Tag Archives: poetry

I Will Not Let Thee Go Except Thou Bless Me

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. —Søren Kierkegaard

I left organized religion many years ago, but religion has not left me.

Growing up, I was taught to give thanks in all situations and to pray without ceasing, for this is the will of God through Jesus Christ.

To pray without ceasing is a difficult habit to cultivate and an even harder habit to break.

Anne Lamott says there are three prayers every person should learn: “help,” “thanks,” and “wow.”  And I agree with her that fostering interdependence, gratitude and awe is a humbling and worthwhile practice, whether or not we believe in a literal God.

But prayers are so much more than an expression of intent; prayers are a vibration, like poetry and music, and there are as many vibrations as there are art forms to express our range of human emotions. There are prayers of supplication, prayers for comfort and love, prayers for rescue and mercy and healing, both for ourselves and for others. Some prayers are like breathing, some are like listening, and some raise up your hands like a flamingo, whether or not you emit praise.

But the hardest prayers to give up are the conversational ones, the ones where we simply commune with God, about our day, about the minutiae of our microscopic participation in the world as we know it, where we unwittingly define and share our values, softly appealing to a higher perspective.

Talking to God is not the same as talking to yourself. It’s more like looking for yourself.

Giving up prayer like that is like losing your best friend.

One of the uniting principles of the upper chakras is communication, which is an act of connection. We take patterns of thought and make them specific through the process of naming. And prayer is a type of naming, focusing our consciousness by drawing limits around the context of our prayer, why it is this and it is not that. To pray is to clarify a thought, to set boundaries, to specify what we value by naming what we want or need. Praying gives structure and meaning to our thoughts, rather than random ruminating or otherwise spinning around our own manic mind-talk.

When I left the Organization, I wanted a blessing on my way out. I wanted someone from the family I grew up with to believe good things could happen to me while not wrapped in the confines of that particular subculture. I wanted someone to let me go with a handshake or a hug. Actually, even a nod or a wave would have been welcome. I wanted someone to wish that the road would rise up to meet me.

I spent years wrestling with that one, and it never came.

The sound of grief, like the sound of prayer, has a distinct force and vibration, and this vibration exists through all form of matter, energy and consciousness. In fact, the Hindus believe that vibration, working through various levels of the density of audible sound, is the basic emanation from which matter was created.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, ”I will not let thee go except thou bless me.”

When I left for college, and first heard the scientific rationale for atheism, I began to shift my belief system to accommodate these supported truths. Eventually, education would lead me to develop a new understanding of concepts like neighbors and moral responsibility, as well as community and belonging, widening my interpretation of ecumenical and congregation to center around connection rather than separation, and to privilege love over fear and guilt.  

I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in prayer. And when I think of family, I know I would still wrestle an angel for their blessing.

 

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The Bible – Part I

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium.” Maxine Hong Kingston

When I was eight years old, I read the King James Bible cover to cover. I did this in secret, at night with a pen light, cross-referencing, marking up passages I felt were contradictions, as if constructing a map for a prison escape.

I was traveling with my maternal grandparents, my biological father, and 70 young men across the country for 10 weeks, performing in a play called Penniless. My mother wasn’t with us, but I was held tight under the umbrella of the rules under which she had been born. She believed in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and ordered by his own father to suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, dead and buried. She believed, like Abraham, she was called to sacrifice her children as a testament to her devotion to our Lord. In exchange, God would bless her, and multiply her seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and her seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.

My mother considered her children lilies of the field, which God would provide for, in his own way and time.

I didn’t have formal schooling past the second grade, and I travelled in the margins of mainstream culture for the rest of my childhood. When I was a young adult, in college and graduate school, I often felt like I was digging myself out of an insurmountable hole. I had no context for pop culture references, had missed the songs and sounds and trends of my youth, the films and albums and actors and musicians upon which generational identities are formed. I didn’t know basic U.S. history, had never memorized the names of presidents, the years of wars, or the capitals of countries or states. All I really had was the word of God inside me. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

Ruth, my maternal grandmother, spoke often of the seven seals of the apocalypse, so we would be prepared for the end of times. She taught me about the sixth seal, the great earthquake, the sun black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon as blood. She made me repeat to her about how “the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” And she asked me, when the great day of his wrath is come, how I would be able to stand. I would describe to her how “the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”

I don’t know if I have escaped his wrath. Leaving still feels like the greatest betrayal I have ever committed.

I was taught loyalty to our clan, that my commitment should always be to my people, that “where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

When I was a young adult and left my familial community and religion behind, all these words and images felt like useless knowledge, an esoteric burden strapped to me like a mule.

But lately, I have reconsidered the value of being raised with the Bible as the only book readily available to me. After cultivating a career, a home and a family, I recognize that reading the Bible, memorizing verses, studying the various translations, cross-referencing the gospels with a pen and a concordance, gave me a foundation for the work I do, both in and out of the classroom. 

Eventually, I left my family, but the word hasn’t left me. I carry the cadence of old English inside me. I have an ear for poetry, storytelling, psychology, metaphor, history and Judeo-Christian culture, and I have the discipline to search for slow answers in semiotics. But perhaps most importantly, the Bible taught me “to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”

A former student approached me this week, earnest and intense. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “but I haven’t read the Bible. Do you think that makes me a hypocrite?” I looked at him, assessed what I knew of his academic and career goals, and told him no, I don’t think a belief system is tied to a manuscript, one way or another.

He looked noticeably relieved.

“Nevertheless,” I added, “you’re a philosophy major, with a strong interest in history, politics and literature, and a Biblical context is deeply useful. I recommend you read it.”

“The whole thing?”

“Yes,” I said. “Bits and pieces won’t give you the same perspective.”

“Challenge accepted,” he replied. 

 

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About Art

“Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

― Ayesha Siddiqi

When I was 13, circuitous circumstances led me to seek a bathroom in The National Gallery of Art. Following the guard’s directions, I rushed through the modern wing, when without thinking, I pivoted in front of an oil on canvas. The painting was a monochrome sea of black. I knew nothing about art, had no idea what or who made art, had never known art was even a thing, but in that moment, I couldn’t move. I stood in front of Ad Reinhardt “Abstract Painting, No. 34” for a full 10 minutes, transfixed, lost in the subtle gradations of shadows, while tears dripped into the creases of my mouth, unexpectedly warm and salty. I had no idea why.

I come from a radically conservative family, and art is not something that’s ever been talked about, let alone explored or celebrated. In fact, where I come from, we are so culturally and socially conservative, even religious iconography is shunned. This was the first time I had ever visited a museum, and it was my first time to see art displayed, let alone showcased in a space where it is named and revered. But there I was that summer (after I’d had my spleen removed, newly healthy, sleeping in group tents, traveling by caravan across the country for eight weeks, performing and proselytizing nightly in an ecclesiastical play), seeking to use a bathroom in a big city. There are stories buried deep in the shells of that long, dense summer, packed with conflicting emotions. But it was Abstract Painting No. 34 that showed me the way home.

I knew enough not to talk about what I saw with the faith-based community with whom I travelled. But I held it within me, the rest of the summer, the smell and taste of black, and I began to notice the gradations of hues in the night skies throughout the regions we travelled, through the thick air of the southern nights and the cool northern evenings that welcomed us as we made our way into Canada. I began to notice the intricacies of blue in the daylight and the browns of the earth we slept on. And all these years later, when I ask myself what that painting did to me, why it propelled me to spend the last three decades at the intersection of my personal and professional life extricating myself from my familial roots, I understand how “art” can be used as a compass.

For the sixteenth time, I am teaching a college course in which students curate, edit and publish a literary journal within the context of a creative collective. We talk about what role art serves in our communities, what it means to support artists, how art is made, distributed, seen. And I offer the students a warning from Toni Morrison in  No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear: “Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists. This is the first step of a despot…who know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish.”

What I know now that I didn’t know then, is that as I stood in front of that painting in Washington DC, I was seduced into feeling, not thinking. Curiosity drew me to a canvas vastly different than the classical depictions of realism I passed on my way through the galleries toward the bathroom, but curiosity was only the trigger. I had no idea why someone would paint a canvas black, nor why anyone else would hang it up in a space, heralding it as art, but in that moment, I didn’t even know to ask those questions. In front of that painting, I accepted an invitation to feel.

Art changes us as individuals, and in doing so, changes the outer world we create and share. Inside the intricate dance between artist and viewer, we are invited to feel what we know, and by tasting, hearing, thinking, and seeing in altered ways, we increase our feeling and knowing. It’s not an obvious tool, like a map that clearly shows us where we want to go, but it transports us, nevertheless.

I think about how Abstract No. 34 captured my imagination. Amidst a caravan of followers seeped thick in the mire of original sin, through the darkness of a near-death illness, to a surgery that shifted my life expectancy, to the realization that black absorbs all the colors of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them to the eyes, I let that painting move me. In the weeks after my imagination took hold, I began to compare black to the rigid rules and paradigms of sin and righteousness I had been taught. And I began to envision a way out of my closed compartment, into the hope of a less defined space.

I get it when people say they don’t get art. Sometimes I want to say, getting it isn’t the point. Art enlarges our boundaries, and in doing so, helps us resist oppression, whether internally or externally enforced. Through art, we ask questions too abstract to be quantified within the binary values of capitalism. Reinhardt’s passion and courage inspired me to question my status quo.In the work I now do for a living, I strive to live up to his challenge and become the person I needed when I was young.

 

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Gary Went Missing

Gary had a bad day

so he went into his locker

and he pulled out an old picture of a saint

named Francis of Assisi

who had all sorts of diseases

and thought people were God’s

animals to taint

who made all these

funny speeches about

miracles without leeches

and pretended he had never been to Spain

so he’d get all sorts of free stuff

mostly men and plastic flowers

that he’d throw away and never see again.

Gary liked the window

on the far side

of the kitchen

where the earth held all

its sunlight in his brain.

He would dance around

in nothing

hoping someone saw

the something

of the places that his saint

could never take.

Don’t be a sad boy!

It’s a shame that you’re still living

in the clothes that you first wore when you were born

made of your old life in the room that still surrounds you

where your angels always hang you at the door.

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Recovery

(A SERIES OF POEM’S INSPIRED BY THE RUSSIAN FILM IVAN’S CHILDHOOD)

A Letter From Tarkovsky

Massacre

is all

about

face.

It is

naught

without

analytical

horror

and may

only

reflect

fiction.

In turn,

a mock

life is

unwritten

for.

—–

Soma Sema” (“The Body is a tomb.”)

I invented

a liar–

ragged

limbed.

Little

Ivan.

My torso,

chine,

the

gross

of this

body.

—–

Attack

1.

The sun is

German

wood,

slivered

inflexible

in bulk

in a book.

Ivan is a

Russian

page who

can be

flipped

immovably.

His point

is made

for him

under

static

atmosphere.

His brain

dangles

from it

in a

dead of day

gully.

2.

Somewhere else,

as if

an old man,

he sits

at a

wriggly

writing desk.

He invents

the integrity

of the moon.

3.

Somewhere

the moon

makes

its own

brains

makes

its own

middle

makes

its own

sun.

Somewhere

the moon

moves

the sun

like

Ouija.

Somewhere

the moon

moves

Ivan

like

evening.

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