NEW ARTICLE: “Oh, How Specific!”: Explaining Your (Obscure?) Topic This Holiday Season

Howdy everyone!  It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me on this side of the blog, but I’m happy to announce that I have a new article up in The Activist History Review. It’s a short piece about the perils graduate students face in answering questions from friends, family, and acquaintances about what exactly they’re working on.  

I hope to publish more stuff about graduate life in the future.  As I move further towards the dissertation phase of my career, the distance allows me to be more fair and even-handed in my representations.  Later this spring I’m planning on writing something about comprehensive exams.

If you have a topic you’d like to see me address on here, I’d love to hear about it.  What’s your favorite elevator speech encounter.  How do you think graduate students with highly, er, “specialized” topics should navigate the holidays?  Let me know in a comment; your feedback is really helpful!

Have a wonderful festive season!

New Poem: dimondale friday afternoon (et intravit israel), in a New Journal!

Hey all!

I have a new poem out, but it’s not here! It’s been published in a journal of poetry and literature called Vessel.  It’s spearheaded by Mike Breger, a friend of mine from high school now in graduate school at Stanford University.  You can read my poem here, alongside all the other excellent contents of Vessel, issue 1.  I’m really impressed with the final product, and I wish Mike all the best with Vessel.  Long may she sail.

sirach 43:8

i

having walked sixteen miles into the grey abyss of november
across sycamore creek bottomlands, then turning wrong and

finding pockets of the city where streets are not even paved
and where the houses match the streets,

i startled some deer as the night gathered;
i always like it, where else will i

ever be taken for a wolf? leaves upset and blurry kicking,
white flags and a buck in profile, five points melted

into the grainy woods beyond, you know how, no
noises past our little discourse there.

ii

i always thought of you on walks like this
when the shadows used to get long and catch me

like your face still would, if i saw it,
but i will not have that calamity. i told a certain one not once

but many times that i would lie in the middle of richmond road
for you—to demonstrate what, you might well ask—and i would

say it’s all i could do to keep from exploding then and there—
the weight of events would catch such fire, oh,

if i ever saw you in that way. and it still is, probably,
but i think about you less, all by the great manna of being busy.

if i ever saw you again, i would confess my love to the
soil i was buried in, bruising my wrists on the mahogany,

gesticulating. but i am increasing wonderfully in my changing here,
you know, even in a land i hate.

iii

i will admit that when it was really getting dark
after willard avenue; when i had to cross the cemetery

i did feel pangs, the air no longer breathing for a while
as i made steady for aurelius and mt. hope, stifled moonlight

making cobblestones of the leaf litter. suddenly the dead rose
and i was back downtown bawling my eyes out like no one could see,

canned rihanna piping down empty streets like it usually did,
sure before the supreme deity of the universe that i

was the most unfairly killed of all prophets,
the most cruelly beaten down, here in nineveh

where nothing green can thrive. and then a new voice:
but oh, robin, it was three years ago,

oh, oh, oh, look what has been
made to grow here in nineveh.

iv

slain demons flash in the dark like phantom limbs:
oh, i am not used to their absence.

do you remember hitting that deer on penn? how hopeless
in that moment all you felt? or the bullet-pointed

ypsilanti sleet on the day you felt it was all over?
and a hundred-odd mundane evasions of company of people

you might have let in on the squalor of davis avenue? the night,
driving one back home down collins—i think in the first month

of this adventure—boring her and yourself talking about moravians
and deciding you would do best to forget them all? the calm

bitterness of twenty thousand hours walking shoeless
through the rain down from the m.l.k. bridge—no,

you will never forget. but what will we do now
in victory and freedom? oh, robin, oh;

i wish you would see
what has grown in nineveh.

dimondale highway

i

i don’t know what it is about dimondale
that makes me feel so far away;

i don’t know if it’s the fall wind blowing me
across these long dusks that reminds me of places

i barely ever was, the tygart valley, say, or
bee hill road. it is like hiding in a fold of

the universal garment, like an addendum
shrunk down of the wide emptiness

stretching north to the manistee, where
you can see a blinking yellow five miles

ahead of getting there. but in dimondale i
can walk the world from end to end in a couple

of hours and be satisfied,
having seen everything.

ii

oh, they say there is life outside of windsor
charter township—south africa, say,

they like soccer a lot more. but why
would you want there to be?

dead possums and winter wheat and sky:
these three categories

are the whole of
creation: nothing lives

that is not one
of these.

twenty-nine verses for chipia

i

now that i’m here, what
is there really to say? i
can hardly presume

to write about a
place so holy to my best
friend: i cannot go

dedicating a
poem so inadequate;
i am ignorant

of the narrowest
jot of this small place
with its rocks and tree

roots spread like melting
wax over a thousand boulders—
the holy of holies

desires no lines
on its own behalf, being
perfected in se.

twenty-six years of
sedimented memories and
learning how to be

who he is. and i
have been a decade in his
mind; only now with

eyes uncovered, can
i see its grounds and waters,
the noise of its limbs

and its shining like
mercury in the thrall of
a blue dancing moon

at once gentler and
more convicting than any
foreign monument.

ii

the best feeling in the
world is to be given
what you did not seek

as i was, my friend,
last night and this whole week; i
had no foreknowledge,

surely, eleven
years ago that i would be
drunk with you on the

blue-black night, the eye
of God in cool late august
brightness lighting up

ossipee and the
mountains like a photograph
negative, all greens

now spiritous and
ashen to see, a cleansing
vapor to feel in

new lungs for new men,
reborn for as long as we
refuse the land and

its inevitable
ruin; its roads to greater
roads and greater roads,

its soft damnation
of choices. here, a decade
having passed, we watched

midnight come and go
talking about people we knew
and how a war

might be conducted
here with small craft: to each war
lord a small island

from which to conduct
their fleet, fantasies of far
youth spent menacing

foes and taxing the
peasants to revolution
with fallen branches.

out in deep water
the loons hunt and your darkness
must be so humid

with memory, as
august passes everywhere
to fall, evergreen

waif, the one who is
always dying every year.
it has been a great

momentous thing, you
know, to have these eleven
years with no end yet

in sight.

wisdom 7:12

i

it costs so much to understand
just a little of this world,

some part you slipped a paper under
and a glass, a spider on the face of

infinity, for what feels like the price
of life itself. i know i lay awake

for months in agony memorizing
the contents of the cage they prepared

for it, peering gravely into corners
knowing they would ask about

details when the time came
to make my account, provided our

hairy little friend still lived
and the house didn’t burn

and the sky unfallen,
et cetera.

ii

soon i was full of heaviness and
walking in trenches, discerning

narrow ways through kind loam.
i was driven into desert places

by my heaviness and thought my soul lost
on a poor wager; i thought of

callaway and the start i almost made
there, and my grief deepened

until it seemed i could go nowhere
but stay and learn the rocks inside

the dry kloof, but i
was wrong about that.

iii

there is so much to learn in this world
but not much to understand, not much

that’s worth trying to, is what i mean;
in any case, you don’t need to know much

to finish well in this life:

only mostly the love of God
and the faith to take one step

a thousand thousand times.

todd lake departure

to lie here on this old pillow
listening to the endless calling

of the night to the night
the tent like a pimple on the face

of the mountain her calling
to the sky, drops all night

from broad leaves, the war
poetry of bullfrogs and owls,

the pacific verses of insects
and the haze of the unseen:

lying here on this pillow
i am transfixed like one dying

on the conviction, full of mud
and sweat, that this is what

i must have more of; caroline
there next to me, invincible,

i walked beside her through
the black green corridor of the

dark, pores electric with the
sound of her words:

behold what you are;
may you become what you receive

where i wish you to be: just here,
anointed in spring water before

a congregation of newts and pubescent frogs,
learned in the land to

which you surrendered many times:
learned just in slow and simple things,

no longer in thrall of arcana.

fragments for leaving emery

i

all according to
plan—including the driving
rain up Storey to

Low Street to Parker
and the train station, poncho
riding up and soaking

shorts et cetera
(my bus tickets a second
time) now gliding past

marshes soaked with tide
and the bajareque, the
rain having yielded.

ii

still unclear on what
all the rain means—this perfect
symmetry of storms:

maybe limina,
maybe chance, but i hope i
do not lapse wholly.

iii

how can i describe
the night yesterday? i had
many disturbed dreams

despite the pure calm
of the night (or half night; i
went to bed at just

9:30, when the
margin of the sky was
still strawberry white.

iv

i spoke to Mary
Theotokos in the dark
chapel, knowing eyes

and kind, then saw the
last lovely steam of a long
day evaporate.

v

i hope the dreams were
frustrated footfalls of some
enemies leaving.

the medicine of silence

—i—

you are here for not
twelve hours and you say “i
want to write a book

about silence”: this
is not appropriate, it’s
not in the spirit.

—ii—

This post is out of character for the poetry part of this site, because it’s in prose. But I feel moved, having just returned from a five day silent retreat, to share a little about my experience with others. I can honestly say that the time I spent at Emery House, a monastic retreat house about an hour north of Boston, was one of the most meaningful events of my life.

I write this with quite a bit of trepidation, knowing full well how paradoxical—absurd, even—it seems to be writing about silence. Obviously it would seem that the best way to “learn” about silence is just to shut up, so why spend a whole week just doing that? The question is legitimate. When you think of silence primarily as the absence of something (speech, conversation, interaction, connection), it doesn’t sound like something worth celebrating. What’s more, in an age and generation where so much ordinary social contact is mediated through devices and digital communication where talking isn’t even necessary, it may seem even less clear why it would be good to seek out silence. Surely, in this alienated age, the thing to be thirsting for is real communication, no? Even as we speak to one another less and less, we grow more and more distracted.

—iii—

I want to be very upfront with people who don’t know me personally: I’m a Christian and Emery House is run by the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), an order of celibate monks in the Anglican (as opposed to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox) tradition. The experience of silence that I’ll be talking about here is therefore indelibly shaped by my particular faith (as well as the individual questions I embarked on this retreat with the intention of asking God).

At the same time, almost every religion on the planet that I’m aware of incorporates some kind of contemplative, meditative, or mystical component (some of which, like yoga and mindfulness, are practiced in some decidedly secular spheres). Even without acknowledging a higher power behind it all, it’s easy to lose oneself in silent contemplation of a starry night on a purely intellectual level. Rarely, even in that case, are the emotions and the deeper parts of the soul left untouched. My point is that no matter what you believe, silence probably has something to teach you. But I am getting ahead of myself.

“In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.
She asked, ‘Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.’
He says, ‘There’s nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight.’
This is how Hallaj said, ‘I am God,’
and told the truth!”
—Rumi

—iv—

One of the first things you learn on a silent retreat is that silence is more than not talking, a negative condition of the world. Within the first twenty-four hours of shutting up (I’m a very talkative person in my everyday life), your other senses become heightened. Because you aren’t thinking of things you need to say to people and have no expectation of people speaking to you, you become more and more deeply attuned to the sights and sounds and smells of the world around you.

of course silence is not merely absence
for it is never the same
i am learning that silence sounds different the longer
it is kept:

it’s 10:41
and the only word i’ve said
today is “so,” so

the medicine of
silence perhaps is starting
to help me arrive.

—v—

In the course of the week I was at Emery House, the only time I ever spoke (aside from a couple words a day by mistake) was during worship services, which were held four times a day (morning prayer at 7:30, the eucharist (holy communion) at 12:00, evening prayer at 6:00, and compline (night prayer) at 8:00. The services, all derived from scripture and the ancient words of Christian liturgies, involved a lot of chanting and a cappella singing, since there was no musical accompaniment in the simple Emery House chapel. Even when you were speaking, then, you had to concentrate on following the music, pausing when the monks paused (quite often), and not raising your voice above those of others. It seems intimidating when I describe it in the abstract, but because I was already fairly familiar with these services, I was able to get to a place where it was really exhilarating.

My voice, freed from the obligation to constantly respond to social stimuli, became an instrument almost solely to be used for communication with God. Besides worship and meals, the only things I had to do during the day were read, write, and take long walks. In the afternoons, I took long walks with books I was reading for fun (Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read). Without my phone, on walks I was forced to really look around me, taking in the different plants, the winding of the road and the sound of unseen snakes and frogs darting off into the grass at its sides. Ultimately I will admit that it was a much more difficult task to tame the stubborn restlessness of my mind, which usually has access to a phone to slake its curiosity about the world. In lieu of reading and scrolling and looking things up, I found myself becoming more and more attuned to the richness of individual moments and scenes. The woods, after all, are alive with God’s creatures going about their business, paying you little to no mind, particularly if you stay still. Before long, my sandals started coming off. New tactile thrills awaited my soles: dirt and mud and pine needles and and spiny dry grass and roots between my toes. It’s a risky matter, walking barefoot, but in my unhurried and well-cared for state of soul, it felt like a calling:

thinking about big
things so often depends on
small things, how they grow,

how a man can walk
barefoot through deep woods, reckless
as children are, free

to pepper God with
questions: bird calls and rustles
and mushrooms, a faith

that does not ask “what
about ticks?” going around
in boots, gravely:

faith worthy because
never worthy, safe because
never safe, Christ’s own.

—vi—

Because of the silence, for five days I was able to exist at Emery House not as anyone’s friend nor as anyone’s son or relative. No one at the monastery knew I was in graduate school, no one knew about my experiences in South Africa or anywhere else. But unlike the anonymity of everyday life, I was under precisely zero pressure to impress upon people the kind of person I was. Beyond the need to conform to the minimum requirements of life at the monastery, the performative aspect of daily life was gone; at the same time, I was living profoundly unselfishly. I wasn’t thinking about pursuing my own fulfilment; instead I was focused, through the books on prayer I spent the mornings reading, on quieting my own mind in order to inwardly digest the word of God.

life is wondering
whether God is paying for
a meal: you’re anxious

until you see that
the bill is seven million
dollars; then you know

“The ‘righteous man’ is one who is learning more and more his own weakness, and is turning more and more to God, so that God is more and more free to carry out His will in him.”
—James O. S. Huntington, O.H.C.

This wasn’t my first introduction to the idea of contemplative prayer as a path to spiritual growth. But I can’t deny that before my retreat I did regard injunctions to “be still and know that I am God” with some suspicion. Part of the problem for me, looking back, was an idea—strongly rebutted in the books I read during my mornings—that prayer was a matter of thinking hard enough, of concentrating hard enough on whatever it was I wanted to focus on in order to hear the “still small voice” of God coming through, like a faraway radio transmission.

It was St. Theophan the Recluse (a badass name for a nineteenth century Russian saint, if I may say so) who first insisted in my reading on the idea that prayer is not a desperate attempt to establish contact so much as something radically different: a clearing of the mind, an inherently restful act, even. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the Spirit helps us in out weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

It’s true: I don’t know how to pray as I ought, because even when the words come easily, I don’t really understand what’s in my real best interest. And herein lies the true value of silence. Silence (both inward and outward) provides space for us as human beings to recenter ourselves and remember the most important truths about ourselves: that we are children of God, that we are beloved by him (and powerless to change this!), and that separation from these truths is the only thing worth fearing in this life. Centered in this, less fearful and anxious of the world outside, the Holy Spirit finds space to work inside us—and thus it’s really the Holy Spirit and not our own pious selves that prays on our behalf.

—vii—

Now I am aware that some people reading this might find it indulgent. What I’m describing—an extended holiday from screens and communication in a stunning natural setting—might sound too much like an actual holiday for comfort. Of course, they might say, you felt a deep connection to God and the universe while you were there, but what about after you left? It’s easy to feel holy in a holy place; the tough part is applying it to the everyday frustration of life outside the cloister.

when you are well-fed
and undistracted and shut
up it is easy

to see that life is
God’s great adventure, but this
is a tall order.

i realized tonight during evening prayer that already
God seems to have provided answers to my questions,
but this clarity means nothing if it is not sustained.
not to love, but to keep loving,
not to stop, but to keep stopping,
not to listen, but to keep listening,
that’s the game.

It has already been difficult, in the week or so I’ve been back, to readjust to everyday life. It doesn’t come naturally to recall God as often in a place that isn’t a literal monastery. At the same time, the truths I reacquainted myself with at Emery House remain just as true everywhere. They are helping me, I hope, towards a life of less fear and more confidence (at some point soon I hope to write something about fear and how dangerous it is, but that’s an essay for another time).

I could also write more deeply about the things at Emery House I had more difficulty adjusting to. The practice of eating meals in silence, for example, was hard for me. The food (vegetarian for the whole week I was there, much of it sourced from the monks’ own garden) was absolutely delicious, but the monks eat in haste. Since I was often hungry from my long walks, but also didn’t want to hold anyone up—we prayed both before and after the meal, so it mattered when one finished—I often felt like I had to eat much more quickly than I would like. I’m sure plenty has been written about monastic mealtime practices, and I can understand to a certain extent the desire not to produce an atmosphere of feasting outside of actual feast days, but given how special I felt the food was, it remains somewhat jarring to me. As I re-examine my own relationship with food, perhaps I’ll strike upon some additional insight.

I came to Emery House with a lot of questions that had been burning through my gut over the past few months. I was frustrated because I thought the most important thing I had to do was discern God’s will for me, an arduous process that would involve a lot of thought-intensive, exhausting prayer and reading of the auspices. Thanks to St. Theophan, David Benner (author of Desiring God’s Will, a wonderful little book), and James O. S. Huntington, O.H.C., I came to understand that this was not the best use of my time: no individual decision I might make is more important than living my life in a way that strives to glorify God, a trite phrase that means existing at peace with myself and in the service of those around me.

I have a long, long, long way to go on that count. But a long way is just a bunch of little footsteps, after all.

—viii—

it is God who waits
for us: awareness is all
that we are lacking

likewise, today was
pure bliss, except for the bird
who shat on my arm

while i was in the
hammock learning about
His presence and love.

light shone through the birch
leaves, obscuring the culprit;
so much for justice

—ix—

Have you ever been on a silent retreat, or have you ever thought about going on one? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments, particularly if you’ve experienced something similar in a different faith tradition. I’ve always been struck by the profound affinity that exists among the different contemplative traditions of the world, and I’m fascinated to learn more.

Also, if you’d like to see more posts like this in the future (this is something quite new for me!), let me know that too!

 

big daddy’s, boquete

it is not a crime to live in paradise:
if you can afford it, do so.
you can grow a grey ponytail and
smoke in contravention of ley 13 de 2008
at a bar, owned by americans, that
tolerates such things.

it is not a crime, except against taste, to
blare twist and shout, redneck girl,
or the bee gees at nine o’clock on a
friday night and dance like the world
depended on your dancing, indeed,
it takes more sacrifice to become part of
a place you were not born in than
most can manage.

still, such great fun: the high moist rainforest
and coffee plantings, ngäbe women
breastfeeding on the plaza as white-
shirted students return from school:
a land secure in itself—never
changing, ever gentle spring.