With Feeling

This piece was originally published in July 2011. 

The concert had been delayed for two months, and anticipation was high.  The last time the Avett Brothers had come to town was before the Rick Rubin-produced album, before the placement in Starbucks, before the performance at the Grammys.  Last time, they’d been at the outer stage of a second-rate venue while a metal show droned away on the main stage.  When their return finally seemed imminent, there was a last second snag.  Scott Avett was whisking away to attend the birth of his son.  Our town and several others on the tour schedule would have to wait.  Until tonight.

So when the lights dimmed, and the three members of the band crowded around a single microphone for a hushed rendition of the elegiac “Murder In The City”, a proverbial hush came over the crowd.  And when Scott made his way to the line about telling his sister that he loved her, we were surprised by his improvisation:

“Tell my son I love him…”

Photo by Jess Hodge.

Lumps appeared in six hundred throats instantly, mine included.  In some other context, this might’ve been a contrived tug at the heart strings, a crass attempt to gain the audience’s good graces.  But that’s not the Avetts’ game, and the fact that Scott’s sincerity struck such a powerful nerve is indicative of what we normally expect from musicians and the culture at large.

Earnestness takes us aback.  It elicits the question, are you for real?  When the indie tastemakers at Pitchfork reviewed the Avett Brothers most recent studio album, the incredulity was palpable. “(A)fter a while, you may begin to wish they’d get angry about something, or, god forbid, crack an ironic joke,” the review pleads.  It’s okay to express sincerity, but to actually be sincere is uncomfortable.

But music, as with all other art, is designed to elicit an emotional reaction.  It can be attractive and winsome, or abrasive and repulsive, and both have a rightful place as honest expressions of human emotion.  Yet we are often loath to approach the heights of real emotion in art, so we put on a protective cloak of irony, a distancing that allows us to laugh off any real sincerity.

“You didn’t really think I meant what I said, did you?”

Irony allows us an out in our personal lives.  It also provides an armor when we explore unfamiliar or dangerous territory.  Most of all, it maintains our cool.  Hidden behind sunglasses, covered with a smirk, and swaddled in a snarky t-shirt, we cruise by unaffected and uninfected.

Artists are by no means to shy from this.  In fact, after the optimism and idealism of the mid-twentieth century wore off, glossed over with disco and Saturday Night Live, then subsequently deconstructed by “alternative” rock and Fight Club, irony and detachment provide a unified theory of culture in the past forty years.

Even though there were voices calling in the wilderness during these times, harkening back to a purer spirit of expression, even some of these artists found it necessary to slather on a slick sheen.  The earnest Weezer of the Blue Album and Pinkerton becomes a YouTube joke soundtrack, and innumerable indie darling actors and actresses “sell out” by doing a Hollywood blockbuster between small-budget films.

I think Ryan Adams alternates albums based on how “cool” he’s feeling at that time.

Does it then follow that ironic entertainment and art are inherently inferior to their sincere counterparts?  Of course not.  It would be elitist and unrealistic to think so, and there have been many excellent examples to the contrary.  Nor is this tied to any particular genre of music or art.  There is as much true emotion in some rap music and Modernist architecture as there is in the most plaintive folk musician’s discography. But if you’re inclined to pursue beauty and excellence as ends unto themselves, a certain amount of concreteness is assumed and necessary.

As anyone who has been in love can tell you, moments arise when the emotions are too strong to contain, when they boil over seemingly of their own accord. Being audience to sincere art, even when we’re feeling cold and detached, spills some of that emotion onto us, and we can’t help but feel it.  We sing along.  We pause to take in the canvas.

Our hard shell finally cracks and we weep.

Their emotion becomes our emotion. Their soul speaks to our soul, and reminds us that we have one in the first place.   It’s healthy and it’s right.  It’s art at its most human.

The tide of cool often takes us away from this emotion.  We retreat into the cocoon, and take our cues from a culture that is aggressively indifferent, oxymoronic as that might seem.  To get too invested is to invite a label: Nerd.  Fangirl.  Dork.  Parrothead.

Okay, I even made myself shudder at that last one.

This isn’t a call to revisit the Good Old Days, when songs were honest, skirts were longer, and only Kennedys wore Wayfarers.

We must play the cultural hand we’re dealt.  But just as we can’t gorge on junk food without the occasional salad, we can’t deny the importance of allowing ourselves to feel through art, directly or vicariously.  Scott Avett could no sooner ignore the impact that the birth of his son had on his identity as a musician and on his music than he could stop breathing and expect to live.  So also we can feel free to let our context and our lives flow into the art we choose and the way that we experience it.

Just remember to bring a hanky.

Front Porch, Back Porch

We proved our thesis quite by accident.  After a long day of hunting for our first house, we decided to drive by a couple of the homes we’d seen earlier in the day for another look.  As we drove up to the red house, I slowed the car to a crawl as my wife and I discussed the pros and cons, and renovations both possible and necessary.   That’s when we saw them.  I daresay they saw us first.  The owners of the house were on their front porch, viewing us suspiciously as we criticized their home from inside my car.  Our eyes met for a brief moment.  There came to my face a sudden blush, self-conscious for no particular reason.  Well, maybe not no reason: their house had been filthy inside.  I sped away as we continued our conversation.

As idyllic as the Real Simple-ready front porches may seem, they can become messy places, bringing our private lives into public view.

We’ve been searching for a house for a couple of months now.  Our geographical preferences and financial limits have focused our search to two primary neighborhoods.  The difference between the two neighborhoods is striking, though the houses in both are of similar size and luxury.  But the neighborhood in which we currently rent and would most like to stay has one feature that makes it more desirable to us: front porches.

The front porches of the Houston Heights are the key to its character as a neighborhood.  In a sprawling metropolis like Houston, which grew primarily in the latter half of the 20th century, pre-war neighborhoods like The Heights are a rarity.  They harken back to the grubby, tough city that grew up around a muddy bayou and a convenient port, before Houston made the leap from oil-rich to oil-wealthy.  These homes date to between 1910 and the early 1940’s, when air conditioning was advertised instead of expected, and their primary social spaces are those front porches.

It is here that I must admit that far more articulate, academically respectable examinations of the social language of front porches have already been made, most notably by Richard H. Thomas.  There even exists a conservative/libertarian blog based on a longing for lost porch culture called Front Porch Republic.  But I’m not trying to write a doctoral thesis or start a political movement.  I just want a house that my wife and I can call a home.

Certainly we could find a home in Oak Forest.  This post-war neighborhood is separated from the Heights by that most post-war of all talismans, an interstate highway.  The houses are adorable little ranches that lend themselves well to a funky Mid-Century Modern decorating language, and they sit on expansive lots.  More accurately, though, they sit further back on those lots.  And the front porches are small or non-existent, lost in favor of covered patios attached to the back of the house.

It’s here that we find ourselves with a decision to make.  The houses in the mid-century neighborhood are more affordable, and generally larger, making it possible for us to stay in our first house for longer.  The neighborhood itself has been a steady middle class enclave for its whole fifty-plus years of existence, and is only getting more valuable as time progresses and people retreat back from the suburbs to central neighborhoods.  Buying there would be a safe, smart decision.

However, our desire for a front porch is threatening to overrule safe, smart thinking.  We want to see our neighbors, and be seen by them.  Urban life can easily become isolating, and even the most close-knit communities rely on the active participation of their members.  So we want to consciously be part of the neighborhood in which we live, and work for its peace and prosperity.  In the parts of the Heights that we can afford, that might mean putting up with guys across the street who have a minivan bench seat on their front porch, and more than putting up with them: befriending them, being their neighbors.

As idyllic as the Real Simple-ready front porches may seem, they can become messy places, bringing our private lives into public view.  Many of these pre-war houses have a blessing of street-facing windows, and smaller front yards that put the living room uncomfortably close to the sidewalk.  Are we willing to be vulnerable like that?

In the post-war neighborhood, our neighbors would have to employ a telescope to peer into our dining room.  In fact, many of the living areas themselves migrate with the porch to the rear of the house.   These were homes built not only for the comfort of air conditioning, but for the entertainment of the television, yet another inward-facing social innovation.  When the neighbors are invited over, we congregate around the ‘tube or the back patio, taking in the grandeur of the back fence.

It’s also been pointed out that the post-war housing boom was automobile-centric, typified by suburbs within a reasonable driving distance of the business centers of town.  This, too, is reflected in our decision making: right now, I’m sitting at a coffee shop a scant two and a half blocks from our home, from which I can walk home.  The front porch houses we are looking at are also walking-friendly, with pubs, taquerias, and a particularly heavenly doughnut shop all within a comfortable distance.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t fun, local places near the other neighborhood, but they’d all require hopping in the car and winding past blocks of houses to get to the main drag where they’re found.  The other infrastructure and amenities are considerably better, though: the grocery stores are newer and nicer, the bank branch more convenient, and so on.  The front porch neighborhood is decidedly lacking in these luxuries.

What would you do?   Follow your heart or your checkbook?  God willing, this will be the house to which we bring home our first child at some point.   It’s where we’ll entertain friends and neighbors.  Many meals will be cooked, shared, and enjoyed there.  But we don’t want to pay such a steep premium that those meals mostly consist of pork and beans.  And we have several friends who live in the post-war neighborhood and love it.  It’s quiet and kid-friendly, they tell us.

But we want the front porch.  We want to see what’s happening on our street. We want to welcome our neighbors to join us on the porch for a pitcher of margaritas or a cup of hot tea.  We want to hear the gossip, the nattering pulse of the community.  We want to recognize the kids who ride their bikes down the street after school.  We want to pay the premium for this, if the right house comes around.  And we want to see the grey Mini Cooper that’s rolling by with two quizzical heads eyeing our house.  Then we’ll wave.

The Liturgy of a Neighborhood

When my husband and I started to discuss where to look for a house, our preferences did not quite align. Johnny leaned toward the affordable suburbs of Katy, and I presented an unrealistic argument for a pricey, historic bungalow in one chamber of the heart of Houston – the Woodland Heights, our church’s neighborhood.

My husband’s practical wisdom prevailed, and walking into the two-story house in which we now live, we experienced the surprisingly truthful cliché: We just knew. I made it my mission to see the suburbs as I now see everything: to seek out what is rehumanizing right here, chain stores and all. Our neighborhood is very walkable, most of our neighbors are friendly, and we consider Cedar’s Mediterranean Grill & Market “our place,” offering the best hummus, hookahs, and Arabic music videos on the TV. We now feel as if the ‘burbs are home sweet home. However, if we won the lottery, we might be persuaded to move to one of those bungalows. Until that improbable day, my urban aesthetics are assuaged by driving to church every Sunday through the absence of notorious Houston traffic – it’s like God’s gift to the faithful.

As creatures of ritual and pleasure, our Sabbaths consist of a geographical trinity to which we migrate like birds to their homeland. We both work from home, so Sunday is our earliest day of the week. I am not a morning person. But, gratefully, Antidote Coffee is our first stop, its atmosphere just buzzed enough to gently wake fellow grumpy, slow risers. Cheery, multi-colored patio furniture awaits outside, and eclectic vintage furniture inside. Red brick walls sport local art and photography. The menu offers organic and fair trade coffee roasted in Marfa, Texas; organic artisanal tea, beer, wine, homemade baked goods, watermelon gazpacho, red bean hummus, and other delights. Happy hour includes spirits, of course, but also $1.00 espresso shots. The Beach Boys, The Kinks, and Old Country play overhead. They spin bad music at times, too, but at least it’s obscure bad music. The staff is attentive and kind – by now they know that Johnny takes his cappuccino wet with organic milk; they wait patiently as I rummage through the tea selection indecisively.

It’s a small, intimate space. I can’t help but eavesdrop on most conversations as they bounce off the stained concrete floor. And there’s no finding a secret, introverted nook in which to work or read. As I select a small wooden table or a velvet couch, I often have to ask a person, “Is this seat taken?” One afternoon, I poured my teapot of organic breakfast and spilled some of it in the process – very characteristically of me. A soft-spoken man chuckled in sympathy and asked what I was drinking, or spilling. I asked the same of him (Sencha green) and we oohed and ahhed over varieties of white tea, as well as our mutual preference for dark roast and chicory coffees. I discovered that he was born in France, adopted by an American family, and is now part of both families – he visits the French countryside regularly. I shared that my mom was adopted; her biological family is from Louisiana, and she, too, is part of both families. And when I said that just that morning, Johnny and I daydreamed of visiting Paris, the man said, “Oh, you should – there’s still a lot of magic in that city.” I marveled at this conversation with a kindred spirit-stranger.

Kaboom Books is right next door, a brilliant pairing. More rainbow-hued tables and chairs adorn the storefront, encouraging the enjoyment of coffee and used books here or there. The second Kaboom location is a little bigger and five minutes away, and our church is situated in the middle. The owners are a good-natured married couple, transplants from New Orleans after Katrina. We met the spunky red-haired wife, newly a Houston resident, and to our delight and surprise, she reported that they love their new hometown and neighbors.

I am not above a Barnes & Noble/Starbucks combo, but I do have a special place in my heart for the unshakable independents in our culture, and for the smell of old books. Kaboom’s tall, crude wooden shelves hold more mystery than a polished new store. Their selection musters up a literary faith in the face of uncertainty. Lately, I believe that I will find Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter on that high shelf with the B’s, though I cannot yet see it. Like the old bungalows in the neighborhood, these books spin yarns and tall tales to complement the story their pages hold. The front page might bear a reader’s name written with pencil or ink, provoking a sort of reverence in me as I flip through the pages, as if that long-lost soul is loaning it to me. Kaboom opens later than Antidote on a Sunday morning, so I wistfully peek into my dusty little sanctuary until I can step inside again. Sometimes we do so after church, or during the week. Our liturgy of the neighborhood is not just for the Sabbath, you see.

We hop in the car with to-go cups of caffeine and weave down Euclid Street for two minutes toward church. This neighborhood provides something suburbanites should cultivate: a deeper sense of community and beauty, which naturally pours into my soul as I spy porch swings, rocking chairs, hammocks, wind chimes, lush gardens bright with flowers, protective oak trees, and quirky art sculptures planted in front yards. The amicability also speaks from the bungalow architecture itself, with most homes boasting wide front porches that make hospitality visual. Friends drink wine on those shady havens in the evening, or sleepy-eyed fathers enjoy breakfast in solitude the next morning. History resides in these streets as well – old, tattered bungalows sit alongside newer models, but the Woodland Heights is committed to preserving “a hometown near downtown since 1907” and beautiful American Craftsman design. Change is good at the right time, but I still admire this small town within the big city, one determined to conserve historical architecture which tells a large part of Houston’s story.

The impetus for our Sabbath migration sits on the corner of Beauchamp and Byrne: Church of the Holy Trinity, a small Anglican parish. “Worship is primary theology. It is also home, which, as the saying goes, is the place where they have to take you in” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace). I grew up with Baptist mega-church roots, and so our little liturgical church feels exactly like our second family (after in-laws) with differences, squabbles, hugs, laughter, shared tears and joy, and all the rest. I actually know my priest – a far cry from a distant pastoral association, with a stage and bright lights. Fr. Doug loves local coffee shops, whiskey, good tobacco, the Coen Brothers, John Donne, Wendell Berry, and slow food, just for starters.

The liturgy suits people like me and Johnny, and many in the congregation – the artful-minded, craving visuals and symbols. We walk in the door to dip our fingertips in cold, holy water; trace a cross from our forehead to our chest; light a candle cupped in red glass to symbolize prayers weighing heavy on our hearts. I take a wooden pew under the St. Catherine of Alexandria stained glass. There is a still, sweet reverence under the wooden nave which looks like an upturned ark, drying out from a tragic flood. As we do “the people’s work,” peaceful repetition – kneeling, bowing, crossing – we embed Scripture and worship into our souls and movements. Liturgy is found in the pages of Genesis, the 1st century early church, and onward until now – more history rooted within a bustling, modern city. The music is both traditional hymns and new songs on guitar, piano, and djembe. Candles light the altar; incense tickles our noses and represents our collective prayers. When we walk out the door and gather on the patio, some smoke a cigar and others grab a Shiner (on tap in the kitchen). We adults sweat in a Houston summer, and the kids run helter-skelter on the playground. We take our worship back out into the old-and-new-bungalowed neighborhood – as they welcome us, we hope to welcome them into our home the next week, signaled by church bells sounding through the ‘hood.

Urbanites seek refuge from the traffic and workweek cacophony, and our activities are almost unconscious liturgical repetitions. We work with our hands in our home or in an office, completing similar tasks over and over again. We frequent our favorite places to eat, drink, and refuel. We are created to gravitate to rhythm, order, beauty, and our incarnational five senses. Or perhaps we rebel against these forces, our fallen dance.

But we are to live within our culture, our eyes roving for what is true, good, and beautiful – such as the Menil neighborhood, houses of art which continue to nourish and protect me. But even more nourishing and protective are our church, Antidote’s small town hospitality, and Kaboom’s cozy inspiration – making the Woodland Heights our second neighborhood. It’s like Isaiah said: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And so we drink coffee & tea, read, and worship; return to our suburban neighborhood, rest, repeat – revisiting the rhythm of our Bayou City Sabbath after Sabbath, a world that ought to be, without end, amen.

She Spoke to Silence

Photo: Houston Chronicle

For a little over a year, I’ve struggled with a variety of health issues. The particulars are boring (and odd), but I will say that most people bounce back from such ailments in 1-2 months. Obviously, I am not one of those people. I’m healing all right, but at a maddening snail’s pace. I strive for a martyr-like demeanor, yet I won’t acquire sainthood anytime soon. I’m not a good sufferer. I’ve grasped for comfort all the year long day, primarily by way of reading. Somewhere along my book trail, I discovered the poet Vassar Miller, a fellow Houstonian, afflicted with cerebral palsy since birth (1924). I was humbled by this lady who suffered with more severity, and more grace than I have. I was inspired by poem after poem, like spoonfuls of medicine when my words seemed to fall short.

I remain enchanted, wishing we had met in person. Vassar Miller was a poet of great courage and skill, a crusader for the disabled, a self-taught theologian, and a teacher of creative writing at The University of St. Thomas, near her museum-district home. She had a raucous, bold laugh, even if she fell from the motorized cart which whisked her to class and back home again. She would proclaim, “Don’t help me. I can do it myself.” Bach oratorios, chocolate ice cream, her dogs, friends, and Sundays were among her favorite things. If asked her life-mantra, she’d say, “To write. And to serve God.” Frances Sage described her as “a rather shy, friendly woman with intelligent eyes, warm, and interested in conversation.”

Though her speech halted and skipped, her brain was sharp and she did not avoid poetry readings. With her typical, healthy sense of humor she described this in “Introduction to a Poetry Reading”:

I was born with my mod dress sewn onto my body,
stitched to my flesh,
basted to my bones.
I could never, somehow, take it all off
to wash the radical dirt out.
I even carry my own rock
hard in my mouth,
grinding it out bit by bit,
So, bear me
as I bear you.
high, in the grace of greeting

She was who she was largely due to her parents. Her bookish Dad lugged home his typewriter from work for Vassar to play with, and criticized her early, trite poetry. Her stepmom encouraged her to read and write; both parents took on her education at home until she entered junior high. After receiving B.S. and M.A. degrees from UH, Miller accomplished more than most able-bodied people. She published nine volumes of poetry, edited a literary anthology (Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems), was included in numerous periodicals, selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (1961), named the poet laureate of Texas (1988; alternate in 1982), and inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame (1996).

She was admired by such peers as Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, Miller Williams, and most famously, Larry McMurtry. He hadn’t the greatest opinion of Texas writers (in 1981), but he singled out Vassar Miller as an exception, “That she is to this day little known, read, or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture.” Even so, at age 74, she died virtually unknown (though there is a Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry). There might be a few clues to this mystery.

She had decided to live in Houston, outside the mainstream of poetry in New York. A woman of unflinching faith, she dipped her lame feet in two churches: St. Stephen’s Episcopal in the morning for the rituals of liturgy; Covenant Baptist in the afternoon for the music and diversified congregation. She often wrote in traditional forms, bucking against the popular poetry of her day – the Beats and Confessional poets – though her words were of common, American language. She unabashedly used themes that disturbed many – suffering, isolation, the silence of God, the naked self, the ineffable, and self-acceptance of her life’s constraints.

Regardless, Miller’s timeless, poetic voice upholds her reputation to this day. The core of her vision was that complex, unsentimental faith, with nods to the mystics, John Donne’s anguish, and George Herbert’s fervor. At times there’s a similarity to Flannery O’Connor as well. Both women were straight-shooters, right from the hip. They never apologized for their beliefs and often confounded their faithful brethren. Their respective afflictions were not the impetus to write, though I think it toughened them into sages. Whatever was in their mind’s eye is what you get. And as Levertov said, Miller did not care if her peers were listening. She rarely read her contemporaries. She believed that poets write to their deepest selves. Miller has also been deemed the Emily Dickinson of the 20th century, for her sources were personal and domestic, scenes of her solitude and feelings. Whether she recalls another writer to mind or not, she was in fact a living paradox: a successful, modern religious poet. “Without Ceremony” is just one poem of many that sums up her identity:

Except ourselves, we have no other prayer;
Our needs are sores upon our nakedness.
We do not have to name them; we are here.
And You who can make eyes can see no less.
We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,
A posture humbler far and more downcast;
While Father Pain instructs us in the arts
Of praying, hunger is the worthiest fast.
We find ourselves where tongues cannot wage war
On silence (farther, mystics never flew)
But on the common wings of what we are,
Borne on the wings of what we bear, toward You,
Oh Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves,
When we have not a prayer except ourselves

In my reading of Vassar Miller, a few critics felt she was a Texas poet, though not a poet of Texas; they could not find the geography in her work. As I’ve lived in Houston most of my 33 years, I must respectfully disagree. I’ve listened to the droning sing-songs of cicadas all summer, thinking of this elegant lady. Cicadas, hurricanes, endless summers of heavy heat, and drab, snowless Januaries appear in her poems quite often:

Unwinding the spool of the morning, / the cicada spins his green song,
(“Invocation” from Onions and Roses)

Hurricane, hurricane, / blow me away,
(“Invocation” from If I Had Wheels or Love)

. . . the cicadas’ antiphonal choirs / one memory’s and one desire’s . . .
caught in the yellow honey of the heat
(“High Noon”)

Even if a sense of place is not a prominent theme in Miller’s work, these glimpses of the Gulf Coast make me swell with Texan pride, proof-positive that her genius resided in my city. I’ve just about raised Vassar Miller to heroine status, among a select few: Mother Teresa, Flannery O’Connor, Billie, a local nursing home resident, my mom, my aunts, and my grandmothers. Each of these women looked head on in the face of suffering and survived. They not only survived, but extended their hands to anyone within reach. Intentionally or not, they impress on my frail heart how to persevere, smile, and even laugh when darkness settles in; they teach how to look beyond pain to service. My paternal grandmother did all of this and then some. When I was too young to philosophize, she taught me an invaluable lesson. As Parkinson’s Disease ravaged her nervous system, I witnessed that the disabled are not defined by handicap. As a child I didn’t know the term “Parkinson’s.” I knew “Memaw.” My grandmother and her soft, radiant smile whenever I walked in the room. In adulthood, this is how I vividly remember her.

Through her quiet, humble, successful life, Vassar Miller teaches us to see the physically handicapped in just this way. Not a twisted body, but a human being. To not gawk, stare, or point. Look into the eyes of every person – medical jargon is not their name. Do not fear or pity a bent spine, a shiver of tremors; be patient with a stuttering tongue. Love our neighbors with an artist’s eye, with imagination, for there is surely more than meets a healthy eye. Have courage; you might be surprised to find beauty within illness, perhaps more than you can bear. A broken body it may be, but a glimpse of restoration shimmers below; a reminder that the Fall is not forever.

In the introduction to Despite This Flesh, Miller speaks directly to the handicapped: your greatest crutch is to be ashamed in light of society’s erroneous opinion. Remember the Body from which you come. Whether they’ve learned so or not, our culture desperately needs each foot, hand, ear, eye, nose, body. One arm may be lame, but in another time, it will be whole. And to writers: you have a special eye – you see what some cannot. Poets: your eye is especially free from prejudice, or so it should be. Hold your mirror to what is truthful. The race does not always belong to the swift.

Obviously, Vassar Miller’s poetic sensibilities and her faith cannot be ignored. She stated them as her connecting vision of life, “Liturgy has always seemed to me the poetry of worship, humanity’s poor best for the infinite. Formal language and syntax have always been my personal struggle for order in what has often seemed my disorderly world.” In a very real sense, religion and poetry were, to some degree, her stay against shadows and madness, part of her trinitarian view of poetry: it is sanctifying, creative, and redemptive. Sanctifying in that poetry bestows order on erratic emotions and events. Creative in that it gives shape, makes a relic, where only a mass of thoughts and sensations were before. Redemptive in that a poem makes art from cast-off words, giving them value.

Vassar Miller was well-versed in theology, and she probably knew quite a lot about St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians wherein he stated, “we are His workmanship.” Miller’s life being immersed in words, I bet she knew that in the Greek, workmanship is “poiema.” Human beings are God’s poems. If I may further speculate, I’d say that’s why she championed the handicapped. Despite cerebral palsy, she knew that in her Maker’s eye, she was crafted well. Her body was out of order, but her soul held rhyme and reason.

Some of my best teachers are writers. And to my (selfish) benefit, they leave behind lessons I can turn to again and again. Vassar Miller teaches me to not cater to whim or sensation; write and live what is true and timeless to humanity; have tenacity in the face of suffering. Keep speaking toward the silence of God. And believe it or not, for all the beauty and groaning of sunshine, autumn leaves, sparrows, gardenias, or sheltering clouds, it is you and I – our bodies broken to some degree, our tongue a dangerous thing – who have memory, sin, suffering, and something to look forward to, even now:

The sun has no history.
Only I, bearing
my Adam and Eve on my back,
dragged under, dragged down, may leap
up to the saddle of hope
(from “The Sun Has No History”)

For Further Reading:

If I Had Wheels or Love: Collected Poems of Vassar Miller

Heart’s Invention: On the Poetry of Vassar Miller (Steven Ford Brown, ed.)

Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems (Vassar Miller, ed.)

A Genius Obscured” (published in Sojourners)

Three Sanctuaries

Give or take a few years, when I was too young to recall my surroundings in North Texas or when I lived in Austin during college, Houston is all I’ve ever known. I call it home. I’ve grown accustomed to frenetic city life which seems to buzz 24-7, the concrete arteries of interstate, all too often clogged with cars wasting precious, overpriced gasoline, and the heat, dear God, the heat. The humidity is not for the faint of heart, because you will drip with sweat (or as a Southern lady might prefer, “glisten”). Something inside me bonds with the fast pace and bountiful resources at my fingertips, though in a quest for sanity, I seek out havens of quiet. One such place is the Menil campus, tucked into a neighborhood of bungalows and shady oak trees.

My regular pilgrimage is devoted to the main hub, The Menil Collection, and two satellite structures – the Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. I’m drawn there not just to escape the chaos of urban life, but also the racket of my soul. Stepping foot into any of the three buildings hushes my spirit and cleanses my psyche. As a Christian, I am drawn to the two chapels within walking distance of each other, as well as the Byzantine icons housed in the elegant Menil Collection: religious art particularly dear to Dominique de Menil.

John and Dominique de Menil and their five children have been compared to the Medicis of Italy. One could say that what the Medicis did for the Renaissance, the de Menils did for modernism in Texas, though if you could travel through time and share this comparison with the couple at their wedding in 1931, they might have scoffed at the grandiose idea. John worked in a Paris bank with a normal income, and seven years later he joined Dominique’s family oil well-logging business, Schlumberger, Ltd.. John and Dominique fled France as the Nazis invaded, and they landed in Houston, TX. The city was never to be the same. They built a modernist, flat-roofed house amidst white columned-mansions in River Oaks, championed civil rights in a city still imprisoned by segregation, and of course, collected modern art considered to be peculiar, to say the least.

The de Menils were Catholic, yet ecumenical, and they found a mentor in Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a French Dominican priest who was an artist himself. He was instrumental in uniting the work of Matisse, Rouault, and Leger with churches in France. Father Couturier took the couple around to numerous art galleries in New York, teaching them his love for modern art. He not only infected them with his passion, but also opened their eyes to the beauty of Cubism, to the work of Mondrian, and other types of art that previously seemed foreign to their eyes. And as John de Menil said in a lecture at the University of St. Thomas in 1964, “We were very fortunate because those times were extraordinary times for collecting. First the great masters, the Cubists, Picasso, Braque, Gris, were still available at reasonable prices. The Surrealists cost practically nothing. And on top of that African art was coming on the market.”

All of this good fortune resulted in one of the most impressive private collections in existence. John and Dominique always planned to share their finds in a museum, and after John’s death, his wife birthed their dream by christening the Menil in 1987. Though John might have preferred great architecture, Dominique aimed for a functional space, one that appears larger and more luminous than its unassuming, simplistic exterior. I must say, her idea works. Whenever I walk towards the austere building, I’m struck anew by the genius of its placement in a cozy neighborhood where people live, the true life of a city. The idea of sanctuary comes alive between the quiet streets. I’m soothed under the shade of old, twisting oak trees. I take refuge from the sweltering Texas sun by snagging a bench under the high, undulating awnings outside, or by opening a tall glass door to the Menil itself, flowing with cool air and natural light filtered by means of louvers, skylights, and massive windows.

Inside, the de Menils’ eclectic collection hangs at eye level, spaced at comfortable distances on wide white walls. Very little text is near each piece, allowing the art to speak. As modernists, John and Dominique believed in a spiritual connection between art of all cultures and times, and they believed in erasing those borders. As I walk from room to room, I see this very clearly in the diversity: Greek and Roman cultures, medieval and Byzantine work, indigenous art of Africa and Oceania, modern and contemporary art (including Ernst, Magritte, Leger, Matisse, Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Warhol), and current rotating exhibits. To my eye at least, I begin to see a common thread in the eclecticism – both the creators’ and collectors’ search to see beyond what we can see, past ourselves, into the beautiful, in order to discover what is truthful, what is good, what is everlasting; when before our eyes, what is tangible seemingly crumbles.

The Menil Collection was not the first project to bear the de Menils’ influence. Inspired by the fusing of modern art and spirituality in Mattise’s Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, they commissioned a chapel adorned with somber paintings by Mark Rothko and architecture by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. The Rothko Chapel opened to the public in 1971 when John was still alive, literally “open to all” in its nondenominationality, honoring the de Menils’ egalitarian beliefs and their desire to provide a sacred space for the city of Houston.

I’ve walked the sidewalk from the Menil to the Rothko Chapel many a time, always feeling like I’m taking a trek into mystery. I arrive at a modest brick building facing a pool of water in which Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk sculpture presides. The steel structure was placed there in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to symbolize the de Menils’ passion for civil rights; the love of God and neighbor cannot be separated from justice. The obelisk’s stare prepares me for the stillness inside the Rothko Chapel. Fourteen large canvases, including three triptychs, loom around the octagonal room. The paintings emanate hues of black, brown, deep maroon, and plum, framed only by the gray walls and lit only by a single aperture of natural light above. Crude benches face each other in the framework of a square. Though I feel the rhythm of the geometrical beauty, my impression is also one of emptiness; a space waiting to be filled. This void serves its ecumenical purpose, allowing each person to bring in what he or she may. It isn’t my personal belief of worship, yet I do think the Rothko Chapel is a rightful sanctuary from the cacophony of life. We are saturated with moving pictures, flashing lights, and noisome information on nearly every communication medium we see or hear. That is why a chapel of stillness with meditative modern art beckons me to step inside a place where I can slow down, sit, drink in beauty, and hear my own thoughts. At the opening of the Rothko Chapel, Dominique de Menil made an interesting observation as well, likening the art’s hushed tones to the voice of God as heard by Elijah – not in the heavy wind, not in the fire, but in a small whisper.

The final destination of my pilgrimage to a trinity of sanctuaries is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum which opened in 1997. Dominique happened upon two 13th-century frescoes stolen from a votive chapel in Cyprus, and cut into 38 pieces. She salvifically rescued the shards, paid for their restoration, and asked her architect-son, Francois de Menil, to design a building “to restore the sacred fragments to their original spiritual function.” He was a novice architect at the time, but he created one of the most dazzling sites I’ve ever seen.

Like the Menil campus in its entirety, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel’s exterior is restrained – simple blocks of concrete. As the door closes behind me, my eyes adjust to the dim light, quite a contrast from bold Texan sunshine. I walk across the narrow vestibule tower, gently illuminated by the light monitor above. Within a few more steps, I see the glass and steel chapel structure housed first under concrete, then a hovering black metal liner, more specifically named an “infinity box” by Dominique. The freestanding chapel appears to be billowing white glass, an abstract re-creation of the original Byzantine chapel in size and scale, only pulled apart – like a paused explosion. This visual effect symbolizes how the frescoes were ripped from their original home. The box within a box structure, and the rescued sacred art evokes a reliquary – profound, since the two frescoes were originally part of an entire living liturgy on the walls and floor of the Cyprus chapel.

Underneath the opaque glass, a large Christ Pantokrator fresco hangs directly above in the dome, and a Virgin and Archangels fresco rests in the apse, exactly where they resided in the Cyprus chapel. These icons are the only source of color in the building, but they provide ample warmth with rich tones of royal blue, mustard, and brick red. A small golden cross sits on the altar. Where the Rothko Chapel seems empty, the Byzantine Chapel is filled with images. Even the benches present a different idea – most face the altar, the others placed near the front on each side, creating a cruciform shape. The last time I visited, I sat on a forward-facing bench and thought I could remain there all day. I realized that the frescoes do for visitors what they did for Byzantine parishioners – teach what is alive in the cosmos beyond mere visibility. An older man walked in, knelt at the altar, and crossed himself: a very moving sight. I imagine Houstonians and world travelers alike are grateful for this welcoming, devotional place.

Friends arrive in Houston and ask me, “What should I do while here?” I’m pretty infamous for directing them to the Menil neighborhood, to these three shelters of art and spirit. Houstonians are proud to claim these renowned buildings, but we are also eager to share. We’re inspired by the generous souls of John and Dominique de Menil and lessons they left behind for anyone who will listen. Even now, they teach us to be enchanted by the sanctity of art, to embrace a variety of work – catholic, if you will – to share with one another, welcome the stranger, beautify our surroundings, behold what is lovely, and seek for the truth. The word “sanctuary” means different things to different folks. To the Greeks, sanctuary was a plot of land deemed a sacred zone. For Christians, sanctuary is the space of a church focused near the altar. Broadly, sanctuary is refuge from the wind-whipping deserts of our lives, shelter from whatever storm may shake us. A place to retreat and give us strength to get back out there. Every city could benefit from two such saints as the de Menils and the sanctuaries that bear their vision.

For further reading, check out Sanctuary: The Spirit In/Of Architecture, edited by Kim Shkapich and Susan de Menil and published by the Byzantine Fresco Foundation.