21 April 2015

it snowed briefly today, between sleet and rain.

There are three lonelinesses, she said.
The silence that surrounds me when I have no one near enough to listen,
The silence that surrounds me when I am in the presence of one who does not listen,
And the empty noise I surround myself with, not being able to bear silence.
The last loneliness is the worst, she said,
It is the lone loneliness that cannot heal.

Why does loneliness hurt, I said?
Stop making noise, she said.

19 April 2015

10 questions - Owen White

The photo is of my son Paul and I from this past (Orthodox) Holy Thursday.

I decided to answer my own ten questions via voice instead of text.  Should you have a half hour to waste this Sunday afternoon or whatever day falls lazily for you, then here you go:

I can't believe I did it, but I forgot the last stanza of the Berry poem I recite:

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection. 

So I will let that epithet of text stand alone.

12 April 2015

These last few weeks have been filled with wonder and grace, along with help, both spiritual and material.  Thank you to each one of you who has prayed for my family, and to those who continue to do so.

I plan to return to writing here in the near future.  Mostly boring, mediocre poetry, and perhaps some ephemera.

The above photo is of my son, Paul, being baptized on Orthodox Holy Thursday.  May the God for Whom the waters do not part hold him in Christ's death defeating death, forever and always.

12 March 2015

untitled poem, III.

The smell of manure
in the air for the first time this year.
The life of death in earth.

The snow,
what's left of its crests and waves disheveled,
and with all the guileless ownership of a village drunk,
retreated to ditch and tree-line.

The dozen deer,
most of them fawns, still unsure of leg and hoof,
half glances in my direction as I wait for them to cross.

The pheasant cock,
refined with his Anglican collar atop his vesture.
Rev. Phasianus greets me in his usual fashion,
turning his back feathers in my direction.
No interest in evangelizing the unwashed few
who pass him by;
we, apparently, not worthy of the
display of his flying away.

The farmers begin
to gather brush for today's fires.
This evening there will be a glow in
every other field,
the sky, in acknowledgement,
offering its own vesperal pyre.

No one I meet today, not one soul,
will speak of this beauty.

It is just as well,
as the not speaking covers what is naked,
and retains its dignity.

the desecrator

Before the bramble produces your thorns, while you are still alive, he will utterly unmake you.
--Psalm 57:9, Donald Sheehan's translation.

I was most wrong when most right.
I became the person I hated.
The victory I counted with a notch, I came to count as a loss. 

From my friend FDA:

A vulnerable image is not an empty one.
'So just as the authority of the divine Word has to establish itself, in and through the unceasing continuation of dialogue, as that which continually offers excess or abundance which may be healing, so the divine image establishes itself not by universally compelling attraction but by its endurance through disruption and defilement. Fyodor Karamazov offers to spit on his wife's beloved icon, as if the lack of any visible sanction or punishment that would prevent him doing this is a demonstration of the lack of "real presence" in the image, but he has failed to grasp the fundamental fact--to which all Dostoevsky's stories of desecrated images point--that it is in the nature of images to be capable of desecration, and that what makes images sacred is not some magical invulnerability or supernatural protection but their capacity to retain in themselves the real energy of another world, transmitted into the world of isolated and death-bound agents. The icon is in this sense a "powerless" image, in that it is not safe from what history may do to it; the crucifixion of the fully incarnate image of God lets us know that. But a vulnerable image is not an empty one.'
--Rowan Williams, 'Dostoevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction', p. 208
The desecrator, with power, in want of power, in rage against power, is an empty one.

That is hell.  It's own reward.  The hollowness of spittle that cannot heal, that does nothing, is the action of nothing.

While you are still alive.  Thank God, this.

10 March 2015

On Opening a Box of Old Icons

Live in fragments no longer. Only connect.
- E.M. Forster,  from Howards End.

The box sat in the attic, 
the higher up attic of the two,
for twenty five months.

I brought it down to our room, 
window open for the first time this year.

The funeral garb of cardboard and packing tape and wadded up papers is torn off gently.
My hand reaches for the cylindrical old hand towel, which protects
a bottle of rose water.

Its glass is cold, 
left in an unheated far corner of an old farmhouse
through two and a half Wisconsin winters.
It shows no signs of having been frozen, 
but  to touch it stings a bit.
This is a winter cold, not a spring one.
Upon the twist of the cap – immediate contrast.
The fragrance shines into my nostrils the warmth of Lebanon,
where the contents of this bottle were distilled and poured.
The chill of its glass on my hand accuses my nose of lies.
Fair enough, I have followed false scents before.

I dab the Arab warmth onto a rag and begin.

Old friends, cheap prints and oleographs,
not much for taste, but the aesthetics of perpetual resurrection,

or so said Betjeman.

First Maximus, which befits recent days.  Then the Damascene,  

the stern twins Athanasius and Cyril standing side by side. 

Anna, with her daughter holding a lily to her breast.
Another with those two and Joachim, on a bed that is a fire orange,
surprisingly fertile, as my own bed has been of late.

Old Stylianos, kissed so many times when we had none;
he will sit by the cradle as our fourth sleeps.

Folk apostles being directed by a Romanian Christ, 
casting their nets into a lake with green pined hills all around it.

Elias, surrounded by scenes from his life, there that chariot of fire,
the same earthen furnace orange as Joachim’s bed.
Reminding me of two friends who died in chariots, one long ago, whom I knew as a child,
one recently, known in orange fire only.
And a child, for whom I must now pray.
This is the first I kiss, the rush of rose is not pretty, nor elegant, it is not the rose arranged by some giggling florist from a wealthy coast who appears on his friend’s cable TV design show, or in a magazine if he is not quite that good.  
This is the crushed rose of the ancients, the tears of Rachel turned the dew of Hermon, where the LORD commanded that blessing which will finally undo the bound undone.

An old Russian style cross, from my just learning to sand-cast brass -  not very good. 
Eventually I would make better, but give them away and keep this homely one. 
I hang on it the prayer rope Macrina sent me, the one with the wrong number of knots,
from when she was beginning. 
It is the one prayer rope that suits me.
 I suppose, starting again, I may as well be up front with my asymmetries. 

Along the way the ephemera that had slumbered with these quiet ones.
A bag of hair from my middler’s first hair cut.
A partial box of thirty-eight shorts, half a century old,
that came with my grandfather’s revolver after he died. 
A few inches of branch from our first Christmas tree.
A piece of wood that middler once picked up at Mother Nektaria’s skete –
daddy keep it, and here it still is.
An old pottery cup, to burn incense in, though not today, 
as the rose on cloth and image, and the smell of winter dying outside, are enough.  
More than enough.

There is the little pressed copper Bulgarian,
Four scenes from Christ’s life,
crevices darkened by the smoke of hundreds of candles. 

A little Winifred, with a vial of her well’s water taped too it. 

I anoint a little Salome with my sweet cloth; my wife always loved her image,
cross and spice.

Then the regal Irene,
a Brighid, then David the Water Drinker, a dozen others.

The Forerunner, with his long neck, daring you to take what you want of him.

Three Theotokos. 
Igorevskaya will watch over the girls, as she is the most weathered mother.

Finally, at the bottom of the box, the crowned Bridegroom, His hands bound in matrimony,
His unbroken reed.

I stood before Him once, not this exact one, but another Bridegroom just like it, saying confession to a young priest I was sure would provide me with tedious insights.  But it was my judgment that was premature. 

Look at the icon.
Take a deep breath.
Pray: You are God.
Take a deep breath.
Pray: I am not.
Take a deep breath.
Pray: Help.
Take a deep breath.

I find the last clean spot on the cloth, dab it with rose,
wipe my Bridegroom clean,
look around the room, 
surrounded by friends,
and return to the rule.



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08 March 2015

an ill advised prayer

Do not pray this prayer: a message to a younger self.

I get it, you are full of all that invincibility that teenage male hormones give you.

The missionary industry sent you around the world, and you’ve seen the awful.

Your parents move from the hick belt of the Ohio Valley to suburban Detroit. The kids there make fun of your “Southern” accent, which pisses you off, because it isn’t southern, it’s Appalachian. You realize that a big belt buckle is not fashionable to kids who spend a few nights a week in a mall, a use of time you’d never fathomed until now.

First day of junior year at the rich Baptist high school (so, obviously, nouveau riche), some chick in homeroom class asks for prayer for her poodle having surgery that day.

She cries during the asking.

Not many weeks prior you had seen eight year olds picking cans out of the dump where they lived in makeshift shacks.

You remember the brightness and openness in those kids’ eyes, and behind the red of this poodle crying elite darling there is nothing. Hollow. Empty.

But with that estimation you become the high and mighty arbiter of what is and what isn’t,
and in self-satisfaction you go home and pronounce the words,
in indignation and demand and confidence in your ability to see it through:

God, grant that I might live a human life.

You are dumber than rocks.

Oh, you make plenty of noise, but you don’t have a clue what that noise just meant.

Another year, another summer spent abroad, and afterwards violence will visit your home, men in suits with guns, and you will gasp for breath from the heel on your neck, a sensation you will feel for the rest of your life.

You muddle through attempts at college, you quit and run off to save the world, but oh the romance leaves quick, because the world, well that world as you parse it, is not beautiful, it stinks and hurts, and so you quit that and go back.

You’ve taken what you know isn’t love and she leaves, which involves you leaving, so now you’re homeless and living in the furnace room of a church turned bookstore, terribly alone, besides books, which surround you. On old Torah scroll at the foot of your bed. A rabbi tells you that once a goy touches it, it is no longer considered a Torah. A prophecy, perhaps, concerning what you’ve yet to touch.

Friends bring you back to a steady gait, you pour out your money on booze and books, you read all the time, and you continue to feel away, not at home, an orientation that will remain with you from here on out.

You fall in love, but it’s complicated. Nothing in your life gets done in normal symmetries. She has to leave the community she loves, you get told you had not settled all the right ecclesial accounts. You putz around, sell fire extinguishers, back to the bookstore, but not really there this time, trying to make a marriage work while living on thin ice.

Not sustainable, you run, and you fall in love again, this time with an 89 mile rural paper route. But life for you and your wife is empty there, so another run.

Two years you say. After that we move back north. But it will be over ten. You end up soldering copper in a big metal shack inferno in Memphis. Iron and fire, torch and sander. Noise. Unrelenting loudness, for forty or sixty or seventy hours a week. One day, with the tree across the street from the bay doors of the shop in autumn red, you will sit with your buddies drinking beers after a shift, none of you saying anything, and for the first time without guile, you will become aware of the fellowship of silence.

This is where you will first learn to yearn for quiet. The acid will eat your hands such that you will reach a day when you can never put them in water without a prick of pain. The dust and the fumes and the cigs you pick up again working there will turn your lungs against you. You will eat possum wrapped in bacon. You will go to north Mississippi Pentecostal funerals and shotgun weddings. You’ll meet a one legged girl who works at an adult movie store, the daughter of a white trash lesbian who, after years of hating on you, tells you one day about how her daddy and her husband beat the shit out of her. Marco will preach to you his theology of hell, how he in his hustlin’ hood life is already in it, and so he has no fear of God, because he is in the worst place God can send anybody anyway. You’ll hear him pray for you, and you will wonder.

Oh you’ve staked your own claims with God: having never wrestled, but feigned a limp, and having never been told to go there, you arrive at El-bethel, trumpets blaring, and announce that an altar is under construction. Your first altar consists of a professional portrait of yourself wearing your best (well, only) suit and a Dale Carnegie smile. God doesn’t show up. Too flashy probably, so you try a portrait of yourself posed in your old flannel shirt grunge attire. Nope. Then the working man thing. You are the workingest of working men, and can sell it. God’s gotta take that. But no.

Finally, you think God must be old school, and really just want rocks. You don’t want to use the nice stones that were used as ballasts on cotton ships headed back to Memphis, that now are your porch and the boundary of one of your gardens in the backyard, so you just get some gravel from the neighbor’s driveway. Your altar may be more appropriately sized for some god of faeries, but you figure it’s the rocks that count.


What the hell does God want anyway? It’s the two thousand aughts, dammit, you’ve read up on El-bethel on Wiki and you’ve faked this limp for years.

The economy crashes. You lose your job six weeks before your third child is born, in a thunderstorm, in your hands when the midwife doesn’t show up. A few weeks later your HVAC goes out, then the roof starts leaking, then, as things get ever more biblicalish, rats chew down the insulation in the crawlspace. You’ll make ends meet with clunkers donated from your mother-in-law, occasional lines of cash and credit from your parents, and cheap beer in the fridge.

You go back to school for a degree that might pay something. Just in the thick of it, the old shop calls. Come back to work for us, at just over half of your old pay and no benefits, and if you refuse you lose your unemployment anyway. So you do that. First fifteen, then twenty, then thirty hours a week, plus the full time attempt at a nursing degree.

You break. Physically, mentally. Thousands, then tens of thousands in medical bills. With every credit card near the limit, you make the smartest move you’ve made in years – you buy a decent camera. You take pictures of babies in hand me downs laughing and pronouncing joy to a world they have not yet learned to curse. You’ve hidden one thing well, anyway.

You still go to church, but not much – all deals (all of them unaccepted by Him anyway, despite your attempts at honest negotiation; well, honest in the modern sense) with God are off.

You find fellowship elsewhere – a ragtag group of broken activists. You end up spending nights downtown around the tents of those desperate bent on occupying something, anything, wherein they might belong. Half of them are homeless. A quarter bohemians. Some working poor. Some runaways. The odd lawyer and those couple of libertarians who you actually find you like. You sing songs with them, and attend meetings which everyone pretends are important, and so they are. You hear the stories of people with no memory of a Jerusalem to long to go back to. But nonetheless, in the farce this all is, in the glares of the professionals coming out of the offices around your encampment, you sing by the waters of Babylon, or hum something like that rather, knowing with your comrades that there must be such a song. There must be. The dispossessed, the forgotten, the abused, the picked over, the not paid, the not wanted, they must have some song of some home somewhere where they belong. Where things will be made right. They must. Otherwise put a bullet in the head. A couple of those folk from those days will take that route.

You lose the house two of your kids were born in. You move 700 miles away so as to get health care you can afford. You get a court to get the folks who keep calling you off your back. A grown man with a family now living with his mother-in-law, driving over an hour to get to cook food in a big state institution. There again, friends and their stories, the collateral damage of those left behind by the rapture of wealth. You watch a young man break down and cry at work because he can’t get the ends to meet anymore, and you envy his tears, because your world has turned dry. You just survive. You get fatter on the gas station food bought at 4am in Columbus, Wisconsin, just off 151, on your way in early, morning after morning, to account for the snow. You are exhausted. But you take those stories, the cougar who brags about her exploits, and eventually shows her scars, the moms scared for their kids, the Filipino girl living on not much more than rice so she can send more money home, old Robert with his cynical wit.

A promotion opens up. Nothing like what you once made but a living wage, you guess. North instead of south, a little closer to home. Another institution, this one mental. You watch staff and patients serve meals and wash dishes. You wash dishes with them. You think to yourself, what sort of mess have I made of my life, washing dishes at 40 years old? But then you remember that you like to wash dishes. The lady bringing you dirty dishes to load is dying of cancer. Her adult son has Downs. He doesn’t understand what is going on. She tells you, wiping her eyes, I’m not afraid of death, it’s coming, I’m afraid for him. You sit with the kids at lunch. Scars on their arms and necks from reaches for death. Misfits – geeks, dweebs, autistic kids, gay kids, mean kids, kids who were raped first as infants, burned kids, ugly kids, awkward kids, kids who lie and cheat, kids who smile any time you remember their name. They tell their stories. You think you oughta stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Surprise baby comes. Fourth kid. Wife can’t keep her job an hour and a half away. It’s paycheck to paycheck again, tight; no mercy.

It’s just one bad hand away from it all falling apart, but that’s no different from a lot of people you know.

Boy this time. You name him after your father, who is the gentlest man you know. You don’t have any warrior left in you. You want this boy to love peace.

He, this boy, he laughs all the time. Out of surgery, sick and sick again, he just laughs. He smiles at everybody. He wakes up in the night and will coo until you come to him, and then his face lights up. He sings, he binds his hand around your finger fierce like, with devotion, looking at you with his daddy’s smirk. You think what the hell kind of life can I provide for him? But then you look again at him and it doesn’t matter. You play with him and the Appalachian comes back to your voice, as if to say to him, your people were hill people, little one, they took what land they could, and worked it hard. You remember your last conversation with your grandfather, when he talked about growing sassafras, and how thin things were when the farm burned, and thank God for the WPA, and how easy, really, the steel work up north after the war was by comparison. You speak to this boy in the tongue of hill people, the tongue of your grandparents, the tongue your mother still lets slip out, because that is the language of survival to you, and come hell for you, and come high water for you, this boy needs a fighting chance, and you don’t know how much time you have left with body and will enough to put one foot in front of another for a sad pass at stability for this family. But this boy, and his beautiful sisters, maybe they will make better altars at El-bethel. They show promise.


Then there is that moment when you hear the birds singing on the bush outside the window. It’s not your house, it’s not your bush, but, hell, it’s not your birds either. You remember that old prayer made years ago.

All coy and cocky, with a gravitas as deep as a cracker jack box – you were going to rule the world with your pristine humanness.

You damn fool, who taunts God with prayers made in confidence.

Thing is, He answers your prayers. There is an easy yoke, but it isn’t learning that God listens.

Still, a couple decades later, you will reluctantly thank Him for that faithfulness. You will limp, not faking it anymore, into your girls’ cluttered room, an old attic, drywall tape breaking through the paint, unfinished floors and windows, icon of the Transfiguration on the wall, and as this is your Tabor, their soft voices will follow what little you still claim to know,

Oh Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things...

07 March 2015

returning. again.

Now all of us here today have weaknesses, profound limitations, of which we may or may not be aware. All of us have encountered crosses in life, some of them very painful; crosses which perhaps we did not choose – crosses which we are probably still learning how to bear with thanksgiving. And further, each of us here – every baptized man, woman and child – has been called by God. He has called us to be sharers in Christ’s “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9): to make the whole of our lives – our work, our rest and play, and all of our relationships – a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1).
This is a high calling, an arduous task. Yet I suggest we can make a start today by beginning, not with our strengths, but with our weaknesses. If we can look realistically at our own deep limitations – the ways which we so often fail in bearing our own crosses – then perhaps we can begin to approach others with that gentleness which – as one of the Desert Fathers said – comes of remembering that “each and every person we meet is engaged in a deep and bitter struggle.” Then we can begin to see the wounds which we have received in life for what they truly are: a way in which the Lord is preparing us to bring healing to others. We can begin to exercise the priestly virtue of compassion. As in the Holy Eucharist itself, our very brokenness can become the opening through which life may be shared with others. Then our crosses truly become the Holy Cross. By coming to terms with our own weakness, by showing gentleness towards the weaknesses of others, we can begin to make our whole life a sacrifice: a priestly offering to God, through Jesus Christ our great High Priest.
 - Fr. Matthew Baker, Memory Eternal!, from a homily that can be read here.

I am returning to the Orthodox Church.

I hereby recant my rejection of Orthodox dogma.  I ask forgiveness for my ridicule of certain Orthodox beliefs - particularly concerning the energy/essence distinction and uncreated light.  I also ask forgiveness for my ridicule of some Orthodox saints (particularly those I assigned to seats in hell), the Athonite tradition, the entirety of the elder tradition, and some of the basic components of Orthodox piety.  I was also wrong to laud the Soviet annihilation of nearly all of the Russian Church, and to downplay the horror of their killing of many thousands of believers, and to justify the killing of children in a basement in Yekaterinburg.  I also beg forgiveness to those many souls I mocked for their faith and the accouterments of faith that are dear to them.  I have never embodied the calling that Fr. Matthew speaks of above.  It is my endeavor now to do so.

This news will shock some of you reading this.  I had an experience recently which resulted, immediately, in this decision.  It was quite unexpected.  It resulted in the unequivocal conviction that I should return to communion with the Orthodox Church as soon as I possibly can.  I may write about that experience - some years from now perhaps.  For now I need to just live with the ramifications.

I have absolutely no intention whatsoever to involve myself in scandal reporting, broad and relentless commentary on the ills of Orthodoxy, the parsing of Hipsterdoxy and Byzantine Rite Evangelicalism, polemics attacking other faiths, Orthodox politics, Catholic politics, religious politics, ecclesial gossip, or anything of the sort.  So this return to Orthodoxy will not correspond to a return to "the old Ochlophobist."  I do plan to continue to write here.  Poetry, 10 questions, prose.

Please pray for my family, and for me.