Two Sonnets About Adam and Eve

So, I’ve been experimenting with sonnets, just to see how hard it might be. The verdict: Sonnets are very hard. It makes me appreciate Shakespeare on a different level. Here are two of my attempts.

Adam

Back then I could pronounce their names, the ones

They called themselves, each one different.

We walked together ‘neath a single sun;

I had nothing for to be repentant.

This loss, of all things, most grieves my conscience:

With my first taste of flesh, I was transformed.

My ears closed up, and I lost the nuance

Of animal speech and the voice inside storms.

Now, the high-lonesome wind just sounds forlorn

And I’ve forgotten the words to the birds’ songs.

My woman mostly looks at me in scorn,

between us a distance many words long.

Sometimes I think I almost understand

The ragged sparrow who still finds my hand.

 


Eve

My husband was obsessed with gods and names—

“An oak,” he’d say, pointing. He called me Eve.

From him I learned to sniff for rain

Which was god, he said, as was breeze.

We did in those days just as we pleased,

And met the gods for supper once a week.

Adam milked the goats, I made the cheese;

In time our eyes grew bright, our bellies sleek.

But as the days unspooled I came to think

That there was something crucial we yet lacked

And also lacked the name for such a thing.

Restless, tetchy, I stepped out back

And—Oh!—the sweetness of that forbidden fruit!

To know the thing I was. To learn the truth.

Why Go To Church?

Last Friday, I went back to the Orthodox Church I’d all but stopped attending. I’m sort of obsessed with the Virgin Mary; feast days in her honor are hard to resist. Plus, there was going to be a fish dinner. (Every year on the 25th of March, Eastern Christians commemorate Mary’s visitation by the archangel — nine months before Christmas.) However, because I’d been participating in Western Lent this year, it was jarring to celebrate Christ’s conception on the day that I was also marking his death.

As I stood in the choir loft and sang the familiar words, I remembered that time is not a line. But neither is it a circle. Moments do not open and close like blossoms. Though we move through them, they do not cease to exist. The first kiss my husband and I shared—sunlight on our faces, hearts effervescing with possibility—is contained within the same reality as our final kiss. So do Christ-the-embryo and Christ-the-brutalized overlap.

Likewise, the me that once attended an evangelical church, the me that once had a voudou altar, the me that piously knotted her headscarf before entering the Orthodox cathedral — these selves are not not abandoned husks; they live and breathe within their allotted moments, eternal. It’s so easy to forget that.

On Easter Sunday I attended church with my sister-in-law and her family. The church, housed in a nondescript metal building, had a state of the art sound system and Power Point slides displaying song lyrics. It was the kind of church I attended five years ago, the kind in which I was married. The kind I left.

It couldn’t have been more different from an Orthodox service. The congregants were unrestrained, weeping and waving their hands to the music, which was accompanied by a saxophone and drums. I looked around and thought, Who are these people? What do they think they’re doing? No one even served communion.

With sudden horror, I realized that I was being just the kind of Orthodox person I despised: judgmental, holier-than-thou. Full of ideas about the Right Way to Do Things. This sort of arrogance—in other people—was, in part, what drove me from the church a year ago. The real question was, What was I doing?

After that, I tried to see the sincerity in the other congregants. Their outstretched arms and tears became beautiful, terrible expressions of our souls’ exile to earth, our separation and mutual longing for union with some ineffable Source. We try to name it and give it attributes, we codify behaviors that we think will increase our chances of experiencing it, but the truth is that most of us never experience God in the ways we expect. There are no scroll-bearing angels, no fingers writing on walls. For all his vastness and omnipotence, God tends toward subtlety.

Except when he doesn’t.

Last week, for instance. I’d gone to bed frustrated after pondering a chapter in Kenneth Leong’s The Zen Teachings of Jesus, in which the author champions the “ordinary mind” and claims, “striving for holiness is still an expression of ego.” (165) So what are we supposed to do, I wondered? Shall we live unexamined lives? Should I start watching copious amounts of television? Should I go back to the Orthodox church, accepting its dogma the way a spaniel takes its food? Let my soul atrophy, its arteries too clogged for even the narrowest revelation?

Around two a.m., I was jolted from sleep by a violent storm. Thunder tore across the sky like cannon volleys. In it, I heard God’s voice, laughing. The laughter was affectionate, but the message was absolute. Try if you like, the voice said, but I will not be comprehended.

So why, then, do we go to church?

I’ve grappled with this question for years, vacillating between regular attendance and long periods of complete abstinence. When in church, I long for a God I cannot find in the stained glass windows and curtained altars, and I stop going. But after long periods of Sabbath solitude, I find myself needing to hear prayers murmured in unison, the old words worn smooth as river stones.

In this season of my life, churches seem to me like God’s watch-pocket: impractically small and mostly useless. Nevertheless, I sometimes want to be there among the lint and other detritus. Probably, there is nothing in there that he needs. It’s unlikely that he’ll reach in, searching for something, and brush the crowns of our bowed heads with his fingertip. But—oh!—he might! Such possibility fills me with urgency.

This is why I go to church time and time again, even though most of my encounters with the Divine have been outside of church and unexpected, even though church mostly disappoints. I want to make God look at me. I want him to whisper in my ear and touch me. I think of our souls as little broken-off pieces of God, and the piece within me has never healed of that severing. It bleeds and bleeds.

Perhaps there’s no Right Way, only seasons. God cannot be cajoled, neither can he be seduced. Revelations are his alone to bestow, and it is ours to be aware, to listen and watch and wait.

The Saints Come Marching In

For years, I’ve collected religious iconography. Moist-eyed apostles festoon my walls; my jewelry box overflows with rosaries and holy medals. This summer I even made a 500-mile pilgrimage on foot to the relics of St. James, and have a certificate verifying—in Latin—the completion of my journey.

I began collecting saints my during a brief brief romance with vodou, and I’d been introduced to many of them syncretism with the lwa. My relationship with vodou was tumultuous. When it was over, all that remained was Mary. Whenever I was inwardly freaking about something, without fail I would see an image of the Virgin — whether it was a statue in someone’s yard or a tattoo on somebody’s arm — I felt like She was looking out for me. Later, when I began to pray to her, I had an experience that I can only describe as an awareness of God’s awareness of me.

But when it comes to the other saints, I’m affected more by their stories than their presence. Joan of Arc is one of my heroes. I also like to think about St. Anthony, hanging out in his mountain crevasse, trying not to be bored. Or St. Elijah hearing God’s voice in the gentle breeze. As a writer, I’m compelled by stories. Give me five minutes on a train or an airplane and I’ve made up a story about everyone around me. I love taking walks through the cemetery in my neighborhood and trying to piece together stories based on the headstones.

But ultimately, with the exception of Mary, that’s kind of how the saints seem to me — like dead people.

I don’t want to feel this way. I want to be the kind of person who believes in the saints and has a whole skyfull of magical pals, and for whom the world is mysterious and flickery and smells like wax and old wood and who doesn’t care if people think she’s crazy. The truth is, my inability to believe that I can actually talk to the saints has nothing to do with what other people think, because in the end, what I pray, and to whom, is private. Nevertheless, I feel … weird about it.

This summer on the pilgrimage, I talked to St. James a lot. I was on the way to his relics, so I figured I might as well introduce myself. I talked to him about all kinds of stuff, but mostly I prayed for a guy who had a brain tumor. Because St. James was decapitated, I thought he might be especially sensitive to matters of heads.

The priest at my church says we pray for the intercession of the saints the same way we’d ask a friend to pray for us. The saints aren’t dead, he tells me, their spirits are alive with God. Which is nice, and kind of makes sense. But when I got to Santiago, where James’ relics are, I found out that they were mixed together with the bones of two other guys I’d never heard of, and — I don’t know. Something about it just made me mad, like it had been a sham. I know James can’t help it if they snuck some other guys into his box, but it felt like trickery. I prayed at the relics anyway, because I’d come all that way. But in the end, the pilgrimage had been the point, not the bones.

When I got home, I found out the guy with the brain tumor underwent surgery and is now doing fine. It doesn’t prove anything. But it gives me hope.