I Have Jesus’s Rookie Card

IMG_7786.JPGThe question and answer session was conducted in Polish by an impossibly young priest.

The quiz was not for us; we were only tourists watching the show (and surreptitiously taking photos of the exchange). But we were still nervous.

  • The last time you attended church was?
  • The reason you are giving your donation to the church is?
  • The eldest child is not present this evening; is she part of a parish in her college’s town?

We nearly cheered when we realized we had the answers.

Even we understood the contribution will support improvements to the windows in the church, even we could describe how cold the sanctuary is, how the inside, in winter, is nearly as cold as the outside, how, despite all of the kneeling and rising, parishioners need parkas and gloves.

Even we had noticed, from the jam-packed back of the holiday crowd the Sunday before, the skinny altar boys wore puffy jackets beneath their ample robes.

The family presented the clergy “man” with cash, cake, and delight for his visit.

In turn, he offered us a blessing in the form of something that reminded us of a Topps trading card for Jesus.


This week in Creative Writing, the students are developing a dossier for a character.

Like a rookie card, the dossier showcases the protagonist’s strengths, statistics, and trivia.




Madonna and Child


This afternoon I was chatting with my friend F– about Black Jesus and the Black Madonna of Częstochowa (also known as Our Lady of Częstochowa). I described the sparkling and revered four-foot-high image of the Virgin Mary and Child  I visited at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Poland.

I was asking F– if she might be interested in a wooden, bejeweled, mini version as souvenir. And, she was delighted by the promise of Black Jesus and less enthusiastic about the paler version I also had to offer: a new babe in a diaper who appears to be newly plucked from the manger, in a crib with straw.


I told F– briefly of how the monastery was packed with pilgrims who’d traveled distances to be in the presence of this scintillating icon, to pray, and to be enlightened. I explained how a wall in the sanctuary displays crutches, braces, and other relics of grave injury and seems to promise cures and strength. I detailed how I dutifully carried a bouquet of yellow flowers from a woman with Parkinson’s in Dobra, how a young man in a cobalt coat placed the fragrant bunch on the altar before Mary. I shared how some say Mary is named for where she was found and for her virtues. The virtue of being Black.


Spending Christmas mass at a Catholic church in Dobra, Poland, emphasized that I am a foreigner and a sightseer. I was mostly spectating the hour-long service in pure Polish and then I drove to Częstochowa to visit with the Virgin and Child. And,  I felt, as I have so often in Oaxaca, that I am a wayfarer, a church tourist.

And, this reminded me of Dean Young’s “My Process” and the other ways we might be congregants.

My Process

by Dean Young

Sometimes it’s like pushing a wheelchair
of bones through the high-tide sand.
Like giving birth to an ostrich,
an ostrich with antlers that glows.
The sense there’s something wrong and
not giving a hoot like going to church
to see what you can steal. Experimental

Read the rest of the poem at: http://poems.com/poem.php?date=17198

Here is another poem on process: http://www.blueridgejournal.com/poems/aw-isaid.htm


Celebrating St. Carmen’s Birthday with an Awful Choir


I enter the church to what sounds like a tired monster karaoking to a song about God being before our eyes. It is a deep voice that, without the raspy, husky edge, could be warm.

The guy sending off the fireworks to get the tardy sinners to church peeks in the side door; despite hearing no pause in the singing, he elects to send off five more explosions into the dawn.

The hoarse voice instigates another song that goes something like Buenos Dias, paloma blanca/ Good morning, white dove. A younger voice joins in, a more human one, but this voice has problems with the micas he leads us in a round of Viva Carnens!

This is the worst choir I have ever heard. And I was in Mr. Tomlinsin’s choir when he told us we sounded like a truck with four flat tires flapping down the road.

The priest welcoming us is undeniably the creature whose exhausted voice drowns out the rest. I decide that maybe he’s just excited about being at the saint’s birthday celebration.

If I’m translating correctly, he just said that we can shout out requests for the choir, since it’s a day of celebration.

Next, there is an open mic session where people speak to Carmen. They ask for peace for the world and for Oaxaca and for all of the Oaxacans in these difficult times.

“Santa Maria” is the next song.

The sky outside is lightening from charcoal to the dense blue that surrounds the sun or accompanies a flickering flame.

A woman hangs a banner that says: Te Suplicamos Madre de la Misericordia/We supplicate to you, Mother of Mercy. It is crooked, and three people conspicuously struggle to rearrange it. It takes an Adrian Monk from the pews to get the job done.

A large dark butterfly flies in, capturing our attention not only because It is as large as a bat.

The swinging incense carrier makes the sound of drumsticks struck together. I wait patiently for this place to break into a flash mob. It does not. The sweet scent makes me hungry.

Creemos en ella y tambien confia en nosotros/We believe in her and she trusts in us. This is the heart of the sermon that resonates above the din of our stomachs which growl back at the choir as if it part of the morning’s call and response.


Some keep the Sabbath going to Church

–Emily Dickinson

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least —
I’m going, all along.


  • I am a foreigner to Spanish, in Oaxaca, and in the Catholic church. Most days the differences are magical and result in all sorts of learning and understanding and lingering wonder and delight. Approximately one thirtieth of the the time, being a foreigner is excruciating, practically unbearable. Drill into the ecstasy or misery–whichever is harder.

My Soul Turns into a Tree…

Miguel, the night watchman at the posada, invited me to his town. His directions were specific: which taxi to take, the name of the store to ask for his niece who’d be passing by about the same time I was to arrive. It was a flawless plan (in a small town). I doubt it would work back home.

The niece was sweet though she did not seem to be expecting me. She took me around the corner and down the path to her uncle’s place where I met three grandchildren, a niece and a nephew. (The niece and nephew looked as if they were characters from The Nightmare before Christmas.)

I was seated in a plastic chair outside the door to the house as Miguel cleaned up the remnants of a small fire. I was instructed to give the children English lessons to pass the time. This mostly consisted of them firing off any word that came into their minds. I was like a live Spanish/English dictionary just for them.

We went to the back yard to meet the other dog (there were two). This dog was tied under a tree because he could not be trusted with the half dozen chickens that wandered the yard.

The children climbed an abandoned automobile to fetch pomegranates and limes from the trees until the rain came and we took cover in a small work area with a hammock.

Meanwhile Miguel’s wife, Linda, was making beans and eggs and noodle soup, and cactus. I was finally welcome into the kitchen/dining area, but I was permitted no farther into the dark house. We ate a filling meal and then were off on foot(and one bicycle) to see the town.

Because of me, we became a parade for the townspeople. Some stopped us to ask questions and practice English. Two men in a van circled us four times (until Miguel mentioned their obvious actions). We were like a wreck and people wanted to see how awful the carnage was…

We were especially conspicuous as we went to the place where the rodeo was going to be held later in the day. (I would not stay for the rodeo as transportation home would be impossible, and, as far as I could tell, there was no hotel–only the covered hammock.) The cowboys stared at us as if we were cattle thieves.

We went to the church where we picked more fruit from the trees, some green oranges. They were more for play than for eating. My height was appreciated by the grandchildren who wanted more and more of the harvest.

Miguel, who had been inside a church office, returned to the tour guide role. He proudly showed me the tile he installed in the church, taught me about the town’s patron saint, Geronimo, and pointed out the candles he had purchased for the church as the town celebrated his daughter’s wedding. (Oswaldo was horrified that I did not cross myself as I entered the church; he had never met someone who was not Catholic; he wasn’t even sure if this was a real option.)

Next, we were off to see Miguel’s parents’ graves. We entered the beautiful cemetery that was green with weeds.

Miguel, slightly embarrassed by the obvious lack of maintenance, went into action as he had with cleaning up after the fire, enlisting me in weeding his mother’s side of the plot.

It was nearly 6:30PM, and even the grandchildren were tired out. They all headed home to rest before the big rodeo, and I, dirty hands and all, hopped into a collectivo taxi.

It is afternoons such as this one that I feel are the real Spanish tests. I not only arrived at a remote destination, but I was able to master most of the tasks along the way.

I wondered how to tell Miguel what a lovely day I had, so I also figured out how to use the Kodak machine at the grocery store and gave him some prints of the afternoon.

He was visibly moved to have them, but he said only: “My wife is very short.” I added, “and beautiful.” What more needed to be said?


–Herman Hesse, translated by Robert Bly, from News of the Universe, poems of twofold consciousness

Sometimes, when a bird cries out,

Or the wind sweeps through a tree,

Or a dog howls in a far off farm,

I hold still and listen for a long time.


My soul turns and goes back to the place

Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,

The bird and the howling wind

Were like me, and were my brothers.


My soul turns into a tree,

And an animal, and a cloud bank.

Then changed and odd it comes home

And asks me questions. What should I reply?

  • How much can/has one small journey transform your character?



When I worked graveyards at the gas station in the early 90s, the man who relieved me mornings, a radical Indian named Hawk, smoked this vanilla tobacco that perfumed his long hair; just a whiff at 7:30 am made my stomach roar.

How I hungered for sweetness!

Hawk left the gas station to teach at the Indian university, and no one needed to tell me it was time for me to find new work.

Similarly, when the incense ceases to flow from the temple of our Señora de Guadalupe, even the heathens know the show is over.


How to Get Closer to God: Stilts


It is Sunday morning and the sky is revving up its blue engine so that everyone in the neighborhood can’t miss it. Some people are in the church at Santo Domingo; some are relishing this start to the day under the palms. Others of us are strolling in these hours of stolen sunshine.

In a city that slows on Sundays, it is hard not to feel a little closer to some sort of spirituality–or at least reflection.

It is hard not to observe all of us (in our own small ways) reaching for something higher.

Sign on the Cathedral

on the cathedral

Translation: Our cathedral is the face of Oaxacans before visitors.

Do not use it as a restroom.

Do not convert it into a market.

Neither is it a field for sports.

The temple and the portico are sacred places.

Take care of them.

The result:

The clowns have moved their rollicking mockery to the pedestrain street, and the people selling balloons are now at the back of the cathedral.  The french fry vendors moved from where the balloon and bubble people are now.  But I still haven’t been able to find Constancia’s (Constancy’s) hamburger stand.  (The irony is not lost on me.)