Maundy Thursday, Laundry Saturday

April 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

William Blake, Dante's Inferno

“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost”—Dante, The Inferno


Tonight is the Maundy Thursday marathon Dante reading at the Cathedral. It starts at 9; it’s 7 now. I sit in Lisa’s office, where I work, shivering. Dusk is coming and the trees are fading outside the window. I missed the last flush of sun.

The right road is lost. I never even knew I was on it, but if I was, it was only with one foot. Now I push through the dark woods and I don’t have a Virgil; this is a different story. This is the story about accepting that there is no guide, mentor, guardian, parent for adulthood. It’s all wide open to make, though the past I already made is mine forever, limiting and immensely useful. It’s like a fairytale: here’s a bunch of stuff—some glitters, some appears worthless—you have a day and a night to weave it into a ladder, a window, a weapon.

Only a day and a night. I have to remember that. How can I forget?

Dante makes hell more enticing than love—what a trick! Beatrice waiting in Heaven has nothing on ice-bound Satan with a writhing Judas between his teeth. Poetry. You have to admit it’s a bit of a con game.

I’ve been tempted to write a contemporary Inferno. The idea of inverting the sins—not fornication but the zealots against it, not suicides but those opposing the right-to-die movement—has some promise. And I like pitchforks, malicious scampering baby devils and lakes of fire: who doesn’t? But why write something that, even it were brilliant, would wilt pathetically beside the original?

It’s really quite cold in here. When Lisa gets back from picking up her dog at daycare and taking him home (tucking him into bed, kissing him goodnight), we’ll go have some soup, some wine. Fortification. Three hours of sitting in the cold Cathedral on the hard chairs to hear the Inferno yet again and go to a party at midnight—yes, it’s worth it. But I’d still like some wine first, the kind that makes me think of medieval reds in illustrated books and birds swooping down (the lively changes of alcohol on the tongue) and the blood of those pagan goddesses who were made of the earth.


The wine was two-dimensional, a little harsh, but warmed and softened me. I stayed at the restaurant for a few minutes after Lisa and Tenzin left, then wandered through the Cathedral grounds, looking at the moon, low and heavy in the sky. I used to make wishes on the full moon. I wished for a lover at 17, and Charles appeared in my life a couple of weeks later. But mostly it didn’t work. So this time I said only, “Thy will be done,” since it is anyway, whoever, whatever “Thy” may be. In my 20’s, when I read widely in Christian literature, I understood faith and prayer, how it aligns you with what is, what can’t be escaped, what remains indifferent to ego and desire. I didn’t agree with the writers as to why this process worked to bring peace, but I understood that it did. I understood the mental tricks and avenues the saints and priests discussed—from afar, I understood.  I thought then that eventually I’d come back to it—not God as such but the pursuit of selflessness. After I’d gotten what I wanted, I mean.

Youth is so endlessly amusing.

I daydreamed through the reading, listening about half the time. Last year, whoever read Canto XXXII used Mark Musa’s translation, “A thousand dog-like faces, purple from the cold.” This year’s reader used a different translation, I can’t remember whose, “A thousand bitch-like faces,” which was not nearly as evocative to me. “Bitch” has other meanings in English and those interfere with the ability of the image to catch fire.

This time of year brings a lot of memories, from childhood through more recent Easters. You know how it is, life is always changing, but there are periods and relationships that seem enduring even as they evolve, and then suddenly you turn a corner.  Someone leaves, something happens, and you notice that in fact what you think of as “now” is already not now, and hasn’t been for a while. After the shock and disorientation, after the compass reading and preparations for the new direction, comes another quieter time, one when memories are dipped in preservative, added to the vault, no longer what you’re in but what you have.

I think we always remember others better than we remember ourselves. Our selves keep getting rebooted, made to conform to the new direction, and it’s necessary to discard a lot. But the people we used to know, the ones we played and fought with, they don’t change so much.  Even if we still know them, once an era is over, there they are, as they were: the mother of my childhood, my husband before we married, and so on.

Memory is an art and an artifact, a guardian. It can be a guide—it’s meant to be a guide—that in that role it’s always treacherous.


This is a poem I like to argue with, which makes it worth putting here–

A Myth of Devotion  

When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.

Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness

Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.

A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?

He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—

That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.

He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
Persephone’s Girlhood.

A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you

but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.

–Louise Gluck


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