Darkness & Light

Lent has officially ended. Today is Good Friday, the second of the three days (Triduum) leading up to Easter Sunday.  Today — or rather, tonight, at sundown — marks the start of  Passover.  I’ve been thinking today about story, without which we wouldn’t commemorate either event.  I’ve also been thinking, this Lent, about trust, about giving up my often desperate grip on control in my own stories.   I’ve been praying, I guess, about letting go.  Today, too, I am struck by the Triduum’s embrace of sorrow and agony, and how those dark places open us up.  Story does that too, of course.  As I write, I wrestle with wariness on taking on the immensity of these topics.

Lent is strange. It comes around every year and partly because of this it creates tension and duality. Like any liturgical season, it has its protocol, its expected and even habitual elements – the smudge of ash, the fish-on-Fridays, the penitence and fasting and alms-giving and prayer. Its forty days derive from the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the forty days alone in the desert.  Whatever we give up (or take on) as part of a holy observance, we are called (and expected) to deepen our faith by new encounters with our own limitations, our God, our place in relationship with others.

Some years, such expectation has visited upon me an unpleasant pressure – a kind of assumption that It’s That Time to Fix Ourselves Again. Get out the spackle and paint, so by the time Easter Sunday rolls around we’re shiny and new again. And next year, do it all over.  If that’s all it was about, why would we still bother?

Here’s another thing I grapple with: during those forty days of Lent and the three days of the Triduum, we know what waits at the end. How does the knowledge of the feast inform our fast? Regardless of what we believe, we’ve heard the story. Does that limit our experience? Buffer us from what we’d rather not feel? We grieve when someone dies because they’ve died. How is that grief tempered, lightened even, when we’ve been told  that three days later he won’t be dead anymore?   Jesus may have said to his disciples that the Son of Man would “on the third day be raised again” (Luke 24:7), but that doesn’t mean they got it. After all, they hadn’t seen a resurrection before. And as for us, 2000 years later, how do we wear the sackcloth – not to mention the agony and betrayal of Gethsemane and the Via Dolorosa and the deep silence of that Saturday? How do we kneel at the cross on Good Friday full of sorrow with a shopping list for Easter dinner tucked into our pockets?

I’ve heard Palm Sunday sermons that ask us to join the women who gathered at the cross, who were watching, who saw where he was laid.  Yes, absolutely – but aren’t we also called to see our role in Peter’s denial and the disciples’ falling asleep and the crowd’s calling for crucifixion? Nothing wrong with joining the women who gathered at the cross, but please let’s not forget the rest of what we did. And still do.

No one wants to suffer.  We are a culture that makes The Habit of Happiness a best-seller. We are a people who demonize “them” while glorifying “us.”   Such harm we do when  we won’t look at suffering or acknowledge our role in causing as well as experiencing it. Lent, of course, does not mandate suffering. There’s much hubris and ego and pride in the sackcloth and the hair shirt.

The liturgies of Triduum don’t whitewash sorrow. I’ve always been mystified by the leap made in so many of the psalms – from despair and anger and questioning to confidence and trust. How does the psalmist get from “I am in trouble; my eye wastes away with grief,…my bones waste away” (psalm 31:7-8,10) to “as for me, I trust in You, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God’” (31:14-15)?

In the past, I’ve shut the psalm book, disappointed (disgusted, even) at what could be seen as an reaction against what’s hard and tough and painful. Last Sunday, however, during the Palm Sunday liturgy, the words of psalm 31 made me weep. Even in trouble and grief and sorrow – perhaps especially in them – we can find God. Or at least, God finds us.

I could not have written the previous sentence ten or perhaps even five years ago. So what changed? Perhaps the more apt question is not what but how? There’s no promise, anywhere trustworthy at least, that we won’t suffer. And here’s where I come back to story.

In planning an upcoming class at the Grotto, I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction, examining how stories I admire tackle tough topics. Last week, I picked up Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment, and found in it a story called “Prayer in the Furnace.” It ends with the following statement from a chaplain to a (deeply suffering) U.S. marine in Iraq:

“ ‘Twenty centuries of Christianity,’ I said. ‘You’d think we’d learn.’ I fingered the small cross. ‘In this world, He only promises we don’t suffer alone.’

“Rodriguez turned and spat into the grass. ‘Great,’ he said.”

No easy answers, and no abdication of suffering, either. Whatever story you listen to tonight, may it open you up.

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Field Trip

I’ve always been self-disciplined, to a fault perhaps. Responsible, accountable. Dogged, in the damning term of one of my grad-school advisers. Lindsey is nothing if not dogged, she wrote in my file, words that stung when I found them with their reminder of how she’d chastised me for showing her too many revisions.

Part of that doggedness is the writer’s schedule I’ve kept for more than twenty years: the hours where I park my ass in the chair and write. Or stare at the screen and despair. Lately those hours have become drudgery. How to get the joy back, the spontaneity? When I first started rising at 5 a.m. to write for two hours before my day job, I felt each morning on the brink of revelation and discovery, on the only path I could travel. Now that I no longer have a day job and can write pretty much whenever I want to, some of that discovery has seeped away. Revising my novel these days feels more like a chore. And even as I write “chore,” I castigate myself, as if I am predicting by describing. Words like “castigate” and “chore” and “drudgery” confirms to myself that I have failed.

Wow.  I can hear my husband’s voice. You are so hard on yourself.

But isn’t that what every writer needs to be? Hard on herself? How else would we get the work done?

If you’re reading this, you probably want to stop around here, because you don’t want to go with me any further to such a discouraging place. No one ever promised the writing life was fun and lightness, right? Blah blah. Every writer knows this agony, this self-loathing, this despair. Little new I can say about it.

But this week, I did something new. I went on a field trip. I left the house, with a bag lunch, and instead of going to my office across town where I rent space in a writers’ co-op, I drove to a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate. The bridge, yes, but also the meeting of bay and ocean that gives the bridge its name. Churning blue-gray water, flecked with white caps. A tug pulling a barge. A small cruise ship. Wind-twisted trees and, at the top of the bluff, a museum. I went in and looked at paintings. A noble woman and a child, the woman looking directly at the viewer and the child (in the way of children) looking at something off to the side. The child’s hands stopped me, made me analyze the knuckles and white paint of highlight on a thumb, the uneven and thereby more realistic spread of the fingers, although readying to point. In the same gallery, Abraham parted from Hagar and Ishmael, his face bowed as his head rested on Ishmael’s head but it was Hagar’s face that compelled me. Stark, pale, stricken. On another canvas, Jesus called Matthew from a table of money changers, Matthew’s face and his anachronistic Renaissance sleeve bathed in light.

A group of school kids traipsed through the gallery, talking and giggling and joking. One of them ran across the room to his friends and the guard blocked his way, explained that running isn’t done in museums. I hovered near the docent as she told the students about light and shadow and composition and detail. Sixth, a nearby parent told me when I asked what grade the kids were in. The docent handed out cardboard rectangles to the kids, with space cut out in the middle like picture frames, and sent them on their way to find a piece of art – any artwork in the three galleries – and choose a detail to sketch. The kids got quiet. In groups of two and three, a few alone, they worked on their assignment. Some whispered. Some played with their erasers. And some drew.

I wondered how many kids would remember this exercise 20, 30, 40 years down the road. I wondered for how many this would “take” – who, out of this group would become an artist, in whatever form that took? Would it be the girl alone in front of the pastoral scene of a waterfall? The boy in the POSEY 28 jersey sketching the obsidian-black sculpted head of a Chinese man, complete with long twisted braid? The boy honing in on the titled top hat of an absinthe drinker?

Watching these kids observe the art so closely quieted me, too.



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(You must realize)

…that when he looked, and she
looked up at him, their looks so merged in one
the world outside grew vacant, suddenly,
and all things being seen, endured and done
were crowded into them: just she and he…
here at the point and at this point alone:-
see, this arouses fear. Such fear both knew.

When I first encountered those words, my body thrummed. I was weeping without having realized I was moved. I had found my way home.

This happened in 1996, at a small church in Berkeley, California, and the words were spoken as part of the sermon. I hadn’t set foot in church in years, and I had done so that morning under duress. No one forced me, I went willingly—but I went because I quite literally did not know what else to do with myself.   Anxiety riddled me so completely that the only small reprieve I could think of was to get myself a block away to sit in a pew among strangers for the simple fact that, surrounded by others, I might not lose my mind.

What I heard that day—and read over and over, when I later found the poem in its entirety—changed my life. It brought me back to church as an adult, it brought me to prayer, and it made me want to live. Well, that’s not entirely true—I hadn’t wanted to die, necessarily, but I had wondered too often how much more pain I could bear. Yes, I was depressed—deeply so, although I managed to function in ways that if you met me at the supermarket or in class you might not have known.

But I digress. I’ve written about that return to church and how prayer started to loosen anxiety’s tight grip on me, both in essays and a memoir, and that’s not really the topic here.

Annunciation window, Lady Chapel, All Saints' Episcopal Church, San Francisco

Annunciation window, Lady Chapel, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, San Francisco

This morning, I want to write about the annunciation. For that’s what those lines are about. The “he” and “she” of the poem, by Rainer Maria Rilke, are not a romantic couple, or a brother and sister, or any of the other relationships that came to my mind and made me weep when I heard the poem. No, the “he” is the angel Gabriel; the “she,” the Virgin Mary.

At All Saints’, the Episcopal parish where I am a member, the Building and Grounds Committee has just finished repairing and cleaning and reinstalling eleven stained-glass windows. You probably won’t be surprised to read that I helped support the renovation of the window showing the Annunciation.

I went to Sunday school enough times as a kid to know the story, well before I heard Rilke’s poem in church. The angel appears to Mary, tells her she’s going to bear a baby, and she agrees.  Be it unto me, according to your word. I’ve always been drawn to the story as, well, story—the characterization in those 13 verses (Luke 1: 26-39) of a young girl being given incomprehensible, stunning information. She is “troubled,” she “wonders in her heart what kind of greeting this might be.” She asks the angel the question on all our minds: Just how can this be, if I’m a virgin?

What I love, in part, about Rilke’s poem is how it focuses not on doctrine or an attempt to explain the unexplainable. It avoids any parsing of her being “come upon” by the Holy Spirit and “overshadowed by the power of the Most High.”  Instead, it cracks intimacy wide open: “just she and he: see, this arouses fear”!

Fear. Not just in the sense of scaring us, though relationship can certainly do that. But in the sense of reverence and awe. This bears paying attention to.

Have you ever felt it, that moment with a person you may not even know very well, when a piece of information or a revelation of inner self is given up? When some boundary is crossed, willingly, and what opens up is a whole new kind of spaciousness? I’d felt that, in glimmers, in moments that were later—through death or heartbreak or betrayal—snatched away. And I think what I heard that morning, and why it made me weep, saved my life. Oh, I would’ve continued existing without it, but it made relationship possible in ways I had never known.

Here’s the entire poem, with thanks to Dan Clendenin at Journey with Jesus.

Annunciation to Mary

The angel’s entrance (you must realize)
was not what made her frightened. The surprise
he gave her by his coming was no more
than sun or moon-beam stirring on the floor
would give another, — she had long since grown
used to the form that angels wear, descending;
never imaging this coming-down
was hard for them. (O it’s past comprehending,
how pure she was. Did not one day, a hind
that rested in a wood, watchfully staring,
feel her deep influence, and did it not
conceive the unicorn, then, without pairing,
the pure beast, beast which light begot, — )
No, not to see him enter, but to find
the youthful angel’s countenance inclined
so near to her; that when he looked, and she
looked up at him, their looks so merged in one
the world outside grew vacant, suddenly,
and all things being seen, endured and done
were crowded into them: just she and he
eye and its pasture, visions and its view,
here at the point and at this point alone:-
see, this arouses fear. Such fear both knew.

From The Life of Mary by Rainer Maria Rilke – From Selected Work, Vol. II Poetry, translated by J.B. Leishman, Hogarth Press, © 1960.


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The Unbaked Pies

Illustration by Russ Ando

Illustration by Russ Ando


This essay first appeared in the 12/27/96 issue of East Bay Express.  Eighteen years later, on the 5th day of Christmas,  it feels as much a seasonal post as anything new I might write. 



A week before Thanksgiving, and I’m making a list. Canned pumpkin. Evaporated milk. Nutmeg, allspice, and – after double-checking the cupboard – cinnamon: spices I won’t use again until next year. I flip through The Joy of Cooking to a page stained with flour and butter, and after reviewing Basic Pie Crust, lift the sack of flour next to the Special K to feel if there’s enough in it. There is. I multiply all amounts by three, stick the list to the refrigerator, and decide to go to the store one day on my way home from work. I’ll make the crust dough on Tuesday night so it can chill, and do the baking on Wednesday. I’ll find a flat box to carry the pies to Redwood Center, a resident drug rehab program, on Thursday morning before going to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. That’s the plan.

But the list stays on the refrigerator, where I forget it each morning as I leave for work and avoid it when I get home. Its six ingredients stare at me—“evap milk,” canned pump,” “Crisco,” and the three spices—familiar in my own handwriting but somehow foreign, too, as I feel increasingly uneasy about not following through on my own good intentions. And then, on Monday night, with only one shopping day left, I know why. The image rises in my mind: a group of men, standing in the sunshine on the front steps of Redwood Center, smoking and joshing nervously as they wait for visiting relatives. I see myself drive up, greet them, carry the pies indoors. I see myself leave, lifting my hand to signal good-bye, good luck, and pulling my car up the hill to head north toward the freeway, to drive away alone. My brother won’t be there to fidget, to hug me, to eat my pies. He’s the reason I’ve written down those ingredients and planned this baking session, and he’s the reason—I suddenly realize, as I pull the list from the magnet – that I can’t go through with it.

Four years ago, my brother was a resident at Redwood Center. He’d been in rehab before, but this was the first program he took seriously. I drove down to spend Thanksgiving Day with him, and we talked, for the first time in years, about our nervousness around each other, about our mutual hurt and love, about our childhoods. It was the first time we were able to connect in many years. He was sober, clean of alcohol and cocaine for two months that day, and his racing adrenaline, his nervous jumpiness, had slowed down. What he called his humor mask had slipped, and he was just himself—gentle and sweet and a pleasure to be around. We hiked behind the center and played badminton outside the main build. We sat on a picnic table and talked. We hugged, and cried, and we laughed and cried some more. Relief and joy coursed through me that day. I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving, but that year was the best ever, and it had nothing to do with turkey. That year I had my brother back.

My brother had been using drugs – every day, he told me – since he was fourteen. He was then 25. As we climbed the hill behind Redwood Center, ducking beneath low madrone branches and pushing past manzanita, he explained to me one of the lessons his recovery had taught him: that his maturity had been stunted at the age he started using. He was physically 25 and emotionally fourteen. That’s why, he told me, he was lashing out sometimes, impatient other times. “I’m still an adolescent,” he said, with a rueful but not sad smile. “I’m making up for lost time.” He explained how the security of Redwood Center had helped him in this, helped him to feel safe. “Out there,” he said – and we both knew he meant our family living room as well as the streets – “I don’t have that safety, I’d be too tempted to get high as a way of dealing.”

I thought of how a psychotherapist had once told me, “You can’t have a relationship with your brother because your brother is an addict, and an addict loves only thing: his drug.”   Her words had seemed so harsh when I first heard them, but now I recognized their truth. I thought of all my short-lived romantic relationships, my unstaunchable sadness and loneliness, and thought how I too had been held back for all those years by loving someone who couldn’t love me back.

My brother died three years ago next month. After Redwood Center, he relapsed onto the streets and into crime and crack, and then found another good program, a program that supported his struggle for sobriety for several months before he slipped again—over the holidays in 1993. His sobriety ended, again, but the connection we reforged that Thanksgiving Day at Redwood Center did not weaken: over long-distance collect phone calls from street corners and jails, over diner breakfasts and sushi dinners, we talked and shouted and swore and cried and laughed. Until the day he died, we were back in each other’s lives again.

I think about the men in Redwood Center this year, catching up with their demons, and would like to feed them something homemade, a sweet tasty pie baked in a crust rolled out by hand. I don’t like backing down on my good intentions. But as I stand in the kitchen holding my crumpled shopping list, I remember those years of silence and anger and confusion and desperation. His, OK—but mine too. I remember watching my brother across a holiday dinner table to see if he would meet my eyes, and I know I’m angry again. Angry at him for dying, for not staying clean, for leaving me. I’m tired of being the good girl, of doing the right thing, of putting out effort for someone who isn’t even alive anymore. There’s a whole piece of loving an addict, a chunk of anger and resentment that buildings from watching the one you love slowly kill himself. This piece doesn’t negate or deny the love, but sits right next to it – a hard, black nugget. It’s rough-edged and painful and not pretty, but claiming that nugget has something to do with being able to move on, a move I have dreaded since that day I first knew I’d have to do it.

There are thousands of addicts in the Bay Area this holiday season, and there are the people who love them. For alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer at a crowded AA meeting, there is a mother who is trying to keep the turkey from drying out, worrying that there will not be enough under the tree and that her daughter will show up high to Christmas dinner or husband sneak a drink at the neighborhood open house. For every junkie skulking in a doorway, there is a son who sits quietly through the family meal, stomach in a knot, because he wants to throw a plate against the wall and yell at the sister who is using, the mother who pretends everything is fine. Our pain is quieter than the destructiveness and rage of the addicts and alcoholics we love, and it shapes us into who we are. We don’t crash cars or break into liquor stores or hide cocaine in the underwear drawer. We maintain. We are used to maintaining.

And maybe, just maybe, that maintaining can move into forgiveness. Once again this year, my parents and I sit together and remember the son and brother who made us laugh, whose eyes sparkled with humor and kindness, who woke me every Christmas morning of our childhood so neither of us would be first at the tree, who smiled at me over the passed Brussels sprouts. Once again I look at the picture taken at Redwood Center four years ago, of my brother and me standing next to the madrone and manzanita, and I remember the words with which we found our way back to each other. And, throughout the holidays, I think of how many of us there are, working hard as we trim the tree and light the candles, as we close our eyes and whisper our prayers and wishes, as we roll out pie crust and open greeting cards, as we stand together in our invisible circle of silent, resilient love.IMG_0867










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Why Manzanita?

I just spent four days in silence.  Every year, I load up the car with warm comfy clothing, good walking shoes that can get wet, ample reading material, knitting, my rosary beads (the Anglican rosary, which I’ve been carrying around for almost twenty years) and prayer book, and drive up to Healdsburg.  To, specifically, the Bishop’s Ranch on the west side of Healdsburg, in the Russian River valley.  This year, it poured rain pretty much nonstop, a welcome saturation in these years of drought, for those above flood level at least.  I arrived at the Ranch around four o’clock on Sunday, and feasted my eyes on the green and my ears on the quiet.

Look at all that GREEN!

Look at all that GREEN!

It’s an odd thing, to choose to spend time this way.  Intentional silence is so utterly alien to most of our lives, even for those of us who—alone in the house or car— often choose quiet.  I turn on music or the radio occasionally and check my email at red lights just like the rest of you.  And it’s not as if silence is purely silent, anyway, right?  Silence is full of sound, depth and texture.  Often, that sound is the chatter in my own mind– talking, ruminating, cross-examining, pondering.  And during times of despair, worry, and anxiety, that chatter can be so much more painful when surrounded by quiet.  Without distraction, the fretting mind goes into overdrive.  Nothing peaceful in that.

Silence doesn’t necessarily bring bliss—or perfection or even spiritual elevation.  I thought uncharitable thoughts about my fellow retreatants, just little nitpicky things that, in the full light of silence, came to stark relief against my knowing (and wanting) better.  Silence isn’t always full of love.  But it does burn away a certain level of dross in our lives, a kind of refining fire.  I also sat with people I see only during this week each year, and yet I feel closer to them than to many people I talk to regularly all year long.  Silence in community breeds a deep intimacy, a sweet sweet fellowship.  Why are we so afraid of it?  I know I am, rushing to fill any gap in conversation, especially when I’m with someone I don’t know very well, and yet I soak this experience up the way a blotting paper absorbs ink.

Each morning, I walked the trails on the ranch.  Rain, mud, grazing cattle, rushing creeks.  As I neared the top of one of the hills, I spotted a manzanita tree and smiled in recognition.  Here, too, was a companion from years past, a companion in silence.  I went over to touch its smooth, wet bark, to see the new glossy reddish-brown layer being revealed under the scab of last year’s bumpy black bark.  It felt like wood, yes–like a banister or a walking stick–but almost imperceptibly I could feel the life inside it.  I felt a little silly, and a bit like some caricature of a woman on spiritual retreat, palming the bark of trees, and yet it felt like the only thing I wanted to do that moment.

Manzanita along Turtle Creek

I also worked on jigsaw puzzles and splashed in puddles, the way I had as a child, walking home from school on rainy days.  With the luxury of dry socks and shoes in my room, and hot water in the shower, I let my feet get deliciously wet.  I made craftsy projects–gifts, bookmarks, note cards, stars to hang from fish wire in the chapel.  I got smears from pastels and glue sticks on my fingers, glitter in my hair and the fabric of my pants.  Hours slipped by.

So back to the question.  Why manzanita?  It’s the tree pictured as the background to this website, and I chose it with a kind of inevitability.  I don’t recall when I learned to distinguish a manzanita from, say, a bay or an oak or a madrone.  Growing up, I knew them all by sight but I rarely cared about the names, relying on plants more for what they could be used for–sour grass for sucking the stems, miner’s lettuce for chewing the leaves, ice plant bunches for tossing in hopscotch (much better than rocks because ice plant stays where it lands).  It’s the name, too, the musicality of the word, and that gorgeous reddish brown color.  It speaks of California to me, to the hillsides where you round a bench or reach a summit and there, a familiar friend, it is.

What about you?  What tree or plant feels special to you?  And what have you learned from silence?

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