blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Meet You at the Dollar General Across from the Family Dollar

when Jesus comes back, and we’ll see what really happens to one another’s bodies. I mean, will we get some relief? Will we fade to ether, or will it be more like: the body as dog wants in so badly and, finally, you don’t just let it in, you carry it in, all mange and burr and fat deer tick, all thousand ditches slept in, and you think, That there is my body, and you say, You’re home now, buddy. I guess I mean, will we forgive our flesh its loneliness and burn? Or maybe in the New Heaven and the New Earth we’ll simply go backward—it’s back to girlhood’s Smurfette shirt and white-blond hair and hands wrapping the meat of a brother’s kill and hands in the creek with the leeches and the crawdads and a plastic ring from either dollar store in our mountain town with its charismatic church camp that folds dreams of Apocalypse into our heads, snug as raisins in monkey bread, and we’ll start all over. Maybe.

But right now, since there’s a haggardness to our bodies and since Jesus is taking his time, meet me at the Dollar General to go on mission to buy tubes of Softlips with our allowance, then we’ll cross to Family Dollar for Wet n Wild burgundy lipstick that makes us look like death. We can twist it up all the way then cap it hard to watch the smoosh-volcano of glistening burgundy through the transparent top. Which is to ask you: right now, through your burgundy lips, what’s the prayer you’ve got going? For it’s this earth and it’s this pain and it’s this body breaking open and open to be reckoned with. I mean, more precisely, can you help me pray now for the now, and to say to the monstrous body, You are not monstrous, and to know love in the midst of going long untouched and in the midst of terror that the body might not be touched again after the divorce or after somebody lying near, under the sky in the sky, leaves, and in the midst of all our respective terrors of never having a child or losing custody or getting sick. For today is the divorce and the court date and the empty womb and the biopsy. What I mean is a kind of prayer as healing even as you die your death, prayer as becoming whole even as you tatter and tatter. Which is the kind of prayer that is a brittle bread, but at least it’s real bread.

As far as prayers go, I’m talking about a letting-loose-within-the-dwelling-deep kind, a leap not into disappearance but into wrangling a good roundoff back handspring and feeling both the flight and the landing and practicing it daily, like the girl on the corner of Pocahontas and Preston with her pooched little-girl belly and her ecstatic face that says, The first sky I saw was the sky inside me. I love how she takes up space in the middle of the street where the ambulance goes and my neighbor Mac’s electric wheelchair goes and the Harley two doors down and Cathy who totters off on foot to the dollar store before the weather changes in the way her joints predict. The girl is out there even when her poison-ivy rash like raw meat will not allow her to shave her legs, which she’s awfully young to shave anyway, pink calamine lotion smeared over stubble—no matter; it’s do-or-die, in that moment of leap, and the girl doesn’t even have a spotter at her tumbling mat spread on the dirty pavement. She raises Mary Lou Retton arms, gets a running start, corkscrews down to land on palm and fingertips, then bounces down-up on her rubber toes and goes back for the handspring, light as a sack of feathers, and ends panting and beaming. She pulls her shirt down and takes it again from the top.

I want to pray like this importunate tumbler-body, with her letting-go that gives herself as a gift to herself, because, I admit, recently, a man lay with me under the sky in the sky then left an emptiness. He and I woke early to ride bicycles to the James Turrell Skyspace installation; it was after dawn but early enough to have the dome to ourselves so we could lie side by side, but apart, under the oval aperture in the ceiling. The concrete cold, our caps as rough pillows. To have the sky framed alters the sky, makes it seem fuller and more potent, and so made me feel fuller and more potent, all things promising. I thought: This body by mine, who might we become to each other? I had thought about it over tacos, during sex, during the challenge of cake-baking when he had no sugar or a mixer in the house but only avocadoes and mountains of books, thought it hopefully when in bed while the projector from the library broadcast the French film large as life on the white sheet tacked to his wall.

A bird darted across the Skyspace opening, then a jet stream: first, like an incision, and then, before our eyes, it diffused into feather. Soon, it was over. Soon, he was gone. I went to Spain, and I carried a yearning for him to Spain though I prayed not to, but that is a different kind of prayer than the one I’m discussing here. After dinner one night, my Parisian friend showed a few of us his experimental film on his laptop. He had made masks of faces and put them underwater and what did they naturally do? The lips tried to kiss lips, cheek tried to touch cheek, in the natural buoyancy of the water. There were no unnatural smiles, the eyes were closed, the soft lips could not part, but it was one of the tenderest things in the world, I thought, as the MacBook glowed and my friend talked about working for five years making photographic portraits of people with disfigured faces to say they are not monstrous, and I touched my face and thought about the French film projected and the minor folds in the sheet wrinkling the actresses’ skin as though it were real skin like his and mine, not so young anymore, or so lovely. Of course they are not monstrous, but do we believe it? Do they? They are not monstrous. They are not monstrous. Saying it again and again is a prayer that is like the masks hovering in water for so many consecutive minutes, kissing but not kissing.

And I heard that evening in Spain that Jean Vanier had died, and I remembered hearing Vanier speak, in my twenties, about bodies some find monstrous in their inability to heal, their cell division compromised beyond repair. And today I meant to start out this essay more nobly with Vanier and not that business about the Apocalypse and the dollar store and a breakup, but anyway that is how I started this essay on prayer. Vanier was nearly seven feet tall and when I heard him speak he sat on a stool, and his eyes looked sunned to slits above his mounds of cheeks and his face like an old loving hound’s, his hair a feathery white wisp. A son of a Canadian military hero, he’d left home in Canada in 1942, at age thirteen, to study in England at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and serve with the British Navy; he earned a PhD in philosophy and steeped in Aristotle. In 1963 he visited an institution for those with intellectual disabilities, people thought to be idiots, and the institution had locked cells and drugging and screaming and isolation, and so he moved into an old house with two of the residents outside of Paris. He said to them, essentially, here is a dresser for you with little knobs on the drawers, a small mirror on a stand, a place to live your life, a place for making and displaying homemade cards; here is a sink to use and regular dinner together with the napkin folded in a rose around a ripe cherry still on its stem. And he sought them out in psychiatric centers all over and brought them home. The houses multiplied: the communities of L’Arche—The Ark—grew to number 154 in 38 countries, houses in which people with disabilities and people without them live together and it may take a long time to put a cup to one’s lips and a bath may take two hours and they celebrate everything imaginable with a big party. Some might marry there, but mostly people aren’t married or yoked or even blood relatives, but simply bodies so tenderly near other bodies.

In many countries, Vanier lamented, you can have a test to check for cerebral palsy in the embryo or Down syndrome or other errors in cell division that will dictate how precisely the body will flail or the mind truncate, and you can make them disappear to save everyone pain. But in L’Arche, there is no trying to eradicate pain or need or illness or dependence. These are people who will not get better or stronger in the traditional sense, but I believe L’Arche heals people all the while they are not getting better. That is to say, it’s prayer as healing even as you die your death, prayer as becoming whole even as you tatter and tatter in the room with a dresser and a sink and stowed homemade cards.

I was twenty when I heard Vanier speak, I was forty when I heard he’d died, and all that while in between he was insisting the suffering body is a good body is a monstrous body is not at all a monstrous body. Is a dwelling place for God. He read An Interrupted Life, the diary of Etty Hillesum, the Dutch Jew who wrote, regarding the decimated jasmine behind the house, Somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed. Etty who wrote to God, We must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last . . . I shall try to make you at home always. She meant to make God at home in the body which is the very seat of insatiable yearning and irrevocable dying; it is the body headed for the gas; and when she was finally pressed onto the train from Westerbork Camp to Auschwitz on September 7, 1943, she threw a postcard from the train window that said: Christine, . . . I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away . . . We left the camp singing. And farmers found it and posted it on September 15 and Etty died on November 30, but even dying she made God at home, with dressers with their little knobs inside her body singing on its way to a death camp. Singing does not stop you from dying, prayer does not stop you from hurting and hurting and hurting, but maybe it breaks you open so you are large enough to bear God inside where the jasmine still stubbornly blooms. The bread is brittle, but at least it’s real bread.

I think about the Fifth Sunday Sing when our churches on rural mountain charges that are never full of bodies come across a month with a lucky fifth Sunday, and that Sunday night we come together and pack the house. The good of the good clothes fills the room, I wear my best bra with no safety pin and hold the shape-note book of old sanguine Charles Wesley hymns, my earlobes pulsing greenish from dollar-store earrings, my lips burgundy. There is no sermon, no instruction, only song after song, the time signatures all determined less by the book than by the rhythm of snapping towels to hang on the wash line, kneading dough to rise in the stout bowl under a linen towel, and it’s a plodding sound but it’s like a heartbeat. All the bodies in polyester dresses or short-sleeved button-up shirts with ties, fathers with those fatherly watches at the wrist that say I have to do taxes and I fear death and there is a stranglehold in clerking the store nine-to-five for so many dull years, but I sweetly and huskily come and come into your mother in the dark to make you and your sister and your brothers, and I can push you so far in the swing that I run underneath you and let you go high into the air so that as you fall back, harnessed in the swing, the wind wraps your white-blond hair around your face as a gauzy curtain through which you see the sun and my back and arms still upraised from raising you up, as if in praise or in letting go of everything. Piano untuned, song after song, so many open throats like those of baby birds not yet with their feather coats.

But what we all wait for at the Sing is Franklin Dixon’s solo. He is an oak barrel of wine singing through his nose in a way I love unendingly, the forceful “When We All Get to Heaven” about the place Jesus is preparing for us, but we wait for this moment of the night because even though the lyrics with their sentimental rhymes speak to a future, the song itself, its sound and crescendo, prepares a place here for God in the present, on the warm bed of our breath, the herm and herm building to a twang of word, Franklin hefting up into a note like a large body into the cab of a pickup and us inevitably joining in. Paperback hymnals come apart, but nobody needs the hymnal anyway. We are all saying, Come and dwell here, God, in our now, for we are giving ourselves as gifts to ourselves, our bodies in this polyester and cotton and older flesh once younger and ever shadowed by our deaths—we can bear you, you infinite intolerable thing, because we understand there is no end to yearning.

And so just when I think maybe it’s true that I’ll never be touched again, not the way he touched me, writing to me once, I will take a feather to your body, just when I think I’m out of chances and I’m ready to feel sorry for myself, I open the screen door and walk out to the morning world and somehow I am handled all over. I am touched a thousand ways by the waking prayers of the girl doing her roundoff and a stranger who waves and it’s like I can bed down in the crippling warmth of his wave, and there’s an intimate stroke of jockey shorts pinned to the neighbor’s wash line, and a boy who says he’ll race me to the pond in his good clothes, and Mac in his wheelchair that runs out of juice on the street outside the house and needs a push—all this rough handling to say, Yes, in this endless yearning, you are monstrous, but you are not monstrous, you are not monstrous, you are not monstrous—do you believe me? Do I believe me?

But this was supposed to be about Jean Vanier and prayer and nobler things than getting over a breakup. Let me start again:

In Cartagena, Spain with a few friends, including the friend from Paris who’d made the tenderest film of faces, I photographed a gull feather and was seeing feathers everywhere because that’s what our bodies are in the end, so impotent and fine and perfect and lost. I’d heard Jean Vanier had died on May 7, 2019 in Paris at age ninety, having never married, having spent over forty years living with bodies that would not grow stronger, with minds that would not clear, with some voices that would not utter and so it was often utterance via touch and touch and touch. I pictured his nearly seven-foot self becoming the white gull feather I photographed on the street. He had that feathery white hair, but I pictured him this way less because of his wispy hair than because of the great gentleness into which he had grown, as evidenced by the stoop of a man who had been tall from a young age and had come to spend his life with many who were seated or crouched or lying down tugging at his hand. He spoke so softly and wearily, as if always with friends; he was someone for whom intimacy had lots of rooms inside it, bodies had varied ways to be whole when not whole, love always brought you home keen with yearning.

A feather coming loose from a wing, left to go dingy, matted, useless, and free.

I picture all the people of the house at his deathbed coming around his featherbody and leaving gifts, maybe a quilt, maybe a child’s comb, maybe a songbook, and as if all that giving calls up a wind, he simply blows away in the gust of it as they watch. And that feather, in all its delicacy and impotence, will land in puddles, on the dog’s nose fluff-barking after a dream-rabbit, will slip under the couch then blow up onto the belly of one lying back, and on the lower spine of one prostrate in need, or in lovemaking.

And the feather becomes an offered blessing, which, in the end, is really the kind of prayer I’m talking about: ineffectual beautiful blessing that can fix nothing, slight and inobtrusive enough to slip through the cracks of your terror, to come to you in the midst of everything and not lead you out but lead you in. And I’ve heard that Vanier was kind of a goof, so his blessings, I think, would come at random and trail off like doggerel . . .

May you braid back the hair of the girl who asks you to; may your lips brush other lips in an almost-kiss; when the chickens are gone, may you sow the coop in arugula; may the fogged-in mountain roads thread through your apocalyptic dreams and the cornbread and beans round your belly; may you always give away the thing you most love, like the dollar-store bracelet, or a picture of the sea; may there be a fresh-basil smell you can lie down in, under the Japanese lanterns; may there be lemon balm outside your door; may you always hear the lambs call out on your way home; may you move on from the roundoff back handspring to another routine, maybe with your baton in the street, twirling and tossing it higher and higher each time and, each time, receiving it back as a gift and a gift and a gift . . .  

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