On the 42nd anniversary of the 1977 blackout, New York City experienced another (albeit much smaller and briefer) blackout last night. It was a strange epoch in an already-unsettling weekend that began, for me, with standing vigil at Foley Square as part of Lights for Liberty, holding up my phone along with nearly three thousand other phones, candles, and flashlights in the shadow of 26 Federal Plaza. Saturday morning found me chasing our friends’ toddler around the Elevated Acre and watched the helicopters and ferries bouncing along the East River with him and his parents; I went home and followed stories of the ICE raids, starting earlier than the projected date of today, on Twitter. That flowed into news of the blackout, and in an apophenic moment, I wondered if one had anything to do with the other.
Heaven? I’m in heaven?
—Prior Walter in Act V of Angels in America: Perestroika, Tony Kushner
We sang Vaughan Williams’s “O how amiable” surrounded by dozens of panels of the AIDS Quilt, we noshed on Keen’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, we contemplated Paul’s cryptic “I heard it from a cousin who told his friend” commentary on “the third heaven,” whatever that is—that is to say, I was back at church for the first time in a month, my longest stretch without church proper in years, and it was as good and jarring of a homecoming as I could have wanted.
I had actually been in the courts of the Lord already the previous evening for Quilt: A Musical Celebration,Judsonite Mark Perry’s benefit show for the Callen-Lorde Health Center and Frontline AIDS. Mark had arranged for a sizable showing of the quilt itself, which I’d never seen in person. I texted a picture of Freddie Mercury’s panel to MaryBeth; I shuddered with a sort of bilious grief at Roy Cohn’s, emblazoned with the legend “BULLY-COWARD-VICTIM.” But the panel I won’t be able to forget is the very first one that was made, Marvin Feldman’s, by Cleve Jones, who conceived the quilt and the NAMES Project. In the panel, Johnson is slight and serious, with round glasses and a moustache; he is surrounded by a Keith Haring-esque corona of bold dashed gray lines; and he holds a small gray tabby cat.
On Wednesday nights, when Judson becomes an arts venue (always free for both artists and audience, always live, always uncensored), the Meeting Room looks different. The LaFarge windows only suggest the saints and angels within themselves; there are more shadows, the Vignette on the Instagram turned all the way up; more ways to be ambiguous, more ways to hide and then emerge.
In the dimmed room, as the Judson staff and the artists of Undiscovered Countries worked together to set the stage for the show, I was reminded of why Judson Arts Wednesdays are so important, both for us as a faith community and for the artists who come to work and perform there. There was the lighting, the sound system, the microphones carefully placed and adjusted; the infrastructure often barely visible to an audience, but so important for artists to be able to access as they grow their art and the audience for it. Before the show even started, I was grateful just for that, for the columns holding up our aging building, for the people who take such good care of both it and the people who take spiritual, artistic, and religious shelter within it.
It might surprise you to learn that I don’t always want to come to church. I frequently, even usually, get myself to church more or less of my own accord, and once I’m there, snickering with Jessica while we mark up the scores during choir practice or serving snacks during Coffee Hour or, well, taking notes on the sermon, I’ve long forgotten my reluctance to peel myself out of bed. But today I woke up with a headache, and the thought of staying in bed, complete with the cat perched on my chest, was terribly tempting. The only thing that got me moving was remembering that it was New Member Sunday. I’ve been involved in the process of inviting the nine wonderful folks who officially joined Judson today through my work on the Membership Committee, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be with them as they, to borrow Lyla’s words, made their relationships with and accountability to Judson official. So I took a quick shower, popped a few Advil, poured my coffee in my travel mug, and headed out.
I was at church for five-and-a-half hours today, the kind of numbers a congregant usually puts up in a tradition pretty different from that of Judson. But there was a lot going on today, and as the ancient testimonies reminded me this morning, I’ve become a bit of a Martha at church after spending my first few years as a Mary. There’s nothing wrong with taking either position—in one of my favorite sermons of Donna’s, she invited us to consider the ways in which we both “host” and “guest” at church. I came back to church in my late twenties after a lot of “hosting” in my everyday life, and I was relieved to have a space in which I was free to be a “guest.” These days I’m a lot more of a “host”—hence five-and-a-half hours at church.
Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.
There are people I’ve been trying to forgive for years. How do you forgive someone who’s died, for example? How do you forgive when the scars of a hurt are ones you reckon with daily? Even when I sit down to write, I’m up against the forces that saw my thinking and my creativity as a threat, as something to be tamped down rather than lifted up. When I can forget about those forces, writing is a joy; when they are louder or more forceful than usual, and I have to sit with them for a while, writing is painful, then slowly an act of rebellion that sometimes feels satisfying but just as often feels petulant and insignificant.
So here we are, two weeks after Easter, and we are talking about forgiveness. Two weeks after Jesus rose from the dead, as Jesus is walking around with the marks of crucifixion still on his body, and we return to the words he did not take back after his violent execution. “How often should I forgive my brother?” Peter, ever the asking-for-a-friend type, inquires, and Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Easter has less to do with one person’s escape from the grave than with the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power. (…) Easter represents a demand as well as a promise, a demand not that we sympathize with the crucified Christ, but that we pledge our loyalty to the Risen One. That means an end to all loyalties, to all people, and to all institutions that crucify.
Earlier this year, I found myself struggling to breathe. I mean this literally as well as metaphorically: I was, from time to time, gripped by a hyperventilating panic I could not articulate, and my heart would pound and my blood would dam up somewhere and all I could say, when someone would ask me what was wrong, was, I don’t have enough time. The first thirty-five years of my life, marked pleasantly enough by tangible successes, slipped out of my grasp. I had to keep going onward and upward, and I could not. Any step forward felt like a step into water: not so much a step forward as downward, traceless. And as though through water, the destination of the step looked uncertain, ill-defined.