I tell her: we must get at the ground,
deep beneath the dirt, where the roots are.
Only here can we make ourselves strong;
here, where our proofs and reasons lie, buried.
We must separate the wheat from the chaff,
we must harvest only good things.
Remember how we want our lives to feel:
like drunkenness; gentle and warm,
eyes cloudy with God and smoke,
with the beauty of cold summer.
I thought of our lives patched together,
pieced together, pressed together
and brimming with purpose,
lives like old shoes; gentle and worn,
like the stars tonight-wherever they are-
bright, but hidden.
My father drove the little wooden cross
into the ground, and I wondered,
at age eleven, if it was sacrilege:
burying the rabbit we had found
torn apart by a crow in the yard,
its small heart still now,
its fur and ears mangled with blood and dirt.
We even said a prayer, I think,
my mother bowing her head
as a car shot down the alley,
kicking up dust.
My father walked away,
swinging the shovel he’d used
to scrape the rabbit from the sidewalk,
to dig its shallow grave.
His hair was just beginning to grey,
and as he walked to the porch,
the sun sank behind him,
throwing his shadow against the house.
That left four of us standing
by the grave, with the little wooden cross
one of us had made in Sunday school:
two rough planks of wood fastened
with a single nail. I never stopped
to wonder what the neighbors might think.
I thought only of what brave
Catholics we were,
that we could face this
and go on.
"A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool."
The common denominator that all young people share may be the idea that we know more than we do. I say this as a young person, and although I have been told I am actually sixty-four and stuck inside a young person’s body, I know that in reality I am simply a twenty-one year old in a twenty-one year old’s body, simultaneously repelled and enamored with the idea of being young. Being young is wonderful for a plethora of reasons. For most people being young means being healthy and it means that “life is just beginning.” I know that is a cliche, but there is truth in it. Maybe it would be better to say that “life is just beginning to take shape.” And, if one is lucky, there is time to be irresponsible and poor, while still leading a fulfilling, youthful life.
The other side of that coin (at least for me) is the desire to acquire more life experience, to cast away the youthful ignorance I sometimes won’t even admit I have. Often times, I will hear an individual described as “young but wise” or “wise beyond his/her years”. I don’t feel wise beyond my years, but with each death, each new friendship and experience, I can feel myself becoming more accustomed to life on Earth, to the ever-changing rhythm of time passing. Maybe this is where wiseness comes from. Or maybe I am simply spouting cliches out of youthful ignorance. I suppose all I really know is that I desire is to be wise.
All of this (or most of it) came to me the other day, as I ran along an indoor track at the university I have been attending for five months. It was a cold day, and I was happy to be inside. No amount of running could have warmed me against the chill of the sharp January air outside. I had braved the cold weather with a few friends, who were also jogging around the track. The field house was crowded with people, all of us young and able, engaging in a solitary, yet strangely comunal activity. Most people ran alone, going at their own pace, yet here we all were, together nonetheless.
One summer a few years ago, my sister and I ran together over the course of several weeks. She must have been twelve or thirteen, which would have made me seventeen. Eventually, we tired of it, and we probably didn’t run together as often as I remember. We would run along a dusty bike trial in the sticky heat, passing first through a cool canopy of trees, and then out into the sunlight of Main Street, past the old houses and storefronts. I was running mainly for my sister, because she had joined the cross country team and needed a “running buddy”. Plus, I wanted to spend time with her, as she began to grow older and more unfamiliar to me. Running seemed to bring us closer. We now had a common interest, a common activity. I liked the way my body sliced through the muggy air and I liked knowing that my sister’s body must have felt the same. We were linked by running and by the heat; by the pounding of our feet against gravel, by the burning in our faces and the sweat in our eyes.
I have not run on a regular basis in the past three years, but maybe running a little each day is just what I need. Whenever I ran alone the floodgates seemed to open, and I would begin to compose in my mind the next Great American Novel. Or I would imagine myself as Poet Laureate, Senator, high school teacher, car salesman, grocery store manager, etc., etc. In my mind I went to Europe, I fell in love, got married, had children, went to funerals, sold books, got drunk, sang, went back in time. Except that running made all these things more urgent, more tangible. Running instilled in me a heightened sense of excitement, and then I would stop running, exhausted, content to let these dreams simmer a little while longer. Running seemed to make me more aware of my present. The sweat, the heavy breathing, the swift movement, always shook me out of complacency.
As I ran around the track at the field house, I thought of all these things; of my memories of running, of my daydreams and of my sister. I thought of the beauty of running in unison and the beauty of running alone. And as I ran in my worn out shoes, gulping air deep into my smoker’s lungs, I heard the reassurance of my body, of my existence; a voice inside me saying, “You are here. You are here. You have always been here.”
"A sacrament is an outward sign of God’s love, they taught me when I was a boy, and in the Catholic Church there are seven. But, no, I say, for the Church is catholic, the world is catholic, and there are seventy times seven sacraments, to infinity."
This past summer, I read a collection of essays by the late writer Andre Dubus. He was one of the great short story writers of the late twentieth century, but after an accident that robbed him of a leg and of the ability to walk, he turned to writing nonfiction. In his essays, he writes of his deepened Catholic faith and of his experiences living in a wheelchair. His essay, “Sacraments” is one of the best personal essays I have ever read, and recounts Dubus’s belief that sacraments extend beyond those defined by the Catholic Church. For Dubus, writing was a sacrament, as was smoking and making sandwiches for his daughters. Running was a sacrament Dubus had cultivated during his time in the Marines as a young man, and after his accident, he was unable to walk or run, yet his memories of being a “biped” was a new kind of sacrament, something that brought him closer to God and made him a more spiritual man. Perhaps most important to Dubus was Holy Eucharist, which he tried to receive everyday throughout his life.
Since reading “Sacraments”, Dubus’s worldview has fascinated me. While his Catholic faith was important to him, he viewed everyday activities as equally as important as receiving the official sacraments. Dubus never proselytized, he was not religious writer, he was simply a writer who sometimes wrote about religion. His writing is inspiring though, because it establishes a connection between God and the world that is not based necessarily on just the narrow confines of Catholic sacraments. Holy Communion and Mass, for Dubus, simply reaffirmed what he already saw in the world: outward signs of love from God and from himself, toward others. Dubus seems to be saying that the Catholic Church does not have a stranglehold on sacraments, they are available to everyone.
I have received sacraments drunk, and I have received sacraments sober. I once sat silently, with a girl, on the front porch for an hour, neither of us speaking, her arm linked in mine. The warm weight of her arm was a reminder, a sacrament. For an hour, all I wanted was to sit with her, to know she was present, to feel God through her.
Conversation around a fire is a sacrament. Waking the next morning and smelling it on your clothes is a sacrament. Rain and the calmness it provides is a sacrament. Working is a sacrament, and sleeping is a sacrament. Infatuation is a sacrament and love is a sacrament. What makes me so sure? Because in them, I feel what I feel at Mass: desire, comfort, gratitude, happiness.
I remember being young, at Mass. The priest saying,
"You must wait for the slow unfolding of God’s plan. It is not your plan, it is His. God may ask you to bend over backwards, or sideways, or hardly at all, but you must do it and not be afraid. God bends with you."
First it was my grandmother, then you.
Old age and suicide.
They are different, but they are the same;
the dying doesn’t feel right.
Unlike Sexton, I don’t have the lust for it,
not even the timid acceptance.
"It is a swamp of loss and despair," a friend said,
"Others are bogged down in it,
but we go along, as if nothing has happened,
thinking everyday that something has.”
And something has happened:
the worms have eaten out the eyes,
the casket has begun to decay,
or the urn grows dusty on the mantle.
You told me once, “No one ever truly knows
anyone else. We lock the others out, all of us.”
Even now, I’m not sure how you did it, only that it happened:
You drew Death’s curtains close.
Not heavy, not thoughtful,
you were simply tired, hungry.
Even now, among the living, I am thrown against
the cold, iron grate of every day.
Even now, under the same sun,
I feel life, thick and unforgiving,
rough-hewn and worn thin.
And still, I want it.