Hans Urs von Balthasar and Mickey Mouse

balthasar with mickey

Above: my least favorite picture of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

If I ever make it to Heaven and I get to meet my hero Hans Urs von Balthasar, the first thing I’m doing is walking up to him, shoving him backwards against a gleaming wall (Rev 21:11), and asking, “Why the f*ck did you go to Disneyland, Hans Urs von Balthasar?” Then I’ll be escorted back to Purgatory by St. Michael while yelling, “WORTH IT.” For which I’ll get five more years, which I’ll also call “worth it.” Then after eighty years becoming best friends with Cato, I’ll get to come back and ask my question a nicer way.

Dammit, why, Balthasar? Everything I know about you leads me to think that you’d hate Disney as much as I do. You resent lies, and for you the most loathsome lies are the ones that seem the most like truth. Those are the ones that rob us of freedom. The ones that eradicate real memory. What is more stultifying than a fantasy that robs fairy tales of danger and parents and surprise? Dude. You love surprise.

Let me be clear: I come from a “Disney family.” My nuclear family, my cousins. We all know Disney stories really well, we’ve all been to the parks together, and there are even some of us who work for Disney. I’m the heretic who wants nothing to do with Disney and hates visiting the parks. A query about it from an uncle had me melting down in a rant about nihilism in the middle of Epcot Germany.

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And when I woke up, a German lady was telling her pet baby deer not to eat apples.

I know my enemy. I’ve studied the texts, both major and minor. I’ve cried at all of the Toy Story movies. Hell, I’ve visited the temples of pretend, those strange, ritualistic parks that promise to offer another world. I don’t want another world. I’m not a Gnostic. And I don’t want a voice external to me telling me what right and wrong is, and I don’t want songs about believing hard enough.

jiminy_cricket

Doing the good is not an imposition from the outside, Jiminy, you lazy Kantian!

What fascinated you, Balthasar? Is this like Heidegger again? A danger that you found useful? Is this like the Russians?

You dislike magic. For you, that means a human being trying to know or control the future. “Magic” like Shakespeare often meant the word. That old way, where “divining” meant trying to be like God. But we’re not God, and our glory is in not being God. You resist magic, whether it takes the form of pretending to know the end of things or pretending we can control the world with technology. So why do you tolerate the presence of Mickey?

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“What happens after midnight?” “Honey, I ain’t telling you a damn thing.”

I understand that Disney – the company and the man – revolutionized animated and cinema technology more than once. I also understand that the animatronics at those parks is astounding. But still. That doesn’t outweigh princesses or literally all of The Fox and the Hound. Did you see that movie? Oh my God. Rilke could write dark German sonnets about that thing.

220px-rainer_maria_rilke_1900

Rainer Maria Rilke

Which actually might be a point in that movie’s favor, but you are never making me watch it EVER again. Balthasar. You.

I forget what my point is because I’m all sad now. Look, whatever. You go hang out with Mickey. I’m gonna go hang out with the drunk snowman from Frozen, all of Captain Hook’s pirates (cartoon and Robin Williams versions), and Marion from Indiana Jones. I’ll meet you when the park closes after a parade, light show, and fireworks.

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Has never walked a straight line in his life.

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Head and Heart and Brains (…and Words)

Zombie attack

“Calculating,” my colleague said, looking at me with a warm smile. “Whatever Professor Carpenter ends up saying, she chooses her words very carefully.” I felt myself smirk. Whether I liked the monicker depended on whether I remembered a moment when my heart had been there while I used words – or not.

I don’t know why I’m good with words, but I am. My mind leans that way, always has, even when my best friend had to tell me what the hell was happening in seventh grade grammar class. “You’d just doodle on the worksheet and shade in all the words perfectly,” she recalled to me recently, exasperated even in retrospect. I think I was classy: I was always kind enough to wait for her to teach me what I’d ignored.

That bent of mind makes me a poor study when it comes to actually teaching others how to write. I want my students to have had nine years of grammar like I did, a love for beautiful writing like I do, and an ability to absorb the lessons of good writing implicitly like I do. They have absolutely none of those things. I fret about that as a professor, worrying over both their illiteracy and my struggle to sympathize with it.

Words are a knife-edge, and with them we can carve a beautiful face or dismember like a surgeon. Words are powerful. And they are most powerful when they neatly come to a point.

See what I just did there with knives and edges and shit? Yeah, I’m clever as hell. It’s actually almost bad writing: it’s too well-ordered around its little metaphor, and threatens to mean too little because its symbolizes too much. What I mean is this: words are imprecise, and there are two ways to ruin them by forcing them into precision. The first is to remove everything distracting from a sentence. “Thou shalt not use a metaphor or a metaphorical verb.” Yeah, well: that’s boring, not precise. The second method is to use an image until it has died a horrible death of strangulation. “I have the perfect metaphor for this and I will explain each aspect of it to you.” Congratulations: it’s not a metaphor anymore.

But I’m not sure I’m being helpful in that paragraph. I know what I’m talking about, but do you? Have I made myself clear? And that’s the thing, imaginary reader: imagining you in a way that helps me write for real people.

This is where we return to the heart. Perhaps it is simply strange, but I write best when I have an idea of the emotional impact of a phrase. I speak best like that too. Words have feelings as well as meanings (or rather, meaning provokes feelings, and therefore so do words). When I hold that in mind, my writing is infinitely more effective. Again, I might well be odd. I always threaten to forget the heart. Words are almost like geometry for me: shapes whose proof is found in each other. They are interrelated sets of relations cohering together. I’m good at that, good at seeing the forms and relating them, and I don’t need to feel anything to be effective at that. I can even be cruel, calculating in the negative sense. I can build a beautiful but empty cathedral.

If I am angry, my words are cut glass.

For me, then, to feel is to grasp the shape of meaning in a way that can actually welcome others. Readers, listeners. And it softens me, soothes the edges of my creativity. I am first a creature of form, and the temptation is to forget splendor.

Many writers strike me in the inverse: immensity of conviction without a supporting structure. Words poured all against one another in a mess of paints. Restraint and grammar have all but vanished, making the sentences weird and long – or almost angrily terse. Academic writing, for all its insufferably boring contortions, is also like this. Meaning gets all lost in the face of word-using. Nobody remembers grammar here, either, even if they’ve also forgotten feeling.

Academic writing is horrible. Mostly the sentences are too long.

Having a heart for an imaginary reader seems to be a key point of departure in either affliction, the one of the heart or the brain. There in the imaginary reader, after all, it is necessary to imagine someone who is intelligent but not an expert, who needs something reasonable and clear. And if that someone has a heart, then he or she feels the impact of words. Can be moved or can resist. The reader doesn’t end up looking like one person, and the writer doesn’t end up with one solution.

So I should perhaps teach my students how to imagine a reader.

Oh God. How do I do that?

The birth of memory.

Study of a figure for Hell, John Singer Sergeant

Only last year, my mother was telling me a few details about when I was born. The myth itself sits heavy on my shoulders, and has rested there my whole life. We spoke of it so many times: how I came three months early, I almost died, my mother almost died, and I was baptized immediately. I’ve seen the photos. My mother, rail-thin and pale, dark hair and glasses just like me these days. My two-pound self lying there in a clear plastic box, tubes and needles everywhere. The red of my skin, which didn’t soothe into the soft pale of a newborn. Unnatural. I’ve looked at the images my whole life.

My therapist says I need to remember that child. The little baby alone in the incubator. For the first few months of my life, I only rarely received affectionate touch. My parents had to scrub themselves perfectly and wear gowns. The other touches: they were needles and pain. There wasn’t the snuggling regular newborns receive. The constant soft assurance. Babies are shaped by their early months. Science shows us this.

Me: I was primed by a brutal world.

I hate the science. I hate the goddamn facts that point like daggers to my painful shyness, the tearful anxieties that haunted me through school. Struggling to feel attached, which worsened as the doctors did. I hated the doctors, hated them more and more as I saw them more and more. Sometimes I think: I just couldn’t seem to live or die. I feel so angry at that child, can’t seem to avoid hating myself at any age, and I blame myself. Sometimes for just not freaking dying. The anger conceals terrible loss, terrible disappointment.

In a world that will send no one to rescue me.

My mother told me that when I first came home from the hospital – in Cabbage Patch Doll clothes, because they didn’t make clothes for premies then – she sat with me and held me all day. Just held me. I try to picture it, and I’ve made it a memory of my own, though of course I don’t actually remember anything. I treat it as if I do. A memory of how much my mother suffered and cared. And simply that she held me. I don’t have a memory of her holding me, not ever. I know that she did. But I don’t remember, and I don’t know why.

Flesh hardened for an unkind world doesn’t remember touch, I suppose.

My sister doesn’t like it when I say these things online. She says I never remember the happy things. I do – and I don’t. And I don’t like it when she suggests I’m not remembering it right. I’m worried it’s true – and I know it’s not.

Once she spoke of my life like it came to me easily, my success, like an unrolling carpet. I saw something then: that certain things are very, very easy for me. That this was painful for her to see. School was never so simple for her. That I forget. I also understood that she didn’t, she can’t, know what it felt like inside. And both are true: school was really goddamn easy even when I missed half of it sick; also, I missed half of school sick.

God damn high school. I have dim memories. It all runs together, the shapeless days and me half-dead inside. Deeply withdrawn, deeply religious, hyper-intellectual. I still get that way in the summer, because summers are still the most like back then. (And the world is brutal.) Most of the real remembering is impossible. So when I seek to reference high school in class, I ask students for their memories. I can’t offer any of my own.

And I still can’t fully remember what happened to me. The really bad things. They are purely concentrated conjectures, perhaps, that try to provide answers for feelings I have. Their reality is more in the shape of my pain than their flickering, tenuous concreteness. My body remembers something. The confusing flashbacks to hospitals, the sudden crawling spider-waves of fears – these are memories of a kind. Recollections of a body already long primed by a brutal world, shaped to perceive what hurts.

No one will come and rescue me from all that. From the memories and suffering and confusion. I’m sorry, but it’s true. No one will glide in and carry me away. No one ever has. No one at all. They can’t. Lift me from the waters all you want: I cannot be made to breathe. Sure, there are machines; medicines. But don’t mistake those for breathing.

This is the impossible conundrum of freedom: that to be had, it must be used. Even when the free one in question desperately is not.

Because there isn’t some moment of titanic willpower into being better. Not from things like this. Sometimes I think mental illness terrifies people because it exposes the limits of our willing. My suffering isn’t actually explained by any of the memories, you see. Not quite. Yes, in part – and yet not. My sister remembers our childhood, and she makes an effort sometimes to set her memories against mine. But the suffering isn’t in the memories themselves. Not quite. I could take control if it were true, if everything came to remembering – or not remembering. If it came to “moving on.” Time doesn’t work like that, though, and neither do memories – we can’t will them away.

Remembering is a strange sacrament. These words and symbols that somehow more than they are – even pain. The fragility of a memory isn’t the problem so much as the strength of what they impart. A brief half-trace can burn all over.

Even if everything were reducible to the trauma of my birth – which it isn’t – and the rest is just a self rather helpless before experiences that would never hurt anyone else, it would mean so very little. The answer. If it were all that one thing. Like it always was, growing up: “She’s a premie, so…” God dammit, I’ll never escape the shadow of being born. And neither will you. Part of what being born means is that you will never be able to summarize yourself.

Being unable to recount high school doesn’t leave me unmarked by it. The lack of memory shows me how the past is more than what I am able to see in it. Even in the presence of memories – like the time a teacher asked me what happens to us when we suffer, and I felt the whole world of a suffering adult settle on my shoulders – I do not fully understand.

Trauma is a particularly painful and broken way to remember. This doesn’t make it unreal or more real than the rest. (As if suffering could summarize me instead.) But it does hurt, far too much, and we at least must say that memories ought not do this. Something must somehow break the hold. Yet what would it be, that thing, if you cannot offer it and I cannot either? We don’t like to ask that question. This one than mental illness lays to bear.

The obvious implication is that my spiritual powers are not enough. We think we see guilt on the faces of the mentally ill, some kind of failure on their part. No: they are signs of a frightening impossible. The uncomfortable proposition that we are not enough for ourselves. Nor even for each other.

There is a word in Latin: conveniens. Thomas Aquinas uses it to discuss when something is “fitting.” It isn’t necessary; it isn’t arbitrary. It fits, makes sense in the strange way only beauty makes sense: inexplicably reasonable. Of course, of course – that just suits you. It just does. Conveniens.

There is a doorway somewhere in our imaginations and wills, there where memories and dreams live. A door that can’t be made – not with human hands – nor opened. But by some fitting measure there is a way the heart (which dreams and remembers) can be soothed into the perfect shape to open it. The measure of a different willing, a will that is not the heart’s yet not without the heart. So suitable it goes on unnoticed in the beating dark. There may be no memory of it, none at all. Or the recollection may rise up sudden from the past in some future far from now.

A grace that doesn’t rescue so much as it breathes within, and the dead gasp awake.

The God Who Was Afraid

Superman. Duh.

Superman. Duh.

I remember a Superman cape. It reached almost to my feet, swallowing my skinny child-frame. I must have been three. I remember straightening my shoulders, fists planted at my waist. I was the little girl who wanted to be Superman. The kid who needed to be brave and invulnerable. The memory says more about my young self than I wish it did.

I know I was three because it was the first preschool I attended before we moved. Other than my steadfast and vicious hatred of preschool, I don’t remember much of it. Almost nothing of that first one other than the cape. That, and some godforsaken “Wheels on the Bus” sing-a-long that I passively lip-synced to, bored, ever the quiet little anarchist. God, I hated preschool. Even the second one, whose efforts to get me to eat food-dyed green eggs and ham utterly failed.

Anyway. I wanted to be courageous, indestructible, strong. Superman was all of those things. I can still see myself standing there, silent and shy as always, for once stiffening resolutely with that damned cape across my shoulders. When I think more deeply about it, I see a terrified little kid desperate for ways not to hurt so easily. Desperate to be fearless somehow. Because I already knew the world to be a grim and violent place. Even if only inchoately (I mean, I was three), I grasped some hidden horror just enough to need the cloak of a superhero. This continued with me as I grew. I remember being deeply concerned with this, with who was strong and who was not.

It puzzled me that Jesus wasn’t a hero. He just wasn’t. He was God, sure. But that guy died, too. I’d stare at the crucifix in total sympathy. I felt I knew what it was like to be him. I drew crosses all over everything.

I’d always end up sitting by my very best friend in the world, a patient and sweet girl. She had a native tolerance for my long list of intolerances. She had a gentle way of reaching past my frequent silences. She was the only safe human being in my universe.

(Jesus was something, but not safe.)

What a weird kid I was. Don’t think I don’t know.

I do remember how scared I felt. I do remember thinking the world quite a violent place. I knew this as a simple fact. The world was disturbing: fact. Deal with it or don’t. So I made sure I wouldn’t go down without a fight. Of course, I lost again and again. Little kids don’t win against adults. I do remember those losses – sometimes painfully clear, all etched in glass; other times a felt impression made of bare fragments.

God damn if I didn’t learn how to go down without a fight at all. It was quicker that way.

Then I would fit the mask back on, don the cape. Admit nothing. Quietly tag along with my very best friend, who was brave in ways I very much wished to be.

Jesus was pierced and he bled. I was fascinated by the whole story. It was important to me. Not quite comforting, but definitely real. The world was disturbing: fact. Jesus knew.

It is more accurate to say that Jesus felt all that human flesh would feel at the prospect of death: fear, sadness, repulsion. The Son, the divine Son, felt these in his human flesh. This is an important distinction – that he wept as a man and not as God. It means he felt our fright as we feel it. We human beings. Then, with a breadth only possible to divinity, Christ drew every single one of our feelings to himself. Words begin to fray here, at the edges of a mystery. What I mean is: all of human experience, all of it, has been embraced by God in Christ. That doesn’t make every inch of it good. Just embraced.

Even my experiences.

There are large swaths of my childhood I have not learned to forgive, cannot remember without stifling anger.

I wonder sometimes at how Christ forgave everyone on the cross. I wonder if he’ll forgive me for being so unable to forgive. Or I wonder if that divine mercy toward me will be the painful working out of forgiveness stretched through the remaining hours of my life.

Jesus was never a hero, and certainly has never made me one. I have resented him more than one time in more than one way for that. I mean that I could never be brave enough, or tough enough, or smart enough to win. God lost, and so did I. And I struggled very much to understand.

I don’t know if I understand any better fully grown. Still, my gentle best friend remains so. And she remains braver than me in some secret way that is, I am convinced, closer to the cross than all my scowls and scars and white knuckles. Not that she is willing to lose, or weak. Not that God is, either. There is simply a gentleness required to acknowledge the reality of fear, a tenderness that faces it and somehow passes through to another side. A fierce patience that steps through instead of fighting against, finding a place where fear is, though not vanished, at least transfigured.

I have no idea why gentleness is the key. I don’t know how it doesn’t shatter along with everything else. I don’t know why divinity bothered to be afraid like us. Statements of faith aside – to redeem us, I know – I really don’t get it. The logic is bewildering. But it does require gentleness, this bothering to be like us, whatever the logic is. Not superhuman feats.

Which is good, in the end.

We cannot be superhuman, but we can be gentle at least.

Thomas Aquinas’s (Northern) California

Grizzly Peak Peek

The winters are green here. Green and cool, with a bright sun that heats the middle of the day. Everywhere the earth is fresh, new. Shivering and alive somehow in a gentle cold that quietly clings to bone.

Bones of lean shoulders draped in scarves and thin jackets, hands stuffed into pockets. Fingers gripping steering wheels in heavy traffic – impatient, white-knuckled, aggressive. The frown of unhappy jaws locked tight like the bumpers of millions of cars. Of millions of people shouldering together in the narrow crevices of the hills.

Never have I seen so many people in so little space. I have almost forgotten the flat embrace of cornfields blanketed in snow, not a soul in sight. Here there are always houses where one could stubbornly exist, and many more that lean precariously at odd angles – jutting horizontal while an old mountain slumbers crooked underneath. Then suddenly there are no houses at all, and nature rises and wins for a moment before being swallowed again by people and streets.

Millions and millions of people under the bright gold and blue of the empty afternoon sky. Bones sinewed together at identical angles, and different in each one. The wild array of tattoos over skin, aggressively carved identities. Colored hair and sharp piercings side-by-side with manicured nails and tailored jackets. Everyone desperate to be different and to be welcomed, anxious to be set apart and never alone.

Hundreds of languages spoken with the vocal chords we share.

And always the sun, and always its loss – at the odd cloudy or rainy day. Or when the fog creeps over the bay in the evening, and lays itself heavily across all the bridges and people stretched out underneath. A sun that must climb over mountains, reaching us at scattered distances. I know now what it means to be in the valley of the shadow of death: to see sunlight far away, lighting edges I cannot reach, while the hills grimly grip the nearer land in shadow. That happens here always, when the sun dips down along the Pacific or rises in the wide East. Hemmed in as we are by the vast expanse of an ocean and an entire continent.

I know, too, what the dome of the sky must be. I have seen windless days when thin white clouds have spanned themselves across a wide expanse of pure blue. The whole horizon seemed to lift and bend like one immense shelter, with all of us held close together underneath.

And I know God implicitly in each of these.

And all is known by God, and all sustained, and all details remembered. Every bone and every face. Every gnarled tree.

All is thought always in a single act, unfurling time from eternity.

Imagination in Ruins

“Ruins of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche,” Bernardo Bellotto

Oh, the things students say. One sat in my office, face open and sincere. And then she said: “My favorite things you say aren’t about Jesus. They’re about love. I’m sorry, I just love the way you talk about love.”

I blinked, not exactly shocked. Well, not since the first time such a comment made me stutter and blush until I almost ran from the room. It happens once or twice a semester. Love comes up in theology, especially the more philosophical and existential sort that I teach. It is a way to reach students who sure as hell don’t care about God, but who do care about love.

Coughing away some nerves, I quirked my mouth into a half grin. “Well. Thank you. And please don’t be sorry.”

I really hate when people are sorry for thinking something.

She shifted, drawing in a breath and hesitating. I saw the question in her eyes before she whispered: “How do you know so much?”

I tried not to scowl. “Oh, I’m observant, you know.”

“You must have loved so deeply.”

Now I was trying not to roll my eyes. I know what sort of love she meant, and it definitely was not friendship or how I love kittens or anything like that. I verbally prodded her to move on, and she let it go.

Except.

She’s not entirely wrong.

And yet –

She is.

There are many, many kinds of knowing. None of them are secret unless we insist on not paying attention. Mostly we do insist. So it becomes very hard to explain that there is an imaginative shape to knowing that allows us to extend experience into new anticipations of the future, and even to foreshadow what has not been experienced at all.

Because the truth is my actual, real experiences of “love” are more horrifying than beautiful and romantic. Not that I went and decided to follow the path of amazingly traumatic options like it was the greatest idea ever. But there you go. My first-hand knowledge of love is not great. So how do I end up with students all in my face about love?

Our knowledge does not, and cannot, end with what we directly understand. Human beings are not reducible to their experiences. And thank God. Else all I’d be able to say about romantic love is that it is awful and violent and it is a mystery to me why people want it ever.

I rarely indicate that I am aware of the dark undercurrents that can claw apart human desire. In the classroom especially, I announce a much different reality. I think it is important to leave hope in the hands of those who bear it. So I do my best to interact with that hope and imaginatively grasp what love might be like, what it should be like. The ruined pieces of me, the burned hallways and wrecked rooms savaged without my consent, seem to somehow know.

So. How does one imagine what one does to know?

Something important that we do all the time is observe others. We watch them and imitate them; we draw close to people and learn what is wonderful about them and what is hurt. Their own experiences live in them as a portrait of what we might want to be, or might not. We are not, in other words, only thoughtful about our own experiences.

That is one way we broaden our ability to understand what might be real. Another is the inward orientation we all have toward what Plato would call “the Good” and that we might experience as a simple yearning for more. We want to improve, somehow, at something. Or somewhere. We want to “get better.” However we put it, we all desire a richer form of life. That desire itself is an anticipation of, a willing of the potential for – a hope for more than we have yet known.

There is yet that strange imaginative impulse that insists on trying to grasp more than we know before we have even encountered it. It has a way of attempting to know before we know. Things like daydreams about that future job. That future family. That extravagant new whatever from Apple. None of us has yet known that reality, and – not to be a raincloud – it might never happen. All I mean is it has yet to be at all, doesn’t exist yet. Still we imagine.

It is beautiful to imagine.

Beauty, you see, shapes the best imagining. Beauty is what draws together what we already know with the “more” that we yearn for wordlessly. We try to dream about beautiful things, and dreams are only really beautiful if they stitch together fragments of what is true with care for what is good. Or else we will only be fantasizing, or having a nightmare. When we imagine, we anticipate a better self. That better self becomes real for us in figure, in a shadowed “almost.” An almost that we might yet make real.

So I think that artists at their best are incredibly capable dreamers, and in an uncanny way they are able to know things that they don’t know at all. Perhaps that they never will. Sure: Rilke was a selfish womanizer. And still: that poetry. It is more than he was.

I was once a poet of sorts. I’ve admitted that before here, and I continue to feel sadness at the ways I lost poetry somehow. Perhaps there is darkness that poetry cannot overcome. It’s only poetry, after all. It’s not a light from Heaven. Still, I miss it and hope for its return.

Because the best of me was alive when I wrote poems. In my little way, with what little I could sew together. And through it I could do some remarkable things. Like the time – maybe my favorite time – that I wrote a love poem (of all things!) for someone else. On something of a dare, I wrote a poem for a husband to his wife. (Yeah, do the difficulty math on that one.) I remember smiling softly after they gently teased me to write a poem, saying I’d do it. Meaning it.

I remember walking through the cool sunlight in the afternoon of wintry Milwaukee, closing my eyes and thinking of him. Thinking of her. Drawing together everything I knew about them and everything else I knew, including what I did not know. Letting it blur together. All so I could create something beautiful and good and true.

And I did. Especially, I think, with respect to each of them. I created a poem an engineer might write if he could write poetry. I drew a picture of his love for her, and of someone she loved. I held in mind her love for him as much as his. This fiercely independent woman who would not be bothered with love unless it were equally as fierce and free. Wasn’t that what she loved about him? Wasn’t that the way he loved her? Even if he had the most irritating way of saying it – “you’re mine” (I mean, come on, dude) – didn’t the fumbling words mean something else they both knew?

Then I lit a fire underneath each stanza.

Because love is yearning.

Love wants.

With no violence at all.

And I included his damned favorite phrase, and made it shine with the secret gold it concealed.

None of which, of course, is what I know. And, somehow, is what I know. The poem was as much theirs and as much the impossible imagining of my own ruined heart. I include it below, and if you can’t see why I miss poetry after reading it, well. I don’t know what to say to you that isn’t mean. Just read it gently, is all I ask. It’s an important part of me I want back.

Wrought

I am not weak.
I am wrought iron that, once
bent in bright primordial fires
(long before I met you)
never takes another shape.
I am not weak,
though all my angles,
my permanent contours,
turn to you.

I cannot change the way,
I cannot change –
my whole life curves toward you
like so many determined lines.
Threads gathered in and held
in your hands.
I could no more refuse you
than I could refuse myself.

Everything is yours.
My enduring curvature,
wrought before I knew you,
made for you alone:
time before time, dark
ages fashioned me for you –
and you alone.
And you…

And if you bent yourself close
to me, and felt the gentle
cool of my lasting shape,
the way my arms were made
to hold you (and you alone) –
you could rest here (with me).
If you curved yourself close,
you could feel that I am yours –
and you are mine.

Shadow Sacrament

Georges Antoine Rochegross, "The Death of Messalina" (Detail)

Georges Antoine Rochegross, “The Death of Messalina” (Detail)

Ah, touched in your bower of bone
Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
Do you! — mother of being in me, heart.

– G.M. Hopkins

We tend to think of words as invisible, as notional or suggestive. As a veneer for meaning. But words, you see, are sacramental – like the rest of the world. They mediate the real. They symbolize, participate in, invite and educate in meaning. Like the rest of the world, you see.

Words have touch. That is how I think of them. They reach and pull and bend, communicate and conceal. As our touches do.

I went to the dentist today, and I was not looking forward to the touch of metal instruments and cool hands. I am not afraid of dentists. I don’t hate them like some people do. But touch disturbs me, and the glint of sharp tools leaves me cold. I am not afraid of dentists, but I am afraid of anything that reminds me of anything I hate to remember. And I hate to remember touch and tools.

Sights and sounds and physical pressure, gestures and gazes and more: these are sacraments, too. They are real; they bear what is real; they bear us into what is real.

I followed the hygienist down the hallway to our room, and on the way I caught sight of a young girl laying down in a chair. Saw her splayed out underneath a spinning tool. I shivered and looked away.

“What have you been up to?” the hygienist asked, gesturing toward the empty chair in the empty room.

I placed my jacket in a corner, movements measured and muted. “I am a professor.”

I am good at words. I am aware that I am good at words. Their light touch takes a shape that I am especially adept at attending and guiding. Gently. Always gently. I speak and write with practiced precision, searching for just the moment when my words seem as if they have no touch at all, no pressure: you want to look where I want you to see. Your heart takes you there, just where my words leave you be.

I’ll not have seemed to convince you at all. You’ll have already thought it somewhere secretly. It’ll already be yours, even if I have given it.

“Beautiful,” people say, staring me in the face. Eyes wide, vulnerable. Features softer, younger.

Yes.

Meaning is beautiful. And vulnerable. And – always – young.

A few weeks ago, I sat quietly in a large, cushioned chair across from my therapist. Holding some coffee in my lap, barely occupying the expanse of the seat. I am naturally small, my mother’s Sicilian heritage reflected in my diminutive frame. Always lean, I have thinned considerably of late. I somehow take up even less space. I’ve been taking better care of myself, though its ironic outcome has been my own physical winnowing.

“I want to mention something that I remember from early on in this process,” my therapist began. I watched him, open and attentive. Holding hard-earned trust. He is soft-spoken, slender, intelligent. I hardly knew what to guess, what it was he meant to surface from those embattled early days. I was cagey and angry then, avoiding much. Lashing at myself with tears and words – if not a knife. Reserving absolutely none of the gentleness I had for others for myself. Remembering those days, I waited, listening.

There is much waiting in being a patient. I am good at being a patient. Sometimes I think of the old word passio, in Latin, which means “to endure” or “to change.” A good patient endures. A patient person is someone who knows how to endure.

I hate that. Enduring.

My therapist looked at me: “You reacted strongly, once. When I asked about the couch.”

I glanced at it, off to the side. A therapeutic couch, narrow and soft. With a pillow. A bit like you might see in a TV version of therapy, which of course is mostly lies, with a patient reclining and remembering as a bespectacled therapist listens with notebook in hand. My eyes flicked to the closed office door. Then back.

Everything in me seized. I felt a lopsided smile pull across my face before I could even think, automatically masking the terror that spread out cold in my chest. He mirrored my grin. These small gestures calm those in whom I sense a threat. Some tiny corner of my mind howled, wordless and raw. The rest of me bent, invisible, in a poised crouch. Every mental power at the ready.

Just as I was in the damn dentist’s office, weeks later. Poised and alert yet calm and affable, gently accepting instructions. Offering nothing by way of explicit resistance, even as the whole of me was prepared to disappear with any touch I found too much to bear.

It didn’t even take a touch, of course. Just an X-ray machine that she asked me to stand in front of, fitting my small frame underneath its bent arms. I clenched my teeth over fitted grooves. There was a mirror. I watched my own thin face become someone else’s as the machine whirred to life and spun. I vanished.

It never touched me. It didn’t have to.

I remember too many machines. The various colors of my bones and veins and organs. The searching digital gazes.

Maybe you know what it is like to vanish before someone else’s eyes. Maybe it happened, once, in a bitter argument: and you knew then that the person in front of you saw nothing about you at all. Can you imagine digital eyes? Will you add the touch and cut of a scalpel? The whispered command to hold still?

Even a word is enough, sometimes. It was just one word. Weeks ago. Just a couch. Just a word.

And not at all.

I held still, coffee clutched in my lap. “What about it?”

Defer, I thought. Distance. Make him say it.

He paused, seemed aware of the challenge. “What do you think about it?”

“The couch?” I swallowed, glancing at the closed door again. Run, the ragged voice in the back of my mind hissed. I held still, commanding a rush of horrible memories into silence with gritted teeth. Distraction would do me no good. I looked at my therapist, watching him. No distractions. I needed to watch him, now. Because now he was a threat, and I am very small. I swallowed again, struggling to find where my trust had gone. “I think,” I said, voice low, “I think if you asked me to even sit on it, I’d try to run out of this room.”

(Not that I really would. I didn’t, at the dentist’s office.)

“I didn’t ask you to do anything,” he clarified, “just think about it.”

I waited, mouth shut. Disbelieving.

“I think it means something important,” he explained. “I know it’s very painful for you, but I’m trying to do right by you.”

Memories clawed at the peripheries of my thoughts. I glanced at the couch, back at my therapist, at the door. Waited for him to command me to lay down, waited for his betrayal. I held still.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Just a couch. Just laying down. Just a doctor asking me to lay down. And he hadn’t even – yet. Not yet.

“What would you do,” he asked, “if I asked you to lay down?”

I scowled, which was the utmost aggression I felt I could show. “I’d probably do it, if you asked. I wouldn’t want to. But I’d go away, and then I’d do it.”

You never run, the bitter voice said to me. I blinked at tears.  I would vanish – the self we have, the self we take for granted, the self we obsess over, the self we try to meditate away, would vanish – and the rest of me would be left to hear commands, to mechanically respond, to nod and obey. This is called dissociation. It is how the mind protects itself from things too awful to comprehend.

Just a chair. Just laying down.

“I haven’t asked you anything,” my therapist tried.

I held still. Waiting.

What an irony, to know I’d lay down weeks later. With ambiguous willingness. I’m not afraid of the dentist. I’m a fully grown adult, and I’ve seen much worse than their damn cleaning tools. Much worse. With much darker intentions.

So what do I care about a dentist? Nothing I can’t handle, except how it bears what I can’t. Except the touch and gaze that mimics the ones I wish I never knew at all. The present sacraments of the unspeakable past.

“There is so much to say,” my therapist said, existing somewhere I didn’t understand, level and even. “So much you have never been allowed to say. Can you not even say what you think when you feel terrified?”

Ice spread through my veins, tears threatening. I shifted slightly, mind collapsing, scattering apart. I thought of being dragged and held down. I thought of hands. Sharp, glinting objects. Needles and knives. A hand covering my mouth. Silence. Those hands holding me down. Forcing me to lay down.

In an instant. A small eternity.

Just lay down. It’s just a couch. Just a word.

Isn’t it?

I opened my mouth, but no word offered itself. I swallowed, shrinking in my seat. A tremor ran its way through my whole body and remained, like the trembling spark and hum of a broken electric wire. I tried to hold still. Tried not to move my hands. Tried to make sure he didn’t see.

I opened my mouth, and a voice weaker than the one I know as my own reached my ears. Strange and soft and so, so afraid. “Please. Don’t hurt me.”

I couldn’t look at him.

He breathed deep, pain etched on his face. “It will follow you until you face it.” Follow me down the street. Into a dentist’s chair. Into every touch I’ve ever received. “You need to let someone in with you.”

I nodded but said nothing, unable to picture anything but strong hands gripping me and dragging me down.

There is no meaning there, where the shadows are. In the depthless darkness that has bequeathed itself to all the gestures of my life, a somber sacrament that somehow perpetuates itself. That somehow will not cease. And the only way out is back into the middle of it, where the hands and needles are. I have to go back there.

Do you even want to look, reader, where I need to see? Where there aren’t any beautiful words, and no gentle touches?

I don’t know that I do, except that I do anyway – every time anything takes the shape of that dark place.

I have to return tomorrow to fix some cavities.

I’m not excited.