Heaven knows I'm not proud
of being a meat-eater, but something
in me growls and snorts and licks
its jowls when I take apart a chicken
separating joint from joint, flesh
from bone. It's something my hands
know how to do, the part of me
that is my ancestors, and doesn't evolve
but only changes form. Before words
was hunger, driving us to run and thrust
spears, to taste the flesh of other bodies.
The wild, unspellable pounding
of our hearts, the intoxicating taste
of blood--we're no different from the bears
and killer whales and cats. And who is to say
they are not like me, grieving their prey
as it rolls through their guts. Lord,
if this makes me less, forgive me
for being a tiger instead of a lamb
and not rebuilding Eden, nor seeing
in the iridescent green shoots everything
I'll ever need, forsaking all I might be
for what I merely am.
E. D. Watson
They say raise your fist,
stand in your truth, speak it
loud and clear
but I can only kneel
in this unsayable
that trickles and whispers
things I don't know
if I believe, undrinkable
as prayer. There is
no hashtag for this, no
slogan, no hat, no color
no meme no name no sunrise
over a mountain crest, no
perfect lady in a yoga pose
who I can pretend I am inside.
that is not my own.
The river is made of fear.
I have no feet to stand on;
I lost them in the mud
and rubble. I lose another
part of me, every time
it floods. I'm cold.
I'm getting old. I should
have learned by now
how to be triumphant.
E. D. Watson
O father help me not to stare,
wide-eyed, when my brother falls.
Help me not to sniff his breath
for alcohol and cigarettes
or blasphemy, or Diet Coke.
To take his slurring words as jokes,
not call him drunkard, but von vivant.
Not call him other, but myself.
Help me not to wrinkle my nose
when the homeless guy comes in,
the one that stinks of piss and sweat
and slumps in the library chair
snoring loudly, his wind-chapped face
tucked into his Nylon coat sleeve--
as surely Jesus must have slept
while He roamed homeless through this world.
What is a psalm a poem a prayer
if not a Wall Street ticker tape
our fear spelled out in numbers,
compulsion to accumulate.
What have we to say to God but wait,
before I die restore me to wonder
allow me to fill in some blanks.
For behold, my storehouse is full
and if I die now I'm a fool
who worked all my life like a slave,
unpaid for my own efforts, ruled
by a loaf of bread, a golden bull,
and the face in my LinkedIn profile.
A self brought to perfection, yet unrealized.
Still rich where I should be poor,
dull where I should be wise.
E. D. Watson
Fourteen years ago today I almost died.
I’d been living in New Orleans one month. One night after getting off work at the French Quarter restaurant where I waited tables, I decided to walk to one of New Orlean’s famously-creepy above-ground cemeteries. I wanted to make chalk rubbings of the crypts on some butcher paper I’d taken from the restaurant. It was about eleven o’clock.
I know what you’re thinking: and yes, I was an idiot. I don’t remember why I thought this particular activity would be a good idea, or fun, or why I wanted to do it at night. I should have known better—and so should have the friend who accompanied me. He’d lived in New Orleans a long time.
But like I said, I’d been there for one month; I’d known the guy for even less time. Later, I would come to realize that good judgment wasn’t really his thing.
Anyway, on the evening of May 12, 2005, we found ourselves on the wrong side of Canal Street with a roll of butcher paper. As we moved further into the dark neighborhood, I noticed two figures approaching. Their stride was tense, purposeful. Something inside me said to turn and run, to at least cross the street, but I didn’t listen to my intuition.
When the men got closer, I tried to step aside to make room on the sidewalk, but they split and moved around the outside of us, like a pair of wolves. At the same time, they bumped our shoulders, hard. I turned to offer an apology, and when I looked up, I was staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Gimme your bag,” the guy said. I handed it over, tucking my face into my shoulder. I wanted him to see me not looking at him, not giving him any reason to pull the trigger. I saw my friend behind him, silhouetted by a streetlamp. He was kneeling on the sidewalk with a gun to his head.
I thought about my mom. Six weeks earlier she’d flown out to Phoenix to drive halfway across the country with me in my beater Honda without air conditioning and my yowling, miserable cat. All that trouble, and I was going to die for a night’s tips.
“Get on the ground, face-down,” the guy told me. I did as he said, and he patted me down, rifling my pockets and fondling my ass, and going Mmm. My stomach puckered and shrank inside me like a slug in salt. I had no idea what was happening to my friend. I hoped he wouldn’t do anything stupid.
“Get up and don’t stop running,” the gun-guy said. We did. As soon as we could, we turned down a side street. When was it okay to stop running? I wondered. Should I run the whole way home?
At Canal Street we stopped, clutching our knees and gasping for breath. “We have to call the cops!” I told my friend.
“What for?” he said. “They won’t do shit.”
I wasn’t interested in this perspective. I’d just been robbed at gunpoint; the police should be informed. I was insistent on this point.
“Do what you want,” my friend said, shrugging.
I called the police. A few minutes later a squad car met us. The cop got out looking annoyed, like we’d woken him from a nap. After he took our statement, he asked what we wanted him to do about it.
I couldn’t believe it. “Look for the bad guys or something.” I said. He nodded, assuring us he would do that, and drove away.
I told my friend to fuck off, and went home.
Only I couldn’t stay in my apartment, I was too amped up on adrenaline. In fact, I didn’t sleep for the next thirty-six hours. I needed to be with people but it was the middle of the night, in a new city. I had exactly two friends, including the one I’d just told to fuck off. The other one was probably asleep.
The obvious choice was to go to an all-night diner. Oh-Thank-God-I’m-Alive Day was born. For me, it’s a high holy day.
I ordered bacon. I ordered a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes and drenched them in butter and syrup. I ordered an omelet and two Dixie beers, one for each trembling hand—because eating and drinking is what alive people do. “I just got robbed at gunpoint,” I explained to the waitress. She nodded solemnly, and I felt as though I’d passed through some kind of bizarre New Orleans hazing. I’m one of them now, I thought. I lived to tell the tale.
I don’t know why I lived. Maybe it was luck. Maybe the guns weren’t real. Maybe they never intended to shoot us. Maybe the Great Whatchamacalit was looking out for me, or maybe it was because I didn’t look the guy in the face. (Later, this would mean I could not pick him from a photo lineup when the police caught a suspect.)
I’ll never know. But I am glad I didn’t die, and I’m grateful to whatever saved me. So every year on May 12, I celebrate. Cheers. Here’s to living to tell our tales. And happy Mother’s Day to my mom, who didn’t hear this story for a long time after it had happened.
We had only one day in Paris,
pilgrim-starved and threadbare, broke
we’d walked to the tomb of a saint,
from the mountains to the coast
and this was our reward: crêpes
at midnight, eaten on the street, not time
to see it all, though we tried, and one
of the ways was this: to skip the line
at the cathedral and instead feed the pigeons outside.
A man in sunglasses showed us how
to hold a pinch of bread just so
they’d alight on our shoulders and hands.
Fat, friendly birds who cooed,
whose wingtips brushed my chin—
not once have I regretted it. Now
the church has burned and fallen in.
We seldom know when we lose
nor how much; my chance is gone. Now
I’ll always wonder if there were angels in the rafters
and if those angels burned.
Why are they singing,
asks my neighbor’s little boy.
For children, songs are born of joy—
how then to explain Parisians
on the banks of the Seine, joined
in hymn as their steeple burned?
Too young, he hasn’t felt the urge
to let loose a scream or moan
transformed as song, to light incense
in his throat. I think of slaves
singing in the fields, slinging scythes
dragging bags of cotton beneath the eye
of God. I think of chain-gangs
breaking stone. I think of myself
at twenty, far from home and living
in a cramped apartment with a man
who sometimes choked me
and spat on me for fun. I sang love songs
in the shower then, and slid the window
wide, to let them out into the alley
where someone passing by might hear
and save me. Sometimes, I tell
my neighbor’s son, all you can do
is sing, or ring a bell;
the music is a counter-spell.
Everywhere else it’s just Tuesday—but where I’m from
people are dancing, people are high-stepping in the streets
because where I’m from parading is a sacrament
and Mardi Gras our high holy day. More krewes
than you can shake a drumstick at, parades go on for weeks
men and women with their hands up, children
on their parents’ shoulders to extend their reach.
Where I’m from people mix: black and white,
purple green and gold-
en streets: in heaven as it is on earth, trumpet music
raining down on this day of jubilation sans remorse,
remorse is for tomorrow, tomorrow we’ll wear ashes
and dark colored clothes—today we’re dressed in sequins
if we are dressed at all: bare-chested flambeau men glow
like angels, strutting and sweating and lighting the way
for the rest of us who huddle hip to hip to hand
beneath the overpass where the music’s loudest,
the darkness thick and sweet
like the women where I’m from, women whose
bodies move with practiced purpose: to feel joy
running over us like rain, the bass drum kicking
hard into our hearts—we feel you looking and we
don’t mind, our legs and backsides keeping time—
we are the finest things you’ve ever seen, everyone is
beautiful on Mardi Gras day, so throw me something
mister, open up your hand like God and give
those fancy beads to me. Where I’m from even the trees
wear jewelry, we trample it beneath our feet
the gutters clog with glittery things, even our trash
is pretty, because where I’m from everyone
is a little drunk, a little stoned—we take our vices seriously,
as serious as we take the saints, as serious as you
take your paleo diet, your raw organic sugar free—here:
this is king cake, try it—grind that sugar with your teeth
feel it go into your blood, feel your blood do a little get-down
boogie in your veins—this is our body, broken
for you, you poor saps who never second-lined
who never drank a Coors for breakfast, you poor
fools at work today because everywhere else
it’s just Tuesday, and you won’t change your mind.
March 5, 2019, Mardi Gras Day
The couch in the Jordan River took me by surprise.
No, it was worse than that; I felt insulted. From the moment I’d received my travel itinerary for a Holy Land pilgrimage, I’d had an appointment with God, there on the banks of the Jordan. The renewal of baptismal vows was supposed to be the highlight of the trip. I’d had it on the books for months.
For this, I got off the tour bus with my heart all tuned to hear angel-song; I was ready for that white dove to swoop down and say something to me. Our travel guides had made a special point to take us to a more remote section of the river, a place in northern Israel where the Jordan was narrower and quieter. This was presumably to avoid the theme-park atmosphere at popular baptismal sites farther south, where crowds in screen-printed souvenir gowns posed for dripping selfies.
There were no crowds at our little section of the river, but no swooping doves either. What we did have: a couch half-submerged in the middle of the water. A skull and crossbones spray painted on its back side peeped above the waterline, a pirate flag where I least expected to find one. And, as with all pirate invasions, my morning was invaded, robbed of sparkly holiness, and re-routed. I noticed for the first time all the trash at my feet, littering the bank. Several yards from the clearing, a makeshift shed sheltered a set of battered plastic chairs. Nearby, some local boys splashed and shouted over Arabic pop music.
Also, it was hot. Really hot. The sun stung my scalp and arms like the blast from a salt gun. Assuming God would manage the ambiance, I’d foolishly left my hat on the bus.
What I felt at that moment wasn’t anger. It wasn’t cynicism. It wasn’t even disappointment. I had come seven thousand miles for this, I’d cashed out my vacation savings and even dipped into my touch-me-not money, and now God had stood me up. I felt empty.
If I hadn’t been part of a group, I might have knelt down in the mud and trash, thinking God needed more supplication or something. But the vow-renewal service started right away. In unison, we read a prayer from a laminated page. One of the priests dipped a bundle of olive branches in the river and flung the droplets out over our heads. Yes, we’ll gather at the river, we sang, that flows by the throne of God.
And then we were done. A fellow pilgrim joked under her breath that she hadn’t expected the throne of God to be a soggy couch.
Then, with hardly a moment’s pause, we all began filling empty bottles so we could take home some souvenir Jordan-water. The impulse to collect or try to preserve something spiritual — either with or without having really experienced it — was a tendency I observed in myself and others time and again during my trip to the Holy Land. What was I bottling, exactly? Couch-water?
I must have been visibly underwhelmed, because as we prepared to leave, my priest sidled up to me. “It’s been there every time I’ve come,” he said, nodding at the couch. “I had a hard time with it too, at first.” And then he walked away, leaving me to wonder at his decision to return here, year after year with groups of pilgrims. What was he trying to teach us? His face shone with mischievous glee.
Maybe the emptiness I felt was the point. Maybe, paradoxically, God is present even in God’s absence.
Or maybe it’s some other kind of koan, something about finding God where I least expect to, or not finding God because I expect to, or not recognizing God because God’s kicking it on a nasty couch in the middle of the river.
More probably, it’s a challenge to my idea of beautiful.
But I don’t know yet. All that was less than a week ago, and I’ve touched other relics since then. I’ve traveled seven thousand miles back home and back to work. That couch is still lodged in the center of me, a symbol I don’t understand.
But, having been on pilgrimage before, I know that meaning sometimes takes years to emerge, rising like steam from my memories, and the pages of my travel journal. Until that happens, I resolve to bless the couch, if only because, the further away I get from that moment, the funnier it gets:
God pranked me.
I’m trying to laugh about it.
But also, even though our meeting didn’t go exactly as planned, God didn’t leave me totally hanging.
You see, we weren’t supposed to go in the water that day, but I hadn’t come all that way for a sprinkle. Some people were already on the bus, but I rolled up my pants and waded in. The river moved slow and cool around my knees. It wasn’t blue, but it felt blue, the color of the snowmelt that nourished it. For a half-second I thought I felt God in that coolness, the way the prophet Elijah had heard God in the gentle breeze. Thousands of years ago, on a mountain not far from where I stood, he’d also witnessed the absence of God, in an earthquake and a fire and a raging wind, the same destructive forces in which we still search. “Why are you here?” God had asked him.
On the way back to the bus we passed a man standing by the trunk of his car, wearing a t-shirt and the world’s tiniest swim trunks. The man waved his hands at us, grinning crookedly, dancing. He seemed drunk or crazy. But people thought that about the prophets too, and I’m reminded once again that you can’t know what holy looks like ahead of time; God’s the ultimate shape-shifter, a master of disguise.
Lately I’ve been thinking about devotion: in four days I leave on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And I’m not really sure why. Continue reading “The Road is My Religion”