“Acceptance” (A Lenten Poem)

This morning, as I rose out of the subway station
and the grey, cold sky welcomed me with sharp kisses upon my lips and cheeks,
I closed my eyes to smile as grief’s last stage filled
my heart.
And I breathed in an eternal winter, where spring is only a story and
only arrives
as an apocalypse.
A matter of hope that barely
survives the canon.

Our Endpoints of Dust

  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Here ends the year. Here begins the year. Today, our years are pressed into our forehead. Each life marked as an oily smudge. It is Ash Wednesday and for those of us who take the time, we collectively catch our breaths and remember where we came from and where we are going.

I do love this day, this most high holiday of mine. I love to walk through the corridors of New York City and see so many strangers on this one strange day with their lives smeared upon their faces. It is only for one day. When else do we say without words, with such collective force, “I am human, so very, very mortal?” And then tomorrow, it will be as if it never happened, our faces wiped clean of soot and tears.

Lent enters without a sound, like nightsnow, closing the door softly behind it. It is still and silent. Our mortality is our own. Our death is our own. Easter is so far away that our Lenten disciplines will fail and unravel behind us, unspun like a child’s ball of string. We have time. Life is our time.

And we are marked with ash to remember. This life bound by dust, this mortal coil, is fleeting and full of both grief and joy. Joy can wait. Now, is a season of grief, Lent. Grief is a kind of reflection. How does one look in a mirror and see what no longer exists? Grief is pondering of absence. It is good to grieve. It is good to understand life backwards, but we must live life forward.

The risk of grief, of lament, is the risk of paralysis. In the midst of a brutal, unkind, blind and deaf world, paralysis is when lung and heart stop. We must not stop. We must go on. Beckett ends The Unnamable with “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” This is Lent. We must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Jesus enters the Wilderness. He is alone. He is tempted. He must go on. He can’t go on. He’ll go on. Rome and The Adversary are waiting. They go on, too. We enter our Wilderness. We’ll go on.

Lent is not paralysis. It is not stasis. Lent is our lives in slower action. Dust is our stasis, our endpoints. On our faces we present our past and coming stillness in ash. We present this to each other. We carry our stillness as we journey through this day. We must have movement. But we must first be also still, if only for a little bit. To remember that we must move. Until we no longer do. Until we no longer can.

Ash Wednesday is the pause, the pause to remember our endpoints. To begin this journey of Lent. We cannot remain still for long. We must go on. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.

Still

Burn the Fronds. Prepare for Lent.

Today, we must burn the palm fronds. The fronds we waved last Palm Sunday, that nasty, brutish day. Our Lent begins in winter. It is cold. Bitterly cold here in the American Northeast. Today, we prepare the ashes for tomorrow. We prepare ourselves for our season. We will feel a fleeting warmth as we watch the long sharp leaves glow and curl. And then it will be cold and dark again. Let us begin this season with a flame spent and extinguished.

Does it seem that Lent comes easier this year? The world seems to be a sadder place, indeed. But it doesn’t take much to see these kinds of stories surrounding us all of the time. Maybe we’re finally being shaken out of our comfort zones because we can’t keep ourselves in our neat and tidy lives so well.

In the United States, on the international front, we watch ISIS commit atrocities we thought we’d only see on HBO. In our own country, we march, shouting #blacklivesmatter and #icantbreathe, but what has really changed other than awareness? And the weather becomes harsher. And now men full of rancid rage are executing Muslims in North Carolina and setting alight a Houston mosque. And we mourn and we lament.

We’ve been preparing for Lent since Advent. Christmas and Epiphany serve more as resting points, this year, than triumphalist celebrations. Because Christmas and Epiphany come and go and the killing and suffering continue. Does it seem that everything hurts? But we must not glorify that hurt, turn suffering into a badge of honor. Twenty-one beheaded Copts in Libya. Three executed Muslims in Chapel Hill. We mourn. We scrape for meaning.

At the Transfiguration, when Jesus prepares for the final acts of the show, Glow Cloud God bursts on the scene and says “This is my son. Listen to him.” And while our retina burns are beginning to fade, from a light spent and extinguished, we must remain alert. We must pay attention. Our world is hurting. We are hurting. We must remain aware. We must remain aware of our selves, our actions. As Jesus prepared for this, we must prepare for this. We must listen. We must act. We must go under.

Burn the fronds. Pour oil on ash. Prepare the heart. Raise the hands.

Dusk is coming.

Palm Trees on Fire

When I Hated A Yellow Cow

There was a time when a painting of a cow used to enrage me like no other. The bright colors and cool distant mountains, the sloping curves and happy scene reached deep within me and brought forth some kind of churning, livid reaction. I hated that cow. Viscerally. That cow annoyed the fuck out of me.

In college, during one of my substantial existential bouts of gloom and sorrow, one of my very best friends brought me a poster of Yellow Cow by the German Expressionist Franz Marc. To cheer me up.

“When you are sad,” she said, “look at this cow and you’ll feel better.” And she put the cow on the wall of my dorm. “See?! It’s such a happy cow!”

And she closed her eyes, smiled serenely, and hummed like a happy cow would hum. I scowled. But I didn’t stop her.  After my friend left, I stared at Yellow Cow.  But I didn’t take it down. Happy Yellow Cow.

Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), Franz Marc. 1911. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), Franz Marc. 1911.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

I must confess that somehow that cow, with her big blue spot, did something to me. Franz Marc, who I embarrassingly did not know of at the time, affected me with that happy, yellow cow. That cow, curving up and kicking up her heels, on the verge of some euphoric moo. “Moooooo!” will cry Yellow Cow. “Moooooooo!” And she is so happy. And she made me so angry. And I couldn’t figure out why.

I would stand in my dorm room and just stare at that cow. Yellow Cow would distract me from my studies. Her bright yellow skin amidst her warm pasture. Yellow is an annoying color. And it is impossible to ignore. It’s so… yellow. I’d come in from class. Yellow Cow. I would try to do my homework. Yellow Cow. I would lie awake in bed in the dark. And I just knew that only a few feet away, there in the dark, was that fucking, happy Yellow Cow. Yellow Cow!

One evening, I’d finally had enough. I’d had enough of Yellow Cow. I’d had enough of that sublime smile on that lifted face. I’d had enough of those kicking feet and curling tail. I’d had enough of that happiness – that happiness for no other reason than being happy and in the moment. And ignoring everything else. Why did it bother me so? Didn’t that cow understand how difficult life is?

In a rage, I did something I had never done before or since. I tore Yellow Cow down from my wall, ripping Marc’s cheerful, pastoral masterpiece to shreds. In my fists, I crumpled Yellow Cow, satisfied as I felt the stiff poster paper buckle and fold beneath me.

But Yellow Cow, battered, bent, and ripped, kept on smiling.

Yellow Cow never taunted me. Let me be clear about that. I never felt that Yellow Cow was smug. She was just happy. That’s all. And nothing else existed in that moment for her. She was happy to be alive and cared about nothing else. And she smiled and leapt into the air because of it. And I had had enough of her happiness, a happiness that came through so clear and distinct, I knew it was there in the dead of night. I wasn’t envious of Yellow Cow. I just didn’t want to see her anymore. She just didn’t fit. I wouldn’t let her fit. Not in my grey, damp world, I wouldn’t.

I don’t remember what I told my friend about Yellow Cow or if I told her at all. She found happiness in Yellow Cow. And she wanted me to be happy, because I was not. And she cared about me. Because she was my friend. And she loved me, as my close friends tend to do.

Many years later, I re-discovered Franz Marc and the Blue Rider group. I’d always loved Kandinsky, but I’d never delved further into his art circle, one of its members being the young, gifted Franz Marc. And I fell in love with Marc. His animals. His curving lines. His nudes. His cubism. His colors. I keenly, urgently wanted to learn more about him and his world and craft.

By then I had found a personal, deep well in early twentieth-century German art. And I wanted to see more of Marc’s art, this art that gave me a strange calming solace. And then, one day, I turned a page and saw her there.

“Oh,” I said. “It’s you.”

And Yellow Cow, just as she did years before, said nothing. With her eyes closed, she smiled her smile and kicked up her heels. And curled her tail, ignoring me, happy in her eternal moment.

And I learned that young Franz Marc died at that wretched Battle of Verdun, on the fourth of March, 1916. An artillery shell splinter through his head. He did not receive in time the order that, because he was a known artist, he was to be pulled from the lines. His job in the ranks was to paint camouflage, that strange wartime art. Last Sunday, February 8, was his birthday. Soon, he will die.

At work, I have a little book at my desk. In a used bookstore, I found it, a small collection of Marc’s animals. Color plates of deer and horses and foxes and a cow. When I am sad or stressed, I open that little book and rest along with tiny cubist creatures, their angled lines and soft colors.

My sixteen-month old son, Søren, loves art. “Art! Art!” he’ll shout. And I will whisk him up into my arms and carry him through our apartment. As I show him each framed poster on the wall, he points and smiles. “Art!” And together, we wander through my coffee table book of Marc’s sketches.

Søren doesn’t know that when we read one of his favorite books, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, that when we see a blue horse looking at me, it is the blue horse of Franz Marc. But I do. And I smile. And Søren neighs and clicks his tongue. And sometimes I remember a yellow cow that refused to look at me, which makes me a little sad and happy at the same time.

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