What Is Real
Flesh or cloth or water or wind
hair or feathers or rock
curve of the horns
our reaction to anecdote
There are trees, flowers, crags
there is a river
a spring with rocky basin
full of crystaline water
understood in its essence
the cult of chastity
I began this post the day after Thanksgiving, when my world had returned to its normal pace. Already I miss the slow ease of Thanksgiving day, the mysterious quiet outside. Tim joked that everyone he saw when he walked the dog that day looked shady. It is a small puzzle to think about who is outside on the day when most people are lounging on couches, munching peanuts, catching up with each other, everyone waiting for the feast.
Enough talk about food! Although some would say there is never enough. And since I find myself curiously attracted to Italians and partial Italians in this lifetime, most of my reading audience may feel this way. I don't know what this friends collection of mine is about. Also weird is that almost every one of my best friends went to Catholic church growing up, a fact that I find eerily wondrous. I mean, what is it about saints, or guilt (ha!) that attracts me?
Okay, enough talk about Catholicism, too. After my previous post about gospel music, Jesus, and activism, I feel a little sheepish. It is always a little difficult for me to own my fascination with religion, for a number of reasons. The first is that religion is such a personal topic, and is often handled so clubbishly - by which I mean, people either swing it around in a threatening way, or bonk you over the head with it, with their literalism, or lack of subtlety.
But I know that my objection to too much discussion of religion has something to do most of all with the technicalities of language. In pre-wedding counseling sessions, my dear family friend, Molly, the Presbyterian pastor who married Tim and I, told us that one of the biggest challenges in any relationship is finding the right language so that you know what the heck the other person really means when you are talking. Every couple has to do this, she said, but for two writers (writers being something both Tim and I consider ourselves, on good days), the challenge of finding the right words will possibly be even more difficult.
I love this woman. I always have. She has snow white hair and the bluest eyes, and has painted the dining room of her house an improbably deep royal blue. Some things easily impress me, like the fact that she put out cheese straws and bourbon-coated pecans during one of our pre-wedding meetings, and, when Tim and I squeezed in a cross-country trip to her mountain home in North Carolina in order to make it to one of our three required counseling sessions, and arrived at 9p.m. in time for a black-out, we were greeted by Molly and her husband, who was fresh from an ice-cold shower. We all warmed ourselves by a fire and talked in the dark until it was time to turn in for the night.
I willingly admit to being skittish about marriage. I am skittish about most things I really care about - yoga, writing, even friendship - anything that forces me to put my tender heart on the line. But when I start to focus on the perils of marriage, moments like this one line up in my mind, rows and rows of grace-filled artworks bearing witness to the magic I've stumbled across by the moonlight of my relationship.
Back to semantics, for a pinch. I now recall that even Molly and I disagreed about the wording of one line in our marriage service and we debated it for nearly thirty minutes one day. This was the day before Tim arrived at the wedding site, so it was just Molly and I seated in her home study. (Well, Molly was seated. I squatted on the ground in Malasana, propping my elbows on the inside of my knees, crouching my hips close to the ground so that they would not lock up in all the stress of planning, negotiating schedules, and balancing the various visions for the wedding day.)
Molly and I went back and forth, back and forth, trying to edit the last line of the final prayer so that it resonated with my...I want to say beliefs, but truly, it was my sense of poetry. We couldn't get it right. We couldn't rewrite it so that we were both happy with it, and every time I said, Oh, just go with the original, and she read it back to me, I made a face like a child forced to eat spinach. We finally gave up and just cut the line entirely.
In B.K.S. Iyengar's book, Light on Life, he says that he avoids using the word "soul" before a certain point in his writing because, he writes, "The word Soul usually has such strong religious connotations that people either accept or dismiss it without reflection." Aside from Mr. Iyengar's jubilant mug plastered on the front cover, his caterpillar eyebrows and warrior-like necklaces, there is much to admire about this book. (Though I admit to using the book as a poster of sorts in my kitchen. When people call, I say that I'm having tea with B.K.S. and will have to call them back. The book cover is also inspiring me to someday rock three initials plus a surname. So badass!)
In this one statement, Mr. I. has said it all. He has especially summed up how I feel about discussing church and using the words Jesus, Christian, even words like Yoga or Vegetarian, in casual conversation. Because if we don't have all the minutes we need to have to go into our personal definitions of those words, are we really having a conversation? Or are we throwing out words like rockets, that may shoot past someone's head, their eyes glazed, or shoot right into their heart, making accidental friends out of a misunderstanding.
When I say the word Jesus, I know it means a very different thing to some people than it does to me. I realize that sounds incredibly, stupidly obvious. But I think that is one of the miracles of life - that meaning is so personal, that language is both pliant and historical. That the bible can be alive, so to speak, just as any book of poetry can be.
I didn't realize that I wanted to talk so much about my wedding experience, but another anecdote comes to mind. Nearly a year before the wedding itself, my mother bid on a cake for us. I don't know how it worked, exactly, except that a very talented woman offered her services at a silent auction. I like to picture my mother lunging for this particular sign-up sheet like a crazed woman at a sample shoe sale. In any case, Tim and I had our cake made by this very talented woman, and when I met with her at her home, along with my mother, to discuss what kind of cake I wanted, she sat me down and looked me in the eyes. I also like to pretend that she held my hands at this moment, but that's not true. It was just a very intense moment. She held my gaze and told me in stony dedication that she takes the sacrament of marriage very seriously, and that she treats the cake as part of the wedding day sacrament. I nodded along, imaginarily took my hands back from hers, and went back to the photo album of cakes she has made throughout the years.
When we got into the car and pulled away from the house, my mother apologized to me. "I had no idea she was going to say all that about the sacrament," she said. My brain was awash with cake flavors, icing patterns, and big fondant bows. Then I remembered the weird intensity of the hand-holding moment. (See? I can't let it go.) But it hadn't bothered me. I have learned to translate the language of Christian tradition to something that makes sense in my life, in my heart. Sometimes it doesn't take much of a change to make sense of the wording, but it is this translation that feeds me in church services, that makes it possible for me to even attend many.
At this point in my life, I would not be caught dead using the word sacrament, because it doesn't have a real meaning to me. It is a hand-me down word, one given from formal elders that I don't know well enough. But I also take very seriously what happened during the service on my wedding day. I think of it as an alchemical transpiration. All the things that were ostensibly the same after our wedding were, internally, undeniably different.
And it had to do not just with the words that we exchanged, or the blessings Molly bestowed upon us, or the music that swelled in my body as we sang, although of course it had to do with all those things. But it had just as much to do with the rows and rows of relatives and friends lining the pews of the church, and with the eyes of my little cousin (now a big man, and a father himself) watering as my father and I walked down the aisle, and with the flowers spread like a garland forest around the choir loft, and my sweet sisters trembling in the line next to us, perhaps remembering their own vows, or simply bearing witness to the divine frailty that braids with love in commitment. Whatever you want to call it, something holy filled the room. Even if it was the promise of chilled wine waiting for us in the garden when the service ended. I count it all holy.
The poem above is a found poem, one owed to my dear friend Corinne, for whom I once made a collage and, embarrassed, never gave to her. It is in a pile of things to send out to friends across the country. What can I say? Things happen slowly for me. But it is a relief that the things I care about keep circling and circling in my heart. I only wish I could gather them all at once. But they are patient, so patient. They stand when they are finally called. I am starting to understand that the heart cannot betray us. It is only the other way around.