Sunday Mornings Are Never Really Sacred

A poem I wrote years and years ago that I am reminded of today. I like to think something really new and beautiful awakened after I wrote it. I don’t really go to church or am A practicing Christian” any longer, but I do find something wonderful about a Sunday.
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Sunday Mornings are Never Really Sacred

Sunday mornings are
never really sacred.
You walk to church,
like your feet are carrying you there.
You can’t say why.
It just feels like something you’re supposed to do.

Minds eye takes me home
Meandering road
Pennsylvanian vistas of the
Hilltop crest past the Christmas tree farm,
Barn door tucked into valley folds of
sunlight soaked evergreen pond.
Tampered by the promise of
Lumped on fracking wells
To end this recession.

In the city you arrive at the church
and climb to the balcony.
No familiar faces greet you. The sounds of a passionate piano do not guide the way.
No tapestry of a labyrinth, or a Pentecostal dove.
No smell of flowers or wax dripping off of candles.
No need to brush legs with your neighbor while you step into the pew.
No prayers of concern, no reverend who raises his hands –
Let us stand and greet each other.

Just that little black book, where you write your name and check whether you are a member or not.
And the hymnal too. It’s the same shade of blue.
Without white walls to use as a pallet for the colors seeping out of organ pipes,
your gaze tracks the leaden frame of a stained glass window,
dodging eye contact with a painting of Christ.

Your mind drifts during the sermon,
And when the collection plate comes around you throw a dollar in,
hoping it will atone for the sin of forgetting to tip the cabbie last night.

These avoidances keep you vulnerable,
until the end of the service, when the man in front of you with a startling stare turns around and invites you downstairs for coffee.
Tells you about what a great church this is and boasts of former reverend with Princeton accolades who boosted membership with his own bare hands.

Walking back to your apartment under a grey sheet of sky
you call your father and remember that today after church
you won’t be watching red cardinals and clumsy squirrels
dancing in the big pine tree
outside your long glass window

Rather hum to yourself
Be Thou my Vision
While washing the dishes

Ode to 艾 and 爱 (Ode to Ai and Love)

— I’m not doing the quote full justice, and there’s much more I want to say on this but here is the story for now —
Today I went to go see Ai Wei Wei’s “Never Sorry” at the Hirshorn Museum.  It’s been over five years since I’ve seen the film. To be honest, at this point I define my life by “life before I went to China” and “life after I lived in China.” Most ex-pats who have lived there for any extended period of time might agree. The place changes you. I was curious – how would I feel about the film this time?
When I saw the movie five years ago, I went with a group of four Chinese teachers my father had dragged along with us. I respect my dad so much – for years Chinese teachers have been visiting his school and he always connected with them so beautifully – inviting them to dinners, Christmas, taking them shopping for groceries, and supporting them just as humans who needed to be seen and understood. Of course, having a bit of a radial edge, he always wanted to dig deeper into their experience. What was life in China really like? Were they a part of the Party? Were they religious? What was life like for their grandparents during Community rule?
So he took them to the film. Big mistake? Maybe. They yelled at the host leading the Q&A after the film. He was also Chinese. He originally came to the US to get his degree in engineering at CMU, but started learning about Chinese history in the 20th century, and switched his degree to nonprofit management. He had been working as a coordinator for wealthy Chinese high school students coming to the US. When I asked him afterwards what the Chinese teachers were saying to him he said, “They think Ai Wei Wei is a nobody, not important, worthy to be ignored. They are still so brainwashed by Chinese propaganda.”
When I saw the movie today, I noticed people in the theater laughed a lot at Ai’s antics. He is quite a hilarious activist, a modern day jester if you will.  There’s certainly shadow side to Ai in this context. He makes those privileged in the US feel safe in our complicity. To  feel good that we “aren’t” China. We are here, in a museum watching an activist film, for free, on a Sunday. I probably watched the film the first time in similar fashion. Amazed, fascinated, curious and in awe of the man. Knowing that “over there” people lived in repression and thankfully we had free access to art, music and culture. A dangerous dose of some American exceptionalism I was born into: the illusion of pure free expression.
My viewing of this film this time around was much more…human.
I cried much more than I laughed. I sobbed seeing schools destroyed by the Earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, due to shoddy construction of “tofu-brick” buildings in schools in poor areas; meaning, tuition funds go to a fat salary for an official comes before the price of a student’s life in a safely constructed building. I cringed at the moments when Ai sat in the hospital photographing himself wearing a bandage on his head after being assaulted by the police. The audience laughed, but here I saw a man in pain, trapped in a cage he could not escape, no matter how humorous his approach.
When I came to Washington, DC in 2013 for an interview with Teach for China, I remember heading over to Hirschhorn afterwards, alone, to see Ai’s “According to What?” exhibit. Always was my favorite museum after all. I saw the backpacks of every student killed in the Earthquake lining the ceiling, the names of dead children lining the walls, read aloud by many different voices.
Knowing, in my heart at the time, these students and families would one day be a part of my own world. People I connected with, played music with, shared meals with, attended religious services with (Yes! religion exists in China!), talked about love and relationships with, danced with, cried with, spent the night in their humble homes with.
Today I sat shocked, at the lengths an artist must go to in order to humanize himself to the Other.

snowbyrinthian

Snow-walled sidewalks
Labyrinthine twists
Body glides along
In these moments
You are closer to god than others
(Or moving further away).
Minotaur’s horned head stuck in my own heart chambers
I place my spine on her spine
My tree.
I ask her heart to beat with mine
Seated on a snow drift
“Give me some answers, please?”
Then a voice –
Is it him ?
Did I meet him on a walk one morning?
No, just men jogging.