can analysis be worthwhile?"
"Is the theater really dead?"
And how the room is softly faded
And I only kiss your shadow,
I cannot feel your hand,
You're a stranger now unto me
Lost in the dangling conversation.
And the superficial sighs,
In the borders of our lives.

Copyright: Paul Simon Music

 The reason this particular song, one of my favorites, came to mind was reflections on a photo I found while cleaning out boxes of "stuff" in my garage.  I came across this photo, done for a church pictorial directory.

 I posted it on Facebook, noting that it was scary.  A very ambiguous comment and responses have been interesting.  One college classmate did note that the smile seems a bit sinister.  Maybe all clergy have something of the oily used-car salesman about them?  I suspect it is only scary to me.

Life is complex, as are our motivations and actions, our interpretations and evaluations.  I will save for another post a discussion of factors that led me to feel called to ordained ministry and the struggles related with that.  Now that I am officially retired from same and, in fact, keep all things ecclesial at a distance, this photo seems removed from my current reality and identity by more than the eighteen years that have elapsed.

A friend who knows me well speculated aloud, but without elaboration, that one might wonder just how good a fit the church and I were. That is quite a speculative bombshell, given that I felt called at age fifteen, pursued ordination as a Baptist until hands were laid on me in 1972, and then after I became an Episcopalian pursued it all over again--complete with all the obstacles of being openly gay and eccentric--until hands were laid on me again in 1990.

I did genuinely care about parishioners, grieving when they wept and smiling when they rejoiced.  I sought to feed them with the riches of Christ's grace and never felt I was anybody's savior.  I tried, as best I could, to be faithful: to God, to the People of God, to the Church. There were things I was good at and areas of pastoral ministry where I sucked.  I had my share of those parishioners known in some circles as "priest killers."  I came away with some deep and serious wounds in my home diocese and in the one where I now live. Also with some great joys and satisfactions.

Over time I have realized that my life is actually "in the world" and not "in the Church."  Probably the most effortless, effective, and well-received ministry I have ever had has been in the business world and in everyday encounters in which I function with no collar or title.  So, unlike many old photos, this one does not strike me as "me."  I look at it and the words of the song rise up: "You're a stranger now unto me...."

Yes, I recognize the features of my face and I cannot deny the history of my life.  But that fellow seems like an alien. Sort of creeps the hell out of me, to tell the truth.

And this guy?  Taken about the same time but mercifully minus the collar.  Shot at some social in the parish hall, crazed and exaggerated grin, one gold crown shining amongst those teeth. But that feels like me.  I still have that shirt and that down vest.

Few things can make me cringe more than being introduced as "Father Paul."  It sometimes leads to someone wanting to share their religious journey (and gripes about organized religion) with me in a social situation, sort of like asking a physician for a medical consultation at a cocktail party.  No, this is not the time and place to discuss your spiritual gallstones and no, I don't care. Sorry. Share your life journey with me and I may find you interesting and engage but I don't talk church-speak anymore.  Call it a language I have forgotten, or am trying to forget, while I work to learn Italian and keep my French and Spanish alive.  If you have been damaged by bad theology, so have I.  It is not that I lack sympathy; I just don't want to hear about it.  I have dealt with it for six and half decades and I am tired, sick, fed up. Too many toxins for me to deal with anymore.  The gymnastics involved in sifting out the gold from the dross in the biblical tradition has become draining and I have better things to do with my life.

Mind you, the last congregation I was with exemplifies, to my mind, what church should be.  The people worship God, love one another, and serve the community in which they live.  They do so with hear, mind, soul, and body.  It is a joy to be in their midst.   The only reason I am not in their midst is that they meet in church, and church does not speak to me.  My discomfort would, I believe, have a negative effect on these wonderful people.  And I am quite happy doing anything else on a Sunday morning.  I admire those who still minister as clergy and theologians and count some very fine ones among my friends.  I just cannot do it anymore.

I am not saying religion is a crock of crap.  That is not what I believe at all.  Nor do I think "organized religion" is some ogre in the universe of spirituality.  Saying one is spiritual but not religious sounds like meaningless tripe to me, but since almost everyone I know says that I won't confront them on it.  I take it to mean you have some experience you sense is spiritual and you reject anyone who would tell you what your categories of religious experience should be or what it should mean.  You are a modern individualist (or spiritual narcissist, but I will give us all the benefit of the doubt at first).  I think you should reject spiritual straight jackets!  (Chances are the categories you use to do that come from some tradition, but we can pretend you reject all traditions and are going with your gut and that you invented the wheel.)

My roots are deep in a specific tradition: Christianity.  I was raised a Protestant with heavy Calvinism polluted with the modern heresy of Dispensationalism, but rejected that and went for deeper roots in Western Catholicism (not Roman) and increasingly steeped myself in a piety that is Eastern Orthodox.  My home is still full of icons and candles.  But, like the banyan tree, I have not only an original taproot but have branched out and sent down other roots, most notably in Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American spirituality, and an earth-centered orientation that is friends with the neo-pagans of our time.  All of these and more nourish me and my fantasy fiction has its own mythology and parallel "Christianity" that blend.  Just because I do not use the language of my tradition(s) in everyday life does not mean they do not form me deeply and constantly.  "You can take the dude out of the Church but can't take the Church out of the dude" or something like that.

Yet I stand with those outside the Church and feel at home with them outside those walls, outside those rites, outside that imagery (for the most part).  And the nagging question remains: How much of a fit was there between me and the Church? Deeply and essentially.  I do not know the answer.  I believe I did much good and certainly some harm in my years of ministry.

It just seems like it all happened in a galaxy far, far away.

And the man in that photo is a stranger now unto me.

But me?  I am knowing myself and liking myself better all the time.  Feels good.

--the BB

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Un sonetto francese

Le jour était morne à travers le crachin gris
Où s'enfonçaient les cimes des chênes, où toutes
Les feuilles tombantes abandonnaient leurs voûtes
De gothique rayonnante--j'en fus épris,
Car mon âme aussi tombait, une douce pluie
L’accompagnant dans la chute du désespoir.
Mon esprit, s'égarant, entra dans un bois noir.
--De cette douleur, me dis-je, que je m'enfuie.

Mais je fus saisi d'un inexprimable peur
De ne jamais revoir le soleil ni les astres,
Qui serait peut-être le pire des désastres.
Je me tournai donc et, en rehaussant le cœur,
Je descendis d'un mont, j'émergeai de ce bois,
Je vis de la lumière, et je pensai à toi.

26 février 1968

Oui, mes amis.  I know this is drama as only the young can do drama.  We speak of purple prose and this is, well, indigo verse or something, lol.  But the structure is fairly solid, the style literary, and after all these years I remain pretty proud of it.  I will try a translation into English.

The day was gloomy through the gray mist
Where the tops of oaks were thrust, where all
The falling leaves were abandoning their high
Gothic vaults--I was struck by it,
For my soul was also falling, accompanied
By a light rain in the descent into despair.
My soul, straying, entered a dark wood.
I said to myself, "Let me flee this sadness."

But I was seized by an inexpressible fear
Of never again seeing the sun or the stars,
Which would be the worst disaster.
So I turned and, lifting up my heart,
I descended the mount, emerged from the wood,
Saw the light, and thought of you.

I told you it was drama.  Indeed, high overstatement.  Though line 8 speaks of fleeing despair through implied suicide, suicide has never been a temptation for me.

Ah, sweet retrospect.

I have commented that I could not have written Darkslayer in my youth.  I needed to experience depression and the re-emergence into light in order to write that tale.  The depth of actually living this was necessary and so the opening volume of The Chronicles of Mídhris was begun in 2006.  Yet the theme lies here, just months before I graduated from college and several years prior to the germ of the Chronicles.  As I reread this poem I can see the thread clearly.  The conflict between light and darkness is so universal that there is nothing surprising here, yet the clarity of an abiding theme in my writing does grab one's attention.

By the way, I am pretty sure there was a conscious nod to Dante in the dark wood.

Just thought I would share this.  Yes, I have written sonnets over the years. I believe my first was to Miss KJK.  There was an entire cycle dedicated to my first French teacher.  Many scattered through my journals.  Some in the last twelve years.  It is a form I enjoy.  I hope there are enough francophones to enjoy this one.

--the BB

For Narnia fans

The Lion makes a net with lines of love
and wisdom, bound with knots of power
and command.  It is a net of magic song, of
calling into being.  See, a shower
of stars stands forth where the net was flung,
its weaving now entwined with intricate
counterpoint, for where the Lion has sung
now sing as well the noble stars, so late
come from the void.  And in their light stands
Aslan, at whose roar the universe thrills.
Now, from his feet to the sea-lapped sands,
and across the silent valleys to the hills,
the grassy green of life shoots out like fire
and a world breaks forth like a note upon His lyre.

11 August 1971

[I thought something lighter than my life review might serve as a palate-cleansing sorbet.]

--the BB

Monday, October 13, 2014

Quattro poesie

Today we revisit some poems I wrote during the months of July and August 1971.  I am commenting upon them, a very odd thing for any poet to do.  Verse should speak for itself and readers should be free to make of it what they may.  The purpose of commentary here is not to elucidate any meaning of the poem for others but to explore, for my own understanding, healing, and growth, what those things I wrote when I was twenty-five might mean for me today now that I a sixty-eight.

I shall not curse

I shall not curse this harsh, unyielding rock
which holds the sky up, and forbids the sea
to charge beyond the bounds of shore and bank
and thus engulf my frail humanity.
This stony soil is both a friend to me
and my opponent.  It may perhaps break
me as I toil to set its secrets free,
yet if I would but hear, and it could talk,
the earth might call me brother.  I might learn
that jagged rocks I trip upon today
have always borne me up that I might walk.
And where I struggle most against the clay
the right to overcome I slowly earn;
and stone may yet become the strength of me.
17-21 July 1971

This is certainly not the classic rhyme pattern for a sonnet, but we will let that pass.  The opening describes primal boundaries, as though some ancient view of the universe saw mountains holding up the sky's dome and the limits of land and water were firmly set, themes that echo Job 38:4-11.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? 

 Do we have a recurring theme? Yes, we do.  I grew up with a terrible imbalance of no boundaries on the one hand and immensely over-fortified ones on the other.  The idea of a secure, healthy identity of my own that could freely engage others in a genuine manner: well that was the facade and the fantasy but not the reality.  "My frail humanity" might be taken, in retrospect, as an image of my frail sense of self.  That was terribly threatened then and over much of my life.

With soil as friend and opponent there is a contrast as old as Eden. Adam is made from the earth into which the breath of God is breathed to create a living soul. 'The noun 'adam is also the masculine form of the word adamah which means "ground" or "earth."'  (Yes, I lifted that from Wikipedia but also know it from taking Hebrew in seminary.)  Much as "human" is related to "humus."  We are of the earth and part of it.  Yet in the myth of the Fall we must toil to bring food from the earth.  Good farmers and gardeners see this as cooperating with the elements, not doing combat, but the tension is there.

There may be a contrast between being and doing as the poem moves on to toiling to set secrets free, and possibly being broken in the process, versus learning to listen and then to receive the secrets as gift. These are very different approaches to life and, though I would not make an absolute of the contrast, they can be found in Western versus Eastern philosophies. Bringing the two into balance is the great art, yielding to the harmony of yin and yang to discover the transcendent Tao.  That which today is a stumbling stone may be revealed as part of what upholds me at all times.  For that matter, my headlong fall at times may prove the call to attention that may lead me to learn and change, to heal and grow.  As the poem's end nears I wrote of earning the right to overcome through struggle.

This puts me in mind of Harry Carroll, my classical Greek professor, saying, "πάθει μάθος, Mr. Strid," when I grumbled at the end of an exam.  It comes from Aeschylus' play Agamemnon in line 177:


τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώ-
σαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
στάζει δ᾽ ἔν θ᾽ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας
180μνησιπήμων πόνος: καὶ παρ᾽ ἄ-
κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.
δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος
σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.

Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to understanding, Zeus, who has established as a fixed law that “wisdom comes by suffering.” But even as trouble, bringing memory of pain, drips over the mind in sleep, [180] so wisdom comes to men, whether they want it or not. Harsh, it seems to me, is the grace of gods enthroned upon their awful seats.
--tr. Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph. D., 1926 

So we find in this irregular sonnet a blend of struggle and gift.  I think the concluding line is one of transformation: our opposition becomes our source of strength.  It resembles the Lakota wisdom that the North Wind that blows fiercely and bends the grasses and trees is the very force by which those grasses and trees develop strength.  Even so our tribulations give us what we need to be strong and healthy.  As it is summed nowadays, "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger."  It is much deeper than that.

A final comment: I am a Taurus, born under a fixed earth sign. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, part of that great Central Valley devoted to agriculture.  Even though I am, and always have been, a city boy, the soil and what grows from it is very central to my being.

 The following was inspired by the Tarot card of the King of Cups (pictured at the head of this post).  I had read Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance because it had influenced T. S. Eliot, as he explicitly states in his notes to The Waste Land.  She wrote of the Grail legend, of ancient fertility rites and Christian overlays, and she discussed the symbols in the Tarot deck as expressing some of that semi-underground tradition.  Now, any good fundamentalist would recoil in terror as I acknowledge that as a Baptist seminarian I gave some attention to the Tarot.  They would say, "See!  There is where he went wrong, turning to the occult."  I would say, "Codswallop!"  My mind works in symbolism and I do not fear to venture where Eliot has gone.  I do not, in any case, ascribe metaphysical reality to any occult symbol.  I think astrology is bullshit if you actually promulgate the idea that the position of the planets and stars shapes destiny.  I do, however, gladly accept that the symbols of astrology, mythology, etc. provide tools for us to discuss, in very powerful and helpful ways, the psychic realities of our lives.  This is why I can say that I am a Taurus.  It is easy, shared symbolism.  And I will go further to say I am very skeptical of any Christian metaphysics as well.  All language is metaphorical so what I say of God is symbolic, limited, inadequate, and--even though it may point toward the truth--remains untrue.

But back to the poem:

The King of Cups
The waters roll and toss; they grow and swell
with hidden purpose, splashing freely now,
then gathering their random force to burst
upon the shore.  What strength can break or quell
their strange attack?  Who shall withstand the thrust
of their aggression? Rising to surround
the rockbound isle, they lap now at the throne
and at the feet of him who holds in trust
the power of life.  With calm command, his brow
unwrinkled and benign, he stoops at first
to fill his cup and drink.  Then, at the sound
of his voice they recede, as if to bow
and acquiesce.  The only king they own
acknowledges their faith, yet sits alone.

1 August 1971

Why this card?  Well, I read somewhere that the King of Cups was the card of the theologian and what was I back then but a budding theologian?  I have said many times throughout my life that I have always thought as a theologian.  Between my inherent mysticism and sacramental mindset (words that Baptists do not use but have always been part of me), I found it difficult to experience or conceptualize anything without reference to the Ultimate and to the ultimate questions.  The last fifteen years, roughly, have reflected a shift in my journey in which those two aspects (mysticism and sacramentalism) have emerged more strongly and ecclesiastical trappings have increasingly fallen away.  To see God as permeating yet transcending everything that is makes me a firm panentheist and back in Baptist seminary we discussed that and some of us, at least, were convinced that this was orthodox and probably necessary if we were to make any sense of creation and experience. When one sees "the veil of Temple rent in twain" and any distinction between sacred and secular as artificial and unhelpful, then it becomes difficult not to see the divine everywhere.  And since, by a combination of choice and circumstance, I have spent most of my working life "in the world" (what a silly phrase), it is in the world that I must, and do, experience the holy and live out my ministry as it takes many surprising shapes.  The Church has seemed increasingly irrelevant to the lives of those around me and, though it has formed me deeply, I consciously try to avoid using its obscure, precious, and frequently misleading language.

As for this poem, clearly related to the one before it, there is this sense of threat and isolation. Will the savage waters rise and drown the King?  You can easily note that the card itself does not posit angry waves that threaten, only that he is surrounded by water.  It is rather my own projection, my personhood that feels so isolated and cut off, so threatened by all around it.  The poem expresses a few things.  One is transformation.  These would seem to be sea waters, based on the card's depiction of a large vessel in the background, yet the King fills the Cup and drinks, so the waters are somehow sweet and life-giving.  He draws water by stooping, so although he expresses calm--even wordless--command he is not rigid or haughty, simply secure and in control.  I see here a projection of how I wish I had been back then.  If there is anything I was not at that point is was secure and in control.  I was a closeted queer in an evangelical context, hoping to be ordained.  I would, in the following year, be so overcome by anxiety that I would fail my oral exams, reduced to a terrified, inarticulate mess.  I retook them a week later and did fine, but secure I was not.

The man on the throne and the waters all about him are in harmony.  Yet he remains in isolation.

The poems here were written just two years after the Stonewall Riots in 1969.  The drag queens and their allies, bless them, stood up for themselves and the world would not be the same.  As courts across the United States find that equality before the law includes the right of marriage equality in 2014, we are now in a very different world.  Back in 1971 to be deep in the closet and hope to become a minister of the Gospel was about as insecure as you could get.  I was very, very alone.

Breaking down the walls

What is the cost of breaking down the walls,
and what the price of lowering the bridge?
What is the risk of teetering on the edge
and what the end of him who slips and falls?
Do they really crown the victor? What's the catch?
Should I really try to trust you? Do you care?
Do I really want to open? Do I dare?
Will I always choose to sit it out and watch?
Am I tossing empty questions to the air
as in a game, only to receive them back
unanswered? Do I really seek to crack
our of my shell? Why do you simply stare
at my deliberations? If I try,
will you help me come to life, or let me die?

August 1971

So, I was clearly wrestling with all of this back then.  But I lacked the inner strength, the experience of living, and safe allies.  As I look back I am convinced it was not safe then.  I did come out "as bisexual" to a handful of classmates.  They took it calmly, except for the woman I was dating.  It was very hard on her and I can only hope that from the other side she can forgive me.

Now forty-three years have passed since these writings.  So very much has happened.  When I dropped out of the doctoral program in history at UCLA in 1974 I did not break down all my walls but I partly opened my closet door and partly had it yanked open for me.  I could stop pretending to be straight, or even bi, and just be my gay self.  Yes, in fits and starts, and it took a while before everybody knew and I no longer cared.  When I dropped out, Mom wanted me to come home.  I was firm in rejecting that suggestion.  It would have been death on a thousand levels.  Poverty and struggle in Los Angeles were infinitely better than the straightjacket of fitting back into familiar (and false) patterns.  Families fall so quickly and unconsciously into old patterns that to this day I have zero sense that I can relax and just be me around family.  I am sure that on some levels they understand this, though I seem so anti-social by limiting visits to once very five years or so.  It only takes a few hours for me to be climbing the walls, even though I love them and rejoice in their happiness and grieve for their sorrows.

In any case, a number of walls fell a few years after this poem.  Others remained firmly in place until recently. 2013 was a year of many transitions.  Three very special men came into my life and taught me that I am capable of so much more than I thought. They are still, if only at a distance, part of my life (and daily prayers) and I will forever be grateful.  Over the past year I have also had to "let go" of each one and on several levels had to let go of my best friend as well, not for any sad reason but because he has a new love and life partner, a wonderful man.  I wish them all happiness and support their relationship, but I no longer am able to rely on the man I spent twenty-four years with for a huge amount of my social life and main emotional support.  It is right and good, and good for me especially, that I must learn to do things for myself.  Long overdue.  2014 and beyond are the Years In Which I Must Finally Grow Up.  Yeah, I know.  Kind of slow on the uptake there, BB.  In any case, I want to thank Chris, Brian, and Math for helping me break out of my shell.  The final walls are falling and I no longer choose to sit it out and watch, or remain passive.  And Bill, who has been there for almost thirty-seven years, I thank you for the hard conversations we have had to help us both heal and grow and move forward. And my shrink, who has proven to be a perfect companion at this particular point. Thanks also to my coworkers who have listened to me endlessly talk about the roller coaster ride of the past two years and have been there every step of the way with their friendship and support. (This is where the drunk tears up and says, "I love you guys!")

So, in short, I am trying, and those around me have proven safe and trustworthy and are helping me come to life.

The morning caught its breath

The morning caught its breath
when the halfgreen tint of sky announced
the sun's brief hesitation.
A squirrel darting behind a clump of firs
distracted my wonder and nearly made me fall
from the whitened log I balanced on,
forcing me to grab the sticky limb
of the cedar to my left.  When I looked up,
the sun was there,
shooting goldstreaks through the haze
in the valley where my heart leaped
to welcome the day.

August 1971

Not sure this needs any comment.  It speaks of my sense of being at home in the forest and rejoicing in simply being.  A good place to pause for today.

--the BB