A kind of life in it

Say a boy, love and duty dimly dawning on him as he grew, resolved to give Christmas gifts to his mother; but every year he found he could only hand her scraps of paper, loose buttons, and pocket lint—these were all he had on him when the time of giving came. Lesson: when you resolve to give a gift, you should resolve to procure one.

I wanted to write daily, or I should have wanted to, not so that I could practice the ex nihilo every night on the spot, but so that I could treat the world as worth remembering. God, you who author the world by perceiving it, teach me the reading of love.


Is my faith dying? Seems likely. It is a property of a dying mind cased in a dying body. Every part of me is mortal; and pitiable I, if it were only for this life that I hoped. But I confessed the resurrection of the dead.


The night tremors have stopped. I desire PhD admissions less ambiguously. A few friends who taught me and who also said kind things to me about philosophy have won me over, for now. On the other hand, everyone—former philosophers, new philosophers, aspiring philosophers, grocers, joggers passing by me—everyone tells me that the job market is terrible and I will probably regret it.

I came to think that the correct standard to apply to one’s PhD hopes was the test of unemployment: if I can’t get a job in the field, after five years of rigmarole, would it have been a mistake, or a chapter in my own proper book? And I came to think I passed the test.

At any rate I am not seeking to return to school lightly. It may of course be foolishness, this flight from plenty into want. But if it is foolishness, it is longstanding and deep-rooted foolishness like an oak of Mamre.


The Advent candles have all burnt down. The baptismal font that I dip my fingers in to make the sign on my way out—this is nearly dry. The consumables of faith depleted, I am living at the edge of the soul.

All this needs replenishing from the living font, living Lord. Gather the grains from many fields, the grapes from many hills. Gather me into the one fold, into the One.


What did I reap today from the gray fields of the world? I noticed, more intently than usual, the two guide dogs on the bus—one nested on its young woman’s lap, curling back to receive her kiss; one visible only as a golden snout protruding over her boots. I saw that my seatmate was scrolling furiously past aunts and presidents, desperate to encounter on her phone the same thing I have always been desperate to encounter on mine, if still unable to name it. When I walked the urban mile down home, it was dark. But I looked up and saw the moon, dim and murky in the clouds, perhaps underwater.

So I came in carrying the sheaves.


There will be more of this, the spirit escaping through the windows and riding a gust to somewhere above the city, while I sink a little deeper into my armchair, swallowing hard through a bad cold, staring blankly at bed unmade and tissues scattered. Waiting for desire to return, to rejoin me to myself. Try to welcome this night, my poor, tired soul, my little weaned child that is with me. Years hence, when the film has had time to develop, you may see that the moment was composed of light.


One thing I asked: to see your beauty. I thought I didn’t. So I started asking for other things. It occurs to me now that the rest of the things, and the rest of the asking, might have been really your beauty.

It occurs to me now that there is almost no amount of linguistic bending, no too obscenely counterintuitive rhetoric that I would not embrace to keep you the object of my longing.


When both parties in a dispute seek the good, and truly acknowledge the good will of the other disputants, and never break off the hope for unity, does it follow that, there, disagreement will proceed in a kind of concord after all? There is no reason to think so. If the dispute is momentous—if it has more than ethical implications, and begins to seem a matter of being and non-being—then the issue may be finally an irrevocable parting, not with tender looks but with stern warnings that life itself is being forfeited. So far forth there is no sign to show that it is not a battle of Whigs and Tories, each tribe against the other. If love can bring about some difference here to show its presence, it must be tears: a clutch in the throat stalls declarations that else were steady.


I might be growing into my self a little, the way you might grow into a set of ears. I am tired, still, but even the ways I am tired are after all my ways, and pretty funny.


Maybe after forty years I will approximate the speech of the one I admired, John Hare: quiet as an untriggered bear trap for as long as he needed; then a river of thought without a ripple atop it. For now I am in conversation more like the bear after it has gnawed its leg off. Keeping my head down I charge on toward some impossible freedom, catching myself in many thickets and breaking free, whirling around to check my progress, whirling back.

There is a kind of life in it.


I was wrong to mock (in some entry that long ago slipped under the waves) the idea of knowing Epic software thoroughly after many years. It may be that nothing but evil—or even perhaps nothing at all—is unworthy of the closest attention you can give it. Only, you must choose to which things you can give it.

Render to the spider’s ways a minute accounting. Learn the sun on the lowest row of shingles outside your window, until you could paint it, if you were a painter. You cannot become an expert in the light on every house’s shingles.

We will see him as he is

We are like these houses sinking under the roofed snow. We are like the bulbs dormant in hard ground. We’re the magi months late for a royal birth, asking directions from every scribe and despot; the mother still learning to hold her child; we’re the child, not thinking, not joying, not loving, but wound in borrowed cloths, learning to be held.

No wonder then if, when a friend asks the state of my soul, I find I do not know it. No wonder if the beautiful word grace sometimes falls on me strange and opaque as a page from a foreign newspaper, or if I cannot remember whether I have seen that star before or whether it is new, or if the simplest greeting from an angel becomes a fearsome riddle.

Curl up in the manger and drift off again. Dream of blue skies over the frozen lakes, an alien music bending air bright. Rest and wait, adding days to every Advent till you wrap the year around in hope’s swaddling. And if today or in some far decade you find the place where he is lying, the promised one, name him Emmanuel. Follow him through the land of Unlikeness.

The November gallery

Looking up from the world and wondering if it has lied to you deeply and consistently—that is not very fun and it may not make you very many friends; worst of all, it is by no means guaranteed to bring any clarity or lead you to any better way. So not only do I expect that many people will prefer to sit and watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory, but I actually sympathize and wonder at times if they have chosen the better part.


So the first capsule of fluoxetine slides down, without triggering violent shudders or other visible signs of vaporizing moral agency. I seem to have a soul still, if I had one before. My prayers are weak, but no weaker. So pride nods to need. So I release another false purity, without loss.


“But only say the word, and I shall be healed.” Does it bother you to pray this again and again, when according to your formula he could remove the need forever with the slightest motion? Why does he not say the word?

Think whether he is not even now saying that word, the word too beautiful to rush. Think whether you did not hear a long, slow vowel sounding yesterday under the crickets and the breeze-rustled leaves; and whether you did not begin saying that word yourself, in the moment before you would have realized it.


(Gen. 22:14)

“The Lord himself will provide the lamb.” With the hope so thin that to speak it aloud is to lie—with the longing that, just after it has been bitterly discarded, is fulfilled: that is how the matter ends. That is the name by which the place is called forever.


I cannot understand myself as a software tester, any more than I could understand my mother as an expert marksman or my father as a rodeo enthusiast. I believe I would look back on twenty years of software testing—if I had to look back on twenty years of software testing—as a long chapter ripped from someone else’s biography.


The old wound is opened. I think again of graduate school in philosophy.

Why? Because of a chance word muttered by an old professor. A grain of sand was resting just out of place. A leaf fell on a lake. A bird perched on the near twig instead of the far.

Pascal: The most important affair in life is the choice of a calling; chance decides it.


There is still so much fear in me and very great uncertainty—I forgot about these rather than overcoming them. But this I believe is the truth: if I were not guided by fear, I would seek the PhD. Once this is seen and said aloud, can we keep on living as if we do not know the way?


Never, except by necessity, to check the page number.
Never, except by necessity, to look in the mirror.
Always to learn the truth cheerfully from another, whether or not I should have known it already.


Lord, as I am anxious, let me be anxious. Let me wake early and grind over again the same unanswerables that woke me yesterday and went with me to work, let me fight for a moment of silence within and see it leak back into noise; let me recall the names of friends and the verses of hymns, and find them colored now with fear; lose me however deeply in the swell—so long as you will it: then the worry beckons calm. And when you no longer will it, I will not resent its removal.


What I have bought for myself with my own money I use sparingly and stingily. I choke a sigh when I notice another using it. But when I am given a gift, I use it when it pleases me to do so and give it to others to use in the same way.

Therefore we call God creator and say that all this comes from someone. And we say also that we should imitate that one, until every atom and every word gleams again, a gift doubly given.


Does the tea shine any less richly amber in his mug? Will the houseplants droop and dry out on the windowsill, in that day when he fails to win a name at Yale or a chapter in the books of philosophers? Or is it instead the case that, when some foreboded failure has arisen and subsided, the squirrels still flit up and down tree trunks outside his house like angels on Jacob’s ladder, attending to work in heaven and on earth? Nature’s friendship is not grudged. The seasons visit him just when they promised to, unembarrassed by the turns his career took. The sun still waves when it passes on its rounds.


Breakfast tomorrow with my aunt; streaks of clouds across the pale sky; my officemate’s friendly joke or my sister’s unexpected visit: nothing in any future of mine will drain these gifts of their meaning. Only let me know it in my present, dear God who loves the now.


This being human is an affair of missing almost everything. Truth swirls past you in bonebreaking eddies; you may feel a breeze. Goodness erupts new each moment from each inch, and you barely sense the warmth.

That is what it is like to live in abundance. Put your hands in the river. Let it run by you. And what you can lift out in that poor mesh of fingers you were given, drink.


Why was I born on this day, at the end of the dreariest month? Was it not that I might learn to pay attention to the ends of dreary months, and see the beauty June babies, maybe, miss? The bare tree brown against the clouds’ soft vault; a subdued lake still lapping quietly before the freeze; the leaves fading and sinking underground—these are the pieces in the gallery to which God brought me, at which God left me. I learned their love.

My grandmother’s passing at 93

November trees clung to their leaves past use,
past color, clouds of mottled brown
hung along the highway I drove down
to her deathbed. “Why not let them loose,”
I said to the branches, “since they’ve faded?
Is it dread of the oncoming cold
that so lengthens your hold
on a cover already degraded?”

They made no reply aloud, but swayed
and bowed together, branch with leaf.
I understood: time’s reprieve being brief,
trees would bear their leaves long as they stayed,
and find in them what patience sees
when use has gone, with love alone suspended
from the tender stems, and finally commended
lightly to a rising breeze.

The clouds at world’s end

I am being patient, when I remember and when I am able. And you, you are also being patient. Wait with me, Jesus.


Later they will meet him and talk with him, later they will host him and break bread, and, at last, see. But now they are dragging their feet in the dust that wafts toward Emmaus, and only in murmurs do they dare to wonder about holes in the brutal facts all the world knows.


The brittle fundamentalist in me never gets any peace because the spineless but nice Unitarian and the no-nonsense, 20th-century naturalist are always complaining about him; but then, they get along no better with each other, and on the whole everyone is about equally tired and irritable.

Hell is other people, when you’re all of them.


After dryness and deadness, the ending was this: I’d be yours. I’d sing your hymns.


The rabbit on our grass loped forward, and hunched, and ate a leafy weed. I watched his cheeks quivering, saw his leaf-like ears set vertically, and loved him—knowing still that if I started toward him he would flee at once. I thought of You.


My therapist can propose a regimen of fish oil and sunlight. My supervisor can suggest meditation or medication or the right outlook on stress. My friends can tell me what worked for them; my parents can mention their highest hopes for me. My neighbor, if he likes, can come over and pour himself a tall glass of iced tea and say what he would do. Let the local librarian pull down for me the volumes she has found most helpful, and let canvassers from both major parties outline their platforms at the front door. I welcome you all. Equably will I consider your solutions.

But no one else can tell me what the problem is. This is left as an exercise for the liver.


Shadow and light blobbed and wobbled on the floor of the bus as it swayed around corners. The young man across from me smiled explosively at his phone, splaying teeth all over the bus. Blue clouds watched through our windows.

The great play of the world goes on. We, who have taken jobs as ushers to support ourselves, snatch glances at acts we could not quite piece together into plots, if you asked. But when there is no dissatisfied patron to appease, no ticket to check, no lost family to direct toward the balcony seating, we do turn toward the stage and thrill at a fantastic scene.


Cloudy Spirit, friend to murky hearts: search, search. Dredge the muck of the world; sift a dirty soul; scour the very depths of God for me—if even you have not stopped wondering about this One, have not stopped longing with groans.


In my exploring I came to a place with nothing after it but the sky and its wispy, diffuse clouds, as if I had reached the edge of earth’s weaving and new yarn was still being spun for the next yard. When I looked again I saw a blue lake, still wet, and past it hills and hills of emerald trees; and so I found that whatever is making the world desires that it should be beautiful and our home.

Into May


Any day now I will find that I have been using the wrong toothpaste or eating uniodized salt; which defect being corrected, all ill flees from me.


Whenever I had a spare moment I spent it on the curation of the self, becoming so used to turning over my own mind and labeling it that this was no longer even a chore to me but a pleasant pastime. Besides this I was sincere from childhood in loving the good and believing not only that it must be chosen but that it would be difficult to choose, that I would need to grit my teeth and cut off my right hand; and I spoke often with friends of the beatific life, and I thought often to myself of the freedom it offered those who sought it with resolute hearts. But now, at certain moments, I seem to see out of the corner of my eye that all my talk and considering is in fact meant to blanket over some truth, still unrecognized, that will be ruinously lost if I do not seize it now.

That is: you cannot save up repentance in advance.


Wait in hope as long as you can, my heart. The story remains, so far, almost entirely untold, and even your little story has hardly started to begin. There is room yet for everything to be defined by some luminous, unthought catastrophe.


You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.

How long does he delay until that exodus? None of us is told; but we hear that at the pool of Beth-zatha there was a man who had waited crippled for thirty-eight years.


Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.

Did the word of love come, that next morning, for the psalmist? It is not recorded. But whether it came or not, the prayer was made—and not by another washed-up modern pining for a belief he had outgrown, not by another alienated discontent limping in two directions at once, but by the tradition itself. The faith I hold says, Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit.  

(After I lost myself so badly that I did not even recognize the constellations in the sky, when there was a clear night to show them, I looked down and saw the trees and pavement of my own city block. My hand shaking, I scratched in a crumpled notebook prayers of blasphemous desperation, prayers I could share with no other believer, until I found them printed in an old psalter.)


I clutched you to myself whenever I remembered. A voice that was almost all my own, but maybe, for all I know, not all my own, said something with unformed speech that meant: This I ask of you. Do this, too, in remembrance of me. The gloom did not lift; but it stirred. It winced.


Forgive me my crudeness before such a spring day as this: I am only flustered because I do not know how to pay my respects. Do they bow, where this day comes from? Would it offend if I knelt and wept?


Rhymes again

Why rhymes? For creation, something must be grown up and cut down, brought forth and cast back—written and edited. It is best if the teeming soul of the poet produces the raw material from which art is made. But for those who have the critical spirit without the spontaneous love and power that justifies it, there are props to lean on. Here is one: language has formed for millennia under the tremendous pressure of a billion bustling lives. It can be cut like the sculptor’s marble, and little tendencies and necessities in the material can direct the chisel. Are you always without a second thought to follow the first? Ask what rhymes with it—that is, inquire of English itself, cast your phonetic lots, consult with raw linguistic chance—and you are supplied with the choices an interested but uncreative mind requires to perform its labor.


After Psalm 27

vv. 1-2
The darkness that covers God my sun
I will call truly black;
from the attack
That breaches his defense I run.

Count me the number of the men he fears,
and make of them my list,
if they exist:
then I will share his desperate tears.

If that is found to be an empty set,
then I will live in hope awhile yet.


My fear I do not waste on wars;
I save it for the desolating thought
that I could miss the home I always sought
And love a dwelling place not yours.

For all these mustered foes I spare
not even fleeting prayer.
My hope has been compressed
to one request,
and I pursue
only you.



They hound me, and I flee
to his security.
Oh, let me truly be
that refugee.


Say to me only No, only deny
me all the substance of my pleas,
but do it with your proper voice, and I
will know the word as gospel and release.
I love that No above all other Yeses.
Your refusal like your promise blesses.


I would have left in long-gone years,
content with some benumbed diversion,
but for the heart’s continual incursion:
Look for him, look for him here.


Permit me anyway to clutch your hem
and huddle inconspicuously here.
Maybe I’ll see you turn to someone near
and hear you speaking peace to them.


These two were my earth and sky
that held and hung over me, near and vast.
The years of my living between them passed,
but I never left their home, or tried.

And what if the sky should flee,
and earth turn to water and let me go?
I’d fall into the dark below—
but only as far as you are from me.


Sweeten the untasted trial;
Straighten, shorten the remaining road.
How will they go the second mile
whose legs were trembling since they felt the load?


When you spoke
I only heard the blowing of a gust
awoken. When you appeared I saw just
wisps of smoke.

There was for me
no token more distinct of your dispatches
than the feeling of a useless and matchless

Now it departs,
though, and a voice of clear severity
issues from a shape of equal clarity
within the heart,

I come to learn
the gift I had in the noise of doubt
and, thinking how it drowned this other out,
ask its return.


Nothing was withheld—not if it were
the best, the dearest, the only.
And did any tender mercy stir
me, of all those shown me?

My eyes are open and my heart is shut:
so it has been for years now. But
if he has laid a feast out on the table,
he may yet make me for the eating able.


The gray years, too, will not be daunting freight,
if God is with me, shouldering the wait.