by: Tony Hoagland
from: Donkey Gospel
When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.
After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,
but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.
I’m probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,
spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,
while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.
Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.
Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,
walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—
It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.
My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,
something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.
Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection: ‘You are with me always, and all I have is yours.’ Indeed, I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off than I, lament about the many misfortunes that have plagued me in the past, and thereby wrap myself up in my resentment. But I don’t have to do this. There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude.
The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort.But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is a Estonian proverb that says: ‘Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.’ Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace.
My marriage ended in an airport long ago.
I was not wise enough to cry while looking for my car,
walking through the underground garage;
jets were roaring overhead, and if I had been wise
I would have looked up at those heavy-bellied cylinders
and seen the wheelchairs and the frightened dogs inside;
the kidneys bedded in dry ice and Styrofoam containers.
I would have known that in synagogues and churches all over town
couples were gathering like flocks of geese
getting ready to take off, while here the jets were putting down
their gear, getting ready for the jolt, the giant tires
shrieking and scraping off two
long streaks of rubber molecules,
that might have been my wife and I, screaming in our fear.
It is a matter of amusement to me now,
me staggering around that underground garage,
trying to remember the color of my vehicle,
unable to recall that I had come by cab—
eventually gathering myself and going back inside,
to get the luggage
I would be carrying for the rest of my life.
This is a litany of lost things,
a canon of possessions dispossessed,
a photograph, an old address, a key.
It is a list of words to memorize
or to forget— of amo, amas, amat,
the conjugations of a dead tongue
in which the final sentence has been spoken.
This is the liturgy of rain,
falling on mountain, field, and ocean—
indifferent, anonymous, complete—
of water infinitesimally slow,
sifting through rock, pooling in darkness,
gathering in springs, then rising without our agency,
only to dissolve in mist or cloud or dew.
This is a prayer to unbelief,
to candles guttering and darkness undivided,
to incense drifting into emptiness.
It is the smile of a stone Madonna
and the silent fury of the consecrated wine,
a benediction on the death of a young god,
brave and beautiful, rotting on a tree.
This is a litany to earth and ashes,
to the dust of roads and vacant rooms,
to the fine silt circling in a shaft of sun,
settling indifferently on books and beds.
This is a prayer to praise what we become,
“Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return.”
Savor its taste—the bitterness of earth and ashes.
This is a prayer, inchoate and unfinished,
for you, my love, my loss, my lesion,
a rosary of words to count out time’s
illusions, all the minutes, hours, days
the calendar compounds as if the past
existed somewhere—like an inheritance
still waiting to be claimed.
Until at last it is our litany, mon vieux,
my reader, my voyeur, as if the mist
steaming from the gorge, this pure paradox,
the shattered river rising as it falls—
splintering the light, swirling it skyward,
neither transparent nor opaque but luminous,
even as it vanishes—were not our life.
It is the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You. Intellectually, I assent: let us adore God. But can we do that without feeling? To feel, we must know. And for this, when it is practically impossible for us to get it ourselves, not completely of course, but what we can, we are dependent on God. We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars. Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I shall see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You. Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.