Resetting of Bones / Part I

On a cold November morning, I woke after dreaming it was all a mistake.

In the icy blur between dawn and evening, I could not pull out the truth, unravel reality into a line of things that made sense. For months we swore there was space and time, there was room for fear, but those fears would end. They simply could not come true after months of telling ourselves, “we are not like this, this is not how life works.”

What I didn’t realize was that another side prayed the same things, and woke up to dusty light.

What must it be like, to be a God who gathers prayers in incense sharp with praise and lament?

***

In the beginning was the Word, and we threw our shadows like arrows. We dug in our heels, we would never be associated with those who were crooked, lazy, ugly. I suddenly notice the fat under my arms and pull out a strand of dry hair. Nasty woman. A knot in my gut, my imperfections unlocked and exposed. Knowing I am a woman is enough “to make my wings droop,” wrote Saint Teresa of Avila and we wake from the dream with crumpled wings.

“Love Trumps Fear! F**k Trump!”

To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love, one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness, whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.[1]

***

 We clamor to draw closer to Love, yelling hoarse, we retreat into darkness. What will we find there? A deeper well or only ourselves, crumpled?

His physical Body was crucified by Pilate and by the Pharisees; His mystical Body was drawn and quartered from age to age by the devils in the agony of that disunion which is bred and vegetates in our souls, prone to selfishness and sin.

 *** 

Escape is heard in the light crack of a wafer, hovering in light. We receive it, tasteless on our tongue, the tension in not knowing the mind of our neighbor beside us. Silent with sore knees we bow, crisp edges crushed in our mouths. The resetting of bones.

As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.

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They tell us Christ is King. But stumbling, we find him outside the wall, in the rivers we cry will not dry up.  We keep praying because we know his mercy is wider.

In what despair did we find ourselves in? Where were our crowds? Surely one man or woman cannot snap apart a tendon of union, when one God is pulling them closer with a mighty hand?

Even in the breaking, he lies at the depths and stands on the heights to cover us, make us beautiful, though he is not safe. Words do not drive him away, and we crawl to him with a kyrie eleison to remind us we are not crumpled in His arms.

[1] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation

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Sleepwalking in Russia

Featured in Topology Magazine’s December Issue, “The Darkest Night.”

 

When I was nine years old, a dream led me to wander downstairs. I awoke, a sleep- crumpled bird in the staircase nest corners. It was still dark, and the house grew strange. I dragged my feet back into cool bed-sheets and decided not to ask what invisible threads tugged me from my room, nor the reason why in the dark, every edge of the house seems like a reasonable place to lay one’s head.

***

In Russia, I wake up to a damp sky that seems to suffocate the sun. Since moving to Moscow in October, nearly every morning is the same. The space that hangs above Stalin-era towers and apartment blocks is a dusting rag, pushing ice and coughing clouds over the dark Moskva river. The thin yellow leaves of Autumn did not even dry out before the first snow scattered them into muddy puddles. I have not seen a blue sky in weeks. As American expatriates in this vast country my family is told leaving the house is the only way to survive Russian winter. From October to April, we will wear the same beanies, scarves and boots. Our hands will memorize the stitches in our pockets, we will consume more tea than we thought possible. I try not to think about what a place like San Diego must look like today. I have been given today in Moscow, handed to me with cold hands, but ready to be molded into something permanent.

I am not sure what would happen if I did not leave my house for a week. I have enough Cold-War style rations to sustain me and books to read. One glance out the window from my pillow in the morning hardly ever tempts me to leave. To leave the house feels like sleepwalking. With every step through the slush, I could suddenly wake and remember where I am. I could panic because I don’t speak Russian, wipe the melting snowflakes off my cheeks and trudge home. Then I see the mothers with their children circling the playground. Their legs are held tight within the thick lining of snow pants; they move below strings of fairy lights that dangle over coffee shops. Somehow they seem awake.

***

            At three o’clock on a Saturday, I burrow my face in a scarf and speed alone towards the metro station. Snowflakes rush through the swaying glass doors. At once I am in the warm cavern of the underground.

Баррикадная.

I am tip-toeing through a linguistic Sudoku puzzle. I slowly whisper the name of the station to myself: barr-i- kad- na- ya. The letters bounce off my tongue and stir warmth.

Crowds in black coats push towards the platform and silently shuffle onto the metro. To be fully in Баррикадная, I avoid eye-contact, pursing my thin lips into a stiff pout and lower my eyelids. I craft this expression to prevent anyone from suspecting that the freckled girl with the LL Bean beanie can’t speak a lick of Russian, that her blood is Anglo-Saxon, that is she is a Protestant American. The metro hurtles through the dim vessels of the underground. With every jolt, I wonder what invisible threads tugged me from my bedroom, and why in the dark, every edge of the city seems like a reasonable place to walk.

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The sky sinks from grey to black as I wander aimlessly down streets, my eyes retracing strange lettering on store fronts, my ears decoding sounds of sirens and hushed voices. At five o’clock, bells ring from a yellow church tower. Silver chimes shake and bounce against the wind and rows of gleaming gold crosses that rise from snow-dusted domes. And suddenly, I have no choice but to walk towards them.

Like birds in the early hours of morning, the bells sing over the wind and telephone lines. Their clangs cut through the frigid air. I find myself skipping up the staircase in an unfamiliar church, clumsily tossing my scarf over my head before entering the nave leading into a vast, golden room swelling with incense and flickering candles. Along the walls hang icons among a painted garden of swirling vines and flowers. Above, a starry sky ablaze with the wings of cherubim. Worshippers stomp ice off their boots at the entrance and cross themselves before entering. As silent as the metro riders, they kneel below the icons and crosses.

A golden wall, an iconostasis, separates the worshippers from the sanctuary of the church. The central door of the iconostasis stands open, and a priest circles below an icon, flinging incense. The fragrance follows him down the steps  where worshippers stand neatly, crossing themselves and bowing. I am a little late, observing the swift movements of a lady beside me. The nuns’ voices, clear and bright, rise towards the ceiling. I only understand an alleluia.

Awake, and shout for joy! Arise, shine! The Messiah will shine on you!

 Just as my feet begin to cramp from standing, the lights snap out. I glance around at the bowed, scarfed women beside me. I can only make out the whites of a painted saint’s eyes before I wake up to the strangeness that is standing among strangers and crossing myself in the wrong direction, all the while fervently searching the mystery behind the faces, language and golden doors. Still I am standing, and I am awake. Light slowly floods back through the nave as I catch hold of a sung alleluia. I slip out the door into the muddy street and walk home slowly through the snow.

One Thousand Crocuses

Dear God,

Today I caught the beginning of a crocus, a fold of purple flesh, silk clasped tight by green leaves and I fell silent as still soil.

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The air is warm when it shouldn’t be.

God, I walk home and see a cigarette butt under a bush turned loosely by the base of a cold shoe.

I open the news and hear a man yell of building walls, exiling strangers, slamming the door on unseen angels.

I run to grab the door to my apartment building before it closes. Today I forgot to hold it for the person behind me.

Our efforts are halted with “can’t evens.” We shake our heads and fall into heavy sleep.

God, I hear of explosions, crucifixions, executions, prisons. Young, small hearts ending, men who refuse to deny you.

Why does the letters F and U appear in every train station bathroom corner?

God is love is written on a student’s desk in chicken scratch.

Let those words blur the lines dividing the me and the stranger that walks behind me on the street.

Do they see the crocuses?  The daring purple streak that persists, bright as a bleeding finger slammed against a cross.

I tell myself, listen! One thousand crocuses must bloom in spite of our raging.

So I thank you.

The Gardener and Loving Who We Were

The water lily clusters seem denser this year. Their flat, waxy green plates rise above each other, their silky roots twist among the weeds and rocks. “It’s as if they just let the place run wild,” my friend remarks. Yet, I pass the same warm trees, I expect the dragonflies, I hear the chickadees and frogs. In three years, this place has not altered greatly.

I wonder if I have.

Every year I find myself rising towards some invisible peak, vowing to be better–whatever that means. Perhaps to run further, read more, love deeper, be more at peace; to gather every scattered thought and dream into wholeness. And at the start of a new leaf I look back and ask myself: have I done enough? Perhaps this is the definition of perfectionism, and perhaps it is setting these standards that keeps me from meeting them.

As God’s children, we are ongoing projects. So I take heart in knowing my future self may be stronger than my past and current self. Yet I feel that true contentment is more likely to occur if we make peace with who we are now, and who we have been.

Your past does not have to be especially dark for you to withhold grace from who you were. Much of the time, I am at peace with who I’ve been, or I don’t think of her at all. Then I remember a day I slept through a class, or hurt someone with my words. I cringe at the memory of a foolish decision or a moment when I lacked the foresight, confidence or tools to know what needed to be done. In these moments, I struggle with how to redeem those behaviors, as if I need to have coffee with everyone I’ve known in the past and explain myself for things I doubt they even remember. “I’ve grown up since,” or “I’m closer with God now,” I would say.

The fact I feel this way says more about me now than it does about who I was. Perfectionist or not, how often does one extend grace and love towards who they were?

Christ is above us, below us, before us, with us and –behind us. So, his grace covers us.

We must choose to love our past selves. This does not mean it’s wrong to desire transformation and growth. No, it means we realize now that in a past moment, we were doing what we could with what we had. In the end, maybe we loved the way we knew how.

This does not mean we were perfect or that we couldn’t have done better. But have a generous heart towards the you who avoided opportunity out of fear, speak kind words to the you who sought affirmation in those who did not know yet how to express love (and love that person too!)

Henri Nouwen writes, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” We are, we will be, we have been His beloved.

There is no need to keep trying to redeem yourself to others or to yourself if you have confessed your sins. You do not need to confess your decision to wear an ugly sweater back in 2013 or even your former struggling self you find hard to love when you worship strength. In that case thank your former self, and more importantly, thank God for the work it took to get you where you are now.

***

The Gardener by Mary Oliver 

“Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I
come to any conclusion?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

I say this, or perhaps I’m just thinking it.
Actually, I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.”

Doors and Trails

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

I’ve been told I have a soft knock. I don’t slam my knuckles against wood, but rather tap my bones against the boundary keeping me from what I want or need. It usually takes a few taps on the door for someone to open–after I’ve taken a deep breath and gone for it.

If the person behind the door is a little more than a stranger, I find myself mildly relieved when no one answers. No “I’m coming” hot shout from within, no Rottweiler panting, ready to leap, no expectations, no movement.

***

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. 

(Dante, Inferno Canto I)

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I took a slightly different route on a trail in Maine this summer. I set home as I felt the lichen chill. The trees, shining earlier in their slender branches, seemed damp and twisted. I lost my steps and circled the plateau until intuition (and God’s mercy!) set my feet in the right direction.

***

In Italy, I met a Franciscan friar in Assisi and a nun in Orvieto. With rest in their eyes and love in their smiles, both told my classmates and I in their own words, to earnestly seek God’s will; that God could do more than we can imagine. The nun told me this from behind the iron wrought window of the convent, and I am lost in the thought of a God who can bend iron hearts and tumble down stones. Sometimes I think I feel God leaning over me as I twist the handle of the door knob, both with me and behind the door.

***

Tonight students huddled in the dark on campus with guitars in worship. One student shouted out, “Why do we live apart from God? Why do we keep living the wrong way?” He said, “God says, if you seek me with all your heart, you will find me. God will help you find him.” God’s grace keeps knocking me off my feet.

The moon tonight is full like a puddle of syrup and the earth smells like the sea. It’s as if unknown paths are converging and melding into a new place, flowing with mystery and light.

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I was staring, looking back, out the keyhole of my door
you saw that I had seen you, and I fell to the floor
you were dancing with the children and loving all the broken
and I was too scared to come out
and then you busted through my doorway and it seemed so very violent
but peaceful words came out and silenced all my silence
and I realized that the knowledge that I thought that I had known
was nothing compared to you coming to my home. 

(The Collection, “To Dust”)

Seeing Hills: Glimpses in Orvieto

I recently returned from a four month experience living, learning and creating in Orvieto, a tiny Medieval town nestled in the hills of Italy. I hope to share some reflections in writing from these beautiful and slow months very soon. One thing to be sure of is that the light, cobblestone steps and moments cannot really be translated into succinct and tidy blog posts. Hence, some scattered musings…

I am sharing some free-write prose I wrote in response to the hills during my first month in Umbria:

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The bells of the city send a pulse down to the mountains where slopes rise and sink into a lavender hush. Below a village is strung with floating spheres of gold. Morning shouts and light wind into whispers caught between window shutters.

I do not know the mountains yet. They were the first bell towers for the song of the city. The gilded arches of the duomo echo its song. A mystery of gold and incense, the duomo is a fortress of bells and chants known by farmers, glimpsed at by strangers. A stranger, I heard a chime from inside the ancient doors of the church, reverberating in its cool stonewalls.

I could be anywhere where branches of rosemary stretch their sky-flecked spines. Are the trees in the arms of the mountains beyond hidden if I have not felt them? Is the same rock I stand on what makes the distant mountain?

Am I there now, or should I wait for more bells, more light and wind to bring me across the hills?

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An ekphrastic poem I wrote during my last week in those dry, hot days skipping over gnarly weeds and dried rosemary. This poem is in a French-form (A type of roundel, hence the repetition) and was inspired by a series of oil paintings made by a sweet friend of mine. While gazing between her painting and my own view of the hills, I was drawn to the concept of seeking to capture everything in a single moment, and the power of being mindfully present.

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Where hills wind and break, you are there.

And far away light is clearer

with vacant waves of golden earth

clasped by the fingers of a path.

Warm stones are crunched and carved by time

and in a breath you see purple:

Where hills wind and break, you are there.

And far away light is clearer.

Trees now damp and heavy with heat

hide in the moment, wax leaves brush

against branches your eyes squint to

see across time’s tangled traces.

Where hills wind and break, you are there.

Love On Top

For a while I’ve struggled to embrace Beyonce’s thrilling hit, “Love On Top.” (I know, it seems blasphemous…) Maybe it’s because I was having a terrible day when I heard it for the first time, or because it sometimes takes me a while to warm up to happy pop songs unless I’m on a treadmill. Regardless, when my sister ‘brought the beat in’ and turned up the volume on those shimmering diva shouts of joy, I tuned into the chaos.

Beyonce shouts, “Baby it’s you!” over the sound of my dog’s nails clicking across the floor as she leapt over the trashcan in search of dinner scraps. The song bounced under the sound of clattering pans and the steady scrub of a sponge as we tidied up, bumping elbows, pacing, myself lingering…our family’s conversation staggered and disconnected, different pitches and tones, jagged… the anticipation of our annual departure from Europe mounting. There is so much to be done.

What an oddly swift year– eight months of my junior year were spent in Europe and now I am preparing to leave.  I carved out my home once again among the narrow juice cartons, public transport and constant foreigner status and while I rejoice in the impending reality of breathing under Maine birch trees, I already miss drinking tea from my mother’s mugs.

Transitions tend to present two beautiful pictures in adjoining galleries…if we could only tear our eyes from the textures of the past three years, the past month, the past second…to the next room. But memory has a place in this too.

I’ve slowly come to embrace the beauty of interruption, as Henri Nouwen talks about in Reaching Out. I’ve changed my vocabulary from interruption to necessary transition and to see that movement taking place inside and out is beautiful and always within the hand of God.

***

There was a time recently when my mind grew heavy with fear of the future. I demanded my imagination to come up with the worst things that could possibly occur until another voice, slightly authoritative, but compassionate, added: “and you don’t believe that even in the lowest state of your soul, God would remain present?”

Where can I get away from your Spirit? Where can I run from you? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I lie down in the grave, you are there. If I rise with the sun in the east and settle in the west beyond the sea, even there you would guide me. With your right hand you would hold me. 

Yes, I see Jesus went to the lowest state possible on earth and below– so that He could meet me at that place and above, around and now, forward. And that’s a different kind of ‘Love on Top.’

In the disjointed and dissolving moments, I see that transition is ordained and rich with His grace.

***

Atop St. Isaac's cathedral in St. Petersburg

Atop St. Isaac’s cathedral in St. Petersburg

(The unfurling beauty of my time in Orvieto, Italy and encounters in Russia will be revealed at some point on this blog soon…)