Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Tu Es Petrus

About that workshop in the south of France
I didn’t go to: I only wanted to steal away
to the church of St. Pierre, its fortress walls

the remains of a Benedictine abbey
on an ancient pilgrimage route.
In the cracks of the eternal,

swallow nests and tufts of grass,
stubborn and scraggly
as Saint Peter was. But the instructor,

so beyond lapsed that she advertised
the conference chiefly in terms of food –
eight local varieties of olives, four of wine! –

would find me fluttering away, a dove,
homing in the broken arches
of my childhood faith –

though beauty never left me,
swiftest pilgrim, the most holy part.
Instead of wine-tasting, I’d be genuflecting,

crossing myself, fingertips barely
moistened, anointed rather
with the water from the sweaty font,

its dusty, sacramental scent,
blossom of stone after the first drops
of summer rain. In brightest June

could she comprehend
how a gesture, when repeated
for a thousand years,

becomes its own source of light,
a zigzag glimmer in the dark,
blessing we no longer know whom –

urbi et orbi, the town and the world.
And the sign of the cross,
gliding in the nave’s narrow dusk,

rides a shiver of joy that the words,
Tu es Petrus, and upon that rock
I shall build –

were not spoken merely
to a single man. 

   ~ Oriana


This poem was born both from not having gone to a workshop in France, in Auvillar, with its ancient church of St. Pierre (I had hoped for a merit scholarship, but it was given to a woman who had “matching funds,” as the instructor informed me, with amazing candor) – and from suddenly seeing the words Tu es Petrus, and taking them personally. In that moment I felt I was Petrus/Petra. Later, while writing, not yet knowing what the ending would be, I experienced the insight that those words were meant for everyone.

It’s not a question of building a church. I realize how heretical I am, but that’s a deep pleasure of a being lapsed. The doctrines mean nothing next to personal understanding and experience. For everyone, the task is different. Tu es Petrus you are the rock. The simple sentence suddenly came to life. It was as simple as the pronoun "you" finally breaking through to me in the personal sense. 

You are that rock upon which something great can be built. I am that rock. Each person is potentially that rock, that foundation. We are not sand; we are the rock. Our strength is enormous, if only the right builder (the best part of ourselves) comes, identifies, and sets out to work. 

What edifice? And how is this building to be done? Thanks to Lilith’s comments, I realize that instead of “extreme effort,” I should have said “extreme concentration.” I am more likely to produce something of quality on days when I managed to start with my “soul hour” of slow reading. That’s my personal meditation practice. Before I can create anything beautiful and nourishing, I need to nourish my own soul.

I am also tempted to say that “three things are needed for mastering the art of concentration: turn off, turn off, turn off.” Since we live in the Age of Distraction, the Age of Attention Deficit, the Age of Mania, it takes a special effort to enter one’s private Carmel. The first requirement is to turn off (or, if it’s morning, not to turn on) the computer, the cell phone, the little ding that announces email. Sometimes noise-canceling headphones (I mean those with white-noise murmur) are the only rescue from the noisy, manic environment. One way or another, we have to plunge into quiet and slowness, because “speed kills.” It’s thanks to slowness that we can go in depth and start building that which has a chance of lasting. 

I like "sweaty font" and  a gesture" zigzaging in the dark" – visual even to those of us who are not Catholic.

As for " extreme concentration," it comes about during alone-time. I think one of the main reasons there were fewer women writers and poets was because, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, women needed a room of their own, minus the inevitable chaos of many other voices, especially little voices, the chorus of which drowns out thought.

Personally I have had to learn to write with distractions: TV, phone conversations, clients needing help with their computers, etc. But the quiet times are by far the most productive.

Thank you, Hyacinth, for pointing out the most critical condition for creative work. For me the alone-time is supremely important, and I have arranged my whole life around securing that necessity. I especially appreciate your remark about “the inevitable chaos of many other voices, especially little voices, the chorus of which drowns out thought.

On the conscious level, at least (and I agree that it's 90% not a conscious decision; it's not the neocortex that decides, but the limbic system, craving affection and touch), I made the decision against having a child when I read an article that pointed out conditions for having or not having children. If I recall correctly, the #1 reason for not having children was genetic disease. #2 was: "Your work requires a lot of solitude."

But I know that I can use that quiet time for construction or self-destruction. By the latter I mean depression.

If I work, then there is never enough of the alone-time. If I start brooding, my inner temple becomes a vipers' nest of isolation, loneliness, and pointless reiteration of the idea that, coming from another culture and having my kind of erudition, I might as well be from another planet because where I am now only two things are valued: 1) money 2) family. And family is not extended family, a ton of colorful relatives who are already there, enriching your life with their own fantastic life stories, but children you have to give birth to if you don't want to be alone (in the lonely, abandoned sense of "alone").  

There might be something to these depression-bred observations, but they don't lead anywhere constructive, only to further isolation and alienation. Likewise, it's just the kind of black-and-white thinking characteristic of depression, and not the rich mosaic of more accurate thinking. So I collect crumbs of beauty and insight for the part-mysterious edifice that I, but more than I, build upon the rock of my strength. 

Jack Gilbert says somewhere that if you are alone, that's usually by sheer luck. I think at this point he is very lucky that enough people appreciate him enough to have provided decent care for him, and he hasn't ended up on the dung hill like Job or Argos, the once-splendid dog of Odysseus. But it's in his previous solitude that he produced those unique poems that made people care.

It's the old solidaire-solitaire paradox: there has to be both solitude and connection. It's not a question of balance; solitude is more important by far. A little connection goes a long way, but not a little solitude. Just as I say extreme effort and extreme concentration, I should probably add "extreme solitude." Extreme by other people's standards, that is. For you and me, there is never enough of that magical quiet time when the surprise of inspiration can unfold.

In a workshop years ago, the leader said something I remembered: the ones who rob you of time to write are the ones who give you something to write about.

Yes, there is something to that. I'm thinking of P, who was a crazy maker, who created chaos and destabilized my creative routine (which I belatedly was only beginning to create) -- and of course so many of my poems are about him. And I also think of the women we know who are mothers of bipolar children -- maybe they wd not have even become writers except for the trauma.

But I can also say: because the intensity is there. If there is mostly drudgery, the effect is destructive. Here I remember that article about male post-partum depression that startled me completely. It was first-person confession of a man who became depressed when sharing in child care deprived him of his quiet time. He wrote that he went into mourning and literally wept for his former life when he could read and write and just enjoy being with his thoughts. His marriage ended in divorce, no surprise, but how sad.

I think that if any country has the right motto, this is the one: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These are the "unanlienable rights." What if these rights were truly granted -- and in a sense, they are all one? What if we took "pursuit of happiness" seriously, as a human right? Would not lack of time for the nourishment of one's soul then be a violation of human rights?

I also think of Sharon Doubiago, who said that after she had her first child, her mother came and said, "Today I take the baby. Every Tuesday I take the baby, and you can do whatever you want with that time." And Sharon started reading, and then took a class. Whatever it was, she started creating herself on that "day off."

But how many women have this kind of wise and generous mother? Should affordable daycare (or nightcare, if applicable) be a substitute? I don't know what the practical solution is, but I have seen women weep, literally weep, saying, where is that bright girl I used to be? Where is that free spirit who'd get up and start dancing? She is dead . . . 

The Winged One wasn't there with them -- I mean Eros, or whatever we call that angel. That level of animation, of being alive. But we make the best of whatever we have, and I am continually astonished by the quiet, unobserved heroism of so many people -- including that housewife in Tony Hoagland's poem who does not, after all, break out of a check-out line at Vons, screaming that she can't take it anymore.

When my oldest daughter got into her teens, she gave me a day off in the summer once a week . She kept the younger children and cooked dinner. She was 12 years older than her baby sister and the boys were in between. I'd go to the beach with a book and a blanket and sometimes just nap or take a long walk. and sometimes I'd take one child and they got to do whatever they wanted. Once my son and I did beach combing, once we body surfed, and once with one of the children gathered shells. It was delightful and such a gift. The kids tell me now their big sister ruled them with an iron hand and they minded her.

What a gift – what sensitivity and generosity in a teenage girl! I remember now that Sharon Doubiago’s mother said, “If I don't take the baby so you can have a whole day to yourself,  you will lose yourself.” 

Going back to that chorus of small voices drowning out thought, even angelic choirs are unwelcome when I want to be alone with my thoughts. I love classical music more than anything else, more than poetry, but having it “in the background” while I’m writing, which means thinking, is out of the question. I’m not a multi-tasker. When I listen to music, I want bliss. When I write, I want the silence that is like a womb of slow, deep thinking.

My favorite scene in the movie “The Serious Man” is the exchange between Rabbi Marshak’s secretary and the hapless anti-hero who seeks advice from the holy sage. “The rabbi is busy,” the secretary replies, denying access. “He doesn’t look busy!” the protagonist protests. “He is thinking,” the secretary explains, and that’s the end of it. I find this scene inspiring because for me it goes to the heart of the matter: our culture doesn’t see thinking as “being busy,” and doesn’t respect the silence that thinking requires. 

Tu es Petrus – and upon that rock something great can be built. It may take an immense amount of work done with a lot of concentration, and a strange trust that we are, indeed, building even when we don’t see it. 


  1. Kathleen Elliott GilroyJuly 27, 2010 at 8:48 PM

    I particularly 'felt' the fifth stanza: a dove, homing in the broken arches of my childhood faith... Those words are visual choices but also resculpt a readers response to faith, to childhood doctrines we took in, and the self analysis to rediscover where we are and where we go from here. Your extended philosophy is a journey of intimacy between friends. It does take an immense amount of work to disover who we are on this journey and why we have chosen particular people as our companions. My knapsack lies waiting for another mental walk with you. Kathleen

  2. The imprint of childhood faith is astonishingly deep. I think it reveals the power of music, imagery, and the Gospel stories (the stories in the Old Testament are often disturbing, even terrifying). I am interested in Pascal's assertion that there is no rational proof of the existence of God, but one can gamble, make a bet, and consciously choose to believe even in the absence of proof. Pascal asserted that if such a deliberate wager is made, God will start revealing himself (itself?) through mystical experiences, and one's life will be enriched.

    But a return to the doctrines of Catholicism would mean a stunting of my life, and time wasted at post-Vatican II church services that no longer nourish me. So at best I can imagine the kind of deity (even that word seems way too archaic) that would favor personality enlargement and living life more fully.