Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Towards Two Mile Hollow


It’s not the beauty of the man
that’s haunted me for days.
One broad, browned chest
would have turned my head,
then merged with every momentary god
into the surf.
The memory of a boy
pale, round-faced, curious, repeatedly
trudging from plover on to gull,
then back again, but furtively inspecting
on every pass two aging men–or striving
for such discretion as a six-year-old
can hope to own:
my charmed amusement
would have evanesced within the day.


The sting of longing,
elastic as it slaps into the hollow
niche the heart has left it,
took me in the chest
at first sight of a father with his son
in shallow, low-tide breakers: the child pressed
between a half-length surfboard and the weight
of sinewed arms around him, as they clung
resolutely, blissfully,
from wave to wave, ecstatic to ride forward
a yard or two–the short thrust was enough
to span a world.


I stood awash,
coveting–what? The father’s rippled shoulders?
To be the boy? The wave on which they rode?
No fantasy could compass
what together they stirred up, while from a distance
I dovetailed my attentions with the caution
an age that brooks no Aschenbach demands.
An older son strolled near them up the slope,
neither bored nor jealous, but content
with calceous fragments, for the moment, and a pit
that reached prodigious depths despite the absurdity
of one red beach shovel all three had shared
with a lean man older than my lover--
the grandfather, clearly; in whose presence
there spiralled open an abyss
of nameless yearning drawing down that sand.


At last, the boy glanced toward me between waves,
and in his flash of curiosity
some recognition recognized itself
where things converged:
his fascination with us
earlier in the week;
his father’s flanks
above red boxers clinging to strong buttocks,
athwart the chest to which I’d turned my eyes
so briefly down the shore;
the father’s joy, losing himself,
flesh pressed to flesh,
in a childhood his own, and not.
It seemed then that desire
for once was not indictment, nor conundrum,
but a tidal force we shared, and not,
defiant of analysis, that bore us up.

Copyright David Townsend 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010


There aren’t many times in life that you get to sink entirely into the moment, putting one foot in front of the other without any idea where the next bend in the path will take you, and still remain certain that you’ll reach your goal.

There aren’t many times in life that getting lost feels so safe. Or, as a consequence of it feeling so safe, when it’s possible to learn from the experience of getting lost so easily and directly. Or more to the point: when your sense of being lost is revealed as only an illusion, because all you need do is follow the path.

If you’ve never walked a labyrinth, it’s probably time for you to find one. It will teach you all this and more. One of the best-known of these virtual pilgrimage routes is laid out on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. Its pattern reappears in copies all over the world–in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco; at Trinity Square in Toronto; in Boston; in Hong Kong. You can look for one close to you at

There’s one way in, and you have no decisions to make once you’ve embarked. The path will take you to the center. Walk it as quickly or as slowly as you need. At the center may lie the deepest goal of your life; a desire you long for that seems so distant you have no idea how to reach it; the answer to a prayer. Or your death. Or Jerusalem, Mecca, Varanasi, Bodh Gaya. Once you arrive, you can choose to linger; or you can walk right back out again, either way retracing the steps that brought you there.

You will enter and find yourself immediately almost at your goal. Then the path will take a hairpin turn, and suddenly you’ll tread the very periphery once more, closer to where you started than where you’re headed. You will have this experience again and again before you reach the place you’ve sought all along.

You may find yourself on the path alone, or follow a friend, or lead him in. You may walk with strangers who have also converged on this place. You will make your way forward just a few paces behind someone, only to find him, a few breaths later, arcing out of sight across a widening gyre, then approaching you once more, his shoulder almost grazing yours as you pass. Perhaps you’ll meet at the center. Or perhaps he’ll have left to start his return before you arrive.

You may gaze from the center back out to a scene of people passing by, engaged in their daily business, as through a subtle veil woven of your breath, your movement, your intentions. A child may run across the space in impatient fascination. Your experience today will not repeat the experience of your last walk; nor will you repeat it, at least not exactly, in the future. But wisdom will rise up from the earth through your feet as they carry your weight forward through time and space.

Monday, September 13, 2010


We always sat at the back, just forward of the electronic organ, in a side chapel eight pews deep that would accommodate perhaps sixty if absolutely packed, which it never was. Walls of pieced sandstone, a floor of slate, the chancel rail a smooth, austere length of cherry. An expanse of red, blue, and orange rectangular stained glass set into heavy cedar mullions, representing nothing, spread to our left, the devotion of a third-tier acolyte of Mondrian and Klee at prayer. If at age six I remembered at all the Victorian church this building had replaced, I’ve long ago lost the direct recollection and have only a commemorative plate from the late 1950s honoring the congregation’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

This gleaming new suburbanity was the church of my childhood and adolescence. Only years later would I cease to think its facile, cut-rate modernism splendid. Many more years would subsequently pass before I could admit, through the thick veil of my disaffection, that it embodied fine intentions and a noble effort, by a community not yet moribund, to translate an intellectually svelte, whiggish Lutheranism into the idiom of American modernity. I must have been aware of the building’s newness, but paradoxically, nearly from the outset, to me it represented timelessness.

Week after week I noticed, then found irritating, then gradually came to prize the sameness of the chant, its sinuous melody, adapted from Russian Orthodoxy, at first unfamiliar, then moronic, then finally unquestionably apt. I remember most vividly the slowly pulsing phrase, “O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.” Then the pointless redundancies, verbal and musical: “Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right of the Father, have mercy upon us.” And the closing syncopated melisma on “art most high,” which I thought splendid from the beginning.

I stand next to Aunt Doris. We share a service book, though not yet having learned to read music I commit the melodies to rote. More importantly, the book affirms our shared experience. I vaguely understand that in addition to being my aunt, she is my godmother, a mysterious relation imposed from the outside, my knowledge of it mediated through my mother’s well-meaning but nonetheless toxic preemption of my experience by rehearsal of her own memories and intentions. Instinctively I prefer not to dwell on this aspect of the bond between us, which threatens to undermine rather than deepen my experience of her; that somehow links her more closely to my mother than it does to me. I spend this hour with Doris at her own invitation, which I accept week by week with my mother’s consent, but neither at her initiative nor in her presence.

Leaving my father, my mother had fled first of all to her uncomplicated kindness–and the more grudging hospitality of her husband. I bonded with her on my own terms. She taught me to crochet in order to keep me quiet and still in the evening, before the impossibly early bedtime her obsessive-compulsive husband imposed on everyone under his roof. Mornings I followed her through the topiary arch in the hedge at the top of the rise, into the Lutheran cemetery where she walked her dogs and, laying fresh flowers from her garden on the family graves, introduced me to my departed relatives. I don’t remember the stints I spent in her care when my mother was away entirely as particularly idyllic; but I knew who I was in her presence, and she facilitated my belief that such self-knowledge was my own, not her gift. Later, surprised to find that at the age of seven I still couldn’t tie my own shoes, she taught me.

Week by week the same canticles percolate into my sense of this place, where time loops back upon itself without extracting an unpayable tariff for the compounding richness of its meaning–meaning which passes away over the course of the hour but abides poised to recirculate in due course of seven days: melodies, gestures, the pastor’s movements across the shallow chancel space, our responses, all palimpsesting the memory of earlier iterations. It requires no scripted welling like the rest of my family’s histrionics, only movement of the lips; and in the unthreatening neutrality of that external response, my own interior assent finds room to articulate itself for the first time.

The pastor is the antithesis of the ineffably hot Vicar Riehl of my cousins’ church. This man–a bit bland, unhandsome, but kind in conversation and reliably benign–moves inexplicably but predictably from Epistle to Gospel side, pausing to bow before the altar, or raising his hands in the Aaronic blessing (since making the sign of the cross would have been unthinkably Catholic)–completely pointless gestures that fascinate and entice me because they’re so weirdly unnecessary. I somehow understand that this place in some way is home, in a sense more deeply rooted than I can fathom; that I started out here and have returned.

As a toddler observes at the end of Mary Gordon’s novel, The Company of Women, “We are not dying.”

Monday, September 6, 2010


Wednesday night, I’ll take my place once again as a sojourner, a non-Jew standing in shul beside my partner Jonathan on the eve of Rosh HaShanah, the first night of the year 5771, the anniversary of Creation: the sanctified center around which the year revolves; the sanctified womb from which all that we make of our lives emerges; the still point to which we return to hear again the heartbeat of the cosmos in the sound of a ramshorn blown ceremonially into the silence.

I’m blessed to come to this tradition without the baggage that almost inevitably accompanies the negative associations of our early spiritual lives. From my place at the edge of the congregation, this is what blows me away, if you’ll pardon the pun, in hearing the excruciating bronze-age cry of the shofar: that time itself is holy. That we are accountable for what we make of it. That amidst its ever-rolling stream, change is a gift. That if we can only stretch so far, we can learn to see even our own mortality as an aspect of that gift. That, miraculously, we get more time, a second chance, when we need one. That the Mystery is infinitely larger than our souls, but that our souls, together with the souls of those we love and of those we mourn, are and will always remain a worthy part of that Mystery.

That every cry in the Middle East for peace, security, dignity and justice–from Muslim, Christian, and Jew alike--is the sound of the shofar.

That the cry of Matthew Shepard dying alone, tied to a fence in Wyoming, was the sound of the shofar.

That the cry of men in the shared ecstasy of their lovemaking is the sound of the shofar.

That the cry of an oil-soaked pelican in a marsh destroyed by the criminal greed, negligence, and stupidity of oil companies is the sound of the shofar.

That the shout of my late schizophrenic neighbour, “Kill the Fags!” when he was off his meds, and his apology when he was in remission, were the sound of the shofar.

That the laughter of children over a garden wall is the sound of the shofar.

And let us say, Amen.