Sitting in a chapel high in the golden sculpted hills of California A few minutes before Mass I reach down to a small wooden box By my chair, where missals and songbooks are stored, and I find A set of ancient eyeglasses folded into an old cloth case, so worn That it feels like a pelt, and I realize that my chair must belong to A certain sister here at the old mission. Maybe she’s here at Mass, Trying not to be peeved that I snagged her seat. After Mass I ask Around and a sweet nun with a cane says oh no, dear, that’s Sister Maureen Mary’s seat. She passed over two years ago. She was tall And hilarious and subject to fits of darkness. She’d been a student Of engineering, a really brilliant girl, when she decided to join our Community. Her parents were appalled, or as Sister Maureen likes To say, aghast. She became a wonderful teacher with us. When she Died we got hundreds of notes from her former students. Teachers Have to cultivate the long view, as Sister said herself. You haven’t Much immediate evidence of your labors. But you get flashes, here And there, and hugs at the end of the year, she would say. She was Still an engineer, she said—still actually working in fluid mechanics. Her mom and dad began to visit once a year and then once a month. Her sister never visited even once although she sent money. Sister’s Parents died and willed us the truck in which they came to visit their Daughter. We use it all over the place. You’ll see it go by today, for Certain. When Sister died we left her glasses there just for moments Like this, when someone discovers her. Often it is us, of course, and We laugh, but then you spend the rest of the day remembering Sister Maureen Mary, who is a most remarkable soul, whom I miss terribly.
Talked to six high school students this morning, Two young men and four young women, for 20 Minutes each. Ostensibly the discussion was all About college admission essays, but one thing I Have learned in life is to be quiet and listen and Out will pour real honest naked hard holy grace, And there it was, child after lanky child. So very Many masks worn as armor. So many polite bits Of college admissions essays that skated over the Stories they were so desperate to tell they would Even tell me—given the chance, the shy window Through which to whisper. When we were done I stood up rattled and blessed. Such terrible gifts And such generosity in the giving. I remembered Confession, in the old days, when the old shutter Made of oak or pine would shiver open suddenly And a voice, often so calm and gentle, would say Say what you most want to say, and have not said.
I don’t tell you how much it matters to me that you are my friend. I’ll never tell you, bluntly and face to face. I can’t summon words That way. They only come to my fingers occasionally if I’m silent And give up thinking. Our fingers are a lot smarter than we know. Like today when my fingers want to say something like: your gifts To me have been ears and humor. We speak some strange language That few other people speak. I don’t know why that’s so. It’s surely An accident. It’s not like we set out to find each other in the tumult Of this sweet wilderness. But we did somehow. You can put names On the finding if you want. The names all mean the same thing. An Old name is Providence, which is another way to say God, which is A way to say We Have No Idea How, But We Are Aware of Grace. There are more names for God than we’ll ever know, and one is you.
In a huge hotel where the concierge told me there had been count them Three weddings the day before, which is why they erected the epic tent. I got there early and watched people file in. The tall guitar player asked Me if I was the minister. The minister turned out to be a lady who once She got started talking never really stopped except for the music. When The songs started everyone except me stood and held hands and swayed. I am a Catholic man and we only hold hands with children and we don’t Sway. I tried for a while to figure out what species of church service this Was but you just could not tell. There was swaying, which seemed to Be Baptist, and discussion of sacrifice and fasts, which seemed Calvinist, And there were tall people with excellent teeth who seemed Mormonish, And there was talk of the Spirit and the One and suchlike, which seemed Unitarian to me, but then I heard the name Christos . . . Greek Orthodox? For a minute there I wondered if there would be snake-handling or maybe A sudden burst from the Koran, or a pause while we discussed the Torah, But the service stayed determinedly undeterminable. In the opening salvo Of this service I was amused, thinking that it might be something offered By the hotel for its guests, an attractant, some expensive consultant’s idea For adding value to your stay at the hotel, and I marveled at the marketing Brilliance of it—welcoming everyone, offending no one, proffering ritual Without trademark, adding bonus usage to the rent of the tent, as well as Excellent community relations. But soon I stopped being amused and was Moved, despite the endless blather of the minister. People had come to be Moved. They had come to hold hands and sing. There were bright ribbons On the folding chairs by the aisle to signal the bride’s or the groom’s side. There was a man’s green tie knotted to a tent stake. There were tiny babies In their mother’s arms. There was a man hunched in a wheelchair. Why do We ever bother to argue about religion? All religions are the same glorious Wine, susceptible to going bad but capable of quiet joyous gentle elevation. They’re all useful and useless, mesmerized and ruined by power, but always Pregnant with the possibility of humility. They are so easy to ignore. You’d Be wise to sneer, with every reason imaginable for the curl of your knowing Lip. Yet here I am, on Sunday morning, in the wedding reception tent, agog; Not so much at the earnest idiot of a minister, but at everyone, sweetly, else.
Looking at photographs of the kids. One of them is going To college tomorrow. I used to wear that kid like a jacket. He fell asleep instantly given the slightest chance. School, The car, even once during a time-out at a basketball game, Although to be fair he was the point guard and had played The whole first half and been double-teamed. He could be Laughing at something and you’d turn away to see a hawk Or his lissome mom and when you turned back he was out. But tomorrow he’s in the top bunk in a room far away. We Will leave the back porch light on for him out of habit and In the morning we will both notice that it’s still on and one Of us will cry right into the coffee beans and the other will Remember that it felt like all the poems we mean when we Say words like dad and son and love when I slung that boy Over one shoulder or another or carried him amidships like A sack of rice or best of all dangling him by his feet so that All the nickels he put in his pockets for just this eventuality Poured down like something else we do not have words for.
Very many years ago I dated a roaring alcoholic Who taught me many things about many things; Much of what I learned was about me—such as, For example, that I didn’t have the guts to retire From what wasn’t even a love affiar. This is sad To write, even now, but I bet we all learn slowly In this crucial area, yes? But I learned much else That was haunting and poignant. Alcoholics, she Told me, incise a web and welter of scratches on Their car doors, just by the driver’s side keyhole; They are always poking haphazardly in the dark For where the keyhole used to be. You hear lines Like that, your heart breaks a little for the busted Parts of us all, you know? Yes, it’s a disease, yes, It’s a social ill, a terrible one, it’s haunted history, It’s hammered children, shattered families, stolen Unimaginable oceans of creativity and joy, killed Millions of people who might have been stunning Bolts of light in their own amazing ways. But this Evening, opening my car door, I think of the poor Souls thrashing in the dark, desperate for an open Door, scratching their illegible runes, scribbling a Sad new alphabet in the bright glitter of their cars.
If I become like you I will write about a roughed grouse, Says the boy, five years old, with a face like a chipmunk Storing up winter browse. We are at his school, where he And the other small mammals have written things for me On bright scraps of paper. He hands me his paper and I’ll Carry it in my wallet the rest of my life. Mister Brian, the Sun is raining all around, another child says to me. It is up And down sun, she says. I want to be a cookie when I’m Your age, says another child. Once we were all monkeys In skirts made from the skins of trees, says a boy with an Icicle tattoo. It’s templorary, he says, explaining it to me. I laugh and he laughs and every kid there starts laughing. I think I am going to fly up gently into the air over a tree From joy, as saints used to float when gripped by ecstasy. That happened to Saint Joseph Cupertino, you remember, Seventy times, it is said, and now I know why: no gravity.
The man on death row in the federal penitentiary writes to me On lined loose-leaf paper that when he was a boy in the South He was so absorbed by tent revivals that he knew he would be A preacher, knew it in his deepest bones. I would stand on my Bed and preach to the babies, and stand on a barrel and preach To the chickens and the hogs, and preach the Word to the cow, Who would not come to Jesus nor to anyone else neither. Well, That is not how things turned out for me, which is a long story, But what I want to get down in this letter is the blessings I had When I was a boy. Now there is much to say that was not at all In the least blessed, it was a violent and perplex raising we had, But what I want to get down is that was a time of great wonder And satisfaction for me because I knew what I was going to be. I could spend a lot of time explaining how I came to not be that Which I knew I was going to be but I have wasted enough time In that fruitless pursuit. Thank you for reading this letter, which Is a kindness on your part. It allowed me to remember a blessed Time, there on the old barrel preaching the Word to the animals.
What are the things I should know about being homeless That I would never imagine myself? I ask a girl who was Homeless from age thirteen to age seventeen. You never Saw a nicer more pleasant neatly dressed kid in your life, This kid. The only way you can tell who she used to be is That she has a bunch of steel teeth. Any hint of difficulty, She says, you move. Move anyways, on general principle. Any safe spot you find will eventually be found by others. As for new friends, trust but verify, as some old president Said. Learn to lie with a totally straight face. Brush teeth! I still have trouble not lying immediately and defensively. That’s a problem for me. I got so good at it that it’s tough To not be good at it anymore. The best way to get by is to Perform, to not be who you really are, so the actual you is Not in danger. You can shuck the person you perform like A snake shucks a skin. Teachers here tell me I ought to be In theater, I should try out for plays and musicals, but that Is exactly what I am trying not to be, which is good at not Being the real me anymore. Does this make sense? You’d Be a natural, my teachers say, and I have to laugh because Natural at not being me is who I don’t want to be anymore.
Consider the case of a mathematician, in this case My oldest brother, who is (a) halved by an illness, (b) stilled completely by it, and (c) reduced to ash. Trust me, he would be the first to note that finally He finished his travels at 0.00416666667 of what He weighed for a long time. I bet then he’d spend Weeks poking into what else weighed exactly that. I’d get a terse note with a list in his meticulous ink: The cardinal on average weighs 0.992 of a pound, And the long-tailed weasel weighs exactly a pound. A letter like that is exactly like a zen koan, I think. It’s as much a door as a statement. Let us consider That we have all just now received this terse letter. It sits there grinning on the table next to the coffee. I don’t know about you, but I am going to dive into The whole weasel question. We have so little time, And there’s so much to be discovered. I want to be Able to be conversant about this the next time I see My brother. He’ll want to know. He’ll have missed A lot of time that could have been devoted to these Things, and someone has to carry the ball, whether It’s weasels or cardinals or cancer. How mortifying It will be if he asks me about something, and I have To say I didn’t pay attention, man, and he will stare At me with that laser stare and not even have to say, And what was it you did instead of paying attention?
The good sweet Lord knows I have nothing wise to say about anything Whatsoever; certainly that has been proven over the last fifty-five years That we have known each other. And while spiritual verve is inarguable, Religious pronouncements at a time like this can sound awfully shallow. So all I want to do this morning is find some word that can approximate The love I feel. Affection and respect are ingredients, sure, and certainly Laughter and stories, especially those that start out remember that time?, Because stories are a terrific way to say things that you can’t find words For. I keep wanting to push deeper, but I can’t get deeper than the story Of the time we broke your finger—all us kid brothers attacking the king At once, ostensibly in the flow of a football game, but really we wanted To take you down, to miraculously drop the taoiseach, because we loved You, because your were our hero, because you were the tallest and oldest, Because you laughed, even with your finger bent in the wrong direction, Knowing that we were so furious because a bruising tackle is a language Also. You can say a lot about love by hammering your brother in a game, It turns out. You knew what we were saying. I remember you taped your Finger back together and didn’t bother to tell Mom. We admired that too.
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; And he was essentially a blameless dude, and unarrogant, And he was blessed with seven sons, and three daughters, Which is a lot of children, and where, I ask politely, is the Part of the Book of Job where we talk about Job’s spouse, Who is conspicuously not discussed in the back and forth With his buddies and then suddenly the Big Guy Himself Answering out of the whirlwind and commanding old Job To gird up his loins, which loins were undeniably vigorous Previous to the Lord interrupting Job, and after the Maker Finishes one of the greatest eloquent scoldings of all time, He grants old Job another seven sons and three daughters, Again without the slightest thanks for the astounding Mrs. Job who suddenly has twenty count them twenty children With no mention of her humor, or the vast hills of diapers, Or her wit which survived kids throwing up and the sheep Wandering off, and plagues of locusts and things like that. A good editor, I feel, would have asked for just a glancing Nod to the wry hero of the tale, at least acknowledgment; Something like a new last line after So Job died, being old and full of days, which might read, And also passed a most Amazing woman, of whom nothing other than the blessing Was ever said, her heart being a gift beyond calculation by Man, her mind sharp, her tongue gentle, her hands a mercy, And her very presence full reason to kneel in prayer at that Which the Lord in His mercy has made and granted briefly. A line like that would only hint at her, but it’s a start, right?
They are coming for the body; a nurse certifies That who she was is no longer resident in what She was, selah. They turn out to be one woman. Her name is Helene. Selah. She eases what was A woman onto a gurney. A daughter assists her. Though the waters roar and be troubled, we will Not fear, though the mountains vanish in the sea. Selah. Would you like your mother to be facing Up or down? Up, please, selah. She zips the bag. She did believe, yes she did, selah, she received The glories of the Lord each and every day with Her eyes which remained hawkish until her final Breath. Is that so? says Helene, selah. Transplant Candidates, then, certainly. Sign here . . . and here. I will drive very carefully, absolutely. His mercy Upon her soul, selah. She trusted in thee. Refuge She will discover in thee, and her husband’s arm, And her mother’s kiss, and all calamities are past, Selah, and housekeeping will come for the sheets. God is in the midst of her, and God shall help her. There is a river; the waters of which have no end; Amen and then again amen. In the lobby a father Is reading the sports section while his child gulps The biggest soda I have ever seen on this blessed Wild and weary earth; amen and then again amen.