Finished with the Inquiry

(i)

We hollow rotten wood from the west-facing wall of the barn and suddenly reach the nineteenth century frame. We are quiet before the hand-carved joinery, the massive beams resting on stones so large and heavy they were surely dragged by oxen. When at last we speak, our sentences are short and efficient, as befits men who have caught a glimpse of what language can only hint at.

(ii)

Yet later, out front, reframing the rickety stairs, we end up talking about farmers we knew in the early 1970s, men our fathers called to build pole barns and haul calves from struggling cows, who could measure with their eyes a 32nd of an inch, and for whom a team of oxen would stop, turn and start again on syllables so gently uttered it is hard to imagine a less-adorned intimacy. We agree that we were fortunate to know these men, and the world they made that was even then departing, and wonder what, if anything, we might have done to preserve it. It quiets us, our complicity. How blunt our hands are! And how elaborate the semantics by which we justify their emptiness.

(iii)

Main Street – which is behind us as we work – runs west and east on a slow curve, like a resting bow or a woman’s shoulder. Scudding clouds forecast rain; the north wind is voluble and cold.

(iv)

She lives at a distance which saddens me, a grief made starker by her poems. When I am sad I consent to longing, which is to deny the boundaries and constraints that naturally attend existence. In time the longing becomes bitter, and the bitterness becomes toxic. It takes a long time to walk off one’s dream of a different woman and a landscape in which loving her is viable. You have to ask what makes a dream like that possible. You have to go very deep into loneliness, very deep into despair. You have to find out what necessity truly is. And when it is time to come back, you have to come back, whether you are finished with the inquiry or not.

(v)

In time my feet hurt so I take the road that was made to lead me home. Chrisoula sits on the stairs, hands folded on her lap in the dusk, and rises to greet me. “Thank you for fixing everything,” she whispers; her hair smells like smoke and sage and something fainter I cannot say. I want to spill my unworthiness here. I want to tell her my life is a series of losses and betrayals no measure of love can either halt or redeem. But my tongue as always fails me. My beginning and my end remain hidden, unmapped.

(vi)

We go inside and sit at the table. Our reflection in the windows is wavery and thin; we hold hands saying grace. “Bless this bounty and may we not forget those whose hunger tonight will not be met.” Do you know how sometimes when there is no light you can still find the way? “Forgive us our sins that we might in turn forgive one another.” The bread steams when I lay the knife against it. “By your mercy are we fed, by your justice do we live.” I fill Chrisoula’s plate with food; I fill my children’s plates with food. “Alleluia, alleluia.” Amen.

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The Only Monastery That Will Have Me

(i)

We try to gather all the apples but of course you cannot gather all the apples.

(ii)

In the morning, tracks of animals weave in and out of our little orchard as if to make clear how confused we are. How hungry we are and how lost? Well, hand-in-hand anyway, like dolls who don’t know who made them. The geese cry out as they pass overhead, their guttural cries as deep and wild as the sea our ancestors crossed to get here. A man who can’t remember his dreams has reason to be wary of speech, but on the other hand, the night never passed any quicker than with you.

(iii)

Remember when we used to wonder if we lived under a bushel? Now we wonder if some old woman came by with a lantern and decided we were unworthy. Asleep when we were supposed to be awake? These roads were last paved in the 1960s, and the bells do grow silent when I step into the steeple’s shadow. Morning passes trying to get the old Massey-Ferguson to start, and when it does, you realize it’s too late to start haying. You and the neighbors can’t agree if it rained last night – you are pretty sure it rained – but who can forget the story of the day their father died?

(iv)

A riddle: say that when you open your mouth, instead of words, little glass rainbows – like tear-shaped prisms – tumble into your open hands. You can’t hold them all, and you can’t kneel to gather those that fall because you’re afraid of losing even more. Are these gifts to be given away or is somebody trying to tell you something important about your heart?

(v)

Distance is a word that explains what we can act on, or what we are in relationship with and so might choose to act or be acted upon by, but “far away” is a story we tell so that our attention won’t wander when we need it most.

(vi)

When I look up, the field is full of shoulder-high goldenrod swaying in an August breeze. Yellow was the answer just long enough to clarify that yellow – like red and blue and purple before it – is never the answer. My feet are shoeless and pale, like a blind man’s idea of the moon, or like walking’s idea of a loveless marriage. When I look up again, my daughter is talking quietly to a horse, and the horse is listening as if to a secret, as if to a language it never imagined it would hear again.

(vii)

My throat is falling snow, my tongue is a russet glow in the hemlocks, and January is the chapel where I was taught to pray without anybody noticing. It comes to this, for those of us to whom it comes. Godless and alone, and happier than the tribal scriptures implied was possible, I turn back to the only monastery that will have me.

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When Isn’t August A Love Note

(i)

I remember waking to chicken feet scattered through dewy grass, and I remember long nights of howls that even now haven’t ended. What is the purpose of psychological pain? Who doesn’t want the address of the interior Cartesian Theater so they can burn the damn thing down? The chickens did not willfully climb into the coyote’s waiting teeth and whatever the moon wants, it does not want for canine wails. This is for those of us who leaned on the window sill praying, who knew that life was utterly neutral, and that neutral was as close to fair as anyone with an imaginal soul could get.

(ii)

Well, the lilies are mostly gone and we are nearly ready to bathe ourselves in the streaming light of the Perseids. May all beings be safe and happy, preferably snuggling on back yard blankets under skies of trailing fire! When isn’t August a love note from the one who sees us through winter? Tractors pulling hay wagons back slowly into the barn, and we set up the radio to listen to the Red Sox while sitting on the back porch. Moths flutter around the Coleman lantern, a reminder we have entered that stage where you no longer need to touch to touch. And down by the horses, the kids’ voices float through the dusk like strings of holiday light. Perhaps it is the stars who gaze at us and not the other way around after all.

(iii)

In the hay loft at night, thin bands of moonlight extend across part of the floor, and you sit quietly pretending not to notice them. Was it always like this to fall in love? To notice beauty, to long to possess beauty, and then to let beauty pass because what else is possible in the world of coming-and-going? All that persists is the reference point, by which all else is made relative. Or something like that.

(iv)

There was an enormous quartz rock in the pasture and when the sun was just so in the sky the glassy stone would light up with shimmering rainbows, lovelier than church and more stable than any breathing. Later there were words, and later yet, sentences, but even now the vast interior library is simply a record of what light insists is possible. What can be said has been said a thousand times but even the author of Ecclesiastes found a reason to say it again. This is for those who study, who leave home to become students, and who eventually disappear while seeking increasingly obscure – but not unfructive – texts.

(v)

Chrisoula knows I am writing and brings me coffee – black with a little stevia – in the hand-made mug I bought for her at the Snow Farm seconds sale two, maybe three Christmases past. Briefly I set aside the world – which is this writing, this way – to say thank you: thank you: thank you.

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These Sentences, These Penances

East, with what passes for wings. Mist rises off the turnpike, especially in the middle of the state where forest is still abundant. Distance is a comfort because it reminds us somehow of time. Washing the rice, soaking the rice, steaming the rice, and later eating the rice with salty eggplant and homebrew teriyaki. Hints of the sea are never not abundant: scrub pine on 495 South, texts about an extra room on the Cape, shells on family graves (distributed when we buried Dad). The guy mowing pauses but you wave him on: this is going to take a while. Thank Christ for thought or else the mechanics – of grief, of sex, of writing non-discrimination policies – would be too damn terrifying. Ordering a bagel and iced coffee for the drive home, fingering a smooth nautilus, Avalanche a not-unwelcome ear worm. The lie is an invention of the truth, so that the truth can expand its understanding? Or are we subject to dominion by that which is not yet – and may never be – entirely known? I was comforted by a crow that circled the cemetery, choked up when Chrisoula called as I was re-entering west-bound traffic. What matters and what doesn’t matter doesn’t actually matter, and yet. There are these sentences, these penances. There is this woman saying I’m home.

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Beneath a Chalice

There is a way the butterfly – a swallowtail – appears to fall into the faint pink morning glory rising from tangled forsythia near the barn. One watches and thinks again of the dream from a few night’s back – in which one asks why is experience subjective and realizes instantly it is not.

Combing through deadfall apples in tall grass, thinking of winter waffles covered with melted butter and warm sauce. Another night of poor sleep, this time owing to dogs howling at a distance, triggering a neural interstice that says “check on the livestock” who, as it turns out, are sitting quietly, only mildly interested in my visit. And yet the moon does seem to pass through the sky and sink into the horizon and reappear hours later opposite. Stars do not sustain the darkness, nor is darkness what makes them possible. When Ramana Maharshi died, why didn’t the inclination to write about him also die?

And so one begins at last to see the way in which metaphors and analogies only cloud what is otherwise clear. How else could we long for what we cannot have? All you need to know about the image is that it is always a reflection.

Children’s voices rise softly next door after their parents fight about money, finding their way back to what passes for normalcy (in days and nights such as these). We pause when the church bells ring, then carry on with what we were saying which, hours later, is forgotten. Bright yellow lilies near the barn, as big as two hands cupped beneath a chalice, make it hard to pass without stopping. Time is what fills up with what appears, that’s all.

Glancing at Patchen, that lovely line from In Shadings of an Obscure Punishment that goes “I watch my life choose its own awakening.” Hugging a woman with wet hair and no regrets. Driving past Sawyer Farm where wild turkeys graze just-mowed fields where forty years ago our cows summered to come back pregnant. Of course a heart cannot break.

Your father is still dead but fathers are not dead and you too are a father. This is what Sunday looks like when you know there is nobody watching.

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Songs for the Man Without Ears to Hear

Yet what is the nature of willingness? Of justice or love? What does it mean to say God is neither trivial nor real? Just after dawn I take a hot black coffee out back and scuff through fallen apples, making a brief but intense study of red. Machines don’t do better but they do go faster, obviating those of us disposed to linger. There are seams in the door to the hay loft, each bleeding prisms of light, as if this or any other journey were capable of ending. There were days when all that mattered was the sound a woman’s shirt made falling to the floor. Wordless prayers? Prayerless hymns? Well, songs for the man without ears to hear anyway. I walk to the river where the ghost of Heraclitus presumes a familiar argument. I ignore him, remove my feet and knees and ankles, and continue dissembling what remains of intent.

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Mute Offers Crackling Like Lightening

What Lilla Watson said – “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” The students stay with me for two hours, no breaks, all of us pushing hard on the God question, the being good question, the getting it clear question. My exhaustion when we finally stop makes them laugh. Earlier I noticed buttercups absent from the meadow, the replanted fir tree alive but leaning. Elm and maple logs I should sell or split or maybe just leave to the slow burn of time. We who are haunted by honey bees that died in hives we were unprepared to care for . . . You can ruin anything – a sentence, a sandwich, a marriage, a dog. Ferns on the west side of the house are thick and luscious, hinting at how to finish what keeps you from the work of love. A long letter unsent, a simple prayer unsaid. The ones who think I have something they don’t linger after, mute offers crackling like lightening. How can I explain? Whatever happened is gone, and whatever will happen is gone as well. The woman who taught me not to fear my poverty lays down with me beneath a cross that is little more than splinters. It hurts but we are not cold. For all our lives alone.

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Somebody Out There Bereft

A little rain falls while Finnie and Chrisoula feed the chickens, their voices soft in the soft summer rain. The way life can at times be a wordless song, a just-bearable sweetness. What is it about reciprocity that matters? Or seems to matter? How readily we slip into the conditional mode, as if the Lord ever withheld anything . . .  One’s study turns now to the gift they were given in creation, and the way in which they can no longer avoid the call to extend it. You have nothing but that which you give away? Or did we only dream there was somebody out there bereft? Writing all morning about how to write about that which cannot be written about, a paradox that yields to love, which is to say, there is nothing to be solved and we are the ones who solved it. What are peonies after all but holiness showing up as peonies? What is Christ if Christ is not the buttercups? Be kind, and if you can’t be kind, be still, and if you can’t be still, then don’t worry about it. Yesterday I went to the river and learned there was no river. Today I am being carried away to the sea.

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The Landscape Together

An oven mitt made in Guatemala that somehow ended up hanging on the wall in the hay loft where most but not all of my writing is done. Icarus falls and dies in the sea, but his death was preventable or, at a late (but not too late) juncture, has become so. I remember walking the hot streets of Jerusalem, lonely to the point of tears, and sad that one who was so unhappy at home should be so homesick when so far away from home. Chrisoula asks me to drive with her to Grace Hill Farm and I do – we park in a little cut, she goes inside to buy cheese, milk and butter, leaving me transfixed by a red-and-yellow wind spinner stirring in the breeze. Plans for the second vegetable garden begin to take shape now the strawberry beds are settled. We go out often in the morning before the heat rises and study the landscape together, often without really talking. We are of one mind but of course it is possible to make both too much of this and too little. Attendant risks abound but love abides no caution! Visiting the river near dusk one notices the eddies are like gold and silver threads raveling and unraveling on a swift dark surface. This loveliness is like bread to me: a single crumb is equivalent to a thousand years of prayer.

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Maybe We Are Simply Lifted

The given is merely what is present. Precedent?  All morning on my knees in the new strawberry beds, stopping now and then to watch cowbirds pick through the pasture, turkey vultures execute their broad slow circles through the sky. The buttercups, the phlox, the honey bees and milkweed. Nothing exists – can be experienced – outside the circumference of cause and effect. The plants are thin with broad leaves and already fruiting. Towering cumuli where the Lord once lived, where the meritorious dead went after the earth became inhospitable. Where we trip, where we fall, and where we push ourselves back up. Or maybe we are simply lifted by one who isn’t troubled by our ingratitude and ignorance. The dark nights of Thérèse were about as surprising as mushrooms after it rains, but on the other hand, she knew what the priests could only pretend to know because they’d been taught how to say it. That which is planted, grows, that which grows, fruits, and that which fruits, dies. God is the common denominator in human experience – that which all humans recognize, regardless of what they call it, or whether they bother with naming it all. Late but not too late a requisite orthopraxy offers itself. “Read me closely,” says Thérèse, her voice dreamy and clear. The strawberry plants will need rain. Rain falls. Look! A word is missing and for once it’s not my job to find it.

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