During a 1995 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Pat Conroy related a story about his father, Don, that epitomized the patriarch’s delusional view of identity. The two men were discussing why Pat’s mother left Don when the elder Conroy broke down sobbing. Thinking that Don had finally realized the error of the ways, Pat quoted the ensuing conversation to Gross: “‘Dad, do you understand what you did wrong?’ And Dad said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘What is it, Dad? What did you do wrong?’ And my father said, ‘I was too good. I didn’t crack down hard enough. I was…
From Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”
The ribs and terrors in the whale,
Arched over me a dismal gloom,
While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by,
And left me deepening down to doom.
I saw the opening maw of hell,
With endless pains and sorrow there;
Which none but they that feel can tell-
Oh, I was plunging to despair.
In black distress, I called my God,
When I could scarce believe him mine,
He bowed his ear to my complaints-
No more the whale did me confine.
With speed he flew to my relief.
As on a radiant dolphin borne;
Awful, yet bright, as lightening shown
The face of my Deliverer God.
My song forever shall record
That terrible, that joyful hour;
I give the glory to my God,
His all the mercy and the power.
At 17, I read The Bell Jar. After grimacing through the suicide attempts, the shock therapy sessions, the nervous breakdowns, and the general darkness, I closed the book, appreciated the work, and then thought, “Damn. This woman was crazy.”
At 21, I thought my life had become The Bell Jar. I felt the same suffocating dread Plath expressed in her characters’ fears of “settling.” I wallowed in my failures, was crippled by indecision, felt misunderstood, tired, and nervous. About everything. Plath was my female masthead, unapologetically vocalizing every one of my rite-of-passage fears with poetic authenticity.
Then, just last week, my English major survey…
The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs’ eyes followed him, a cheerful stare–
even to the sow that always ate her young–
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.
But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern–like the sun, going away–
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats’ uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.
In the airport the fat sunburned people coming back from vacation
look happier than anyone, with their Hawaiian shirts and varicose veins
and faint aroma of suntan lotion.
I look down on them because their happiness is so superficial.
It is an imaginary battle that they win without trying,
by continuing to be themselves–
joking, telling family stories, eating nachos before lunch.
Like it or not, oneself is always the test case for the human condition.
The baby starts out as a luminous jellybean of god
and gradually transforms into a strange, lopsided growth:
a man who will not let himself be touched;
an aging girl who smiles and is angry with the moon.
Underneath the smile is bitterness, and underneath the bitterness is grief,
and underneath the grief is the desire to survive at any cost.
The music on the airport intercom is supposed to make it easier.
That and the Southern accent of the flight announcers,
with their colorful speech impediments of moonshine and molasses.
“Where I am going I do not wish to go,” wrote Bertolt Brecht,
but what he meant was that he did not want to be himself.
Yesterday I wished for rain, the cold clear kind that falls from very high,
and when it fell, I felt such joy.
But it’s what I don’t pray for that can rescue me.
Surprise, surprise, only surprise will help me on my way.
The Devil is a gentleman, and asks you down to stay
At his little place at What’sitsname (it isn’t far away).
They say the sport is splendid; there is always something new,
And fairy scenes, and fearful feats that none but he can do;
He can shoot the feathered cherubs if they fly on the estate,
Or fish for Father Neptune with the mermaids for a bait;
He scaled amid the staggering stars that precipice, the sky,
And blew his trumpet above heaven, and got by mastery
The starry crown of God Himself, and shoved it on the shelf;
But the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t brag himself.
O blind your eyes and break your heart and hack your hand away,
And lose your love and shave your head; but do not go to stay
At the little place in What’sitsname where folks are rich and clever;
The golden and the goodly house, where things grow worse for ever;
There are things you need not know of, though you live and die in vain,
There are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain;
There is a game of April Fool that’s played behind its door,
Where the fool remains for ever and the April comes no more,
Where the splendour of the daylight grows drearier than the dark,
And life droops like a vulture that once was such a lark:
And that is the Blue Devil that once was the Blue Bird;
For the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t keep his word.
This year, Good Friday has fallen on March 25, the day typically reserved in the Church calendar for the feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the delivery of the angel Gabriel’s message about the Incarnation of Jesus. This rare and powerfully symbolic occurrence won’t happen again until 2157.
The following is a poem by John Donne, “Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day.”
Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came…
“When I was, as they say, in harmony with God and the world, I felt I was false, pretending to be somebody else. I recovered my identity when I found myself again in the skin of a sinner and nonbeliever. This repeated itself in my life several times. For, undoubtedly, I liked the image of myself as a decent man, but, immediately after I put that mask on, my conscience whispered that I was deceiving others and myself.
“The notion of sacrum is necessary but impossible without experiencing sin. I am dirty, I am a sinner, I am unworthy, and not even because of my behavior but because of the evil sitting in me. And only when I conceded that it was not for me to reach so high have I felt that I was genuine.”
Growing up, “Footprints in the Sand” was the kind of Christian poetry that everyone agreed to like without question. It was like the WWJD bracelet of literature. By my middle school years it was everywhere. You could get it on a quilt, on a print, and even on actual flip flops. If I’m being really honest with you, I had to read it like 5 times before I understood what the writer was saying. My initial thoughts upon reading it were:
Wait! What happened to my feet?
Wait! Why did Jesus leave?
Wait! Did I just die?
So, after that confusing math game, I…
From her collection Instead of Sadness:
The fat candle in the kitchen window burns down
like a rose spilling open. We light a scrap of paper
from the flame, and with the ashes, a little olive oil,
cross each other’s foreheads. Margo’s in the hospital
again. I stop to see her on my way to school,
go straight from there to class. My students have come
from their night shifts at the nursing home
and Wal-Mart, from Mass, from dropping off the baby
at daycare. They shuffle pages, share staplers.
We look into each other’s faces as they hand me their essays.
Who knows how long we’ve got inside these dusty skins.
We’re burning down together, ashes mingling already.
In light of this past Sunday’s reading, this morning’s devotion is a poem by Mark Jarman, entitled “Transfiguration.” These are the last three parts of the poem.
And there appeared to them Elijah and Moses and they were talking to Jesus.
…They were talking to him about law and how lawgiving should be
Like rainfall, a light rain falling all morning and mixing with dew–
A rain that passes through the spiderweb and penetrates the dirt clod
Without melting it, a persistent, suffusing shower, soaking clothes,
Making sweatshirts heavier, wool stink, and finding every hair’s root on the scalp.
And that is when you hurled judgment into the crowd and watched them
Spook like cattle, reached in and stirred the turmoil faster, scarier.
And they were saying that; to save the best, many must be punished,
Including the best. And no one was exempt, as they explained it,
Not themselves, not him, or anyone he loved, anyone who loved him.
Take anyone and plant a change inside them that they feel
And send them to an authority to assess that feeling. When they are told
That for them alone these waits a suffering in accordance with the laws
Of their condition, from which they may recover or may not,
Then they know the vortex on the mountaintop, the inside of the unspeakable,
The speechlessness before the voices begin talking to them,
Talking to prepare them, arm them and disarm them, until the end.
And if anybody’s looking, they will seem transfigured.
I want to believe that he talked back to them, his radiant companions,
And I want to believe he said too much was being asked and too much promised.
I want to believe that that was why he shone in the eyes of his friends,
The witnesses looking on, because he spoke for them, because he loved them
And was embarrassed to learn how he and they were going to suffer.
I want to believe he resisted at that moment, when he appeared glorified,
Because he could not reconcile the contradictions and suspected
That love had a finite span and was merely the comfort of the lost.
I know he must have acceded to his duty, but I want to believe
He was transfigured by resistance, as he listened, and they talked.
Headlong in your career, breathing out threatenings
And slaughter against enemies, dictating trouble
For anyone advanced ahead of you, gambling
That you can stay ahead of your rep, checking off
The list of those to chop off at the top, and the place
Your name will be inked in, all the while businesslike,
Congenial with associates and flattering
To authorities and enforcers, bloody and obscene
Only in private mutterings and unspoken dreams,
On your way to yet another hanging, stoning, gossip-
Mongering swap meet of assassins, you’re surprised
As much as anyone to be chosen–though it requires
A certain blindness on your part and such a change
You wouldn’t know yourself–a vessel of grace.