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done or finished

Posted in writing on May 11th, 2013

On the last day of office hours, a student asked me an interesting question: “Have you ever been happy with something you’ve written?” Because I had only 30 minutes of office hours left, and five students showed up looking for help with essays in that 30 minutes, I likely gave him a terrible answer. Let me try and amend that now (although I do wonder if this student will read this; I suspect my senior students are far too busy figuring out what the heck they’ll do with their lives post Berkeley).

What I said was something like “well, when my most recent essay was published, I was happy with it.” This was true, for several reasons. This particular essay went through a rather torturous route to publication: written for one magazine, rejected, re-written according to editor’s comments, rejected again (with a form letter), re-submitted elsewhere, accepted enthusiastically. So there was a lot of hurt involved, much of which was assuaged when people (including Andrew Sullivan) liked the essay.

But, reading it again post publication, I can see problems. There’s some sloppy grammar, some issues with structure, some problems with the central idea being clear or unclear. Every writer has a nit picking side, and when you teach writing, your nit picker becomes pickier and pickier with every student’s essay you mark up. The same is true for all of my books. I don’t go back and re-read them except when I’m preparing for an event, and the sensation is always mixed between, “huh, that’s pretty good” and “Jesus, how did that sentence survive editing?”

I think the idea of being happy with what we write is akin to knowing when an essay/book/story/poem is finished. What drives my work is impulse. When I’m obsessed with an idea, a person, or a thing, that obsession will not end until I’ve written about it. But unless I’m on deadline, when do I know I’m done? My mentor teacher in grad school knew the poet Robert Duncan, and one night at a party, she asked him how long it had taken him to write “My Mother Would be a Falconress.” Duncan only took a moment to tell her that single poem was one he’d worked on for thirty years.

If process is driven by obsession and we’re not talking about deadline driven writing, I suppose the end comes when the obsession wanes. Writing is like having a heavy crush. Getting to know the person who’s the object of the crush relives some of the obsession, exacerbates other parts of it. But if your luck leads you to be with them in the way you imagined, oftentimes that’s the end of the crush. When I am writing I can feel the impulse pulling and pushing me through to the image, the word, the phrase that says “you’re done.” And then, I’m done. Am I happy? Not usually, no. Exhausted, perhaps, and usually facing a messy, neglected house, but more than being happy, the end goal is to be satisfied. It’s not romantic to think “this thing I’ve written is okay,” but that is miles from the scathing self critique so many of us exercise as if it’s just something writers are supposed to do.

Re-reading that Duncan poem reminded me that like Duncan’s falconress, writing is always tethered by something: everyday responsibilities, self expectation, even the weather outside. Writing always has to circle back to where it began, when ironically, it often begins simply out of the desire to wheel and roam, and occasionally, to attack. None of those are synonyms for happiness. But they are synonyms for the search. That, I’m afraid, never ends. Yet that is why we keep writing.

On Corpulence

Posted in Uncategorized on April 24th, 2013

180. That’s how much I weigh at the moment. At 5′ 11″, that puts me at a 25.1 BMI, tipping by .1 into the “overweight” category. I wear a size 12, mostly. Size Large.  My thighs are big. My ass is wide. There are rolls on my stomach, and my arms jiggle a bit.

I’ve never been on a diet.

It started innocuously, this train of thought. A friend of a friend posted something, as people you don’t really know do, on Facebook. “One of my life goals is to have my thighs not touch,” she wrote. I’ve read her stuff; she’s a good writer. It’s easy to tell she’s crazy smart, but the moment I read that, a sense of crushing disappointment washed over me. “Oh Jesus, not another one.”

Not another one what? Not another woman who makes thinness a life goal. Not another person who equates thinness with success, with self satisfaction, with “winning.” I wonder if she reads the number 180 and thinks I’m grotesque, disgusting, the epitome of everything wrong with society. It snaps back at me, this judgement, and projects onto my image of myself, and all the years I’ve placed intellect above body crumble away, and I know, I just know in my corpulent gut, that she probably thinks I’m fat.

Except: I don’t know her. Nor does she know me.

A week later, a friend reveals she’s on a diet. Then another friend. One has to lose the weight because of a medical condition. The other, I don’t know why. She always looks whip slim to me. A third friend and I go out for hot chocolate; this friend is a dancer, and I tell her the story of the woman who doesn’t want her thighs to touch, and my friend says, “but my thighs touch all the way to the knee.”

My mother talks a lot about her weight. It’s been a litany, my entire life, that my mother thinks she’s overweight. She’s never looked overweight to me; she looks like my mother. But I remember the food scales on the counter, the restrictive diets, the new wardrobes when the weight was lost. She just looked normal to me.

Perhaps I’m the one with the problem. Because everyone’s body, to me, pretty much looks normal. Except for the occasional glimpse of a girl at the gym who is so thin something is obviously wrong with her health, I don’t look much at other people’s bodies. Faces interest me. Clothes interest me. Walks. Hand gestures. Personality. How much of that is twisted by our self conceptions, the notion that whatever shape of body we’re born with is what people will judge about us: not our brains, not our compassion, not how well we can paint, or swim, or write.

Two or three times a week I go to the gym, and I detest it. It is boring, and it hurts, and… it’s boring as shit. It’s part of my therapy for my anxiety disorder: exercise helps keep it in check. I put on some podcast, some interview with someone smart, and run miles on an elliptical because of my bad knee. When people look at me, I look away, quickly. Or, if it’s That Time of the Month, I give them the Oakland stare: “What the fuck are you looking at?” Months ago I stopped walking into the weight room because it’s lined with mirrors, and while they’re ostensibly there for us to stare at ourselves, we really stare at one another. The men do it too: they pump up their upper halves so that their arms bulge away from their bodies while their legs are slim. And they stare at one another’s arms. The women stare at one another’s asses. I try to stare at the floor.

I’ve been going to the gym for five years. I have yet to lose a single pound.

When women meet one another after some time apart, the first thing we always say: “Did you lose weight?” My answer is always “no.” Because I haven’t. What if we said, instead: “Your face looks great.” “I like your earrings.” “Did you read that essay in the LARB?” What if we said, instead: “Your body is normal.” “Your body is yours.” “Your body is just one thing about you.”

Your body is just one thing about you. Just one thing.

 

 

Honk if you love finals

Posted in Uncategorized on April 23rd, 2013

It appears my self pitying post about my literary career alarmed a few friends and readers back in March, and then I got subsumed in traveling to New York, then came home and got subsumed in teaching, and then, well, never updated the blog. Mea maxima culpa, y’all. I am fine. Things are going really well in my writing life. So well, in fact, that I’ve got to do this as a list post. Will try to say something more coherent soon, but we’re heading toward the end of the semester at Cal and it’s like pushing a freight train through quicksand.

My latest essay, “Searching for Bach” is up at Killing the Buddha, and it got some love from Andrew Sullivan at the Dish.

Two more essays of mine are forthcoming in America and Commonweal magazines.

Back in January, I had the pleasure of talking to Jay Hooks SJ for a podcast interview about Radical Reinvention, which is now up at The Jesuit Post. You should totally follow those guys on Facebook and Twitter.

Radical Reinvention is part of Nick Ripatrazone’s book-length examination of Catholic writing after Vatican II, The Fine Delight (and wow, what a lineup of writers to be included amongst!). Nick’s book can be ordered through that link to his publishers, and is just recently available. You can read a preview at The Millions.

Although most of my work of late seems to be focused on faith and feminism, I’m still a scholar of indie culture (hey, according to some very misguided ad people, Jesus was the original hipster), and that’s lately manifested in a chapter on zines in Ken Parille’s anthology of critical essays on the work of the great Daniel Clowes. Out in July, and you can peep a preview here.

It’s now officially official and internet official that I’m going to be the Writer in Residence in Creative Nonfiction in the St Mary’s College MFA program in the spring of 2014. WIRICN?

And, because this is more horn tooting than my modest by nature self can stand, one last thing. Sometime this summer, I’ll be saying more about something that is huge, exciting, and still in the works: I’m going to be editing a new magazine of women writing about faith.

Off to go do something humble now, like groveling.

 

them that don’t fit in

Posted in Uncategorized on March 7th, 2013

 

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha!  He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in. (Robert Service)

Struggling, of late, with the question of what it means to “fit in” to the literary “establishment.” This year, due to expense and my panel being passed over, I’m not at AWP, the year’s biggest gathering of writers and writing teachers, which agonizingly chooses to meet on the East Coast year after year, thus putting it out of reach for many West Coast writers (in 2014, it will be in Seattle, still not easy on the budget but a lot better than New York, Boston, or DC, AWP’s favored citties). AWP is hard for introverts anyway, as it places a high priority on one’s ability to schmooze, and being about as good a schmoozer as I am a dancer, I find AWP rather terrifying. The last time I went, I spent most of my time manning a table at the book fair and mumbling at people while I stared at the rug.

It’s been tough as well seeing how many times the same writers seem to win every single grant, prize, etcetera, and the combined queasy feelings of jealousy and resentment, combined with a kind of literary class rage (“Well, they went to such and such a super prestigious grad school, so of course they win everything, and I went to this relatively obscure school, so I’ll never win everything, and by the way, I grew up lower middle class: can you tell?”) means there’s a lot of bitterness swirling around in Oakestown at the moment.The VIDA count just arrived, and women are still woefully underrepresented in mainstream literary magazines. The annual literary prizes have all been handed out, and they mostly went to people from the same grad programs, all of whom seem to know one another, and hire one another for plum jobs, and they all go to Breadloaf together and hold hands and dance around in a circle while chanting “we are the chosen ones!” Or something. I have no idea what people do at Breadloaf, actually. Sometimes it feels like literary success is so far away as to by a mythological land, like Narnia.

My dude is a working musician. He plays gigs 3 or 4 nights a week, often for little or no money, but he keeps doing it because it’s his vocation. It is hard work. A few weeks ago, I stayed until the end of one of his gigs (usually I have to leave early to be up for work), and as we hauled drums out of a basement club and into the car, he said, “this is the part of my life you never see.” And yet, it’s a big part. It’s not the glamorous part of being onstage, or being adulated by groupies (he has them; I used to be one), or going on tour. It’s the shitty part of having a sore back the next day, or having to work a day job to pay bills.

From the outside, the lives of successful writers look like the good part of a musician’s life. The conferences. The grants. The fellowships to writing retreats in beautiful countries. The tenure. The big time publishers. The ridiculous bios listing off every single fellowship, grant, publication and residency. It looks amazing, right? And then you might read something one of these glamorous established people wrote and think… it’s not that great. Is that jealously talking, or are you right? Does the establishment occasionally reward mediocrity? Of course. Does that it also reward genius? On occasion.

Most of us will always be on the outside looking in. We’ll be in the audience at an AWP panel wondering why such and such got chosen when we didn’t. We’ll read the list of award winning books year after year and puzzle as to how they were chosen before we learn some author’s professor was on the selection committee. We’ll seethe and burn with resentment and every minute we spend doing that we will not be writing. That’s the saddest part of all.

I hate to admit this, but I had a horrible pity party the other day when I found out someone I know had lined up an interview for an amazing job, and another person I know had been nominated for a prestigious prize, and meanwhile, I was spending four weekends in a row grading essays. And I just started sobbing. It’s not fair, I whined. I work hard (true). And I write good books (also true). And very few people read them (also true). And some people get all the prizes and jobs (also true). And my dude heard this and held my hand and said, “you just need to do your own thing. Just do your own thing. And eventually people will catch up with it.”

He was right. While people are drinking and schmoozing their way through AWP, I’m out here in Oakland, putting together a project that a lot of people are excited about. And planning a book. And finishing two essays. It’s the equivalent of my dude schlepping drums up and down stairs at 2am, night after night, week after week. It’s the work. The work is what matters. If the establishment doesn’t give a fuck about the work, start your own establishment, one less concerned with credentials and who knows who. Instead of agonizing about not fitting in, do something that open people’s perspectives about what fitting in means.

That being said, yes, I’ll be at AWP next year. For God’s sake, someone please ask me to be on a panel.

*image from Daniel Nester’s hilarious AWP Bingo Card. The 2013 edition is here. Note the square that says WRONG ASS KISSED.

re-entry

Posted in Uncategorized on February 17th, 2013

Halfway through the Conspiracy of Beards show I was at on Friday night, my friend, who works for NASA, informed me that a meteorite had just been spotted over San Francisco. The show was in the basement of a store in the Mission, and my only thought was that if San Francisco were destroyed by a meteorite, we might not even know, and the guys in the Beards could have gone on singing forever while the city caved in above us.

That’s pretty much a metaphor for the last month of my life. Work work work work work. Teaching is a life giver and often a life eater. I’ve been devoured. Some other things have happened: I’m done with an essay I’ve been working on since December, I’m reading four books at the same time (including my second attempt at what Henry James called “the loose, baggy monster“, which I’ve decided to try and finish before the end of Lent… and I’m on page 12). Next month I’ll head off to New York to read at the College of Saint Rose and catch up with friends and family. I’ve been devoured, but I’m still here. And somewhere way, way in the background, simmering away, is the foundation for what I hope will be my next book. When I’ll have time to work on it is unclear. But, at the very least, the ideas are there. That’s a consolation.

 

Misc

Posted in Uncategorized on January 18th, 2013

New years aren’t a great time for reflection and writing because in the academic life, we’re frantically rushing to get our spring courses together. So, while I can’t offer you much of a blog update, I can let you know about some book related things that have happened in the past couple of weeks.

I did an interview for the CBC (Canadian NPR) show DNTO, which aired on January 4th. You can listen to the podcast here. I come in at about 33 minutes.

My essay on Evangelicals, faith, shame, and naked emotion in Berkeley appeared this week at one of my favorite websites, Killing the Buddha (“For people made anxious by churches, for people embarrassed to be caught in the spirituality section of a bookstore and for people both hostile and drawn to talk of God.”)

Next Tuesday the 22nd I’ll be driving through (or being driven through — I have a phobia of freeway driving, really) the Caldecott Tunnel to speak at my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College. SMC has a January Term Speaker Series, and they were kind enough to ask me to come expound on faith in faithless times. More info about the talk here.

ending

Posted in Uncategorized on December 30th, 2012

Food poisoning hit me on Christmas eve eve (someone told me once that December 23rd should be called “Little Christmas”, and I’m not sure if I buy that, but I do like it). Eight hours of violent vomiting and other unspeakable things later, I was a mumbling husk, barely able to walk from one room to another, feverish, aching, purged of the rot but with nothing much left.

It’s an interesting way to end the year.

I’ve been sick on and off since October: one cold riding in after another, ensuing drips and coughs and headaches. It’s demoralizing, never really feeling well for that long of a duration, and it’s put me into a rather foul, gloomy frame of mind even though it’s also been a rather lovely holiday here in Oakland. Just enough rain, just cold enough for layers, family and friends being kind about my bleary state on Christmas. It’s odd too that I began the year sick and in pain; I had back to back major dental surgeries in January, and spent the first weeks of the semester teaching with my cheek sewn to my gums, occasionally stopping class to go spit out blood and fraying bits of surgical stitch.

On top of the seemingly endless cycle of viruses and toxic takeout, the writing life has been pretty unpleasant of late. A number of short pieces I wrote on spec this year (spec is when you pitch an idea to a magazine and they give you permission to go forward with writing, but without guarantee that they’ll actually publish it — and in these tightass times in publishing this is becoming the norm) came back with curt and even rude rejection notices. An editor made fun of my work on a social media platform. Book sales have been — as far as I can tell — sluggish. My editor quit just before the book came out.  I did not make one single year end best of list, possibly because no newspapers managed to review my book. I’ve had nasty hate emails and trolls on Twitter and Facebook, people who want me to go to hell for the things I’m writing (well, the ones getting published anyway).

And, you know, for all of that, I’m glad I did it. For every reading I did on tour where three people showed up, one of those people had gone out of her way to drive to meet me, to talk, to communicate. For every hateful email I’ve received, five more told me I’d done something important — reached them, given them hope, made them think. For every blogger who compared me to Satan another blogger became a real friend, someone I could sit and eat a meal with. For every time something I wrote got a nasty rejection, someone else told me I could write, and write well. For every comment calling my work sloppy and messy, another one said something kind. When I complained and cried about not getting reviewed, getting turned down by Litquake, someone else I know getting a coveted review, someone else I know getting a job I wanted, whatever the petty gripes and bitchings of the writing life were, someone straightened me out, told me to shut up, reminded me to be grateful.

I’ve been in a lot of groups of people this year, talking about faith, talking about the irrationality of believing in the unseen. It’s terrifying. It changes the direction your life is going so fast its worse than whiplash. And once you find other people who’ve been through the same thing, the unseen becomes seen in them. To every person who wrote me, or came to a reading, or reviewed the book (oh you precious few… thank you), or took me out of the house to remind me there’s a whole bunch of ungodly beautiful shit in the world: God or whatever your preferred term or no God at all and that’s fine bless you.

Two years ago, in the cold first days of the new year, I was in Assisi, sitting in the tomb of Saint Francis. You get a handful of times in your life, if you’re lucky, when you are positively aware that you are loved, even if that love is invisible to everyone outside of yourself. Assisi gave me that. So did you. So did this sickly, difficult, bizarre, terrifying, joyful, life-changing year.

“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” William James

dawning

Posted in Uncategorized on December 21st, 2012

It’s the shortest day of the year, and I woke up at 5AM, quite unplanned. As usual at this time of year, it’s pitch black and cold and looking out the window, it appears that no one in Oakland is awake yet. Sometimes I value this time when I might as well be the last person on earth, but mostly it reminds me that these short days are… short. Warning: this blog is not going to make a lot of sense.

Two strange things in the last couple of days. Yesterday I went into a studio in the city* to record a sequence for the CBC show DNTO. A producer contacted me out of nowhere because they’re doing an episode on reinvention. “You’ve probably never heard of this program,” she said. It was true. But having been raised by a Canadaphile (at one point my parents were even considering immigrating to Canada, but they were turned down for being potential subversives), I know the CBC pretty well. Recording went fine, and then I walked up to the train and turned onto 6th street South of Market. 6th street is kind of like skid row. It’s where homeless people congregate. You see fights on the street, discarded needles, broken bottles, vomit. And I just kept walking on 6th street instead of turning. After spending an hour talking to a radio producer about faith and compassion, it’s bullshit to avoid human pain. But that’s what we usually do. We avoid 6th street and East Oakland and People’s Park because that’s looking at pain. We avoid sick people and talking about the guns that massacred children because that’s pain. But the last few years of my life have taught me that if you’re going to practice compassion you have to look at pain to see the potential for transforming pain into something else.

The day before I did something stupid and waded into a conversation about Christians on Facebook. Normally I skirt around getting into debates on social media; they never go anywhere, and there are so many trolls and angry people who find the safety of distance gives them permission to finger point and blanket paint people they’d never have a conversation with in real time. And I said something innocuous like “not all Christians are Mike Huckabee.” And that caused someone to flip out. In rapid succession this person blamed Christians for pretty much everything wrong in society and then pointed the finger at me in particular. Because as a Catholic, I am apparently the same thing as an NRA member, a fascist, and a pornographer. Because, as a Catholic, I apparently think everyone who is not a Catholic is going to hell.

I don’t have kids, but I am an aunt to five nieces and one nephew. Two of the nieces and one nephew are Jewish. The other two nieces aren’t Catholic. I live with and love a guy who’s agnostic. My mother and most of my siblings are no longer practicing Christians. My oldest friend is an atheist. In fact, all but four or five of my close friends are nonbelievers and the ones who do believe break every single rule in the book. And if I spent one minute of any day of my life thinking those people were going to hell I would prefer that God sent me there instead if I even believed in a version of hell where people were eternally punished (I don’t). Let me say this clearly in spite of my sleep deprivation: I don’t think ANYONE  is going to hell. The God I believe in doesn’t think ANYONE belongs in hell except maybe Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Jim Jones… you get the idea. If you want to understand how I understand hell you should watch this Stephen Colbert clip because this is pretty much it.

This is what I’m trying to day: I understand why people hate Christians, especially right now when so many of us are saying really, really stupid shit in the media. But there are thousands, maybe millions of us who just want to walk down 6th street, look people in the eye, feed them, talk to them, bandage their feet. There are thousands, maybe millions of us who marry nonbelievers, give birth to nonbelievers, teach nonbelievers, feed nonbelievers, love nonbelievers. And would we do that if we hated those people, if we wanted them to scream and burn and hurt?

This is Sister Jeannine Gramick. She has continued to fight for marriage equality in spite of being censured by the Vatican.

 

This is Sister Joan Chittister (nice”wanted” poster, right?). She has been a lifelong advocate for human rights, and has repeatedly questioned the church stances on birth control and abortion to the point that the Vatican threatened her with excommunication.

This is Sister Simpone Campbell, who has spent most of her life working with people in poverty. You may have heard about this bus tour she’s been on. She and thousands of other sisters were called heretics for lobbying in support of health care reform.

This is Dorothy Day. She was a writer, an anarchist, and a revolutionary. She’s also soon to be a saint.

None of these women think you’re going to hell. Neither do I.

Posted in Uncategorized on December 7th, 2012

Annunciation, Jay Defeo, 1975 (an amazing show of her work at the SFMOMA right now)

Annunciation

Even if I don’t see it again — nor ever feel it
I know it is — and that if once it hailed me
it ever does –

And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting
within myself,

as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
it isn’t — I was blinded like that — and swam
in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.

– Marie Howe

advent ruminations

Posted in Uncategorized on December 5th, 2012

This year I took a break from preaching doing gospel “reflections” at Mass because I’ve been doing so many book related events, and I wanted to let other people have a chance to get up and speak at the ambo. But Advent is probably my favorite liturgical season, so I wanted to share with you a reflection I gave at Advent a couple of years ago, on the Flight into Egypt. It’s one of those weird Gospel stories that only occurs in one Gospel (theology geek out warning: thus it didn’t likely come from the Q source), and it only occurs in Matthew, which is frankly my least favorite Gospel. So writing this was a challenge. But it remains one of my best memories of public speaking, a task I normally look forward to like a root canal. Best wishes as the darkness enfolds us, even as it cannot comprehend us.

Vespers Reflection, Mt. 2:13-15; 19-23

December 22, 2010

Our reading tonight is often referred to as the story of the “flight into Egypt”. It’s a story about exile and return, and about the gifts given to us by people who are silent.

Tonight we approach the end of Advent, a time of waiting, listening, and – above all – a time of patience. But everywhere around us are symptoms of impatience. The crowded streets, people pushing a bit more than usual on Muni and Bart, the nightmare of airports and freeways.

It’s this impatience and darkness that leads many of us to shut down at this time of year. Perhaps for some of us, it is also a welcome opportunity to embrace the stillness of winter. Many of us wake in the dark, work in a closed space through the daylight hours, and head home in the dark. As a winter people, we crave light like we crave air.

This is why Advent directs us to tend to the things deep down inside of ourselves. Those of you who are heading to a midnight mass in a few days will hear the words of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone”. Just a few weeks ago, our Jewish brothers and sisters lit the candles on their menorahs for Chanukah, one light at a time until every light shone.

Now is the time for us to begin preparing our own lights. But an odd thing happens in tonight’s reading; as soon as Jesus is born, he’s chased out of Israel, and sent into exile. The light is lit, the family gathers around it, the Magi arrive, and Herod’s tyranny means Jesus must be hustled off into Egypt by his foster father Joseph.

This is a story of light gone into exile. It’s also the beginning of what many theologians refer to as the “hidden life” of Christ; the years when he evolves as a man, out of sight of the world. Those years are a time of silence. But this story teaches us to reframe the idea of exile. It helps to think of exile not as a time of isolation, but as a time of formation.

Thomas Merton captures this idea. “We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them”, Merton tells us. “We do not leave them in order to have nothing more to do with them, but to find out the way to do them the most good.” Surely this applies to the story of Christ, who went into Egypt as a baby, but what about us? How many of us have been exiled or hidden? What parts of our inner lives have we stashed away? And who has protected us when we were most vulnerable, when we needed to be hidden in order to become who we are tonight?

Joseph is the foster father of Christ, yet in this reading about the flight into Egypt, we learn very little about him. Joseph is busy in this reading fulfilling two prophecies; Hosea’s prophecy that God will call his son out of Egypt, and the notion that the Messiah will come from a despised place.

We should take note of the fact that Jesus’ family had to flee because of the conditions they were living under. Richard Horsley tells us that Herod had turned Israel into “what today would be called a police-state, complete with loyalty oaths, surveillance, informers, secret police, imprisonment, torture and brutal retaliation against any serious dissenter”. That seems like a very contemporary story. How many people, even here in San Francisco, come fleeing conditions exactly like that? As Ched Myers reminds us, “the savior of the world begins life as a political refugee”.

We must remember that the Holy Family was poor. We must remember that they lived as exiles. And at this time of year, when we are prone to dark, lonely moods, we must also recall that they eventually found a home, even if it was not the place where they expected to end up. I want to return for a little bit to the figure of Joseph, because these readings from Matthew are really the only time we learn about him. When I came to Vespers last week, Reverend ______ reminded us of Joesph’s righteousness: how he kept his promise to Mary in spite of what was essentially an out of wedlock pregnancy, how he raised Jesus in a traditional Jewish home, reading Torah together, going to temple, honoring the Jewish laws.

Over the past few weeks that I’ve been planning this reflection, however, another thing has stood out about Joseph, and that’s his silence. Exile is a kind of enforced silence, since immigrants and anyone fleeing oppression do not have much of a voice to speak with, but Joseph is literally silent: we never hear his voice. Thus a lot of theologians talk about Joseph’s life as a “hidden life”, much like the years between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his public ministry.

Just because a life is hidden, however, doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. Henri Nouwen says that we should strive to be “hidden in life, but visible to God.” Joseph’s silence speaks multitudes. His job in tonight’s reading is not to speak, but to listen. And for many of us, listening in days when we feel the darkness pressing in is the hardest thing of all.

This past summer, I decided to attempt to do an eight day silent retreat. Even though I suffer from a genetic disorder called logorrhea – diarrhea of the mouth — I’d made it though a four-day silent retreat, so I figured eight days was manageable. There was an hourly talk each day with my spiritual director, but aside from that, we were not only forbidden to talk, we weren’t even allowed to make eye contact with the other retreatants outside of Mass. Not being able to smile at anyone, to look up from my plate at dinner, or acknowledge my friend who was also there began to bother me. “I’m going stir crazy”, I finally told my director. “It’s not a prison,” he reassured me. “Go for a walk into town.”

So I did. And I went out of my way to smile and gaze at every stranger on the street. Many of them probably thought I was nuts. But the silence at the retreat center forced me out of my normal role as someone dependent on language. When even facial communication was cut off, the only person left to talk to was God, and as we all know, God can be a bit taciturn. I had to learn to listen for God’s voice in the most unexpected places, from the most unexpected people.

Silence and exile force all of us to slow down, to be more patient, and to be more aware of the people around us, especially those whose own lives are hidden. Recently, a group of women at my parish started getting together to plan some meetings for a women’s group. One of them is a teeny, tiny woman in her sixties or seventies. We were talking about ministry, and said that she travels alone to San Quentin. When we asked how she counsels the prisoners, she surprised all of us by saying “Oh, I just listen.” Try to imagine for a minute this woman, barely five feet tall, passing through maximum security in order to spend time sitting with violent offenders, just listening.

Listening is also a challenge for many of us in the church today. For people in the LGBT community, for women, for anyone who feels marginalized or misunderstood, we have to listen harder in order to find representation and resonance. But, as they did for Joseph, the messages of what we should do will come to us at unexpected times. The more that I interact with other Catholics, the more I learn about how many of us are working for a more inclusive and more welcoming church, even in small ways that remain hidden to most people on the outside.  And just like Joseph, we work to protect and care for one another.

Tonight’s reading offers us a new idea about exile. Rather than being punishment, perhaps we can think of exile as a time of formation, a time when Christ’s worldview and ideologies are shaped. Formation leads to vocation. And the same is true for many of us; as adults, we seek communities of like-minded people. We find our families of choice. If the adult Christ found his own family of choice among the most despised and marginalized people in his society, to me that means that many of us here in the Bay Area, whether we grew up here or arrived seeking a tolerant community, should feel even more of a kinship with him. We love one another more for being outcasts, and accompany one another, as Joseph did. We are lights to one another.

The other night, I went to hear Chanticleer, who I’m sure many of you are familiar with, and they debuted a new composition, based on the opening words of John’s gospel. I want to leave you with these profound and reassuring words.

The light shines in the darkness

And the darkness could not comprehend it.