Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost.

Listening with the ears of God

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on October 5, 2014.

Matthew 21:33–46

One afternoon last week I spent a little time at the Durham Arts Council, walking through the galleries, looking at the exhibitions of work by local artists. The great thing about the Arts Council galleries is that I never know what I’m going to get. It’s completely unpredictable. It could be photography or landscape painting, but it could be abstract sculpture or “fiber architecture” or (as it once was) hats. And it’s all completely new. There’s nothing familiar about any of it — no artist whose biography I recall from some class I took back in the late twentieth century, no named period whose history I can mentally outline. I don’t have any easy context for the art, no prefab intellectual framework into which I can place it. I’m always surprised. And so I just have to stand there awhile and… look at it.

Unless… I make the mistake of reading the artists’ statements. For those of you who don’t frequent art galleries, an artist’s statement is what an artist writes to explain and to justify his or her work, generally as a requirement for getting a grant or arranging a show. They have a reputation for being pretentious, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Ideally they function as a kind of introduction to the art, making it more easily accessible — but in a way, that might be worse. Because if you read it, then suddenly, without any effort at all, you know what the art is supposed to be about. You’re absolved of the necessity of looking at the art, and this fascinating mystery the artist has created for you has been turned instead into a mere puzzle — to which you, now, have the solution!

And for me… The entire experience of looking at the art has been spoiled.

It isn’t that I don’t care what the artist had in mind… It’s rather that I’m inclined to think that whatever I gain from simply being with the art, from truly looking for a little while, even if I walk away with no understanding I could articulate to anyone, outweighs any answers I might be given for free, and that the possibility of that experience vanishes the moment I turn the mystery of a work of art into a puzzle and start looking for solutions.

If you’re wondering why I’m taking this opportunity to confess my antipathy toward artists’ statements, bear with me.

You see, I find myself drawn to the very first thing Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading: “Listen to another parable.” That’s all. It doesn’t seem like much. But as far as I can tell, nobody in the story actually does listen — either in Matthew’s story or in the parable itself! In the parable, of course, the landowner sends servants to collect fruit from his tenants, and then he sends his own son, and every time the tenants pretty much literally shoot the messenger. (Or, well, stone him, anyway.) Not much listening going on there. The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking, meanwhile, seem intent mainly on figuring out who he’s pointing his finger at. When they “perceive that he was speaking about them,” as Matthew says, they decide to have him arrested — though not immediately, because the crowd, having just seen Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey is too busy shouting Hosanna and proclaiming him king to listen long enough to know just what sort of king they’re welcoming. Nobody’s just listening. Everybody, on both levels of the story, is trying to figure out what this guy’s angle is. What are you up to? What do you want from me? or— What’s in it for me?

Travel in the magic city

Since I moved, it has slowly dawned on me that I can get practically everywhere faster by taking the freeway. But it has at the same time dawned on me that I might be eroding other, existing neighborhoods by using that freeway—not directly, not by physical or economic means, but simply by changing my perception of them.

Rituals of embodiment

It isn’t that I want effortless obedience from physical objects but because I believe there is value in the physical interaction itself: we are embodied beings, and we think not only with our minds or brains but with our hands and our whole bodies.

27. The transformation of rains

Spring, and warmth, and the sun shone for days with bewitching clarity. Trees offered tender leaves like babies’ palms. Flowers unfurled their love to bumblebees. And clouds of pollen covered all and every thing, infinite infinitesimal golden grains like so many sins choking the earth’s promise. Now the rain that fell last month as desperate cold has come again in peace to washed away the amber stain, and the wet green resonates in the crackling air. The spring transforms the rains, and the rain transforms the season.

26. The redbud

The redbud lurks all year at the edge of the woods, quiet and unassuming. He wakes with the dawn, puts on his business foliage, kisses his wife the dogwood goodbye, heads off to his office in the understory and shades the brambles in a comfortable deep green. He keeps to himself. He doesn’t make any trouble. Then once a year in spring he leaps forth possessed like a prophet from the roadside, shrieking magenta jubilation to all who will listen. He mocks the elegance of cherries, shouts down buntings and cardinals, drowns the murmur of violets. His words fall like rain upon the grass and are forgotten, and reluctantly he settles into another year. He goes again about his business, a model citizen of the woods. Biding his time.

25. Minor imperfections

For a note one quarter step flat and an entrance half a beat too early. For a missed step, a bruised elbow, one wheel parked on the line. For a lock of hair three shades lighter than its neighbors. For the lone golden raisin in the box. For one leg shorter than the other by the thickness of a wingtip’s sole. Be ye perfect; but only God or a machine can, and it is reassuring just now to be speaking to neither. Just don’t get carried away.

24. Unintended shelter

For unintended shelter. The winter’s assaults of ice tore twigs from branches, branches from trees, trees from the earth, and some of us who could not abide the chaos chopped and raked the refuse into piles. Some of us who cannot abide the chaos even raked and piled would no doubt have burned it, had the tinder been drier and less resinous. Instead the quick-sawn trunks and browning needles sit like a Christmas massacre, sinking imperceptibly into the woods and into memory. Sinking, that is, into our memory, and rising into the life of others. Today a cardinal perched atop a storm-pile, a sienna slash of straw in her mouth. When her mate returned they disappeared into the brush and danced, as it seemed from where I stood — danced for hope or for joy, danced their own continuing. Danced the spring into existence in a bed of winter’s trash.

23. The changeability of trees

For the changeability of trees. Some days I walk deep into the woods, up strenuous hillsides where the trees are ancient — ancient, I mean, by the measure of my own days, and older than the memory of the oldest people I ever loved. Oaks that sprang from acorns fallen into the same earth but a different world, now grown unembraceably broad, that have stood continuous to shade the paths of a myriad changeable passing lives. Today I am in a different place, small and fenced, where also there are trees, small and carefully arranged. But I remember long ago here other trees, tall enough to shade a hasty lunch or passing thought and not by nature purple in the springtime. I remember myself here, shaded, and with that boy seem to have been continuous. But the trees have proven changeable, and it is I who feel ancient in their presence.

22. The silence of books

For the silence of books. I am sitting at a desk atop two million volumes. A mountain of knowledge I could not climb, that no one could climb in a dozen lives. (I took the elevator.) Two million volumes bound in faded hues, standing silent and straight-spined between their assigned companions, volunteering nothing. Numbered, shelved, neatly stacked and nearly unread. A comfortable ordering of knowledge unknown. I could choose one at random, let it open where it may, let my eye fall on a sentence: Fifi drew off and surveyed her work sympathetically yet professionally.1 Who is Fifi? Who knows? A scrap of paper marks the thirty-seventh page; the last page bears a penciled list of vocabulary words (eulogies, decadent, pristine, corollary) and a quick sum. But the date sheet is blank. I return the book to its place and myself to my desk. Through a window, far below, the sun finds sharply angled paths where people walk, hands in their pockets, heads in their thoughts, alone. Volunteering nothing.

  1. Henry Sydnor Harrison, Queed: A Novel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911).