Sunday, December 18, 2011

Resurrection

This is a poem about being beat half to death by life, and of looking God in the eye and daring Him to heal you. For my best friend.

(This poem came so quickly that I suspect I'm copying at least part of someone else's work. I hope not. If so, I'm sorry.)

Resurrection

Raise me up from ashes, burning...
Dreams that fall from me like stars,
scars that mark where I have tried
and failed, and bathe myself in ashes.

Raise me up from ashes, crying
tears like tiny raindrops, dropping
down to earth and watering
the flowers that will grow around my feet.

Raise me up from ashes, clutching
pain, and teach me how to let it go.
I wear the past like a coat of skins.
I'm tired of blood. Set me free.

Raise me up from ashes, lighting
a fire to fuel me forward, towards
resurrection. Ascending, I will rise
towards You, and reach out my hand.

Raise me up from ashes, singing.
Raise me up from ashes, dancing.
Raise me up from ashes, battle-weary,
scarred, with fire in my eyes.

Raise me up, let me shine,
and I will sing Your praise.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hail Mary, Bad-Ass Queen of Heaven

(image from http://stwalburgas.blogspot.com/2009/01/mary-queen-of-heaven.html)

So next Sunday at Church of the Common Table, the Fabulous Dr. Weave and I will be leading a service on Mary. Mary and I have some Issues, so I thought that rather than make my contribution to next week's service a giant therapy session for Moffitt, I'd hash this out on the blog. Because, you know, the internet is a great place to work out one's Issues. *cough*

So, a couple of things have happened lately that have me re-hashing The Catholic Years. I know I've mentioned this before on the blog, but I was received into the Roman Catholic Church on the Feast of St. Lucia (December 13), 1997 at St. Mary of the Angels in Bayswater, London, not very far from Notting Hill. As part of being received into the church, I took the name Elizabeth after Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be canonized by the church, and an American woman who, like me, had found the Church while living in Europe. I remained Catholic until I was received into the Episcopal Church in November of 2001.

I was a Very Good Catholic, particularly when I was living in England. I prayed the rosary regularly, prayed morning and evening prayer almost every day, went to Mass at least once a week and spent regular time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I was always in at least one choir in one church. In the summer of 1997, while I was in the process of converting, I fasted and prayed the rosary (often in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament) for three separate intentions, all three of which were answered. My friends at the time joked that I should be canonized. I became engaged to my Catholic boyfriend in July of 1998, and moved the following month back from the U.S. (where I'd returned to finish college) to the U.K. to marry him.

A year later, all three of my intentions had reversed themselves, meaning that two people who'd been "healed" were dead, and another situation that had righted itself had gone completely off the tracks again. My fiance had dumped me three weeks before our wedding and four weeks before my visa for the U.K. expired. After much discussion, I found that the main reason that my fiance had ended things was because he felt I would not make a good wife and mother. His main reason for asserting this was because I told him that I wanted to travel and see the world at some point.

I blamed him for wrecking my life with his last-minute revelation, but I also blamed Mary. I'd prayed countless times for her intercession for this relationship in addition to other intentions. I didn't see how I had an option but to believe that praying for her intercession had been a bad idea... not only had I not gotten what I'd asked for, but I'd hoped more than I ever would have had I not believed there was something extra-special about her prayers.

But more than that, I blamed the constant teaching of the Church about Mary and about her example for women. Almost every statue or image of Mary I'd ever seen, she was demurely looking down, either at Baby Jesus or just... down... like the Queen of Heaven was afraid to even meet *my* eye as I prayed for her intercession. Over and over again in sermons during Mass, I heard the phrase "she said yes" (referring to her response to the Archangel Gabriel) folded into messages that painted the Perfect Woman as passive, quiet, subsuming all her desires (and, evidently, her personality) to the whims and wishes of her husband and children.

I was pretty sure I knew that, on a level maybe he wasn't even aware of, Phil was comparing me to this Perfect Woman. *Mary* wouldn't want to travel. *Mary* wouldn't want to work outside the home, and Mary sure as hell wouldn't be spending time writing poetry or looking for singing gigs outside of the church (both of which I was doing). Oh, and Mary wouldn't swear. Or drink as much as I did (and do), or laugh as loud. Or talk at all, actually, unless responding to a direct question. I REALLY tried to be what Phil wanted me to be, tried to live up to all the unsubtle messages about the archetype to whom I was expected to conform. But I couldn't.

Of course, over time I've become convinced that neither did Mary.

When I turn away from the Church's later teachings on Mary, and instead just go to the New Testament, I don't find a lot about Mary, and what I do find does NOT suggest a person of passivity. This is what I find:

- A young woman who looked THE FREAKING ARCHANGEL GABRIEL in the EYE and said "Yessir, I will give birth to the SON OF GOD." What the what?? This gives me chills even while I'm typing it. The word "precocious" doesn't even begin to cover the kind of Stone Cold Badassery it would take to

a) TALK TO one of the FREAKING HOST OF HEAVEN and

b) calmly agree to give birth to THE SON OF GOD.

She had to have known that doing this was going to put her seriously on the outs with everyone in her family, who would have absolutely zero motivation to believe her story about being impregnated by GOD and not by the cute boy that lived down the street. And she said yes *anyway*. This may be because she had a rock-solid faith and understood her relation to God as God's servant, but also because she was confident in her ability to make this decision and to deal with the inevitable shit-storm that was going to follow.

- A woman who, directly before her due date (and after above-mentioned shit-storm, which involved, among other things, being sent packing by her fiance so she didn't get stoned to death for adultery), was informed that she had to make a long journey because of some impersonal ruler in a far away place, and upon arriving at the destination, gave birth to her first-born possibly unaided by anyone except her husband and in a BARN. No pain meds, no birthing pool, just push that sucker out in a pile of hay surrounded by animal dung a few steps from the hooves of Bessie the Cow. Again, it took serious physical and mental strength to get through this ordeal.

- A woman who, only a year or so after giving birth was forced to flee to a foreign country and live as a refugee until the Insane King who wanted to murder her son died.

- A pragmatic problem solver who was not afraid to ask Jesus to step in and be Mr. Fix It in a Situation of Social Awkwardness. There is no story about Mary I relate to more than the Wedding Feast at Cana. I could TOTALLY see myself doing what Mary did. The conversation reminds me of the kind of conversation I might have had with my brother when we were teenagers (I kind of acted like his Mom... he'd be the first to acknowledge this):

Me: Ben... BEN, listen to me.
Ben: (annoyed) What??
Me: They're getting ready to run out of wine. (raising eyebrows) We can't let that happen now, CAN we??
Ben: (even more annoyed) What do you want ME to do about it??
Me: (to the waitstaff) Do whatever he tells ya.

Not suggesting that my brother is Jesus, of course, but it just feels familiar to me as someone who fixes problems quickly and often really doesn't care how it gets done. This is not the action of a passive, shrinking violet, or someone overly concerned with propriety. Mary was not the slightest bit afraid to ask the Son of the Almighty God to fix an immediate, practical problem involving a shortage of alcohol. *This* is a woman after my own heart.

- A woman who, upon hearing that her son had been lead away and sentenced to death, went to the foot of his cross to watch him die in one of the most gruesome ways possible. I know that mothers love their children to the point of death, but watching your child bleed to death slowly is, again, not the action of a person with your normal amount of stamina. I can see a mother not being able to handle this, or not being able to remain in front of it.

I can also imagine that it took quite a bit of doing to get to Golgotha, since Jesus' execution was kind of a Thing and there were undoubtedly a ton of people there to witness it. Mary was no spring chicken by this point, but she got herself there through the crowds and the chaos and probably a security checkpoint or two (there was a healthy amount of fear about Jesus' followers) because there was no other place she could possibly be but beside her dying son (who had, by the way, three years earlier refused to settle down and have grandkids, quit his job, left her and his home and the family business and wandered around for 3 years causing trouble with the religious authorities [which would, of course, equal trouble for his family... we don't have this in the scriptures but I can't imagine they were left alone through all of this]).


The bottom line for me is that I believe I and many other women who have loved (or been raised among) Catholic men have suffered directly from being compared to an image of Mary that doesn't fit what little there is about her in the Bible. I find this an abuse of Mary, and an abuse of women who aren't particularly demure or soft-spoken... not that I'm hating on women who are demure and soft-spoken, but as it so happens I don't really possess either quality, and neither do most of my female friends. To me, these are character traits, not moral qualities... but in my experience as a Catholic, they were raised to the level of virtue. I consider this to be tragic for women whom God has made with gifts of vision and leadership, women who are eloquent and talented and who shine even when they're not trying to. I'm not talking about myself, by the way... I'm thinking of specific women I've known who have suffered greatly beneath the Church's teaching on women... have suffered as they've attempted to emulate a neutered, silent, weak-spirited version of Mary not supported by the Scriptures. Women who, unlike me, chose to stay and suffer.

When I envision having peace with Mary again, I imagine a Mary who would look me in the eye and tell me to get my shit together... with love, but also with a gleam in her eye that would let me know she was serious and would open up a can on me without a moment's hesitation if necessary. I imagine Mary with a firm jaw, saying "Yes, if I could bear the Son of God, bear the shame of my pregnancy and all of the difficulties with and questions around raising Him... and then watch Him die, then you can handle what God places in your life." I imagine a Mary who even now says "that's not too trifling a problem for me to take to God for you. Hold on, I'll be right back." I imagine her tough and strong and a little weathered. She was a carpenter's wife, after all. It's not like she had it easy.

And I also imagine her slowly shaking her head at all of the people who have promoted an image of her as weak and passive and demure... and I imagine her having a word or two with God about THAT, too.

If I make peace with Mary, it'll be with Mary, Bad-Ass Queen of Heaven... and I'll ask her prayers for a Church that accepts women as they are, quiet or loud; leaders or followers; with many children, few or none; married or single. Maybe I could go to that Church again someday. Maybe.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

the optimist, waiting

So, my friend Richard Russeth wrote and posted a beautiful poem today, which inspired me to try and write a poem, too, since it's been a while. It's not great, but it's what I have today.

the optimist, waiting

Hope sits out here, glittering,
like a hill of ruby quartz
in the middle of a plain of
dry grass, the wind blowing.

The sun strikes it, and it sparkles,
casting light like shooting stars
everywhere, everywhere,
blinding and brilliant.

And then the clouds grumble in,
blocking the light. Rain falls,
tears sliding
down
the ruby rock.

...but also, washing it clean
of dirt, dead leaves and ashes.
The sun shines again,
and it glitters, brightly.

How long until the rains wear it down?
How long can hope hold out,
sitting alone,
and waiting?

Not forever.
Not forever.
Not forever.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Degas and the Virtue of Never Being Finished

"He is like a writer striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and redrafting, canceling, advancing by endless recapitulation, never admitting that his work has reached its final stage: from sheet to sheet, copy to copy, he continually revises his drawing, deepening, tightening, closing it up."

- Paul Valéry (1871-1945), writing about Degas -

So I went to spend some quality time worshiping in the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection today (it feels like a chapel to me, so I consider it to be one). When I got there, the room was crowded, so I ambled upstairs to check out the Phillips' exhibit on Degas. I wasn't particularly excited about it. I like Van Gogh, how you can see his wrestling with insanity in the frenzied lines of his paintings. I like Rembrandt, how he uses light to channel your focus and create a sort of dream-like state, how he often tells a full story with really very few subjects on the canvas. I like Kandinsky and his use of mathematical/musical/fractal themes and bright colors. I like Rothko's outright obsession with intense, intense colors. As far as I was concerned, Degas was a Guy Who Painted Chicks In Fluffy Dresses.

This, of course, is why we have art galleries... so that we're pushed to think more deeply about the image in front of us, if for no other reason than we can see the artist's brush strokes and are forced to confront that this image is here because a person made it become. When an image becomes clichéd to us, it feels as though it has always been. We forget there was a process, and we forget that there was a moment at the beginning where the artist wasn't at all sure they knew what they were doing. We forget that they were human... that maybe they never really knew what they were doing.

The most striking thing to me about the Degas exhibit is that it consists largely of studies and sketches that he did of dancers and nudes, with the same images again, and again, and again. Dancers resting, dancers standing, dancers stretching, women bathing... the walls are covered with half finished renderings of the same few models in the same few poses, over and over and over. I'm not used to this, from the Phillips or from any other exhibit that I've seen. I'm used to seeing one or two studies hanging near finished works so that you get some idea of the artist's process... plus it feels pleasantly sneaky to think that you're seeing something they didn't intend to be seen.

To make the exhibit largely about the studies themselves, to center it around partially finished work, seemed very profound to me. Maybe this is only due to the fact that what the Phillips has of Degas' work is largely sketches, but I felt like it was something deeper, like it was about Degas himself, or about art more generally, or maybe about humanity. Or maybe I was thinking about it too much... but here's what I was thinking...

I can't find a really good internet rendering of the image at the top of this post, but that image is the first one that took my breath away. The effect is better served by the image at right. As with the rest of the sketches, there's a lot of vagueness... scribbled lines, colors, shading not really worked out... but then BLAM, there are shoulders, a face, an arm, real enough to look as though they were photographed. The stark, surprising beauty of that had far more of an effect on me than any of the other finished paintings. I felt like I was witnessing a living being emerge from the paper... the creative process of a man who died almost 100 years ago in a continual state of re-birth on the page.

After I got over my initial reaction, the first thing I thought was "here's the dignity in not finishing", and the second thing I thought was "...and the dignity in starting even when you're not sure you're ready". What these sketches suggest to me is that Degas was so thoroughly committed to his process that finishing things was almost a sidebar. The point was to keep trying, to keep showing up at the page, to keep attempting to render these images that he found so compelling, to keep trying to make a static image on a page move like a dancer.

Beyond that, I think I was touched at how these sketches felt to me like what it is to be alive. I've been meditating a lot on how much of life is improvisation, but that this creates a level of tension when you're on a spiritual path and you believe in God and believe in truth. On the one hand, there is a responsibility to be present to what is in front of you and to what the Holy Spirit is revealing through your life, but on the other hand there's truth and the dictates of conscience/ received ideas of morality/scripture, etc. I don't know that I can make this make sense, but seeing that image of a dancer's firm, fleshy shoulders emerging from squiggled lines and vague colors on a yellowed piece of paper seem to speak to that for me. There are always things that must remain true, firm, and concrete or I/we risk just kind of falling apart, but there is also always a lot of becoming... firm shoulders and squiggly outlines can co-exist, and still be breathtakingly beautiful.

Even in his finished works, Degas often seems to maintain this sense of vague edges to great effect. Standing and observing "Melancholy" (image at left), I was struck again at how much he chose not to define in the background, or even, really in the foreground when compared to the woman's face. Again, the greatest reality in this image is that of flesh, and his attentiveness to that makes it nearly impossible to look away from the woman's face. I thought to myself that "Melancholy" wasn't a strong enough word... this woman has been obliterated by something and is hanging on by a thread. So much communicated in this little space because he choose to fill in only what was important.

The quote at the beginning of this post is on the wall at the Phillips beside the sketch of the dancer tying her shoe. I scribbled it down in my little red moleskine, which I carry with me all the time and which contains a lot of scraps of things that I've tried to capture when they've dropped into my brain. It's also full of notes to myself... titles of albums, books, and paintings that I was trying to record because I knew I'd forget... as well as the blood pressure and pulse readings I get every time I give blood. This is how my life is... bits of some decent-ish writing, some singing here and there, occasional songwriting with friends... also books, papers, color, chaos, and quite a bit of blah.

The quote suggests a considerable amount of discipline on Degas' part, but in the context of a roomful of beautiful sketches nowhere near completion, it takes on a different tone, suggesting instead a man comfortable with the chaos of creativity, willing and able to be a beginner every day... someone who, perhaps, also had small notebooks filled with ideas and maybe also didn't clean his apartment as often as he should. I'm grateful to get a window into the kind of beauty that can emerge from showing up to participate in that creative chaos, day after day after day. It gives me hope.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sounds like Jupiter, doesn't it?

So I went down to Occupy DC tonight, for various reasons, but largely because I felt that, after what happened in Oakland, CA earlier this week, this was the place I wanted to be tonight. I got there in time to stand at the edges of the evening General Assembly for about an hour and a half, listening.

This is my fourth time down there, and every time I've been I've come away with mixed feelings and a sense of something I struggle hard to articulate. I want to try to articulate it here.

First off, I'm fascinated and a little in awe of their decision making process. I know a very, very little bit about group decision making in a flat leadership structure. I learn more and more through Common Table all of the time, and I learned some things in my masters degree about facilitation and group decision-making, but I've never witnessed something like this: a culture of its own emerging in a public space... a little mini-society, complete with rules for decision-making and administration of resources. My understanding is that the process they use, as well as some of their lingo and use of common gestures and symbols, has been adapted from Occupy Wall Street, but that doesn't make it much less amazing to me. I watched two young women facilitate a large gathering, complete with occasional ranting from folks who appeared mentally ill, with competence, purpose and clarity. Decisions were made. Plans were formed. Tasks were delegated. In other words, shit got *done*.

I spend a really, really disproportionate amount of time in meetings, and the fact that a group of people could self-organize with this level of efficiency and conduct a meeting that is actually productive in the middle of a park on a cold Friday night kind of blew my mind. Whatever ultimately comes of these protests, there are graduate degrees to be had studying the conditions that have led to these mini-communities forming and sustaining themselves all over the country.

However much admiration I have for their process, though, I always feel a little ill at ease being there. I thought this was because I work for the Government, because I can only spend limited time down there, because I'm not a "radical", whatever that is exactly.

But tonight I looked around and saw other people like me... people in work clothes, with sensible overcoats, carrying laptops. Some of these people spoke, and mentioned their day jobs and their desire not to be arrested because it would jeopardize their employment. As I looked around the crowd, I realized that the people who'd clearly come from work appeared to be about a quarter of the crowd. I wasn't expecting that at ALL. So that wasn't the source of my discomfort, exactly. What was?

My friend Micah Bales has been involved in Occupy DC from the very beginning. He's the reason I came down to the protests the first time, and my admiration for his dedication to this cause is the main reason I keep going. He's struggled very publicly on his blog with being a person of faith (he is a founding member of Capitol Hill Friends, where I worship on Sunday nights) who is there as a result of those convictions. I found his thoughts at this post clarifying tonight, particularly this quote:

"There are many Christians involved in Occupy DC - I discover more all the time. Nevertheless, the overall culture and worldview of the Occupy movement is a lowest-common-denominator, generally left-wing set of assumptions. So far, almost all of the discourse at Occupy DC has been about "restoring democracy," "building power," or the plight of "the 99%." I have not heard anyone - including the folks whom I know are Christians - talking about the Kingdom of God and Jesus' mission to liberate the poor and oppressed."

When I read that, I thought, oh. That's it. It wouldn't honestly occur to me to expect Occupy DC to have a Christian message, but without that message, the desires of the protesters for a better, more ethical and just society feel to me like clothes that just don't fit right. It's not that lack of faith makes what they're asking for inauthentic... but without faith, I can't access it. I can't get beyond the irony of folks on smart phones (including me) protesting the abuses of capitalism. I can't get away from the twinge I feel in my gut walking away from the park and into the train station, where the actual homeless people are slumped over in the corner. Without Christ at the center, so much of what is being asked for seems put on to me, inauthentic.

The final point: for all I would say about community forming spontaneously around the protests, no one ever talks to me when I'm there, and that might bother me more than anything else. I understand that the nature of a protest is such that the participants are going to be self-conscious, but the level of self-consciousness feels really inauthentic to me. Walking out of the park, away from the protesters and where the usual street people are, one man greeted me: "Good evening, Queen." I said "hullo" and smiled and he said "God bless you, have a good night", and I said "you, too" and thought gosh, it's nice to be called "Queen". Waiting at the intersection, a man in a fuzzy blue hat who seemed like he was probably high approached and said "Good evening, ma'am. You're very beautiful. Pencils and lights. Sounds like Jupiter, doesn't it?"

And I smiled and thought, yes, it sounds like Jupiter. And that I suddenly felt much more at home than I did in that park.

For all my confusion about what I feel about Occupy DC, I'm still glad they're there. DC can be so numb, and so numbing. Last Sunday, when I walked into the park and stood around an impromptu concert featuring a stand-up bass, violin, mandolin, guitars and rhythm instruments, I was deeply grateful for that. I am grateful to see evidence that people who choose to step out of the flow of "normal" life can then choose to organize themselves and have a medical tent, food tent, a legal consultation team (!) and even tech support. I love that there are always people painting and at least one person playing a drum. I love that people have named their tents.

I don't know what the end of Occupy DC will be... but I know that when it ends, I'll feel like we've lost something... a site of protest and rebellion in a town that is often too well-off and comfortable for its own good... an outward manifestation of my own inward frustration at the injustices I'm a part of without my consent. So I'll continue to visit, and I will pray for it. That is all I know to do.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I Write

So this is (or was, almost) the National Day on Writing, and being a good writer, I didn't pay any attention to it until just now when I realized it was almost over.

So, this is my attempt to say why I write.

Why I Write

Just like you
I am
a set of variables comprising
what others see as
me.

(Partial inventory:

- facial expressions - cheekbones, freckles, skin
- body language - moves hands like this when talking
- height/weight/hair color/eye color
- the way eyes change when a person smiles
- clothing and words
- voice - laughing, whispering, singing
- preferences
- aversions
- memories
- regrets)

Just like you
I am
a collection of contradictory impulses
decisions not decided, really...
impulses checked, chucked, indulged.
For everything I appear to have chosen
there is something in my
(history, biology, neurochemistry,
background, upbringing, belief system)
that probably pushed me toward it.

Just like you
I picked up
everything I do, say or think
somewhere
along
the way.

Just like you
I am
living with book ended days
waking up, hair disheveled,
disturbed by a dream...
and going to bed,
settling into sleep
giving into day's end.

Just like you
I am
aging in my body
and both limited and blessed by it
in a thousand different ways.
I also fear my death
despite my faith
(and maybe, sometimes, because of it).

So this is why I write...
to take the vastness of
who and what we both are
and say
"I'm sorry we have so little time
to make ourselves understood to each other."

I write to pull a moment out of the
running stream of my history,
and show it to you, and say,
"look, here we are,
because I am
just like you."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Doubt

So, this past Sunday at Common Table, the liturgical team led a service based around a simple liturgy from Iona. As part of this liturgy, we meditated on scripture and also on our past week, and were encouraged to share a short anecdote from the week, incorporating our response to the scriptures in that. We were particularly encouraged to make our anecdote visual... to try and capture a particular moment visually.

The texts we were meditating on, taken from the Lectionary, were difficult (Exodus 32:1-14 and Matthew 22:1-14). These texts emphasized the wrath of God, and in particular, I found the questions posed by the opening verses of Matthew 22 disturbing.

So I wrote about my cab ride from the night before.


Doubt

The cab driver's skin is the color of a Hershey's Special Dark bar. His collar is up, against the mild cold of the evening. "You are smart," he says. "You go home early, beat the traffic." I laugh. "You bet, man. I love my sleep." Pause. He looks at me in the rearview mirror. His eyes are the same Hershey Dark, with arched, thick eyebrows, giving a vaguely Sean Connery effect. His face is creased with lines, particularly around the eyes and forehead. Worry lines. This man is a thinker.

I decide to say it. "Plus, I gotta be at church in the morning." Arched eyebrows fly skyward. "Church!!", he says. "What kind church?" Ahh. What kind church. "It's hard to say. Let's just say Protestant. We're a mix of denominations." I hold up my hands, with interlaced fingers. "Somehow we make it work."

He nods. I dive in again. "You're Ethiopian?" Slight crease between the eyebrows. "Yes, I am Ethiopian." "Ethiopian Orthodox, then?" The crease smooths. "Yes... I mean I was. But now I am little bit confused." He switches lanes. He's a competent driver, knows these roads, knows where he's going.

I say, "Well, a new culture, another country... it's easy to be confused."

And the dam bursts.

20 minutes of questions, challenges, one arm waving, one hand on the wheel... eyebrows raising, furrowing, dancing on his forehead. "If God is love, why did He kill His Son??" "If Jesus was God, why was He afraid to die??" "All the churches, they teach different things, who to believe??" "Why so many versions of the Bible??"

We're hurtling down 14th Street: lit shop windows, darkened office buildings, shadowed doorways, pedestrians, crosswalks... a stream of vari-colored images: the secular world, material, embodied, and a thoroughly unhelpful visual landscape for contemplating answers to these questions. Not that I really intend to answer them, though. He's not giving me space for answers... occasional pepperings of "Yes?", "You see??", and "You know???" appear to be there for verbal ornamentation alone.

So I nod. I say, "I see your point," and a couple of times, when he stops for breath, I offer a short response to the couple of things for which I feel I have a response. Some of his questions I just don't have answers for... they're things that bother me, too, but not enough to chuck my faith. Plus, it's late, I'm tired, I just want to get home. I end up having to talk over him in order to give directions... otherwise, it appears he would just speed on on on into the dark night, driving as long as his questions last, hurtling us both forward into the bottomless pit of his doubt.

In front of my apartment, he turns to me, intent on continuing. I mutter something about how he has more fares to collect, hand over my money (with a healthy tip), and pat him on the shoulder. "Keep asking the questions, buddy." Pathetic. But a bright smile flashes across his face, worry lines around his eyes smooth. "Have good night!!", he says brightly.

Is that what he needed? It was a pointless thing to say, but maybe better than anything else I could have said. He wasn't looking for an answer... he just wanted a confessor for his doubts. I walk up the front steps of my building, tired and heavy with my own silence, but unable to think of anything more Christ-like than bearing witness to his struggle and answering gently and briefly where I could.

LORD, have mercy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Taking things hard

I wasn't going to write anything about September 11 or even post my usual Facebook status honoring my friend Angie Houtz who was killed in the Pentagon... but this morning at Church of the Common Table a few brave souls decided to lead us in a service where we both remembered our own experiences and talked through how 9/11 has changed us... for good and for bad.

I decided to tell my story about Angie (pictured at left), because it's been 10 years, and although I'd been really ambivalent about this service, I found myself agreeing with the folks who'd planned it that this was an important thing for us to do.  Ten years is an obvious milestone... it seems important to look back, and to take stock, and to ask yourself about your life.

When I told my story, I was surprised to find myself shaking and crying.  I had not expected that.  Not at ALL.  I hadn't cried when telling this story since right after it happened.  I have continued to feel over the past 10 years as I did when I was first interviewed about her death... that it would probably be more honorable to keep my mouth shut since it seems like I'm trying to draw attention to myself by mentioning her death... but I always ultimately decide to share it because even though I end up talking about myself a lot in this story, it *isn't* about me.  It's about remembering *her*, and saying "I knew an amazing woman for a very short time who inspired me to be better, and who should still be alive today and isn't".

And then I realized that talking about Angie's death put me in the emotional space I'm at over my friend Charisse, who died on July 25 of this year, and whom I posted about a couple of posts back.  I'll come back to her in a minute.

My Angie story, in a nutshell, goes something like this:  I moved to the DC area on September 9, 2000, trying to rebuild my life after being dumped 3 weeks before my wedding in January of 1999.  There were a lot of reasons why recovering from that was hard, but part of it is that Phil abandoned me in a foreign country and with a foreign form of Christianity.  I had chosen England and Catholicism not *only* because I loved him, but in leaving me, he failed to account for how hard I'd had to fight for the decisions I made in the context of loving him.  I was excommunicated by the PCA. My relationship with my family was strained.  I'd become a subject of controversy and embarrassment to some at the PCA college I attended when I returned from England as a Catholic.  People took it upon themselves to attempt to convert me back.  Coming back to the U.S. as a rejected 23 year old with no plans, my tail between my legs and a lot of bridges burned was bad enough without the confusion and heartbreak.

So after licking my wounds for a while in Roanoke, I was hoping for a fresh start in DC.  However, moving to DC was extraordinarily hard... harder than I'd thought.  It was an act of obedience... I had prayed for another door to open, had promised God I "would never kick in another door".  I thought I was being punished in some way for how little I'd cared about how my decisions had hurt others.  DC was honestly one of the last places on earth I'd ever want to live, but when the opportunity came to move, I took it, because it was the only door that had opened.  But I was wretchedly, wretchedly lonely... and broke, and without direction, and still so confused about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing.  Everyone I met in the DC area seemed like they'd walked straight out of Stepford:  perfect, rational, making only good choices.  I couldn't connect with anyone.

I started having panic attacks in July of 2001... the same day I pawned my engagement ring and found out that it was a cheap knock-off.  These attacks were 2-3 hour affairs, and they were nightmarish.  The feeling you get when you almost hit someone with your car?  Or when you have a reallllly bumpy plane ride?  That feeling. Without letup. For HOURS.  I had fears of being buried alive... I couldn't shake the thoughts about that.  I couldn't let go of the thought that the brain might live on even though the body was dead.  I was afraid that I wasn't actually going to go to heaven, that God had abandoned me.  Looking back on it, everything had kind of come apart, and I had been brave, but I couldn't take the pressure or the loneliness anymore.  I found myself believing that God was willfully cruel.  *I* was finally coming apart.

I met Angie in August of 2001, at the charismatic Episcopal church where I'd fled from the Catholic church in search of some sense of spiritual rooting and comfort.  She was so full of warmth, and listened so intently and with so much compassion as I found myself telling her about everything that had happened after it came out that we'd both studied abroad in England.  I was a little intimidated by her... she had everything together:  a career, involvement in so many good causes and so loved and connected within her spiritual community. But I felt compassion from her, and I felt like she and I connected... like she respected me despite my poor clothing choices, bad hair, crappy administrative assistant job and just general chaos... like she looked past that and saw what I wanted SOMEBODY to see... that I *wanted* more.  That I *wanted* to give and not be locked in my depression and confusion, but I didn't know how to get out.

We hung out twice, and I was really looking forward to getting to know her better.  I felt kind of like she was my way in... to meeting more positive people, to figuring out my new life, and how to be alive in spite of loss... like she was carrying a light I'd lost, and I could follow that light.

When the plane hit the Pentagon on September 11, Angie was in a meeting room precisely where the plane hit, and was killed instantly.

As things happen, I ended up speaking at her memorial service, and then being interviewed by Voice of America about her, and then was asked to do another interview, at which point I said "enough".  People were drawn to my story of her effect on me... they were drawn towards my conclusion... that I was tired of living a shadow life in my head, the life I wanted to live in England.  I wanted to be as alive as she was, where she was, fully present.  I wanted to give, like she did.  I think people were drawn to the idea of this outgoing, beautiful woman reaching out to this quiet, depressed girl and giving her a vision of a better life.  Like in some sense Angie would "live on" through me... which, of course, she wouldn't.  I was uncomfortable with being asked to share this over and over... it seemed attention grabbing, and weird and unnatural.  Not to mention that for the longest time if you Googled my name, one of the first links to come up was to the VOA story, with the words "Amy Moffitt was struggling with depression after moving to Washington, DC..."  Yikes.

I do feel like Angie's death... of being in the position of having to really process Angie's death and make meaning out of it... *did* play a part in pushing me forward.  I still didn't know what I was doing with my life, but figuring that out became more of a pressing matter.  I started teaching ESL just a couple of months later, and joined the Episcopal Church when the bishop came around to do his bishop thing.  I started to fight harder for my own life.  Teaching ESL lead to working with international students at GMU. Now, 10 years later, I have my own apartment, a masters degree, 7.5 years of experience in international education and 2.5 years of experience with the Government agency created in response to 9/11 to more effectively monitor international students and exchange visitors.  I have an amazing church, inspiring and generous friends, a small network of fellow poets and writers that I create with, and a neighborhood whose streets I know like the back of my hand.

But, to be honest, I'm back to wrestling with a certain measure of darkness. Charisse's death on July 25th has yet to leave me.  No reporters will be interviewing me about Charisse, but I'll be honest and say that her death has hit me harder than Angie's. I am haunted by the thought that she might be forgotten... that *I* might forget her.  She was in no way lesser of a light than Angie.  I'd known her longer, and more deeply.  She was generous to me, as Angie was, but I wasn't as needy.  I've written quite about this in my post about her a couple of posts back, so I won't go into more detail about our friendship...

But on this 10th anniversary of 9/11, I find myself longing for someone to write an article about Charisse in the paper.  I want a reporter on TV in a deep, solemn voice to say, every July 25th, "today, we remember what we have lost."  I want people to stop and take a moment of silence.  I want Voice of America to call me up and ask me about Charisse.  I want to be able to say "she was full of light", and have that translated into foreign languages and have it broadcast all over the world.  I want to be turning down requests from reporters.

This is the nature of loss.  It's mundane, most of the time.  People click their tongues and move on, because if we each felt the aggregate loss that occurs in any given day, we'd collapse from the weight.  Rib cages would crack.  We would disintegrate into dust.  I understand that.  But it doesn't change how I feel about it, or the sense of obligation I have to continue feeling that way, to let it run its course.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "I've made my whole career out of taking things hard."  I read that in my senior year of high school, in a library in Salem, VA, in a slightly rickety yet comfortable chair with my back to the window, and my whole body relaxed.  So there was a place for this in the world.  People might not only tolerate this, but celebrate it.  Thank God.

So today, I honor who Angie was, and I honor the changes that she helped catalyze in my life.  I tell my own 9/11 story as an act of solidarity.  And I pause and reflect on all who lost so much 10 years ago today.  Yes, tons more people die in other countries all over the world every day from disease and war and famine, and the innocent civilians killed in the War on Terror far exceed the number of those killed on 9/11.  But that's not what we remember today.  Today we remember our own dead, our own losses, our own mass trauma and grief.

And in this vein, I also cry bitterly for the loss of Charisse, and I continue to fear that she will not be honored enough for who she was.  I take this loss --a loss for me, and a loss for her many different communities, and a loss for the world-- hard.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquakes, lust, jealousy, and dreams

So my lovely friend Allie has demanded that I write a blog post, and I was already taking an extended break between practicing Radiohead songs on my keyboard and Extremely Simple Chords and Songs on the guitar (i.e. I was checking Facebook for earthquake stories), so Why Not.

So we had an earthquake today. It was a 5.8, which was a worrying feeling since I work on the 9th floor and the building shook and trembled and I really wasn't expecting an earthquake, but it's the third one I've experienced since living in DC and the fourth one I've experienced in my life (the fourth being in Antigua, Guatemala in 2007), so although I was shaken I wasn't worried, really. I mean, there are thousands upon thousands of people still living in tents in Haiti and facing yet ANOTHER hurricane season more than a year and a half after the quake there, so whatever, DC. Plus, Hurricane Irene is headed up the coast and will undoubtedly wreak much more havoc than that minute or so of booming, shaking and looking into the eyes of co-workers who felt themselves turning into panicked animals.

But let me dwell on that last point for a minute. Let me dwell on that strange, rare, intense moment of vulnerability between co-workers who are suddenly human. Let me tell you what I remember.

One of my bosses was wandering around repeating "what do we do? What do we do?", and I pulled her into the doorway where I was standing with another co-worker, and she said "Thank you, Amy", and I felt her shoulders relax. Then another co-worker started yelling "Get out of the building!! Get out of the building!!" and I started running, along with everyone else, towards the stairs, nine floors down. A woman on crutches was holding everyone up, as two men attempted to support her down the stairs, painful limp after painful limp. She was scared, and crying. I felt sorry for her. I kept placing my hand on the shoulder of the man in front of me who kept yelling to people to get down the steps. I tried to grab the hand of the custodial lady who works on our floor so she wasn't left behind, but I was going faster than her. When I got out and found my co-workers, I wanted to hug them all.

Right now, as I'm typing, I'm feeling an aftershock, just the slightest rumbling. It's really not a big deal, because I'm by myself with my cats and this computer. I'm not looking into anyone's eyes and seeing their panic. I'm not feeling this sensation of watching people who normally have their guard up suddenly become lost. It's just a little rumbling, and it was over in 20 seconds. I'm not in Somalia, or Libya, or Syria, or Juarez, Mexico, or Democratic Republic of Congo. Hell, I'm not even in LONDON. I am a woman living by myself in safety in one of the most affluent regions in the world. So some plates are shifting. So my shampoo bottle fell into the shower and the front cover popped off of my window unit air conditioner. Really, no big.

But being with people who were panicking, that set off something. Something visceral and deep and very difficult to put back in the holster. I am a Happy Single Person, but I needed someone to put my arms around. I needed someone to hold on to. There was this unarguable, sudden and strong desire to not be by myself, to have a mate and kids to check on. That animal panic I saw in the eyes of my co-workers was matched by an animal desire to be comforted and to have a place in a family.

I don't like that feeling. It seems to stand in opposition to what my mind and heart tell me to do. But it's *strong*.

For the past, oh maybe 10-11 weeks or so, a small group of my friends have been meeting to discuss The Artist's Way. This book, which bills itself as a 12 step program for recovering artists, changed my life the first time I studied it with a group in 2007-2008. It gave me permission to view my desire to write poetry and to sing and to attempt to write music as God-given desires. It helped me get out from under the oppressiveness of my shame at being white, and American, and middle-class, and educated... to shed that for just a little while in order to create things, and to be who God intended me to be... to (just for a little while) stop feeling like I needed to try to right the wrongs in the world, and to just be present and grateful for what I had. For what I dreamed. For what I could imagine the world being.

It helped me to be honest about what my dreams actually were, and to stop apologizing, to stop feeling like a cliche... at least for a little while. At least long enough to write a poem, or a song, or to make a connection with another artist. It allowed me to take on the identity "artist"... and I can't tell you how powerful that has been for me. It's made so much make sense about me that didn't before.

Last night, we went over a chapter that talked about jealousy... jealousy as a guide, jealousy that tells us what it is we know we should be doing but aren't. And this is what I mean by that.


I could sing this song. I could have written this song. God knows I have melodies and lyrics like this running through my head almost every day, driving me crazy because I can't get them out. But I didn't write this song. And so this red-headed chick is in a video dancing around singing a song I could have sung. And it's a beautiful and powerful song, but when I watch this video I just kind of want to kill her... because I should have written it, and I could sing it, maybe even better than she does.

We talked for a while last night about this jealousy. I think I was the person in the room who was the most affected by this. There's a verse in Proverbs that says "hope frustrated makes the heart sick, but longing fulfilled is a tree of life". I feel that. I feel that deeply. Years pass, and I'm still not singing anywhere. I'm not writing music. There's this band I know is out there, but they're still not here. Years pass, and that desire to create gets shoved into abandoned corners and tiny, worn scraps of time and attention. It's like I don't actually care.

But I *DO*. God, I do.

However, when life throws up storms... when it throws earthquakes; and unexpected relational rejections; and financial crisis after financial crisis; and the death of a young, beautiful and gifted friend; and my own, confusing aging... it's easy to forget what I want... because what is the point of learning the guitar when Charisse is dead? Or when thousands are dying in Somalia because of the horrific cruelty of those who are blocking aid to them? Or when Syria kills its own people because they dare ask for democracy? Or when young women disappear from Juarez every day and turn up dead?

What is the point of my dreams in the face of the suffering in the world? What is the worth of my dreams in the face of my own loneliness?

I don't know. I just know that they won't go away, and that I have a responsibility to find out what that's about. There will be earthquakes, and hurricanes. I will face the death of other friends, and I will spend wandering weeks lamenting them and screaming at God. I will be alive for other earthquakes, and hurricanes. I will see my own finances falter, and those of our country. I will find myself nauseated and helpless in the face of the suffering of those in countries where people are seen as disposable resources, or as nuisances. I will lose sleep thinking of the suffering of women in this world, and I will find myself powerless to really change things for them. I will see suffering and pain in the faces of my friends, and I will do what I can to help, but it won't ever take that suffering away.

But that doesn't do a thing about my dream. That itch persists. I know I'm supposed to be making music. I can't justify it, but I also can't do anything about the persistence of that dream. The longer I postpone the pursuit of this, the more confused I will be.

God doesn't make following Him easy, understandable, or even particularly sane. He just promised He'd be there. I don't know what else to cling to but that, as the earth shakes, and people die, and I sit in my apartment struggling to learn to play the guitar because I know I *must* do that.


Sorry to be dramatic. My sweet friend asked for a post, and this is what is in my heart.

Amen.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Goodbye, beautiful girl

So. A blog post, maybe the first of many on this topic, and maybe not.

On Monday, July 25, the world lost a light. I'm not screwing around with this designation... Charisse was a LIGHT. When she walked in the room, she brought a sense of presence with her... this person was Fully Here, in the room, and was excited to be there, and was excited to see you there. It didn't matter if she'd had a crappy day, or she felt bad, or she'd had her heart broken, or maybe she hadn't been going out very much recently because she was struggling. When Charisse showed up, she SHOWED UP.

And when Charisse showed up, she was always introducing people to people: "Here, this is ______. She's an incredible writer, and you're an incredible writer, so I thought you two should meet." Any time she invited me to an event, afterwards she'd send everybody's email addresses and blog addresses to each other in the hopes that we'd see in each other what she saw in us, that we'd network and spark something creative in each other... that new life would come from her connecting the people she loved. She was lavish and generous in her praise of my work, reposting links to some of my poems on her Facebook wall, tweeting about my poetry. Everyone I've been in touch with since her passing on Monday already knew who I was. That's not because I was a great friend, that's because Charisse talked me up. She showed me love by praising me to her friends.

The first time I ever met Charisse, she was doing me a favor. We had a SPARK reading that was being held in Annandale, and I had put out a general call for a ride. She wrote back quickly that she'd be happy to give me a ride if I could meet her at Huntington station. She took the Longest Way I Could Possibly Conceive Of from Alexandria to Annandale, I think just because she was so excited and talking about poetry and asking me questions about myself and telling me about herself that she wasn't paying any attention to where she was going. I remember getting out of the car at Beanetics and just having this enormous sense of privilege that I'd had all that time with this girl. There was so much about her that was lively and generous and good... I felt something healing about that time...

But I figured that would be it, you know? She'd done me a favor, she'd drop me back at the Metro, that'd be nice and lovely and we'd probably never speak again. But no, she invited me to dinner afterwards with her and her friend Aleisha, and later she invited me to brunch with other friends, and to her birthday celebration, and to a tour of the MLK Memorial that's being built in DC. She faithfully checked in on me, and after a time, I stopped being shy and weird and started contacting her back and checking in with her. She kept up with me until I knew she was serious about being my friend. She knew it would take that, and she was willing to keep trying. I don't know how she knew that, and I'm still not sure why a woman with so much life and so many friends decided to chase after this friendship...

except that when I read her writing, I connect with it. I feel like she and I had a similar heart in some ways. I honestly feel she is/was a more generous person than I am... but we both struggled with depression, struggled with being single, struggled with being women who felt things very deeply and didn't let go of things very easily, struggled with the after-effects of growing up broke, struggled with continuing to be broke because we took jobs that enriched our hearts but not our pockets. We both found solace and hope in writing (which, after all, doesn't take much money to do, and had helped us growing up for that very reason), in relationships, in faith. We both had had to fight to find joy at so many times in life that when we found it, we grabbed it hard with both arms and sometimes a leg and we both held on for dear life.

When I got dumped in January by my out-of-town boyfriend, I woke up the next morning and thought, "thank God I don't have to move to New York" and I thought of three reasons I was so grateful for that: Church of the Common Table, my beautiful friend Heidi, and my beautiful friend Charisse. I thought she'd be around. I thought we'd probably both stay single (because we'd both always be a little too much for any guy to handle) and write poetry and stay connected on that soul level for the rest of our lives. That was my heart. That was my plan.

I never told her that. I didn't want to freak her out. And now I can only hope that she somehow knows how much she meant to me. That she knows I love her and appreciate her friendship deeply, deeply. That she understands that I was afraid to screw up that connection and so I kept my distance for a while, but that I was in for the long haul. That she taught me stuff in those intense conversations we had... that I will never, ever forget her.

Sweet, beautiful girl, rest in peace. I don't know how much you know of what's still going on here, but if you know anything, know that you left a mark on me and so many other people. Know that your life ministered to others. Know that you were loved.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Other Places

So this past week-and-a-couple-of-days I went out to Pittsburgh to see my parents graduate from seminary --my Dad with a Masters degree and my Mom with a certificate-- and then to Colorado Springs to meet my beautiful new niece, Lily. I've been back in town a couple of days, will work a full week this week, then off to Vancouver a week from today for a business trip, back for four days and then off to Iceland and Germany to visit friends.

(Note to any potential thieves: If you're thinking of breaking into my apartment during this time, a) it will be occupied and b) I ain't got nothin' worth breaking in here for unless you really value hundreds of used books and dusty CDs, a small stash of cheap cigars, a mostly empty bottle of good whiskey, and furniture covered in cat scratches. I live like a 45 year old single male history professor.).

It has been a while since I've left town... realized that I actually hadn't left since NYC at New Year's, the last time I saw Vince. All of this travel was planned around the time he broke up with me, which was predictable. I do have a tendency to buy plane tickets after I've had my heart broken... a good chunk of my credit card debt is from just this tendency. Travel tends to be good medicine for me, as it turns out. I've seen some beautiful places and had some wonderful experiences, and I'm truly excited about these upcoming trips.

However, right now I'm in this weird space between trips where I'm just completely out of my rhythm. This week will be a normal week, but really my head is in where I'll be next week, and the week after that, and the week after that, and all the little details I may not have attended to yet. I feel like I'm a bird without a nest, hanging on to a tree limb while it moves back and forth in the breeze.

So I'm grateful for the opportunity to travel, for the good, solid time spent with family, celebrating my parents' achievements and the life and love of my brother and his little family. I'm also grateful for the wonderful break in my internal monologue that this past week provided, and the coming opportunity to spend time in beautiful places with old friends. But I'm also unsettled and edgy and a little anxious. My sleep is off, I'm eating terrible food, and I can't focus on anything.

Back in the day, when I bought a lot more plane tickets than I do now and tried to get out of the U.S. at least once a year, I ran across this quote in The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and it stopped me in my tracks:

"Go where you may, you will find no rest except in humble obedience to the rule of authority. Dreams of happiness expected from change and different places have deceived many."

Whoa. At that point in my life, I was intentionally surrounding myself with friends who, like me, were constantly looking for ways to travel, to see the world, to experience Other Places and Other Things. This quote pulled me up short. I had known since I was a pre-teen that I wanted to learn the practice of contentment... not stagnation, but a deep appreciation and gratitude for the here and now. This fixation on leaving and going Somewhere Else was seriously eroding at any contentment I may have had.

Like I said, it's been a while since I've been in this space, but it's a good reminder to me that novelty is a drug. Contentment starts with patience and obedience and learning to look around you and love what is. My depression has been eroding at this, but I'm hoping and praying that I'm moving through to the other side of that depression and can begin to practice contentment and submission to the will of God again.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Prayer for Parents

This morning at Church of the Common Table, we continued our tradition of baptizing a few of our Large Collection of Babies on Mother's Day. This morning we baptized four little ones, ranging in age from a year and a half to only a couple of weeks old. They were all very, very good babies and the service was long but beautiful.

I was asked to write a Call to Worship, and wrote the following prayer.

a prayer for parents

For loss of sleep and loss of hair,
for 2am feedings
and tantrums thrown in public places,
for the looks people give
that feel like stones thrown,
we give thanks
and we pray for mercy.

For baby giggles and toddler tears,
for language acquisition,
for the first time they
use a swear word
in front of extended family,
we give thanks,
and we pray for mercy.

For friendships and heartbreaks,
for shunning and acceptance,
for slumber parties
and first dates,
for driver training and drivers licenses,
we give thanks
and we pray for mercy.

For sacrifice and heartache,
for long-suffering and patience,
for learning exactly what love costs
and for reaping its rewards,
for the single most refining thing
we ever do as humans,
we give thanks
and beg for mercy.

Help us to love
as You have loved us,
extravagantly
and without fear.


This is a weird day for me, Mother's Day, and there are years where I've walked around feeling kind of like a shell, lifeless. This past week has been very hard (grief is so weird... it just cycles in and out without asking anyone's permission to do so), but I'm blessed that our church basically has as many kids as adults so it's full and vibrant and I did get to cuddle with at least one baby today. But I'm mindful of all the folks like me for whom this day really isn't a happy one on a personal level. If you're one of those folks, I'm sending out a general prayer in your direction.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Present

After a month of writing poems every day, it feels weird to go out with something so short, and arguably, so bad. But tonight, after talking to and praying with a friend whose heart is breaking, this is what I have.

I am going to keep up the poems. Maybe not every day, but as close to that as I can manage. I really don't have words for the folks who've been encouraging me to keep on, except thank you. Thank you for helping me to imagine the road beyond having my heart broken. Thank you for helping me to look up and see the path, stretching out and up and just over that hill in front of me. God bless you guys. Every last one of you.

present

Oh God, so much pain
and so much difficulty.
All I can say is
PLEASE.

Come into this situation.
Throw Your weight around.
Knock over a few tables.
We need You to be
Present.

We need the Hound of Heaven
baying at the door.
We need You busting open windows
to save those trapped inside.

We need You imminent,
embodied, fleshy.
We need to look up and see
Your Hand, writing on the wall.

Oh God, SHOW UP.
Please.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Stillness/motion

Home late again last night and just plain exhausted, so here is yesterday's poem. Today's will come... tonight, I guess. Another poem about writing.

stillness/motion

Sit inside a mirrored room--
without reprieve,
without relief--
and mine what is inside of you...
the water's cold, but it's still deep.

You light the path in front of you.
The words are there,
just reach inside
and find the flame you buried there,
the fire that's helped you to survive.

Do not believe the lie that you are sad,
or sick, or bruised, pathetic.
You're soul and flesh.
You're given words,
which would, of course, make you prophetic.

The only task before you
is to do what you know how to.
Write it down.
Write it now.
Creation is kinetic.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hope

So, 3 more days of NaPoWriMo after today. For as many nights as I've come home late and thought to myself "DAMN. I've gotta write a poem. About WHAT??," I'm seriously considering continuing to do this after April. There's something about this discipline of making myself create something every day that has some kind of powerful magic to it. I mean, I've stopped writing about being dumped, right? It's not that this has stopped hurting me, but it's like pushing myself to create has forced me to draw on the resources and memories and experiences that I had in the 34 years before I met him... and created a bridge between the me before I was hurt and me now.

It's also led to insomnia as my brain has kicked into high creative gear after 10:30pm on many of these nights and I haven't been able to lure it to sleep... but I think it's been worth it.

So this is a poem about that.

hope

As long as I can hold a pen
I can move on.

When I feel completely alone
and in pain
and sick
and scared
I can feel hope.

When memories of the past
and fear for the future
taunt me,
I can ignore them,
and look ahead.

Because there's always a poem
to be written,
and someone to write it to
and for
and with.

And there's always a song
to be sung
and someone to sing it to
and for
and with.

Because I am made in the image
of my Creator.
There is always creation.
There is always hope.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Try

Poem #2 for the evening...

So today I went and gave blood, partially because I was finally in a meeting near the Red Cross Donor Center on E Street, and partially because THEY CALLED ME FIVE TIMES LAST NIGHT. So, note this dear readers... Red Cross launched a national campaign last month. They're very short on supplies around the country. If you can, please consider donating.

Errr, got off track there. Ok, so I was donating blood and they have CNN on the TV across from me, and they start showing footage of Syrian military shooting protesters, which has been going on for over a month now. I'm also sitting there with Kindle for Droid in my lap, reading a chapter in Philip Yancey's The Bible Jesus Read about Job and the problem of evil. And I just feel overwhelmed. Yes, I'm giving up some blood, but that just seemed so insignificant when I looked at this footage.

Of course, the two things are unrelated. It is better for me (and for you) to give blood when we're able than to not give blood, so it's not like it's pathetic that I was doing that when there is So Much Suffering In The World. Also, even if I went home and locked myself in the apartment for a week trying to think of a solution to the situation in Syria, I probably wouldn't have much of an impact. So.

We do what we can within our realm of influence. There's no shame in that. Plus, it includes prayer, which I still believe is no small thing.

So this is a poem about that.

try

It is better to try,
to drop your small pebble
in the pond, and trust
that the ripples will spread
where they need to
without worrying about whether
they'll reach the shore.

It is better to try,
to light your small candle
in immeasurable darkness,
to guard the flame
so it doesn't blow out,
and to trust that your light
is enough to guide
whomever it's meant to.

It is better to act.
It is better to hope.
It is better to do the next thing
and the next
without worry.

It is better to leave
your fingerprints on the world
than to stand back for fear
that you can't fix it.

Shadows

I got home late last night and then my sinuses attacked me so I had to can my plan to write a poem. So, this is poem one of two for the night.

shadows

Silhouette of a cat
at the window watching shapes...
the branches of the bushes
blow back and forth
against a dark blue evening sky.

I light a candle. Why not?
And the cat turns to contemplate
dancing shadows, the shape
of my raised foot, grown gigantic
on the wall above him.

The cat is a shadow
watching shadows inside
and shadows outside.
So many tricks of the light
making the mundane mysterious.

How much time have I wasted
chasing charlatans, circus clowns,
street preachers, snake oil salesmen...
all vapors of men, using tricks of the light
to make the mundane mysterious?

The cat jumps down from the windowsill,
done with watching shadows.
I blow out the candle.
Me too.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Magdalene

This morning at Common Table, the Best Writer I Personally Know gave a very interesting reading of Luke 24:13-35, the passage about Jesus' appearance on the road to Emmaus. It was interesting because he paused after the bit where they say "some of our women amazed us" with their report of Jesus' resurrection, and where some of the disciples decided to check it out for themselves. He smiled sardonically and said "that always kills me," or something quite like that.

It's been a while since I reflected on the disciples' attitude towards Mary Magdalene (plus Joanna, Mary the Mother of James, Salome, and unnamed "other" women, depending on which Gospel you're reading) when they relayed the news of Christ's appearance to them. The disciples didn't believe them. Only impulsive Peter and The Disciple Jesus Loved (again, depending on which Gospel you read) took off running down to the tomb to check for themselves. The others evidently weren't impressed enough by what the women had said to bother following up. Which is literally incredible to me. You'd really have to have a low opinion of a person to hear them tell a story like that and just dismiss it outright.

It wasn't the first time nor the last time that God has gifted and honored women to be His messengers and teachers, but His church has refused to acknowledge it. A lot of progress has been made, but I know very well that much of His church has a long, long, LONG way to go.

This is a poem about that. Thanks, Stav, for the inspiration.

Magdalene

Mary Magdalene, sobbing at the tomb,
the one from whom You had cast hundreds of demons,
the one who was first to Your grave,
was the one to whom You first appeared.

A woman, it is rumored, of some ill repute,
who followed You with pure devotion...
perhaps the first man to to ever show her respect...
she was the one to whom You first appeared.

Where did this get lost along the way?
Jesus of Nazareth, both God and man
is raised from the dead, and chooses to spread
this news through Mary Magdalene.

When did Your church forget
that a woman was the first evangelist?
A woman the first one with the courage to show
her face as Your follower after Your execution?

Mary Magdalene, crying now with joy,
throws herself at Your feet, and like a kind father,
to a daughter, You said, "Don't cling to Me.
Go, and proclaim what You have seen."

And they didn't believe her.
When will Your church learn?


Saturday, April 23, 2011

We live in twilight (not the movie)

We live in the twilight of Holy Saturday. Unlike the disciples cowering in fear and agony and grief on this day, we know that Christ has risen, and that He promised He would return, but that was 2 millenia ago. This is an old and wrinkled problem that has preoccupied probably everyone who calls themselves a Christian ever since the first generation of disciples died without seeing His return. Generations upon generations of the faithful have taught their children to love and trust someone they've never seen with their eyes, and every one of us has struggled at some point with our personal reaction to that paradox.

I believe, and I believe strongly. I believe that I've seen Christ work in my life and that I've had times where I experience God's presence very vividly. But this is not a poem about that.

As if writing about this wasn't hard enough, I wrote it as a rondeau (see Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear The Mask" for a waaaayyyyy better example of a rondeau).

we live in twilight

We live in twilight, already not yet
in the shadow of history we'd rather forget,
longing to see you, generations unseen
wanting to believe, to feel consciences clean...
in the hope that Your death paid our debt.

I have lived my life loving One that I've never met,
staking all on those promises, placing my bets
on One whose life is as real to me as a dream.
We live in twilight.

I do believe. Truly, I love Him, but yet
I chafe at His absence. He left and then let
His disciples believe He'd be back, that they'd see
Him emerging in clouds and that their faith would be
rewarded. I love Him, but I live saddened that
we live in twilight.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Darkness

So the weather and my health have conspired to create a fantastic Good Friday experience. I'm still too sick to go to church or work but not sick enough to not care about that. The weather has been cold, grey, rainy and occasionally windy. I've spent the day alone with the exception of one trek to the grocery store to get Fancy Feast for my spoiled kitty, where the checkout girl snarled at me.

Perfect Good Friday. Didn't miss a beat. :^)

Honestly, none of today has been *that* bad, but it's made meditating on Good Friday easier. Last year on Good Friday, Common Table went on a retreat where we spent the weekend sitting shiva for our dead dreams... trying to enter the space the disciples were in, where all they knew was the death of their Messiah. As it happens, the dream I mourned last year died again when Vince ended things in January, so that suffering is fresh for me... and just like last year, I have no evidence that my dream won't just stay dead.

It's easy to forget that the disciples didn't know. It's easy to forget their despair... not only had Christ died, but they'd just stood there and WATCHED without lifting a finger to do anything about it... and Peter had actively denied Him, swearing oaths on his own head that he had no idea who Jesus was before That Prophetic Chicken started mouthing off.

I was struck in reading the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion today with the Synoptic Gospel writers' observation that the sun's light was blocked out for 3 hours in the middle of the day as Jesus suffered agonizing pain on the cross. Darkness is the best word I can think of to describe what must have descended on the disciples' minds and hearts after Jesus died. I was reminded, too, of Psalm 88, the only one of the Psalms that does not resolve in praise of God. It is, in my mind, the Psalm of the Crucifixion (I'm sure I'm not original in that observation), and it ends with the line "Darkness is my only companion".

Writing a Good Friday poem is not easy. There is so much amazing art, music, poetry and prose about this event. But here's my attempt.

darkness

Darkness fell over the whole land
from noon to 3pm. Then You screamed:
"Why have You left me, Father??!!!"
And died.
And the earth shook.

There was a stunned centurion
who suddenly knew you were God,
and a terrified priest
gaping at a torn temple veil.

The sun came out again,
and some who had died righteous
rose and walked into Jerusalem.

But You were still dead.

Joseph of Arimathea laid
You in his own, new tomb.
The women watched, waiting,
wanting to come back
and bathe Your broken, battered body.

But now the sun was going down,
and Shabbos was upon them.
Joseph rolled a heavy stone
over the mouth of Your burial place.
The sun's last rays fled the sky, ashamed,
and the women left, in darkness.

The Light of the World was dead.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Even Judas

It's Maundy Thursday, and I really wanted to go to Maundy Thursday service, but ended up sick instead. So I read through the various gospel accounts of the Last Supper, and was reminded that John's gospel is the only one with all this foot-washing business. All of the others have the institution of the Lord's Supper, Jesus' identification of Judas as His betrayer, and His prophesy about Peter denying Him... but no foot-washing.

Which got me to thinking... what's consistent across the Gospel narratives of this event is that Christ states openly that He is going to die after one of His followers turns Him over to the authorities and that His Number One Fan Simon Peter is going to deny that he even knows Jesus. What's consistent is His open, no holds-barred acknowledgement in the presence of His disciples that they are going to treat Him like trash... worse than trash... in just a few hours.

This makes the humility of Christ's washing the disciples' feet in John all the more poignant. He wasn't just submitting Himself as a servant to those beneath Him... He was submitting Himself to those who, despite having witnessed Him heal the sick and raise the dead, and despite His having spent 3 long years living with and training them, would either facilitate His murder or stand idly by while it happened.

I can't get there. I can't *imagine* being able to do that. I can imagine punching them in the face, *not* washing their feet. So this is a poem about that.

even judas

When I think of You washing
the disciples' feet --
God incarnate, washing dust
and dung off of the furry, calloused feet
of full-grown men--
I am moved to tears, and love,
and gratitude to worship and follow
such a servant, Savior, God.

Until You get to Judas.
And then I want to stop You.
You knew Judas would betray You.
You knew that within a few short hours,
of Your carefully washing dung out
from between his toes,
he would turn You over to torture,
to humiliation, and to a bloody,
gruesome
death.

I want to step in and say,
"Not him. Please don't touch him.
Please don't wash his feet."
Because I don't understand
how You did it.
How did You forgive him,
and minister to him,
even in that moment?

Your humility moves me.
Your mercy... Your mercy...
Your mercy confounds me.
"Forgive as you have been forgiven."
But I can't. I try, but anger seeps in.
I couldn't wash Judas' feet.

"This is a new commandment:
Love one another, as I have loved you."
Even Judas.

Oh, Jesus, I have so far to go.
Please help me, servant LORD.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Night Before

So it's Wednesday of Holy Week. I'm sure there's some ancient tradition around this day, but most of the high church liturgies I'm familiar with start their Holy Week observance with Palm Sunday, skip Monday through Wednesday and then join Jesus again on Maundy Thursday.

But Wednesday is the night before He was betrayed, and He knew it was coming. As I've thought about that tonight, I've felt a closeness with that particular state, the state where anticipation is the source of suffering. I know that place very well. So this is a poem about that.

the night before

The night before
the end and the new beginning,
I don't imagine that You slept.

If You did, what did You dream?
How deep was Your agony then,
anticipating the torture to come?

How much did You really know?
You sweat blood in the garden...
did You doubt that You'd rise again?

You experienced flesh's frailty.
Fully God yet fully man,
You faced anxiety writ large.

You know every sorrow we face.
Firsthand, You felt the terror of
anticipation, of worry, of fear.

Tonight I sit with You,
sleepless, we both face the future,
frightened, and fumbling for our faith.

Thank You, Jesus, for living even this.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Triptych - Three Tonkas

Thank God for Lewis Turco's The New Book of Forms that I still have from one of my college courses in poetry. Tonight's poem is three little "tonkas". The Tonka is a Japanese form that is basically a haiku with two extra lines of 7 syllables. The first is the result of a conversation with a friend tonight, the second is my response to a guy who was yelling outside my open window while I wrote the first, and the third is my reflection on what I usually do in a really difficult conflict (like what I think I'd do if I was this guy's daughter, for example), which is to shut down. I have terrible memories of being imprisoned in my own silence, and no longer knowing what to do.

So. Here they are.

triptych - three tonkas

1.
Too many "maybes".
I want to release myself
from my own judgement,
to wake up tomorrow free,
with clear eyes, facing forward.

2.
There's a man outside
cursing at his family. Why?
He takes an axe to
the root of his own tree. His
words will never be erased.

3.
There are silences
that kill things. I have been trapped
in these silences,
mouth full of cotton wool, ears
deaf, eyes closed, heart cold, love gone.

In Praise of Your Complaint

So, this is yesterday's poem. I was a little too overwhelmed after seeing my new niece (8 lbs 12 oz, born yesterday at 12:33 EST) on Skype last night to write anything that didn't have the word "little" and "soft" and "squeeeee!!" in it over and over and over again. So I wrote yesterday's poem this morning.

My sister-in-law is her own, awesome, independent spirit. Lilly's delivery was a lot harder than Emma's (for example, they stuck Liz 5 times with the epidural needle because they couldn't get it right), and she was not quiet or demure about this fact. Nor should she be. I've been turning over and over in my head what a trauma childbirth is, and how blasé folks (including me) can be about that fact. We all caused our mothers some of the worst pain imaginable... 9 months of an inhabited body, followed by hour after long hour of contractions and then of childbirth itself (and that's for a comparatively easy childbirth). But in the aftermath of that, everyone is so understandably overwhelmed by the resulting little, soft, snoozing critter that the needs of a Mom in the throes of mild PTSD can be overlooked.

I don't think Liz will struggle with PTSD because she won't make the mistake of trying to *glow* about the experience. She won't shove down the reality of it so that others can keep their Disney-fied version of the experience intact... and I admire that deeply. So this is a poem about that.

in praise of your complaint

We all caused our mothers
unimaginable pain...
unimaginable to us, that is.
They imagine it vividly,
remembering its intensity...
the labor that went on and on,
hour after hour after hour.

How could something so painful
produce something so soft and small?
Trauma producing treasure
each possessing its own intensity,
its own life-altering significance.

Perhaps this pain is meant to prepare
for a lifetime of peaks and valleys.
We can cherish our children
but they will escape us,
and hurt us, and react in ways
we could not, and dare not, imagine.

So I praise your complaint.
Yes, your body was battered.
Yes, you've committed your life
to someone who will leave you
and forge their own path, forgetting
what you sacrificed, perhaps,
for a time.

I praise your complaining
for this pain that you suffered.
It is vivid and real and reminds
all of us
that our mothers chose us despite that,
giving up their own lives and
sacrificing their bodies,
so that we might live, free, and happy.