Matthew 3:1-12 (idiomatic translation)

In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea. He said: Repent with a heart desirous of Holy, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

The prophets had seen John in visions. A long time ago Isaiah spoke of a voice crying out in the desert, telling us to prepare a path for the Lord and helping us build it. John was wild and wiry and driven. He had clear, bright eyes that searched the landscape; he was a seeker. His clothes were coarse camel hair tied with uncut leather; he survived on locusts, wild honey.

At that time Jerusalem, all of Judea, the whole region around the Jordan River traveled to John to be baptized by him in the water. They had honest and vulnerable hearts that admitted to sin; in the waters of the Jordan John would support them through a ceremony of rebirth in the Lord.

But John would judge the hearts of those who came to him. He was under obligation to meet the standards of the Lord made flesh, who had not yet been born. Hypocrites came to John at the river and he said to them: show me the good fruit of your lives that you consider yourselves worthy men. I know you; you are devious and secretive and trying to get away with a privilege you do nothing to earn. You rely too much on your legacy as sons of Abraham, you do no bright work in your own lives.

John said: I tell you. God can make anyone holy, he can raise up children to Abraham from stones. But there is an axe now in the world at the root of every tree, and those that bear no good fruit will be cut down for kindling.

John said: look. I baptize you with water, to repair you of sins. But there is one coming with more power than I, who will baptize you in fire and in the Holy Spirit. I am unworthy even as his servant. He will make a harvest of the world, he will clear the threshing floor and gather wheat to his barn made of light, and the dead casings of seeds he will discard into darkness.


Today I didn't even have to use my AK; I got to say it was a good day.


Let’s leave our world for a little, let’s leave breaking news from Syria. Let’s talk about Colette-- let’s talk about her, because, it’s impossible to take her in and not want to have a conversation. I was struck by it the other day, sending a passage from Earthly Paradise (her collected personal writings, always on my nightstand as it serves the dual purpose of bedtime story and holy book) to a friend in which she writes, “But I did have the habit-- and still have-- of marveling.” It felt generous of Colette to remind me of her talent and identity. A woman, an artist of great and feminine majesty.

There’s a documentary of her, in her last years, being interviewed in the Paris apartment where she famously retired overlooking the Palais Royal. I’ve seen a clip of it. Colette is a mountain of a woman with delicate features and a soft, large shock of white hair that recollects the court of Marie Antoinette at Versailles. A large silk pillow pushes her forward in the generous armchair; her companion (is it Cocteau?) sits perfectly forward in an upright side chair just out of frame but Colette, in her dressing gown, is suggestive as always of being in bed. The gentleman pours her coffee and they discuss with slight, deep pleasure the activity of children in the bright park outside. Colette receives her cup and cream and navigates her sugar and mail with the deft and delicate movements of a hostess and a dancer. As she is, as she was born. There is a muscle memory in her of a woman who has handled affectionate cats and luxurious dresses and the faces of cruel or pliant men like a jeweler, all her life.

The subtitles are as inadequate as they are unimportant. But they tell us, the man speaking first: “Many letters?” “Quite enough.” “About the post, what about the film they want to make? The one about you. What d’you think?” ”That I’m no longer photogenic,” Colette says, pouting, and lifts her arms to the height of her heart, protectively. Shoulder up to hide her head behind an imaginary fur piece, a bouquet of violets that don’t exist. A pout, flirt! At her age! A French woman. More than Brassai or Atget, more than Balzac or Rodin or Renoir, Colette allowed me, all the way in America, all the way in a different millennium, to understand the concept of a French woman. A costless, sensual existence punctuated with sharp and expensive accessories. A life executed in pleasure.

I remember having that lesson confirmed by a Frederick Wiseman documentary on the Paris Opera Ballet a few years ago. Three hours of footage with the whole soft machine: the dressmakers, the dancers and teachers, the men who vacuum the floors. All of them shown to live lives that hold the sensory at a level just above the sensible. In Paris, I think, they have a habit of getting their groceries fresh every day. No need for the deep freeze or the vending machine-- food is processed in the body, not the factory. There is pride in the autonomy of it, and a satisfaction in the beauty it brings. Americans who stop short in their understanding of it often call it smug.

Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, wrote in his essay on Miniature: “Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” I understand this, the value of it, in the way I consume and record the world. I grew up learning from poetry, which, at one of its more manageable bests is a moment that implies an entire existence, the world through the keyhole. But Colette is not looking through the keyhole. She is throwing wide the door and letting the summer air wash over her bedspread. Colette is receiving visitors in her dark apartments, Colette is pregnant and prone to naps at all hours of the day. Colette is young and ill in Paris, married to a man who takes advantage of her talent and beauty, and her mother is coming in from the country to buy her a warm winter coat. Colette is spending her only money on cups of warm chocolate infused with lavender, and cherished by people of influence who care for her. Colette is devoted to that which captures her attention; she is recklessly alive in the world.

She taught me how to revel in regret at the loss of beauty that age brings, and how to accept a compliment from a man. When Jack and I visit my older friends Arthur and Barbara for the holidays the other week I am dressed for a party; it is one of the first cold days of winter and Barbara tells the two of us we look like a Russian couple. So it's easy to laugh right away while we unwrap ourselves from the coats and hats, and then there's cold cider in champagne flutes for toasting. We sit at their table and talk about decisions I have to make and the perspective I’ve lost in my worries, and Arthur tells me, “No one who walks in a room looking like you did today has to worry about anything.” I know the beauty of how I accept it from Colette, the shy instinctive shoulder raise. My friend sees it, sitting next to me. He can’t stop staring.

Colette loved the attention and relished in playfully turning away from it. Because the raised shoulder is a gesture of protection, but a reveal of the shoulder as well. The strong, naked lines of it. A diaphanous veneer of modesty over a true and stunning soul. In Colette-- in her writing and her existence-- every movement is calculated, but careless. It is remarkably easy to stumble into it and fall down someplace soft and fragrant. She is a pleasure to read and to know.



The sound of my foot as it snapped at the flank
was viscous and crystallized at the edges,
quilted, like cracking your knuckles under water.

The school bell contracted the calm of the hallway.
I startled up from the glazed desk surface,
breathing wrinkles sweated in my starched oxford,
and, Quick, I took a scissor-kick to the floor.

The neon-lit nurse’s office had goldenrod paint on the walls.
He knotted me a bag of ice cubes that bloated to water.
The swelled side of my foot was pulsing out warm,
pushed out to a rounded form. I limped to my car in the school lot.

It almost rained outside, again.
The sidewalk blocks framed clots of wet, brown leaves,
and the gravel, soaked, would cavity beneath me in a light-drained


We watch the Baltimore dusk detonate to a torn, blunted red.
Pressed for infection, it bloodlets tonight into storming.
Look: the whole night inhales, clots with gauzy clouds,
and the sky hinges forward.
Hands that press down on the back of my neck.

And I sense the vault of the firmament
arcing wide as a sheet hovered over the bed
falling, as sheets do.  Depleted and slow.

We are lying outside: sunburnt and aching.
Each of us sucks strong gasps of atmosphere,
these wisps of insulate air that graze and abandon our heads,
and still. We get nothing to breathe.

Sir Simon Rattle Conducts the Berlin Philharmonic

Last night I saw Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Berlin Philharmonic through Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies at Carnegie Hall. I had to wait on line for four hours starting at 7 am to get standby tickets, and it was completely worth it.

I love going to watch the orchestra because each time I realize I pay attention to a different element of the performance, and it always brings more to my experience of listening to the music at home. Sir Simon Rattle captivated me right away: he is a dancer. And a priest. And a knight— a real one!

The way he conducts: it's like he is climbing a rope ladder. And dancing late at night with his bride in a cafe. And saving a child from falling into a ravine. And riding a horse. And embroidering a pillowslip. And accusing someone of guilt in a court of law. And conjuring polytheistic gods! So transparent and still, so subtle: the orchestra understands him exactly. And offers, and waits. Between the first two movements of the Third Symphony, he held the silence for such a long time… a minute at least, until the entire auditorium was quiet and the orchestra still. The control, the humility.

As wonderful as it is to listen to something as flirtatious, effusive and full as Brahms' Fourth Symphony, for me it’s also a frustrating experience: the music is so immediate. You will never be able to reach inside the moment of it and hold it step by step. But Sir Simon has found a way: command through gesture and movement the artists who make the sound.


And at the end of the performance, instead of only gesturing to the soloists like some conductors will, he walked over to them: kissed them, held their hands in his hands. Moving through the field of the musicians as though he was walking through a garden. It was one of the most beautiful and gracious displays of intelligent power I have ever seen.