Monday, August 31, 2009

che on st. aidan's day

today was my first day off in milwaukee. i wore my che guevara t-shirt, which is apparently a good way to start conversations around here. first all my shipmates asked me about it at breakfast. (oh right. bit of a change since my last several blog posts: i'm working this fall as bosun on the schooner denis sullivan)

this afternoon i walked north along the lakeshore and explored the east side of milwaukee. i stopped for lunch at a restaurant/bar, and settled into a booth to read the novel i've been slowly working my way through for ages. i was facing a guy sitting in the next booth over, working at his computer. when i ordered my glass of zinfandel, he looked over and said, "how can you be wearing a che guevara shirt and drinking that? that's not a people's drink!"

i discovered he was from scotland, had just resigned from teaching poetry at one of the UWs, and deduced that he had already had several beers. he had a book of philip larkin poems, and was surprised to learn i had never heard of him. during a lull in his and my conversation, one of the waitresses came up and asked me about my che t-shirt, saying she'd lived in argentina for awhile and you see his picture everywhere.

drunk scottish guy had offered to give me the philip larkin book and pointed me to a poem called "Church Going." i allowed as how my next stop was going to be the cathedral for evening prayer, and my two conversation partners both turned on me in disbelief. scottish guy said he could have predicted i was "a religious person," and both of them said they think organized religion is nonsense. it was a common conversation for me but seemed higher stakes--it was more important to me to find common ground with them because we were strangers.

i did take the philip larkin book. here's the last few stanzas of Church Going. the church is,
"A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much can never be obsolete.
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round."

i only read this once i got home. i had spent some of the last hour hearing stories from folks at the cathedral after the eucharist on the feast of st. aidan, stories that did in fact involve rood-lofts. i got to this last stanza and really wished i could discuss it with scottish guy, because i agree perfectly with this perspective and it makes me itch--to let the sheep into the churches, to plead to keep the incense, to get rid of sniggering and frowsy-ness. i gravitate to church largely because i once heard it was ground proper to grow wise in. my work is helping it stay that way - i like that i spend my days both with the folks who mistrust and look sideways at the church, and with the faithful remnant keeping up the 150-year tradition of daily mass in the cathedral of all saints. my place is between them, like Jack Sparrow at the end of the first recent pirates of the caribbean movie, showing that we're not as far apart as we think and bringing into relationship. or, as I added to my facebook profile awhile ago, helping people who have stopped talking to start talking again.

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