The Grace of the Unexpected, Part 2

In the first part of my post yesterday, I lamented our contemporary lack of risk, our incuriosity, our resistance to extend ourselves outside the ideological boundaries we have constructed for ourselves. And at the bottom of all our own self-congratulatory opinions and social purity tests (Obama, the Koch Brothers, Pop Tarts) is our own fear.

That’s bad for everyone all around, I think—and I wish my secular-minded friends, who are worried only about justice here on earth, not the beyond, could realize that by demonizing the Other (thank you, Dr. Rebecca Mark, my American Life in American Literature professor, Spring 1990) they are not living up to their own values.

Such deliberate blindness is especially bad for Christians, because we are to be about the business of witnessing Christ throughout the world. And the best way that is done is not by talking, talking, talking, but simply by being a closer and closer reflection of the divine image, and doing the work a suffering world needs.

“They’ll know that we are Christians by our love,” goes the verse of the hymn—well, fat chance these days, in my experience. We are in need not of evangelists but a generation of servants and saints.

[Read more...]

The Grace of the Unexpected, Part 1

Listen up, brothers and sisters—what follows here is the only sermon I know how to give:

Sometime in the late summer of 1975, when I was seven, my father took the blade off a John Deere riding mower, and in a moment of whimsical decision, drove out of the yard, and onto the asphalt street where we lived. He rounded the corner, went a block, then proceeded out onto Grand Avenue, the wide main boulevard that cut through town, and kept on going.

He was wearing a sky blue zip-up workman’s jumpsuit. The cancer that would kill him in a year was already branching through his lungs. I can imagine him grinning and waving at the cars passing by, though at the time I was inside the house and didn’t see a thing.

I was right there, though, when the telephone rang and my mother answered it, to get an earful from a neighbor who was at once both amused and annoyed: “Miz Langston, do you know what your husband is doing?”

I remember my mother laughing, but I also remember being cognizant of the neighbor’s implication, however slight, that my father had crossed some kind of social boundary and had to be brought back into line.

[Read more...]

The Feast Days of Snowfall

Dedicated to Amy Chevalier Efantis

Aside from any private celebrations hosted by the Tulane alumni organization or the Louisiana State Society, there was no Mardi Gras in Washington, D.C. Tuesday.

Oh, as with everything else in a city whose official face is all about signaling and little about actual meaning, there are token, presumably resonant gestures. Starting the week before Ash Wednesday, in typically truncated, efficient fashion, some downtown bakeries will put out King Cakes—too dry, not frosted enough, too Puritan, really.

Never mind that the real season for King Cakes stretches back almost two whole months, to Epiphany on January 6. Plus people in a town that worships maximum flexibility at all times have no idea how to react upon discovering that they’re eating the plastic baby.

In this town, celebrations are chiefly an annoyance. Parades are for out-of-towners; the motorcades merely inspire epic traffic. Drinking for most folks around here, it appears to me, is not a joyous, communal affair, but a furtive private release accompanied by Chinese carryout and David Letterman at 11:30 p.m. after the memo has been written, or the Asian markets consulted.

[Read more...]

The Beltway Catechesis

Now that our son is almost ten, he has begun to feel his oats a bit: In the middle of fourth grade, he has begun to log a few life achievements that both we, and he, are proud: he has surmounted some of his attention problems and can stay focused on the tasks at hand—reading about military history, remembering to take out the trash, remembering to modulate his quick-start anger before it bursts from his lips.

He has also learned to complain about having to go to church. Sunday mornings in our house arrive drowsily and sun-soaked, the tendrils of smoke from the censer we always light curling up the stairs.

But by the time we are actually ready to walk out the door, between him and his little sister, it is all over but the shouting. In my daughter’s case, her complaints are minor, and classic: the ill-fitting patent leather shoes, her grumpiness at being told that taking a Bitty Baby stroller to the Divine Liturgy is inadvisable.

My son’s complaints are more subtle, and dangerous. Only occasionally will he trot out the old chestnut, “God is just an idea that somebody made up way back when,” because he knows that I know that at least for now, he doesn’t believe it: For any and all problems he has with God, I have seen him sincerely implore, and sincerely repent, before the invisible and ever-present altar of the Divine.

One of our dearest neighbors, a reader of this blog, has been in treatment for breast cancer these past six or so months, and when we say prayers at night, he always remembers to lift her name like a found jewel. And he was thankful when her chemotherapy regimen came to an end.

[Read more...]

Rose By Any Other Name

This is a story that is more about what I don’t know than what I do.

On the Friday night after Thanksgiving, the third night of Chanukah, my neighbor Rose, next-door neighbor to St. Linda, died. Just three or four days before, her adult son who lived with her—retirement age himself—had called to tell us that his elderly mother, whom we had seen less and less in the last month or two, was in home hospice care and did not have long to live.

Could I come see her? I asked, for she had been a wonderful neighbor and I had loved her greatly.

His simple reply: She doesn’t want any visitors.

So instead, I kept calling to check in on her, the last time the night of Thanksgiving from my sister’s house, the high shimmer of candles at the edge of my eyes, straining to hear over the sound of wine-soaked merriment. She’s okay, he said. Please let me know if there is anything I can do, I replied.

He called Saturday morning to say that Rose had died. She was ninety-three years old.

[Read more...]

The Lost Girl Lets Go

There’s something about the midday nature of the appointment that gives it a furtive cast: The putting on of mom-like clothes, stockings and “better” shoes, garnet lip gloss and a comb pulled through my hair, to give the appearance that I am a more organized person than I actually am.

The keys clatter in the quiet as I lock the door, get in the car, and drive out of the neighborhood, careful to make sure I have the directions and the insurance card.

All the empty houses appear deserted and drowsy: everyone’s at work or school, and even the homeschoolers are hard at work by the kitchen table, their younger siblings laid down for early afternoon naps.

Then I’m on the ribbon of highway that carves through the as-yet-ungentrified decay of Washington, D.C.’s East Side—blessedly empty, with neither traffic nor construction, the now-obsolete RFK Stadium spun out on the right like a spectacular piece of road kill.

I love the steadying narcotic of driving like this: “[T]he freeways become a special way of being alive…the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical” reads a quote from Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which I found in an essay on Joan Didion, whose novel Play It As It Lays is what I am trying to remember as I plow through the Nation’s Capital.

Then, before I know it—because there is no traffic—I’ve spun off myself—off a cloverleaf and onto a surface road that is clustered with mid-century, mid-rise apartment towers. Collectively, there are perhaps hundreds of these, off every exit of the Beltway, and aside from the barest variations—Virginia looks marginally newer and more big-boxy, Maryland grittier and more industrial—you could be in Chevy Chase or Springfield and not know the difference.

[Read more...]

My Brother John: A Eulogy for the Living

For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age sixty-two. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology—or at least to me.

I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms—This is what Langstons are like—so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.

But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.

“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”

So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit forty-five Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.

[Read more...]

All I Needed to Know I Learned from the Phonebook

Sing in me, O Muse: That like Navin R. Johnson—the “I was born a poor black child” character played by Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk—I might cry aloud: “The new phonebook is here! The new phonebook is here!”

Time, of course, to cue the requisite twenty-something hipster joke:

What is a phonebook?

I have been a longtime phonebook reader, from way back when I first began to read—a reflection of either the value or detriment of a childhood marked by lots of free time and/or boredom.

With a hometown of only about 10,000, the phonebook was tiny, perhaps six by nine inches, neatly divided between the white residential pages and the yellow pages in the back. This was before the practice of including government listings in blue pages in the middle, but I do remember the standard instructions that applied to types of phone calls that existed back then: party lines (my aunt who lived on an isolated cotton plantation had one), operator-assisted calls, and, most mysteriously, station-to-station calls, which conjured up—for me at least—the idea of connecting to other worlds. [Read more...]