Did Dante Convert Me?

Many years ago, my husband took a job in Rochester, New York, four hundred miles from our Boston home. Neither of us had ever been to Rochester, and we were apprehensive about the move. Our ten-year-old son was more than apprehensive: he was devastated. When we told him about the move, he burst into tears—because Rochester didn’t have a major league baseball team.

The move was scheduled for the end of the summer. Sometime mid-summer, I decided I needed to start reading something long and engaging, as a stable grounding during the uprooting of the move.

Though a firm agnostic at the time, I chose Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite my doctorate in English Literature, I’d never read it. (Well, maybe because my doctorate was in English Literature, the academy was pretty parochial in those days.)

Somehow we had John Ciardi’s three-volume verse translation on our shelves. So I started “Midway in our life’s journey” and continued from there, down into the Inferno. I was beginning my ascent through Purgatory when we loaded the U-Haul truck and drove west.

During the weeks of settling into our new home—arranging furniture, buying fabric to make curtains, finding a good grocery store, helping our son adjust to his new school—I reached the top of Purgatory and entered the dazzling light of Paradise. I stayed in Paradise while raking fall leaves—all the way to the final “Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

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Francis and the Via Negativa Part 1

As the smoke—black at first, but slowly giving way to white—escaped into the sky above the Sistine Chapel, I was driving somewhere between D.C. and Richmond. There would be a wait, the NPR commentators said, while the newly elected pontiff was taken into Saint Peter’s and prepared for his grand debut on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the Loggia of the Blessings.

So I waited—I had nothing better to do—and listened as they pattered on about what might be going on behind the grand façade of St. Peter’s: Would the new pontiff be African?—unlikely. Would he be American?—definitely not. Conservative?—of course.

No one anticipated, not the devout, and especially not the critics and cynics what the Church has earned for Herself: that this new pope would take the name Francis, and that his voice would sound so radical and new. It shouldn’t. He’s only speaking the Gospel, saying what other popes have said before him, but from his mouth and combined with his actions, it no longer seems like some distant ideal.

I’ve remained Catholic, though there is so much to be disappointed in and angry about, from sex scandals to liturgical music that’ll make your ears bleed, in large part because I want to be a part of the same church as St. Francis of Assisi. But I’ve long wondered if the average American parish would welcome the poor man from Assisi, or if my conception of him is pure bohemian romance.

I know I’m not alone in romanticizing Francis—even the angriest lapsed Catholic and the most secular of humanists will proudly host a Francis birdbath in his garden. Our new pope has wisely chosen the name of the last beloved emissary of the Catholic Church to the masses.

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You Can’t Hide from Winter

Winter is coming. All of northern Michigan seems to whisper the warning. The sun is slower to rise each day, and the mist clings to the lakes when I drive my children to school in the darkness. It’s not yet Halloween, but our neighbors have been anticipating the first snowfall since we arrived here in August, when it was ninety-two degrees and sunny. They look stern and offer advice (much-needed) on snow tires and Vitamin D supplements.

I can’t help but think of the residents of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. If the threat of such a long, hard winter wasn’t terrifying to me, a homesick Southerner who has never owned a proper coat, I might find it funny.

When I open my checking account, the bank teller raises her eyebrows when I say we’ve come from Virginia. “Have much winter there?” she asks, knowing the answer. The lady at the shoe store tells me I need four pairs of boots, not one, “for the four types of winter days: wet, icy, snowy, and it’s-May-and-if-I-wear-boots-another-day-I’ll-cry.” I suspect she’s taking advantage of me, but later a real rugged Northwoods type confirms her advice.

“And don’t get cheap boots either,” he warns, “or you’ll cry like a baby.”

Our new doctor recommends a high-quality multivitamin and a ski pass. Skiing and snowshoeing and even ice-skating are all as foreign to me as a moonwalk, but I smile and nod and try not to look worried.

“You can’t hide from winter here,” she says. “You have to embrace it.”

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When a Friend Dies

I received this group email not long ago:

Our beloved Beth has passed away. We lost her at approximately 7 p.m. yesterday. It is a very difficult time for our family. We wanted to let you know how much we appreciated all of your support, kind words, and the loving prayers. Beth has wonderful friends.

When I hear that a friend has died, I feel the world suddenly shrink. It’s a strong, visceral feeling. Some of the air has been sucked out of our universe. The air that Beth breathed.

I can’t imagine her dead. She was the embodiment of joyous, energetic activity. Then out of nowhere, viral encephalitis infected her. Three weeks later, she was gone.

Death is the great mystery. A cliché, that sentence. And yet…what a mystery that death is a mystery. It happens to everyone; so shouldn’t the human race by now have figured it out?

For me, one of the most helpful meditations on the mystery of mortality is Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Of course, this book is a meditation on much more as well…but transience is at its core. Dillard notes that when we’re confronted with huge statistics about death (like: over 230,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami), our minds can’t respond. We’re numbed. But when a single person whom we care about is dying or in danger, all our attention pinpoints on the preciousness of that person’s life. How can we save him? Dillard recounts how whole towns pour out to search for one missing child.

About an hour after hearing of Beth’s death (that hour sitting in something not quite like prayer, more like intense listening to the world shrink as Beth leaves it), I move to my shelves of poetry. Who here might give words to what I’m feeling? [Read more…]

New World

“There is no death, only a changing of worlds.” —Chief Seattle

At night I lie in bed and think of the cemetery gate on Monument Hill. It was a fairly steep climb up a gravel path and always left me winded, so I didn’t often attempt it with our all-terrain stroller. At the summit is a clear view of the college grounds and a circular, enclosed graveyard where the founders’ bodies lie.

I will likely never open that gate again. I wonder how long my arms will hold the recent memory of tugging at the rusted iron, the screeching of metal on the stone steps so loud it set my teeth on edge. I brace myself against the sound and pull.

I turn over in bed and rearrange the covers, hear the wind in the pines. The weather is already so cool in Northern Michigan, as cool as I remember my last winter in Virginia, and it’s only September. I’m restless at night. I reach for the gate. The grating of metal resounds in the earth and in my stomach. The kids cry out and cover their ears.

Inside the stone enclosure, the grass is lush and soft. The kids dance on the graves. The columbarium is their stage. They never want to leave, but I anticipate the long walk home. There are tears.

I’m romanticizing. I do that. It’s how I’ve always managed; I tell myself stories, create tableaux. [Read more…]