The day is coming closer for “A Spring Celebration of Poetry and Art”—it sounds so lovely, doesn’t it—as indeed it sounded when I initially agreed to participate. It’s at Bethany House of Prayer, a retreat center alongside the Order of St, Anne, a tiny convent where my husband Noah and I have said the Eucharist once a month for just about as long as we have been priests--more than eight years. I love the chapel there—it’s all white washed stone and cool, and embodies hospitality in the most generous way. When Isaiah was born in 2007, we bundled him up at 10 days old and brought him there for church for the first time on Easter Sunday. It’s a holy place for me, for which I am all the more grateful.
It will be lovely. But, of course, I'm terrified.
Alex at Back Pages Books in Waltham helped me publish the work I did on sabbatical (with Christ Church’s own Kristin Harvey’s cover design), so it’s now a real chapbook—with color cover art and ISBN number and everything—it’s so REAL. And it costs $10. $10!
I picked up my books from the printer this morning. I know I wrote the poems—I stared down blank pages and an empty computer screen all fall. But something about poetry more than prose seems so vulnerable—it’s all me on the page, my joy and my anxiety, my sense of blessing and my sense of lack. It’s out there now—I can’t take it back and edit one more time. “Ordinary” writing feels much safer; one wrong word out of 500 is less risky than one wrong choice out of 40. And, of course, poetry isn’t for everyone. My spouse, for example: not a poetry person.
Poetry is about experience, in any case; not so much argument or idea, which is the attraction and the danger. There's nothing to hide behind. It just is what it is. Beautiful, ugly, or irrelevant. The title, “Ashes/What remains” is an allusion to the idea that the life of faith involves a certain stripping away, layer upon layer yielding to what’s most important. After not working for three months last fall, I felt shadowy, but whatever was left over was just as much me as a sunny face at a kids’ sermon or a groggy opening prayer at the early service. Sabbatical time is Sabbath time: abstaining from traditional work, you can’t hide from yourself anymore with all of those “crucial” tasks. Staring down into not-doing can feel awfully close to staring down into not-being, which is terrifying, and certainly a big part of the reason I try to be busy so often.
What came up for me at the center, what the poems are mostly about, are my different vocations—of being a priest and a parent. I recently got my kids’ names tattooed in a half-sleeve of my upper right arm (along with some birds and flowers, as children are wont to do it took up more space than I’d planned—see “Re Entry” for more on that), which I jokingly called my “mommy tattoo”—some of these are definitely mommy poems. And they are all priest poems. Writing is a sacramental knock-your-socks-off pay attention gift. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we take very ordinary things and ask God to come into them, to make Christ alive and to feed us with his body.
In my poems, I feel something similar; I’m taking very ordinary things—a sibling squabble, a bird staring at a pond—and asking them to translate God’s presence in the world. Something about the action of looking carefully makes anything seem possible. I see the heron; she lets me recognize my instability, inviting me to shut up for a moment and realize how noisy I am. I see my kids complaining at each other; they show me all the traps of self-absorption and scapegoating we never seem to grow out of. A fair number of “first world problems” are catalogued in there, too—that’s where I get a little more self-conscious. Packing school lunches is a drag, but it beats no lunch at all.
Anyway—it’s Sunday at 3pm, 181 Appleton Street, Arlington.
Also buy the book. I’ll put links up when they’re ready.