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On the Steps of a Midnight Church: for Jasminne Mendez

Dear Jasminne,

I’ve been thinking of you since you returned from your trip to the Dominican Republic, and about silence and poetry and the act of writing, and about what others think you should and should not be. And I’ve been thinking of the other day, when you tweeted to me to send you “something beautiful to read. Not trauma not death not grief not loss. Beautiful.” And so I did: “spring song” by Lucille Clifton.

the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible


I’ve always loved this poem, though someone once asked me, doesn’t this conflict with your beliefs as a Jew?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about contradictions, or rather what others perceive as contradictions, or really, the many dimensions that one actually is.

Recently, a poet admonished me for writing about both “God and G-Dragon.” She didn’t like that one moment I was talking about “rams and the Binding of Isaac” and then how suddenly, tumbling forth from my mouth, the same mouth, was G-Dragon appearing in a Chanel show in Paris. She just didn’t like that I knew G-Dragon was a close friend of Karl Lagerfeld, the latter for whom I also wrote a poem. That it seems I wasn’t so “enlightened” as I “put out,” when I was writing about “this other kind of stuff.” As if maintaining a strict, cleansed image would prove my devoutness, my serious intentions as a writer she’d like to know and have as a friend. She tried to unravel me in terse, academic language, and when I couldn’t think of a single thing to say, she then turned away from me. I’m not being metaphorical. She turned her body away, and she turned away her gaze. She and I were never the same after that.

Because I’d let her down.

Because I didn’t fit whatever image she’d drawn of mefor mewhich certainly did not include G-Dragon’s “Crooked,” a song which has brought me back many times from whatever edge I’m wavering. As Nick over at The Bias List writes, “Crooked” is the kind of legendary song that:

Musically. . . paints a picture of running through a frenzied city, of escape through endless action. It all culminates in that final, breakneck chorus where everything crashes down and the song collapses into darkness. It’s at once heartbreaking and liberating, and you kind of feel like you need a rest when it’s all over.

It’s this song—along with his band Big Bang’s “Blue” and the more recent “Sober,” just to name a few—that have gotten me through crisis of faith, through health issues, through simply long, bad days anyone can have. And I’m not about to give any of these things up—as should no one, even if what we love the most doesn’t fit another’s perceptions of what one should or should not find most beautiful.

And of course it’s not just “God and G-Dragon” that fill my days.

And I’ve wanted to tell you that when you asked me for something beautiful, I thought of your own poem “Counting Beads.”

I’ve never heard you read it aloud.

That I’ve yet to hear you read it means, as Clifton says, “the future is possible.”

Because it’s just that.

A beautiful poem, though one I’m not sure is free of “trauma not death not grief not loss.”

Shall we begin, say, outside a church?


My name is an amen
at funerals
for weeping women
in the belly of starving children
twisted in the palms
of priests & nuns
choked by knuckles
sweaty against the pulse of a chest
the heat of sin
singes fingertips 

Counting Beads,” Jasminne Mendez

There are still those late nights in which I make spontaneous pilgrimage, both in summer sweat and unshoveled snowy corners of Queens roads to the Church of Saint Teresa, to sit on the steps of the church with my husband Brian, to pray for ones in need. I believe I’ve told you Brian was raised Buddhist and now identifies as “mostly” an atheist, and yet, with the finely-carved stone statues of Jesus and Mary nearby in the church’s gardens, backlit with lights, Brian listens while I pray to God, my God of a Jewish faith.

It has occurred to me that in my near-decade search for a synagogue, I’m more at home in prayer there in the open air, at the steps of this midnight church, its doors closed, its chapel quiet, my prayers’ end of amen drifting down toward a cemetery across a nearby highway.

I’ve never been inside the church, but when I pass by it, day or night, I feel one step closer to what can manifest and flourish in the unlatching and unlocking a house and its gates of prayer.

I’m talking about letting the amen escape.

I’m talking about not holding the beautiful too dear.

And there on the partially lit, unsleeping streets of my neighborhood—in which there is always someone awake on a stoop or stepping into a bodega or doing laundry at a 24-hour washateria—I’ve seen a woman lay midnight roses on the same midnight steps of this midnight church, not too far from where Brian and I sit, and leave without a word. The roses unwrapped and scattered, the dim lamplight falling everywhere except on her face, and I’ve wanted to tell you that this woman reminds me of your poem “Counting Beads,” and that I think of her often, and how many times have I passed her by in the day and seen her face which that night could not be seen?

And I wanted to tell you that there were a few daysa few days after I miscarried and before I told youthat I avoided turning on the lights in our apartment. I tried to do everything in the dark, which was impossible, so instead, I would hide my face from the light.

The beautiful thing was not that the day I looked straight into a raw sunshine on a bitterly frigid day and felt only the cold, the skin-cracking, wonderful cold, on my face.

Nor was it when I looked into the mirror again in the numerous fluorescent, unforgiving lights of public bathrooms all over the city that would wake anyone out of their stupor.

The most beautiful thing was that my husband did not interrupt the days of darkness I needed, did not try to bring my face back into the light. That he walked with me senselessly into the coldand well past midnightto the icy steps of our midnight church and stood with me in silence. Because I, for a rare few days, was without words—by which I mean my own private words, my own private self.  And without words, I was in a strange place of blankness, the emptiest of empty, as if coursing out of me was everything, even my struggles, even my trauma, death, grief, and loss.

Because, without words, I wasn’t thereanywhereanymore.

And I turned my face away until.

And I turned my face away until—

And sometimes there’s no amen but for—

“The taste of my name’s holy spirit,” as you write in “Counting Beads,” which “blesses gums like a mouthful of glass ground to dust.”

And perhaps one day, when I’m ready, I too will leave midnight roses on the same midnight steps in honor and in memory of those days.

And perhaps one day we will do this together, for those we lost who made us rupture and burst forth, if not in wholeness.

Because we are alive enough to have days with and without amen.

Because we always come back, my dear friend, albeit with confounding and unpredictable amens.