To Carol in the Summerland

My beloved friend Carol has passed away.

We met at Andover-Newton in 2005. From the very start, Carol demonstrated exceptional kindness and grace. It was while in seminary that I was relieved of my innocence about people of faith; by and large, they are people of many words and scant action. It’s become reflexive in America to assume that someone who professes a deep faith is hypocritical and vain. While my time at ANTS was lovely in many ways, it was my experience that, indeed, many passionate believers are also thoroughly flawed individuals – and I should know, I was one of them. But Carol was one of the few people I have met in all my travels who lived her faith and convictions without the slightest self-importance or condescension. Her belief in the goodness of people and the necessity of compassion were absolute – and amply proven by the unfailing generosity and love she showed to everyone who met her.

Carol and her husband Len were among the very first attendees at a “Film and Television Club” I began at Andover-Newton in my role as the Student Activities director. When I moved on campus, Carol and Len – both avid sci-fi and fantasy fans – invited me over to their dormitory to watch “Babylon 5.” The three of us became fast friends with a common love for philosophical inquiry and popular culture – preferably taken together. We discussed the theological underpinnings of our favorite shows and books. Later, we’d have Professor Kirk Jones’ course “The Jazz of Preaching” together and share many meaningful moments built around music. Our times together alternated harmoniously between sacred and secular: a small gathering for prayer and healing in the campus chapel one night, a pizza party in Sturtevant Hall watching “The Muppets’ Christmas Carol” the next. I adored Carol’s sense of humor and wit, both of which were used effectively in her capacity as a raconteur: I loved her stories of younger days, how she and Len met (such a delightful and endearing tale), and the travels she’d made – her trip to Italy made for a trove of great stories. Such was her warmth and amicability that she insisted on an embrace each time we met up dinner in the cafeteria or went out for breakfast at the diner down the hill.

Carol made seminary a richer experience. We had tremendous fun at the Boston Science Museum’s Star Wars special exhibition and playing board games like “Settlers of Canaan” or “Risk: Godstorm.” She introduced me to local blues artist Ronnie Earl and took a group of us to see him perform at Berklee.  Her good-natured and always up-beat presence was the catalyst for more late-nights in seminary playing games or eating ice cream than I can remember. We grew so close in friendship that Len and Carol were present at my wedding in 2007 – Carol had such kind and sagely words for me at the occasion, and I’ll ever cherish them. Less than a year later in 2008, Len and Carol would travel to India with my mother and I, as part of a border-crossing experience to learn about faith in the 3/4ths world context. Together, we had such fun visiting ashrams and temples, shopping for clothing, and taking a very hairy bus ride up the mountain to Kodaikanal.

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Carol (center) with my mother (left) and Len (right) in the environs of Chennai, India, January 6 2008.

 

 

After finishing at Andover-Newton in 2012, Len and Carol moved out to California, and regrettably the last time I saw her was in 2013. We continued to chat via social media or phone. I learned of Carol’s cancer in 2015, and at the time she told me not to pray, but “tug on the fabric of potentiality.” I had hoped, of course, that she would beat the cancer and continue to bless the world with her presence. Though she did not, I know that in her final days she was surrounded by loved ones and ready for her transition. Len and I spoke at length a few days ago, and during that call I had the chance to tell Carol how grateful I was for her friendship.

Carol’s singular sense of compassion weathered me through the darkest years of my life. When I had utterly failed as a human being, Carol continued to believe in me. My worst misdeeds did not erode her faith in me; she wanted always to see me overcome my demons and become the person that she knew I could become. Because of her faith in me, I did become that person, and perhaps the most difficult part of losing Carol is feeling that the debt of gratitude is unpaid. I would not be who I am today – a person quite literally transformed in every way – without her friendship and support. She modeled for me and for all whom she met the best of what faith should be: self-aware, open to exploration and question, pursued with humility and a desire to evolve and grow in wisdom.  How suitable that she spoke of traveling to The Summerland – a place of reflection and rest for the soul – after death. I regret that River never got to meet her. They would have loved each other.

Carol, I will miss you. May you sing joyfully in the Summerland. May you cast spells in that soft and golden place that reach us still here. All my love, always.

“L’Etrangère” – Oscar Milosz

Hello friends!

And now for something completely different. As an undergraduate and during my years in seminary (where fluency in two ‘theological’ languages was compulsory) I pursued the language of my familial history, French. Living as I do in a largely Latino/a community, I get to use my French in conversation with about the same frequency as I go on dates. Nevertheless, when I have downtime at work I like to translate French poetry to keep my vocabulary and grammar honed and, well, because I draw quite a bit of inspiration from francophone poets.

Anyway, I spent some time the other day creating my own translation of Oscar Milosz‘s L’étrangère. Oscar was a bit of a religious nut, but his tortured reflections on love and alienation are compelling still them same. I’ve only read John Peck’s interpretation of the work before and, while it’s good, I thought I could offer a slightly different take on it.

I’ve tried to strike a balance between linguistic accuracy and faithfulness to the spirit of the words as I read them. If you speak/read French, I welcome comments on my translational choices below. If you don’t, I hope you enjoy the English translation as it is.

The Stranger (excerpt)

In your eyes I discover the realities of dreams,
Of dreams I dreamed in an ancient time
And visions birthed in the sunlight of life.
All of eternity ends, it may be said,
In this twilight poisoned by the rain.

I recognize ethereal beings in you,
Travelers to a hidden place,
Whom once I met in hazy stations
Where every breeze had inflections of goodbye.
Sometimes, too, you’re the bustle of a market

With all its lights in tears and reeking
Of mildew and vice,
And the sterile joy of its songs.
Memories of houses of game, old cards
Shuffled with the chaos of my exasperation.

If I left, if I closed the door, what would you do?
Maybe it would be like
you’d never laid eyes on me
My steps would die, without echoes, on the street
And I would see only night in your windows.

And that is how you must leave me today
Immediately and forever
Without a word to me of where from you come, where you go.
Rain falls on the great bare gardens and your soul is cold,
November burying the countryside and my life.


Original text:

Je retrouve en tes yeux des réalités de rêves,
De rêves rêvés dans le vieux temps
Et des visions écloses au soleil de la vie.
Dans le demi-jour empoisonné de la pluie
On dirait que toute une éternité s’achève.

Je reconnais en toi des êtres mystérieux,
Des voyageurs au but secret
Rencontrés autrefois dans la brume des gares
Où tous les bruits ont des inflexions d’adieux.
Parfois aussi tu m’es une atmosphère de foire

Avec ses lumières en pleurs et ses relents
De moisissure et de vice,
Avec sa misère et la joie malade de ses musiques.
Des souvenirs de maisons de jeu nostalgiques
Se mêlent au chaos de mon énervement.

Si je sortais, si je fermais la porte, que ferais-tu ?
Ce serait peut-être
Comme si tes yeux ne m’avaient jamais connu.
Le bruit de mes pas mourrait sans écho dans la rue
Et je ne verrais que la nuit à tes fenêtres.

C’est comme si tu devais me quitter aujourd’hui
Tout de suite et pour toujours
Sans songer à me dire d’où tu viens, où tu vas.
Il pleut sur les grands jardins nus, ton âme a froid,
Novembre ensevelit le paysage et ma vie.

Heroin Town

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April, 2004. I was living in Willimantic CT in an apartment in a converted municipal building, I had a job at the downtown grocery store. I was about to start a new career as a minister and due to start classes at Andover-Newton Theological School in the fall. I was dating a young singer/guitarist, a wonderful person who was also an aspiring teacher and passionate Quaker.

May, 2014. I’m moving to Willimantic to be closer to a new assignment for work. I’ve applied for a part-time job at the same downtown grocery store to supplement my insufficient income. I’ve been accepted to a community college and hope to start a new career in nursing in the fall. The woman I was dating, now my ex-wife, lives just outside of town; our daughter splits her time 50/50 between the two of us.

Yeah, it’s definitely funny how so much changes and so much stays the same.

I took River to the public park yesterday as we did business in town. The playground was inexplicably placed next to the sewage treatment plant. The ground was littered with beer cans and broken glass, and a homeless man screamed at no one in particular from the nearby woods.

Willimantic was once a thriving mill town that imported immigrants to work in the textile and dye plants. My grandfather, who worked in the mill at 14 and later became the town’s mayor, spoke of the time with great fondness. But the social divisions of that era are still apparent in the town’s layout: high on the hill on the north side of the town are grand Victorian homes, while close to the valley floor and the filthy Willimantic River public housing complexes abound. When the mills closed, the wealthy departed and the immigrants, with no work to do, sank into bitter poverty. Crime and drug use soared to such an extent that even Connecticut’s largest newspaper, The Hartford Courant, dubbed it “Heroin Town.” The final blow to the town’s once vibrant community came when the big-box stores moved in. Main Street, once dotted with locally-owned shops like Nassiff’s, The Victorian Lady, and The Bench Shop is a long stretch of boarded up storefronts and empty windows. No one can compete with Wal-Mart in a town where 56% of the residents are on SNAP or other government assistance – and I say that without judgment; after all, I shop there to save money, too.

I suppose it would be easy to view my return to Heroin Town as a defeat. Yet there are positives. I’ll be minutes from work, and with gas at $4 per gallon in my area that will save me quite a bit of money. I’ll be closer to River and her mother than I ever have been. And best of all, I will be poised to begin this new and exciting chapter of my life. Naturally, I wish I’d known in 2004 that ministry would not be a good fit for me or a sensible career for someone who likes, you know, food, shelter, and the ability to provide basic necessities for his child.

But it’s never too late to begin again. Stay positive, friends.