Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Iceland Chronicles - Post 1

It's currently quarter til 11am in Reykjavik... quarter til 6am in the U.S. and I have not slept. So this post will likely be a bit short.

We're just back from visiting four banks in search of one that would cash my traveller's cheques. If you saw my WSJ post from the other day, you know that the three major banks in Iceland collapsed back in October/November. It occurred to me when I bought the traveller's cheques that perhaps these banks would not be interested in these bits of paper so much as they would real dollars, and it turns out I was right. They each flatly refused to cash them, which was a total surprise to Kris and to her father, who WORKS for one of those banks.

As it turns out, I finally cashed the cheques at a small bank whose name I've already forgotten (blame the lack of sleep), but whose logo is a four leaf clover. I knew we were good as soon as I saw that. 300 USD became a little over 36,000 krona. Kris says that 700 krona will buy me a glass of wine, and 10,000 will pay for one of the day tours we'll be taking later in the week. I guess that works out.

The sun started to lighten the sky with the first weak light of day about 10:15. It is about as bright as it's going to be at any point while I'm here, not much brighter than twilight. We're sitting just below the Artic Circle up here, so it's to be expected.

There's more to say, but it's likely rubbish. I'm getting excited over every little thing cuz it's all new. Headed to bed... watch this space for more later...

Monday, December 29, 2008

How to help folks in Gaza

I just got this info from my friend Corrie, who is based out of Cairo and works with non-profits in Egypt and the Middle East.

"Here's a way to help:

Medical Aid for Palestinians needs to provide surgical kits to Al Shifa hospital. To donate and further details see the link below.http://www.map-uk.org/regions/opt/gaza_diary/

And also:Send donations for Palestinian Red Crescent for surgical kits in Gaza, (this way the kits go straight to the hospitals and clinics, so there is no need for recipients to deal with either Hamas or Israeli import controls): http://www.palestinercs.org/User_Add_Donation.aspx"

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Your brother's blood cries from the ground

I am posting below, in their entirety, two entries from the Facebook profile of Safa Joudeh, a former GMU student who is on the ground in Gaza right now.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not likely to take the side of any political party. I'm on the side of the guy getting groceries or waiting for the bus who is blown to pieces due to a conflict in which he's unavoidably stuck in the middle... and I'm on the side of Safa, a young, very educated woman, who is bravely telling her story as long as the generators in her home keep the power going.

Regardless of your politics, please pray for Gaza. The people being killed are not soldiers. They're not Hamas. After this, they might be.

Day 1

"It was just before noon when I heard the first explosion. I rushed to my window, barely did I get there and look out when I was pushed back by the force and air pressure of another explosion. For a few moments I didn't understand, then I realized that Israeli promises of a wide-scale offensive against the Gaza Strip had materialized. Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzpi Livni's statements following a meeting with Egyptian President Hussni Mubarak the day before yesterday had not been empty threats after all.

What followed seems pretty much surreal at this point. Never had we imagined anything like this. It all happened so fast but the amount of death and destruction is inconceivable, even to me and I'm in the middle of it and a few hours have passed already passed.

6 locations were hit during the air raid on Gaza city. The images are probably not broadcasted in US media. There are piles and piles of bodies in the locations that were hit. As you look at them you can see that a few of the young men are still alive, someone lifts a hand here, and another raise his head there. They probably died within moments because their bodies are burned, most have lost limbs, some have their guts hanging out and they're all lying in pools of blood. Outside my home, (which is close to the 2 largest universities in Gaza) a missile fell on a large group of young men, university students, they'd been warned not to stand in groups, it makes them an easy target, but they were waiting for buses to take them home. 7 were killed, 4 students and 3 of our neighbors kids, young men who were from the same family (Rayes) and were best friends. As I'm writing this I can hear a funeral procession go by outside, I looked out the window a moment ago and it was the 3 Rayes boys, They spent all their time together when they were alive, they died together and now their sharing the same funeral together. Nothing could stop my 14 year old brother from rushing out to see the bodies of his friends laying in the street after they were killed. He hasn't spoken a word since.

What did Olmert mean when he stated that WE the people of Gaza weren't the enemy, that it was Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who were being targeted? Was that statement made to infuriate us out of out state of shock, to pacify any feelings of rage and revenge? To mock us?? Were the scores of children on their way home from school and who are now among the dead and the injured Hamas militants? A little further down my street about half an hour after the first strike 3 schoolgirls happened to be passing by one of the locations when a missile struck the Preventative Security Headquarters building. The girls bodies were torn into pieces and covered the street from one side to the other.

In all the locations people are going through the dead terrified of recognizing a family member among them. The streets are strewn with their bodies, their arms, legs, feet, some with shoes and some without. The city is in a state of alarm, panic and confusion, cell phones aren't working, hospitals and morgues are backed up and some of the dead are still lying in the streets with their families gathered around them, kissing their faces, holding on to them. Outside the destroyed buildings old men are kneeling on the floor weeping. Their slim hopes of finding their sons still alive vanished after taking one look at what had become of their office buildings.

And even after the dead are identified, doctors are having a hard time gathering the right body parts in order to hand them over to their families. The hospital hallways look like a slaughterhouse. It's truly worse than any horror movie you could ever imagine. The floor is filled with blood, the injured are propped up against the walls or laid down on the floor side by side with the dead. Doctors are working frantically and people with injuries that aren't life threatening are sent home. A relative of mine was injured by a flying piece of glass from her living room window, she had deep cut right down the middle of her face. She was sent home, too many people needed medical attention more urgently. Her husband, a dentist, took her to his clinic and sewed up her face using local anesthesia

200 people dead in today's air raid. That means 200 funeral processions, a few today, most of them tomorrow probably. To think that yesterday these families were worried about food and heat and electricity. At this point I think they -actually all of us- would gladly have Hamas sign off every last basic right we've been calling for the last few months forever if it could have stopped this from ever having happened.

The bombing was very close to my home. Most of my extended family live in the area. My family is ok, but 2 of my uncles' homes were damaged,

We can rest easy, Gazans can mourn tonight. Israel is said to have promised not to wage any more air raids for now. People suspect that the next step will be targeted killings, which will inevitably means scores more of innocent bystanders whose fate has already been sealed.

This doesn't even begin to tell the story on any level. Just flashes of thing that happened today that are going through my head."

Day 2

"It's 1.30 am but it feels like the sun should be up already. For the past few hours there's been heavy aerial bombardment of Gaza city and the northern Gaza Strip simultaneously. It feels like the longest night of my life. In my area it started with the bombing of workshops (usually located in the ground floor of private/family residential buildings), garages and warehouses in one of the most highly condensed areas in Gaza city "Askoola". About an hour ago they bombed the Islamic university, destroying the laboratory building. As I mentioned in an earlier account, my home is close to the university. We heard the first explosion, the windows shook, the walls shook and my heart felt like it would literally jump out of my mouth. My parents, siblings and cousins who have been staying with us since their home was damaged the first day of the air raids, had been trying to get some sleep. We all rushed to the side of the house that was farthest. Hala, my 11 year old sister stood motionless and had to be dragged to the other room. I still have marks on my shoulder from when Aya, my 13 year old cousin held on to me during the next 4 explosions, each one as violent and heart stopping as the next. Looking out of the window moments later the night sky had turned to a dirty navy-gray from the smoke.

Israeli warships rocketed the Gazas only port only moments ago, 15 missiles exploded, destroying boats and parts of the ports. These are just initial reports over the radio. We don't know what the extent of the damage is. We do know that the fishing industry that thousands of families depend on either directly or indirectly didn't pose a threat on Israeli security The radio reporter started counting the explosions, I think he lost count after 6. At his moment we heard 3 more blasts. "I'm mostly scared of the whoosh", I told my sister, referring to the sound a missile makes before it hits. Those moments of wondering where its going to fall are agonizing. Once the whooshes and hits were over the radio reporter announced that the fish market (vacant of course) had been bombed.

We just heard that 4 sisters from the family of "Ba'lousha" have been killed in an attack that targeted the mosque my their home in the northern Gaza Strip.

You know what bothers me more than the bangs and the blasts, the smoke, the ambulance sirens and the whooshs? The constant, ominous, maddening droning sound of the Apaches overhead that’s been buzzing in my head day and night. It's like I'm hearing things, which I'm not, but I am."

Feast of the Holy Family

Sooo, today is the Feast of the Holy Family... I think I have that correct, since this is the first Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. The intercessions from Morning Prayer today really resounded with me. I think they'd be a fantastic meditation for me throughout the coming year, so I thought I'd share them in case anyone else feels the same way.

Let us adore the Son of the living God, who became son in a human family.
Response: Lord Jesus, bless our families.

Jesus, eternal Word of the Father, You lived under the authority of Mary and Joseph. Teach us to walk the path of humility.
Response: Lord Jesus, bless our families.

Mary kept in her heart all that You said and did. May we learn in her example the spirit of contemplation.
Response: Lord Jesus, bless our families.

Christ, Yours was the strength that shaped the universe, yet You came to learn the tasks of a carpenter. Help us to see our work as a sharing in Yours.
Response: Lord Jesus, bless our families.

You advanced in wisdom and in favor with God and men. May we live to the full in You and build up Your body in faith and love.
Response: Lord Jesus, bless our families.

Amen.

Iceland's financial crisis

I'm headed to Iceland in... emmm... 2 days. This video is well worth a watch, not just because of what Iceland's going through, but what it says about dependence on debt in general.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Listening to Hester

To hear an audio version of this post, click the below link.
DS300083.WMA

When I was 14 years old, the summer after the 8th grade, my Dad told me that I needed to get out of my head, and he sent me to Friendship Manor, the nursing home, to volunteer for the summer. At that point, my parents didn’t know that I’d been depressed enough to make one small, feeble suicide attempt. My despair and ennui at that time weren’t sufficient to overcome my aversion to pain, so the slim cut across my wrist that I’d made with the razor blade didn’t draw anyone’s attention. It didn’t even leave a scar… but I knew, and I had come to be very frightened of the power of my own depression. So, I decided that my Dad was probably right. If I spent the entire summer indoors, as was my usual routine, I literally wasn’t sure I’d make it through alive.

For a depressed teenager, the thought of spending a summer working in a nursing home was excellent fodder for self-pity. I really enjoyed self-pity at that point, so I found a kind of reward in that as I trudged the half-hour to the nursing home. When I met with my supervisor, Loretta, I expected her to assign me to empty bedpans, or take out trash, perhaps wheel residents around in the hallways to look out windows onto views of parking lots or something like that. Perfect.

However, Loretta did something very different. I will never know why she entrusted this task to me, but she gave me the job of talking to new residents, and of making notes on any deterioration in their mood or mental state so that she could be aware of issues with adjustment to the nursing home and attend to problem cases. In other words, she gave me the job of listening to their stories, and of documenting what I heard. She couldn’t have picked a better job for me, a person who spent most of my spare time scrawling self-pitying poetry and songs into notebooks with worn edges and notepads advertising various industrial fastener and truck-driving companies for which my father had worked. If I knew anything, I knew about moods, and I knew how to write.

At first, I felt angry and even more depressed, walking into the rooms of complete strangers and trying to explain that I’d been sent there to see how they were doing. It was awkward, to say the least, although it suited my sense of irony, and served as confirmation that I was the Weirdest Adolescent in History. For their part, many of the residents didn’t seem to have much of a problem opening up to a 14 year old. If they did, I just thanked them and walked away, relieved not to have to listen to the tales of families that ignored them, of skin rashes and back pains and loneliness.

But I changed. I went to the nursing home three days a week, and Loretta set up a rotation of folks I was supposed to go and see according to their level of need. This meant that I was seeing some people almost every time I went there. I’ve forgotten most of their names, but I can still see their faces –

Mabel Cobb, the toothless, muppet-faced woman who sometimes smiled and sometimes cried when talking of her family --whose visits she forgot as soon as they left-- whose mood swings I found oddly comforting as depressed me tried to comfort her;

the 40-something woman with stumps for legs because of diabetes gone completely out of control, whose catheter bag smelled, but who was always polite to me, and talked as much as her energy would allow;

the steely-grey haired woman with the screaming roommate, who started out bright and sociable and deteriorated noticeably, about whom I wrote lengthy case notes for Loretta, practically begging her to move the woman out of that room;

the wheelchair bound African-American grandmother, whose half a room was a beautiful sanctuary covered with pictures of her family, who glowed with her peace, and who loved Jesus so strongly that I wondered if I could properly call myself a Christian.

But the one who impacted me the most was Hester. Hester was a gorgeous woman in her late 70s, with beautiful, shiny snow-white hair that framed her head like a crown; deep, Hershey-colored, brown eyes; and high, elegant cheekbones. Hester had had a stroke that left her incapable of movement on her left side, and was also totally incapable of speech. She lay almost entirely motionless in her bed, the frustration and intelligence shining out of her eyes. It was her eyes that grabbed me. Most of the residents had a slightly glazed expression that belied resignation to their state. Hester was probably the most helpless of any of the residents I saw, but when I looked into her eyes I saw a bright, powerful woman who was jailed within her own body, and not resigned to it in the least.

I truly looked forward to seeing her, so I went and saw her every time I was at the nursing home, whether Loretta told me to or not. As time passed, she also became visibly glad to see me. Her eyes brightened, and she grasped my hand tightly with her one good hand. I was really struck by both her beauty and her need to connect, to communicate and respond as much as her body would allow. She struggled so hard to talk to me, gumming incoherent syllables in a deep, throaty voice, aware that she wasn’t making much sense –so frustrated—and yet trying always. I listened, I nodded, I said “mm-hmm” a lot, and I tried to understand, narrating back what sounded like it was sort of speech, responding to her facial expressions, her occasional gestures with her good hand, and stroking her hand and her arm and eventually her gorgeous hair when she finally gave up and collapsed back into the pillow, tears of frustration gathering around the corners of her eyes.

One day, I walked into the room and greeted her, and she looked up, gathered her strength, and said “Amy” in a deep, tired voice. I looked up at her brother-in-law, Jim, who was visiting her, startled. “Did she just say my name??” I said. “Yes, she did!” he responded brightly, with a smile. I praised her, hugged her as best I could, and stared down at her, wondering how long she’d had to struggle in speech therapy to be able to form those two syllables. She smiled at me, and relaxed back into her pillow, tired from the effort and relieved that finally she had made some sense.

It suddenly hit me that I really meant something to her. It was a shock that yanked me out of myself, how the very small thing I was doing every day was so important to her, was love in a way, and that she was returning love. I can honestly say that I have been given very few gifts that required as much of a person as what Hester did in teaching her lips and tongue to say my name.

There is so much power in listening to, and just as much in telling, the stories that we have in our lives. In our consumer society, we are obsessed with the experts, the celebrities, the “successful” among us. We spend hours watching television and reading books and magazines that narrate the stories of those we will never meet, envying their lives, feeling ourselves pathetic in comparison. We have become immune to one another’s stories, forgetting the power of the experiences of those within our own community.

This is one of our hugest sicknesses: we have forgotten to value one another, to value the community among us, to hear each other, to understand that we are all “experts” in our personal experiences, in what lessons life has taught each of us. Television and print media have led us to believe that the shiny product marketed to us by the media conglomerates represents what we as a people experience and believe. But it’s not us. It really isn’t.

Us is what is in the room around us. Us is what happens between people daily. Us is the story of our common life, and it is more important than any fame that may happen as a result of anything we do.

Art is one way that we tell our common story, and this too is threatened by the consumer society. In this society, artists are taught that they should want to be famous. We feel we can’t survive without it. We feel that if our story, or our song or our painting don’t receive wide acclaim, then we are pointless. But art is communication… all art, (and story-telling is also an art) is meant to communicate something very important in a way that regular conversation just doesn’t, something we’d miss in the day to day grind if we didn’t listen to it in just this way.

Art, I have discovered, is best experienced in community. When you share what you have with people who have the context to understand what this is requiring of you, what you are giving in creating and communicating in this way, it makes it so much deeper for all involved. I think artists are actually meant to produce art for our own local community. Fame, if it comes, has some merits, mostly financial, but that’s never the point. If it becomes the point then we end up exalting really crappy art (I'm thinking of pop music and paperback novels here), and we become cynical about ourselves, about what we have to contribute. It all becomes a marketing game… and why should I even bother, I’ll never be as famous as (insert famous name here).

…which brings me back to my story. Hester died many years ago, but I will never forget her. I will never forget what that summer in the nursing home taught me about the value of simple presence in the life of another, the power of listening even when that person doesn’t make sense, the power of recognizing someone who is struggling deeply. I will never, ever, ever forget the gift of hearing my name spoken by a woman who had lost the ability to speak.

So I have an obligation now, the obligation to tell the story of what it means to be simply present to one another, to not to forget those who are suffering, to listen. Listening to Hester also means telling her story to those around me, telling the story of how I came out of that summer changed, pulled out of myself, and how I began to fight my depression, in part inspired by her. I never tried to kill myself again. I won’t say I never thought of it again, but I never tried. Witnessing the fight inside a woman who couldn’t move or walk or speak made my two legs, my voice, my mobility a precious gift not meant to be squandered.

But more than that, being recognized by her gave me, my very presence, value.

Share your story. We are meant to be blessings to one another, and to bear witness to the value of our common life. Listen to the stories of those around you, listen to the lessons that we all have for one another. Do not forget that every single one of us is precious, and that nothing we experience is without meaning. Don’t think that refusing to share your story is humility. It isn’t. It’s selfishness, a refusal to be open to others, a refusal to admit that we are connected to and truly need one another.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas

Love implies loss.
At some point, the object of one's love
will most certainly leave--
even if only in spirit--
and ultimately
will most definitely die.

When You were born
Your mother and father
did not suspect for a second
how You would die
or that You would return to life.

(and I'm sure that Your mother--
had she known--
would never have thought
You would not visit her
when You came back from death.)

Love implies loss.

We wait through Advent
for Christmas: for food,
and reunions, and rituals,
and then it is over.
We drive away, waving
wondering when we will
see each other again.

and 2,000 years ago,
Your disciples sat waiting
and watching the clouds
where they'd seen you last.
Every year we wait with them,
we sing "O Come, O Come"...

and every year Christmas passes
with all of us watching and waving
at the clouds
wondering when we will see You again.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Doppleganger

I've been hesitant to blog about this, since it's really sort of a mild oddity that I supposed only I would find interesting... but today I received the SECOND copy of Vogue magazine, correctly addressed, with my full name and address, including correct apartment number.

Anyone who knows me knows that a subscription to Vogue in my name could only be a form of mild psychological torture from someone who knows and dislikes me, an extremely misguided gift from someone who does not know me... or that someone with my exact name lived at my exact address... and forgot to cancel her subscription to that vapid, self-image destroying, insult-to-the-trees-that-died-so-it-could-be-published piece of glossy horse defecation. As completely impossible as this seems, I think it's the latter.

This would explain the mail from the sorority... the invite to a sorority ball, the envelope with a check in it reimbursing this woman with my name for her contribution to "that crazy party". The envelope with the check I tried in vain to return to the post office, only to have it returned to me. I can understand the confusion on the part of postal carrier. It's my name. It's my address. But it really really really ISN'T me.

Really.

This might also explain The Pajamas. Last year, at about this time, when I was living one floor down in the same building, I received a package from Victoria's Secret, addressed to me. I hadn't ordered anything from VS. Ever. I think of VS as that place people go if they need something very vixen-like. And, well, I don't... for so very many reasons that I won't detail here. So I open said package, and inside are the Most Aggressively Ugly pajamas I have ever seen. They are made of the fine waffle-patterned cloth that long underwear are made of, and they're made in the same style, only they are printed with HUGE black and white houndstooth print with baby pink trim. The pattern is so distracting and hideous that I'm pretty sure it could cause seizures in an epileptic. They also come with matching slippers, complete with baby pink bows.

I called Victoria's Secret, trying to find out if these were a gift from some very misguided individual. VS were apologetic, but couldn't give me any information about the person who ordered them. I was baffled. Something so hideously ugly could possibly be a subtle act of psychological torture on the part of someone who had a vendetta against me, but I honestly didn't know anyone who hated me enough to drop $50 just to f*** with my head a very little bit.

But they might have been for Her... the woman with my name who, even then, may have been living just upstairs from me, wondering where the hell her darling houndstooth Vicky's Secret pjs had got to. I may even have seen her, said hi to her, opened the door for her or asked if I could help with her groceries. Or I may have decided that she looked mean and ignored her most of the time.

As if that wasn't weird enough, there's more. My friend Ryan Walker, frontman for The Beanstalk Library, told me this summer that there is a girl living next door to him with my same first and last name. Ryan lives two streets over from me. I happened to bump into my postal carrier a couple of weeks later as she was loading the mailboxes and got into a conversation with her about that and found out that there are FOUR of us on her route. FOUR women with IDENTICAL FIRST AND LAST NAMES on one postal carrier's route. My mouth sort of dropped open when she told me that. I had no idea how to take it.

I mean, for real, my name is just not that common. Before this, I have bumped into one person in my whole life that had the same last name to whom I wasn't directly related... and to have FOUR people have BOTH the same first and last name in one neighborhood?? and one of them used to live in the SAME apartment as I do now??? What does this mean??? Am I supposed to DO something with this knowledge??

Tonight I have on these fantastic sky-blue wool socks my friend Bethany got for me when she was living in Kyrgyzstan... she bought them from an elderly babushka at an outdoor market, and they are verrry well made. They're also great skiddin-socks... by which I mean running a bit and then skidding across the lovely original-hard-wood-floors of my circa-1950s apartment. So I was skiddin around the apartment tonight, frightening the cats, and I suddenly thought, I bet the other woman with my name never did this... her and her stupid girly magazines and sorority membership. Bet she would have been afraid to mess up her designer socks.

That made me feel better... what's in a name, after all? I mean, I'm still me, still 100% original Moff, a professional in her early 30s skiddin around her apartment like the pre-Scientology Tom Cruise in "Risky Business".

That being said, I hope I never run into any of these women in the street... I might die or be sucked into some sort of cosmic vortex or something. (cough) Or maybe not.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stand By Me (in case you missed it)

Chills and chills and chills. Just wonderful...

Here's the explanation, which I lifted straight from Mr. Jones' blog:

"A note about the creator of this short music video:
Filmmaker Mark Johnson traveled around the globe getting street musicians and others to record part of the track for Stand By Me. Using battery powered equipment and a pocket full of Frequent Flyer miles he got tracks from dozens of performers. Each one was able to wear headphones and hear what the other performers had done."

And I'll add that this is only part of a larger organization that Mr. Johnson has co-founded (I think) called Playing for Change, which aims to promote world peace through music... very broadly speaking. There's a gorgeous article by Mark Johnson that gives a much better explanation of what he's done and why he's done it here.



HT: Tony Jones, via Mike Croghan

Monday, December 15, 2008

Today's service is brought to you by Kleenex...

Yesterday was one of those days that I'm really thankful I go to two churches. It was also one of those days where I go through multiple packs of tissues... both church services moved me and brought me to tears, particularly the service at Convergence, where I spent a good 1/3 of the service blubbering like a toddler who just had their toy taken away and given to another child.

The two churches handled the third Sunday of Advent very differently, as per usual. Brother Mike Croghan at Common Table put together The Most Complicated "Simple Service" ever, asking nine different sets of folks to read and interpret (a bit) nine different advent-y passages. He nicked the idea from Proost, but the result was pure CT. I won't go into all 9 readings, suffice to say that they represented the organic, unforced diversity of life experience and perspective that is CT... and that every presentation was moving in an entirely different way.

I will, however, make mention of the opening reading, an interpretation of the story of the Fall from Genesis 3, delivered by our own Not-The-Pastor, Mike Stavlund. He opened up with his typically beautiful poetic observations on the passage, but then moved into a Eucharist of the Fall that was composed by his wife, Stacy... complete with blood-red-dripping pomegranate, broken and consecrated. We each processed up and took a bit of the fruit, staining our own hands red in a reminder of a our complicity in Eve's sin --and our continuation of that sin by thinking ourselves as wise as God-- and the resulting sacrifice. As Mike started into the first words of the liturgy, my mouth dropped open and stayed that way. I can't do it justice in the space I have here... you can read the full text here.

Fast forward to Convergence's service, installment #3 in the Flesh series, which approaches Advent with a focus on the incarnation. This week focused on the frailty and brokenness of our flesh (the text of the main meditation from the service is here), so I knew it wasn't exactly going to be a chipper, upbeat service... but I was unprepared for how much it was going to affect me.

The service started with a soundscape titled "The Crucifixion" by Jay Smith, Convergence's Resident Musical Genius and one of the guitarists... eh actually I'd call him a sound artist... for Middle Distance Runner. Jay's genius is in creating multilayered atmospheres of sound using his guitar and a big box o' pedals and sound distorters and other various assorted magical music thingies. He's a symphony in and of himself, and it's no exaggeration to call what he does a "soundscape"... he creates another world when he does his thing.

Jay and I had been talking before the service about some of the deep and horrible shit he's been through, and combined with the topic of the service, this led me to reflect on pain. As he played, I closed my eyes and gradually became aware that I was imagining Jay as a dark shadow surrounded by sort of colored auras, and then I was just seeing waves of auroreal light. So I wrote this:

Space of Unrest
Pain is a window into the surreal
Breaking out of the flow of day to day normality
Pain moves you into an auroreal existence
Seeing the soul of things
not their details

Pain is clarifying even as it obscures
We drop down, we are lifted up
Carried by faith into hope's vision
Able to see
at last

3 weeks ago when the topic of this particular service was announced, I thought immediately of Anna Budd, one of the members of Convergence. Anna is... Anna is a lot of things. She is a wife, a mother, a cool, plucky, awesome, down-to-earth person. She bears a strong resemblance to my late grandfather, and being from Southern Virginia as I am, she just feels like home to me. Anna has also just finished a long, horrible, months-long series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She and her husband, George, have repeatedly inspired everyone at Convergence with their determination to stay upbeat and hopeful about Anna's ability to fight the cancer, and their solid faith in the power of prayer.

In this service, Anna was asked to share her reflections on the frailty of the body. She started to cry. George jumped in and gave their usual positive testimony about her ability to get through this and how powerful prayer was.

And then Anna said "they burned me"...
and described her last, excruciating radiation treatment, how they basically burned the whole left side of her body, leaving her skin traumatized, oozing, and sore.
and then Jay got up and sang another original song (the words are here), with Jesus telling John at The Last Supper how afraid he is of the suffering He has to endure.

and I lost it. I started to cry and I couldn't stop. I was so angry that Anna continued to suffer so much despite our prayers, despite her usual plucky testimony... I was overwhelmed at my own complacency, that I had never gotten REALLY angry so far... the phrase "they burned me" juxtaposed with the crucifixion image from Jay's song just slammed it home to me. During the prayer time, I blubbered and went through tissue after tissue as I prayed strongly, angrily, for God to PLEASE heal Anna... to end her suffering and bring this ordeal to an end. If you've managed to make it to this point in this loooong post, I'd appreciate it if you'd add a prayer to mine. Pray that Anna Budd is healed entirely from cancer. Pray that she returns to full health, and quickly.

So. There's the beauty of community, and then there's the heartbreak of it. We share each other's joys... I seriously feel like a cat basking in the sun everytime I witness the brilliant creativity of my church friends... but we also have to witness each other's frailty, and our own, and cry and internally scream at God to please please STOP THIS.

and I guess all of it makes me cry.

and that's good. It means I'm awake. It means I'm alive. It means I'm blessed to love and be loved by folks.

and it means I'll be keeping Kleenex in business.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My 15 seconds of relative fame...

So chances are if you're reading this blog, you're already aware of this, but thought I'd toot my little horn and post a link to the Vanishing Post referencing this blog on Tony Jones' website. Evidently the Famous and Powerful Mr. Jones found it via the blog of The Best Writer I Know Who Isn't Published (yet), who lately has been doubling both as my pastor and my P.R. guy. Bro emailed my poem to none other than The Great Phyllis Tickle, who said "What a beautiful writer she is, and how completely she captures what we all sense is happening..." Heh. Yeah. What SHE said.

It was quite a rush to be referenced by T.J.... and so very Moff's luck that the post vanished from his main page within hours of his posting it. lol

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Light

Image from http://flickr.com/photos/fablab/1191221165/
Eleven years ago today, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church at St. Mary of the Angels in Bayswater, London. December 13 is the Feast of St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind. Supposedly, this is due to the stories surrounding her martyrdom that tell of her having her eyes gouged out. Yikes. She's also, evidently, the patron saint of salesmen. I have no clue why that is. Maybe she tried to sell something to her torturers before they killed her. Maybe that's really why they killed her. Or maybe there's a close connection between the experience of trying to sell things for a living and having your eyes gouged out. I'd wager on the latter.

Since Lucy's latin name, Lucia, contains the root "lux" (the Latin word for light), she is also frequently associated with light. Given how short the days are at this time of year, this is a time when that association is particularly salient. The association of Lucy with light had particular significance to me when I found out I was being received into the R.C. Church on her feast day, which I hadn't known when I initially picked the date. I felt my choice of day was fortuitous, that I was emerging into the light of Mother Church... or something like that. As it so happens, when Father Mark anointed me with chrism, I looked up and saw light in the shape of a dove coming through the window behind him and a little to his right. I'm not making this up. So that, too, was a kind of sign of blessing.

Of course, a lot has changed in the ensuing 11 years. I was received into the Episcopal church at Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, VA, in November of 2001, so technically I left the Roman Catholic Church a little less than 4 years after I officially joined. Joining the Episcopal Church was the product of a lot of things, but I should be honest and say it wasn't totally pre-meditated. The Bishop was there that particular Sunday, and I'd been going to COA for about 3 months at that point. All I had to do was go forward and have him put his hand on my head and say a little prayer. I got a certificate in the mail a couple of weeks later. I was in. It was pretty damn easy, and it was a kind of ritual way of putting behind huge amounts of pain and confusion associated with my relationship with and broken engagement to Phil, the Catholic guy whom I'd more or less followed into the Church.

Becoming "un-Catholic" wasn't that easy, though, and while I have a lot to give thanks for in my time at COA and then my almost two years at Truro Church, I wasn't quite Episcopalian, either. I'd considered the Episcopal Church to be a logical jumping-off point from the R.C. Church, basically a little life raft I hopped into to escape the sinking ship of my conception of Catholicism. Life rafts aren't meant to take you very far, though, and as it turned out I felt much more at home at Northern Virginia Mennonite after Truro came out swinging in response to Gene Robinson being ordained Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. I loved and still do love what I know of Mennonite theology. I don't agree with all of it, but it'd be safe to say I'm closer to being a Mennonite than I am to anything else I've been.

However, attending a Mennonite church for two years still didn't totally erase my Catholic identity, either. Even while I attended NVMC, I started going to Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at St. Agnes in Arlington on my way home from work and on weekends. I wanted to pray there... could pray there better than pretty much anywhere else. When I started dating a Catholic guy, I started going to Mass with him, illicitly taking Communion. :^) I particularly enjoyed Mass at St. Charles Borromeo in Arlington, which was festive and energetic and felt, again, like home. When I stopped dating the Catholic fellow, it was only a couple of months until I found Convergence, a Baptist church for artists. I was hooked from the first service, because it felt like --what else?-- home.

So I felt at home in the Mennonite church AND I felt at home at St. Charles Borromeo AND I felt at home in the Blessed Sacrament chapel at St. Agnes AND I felt at home at the Baptist church for artists... and the way I explained that to myself is that I was following the Holy Spirit around. If He was there, it felt like home. If He wasn't, or if He was struggling to get airtime due to the life-choking rule books or obsessive busy-ness of church members, it wouldn't feel like home. I knew that was arrogant --as though I alone could perceive the Holy Spirit--but I didn't know how else to explain it. These churches weren't like the church I grew up in, so it wasn't that which made them comfortable and familiar to me... what else could it be?

I think reading about and becoming more involved with the emergent church is bringing this issue more into focus for me... and I think that maybe it isn't too far off to believe that I was coming into a light of sorts when I was received into the Roman Catholic church. The experience of praying Night Prayer with Karen Sloan in Memphis last week seems to have pushed into full bloom something that had been in pregnant bud for a while... a re-examination of my conversion to Catholicism.... notsomuch for the purpose of running back into the arms of Mother Church as much as for mining the experience of departing from the theology I'd been raised with in favor of embracing the mysterious Other... walking into a religious identity I could not, did not, fully understand for the sake of freedom to worship Christ, and to worship God as Mystery, not as the object of a Theology of Deadly Precision. I'm living in a sense of the past being yanked into the present, the sudden salience of things that happened 10 and 11 years ago, and I'm choosing to believe that this is for the purpose of understanding why all this has happened, and not that I'm rehashing the distant past because I'm bored with the present. We shall see.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Great Emergence

The tears finally came when I put away my dishes
Two days after Memphis
Standing in the kitchen, sobbing with a dish towel
Feeling Ave Marias and Sola Scriptura and peace doves and incense
and all of the ways I've entered into worship
accepted
redeemed
redeemed

I have come home.

Feeling myself, once one boat on a vast ocean
suddenly surrounded by an armada
suddenly aware that I was never really alone

Standing in the kitchen, one woman in one city
suddenly a member of a family of nomads
of wanderers whose only passion is Jesus
and Him crucified

who will break down all barriers to see Him glorified
who will threaten their own security
so that He alone will be honored

who will not stop until we emerge into His light

I feel all the painful past endings in this new beginning
I feel the wounds exposed to light
I feel the awful ache of hope, of belonging
of love for people I barely know
but who I recognize as long lost relations

I have thought I was home before.
I have been wrong.
I am afraid.

But I prayed Night Prayer with a female Presbyterian minister
I talked about ptsd with an ex-nun Lutheran minister
I talked Reformed theology with a pastor to artists
and I, a woman in a tube top and clingy jeans,
led a congregation in the Our Father while everyone held hands

Do I
dare
to hope
in His people
again?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Outside in

From the time I was a kid, ever since I got old enough to challenge my mother's cautionary wish that I not roam the streets by myself, I've taken walks in the evening and looked into the windows of other people's houses.

I know... that's kind of creepy, kind of voyeuristic, and I promise that if I ever saw actual people through the windows, I looked away immediately, guarding their privacy and my anonymity. But it was an automatic thing for me to do when I went out walking, and sometimes the only thing there was to do as a kid was go for a walk. I did this, too, when my Mom, brother and I would go on rides through back-country roads, following my Mother's favorite habit of trying to get lost and seeing if we eventually ended up in Blacksburg, which happened with surprising frequency. We'd roll along two and sometimes one laned roads, up mountain sides, through narrow valleys, beside rushing brooks, and I'd strain to look up on the hillsides at the little shacks and bungalows and occasional ostentatious mansions, trying to peer into the windows, trying to understand the people who lived so far away from the city proper.

I found particular satisfaction in my night-time walks past windows glowing with yellowed light, looking into houses decorated according to a sort of redneck quasi-Better Homes and Gardens sensibility, complete with images of geese and ducks and artistically painted sheep on the walls which always struck me as surreal, but comforting in their banal domesticity. There were houses I particularly liked to look into, and I would sometimes plant myself in a location I thought was partially hidden, making myself as small as possible, studying my favored window, and feeling the warmth of that room spread through me, growing steadily happier as I dreamed of a life I might enjoy in a beautiful little room like that... but somehow knowing it was far more satisfying to hunker down on the street corner beneath the stars and dream of it than to actually walk inside such a scene and try to live it.

I don't do these walks with the same frequency now. I appear unmistakably grownup and am much more likely to be arrested if someone sees me gazing steadily into their windows, particularly in these Tough Economic Times. At some point though --I don't remember when-- I came to see this image of me standing outside looking in as one of my particular defining metaphors... always on the outside, always observing, a studier of persons and their lives, but never quite able to fully inhabit mine. Whatever the reasons for this are, I attributed it –again at some mysterious point now lost to memory—to a fear of marriage, of the slow grind of domestic life that is so beautiful when viewed from the outside, but can be truly unpleasant on the inside. I knew how awful marriage could be, and I considered it capable of bringing out what was truly worst in people. I've also come to acknowledge that it brings out the best in people, but through the worst, right? It's a very raw, craggy best, like a sore throat on the mend... you know there is goodness and healing on the way, but the memory of the badness that you had to pass through clings to that goodness, forming a dark aura, leaving you with that sense of rawness long after you've mended.

I guess my preference for standing on the outside comes from a kind of idolatry of the ideal domestic life and of romantic love. I don't want to traverse the bottomland of my personal worst, of my deep dark selfishness and my lack of concern for those closest to me. I know this, and I also know that failing to submit yourself to the realities of what love actually entails consigns a person to a sort of shallowness, a two-dimensional emotionality... or at least, it means all the familied people in your life can think this about you without a crisis of conscience, and can hold you at an emotional arm's length as though you smell of 2 day old tuna. In my defense though, I was a Calvinist before I went to kindergarten. My illusions of personal good are hard fought and hard won, and I'm loathe to give them up.

I’ve been musing on the domestic life and my lack thereof (again) for the past week due to my time at the Common Table Retreat and due to several days of solitude recovering from some sort of horrible stomach ailment. At the retreat, everyone was constantly surrounded by children and most people seemed to be trying to ignore this to some degree most of the time. Parents wanted to have adult talk. Non-parents didn’t know how to handle the sudden onslaught of children who seemed to be constantly running or hurling toy trucks down steps for reasons that were entirely opaque. It was like there was this wild band of very small gypsies running around in a pack, and the knowledge of their presence controlled the goings-on at the retreat somehow, tethered us to the common knowledge that any one of them could hurt themselves at some point and we would all feel responsible.

I wasn’t sad to go home at the end of the retreat.

That being said, though, being home, by myself and very ill, gave me plenty of time to think upon the virtues of having someone around to help care for you when you’re in that sort of state. Our good family friend Karen Zimmerman once told me that I should only marry a man that I knew would take care of me when I was sick. That made more sense to me than almost any other advice regarding marriage I’ve ever had, and maybe partially explains why I’m still not married. Marrying an obviously selfish person makes NO SENSE, as does marrying someone who has no domestic skills, male or female… because at the end of the day, the pragmatic reason why folks aren’t meant to be alone is that we all find ourselves helpless from time to time, and we all need care. By the same token, having someone to care FOR takes our minds off ourselves, and believe me, I was dying to not have to think about myself anymore the past few days.

So. I think, as time has passed, for better or for worse, my efforts have slowly turned towards inhabiting my own life, solo. I buy lamps that cast a soft yellow light like what I saw in my favorite windows. I place candles in the windows and light them on these damned winter evenings when it’s totally dark by 5pm. I have friends that I see and talk to regularly, and they are like a family. I’ve started hanging things on the walls of my one-bedroom apartment that I like, and that tell my own, particular story of places I've been and things that I've done. I have company over, and now have a routine for preparing my couch for guests. Except for times when I am ill, or lonely, or libidinous, I’m ok with what I have.

I have, finally, created my own enviable window.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

If he would listen

This is a morning
for the spiritual discipline
of watching falling leaves.

Here is why:

Every leaf has its story,
every one began as a bud on the branch
every one grew, soaked in the sun.

Every one, now grown radiant in their dying
--red, yellow, flames upon flames--
descending to the ground

will nourish the earth in their death.
Every leaf is necessary.
Every leaf has its story.

Every leaf gives its life
to nourish the ground beneath
the tree that gave it birth.

We are all too important to be ignored.

I met a man who is
trying to outrun his grief
at life forever altered and love lost.

He is a man of unfinished sentences,
of constant, frantic movement.
He is trying to ignore his own story.

He doesn't have time to listen,
but if he did, I would tell him of
the spiritual discipline
of watching falling leaves.

You are too important to be ignored.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tribe and Grace

Image from http://www.worldwork.biz/legacy/www/docs2/acceptance.phtml

So anybody who knows me for very long knows that I was excommunicated from the Presbyterian Church of America in 1998 after being received into the Roman Catholic church in December 1997 in Bayswater, London. To this DAY I don't know anybody else who has had that happen to them. Of course, it's not the kind of thing that's likely to come up in your average conversation on a night out:

Me: (laughing with a beer in hand) THAT was funny! So, who else here's been excommunicated??
(silence)

So, I was excommunicated... had a Scary Letter sent to me telling me that I was no longer welcome to take communion in a PCA church. They considered my conversion an act of rebellion and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to be Very Bad, Indeed... basically they really didn't consider me a Christian now that I'd Aligned Myself with Rome. They didn't tell me I couldn't darken the doors of a PCA church, so I still went to church with my folks when I was at home after graduating from Covenant that May, but when they had communion, I was not welcome. I obeyed this directive, with a considerable sense of irony and a little bit of bitterness at their denying communion to someone who WAS a Christian. One of my coolest memories of my Mother was of her also quietly refusing to take communion. I passed the plate without taking anything from it, and so did she, without ever saying anything to me about it. I love my Mom.

I thought The Letter was really Much Ado About Nothing. As far as I was concerned, you either loved Christ and accepted that He was the fulfillment of the OT Messiah or you didn't. THOSE were the salient categories to me, the Christ-lovers and the non-Christ lovers. In a sense, my joining the RC church WAS a rebellion, but it was a rebellion against all the Theology Hounds up on the mountain at Covenant who acted like Christ's incarnation in no way necessitated that their faith be similarly incarnate, i.e. primarily concerned with continuing Christ's work of healing and ministering to the sick, lonely, poor. They seemed to be more interested in creating the Perfect Theology above the clouds while Chattanooga suffered in The Valley Below. They weren't particularly childlike in their faith, either, which I considered to be absolutely essential, and to be a pretty clear directive of Christ's... basically "come to Me as a child, humble and trusting, or you're never ever ever going to get what I have to say. I'm more complicated than you could ever understand, but what I want from YOU is really simple, and pretty difficult, and you're going to think it's dumb and an awful lot of effort."

The letter pissed me off more because I Knew The Guys That Done It -- had known them since I was a kid-- and I didn't recall any of them really trying to talk to me about my faith. They didn't know that my prayer life and my commitment to Christ had literally kept me from killing myself multiple times as I dealt with a dark, deep depression that hit when I was 12 and didn't let up at all until I was about 16 (gotta love puberty). They had no idea what my Catholic conversion meant to me, didn't know the Catholic guy I'd fallen in love with that precipitated so much of it, didn't know how alienated I'd felt at Covenant. They didn't seem to understand my faith as a living relationship with Christ... didn't understand that I found all the theology interesting, that it was a part of me intellectually, but that it was utterly separate from the God who met me in my room at night and stopped my tears, who went with me through the day and comforted me when I was overcome by social anxiety, who spoke to me through my Bible and who gave me hope for the future. THIS God was God as I really understood Him, relationally, and if there was no space for that God in their theology, then I doubted THEIR Christianity. So I turned my back on the PCA with no regret and very little pondering on the matter. That was 10 years ago.

I've mentioned last week's Pete Rollins conference thing. I didn't mention that Five of the Coolest Guys I Know and I stayed with Bob and Grace Haymes. Bob was pastor of Highlands Church (PCA) in Lafayette, GA when I was at Covenant. He was MY pastor, and my friends and I loved his church dearly because it was a church of Just Folks... such a far cry from the crappy Race to Be the Most Truly Reformed going on up on the mountain. Don't get me wrong, Bob's theology is in order. He is still very PCA and he's currently serving as an elder at New Hope Presbyterian in Philly. But he gets that theology must be incarnational. He gets that any theological system has the life of Christ as its ultimate referent and the standard against which it must be judged. So Bob and Grace and their little family were this wonderful little oasis for those of us who just wanted community under Christ.

Last weekend, watching Bob and Grace talk to my buds, I was at the verge of grateful tears the whole time. They're incredible hosts... both sick with a nasty cold/flu thing but both so obviously digging having us around, so engaging and engaged in the conversation, which was often about theology (we were up there to hear Pete Rollins, so of course it was going to come up). The thing that had me almost crying was a) my memories of them and how kind they've always been to me, and to my brother when he was going through a really really hard time at Covenant (he and I both briefly lived with the Haymes at different times for different reasons), b) their beautiful transparency which made the conversation flow and endeared me to them again, and c) that nobody backed off an inch really from their theological standpoint, but that we found common ground... and that common ground was almost always related to the life of Christ.

Last night, I had dinner with Domi and Kitula, friends from Tanzania, who are also very PCA. Kitula and I's friendship began when I found out he'd gone to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, FL, and had classes with Richard Pratt, a good friend of my Dad's (they founded a church together with some other folks in Roanoke when I was a little kid). I haven't seen D,K, and their gorgeous baby Peter in months and months... hadn't been to their house in a year... but it was like we just picked right up where we left off. The conversation, of course, turned to theology, and I did my best to explain the emergent thing to them (Christianity engaging postmodernity, basically... right?), and Kitula was receptive and gracious about it. Before Kitula drove me home, he asked to pray over the three of us, so we joined hands and he said the most gorgeous prayer, thanking God for His grace, thanking Him for our friendship, for all the blessings that God has given, and how He has directed and protected all of us, especially me. So there I was, choking back tears at the amazing grace of PCA folks for the second time in less than a week.

A new friend of mine called me a Calvinist recently and I said "I'm NOT a Calvinist. Well, I am in the sense that cradle Catholics are always Catholic." and indeed, that's true. I started taking communion in the Reformed Presbyterian church when I was 4 years old because I had already memorized most of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It's in there at some deep level, and I probably live it out in ways that I don't even begin to understand. The PCA hasn't been my tribe in a very long time, though, and it has felt so good to reconnect with these amazing amazing people who understand that one of the best things about Reformed Theology is its emphasis on Grace. They've shown me Grace... lived it for me and with me. and I am profoundly blessed by it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Deconstructing the funhouse and uncovering home

"O God, You Who are the truth, make me one with You in love everlasting. I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all I long for. Let the learned be still, let all creatures be silent before You; You alone speak to me." Thomas a Kempis

For years now, I've had this quote from Imitation of Christ as my email footer on my yahoo and hotmail accounts. I'm not a fan of email footers in the way I'm not a fan of personalized license plates, but I remember when I first read this quote, and knew that I was going to have to carry this around somehow and communicate it to people... it got right to the heart of my faith, which survives through everything because of experiences I've had where God was very very close, where He Himself comforted me. Some of these experiences happened when I was 10, 11 years old, some later, and those experiences of His closeness, of the Truly Real wafting into my awareness and gently overpowering me, are the bedrock of my faith. That's one reason I find it really hard to focus on complicated theological conversations... they seem surreal, beside the point. Combined with my tendency towards intellectual sloth, this has resulted in my ambivalence, and sometimes my outright hostility, towards theological discourse.

I guess you wouldn't necessarily know that from my bookshelves. I've always been drawn to theologians and to churches, because these are the people and the places where God is being pursued most visibly, and it used to be true of me that the pursuit of God was really at my core, or at least I believed it to be. I've always been drawn to the explanations that emphasize the Mystery of God, the relational, the difficult to describe. I have had these direct experiences of God in my life, but most of the time it's as though He is in my peripheral vision. Most of the time, the moment I try to grab at Him, He fades. My favorite poetic illustration of this is from the last part of "The Waste Land", where T.S. Eliot alludes to the Road to Emmaus:

"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead, up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you,
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?"

I've had many times where I've been with other believers, and caught myself repeating that line to myself over and over again... "who is that on the other side of you?" I hope I've never actually said that out loud... but it's possible.

So this weekend, I headed up to Philadelphia with five of the coolest guys I know to hear Pete Rollins speak. I was excited, but honestly, I didn't expect to "get" it. I've read most of How (Not) To Speak of God, and I've been having this persistent sense that he's saying things I feel but could never put into words myself... at least, I would never be able to frame them as philosophical arguments because I just straight up don't have the education to do so. I'd frame them in what I guess is the typically feminine language of relational dynamics, in large generalities about what I believe the nature of God to be from my experience. Of course, people politely listen to me when I pipe up, but frankly it is easy for folks to be dismissive of that kind of argument and my awareness of that makes me weak in my defense of my perspective.

Anyway, blah blah blah. Sitting there listening to Pete yesterday, I was struck by a couple of things. One was that he was non-linear, which was a great relief to me. People who try to talk about things as big as the nature of God and a radical re-thinking of the church piss me off when they try to be all linear and sermon-outliney about it. Something about that approach suggests riding a squeaky tricycle when you could be roller-blading, ice-skating or even jet-skiing. It lacks grace and it seems absurdly simplistic. I was picturing Pete painting on a canvas, throwing a blotch of color here and a shape there, and as he talked, the picture started to fill in and make sense. It was also like listening to a complicated jazz or classical piece, where you can't quite take it all in, but you'll hear a repeated theme, or a phrase of music, that takes your breath away, stops you in your tracks, and you're singing it for the rest of the day.

Another thing that struck me was a throw-away comment he made about some of his most profound experiences of God happening to him when he was alone in his room. I thought BAM! Just like me!... and I wondered if what I see in the emergent movement is a LOT of people like me, who are in love with God... even if they're really shitty at showing Him that love... and who are still clinging to that, taking their frustrations with the tribalism of the collective church experience, with so much that seems to distract from the primary objective of just being besotted with God and Christ, and coming together with the strangeness of these shared experiences of the Love That Will Not Let Us Go, experiences that you'd find damned difficult to coherently speak about on the best of days. So we're just trying to intuit and sniff out... "are you like me?" cuz you can't REALLY talk about it.

By the final worshippy bit, led by this really good group from Canada named The Filid, I was ready to face It... why I was here... and it sort of came at me all in a rush, this sudden recollection of who I used to be and how much I used to chase after God. I'm not unusual in the fact that other things have crowded it out... that happens to pretty much everyone... but I think I've tried to kill it, too... the pursuit of God, the longing for Him, because it hurts to want Someone who stays at the periphery, and it hurts to wrestle with all of the competing ideas folks have chucked at me about Him and it hurts to really REALLY struggle with my darker side. At the final song, "Water", written and sung by Dave Warne, I dissolved into a teary, runny-nosed mess of remembering and wanting and longing and regret and probably some confusion (along with an occasional mild sense of revulsion at all the snot pouring out of my nose)... and was astonished at the sudden sense of homecoming at the end of a day of philosophical talks. Ain't that just the durnedest thang? Really though... something happened, something cracked open. Not sure what to think about it yet, but there you go.

Ack. This post is too long. I'll leave it there. To be continued...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Eccentrics need church, too

I've known for a long time that big institutions --or really anything that seems to be really, really popular-- give me the heebie-jeebies. Big churches, big apartment complexes, popular music or TV shows, sporting events, shopping malls... if it smacks of The Herd, I generally run in the opposite direction.

I've gotten a lot better about this as I've gotten older --I will tolerate popular music playing in someone's car and even dance around or whatever-- but it is still fairly well ingrained in me to resist inclusion in The Majority. This is particularly obvious in my choice of churches, church being my primary, if not only, chosen community in my private life (I don't belong to civic clubs or sports teams or anything like that). I'm profoundly grateful for both Convergence and Common Table, my churches and the source of most of my community outside the workplace. They are both small groups, hardly more than 30 people on a really well-attended Sunday service, but that small size is comforting to me.

I used to think it was possibly narcissism on my part that I chose little churches, an expression of my wish to be a big fish in a small pond, and so I started pushing myself into bigger churches 11 years ago... the Roman Catholic church, the Episcopal church. Most of the time, though, I found my small community in the music ministry, and if that wasn't a spiritually rich place for me, I became discontented and empty very quickly... and then I left, largely unnoticed.

I started mulling over the topic again this week because of the Artist's Way group that I facilitate on Thursday nights at Convergence. This is the second such group that I've facilitated and it's already become a homey place for me, just three weeks in to the 12 week session. I'm always tired on Thursday nights and if I think about it, kind of overwhelmed by what people need from the book and the group. I know what I needed from it the first time I participated in the group, and I know the book and the discussion was really enough to get me committed to writing and singing again... but I'm always worried that it won't work for other people. However, once I get to Convergence and folks start to arrive, the frantic feeling dissipates, and the comfortable feeling of being in a small community of folks who are a bit on the outside, trying to figure things out, takes over.

Work was hard this week, and as a result I was in a particularly zooey mood at this week's group. I really felt the value of being around forgiving folks who could appreciate each other and me without being weirded out by my sense of humor when I'm tired and emotionally drained. I had a similar feeling the next night at the Common Table jam session held at Pete's house, where I continued my role as Vocalist and Automatic Lyric Generator. We were a cool, kind of rag-tag bunch... Ben on djembe (I think that was a djembe) and acoustic guitar, Stacy and Jen and Matt also on acoustic, Tim with the Largest Collection of Harmonicas I've ever seen in my life, and Pete on djembe and keys and techno loops and all kinds of craziness. Erin, Common Table's resident Poet Laureate, sat on the floor pouring out poetry and occasional snatches of song about trying to find beauty in the sterility of Northern Virginia suburbia. Jackie, Pete's wife, made us monkey bread and brought us coffee and water and poured wine and even John showed up and made wisecracks in the corner, which I suspect is his art form.

I was wiped, still, from work, and had already had a beer at my usual Friday happy hour at Rocklands. The lyrics came, though, as did the melodies, and everybody just rolled along with the jam, each doing their thing... a little patchwork quilt of folks from all sorts of different backgrounds, come together in a community around the common love of music and the desire to praise God through our creation of something new. I took my belt off so I could... well, so I could belt, and laid back on the couch, closing my eyes and just singing away like I was another instrument. It was blissful.

The Friday before, there was a different sort of jam session at Pete's. I was, again, Vocalist and Random Lyric Generator, but the musicians were professional musicians of Pete's acquaintance who attend much larger churches. I could feel the tension between what they were used to and what we did at Common Table. They are both superb musicians so the improvisational bit didn't phase them, but I think they thought that our exercise of re-writing the lyrics to a popular praise song as a congregation (well, the congregation gave ideas and I wrote lyrics on the spot, which was really unnerving) because we didn't like the real ones was arrogant. I didn't think it was arrogant. The words to the original song left me totally cold. I couldn't worship to those lyrics. So why not customize them?

Which brings me back to my point... there are people for whom being on the outside is "cool", and there are people who just ARE on the outside. I don't have a problem with folks who want to be a part of large churches, or who like being considered an "average person", but I'm literally incapable of that. I think that the communities I've chosen are made up at least partially of folks like me, who have always thought in their own way and found conformity to the expecations of the majority to be almost physically painful, a contortion of the spirit and the mind that is impossible to sustain for more than a short period of time, and even then awkwardly.

I had a couple of confirmations of the legitimacy of my outsider-ness this week. The first was from a childhood friend who found me on Facebook (ahh the wonders of Facebook!) and who has been chucking me random memories she has of me. One of them was when we were in the fourth grade. I had gone from the little private church-run school that K. and I had attended together since kindergarten to the public school up the street that year because my folks could no longer afford the church school. I hadn't seen K. in a while so I invited her to spend the night. When she arrived at my house, she remembers that I was sitting outside with two pairs of glasses on... one with googly eyes on springs, and one with a big nose and fake moustache. She was running late, so God only knows how long I'd sat out there waiting for her, but I know I would have taken pleasure in any consternation I could have caused in folks passing by. I was NINE, and I was already pulling this shit.

The second confirmation was the totally improbable series that The Guardian (a UK newspaper) ran on my hometown of Roanoke,VA, of all places. This British reporter, Gary Younge, lived in Roanoke for 3 weeks to report on the election in small-town America. I found out about the series through my friend in Cairo, Egypt, whose parents are from Southwestern Virginia and how had been following the series with great amusement. I was stunned when she told me about it (also via Facebook) and immediately went to the website.

The outsider-confirmation piece of this is how Mr. Younge characterized folks from my hometown. He summed Roanokers up as "friendly" and "eccentric". Among the experiences he had was one of talking to a guy dressed up as a Viking who was wearing an Obama pin. Apparently, Mr. Younge was the only one around struck by the fact that the guy was dressed as a Viking... well, he thought he was. Knowing folks from Roanoke, they had a reaction, it was just a minimalist one... a raised eyebrow, an almost imperceptible shake of the head, and a quick aside comment to their buddy. For some folks, it would be only the brief raised eyebrow, and the thought "crazy a--hole"... then go on about their business. I know if I'd seen a guy dressed as a Viking when growing up, I'd have thought "huh, guy dressed as a Viking. Weird. Better cross the street" and then gone on about my business. It's only now, having lived outside Roanoke for a long time, that I would be like "Holy s--t! That dude's dressed like a VIKING!" and want to go up and find out what the was up with that dude. I've been conditioned now to find eccentricity "interesting", but I think growing up it was just part of life.

One of the women interviewed for Mr. Younge's piece described Roanoke as historically being very isolated. Surrounded by mountains, off the beaten path, originally named "Big Lick" due to a large area of salt deposit where animals used to go and lick the salt (and promptly be killed by hunters, I'd imagine), and only really prosperous when the railroad was built through it, she described an isolationist mentality in the place. I agree with that. There's a natural tendency to view the outside world with a certain amount of suspicion, but with that a certain tolerance of eccentricity among residents, or at least the willingness to ignore it.

DC is the last place in the world for someone who is truly eccentric. I think the difficulty of my adjustment here was partially due to that. If I could walk around wearing google eyed glasses on springs, I would probably do that at least a couple of times a year... but absolutely no one would laugh and they just might call the cops. I keep threatening to wear my red feather boa to work, but alas, only my life-size cardboard cutout of Fabio --given to me as a going away present when I left Roanoke, of course-- wears the boa on a regular basis. There is a real lack of appreciation for Zaniness up here.

I don't know that I could wear the boa to either of my churches, but I do feel a true sense of community there. We're all a little on the outside, all searching for a place where we can be comfortable with our ways of looking at the world, with our literal inability to support the status quo. I value the friendships I have in these places tremendously, and give God praise that He really does love all of us and gives us church, where we can thank Him for our diversity, our eccentricities, and His Amazing Grace covering it all.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ok this is cheating but I can't help it

I haven't posted in a while, and haven't done a solid post in even longer than that, but I just finished Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, and I have to put these quotes up, because right now this is what I want to say... and he says it so much better.

From page 83
Most people now are looking for “a better place,” which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. I think this is what Nathan learned from his time in the army and the war. He saw a lot of places, and he came home. I think he gave up the idea that there is a better place somewhere else. There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.

I think of Art Rowanberry, another one who went to the war and came home and never willingly left again, and I quote him to myself: “Something better! Everybody’s talking about something better. The important thing is to feel and be proud of what you got, don’t matter if it aint’ nothing but a log pen.”

From pages 112-113
The big idea about education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on. I didn’t see this at first. And for a while after I knew it, I pretended I didn’t. I didn’t want it to be true.

But it was true. After they were all gone, I was mourning over them to Nathan. I said “I just wanted them to have a better chance than I had.”

Nathan said, “Don’t complain about the chance you had,” in the same way exactly that he used to tell the boys, “Don’t cuss the weather.” Sometimes you can say dreadful things without knowing it. Nathan understood this better than I did.

Like several of his one-sentence conversations this one stuck in my mind and finally changed it. The change came too late, maybe, but it turned my mind inside out like a sock.

Was I sorry that I had known my parents and Grandmam and Ora Finley and the Catletts and the Feltners, and that I had married Virgil and come to live in Port William, and that I had lived on after Virgil’s death to marry Nathan and come to our place to raise our family and live among the Coulters and the rest of our membership?

Well, that was the chance I had.

And so Nathan required me to think a thought that has stayed with me a long time and has traveled a long way. It passed through everything I know and changed it all. The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My new favorite song and the presidential race

I am compulsively playing the song "That You Might See" by Home Video over and over and over again. It's one of those songs I desperately wish I'd written. Inspired by tonight's Vice Presidential Debate/Avoidancefest, I'm posting the lyrics of the song here, dedicating it to this year's Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, from all of us helpless voters out here, who really don't have much of a *^%*ing choice in the matter.

Peace.

There is a helpless need for human touch
We are smashed beneath,
On hands and knees, pleading
And it’s easier to look away
And it’s easier to believe what they say

That you might see my side and for a minute give in
That we are weak and we are suffering
That you might see my side and for a minute give in

There is a driving need to stamp us out
We are made to be ignorant and quiet
As we give it up for nothing
And we leave it to be taken away

That you might see my side and for a minute give in
That we are weak and we are suffering
That you might see my side and for a minute give in

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Standing in front of the dead end thinking "what the...?"

Growing up with my Dad, I was very well acquainted with the concept of The Dark Night of the Soul, although I wouldn't have called it that. When I did run across St. John of the Cross' book in a Catholic bookstore in my early 20s, I grabbed it immediately for my Dad, thinking "here's a guy my Dad can identify with". Dad struggled with God. Hard. He got in God's face, so to speak, and pretty much demanded that He give up the goods and bless him and his family. He did this the loudest --and the most angrily, I think-- when it looked like everything was going to crap. Which was rather more often than he --or we-- liked. Mostly it was financial stuff, or job frustration, or the constant underlying sense that every single one of us Moffs was wasting what we had to give the world due to our collective ennui. or inertia. or incredibly low expectations.

As it turns out, God DID bless him, and us. Dad's life now is not anything he would have thought possible on many, many fronts, and his faith is huge. So is my Mom's, which none of us would have expected. My brother and I are doing pretty well, all things considered, and are more or less solid individuals, each with our own faith that has withstood various tests over time.

So now, after about a year of feeling pretty darn good about life and seeing blessings pretty much everywhere I looked, I have hit a wall. I have no intention of doing a long Debbie Downer blog post about depression, questioning one's life purpose, etc., etc., (and I'm aware that I keep coming back to this topic on the blog... annoying) but it's been a big pushback to my theology... which had become, shall we say, chipper. To quote a Cowboy Junkies lyric that is quoting William Faulkner: "A man in a crisis falls back on what he knows best". So, as I have before at similar points in my life, I'm praying more --which is undeniably not a bad thing--, listening to the Pixies and Modest Mouse and other ironic music, and contemplating Ye Olde Dark Night of the Soul.

I remember reading "The Hound of Heaven" by Francis Thompson and thinking, "wow, this poem is really too long", but really digging the central metaphor of God, chasing us like a hunting dog, chasing us as we run from Him --and we all do ("for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" "there is none righteous, not even one")-- chasing us through all the side roads and back alleys of our sins and shallowness and the sense bred into all of humanity since The Fall that WE should be in control, not Him. I loved the inevitability of it, the vision Thompson had of a God that WOULD have us in the end. There's an echo of this in one of my cornerstone (favorite) hymns:

Oh love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
that in Thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.

I have believed, as long as I can remember, that God will do anything, ANYTHING He has to, to get us to focus on Him, to make the choices necessary to put ourselves in right relationship to Him... because He is the Divine Lover that will have His Beloved. And I've relied on that at times when I felt approximately 3,784,906,579 miles away from God's Will... that if I turned to Him and said, "Hey there, I've really messed up", I'd hear the hound's bay on the breeze and know that I was about to be rescued from myself. Again.

So the question now is, what, exactly am I to make of this current dark night? I have a few explanations of why He'd configure things so that I have to get on my knees RIGHT NOW, but I'm not satisfied by any of them. I kept thinking I was stressed, tired, maybe a little burned out, but no, that's not it.

Maybe the point is to make me slow down, because I'm going to miss something important if I don't. Maybe I've already been missing the something important and now He's holding me in place and making me FOCUS. I'm in the final quarter of the Year of Not Dating, and I don't have many conclusions --except that it's damned hard not to date when you're healthy and your biological clock is deep in the second half-- so maybe that's it. Or maybe it's way bigger and has much less to do with me, which would make more sense and really be something of a relief. I don't know.

So I'll just hang out here for as long as this lasts, and keep praying, and try and be patient with the insomnia and other stuff... and wait for the grey veil to lift and the meaning of this to come clear to me, which I believe in faith it will.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

And now for something completely different...

I'm posting too much... apologies. I belong to an elite group known as the Sisterhood of the Traveling Capris. I recently brought the capris with me to Colorado Springs, CO, and I tell the tale (with pictures) here.

Very short poem on a Saturday morning

White American Guilt

Two women were buried
alive
in North Pakistan
for choosing their own husbands.

My friend told me this
as we walked
in Arlington, VA
heading back from a late summer outdoor concert.

Two women, we walked.
We passed a McDonald's
and a couple embracing

and I felt the splintering
wood underneath my fingernails
as I clawed at the box
six feet underground.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Communion of saints

I got home verrrry late on Sunday night... was out seeing The Beanstalk Library, my friend Ryan's band, and then found out that someone had broken into my friend Amanda's car and taken her laptop and her GPS, so we had to call the police at 1am in downtown DC and sit and wait and.... got home around 2am or something like that. (It was actually a very interesting evening... you can read Amanda's hilarious account of it here.)

I was due to catch the Greyhound at 10am the next morning to Roanoke, VA for my Dad's ordination. I hadn't packed, and had errands to do, so got up at 7am and ran around like a madwoman. Carried about 35 pounds of my stuff for the 15 minute walk to the Clarendon metro, waited 10 minutes for a train and then couldn't get on because it was so packed... even in the last car. So. Ran (as much as I could under my burden) up out of the station, called a cab, then had a butt-puckering 20 minute ride to the Greyhound station through the parking lot of 395 during morning rush hour, running into the station at 10 am (when the bus was supposed to be leaving), yanking on the locked door at the gate for the Charlottesville bus, which was opened by a Greyhound employee who said "Relaaaaxxx". I told him he didn't know what kind of morning I had, and he said "as long as your boyfriend didn't smack you, you good."

And thus I entered the Realm of Greyhound, laughing.

The ride down from DC was pretty uneventful. I slept on the bus to Charlottesville, enjoying the sunny morning when I woke up from time to time. Had an hour delay in Charlottesville and then seated behind a Very Smelly Man who had disturbingly short shorts on, an excessive amount of body hair, and an Aura of Very Weird hanging off of him. Other than that, not much to note.

The ride back was another matter. I guess I should have been warned when I asked at the desk at the Roanoke Greyhound station whether the bus was on time and the guy looked at me like I was bothering him. He said, "it's supposed to leave at 1:05". I am not an idiot. I know this, but it is 12:55 and the bus is not at the gate, which means it won't be leaving at 1:05. I say, "so you haven't heard anything from the driver about his arrival time?" He looked at me like I was trying his patience and said "The bus should be here any minute." Which was as much of a non-answer as he could possibly give me.

As it turned out, the bus wasn't there for another hour and a half, and didn't leave for another 2 hours, but we didn't find out anything until 1:30, when another Greyhound employee came in and announced that the bus was late (yes, we've noticed that) because it was waiting for another bus that was supposed to connect at Wytheville, VA. The bus would be another hour, she said. There was a ripple of annoyance through the waiting area. Mom and I went and got a cup of coffee, and I bought a very cool shirt at Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea. I talked a parking lot attendant out of giving us a ticket, and we went back to the station.

As we walked back in, I noticed that one of the passengers had a Spanish language version of the Book of Mormon sitting on his baggage. I looked up and saw that it was a guy who had been wandering around cursing under his breath earlier. Note to self: avoid this man. Mom and I sat back down on the bench and I noted another lady who had been wandering around narrating everything she did, clearly stressed out. She appeared to have made friends with a couple there by walking up and staring at them til they talked to her. Note to self: avoid this woman.

The bus comes, and a mildly cute guy starts a conversation with me. He has just been kicked out of VT. They done him wrong. We talk about George Mason. The parents of an African-American teenager who has been alternately yelling into his cell phone and playing Ms. Pac Man and Monster Pinball (Mom and I gave him a bunch of quarters when he ran out) show up and cart out all of his stuff, loudly informing everyone that he has just wasted his money on a ticket to NY and that they were showing Tough Love to this 16 year old. I feel sorry for the kid.

Ok, finally getting on the bus. I ask the driver if he'll be helping us make connections in Richmond (I have missed my connection at Charlottesville). He snaps at me and refuses to give me my ticket stub back. Also not a good sign. I find a seat, then realize I'm sitting behind Mr. Book of Mormon, who 15 minutes ago had begun loudly proclaiming in the lobby about how Greyhound had screwed him over. Grrreat. Ok, just lay low. The mildly cute guy, who's name is Tommy, comes and sits behind me. He wants to talk more about Mason. Ok, fine. So we talk about Mason, about admissions requirements, what-not. Once that peters out, I turn around and try to nap. I've had a headache for the last three days. I hear him start a conversation with the lady seated next to him, directly behind me. She has been on the bus since TEXAS, for 2 whole days. I feel really sorry for her, but don't think much of it. We stop at Lynchburg, Tommy gets off, and I note a woman with completely preposterous hair waiting at the station.

Then things changed. The woman who'd been so loud at the Roanoke station is two seats up and keeps staring and trying to talk loudly to the small children of the young African-American lady to my left (I'll call her A.M. for Amani's Mom... her daughter's name was Amani). The strange lady goes back to the restroom and A.M. tells me that she's been watching her drinking since Roanoke and she is apparently drunk now. Thus her behavior. We have a long way to go yet. This could be bad. The woman comes back to her seat, and offers some "cider" to Mr. Book of Mormon. He says "that smells like booze" and turns and makes a face at me and A.M. Then she drops the bottle, which spills everywhere, and it becomes clear that she is very drunk, indeed.

Mr. Book of Mormon's name is Manny. The drunk woman's name is Leslie. Manny decides it's his role to make sure that Leslie keeps as quiet as possible and does not get kicked off the bus. He gets off the bus with her at Charlottesville to smoke a cigarette with her and prevent her from doing anything that will make it obvious she's drunk. I'm touched by this, that one of the two people I'd made a decision to avoid is helping the other one out. I offer to get A.M. a Coke from the vending machine inside Charlottesville station (one of the ones without an "out of order" sign on it). She smiles, says she's fine. Manny, A.M. and I talk about Leslie for a little bit. I turn around and talk to the woman who'd gotten on in Texas. Her name is Ramona, and she looks dead-tired, but smiles and is friendly. The four of us --Ramona, Manny, A.M. and me-- have somehow bonded over our common concern/interest in Leslie and her drunkenness. We talk on and off til Richmond, which is A.M.'s destination.

In Richmond, the driver is rude to me when I ask him again about the connecting bus. He is carrying luggage for the older people, lining them up at Gate 10. I had called for the bus schedule already and had assumed the 6:15 pm bus would wait til 7pm to take us to DC. It hasn't. I know the next bus is at 10:20pm, and my guess is that the driver knows it, too, but he's not telling anyone. He's lining up people who are in their 70s, 80s, propping them up at Gate 10 without a word to them that they will be waiting there for 3 hours. I am livid. We had to wait on a bus that waited on a bus... why didn't the bus wait for us??? So I call the complaint number. I wait on hold for 20 minutes, and then am informed by a lady with a very soothing voice that I cannot complain until the end of my trip. I want to tell her that it looks like my trip is not going to end and that this is a very stupid system, but I don't. I say thank you. I hang up. I tell the story to Ramona, who has sat down beside me.

and we both laugh, long and loud and hard, because there's nothing else either one of us can do.

Ramona is on her way to Concord, NH. She's going to live with her parents. If she'd flown it would have taken her hours, but as it is it's going to take her upwards of 4 days. She says she couldn't afford a plane ticket... her Mom paid for the Greyhound ticket. Ramona looks like she's had a rough life. I start calling airlines, to see if I can find her a plane ticket from Richmond. They don't go to Concord, and even the flights that go to New Hampshire are leaving in the next 15 minutes. I tell Ramona, "I tried." She laughs, "You didn't have to do that!" But yeah, I did. She's got a better attitude than I do about this whole thing. She deserves to get home.

I have family friends in Richmond, folks I haven't seen in years who have known me since I was a baby. Brian picks me up from the station even though he has a ton of homework to do, and Karen comes and talks to me even though she's sick. They heat up delicious vegetable beef soup for me which I eat with oyster crackers and a mellow-tasting green apple. I sit and talk with them and feel guilty about my peeps back at the station. Manny started stomping around and cursing again when he found out about the 3 hour wait. He went and got Leslie and they went outside to smoke. Other folks on the bus --the elderly African-Americans dressed in their suits and hats and the occasional cane, the girl who picked up Amani wandering in the aisle and laid her back down in the seat behind a sleeping A.M. without a word, the middle-aged woman with her grey hair pulled back in a ponytail who watched all the goings-on with Leslie with a placid expression and said nothing, the young woman long dark hair and a large present for some kid (her kid? who knows)-- are all stuck there.

On the way out of my friends' house, I grab two chocolate cookies and an apple for Ramona. She laughs when I hand them to her. "You didn't have to do that!" Manny and Ramona are waiting in line, and they point out Leslie, in another line for a bus to New York. She has been drinking more, something called Red Rose, and asked Ramona if she wanted to go outside and smoke crack with her. Ramona could have taken the New York bus but decided not to, since Leslie had proclaimed that she would be sitting next to her. Manny is still worried about her, but she's clearly beyond anyone's control.

I get in the back of the line around 10... and stand there for the next hour and a half. No one offers us any explanation for why the 10:20 bus isn't leaving at 10:20. None of the employees claim to know anything. An attractive African-American guy gets one of the female employees to tell him that the bus we can see just beyond the door broke down, and that they are "cleaning" another bus for us. We wait, and wait, and wait. A man with fried chicken in a white styrofoam container talks to me a little bit, trying to impress upon me the arduousness of his trip to Pittsburgh. I am not impressed, thinking of Ramona way up ahead of me in line. I talk to a placid-looking African American girl, asking her if this is typical, and she says it is out of Richmond and DC, but she's never had any problems out of Norfolk. A gay African-American guy sighs "this is so STRESSFUL" behind me, so I talk to him. He's on his way to St. Louis.

I am getting ready to lose it. I'm texting my Mom, she's telling me to be calm. I'm not calm. I'm outraged that all these people in line, who are all willing to talk to each other, to me, to whomever, are treated like cattle. I'm outraged that the Greyhound employees don't care. That they don't see any of us, because they know we're travelling this way because we don't have another choice. I'm thinking of all the elderly people who've been sitting here for 3 hours and who aren't complaining at all.

The line finally starts to move. The gay guy and I go to the shorter line after I see Manny get on through that line. Once on the bus, it's clear that there aren't quite as many seats as there are people. I see the elderly people, who seem to have stuck together, getting on. I look up and smile at an elderly African-American man, "Hello", I say, feeling guilty that I got on before him. He says "Thank you" and sits down.

His name is Rudy, and he instantly calms me down. He was down in Bristol, TN, getting chemotherapy. He's been travelling since 9am. He hasn't eaten anything because he has a bad stomach and is out of his medication. He thought he'd be home by 8pm, like I did, and could take his medication and eat then. As people get on the bus --as a young woman in front of us refuses to take her bag off of the seat next to her and a man sits on it as hard as he can, as a Greyhound employee threatens to cut one of the drivers-- Rudy talks softly, telling me stories of his time in the military, of his work at the Pentagon, of his college reunions, of his children, of his grandchildren, of his time as a pastor. For a whole hour, as the bus driver barrels up 95 towards DC, I ask questions and Rudy tells me about his life. He's done the funeral services for his parents, his younger brother, and his youngest daughter, who was 34 when she died of a heart attack. I say "you've suffered a lot" and he says, "I don't think of it as SUFFERING, really". He calms me down, slows me down... he's telling me through his stories about how to appreciate what's good, how to handle what's bad. He's partially blind, but not terribly bothered by that. He's wearing a back brace because of a problem with his leg, but with the brace on he doesn't feel the pain, so he's grateful for that. I listen to him, and I look out the window at the 3/4 full moon flooding the sky with light. The bus is otherwise quiet. I'm profoundly grateful that he's sitting beside me.

Eventually, he falls asleep. We pass a sign that says 37 miles to Washington. Almost home. Manny and Ramona are talking quietly in the seats across from us. They're talking about Ramona's life, about the mistakes she's made, about how she's hoping to start over in NH. Manny says, "you know, the most important thing is faith. I believe that. It doesn't matter how much money you have, how much stuff. What's important is your faith in God." Ramona says "yeah, I've learned that. No matter what happens, you've got to put your faith in God, that He's gonna work things out."

A phrase flashes through my mind: communion of saints. That's what this is. In the span of less than 12 hours, I've made friends with at least three people --Manny, Ramona, and Rudy-- who have faith, and who have endured a day of complete powerlessness with varying degrees of fortitude. I'm in a Greyhound bus cruising up 95 with the Least of These. and I'm one of them.

We get close to the station and I call a cab. Rudy says "you stay in that building, now, until the cab comes." I say, yessir. The bus pulls in and he says "go ahead now... I'm gonna wait til the crowd gets out. You go ahead and beat the crowd". I say "you sure, what about your bag?" He says "go on. It's been a real pleasure talking to you." In the station, Manny gives me his phone number "Call me and let me know how you're doin, ok? Been a real pleasure talking to you on the bus!" and Ramona says "thanks for everything" with her tired, kind smile. Manny walks me out to find my cab and says "hope to hear from you!" On the way home, the Ethiopian cab driver and I laugh and tell Greyhound stories.

And people ask why I don't drive.