Friday, July 31, 2009

Hope Perched on a Ledge

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the Abbey Press Thursday morning. I arrived late for work since I had another appointment and because I did not want to be there until after the bad news had been delivered.

Nine people at the Press were laid off. Everyone was told that the Press is getting out of the gift catalog business, that the Press is setting a new direction by exploring some new ventures, and that 25 more people will lose their jobs by the end of the year. By most accounts it was a grim day.

But not one without hope. The move wasn’t entirely unexpected, and in the long-term most realize it is necessary, and hope that the Press will be realigned and rejuvenated.

Still, it is always painful for people to lose their jobs, and for the people around them to experience that loss along with them. One co-worker told me of her “survivor’s guilt.” As a monk, I felt guilt, as well as apprehension, and sympathy. I tried to stay out of the way. Yet, all around me I sensed a mysterious mixture of pain and hope.

It is strange how both can be present at the same time, in the same circumstance, and within the same person. I saw it in their faces. As I walked down the corridor (in full habit), people were already helping one another box up their belongings and carry them out of their offices and into the elevator, and down to the parking lot—to drive into an unknown, uncertain future. But a future nonetheless.

A couple people were on the phone, presumably with relatives or friends. I could only imagine what these co-workers and their families would talk about later at home. Everything was eerily quiet. The atmosphere was solemn, but not morbid. There was reverence for -- and in -- this pain.

And there was this: As I walked down the hallway, each co-worker looked directly at me, smiled warmly and said hello. Sheepishly, and without knowing what else to say and with no desire to say anything else, I simply smiled back and returned the hello.

But these were not obligatory smiles, nor typical hallway hellos. Eyes met and lingered, communicating wisdom deeper than words.

Tinged with sadness, the smiles, eyes and voices were not filled with blame or shame, fear or anger. Rather, they spoke softly and clearly: “I know. I’m sorry. It’ll be OK.” I was amazed. As I passed by each person whom I knew had just lost his or her job, I was met with that same smile, full of hope.

Later in the day, as the monastic community gathered in the calefactory after the evening meal for common recreation, I was surprised again. The day was dim. Storm clouds seemed to hover just above the monastery’s tile roof. Sheets of rain deluged the already saturated ground. Lightning flashed to and fro.

And there it was, perched on the ledge of the center arched window of the calefactory overlooking the rock garden below. A handsome white dove (more likely a pigeon, but it hardly matters), taking shelter under the raised bottom transom window on the ledge, peering through the screen at the gathering monks.

The dove craned its neck to get a better look at us, occasionally pecking at the screen, while we monks bent over, gazed at it, and spoke to the bird like it was a child or pet. Even big burly monks like Br. Zachary and Novice Gary.

The dove seemed to want to come in, to be more fully in our presence; it was not at all frightened by our movement or voices. It actually seemed, rather, to be drawn by them.

“Look, it’s the Holy Spirit,” I said, trying to be funny.

Br. Martin laughed. “If it’s the Holy Spirit, he’d come through that screen.” Then he crumbled a cracker and sprinkled it along the ledge. But the dove seemed more interested in companionship than food.

So there we sat, gazing at the dove, the dove gazing at us, all of us sheltered from the downpour. When the bell rang for compline, everyone seemed disappointed to leave.

Afterwards, 15 minutes later, as I passed through the calefactory, I walked over to the window and scanned the ledge, and then looked out into the murky, sodden night. The dove was gone. The crackers were still there.

This morning, after vigils and lauds, I walked into the calefactory with my cup of coffee. I walked over to the center window, as is my custom most mornings. The sun was still attempting to penetrate the lingering mist outside, but appeared as though it would be successful.

Then I looked down, and there nestled in the corner of the ledge was the dove, its head tucked into its folded wing, fast asleep. Once again, it had returned to our little ark.

Sensing my presence, the dove awoke, preened itself, and then marched along the ledge with its bright red legs. Head cocked to the side, it peered through the screen at me. After a minute or so, it turned around, its claws grasping the rim of the ledge. It paused, and then soared out over the rock garden, its wings spread like an angel gilded with the first rays of dawn.

The morning gloom was breaking. And the spirit of hope was once again rising. For without a future, hope has nowhere to fly.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Red that I See

I am walking east on the sidewalk on the north side of Iowa City's Jefferson Street, all one-way. It is morning, the day still shaking off its weariness, but the sunlight is pouring through the trees, piercing the shadows on the sidewalk, creating a cobblestone path of light and darkness.

Though I don’t really want to – for I am lazy as the morning – I pick up the pace, begin jogging, impelled to go forward. Soon my heart is heating up, my lungs gulping in the cool air.

On my right, in the street, traffic is stopping and starting, squealing and roaring. On my left, I pass a blue-gray house under renovation, a foreman prodding with good humor his groggy workers. A woman in a yellow dress passes by me in the other direction – against traffic – a cell phone attached to her right temple. Up ahead, other joggers plot perpendicular paths.

One block, and then another. How far should I go? When I’m there, I’ll know.

Lightly, a sweat breaks, the joints loosen, the stride and breath evens, the heart settles into a rhythm. I’m no longer thinking, only wondering: where am I going?

Sounds, images, thoughts rush by my ears with the wind. If it weren’t for my eyes, I wouldn’t notice any of them. Then, up ahead, to the right and left, above and below, I see the red.

Red stoplights. Red brake lights. Why are so many cars red? They race by, ripening along the way like fruit. Maroon, Ruby, Rust, Fire Engine, and Blood.

Bright scarlet canine mailboxes – fire hydrants – stand guard, unmoving, stationed on each block.

A cherry red scooter sits beneath an open apartment window, forgotten by the others. An alarm clock pulses loudly above it. Where is the driver?

Words appear. Signs with fiery capital letters. Always there, usually passed over, but now meant for me to read: EMERGENCY, SOLD, STOP, YIELD, SUPPORT THE TROOPS/STOP THE WAR.

Horizontal slashes of red piled one on another chase me along the side of a grey parking garage. Homes of solid red brick rise all around me, their picture windows watching me, inviting me in. I can see my reflection.

Below the windows are living seas of red -- pinwheels of zinnias, spikes of gladiolas, and waves of petunias.

Drenched, I turn around to head back, and see it all over again from the other side.

Buildings with lines.
The lonely scooter again, alarm clock above it still pulsing.
Canine mailboxes.
Cars racing and ripening.

All I see is red.

Stopping where I started, my eyes are lifted. Red clay bricks stacked one alongside the other rise upward, converging. At the point, more than I can see comes into view. I can climb the spire.

In the morning light I see fields of green all around me, and an eternity of blue above. All there from the beginning.

The red I could see is drowned.

The cobblestone path of light and darkness I know, no matter how far I go. Earth and sky, I am there.

Amidst all the red that I see.
-- Writing Mind Exercise,
Iowa Summer Writing Festival, July 21, 2009