A Prayer for Delia
We are gathered here today
as a congregation of beloved souls
who know not the extent
of the love bestowed
upon us before we were outlined
a shadow in the womb, before the brethren
to whom we are beholden breathed into us, before
and after we were broken and broke
the fragile glass upon which our existence is
Even when we find ourselves in the darkness,
the darkness is not who we are.
We are not without love
the way that trees cannot
Even when we are in the spaces between
the forest trees know about us,
the dark is because there are
limbs above us shading our brows reaching
heavenward on our behalf and there are fallen
limbs supine on the ground
prostrating in tongues
we know not, giving themselves back
to the land from which they came.
There is silent growing stronger beneath.
A train ride from San Francisco to Oakland is more efficient and straightforward than a series of bus rides from the Mission to North Beach, even though the latter distance is a quarter of the former. I make the trans-Bay trip often, and have done so since I first moved to San Francisco. Many important men in my life have stumbled into residences in the Fruitvale neighborhood (or should I say, I have stumbled into many men with residences in the Fruitvale neighborhood, or both), which is strange, because it is a sparsely inhabited, shabby, industrial area, with warehouses and junkyards and detritus on the sidewalks. There are no hot destinations or sleekly designed coffee bars, only an occasional fluorescent-lit taco truck doubling as a landmark. It is not a beautiful neighborhood. But there is space — cheap, inhabitable, open space.
Tonight I ride over with ginger beer, chips, salsa, and several books in tow. At the Fruitvale station, I rouse the man next to me who is slumped over his backpack sleeping, a first nap, I’m guessing, after a few nights on the street, an assumption I derive from the sourness of his body odor. I look for Josh’s car, a faded bronze Camry with the word “DAD” in its license plate. We drive two minutes to a complex of gate-locked warehouses where he and Carlos live.
The night begins with a bag of chips, which we dump onto the table and dip into salsa. For some people, eating is a task necessary for survival, performed only to mitigate the sharpest pangs of hunger. By the rate at which Josh and Carlos are eating, like factory workers on break — silently, intently, quickly — it is clear that they are in survival mode. I know many men like this, who prefer liquids to solids, relying on the former to function and the latter to live.
To prevent wood dust from rising, the boys have just put up a brown burlap curtain, which you have to peel off your face and push to the left when climbing the stairs to the living quarters up above, which is two hammocks slung perpendicular to each other, shelves of neatly stacked pants, suspended racks of shirts and sweaters, a coffee bar, piles of books beside a worn yellow armchair, a kitchen sink without a garbage disposal, and a modest rectangular dining table. Small, delicate plants like succulents and orchids abound amidst congeries of wooden objects and implements, arranged neatly on the surfaces they have created.
I remember when there was nothing there, just bare white walls — a wide, open canvas. That first night, we christened the place with an easy dinner, managed with very little dishware: roasted sweet potatoes, eggs, corn tortillas, sautéed zucchini, spinach, beer — whatever we could find at the bodega nearby.
The meal was strangely delicious, all of it. The space was empty, but Josh and Carlos were giddy about the possibilities it held, about building and creating a home for themselves, about an intentional household filled with things they loved and desired, and after they put up the first shelves, we sat around the table and talked until I cried, which was both embarrassing and I’m sure, memorable, and those memories at the very beginning, even when there was nothing there, were the start of something, this growth of people into a space and then the growth of the space itself and then the community coming into it and all the stories pouring out of it.
There were the beginnings of the wood shop, which was the dream all along, down in the dusty dark space below. Machines arrived one by one, saws and lathes and woodcutters that I will not be able to tell you about. Then the work table was built, and the wood glues and the tools were put into their containers and arranged on the shelves, the trash bin filled with wood scraps. Along the wall there are severed tree stumps. The dream was to build and to build with friends, to work, to teach, to commune, to gather.
Tonight we are working on two live edge wood slabs, propped up onto four tree stumps. Ginger beers popped open, Blood Orange on high. I’m wearing black leggings, black boots, and a long black tunic with jagged edges and an asymmetrical hem. “You need woodworking clothes,” Carlos says, pointing to the draping edges of my top. “That’s not going to be safe.”
I change into a long grey t-shirt, and then Carlos hands me a scraper to start smoothing out the edges. To demonstrate, he stands with his body perpendicular to the slab, and runs the scraper lengthwise, where the bark meets the flesh of the wood. He scrapes forcefully, rhythmically, easily.
He hands me the scraper and tells me to start scraping. It’s an easy task that requires no dexterity, but like a gangly foal, I don’t yet know how to arrange my body so that the movement feels natural. The hesitance one feels in her first encounters with the motions of a particular or peculiar activity — driving a stick-shift, vaulting over a twenty-foot pole, handling a blunderbuss — is the same hesitance one feels in the face of a stranger, the same unfamiliarity that demands self-censorship or self-guarding or self-protection against the embarrassment of misstep, a projectile motion that is outside of one’s control. The possibility of havoc is palpable.
When I first start scraping the wood, my movements are awkward, but the rhythmic repetition — a hundred practice rounds of the very same motion — squashes the strangeness quickly; my arm and my body are acclimating to — and then striking — the sweet sound of metal peeling off wood. Josh is sanding the edge of the other slab, directly behind me, and wood dust is permeating the entire room. Behind my face mask — which, because of my race, makes me look like a hypochondriac during a SARS scare — a layer of grime mixes with sweat, which, after ten minutes of scraping, is profuse. After a day of floating through the black hole of cyberspace, the nighttime calisthenics of woodworking is actually a relief.
I am kneeling in piles of wood scrapings, which look like thicker, larger pencil shavings, and they’re sticking to my skin and to my leggings, and they’re entering the crevices between my boot and my sock. I’m dirty and sweaty and I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing, but as I push and pull the scraper against the wood, perfecting the motion and the sound, I sink deeper into a space of freewheeling thoughts, akin only to meditation, or being on drugs, or swimming. It is a rare and overwhelming state of being in which I see beyond the present moment, see the present within a totality of moments, and it is as Aldous Huxley describes in Doors of Perception, a moment in which I am “capable of remembering all that has ever happened to [me] and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.” This capacity is more a sensation than a fact, an anomaly more than a regularity; it is a capacity for gratitude, for awe of divine orchestration.
I suddenly possess an awareness of what I can only clumsily describe as sacred serendipity, a series of unforeseeable events, a specific, one-in-a-million permutation of encounters that have made this moment, this right-here-right-now, possible. There was the moving to San Francisco, the decision to come home, the breakup, the search for community, the finding a church, the intersection of strangers, the becoming of friends, the apartment, the realization of the wood shop dream, the collaboration, the wood slabs propped up in a dark warehouse in the south of San Francisco, the unknowing decisions, the Monday delivery, the train, the willingness, the togetherness, every small choice, action, happenstance leading up to this moment, right now. How do you remain indifferent, disenchanted in the face of that? Only the soul-less are blind to the wonder of mysteries.
Jack Gilbert, poet of my soul, wrote a poem called “Highlights and Interstices” in which he mourns the commonplace he can no longer remember, not the major life decisions (the job-quitting, the moving away, the falling in love) but the interstitial moments of the quotidian, whose pathos is derived from their loss. This is nostalgia in the wake of absence, a sorrow evoked by the absorption of one’s own amnesia.
We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
And sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
Vacations and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
Noticing and carries her across Waller Street
While talking with the other woman. What if she
Could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
The memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
Breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
Her is that commonplace I can no longer remember
The uncommon parts, which are the two thousand habitual breakfasts with Michiko, which are the commonplace he and I and you can no longer remember, which are between the memorable, which are the ordinary ephemera we view mostly with indifference and sometimes with weariness — these are the things Emily is saying goodbye to at the end of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, when she comes back to her life a ghost and laments all the things she did not notice when she was still alive. “Let’s really look at one another!,” she exclaims, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.” She takes one last glance at the clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers and the ironed dresses and the hot baths and says, “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”
The question is seemingly rhetorical, but the stage manager answers, “No.” He pauses. “The saints and poets, maybe they do some,” he adds.
Woodworking is the totality of a thousand unseen movements. It is the product of a vision that transmogrifies through a thousand repetitions and a thousand more slight adjustments. Inspiration crystallizes in the process of doing, in the exercise of patience and persistence as one works towards the shape of something beyond the present moment. Art requires an awareness of the gravity of every gesture and turn; the art is in the intention as much as in the result. The work of saints and poets is not merely reflection, but repetition, cradled in a constant reverence of the ordinary. When for a single transcendent moment, I can see, like Emily’s ghost, not only what is in front me, but what has passed, and is about to pass, and has culminated as the sum of so many passings, I find meaning; I find faith; I find God.
Had we not been so tired, we would have forgotten to eat, but after a couple hours in the shop, we were tired of dust and sweat and sound. So we stepped out and drove aimlessly in search of food, stopping at a small Burmese restaurant in Alameda where we ate salads, chewy lotus chips, and lettuce cups filled with chicken. We drank cloying ginger honey tea, while chewing, mostly silently, in a booth by the window. The full moon outside was large and weighty and low, as if its place in the night sky was unusually precarious; it looked ready to drop, like the Times Square Ball, into a sea of unknowing bodies.
Outside the train station, we sat in the car in the dark, waiting for the minutes to pass before the train to San Francisco came through the station. Nineteen minutes. Our words suddenly seemed urgent at the imposition of temporal and physical limits upon a night that had seemed endless, infinite just hours before. Six minutes. The poetry of familial chatter, easy and unbroken, effortless and minor. Three minutes. How did we get here? I’m thankful for you all. Two minutes. The train is approaching. This night is almost over. I’m going back to San Francisco. One minute.
I say how are you, you say I am fine, and then we talk about something easier to talk about than how you are, which is not fine, because I’m fine means I don’t want to talk or I don’t know how, but I’m not fine, no one is ever fine. Fine is what you pay when your library book is overdue, fine is that china sitting in your dusty old cabinet, but fine is not your feeling, fine is not your state of being, you are not doing fine. Fine is numb, fine is confused, fine is peaceful, fine is frustrated. Fine is a leaky sadness that drips like an IV into the back of your throat, fine is the well of anger you cannot draw out, fine is the dissonance between what your head knows and what your heart wants, fine is the thumbtack of guilt that is lodged in your ribcage, fine is the stifling tension of clinging onto what you can’t let go, fine is the cold spell of disappointment in misplaced affections, unrequited loves, fine is swallowing an orchard of tragedies, swollen like grapefruits, fine is the over and over again, the sweet terror of compulsive relief. There are so many ways to tell me who you are and how your spirit moves, but fine is not one of them. You are not fine.
The loneliest time of my life was when I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. I had gone abroad with the vague and romantic notions one has about living in a foreign country where anonymity is supposed to be met with serendipity. Feeling unsettled is as physical as it is metaphysical. It is much easier, of course, to believe that our discontent is caused by tangible problems we can solve—and so every next horizon you move towards is Arcadia until you get there. Every city in your future is one terrace higher until you realize you’re climbing the mount of purgatory. The abstraction of the people you’ll meet and the places you’ll be—the self-satisfying and perhaps desperate idealization of a better future—is dangerous. The ideal that is never realized, that is always out of reach, is a betrayal to self, a recurring, insoluble disappointment.
I lived in a dark, windowless room that had only a sliver of a pathway to move through. In the morning I smothered myself with a pillow to block out the fighting screams of Paola and Leo, which was frightening at first, but for the sake of self-preservation, I came to believe that’s what Italians did—express themselves with passion that could be mistaken for fury. Even as my Italian neared fluency, I existed as a stranger in their house. The Cappios would come home from work—Leo was a train conductor, Paola a kindergarten teacher—turn on the TV, and sit at the dining table for hours, with frozen pizza, canned tuna, hot dogs with mayonnaise, and cellophane-wrapped cornetti, among other drab and depressing fare.
I remember this time distinctly as a counterpoint—a time I never want to return to. My melancholy existence clarified the forms of nourishment my soul requires, as well as the things that were merely false idols—wayward romantic notions of fulfillment. As the latter category grew, so my notions of the ‘the good life’ dissolved. Growing up requires this dissolution. Maturity, it seems, is letting go your false ideals of what constitutes goodness, joy, and meaning; sometimes letting go is not enough; sometimes these ideals are erased by their impossibility; absence and negative space are epiphanies of their own. Living abroad, in the land of Italian men and good food (not in my household) and the most incredible art and olive oil, gave me little joy in the absence of community. Majestic churches and azure waters, smoked mozzarella and supple leather, were little consolation for an empty spiritual life. I was looking for all the wrong things.
I write about this time in my life to help myself understand why I am so in love with my community now. The contrast of darker times brings my current friendships and rhythms into relief. All of this is sentimental, I cannot help it. Sometimes sentimentality is a byproduct of gratitude, the overwhelm of abundance, a gift of grace, not of my own doing. I have little to boast about, for I know how fleeting and how fragile relationships can be. One day a solid communion—only joy and purity and the feeling of eternity—and the next, all gone, people leaving, people changing.
But if I were to tell you how joy has punctuated my life, I would tell you (head buried in the most saccharine nostalgia) of the fires that burned in the wake of communion with the people I love. There is nothing subtle, nuanced, or complex about any of this. These fires have blazed, not in embers but in the wild; not sparks over kindling but in revelatory floods. I cannot temper the simple and child-like joy of sitting around a table with people I love, celebrating our lives together, filling our bodies and our souls; indefensible against our excessive appetites and our over-sized hearts. I have put off writing about what gives me so much life and vigor for fear that I would trivialize joy; that this love letter I daily compose in my head would be so achingly cloying that you would think I have no grief in my life, no capacity for deep sorrows, no recognition of brokenness. My own soaring joy scares me even as it spills over. I swallow it back down lest my joy is robbed from me. See, I can only talk around it; I admit, I am swimming in sentimentality.
On Tuesday evening, there were peaches, honeycomb, truffled cheese, bread, homemade plum and peach jam; sweet harissa carrots on a bed of basil, mushroom risotto dotted with peas, golden cauliflower steaks lined up on a tray, piles of red and green vegetables shimmering in a wooden nest. The west-facing sun beamed its harsh light through the windows, casting our bodies and faces into chiaroscuro. We sat down to eat, knowing that in the hours to come, we would not be searching for anything beyond what we had here; that our desires were not stretched beyond this table, but that we had found meaning in existing together, caring for one another, knowing each other, being in the folds of each other’s lives. I should not speak for everyone, but the feelings that moved me that night were so large that they felt communal, and were so large because they seemed to be experienced by everyone, collectively.
When we gather like this, we forget the abstract desires that grow out of what we think we don’t have, and we meet as we are. Time stops. Candles are lit and blown out; fires glow and then pass into darkness. The peril of joy is its transience, but that is not a good reason for not cherishing it, for remembering it.
In my sleep I am humming paeans to sanctify these ordinary moments of light. Winged joy surprised by its own flight, barreling through inevitable darkness.
Thank you God for this family of mine.
I have two homes in San Francisco, one in which I sleep and maintain a monastic silence; the other, which I go to, to escape the noise in my head that results from too much silence.
Luckily for me, the latter is one right, one left, and one more right turn away, a two-minute walk, or a 30 second scamper. I arrive often with a sigh. Or an exclamation, which is sometimes the same thing.
Crystal is usually behind the white kitchen counter, which is always remarkably pristine when she is behind it. Its ultra-clean blankness is particularly notable in contrast to mine, which is currently littered with: three books, not neatly stacked; one magazine, flipped open to the middle of an article; two cookbooks; my electricity bill; a tea cup stuffed with a bunch of cilantro, half of it snipped off—I'm keeping it hydrated; and a plate with crusty peanut butter remains. Tidiness is not a factor of self-sufficiency, but messiness can certainly reflect a lack thereof.
Today she is in the kitchen with a three-page letter in hand, a notebook with a bumper sticker that says “NO RAMEN NO LIFE,” and an open Mason jar filled halfway with an amber-colored liquid. When Jacob walks in later, he refers to it as a “healing potion” and asks if I need any, to which my heart says yes and my mouth says no.
“Jacob was feeling a little under the weather today,” Crystal says.
The “healing potion” is a mint tea tonic laced with peach-chili jam, which was made in this very kitchen yesterday, after twelve hours of chopping, stewing, and sugaring many pounds of peaches. They are sipping this tea tonic slowly, prolonging its life with more hot water.
Jacob is scanning papers, an adequately monotonous task for this grey day, and I am staring out the window, my legs pulled up into my chest, while balancing precariously on a wooden stool.
“Jacob, you are a consolation to me,” I tell him.
“A constellation?” he says.
“A consolation, which is something that makes you feel better when you’re feeling bad,” I explain.
“I thought a consolation prize is what the loser gets,” he says.
“So that they feel better,” I say.
“I like constellation better,” he says.
“Ok, then you’re my constellation,” I concede.
Jacob and Crystal, in this house, on this day, are the perfect confluence of people in a place at a time. I feel small today, trivial, and they let me talk, and they ask questions, and they are witty, funny, and nourishing. They make no caustic remarks.
Later Crystal and I walk to Local Mission Market to buy some bread for the jam. We are both condiment people. While Crystal is deciding between the boules and baguettes, I stand silently in front of the bowl of olive bread samples, eating one doughy cube at a time.
“Bread makes everything better,” I tell Crystal. “I feel better when I’m eating bread.”
Back at the house, Crystal slices the bread and lubricates it with a stick of butter. She looks like she’s giving the bread a belly rub, which is how Crystal interacts with food—elegantly, easily, gently. I like watching Crystal move around the kitchen—always deliberately, never haphazardly—a true meditator. Sometimes she whistles and softly sings—always in a barely audible, quivering tone—while washing the dishes, or wiping down the counters, and I listen intently. Her demeanor is delicate, her mien beautiful. She is one of the most thoughtful people I know. I watch Crystal pour boiling water on a fork to clean it, and then she begins reorganizing her jars, as she often does, checking on the ingredients of each jar as if they were plants to be tended to, which makes sense, because she is a gardener.
“Mama Crystal,” Jacob and I joke. Mama Crystal, who takes care of us, who prepares two plates of toast strips, two corresponding bowls of jewel-toned jam. We eat.