Thursday, December 12, 2013

When you need permission to ponder

Christmas is barreling toward us at full speed and the end of the year tumbles so near - a whole other year, Oh my - and still, I feel strangely silent.  As a writer, my lips have seemed buttoned up for months now, rarely parting for words to be shared here on pages, as if settling in for a long winter and barren ground.  At times, I'm at peace with this, confident I must wait it out, wait for the signs of spring to shoot up from the ground.  And other days, I'm all-a-tumble inside, wrestling this inner conflict to the ground, these seeds of doubt that I'm even worthy of calling myself a writer.  

I read the words of others, people I have grown to love and admire, and I'm lost in the beauty of their prose, the depth of their insights, the skill of their craft.  And then, I fight this pull toward comparison that leads to nothing good.  Nothing.  I feel humility, yes, but it doesn't stop there. It drags me downward, into myself, and I wonder if it's all a childish dream, this desire to be a writer, whatever that means or looks like for me.  I wonder if I have what it takes, if I have anything of beauty to offer, if I'm willing to sacrifice what it takes to get there, wherever "there" is.  I wonder if it will be just another dream strewn along the highway of discarded dreams in my life.  Another thing I couldn't live up to.  

I wonder if I'm too afraid.

And as I wonder all this, even as I sit and type these words out on this bright white screen, I think of Christmas.  I think of Mary, how in the story of Jesus' birth, the author says that she pondered all these things in her heart.  All the things - from the angel's visit to her, when she was chosen to be Christ's mother, to Joseph's response to her when he found out she was pregnant with a baby not his own, to their long journey to Bethlehem and her giving birth to this God-Child in a humble space, to the appearance of shepherds and wise men bowing down to worship her baby - she took in with what I imagine was intense observation and quiet reflection, wonder and awe.  

She was silent, not without words, but storing up words in her heart.  Tucking away experiences, emotions, memories, almost as if sowing seeds in the winter that would one day yield a garden. 

She pondered.

 And I wonder, Mary, did you feel so afraid that you wouldn't be up for this - for being Christ's mom?  Did you doubt yourself, or wonder if someone else might be more gifted for this great honor?  Did you struggle with self-doubt, comparison, the fear of Joseph leaving you, of losing your reputation?  All I know is that you had enough humility to accept that God had, in fact, chosen you for this.  That he counted you worthy.  You had the faith to say yes, even, perhaps, in the face of fears and self doubt.  You said yes, and you did not turn back. 

There isn't much about myself I can relate to with Mary this season, but I think, rather than berate myself for lack of words or output as a writer, I can relate to this pondering.  For it's been a year.  A year of so much I haven't been able to put into words.  A year of stories and experiences I could put into words but have chosen not to, for it's not their time yet.  And so I've stored them up in my heart, and as the year draws to a close, I am held in this space of reflection, gratitude, expectation. 

And I can learn from Mary's humble faith.  From her yes heart, her resolve to believe what God said about her more than what she could see with her eyes or feel in her emotions, more than circumstances declared. 

So friends, if this is you, too, this season, can we do something together?  Can we give ourselves permission to ponder things in our hearts?  The time for words will come, in season.   

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Joining up with Heather 


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A little cup of Thanksgiving cheer

photo credit

It's the day before Thanksgiving at Starbucks.  I'm exhausted today - my coworker tells me I look it, as soon as I step through the door of our kiosk - and I'm trying to be happy to be here.  

I'm standing behind the counter steaming milk, pulling espresso shots, chatting with a regular who's showing us a picture on his phone of a coffee cup from another Starbucks.  "Look what the barista at this store called me," he joked.  The cup is marked with what looks like "Dork," but we chuckle, because we know it really says "Dark."  

"I would have expected that from our baristas here, but not somewhere else," I reply.  He barely cracks a smile.

Off in the corner I hear the sound of laughter, right on cue it seems, with our attempts at humor.  The sound rises, above our conversation, above the whir of machines, above the gurgle of milk frothing.  I peer over the side of the kiosk, and I see him.  He's sitting alone with his legs slung over the arm of one of our comfy chairs, his eyes squeezed shut and creased in the corners, his face pink, his shoulders shaking.  His giggling is infectious, continuing far past our joke, and I know he didn't hear what we said.  He doesn't even seem aware of our presence.  

For fifteen minutes, at least, he sits in a fit of giggles.  As I'm taking orders, grinding coffee, doing dishes, listening to customers, it's his soundtrack that lifts my spirits.  I find myself stifling my own giggles, smiling for apparently no reason, like we're sharing a private joke.  I think he might be on something, as we see a lot of those around here (though none of them are this happy).  Perhaps he lives in a separate reality and this is a symptom of mental illness, or possibly, his imagination is still intact from childhood, colorful and endless.  Whatever the reason for his giggling, I care not, all I know is that I wasn't smiling like this before I heard him laugh.

One of our courtesy clerks steps behind the kiosk to plug in the vacuum cleaner and stoops to whisper very seriously in my ear, "That guy over there, I think he's scaring customers."  

I just smile.  "Are you kidding?  This guy's making my morning.  How could anyone be scared by giggling?"

And sure enough, a few minutes later our store manager walks over and leans to say something to the man leaning back in his chair.  A second later, he's up and disappears through the store.  I'm sad to see him go, but his laughter echoes through me the remainder of the day.  

Thank you, sir, for reminding me to laugh and enjoy this day, this moment, tired as I am.  I have much to be thankful for.

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Linking up with Heather

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The door that Latin dance opened: reflections on marriage

photo credit: Mandy Fiock

It might have turned out entirely different had we met online or at church, in a theological discussion group or on a college campus.  If the way we first knew each other was “Catholic” or  “non Catholic,” chances are I would have walked on by without a second glance, simply because of a label and what that label meant to me.

Thankfully, the first language that passed between us was not Spanish or English or theological labels, but dance.  Latin dance, to be more specific, which can conjure up a certain image, or at least I imagine I see it in peoples' eyes when I tell them how my husband and I met.  That of a sweaty 'latin lover' with a plunging neckline sweeping me off my feet as we're caught up in this passionate tangle of salsa dancing.  No, it was much more subtle than that.  The magnetic pull of his smile, the way it lit up his whole face, how his eyes danced every bit as naturally as his body.  The confidence with which he moved and led me, painfully new to the world of hip movement and Latin music, without minimizing me in the spotlight of his skill.  The way he kept enough distance between us I felt his respect, a gentle shield.  And when I made mistakes, the way we’d end up laughing and breaking into a goofy freestyle before picking back up where we left off. 

Dance cleared a path, breaking down invisible barriers before we even knew where the other came from.   So that, when we finally sat down, several months later, and asked the who-are-you questions, I already sensed I couldn’t brush him off that easily: 

“Oh, you’re Catholic?  Sorry, but I think your theology’s off.  No, I’ve never sat through more than one Mass and, well, I’ve never actually studied or listened to an informed Catholic person explain the differences in our expressions of faith, but I just know you’ve got it wrong.”  

Holy smokes, I’m so grateful in my ignorance and, let’s name it, arrogance, this is not how our conversation went.  Let's just say God, and Ricardo, were very gracious to me.  Instead, our differences opened the door to a pathway of dialogue and exchange, and eventually, to love. And to my great surprise (and many of those close to me) I walked through, though not without considerable internal wrestling. 

Over time, my end of the conversation went something more like this: Tell me, what does faith mean to you?  What does Jesus mean to you?  Why do you pray the way that you do, what are all these sacraments about, and what do you say to all those non Catholic Christians who accuse you of “worshiping” Mary?  What is the role of the saints, why do you need a priest to confess to, and who is the Virgin of Guadalupe?

At first the questions came crashing in, like those ocean waves one right after the other, so high, intense, unyielding.  Some of them were answered within a conversation or two; others, I grew to see, cannot be explained away so easily.  And still others, I may never fully understand because I didn’t grow up Catholic in Mexico, because God himself cannot be fully understood, and with all the billions of people on this planet, there must be at least as many sets of eyes that catch his light from a different angle.  

So I went with him to Mass.  He came with me to pentecostal worship services, after which he might quietly share his impressions or questions.  I fumed at why I couldn’t take communion at the Catholic church, and he raised an eyebrow at the pastor in the front row chewing gum while we sang in the midst of what felt like a Christian rock concert. We both decided, if we wanted to see if this could work between us, we needed to find some place in the middle to call home; and thankfully, I was hungry for something new.  

I’d been a church mutt all my life, but in the decade leading up to meeting Ricardo, identified more with a charismatic expression of faith, one I'd been outgrowing prior to meeting him.  We landed as smack dab in the middle as we could find, in a Presbyterian church filled with young families and bursting at the seams with babies, among liturgy and hymns and the Eucharist.  I began to find God in rich traditions of the Church, centuries old, in quietness and contemplation, instead of in how I performed my "spiritual gifts."  I'd been in a congregation for so long that eyed the word "traditional" with great suspicion when it came to worship and practice.  This dive into liturgy and Eucharist every week was a paradigm shift for me, a refreshment I hadn't known I was craving.  Eventually, I joked that I’d become a Presbycatholicostal.  Or something along those lines.  In truth, our relationship was changing me, in ways I never foresaw as possibilities.

For most of my young adult life, I'd been searching for someone who was safe (i.e., someone more like me).  I knew, in theory, marriage would be tough enough coming from similar places let alone many layers of differences, but still I couldn't walk away from Ricardo.  Looking back, it makes more sense to me, on some levels, that this was not, after all, a diversion from how I've always been.  Perhaps it was more in line with who I am than I realized, even as I was changing in many ways from the girl and young woman I'd known, and this both unnerved and intrigued me.  I've always been the one that jumps right in the midst of a challenge instead of taking progressive steps leading up to the plunge.  The one that wanted to move to Africa and live in a refugee camp before ever visiting.  The one that was planning to move to Minneapolis to pursue my career after grad school, again, without knowing the city or anyone there.  The one that preferred to train for a marathon rather than a 5K, or do a triathlon as her first foray back into athletics after a major injury.  It's just how I roll.  Why would marriage be any different?  

I didn't want to marry someone because he looked "right" or good on paper, because others approved, or because he fit the criteria from a list I wrote when I was sixteen, before I really knew who I was or how I would change through the seasons of life.  And everyone chooses their partners for reasons very personal and unique to them, and so I know it's not for everyone to value differences the way I do.  But in the end, it was our differences that showed me more of God than those things that were the same, all built around the one truly unifying sameness: We're both children of God, loved by Christ and desiring to love him well with our lives. The revelation that God didn't choose to love me because I'm so much like him, because we have so much in common, but because he just chose to, stoked a fire in my soul.  

There's something beautiful and mysterious and redemptive, in two very different people living under the same roof, merging together two lives into one, seeking to love and serve the other in the throes of all of our differences.  And we all marry different people, don't we, it's just that for some, the differences are more prominent.  It's not about swinging from one end of the pendulum, from glorifying our sameness to elevating our differences, either.  

It's about not living - and loving - so afraid.   

I read recently that no one ever marries the "right" person, we just think we do.  That because we are always changing, the person that seemed so right to us when we first married may look quite different a month or years later, and so will we.  The author of these words, Stanley Hauerwas, an ethics professor at Duke University, concluded with this remark:  "The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married." 

Amen and amen.    

And this, I'm seeing, is part of the glorious mystery of marriage.  

As for all the questions, they still roll in, further apart now, lower and gentler sloping waves that break and spread out into the vast sea.  I will always have questions and maybe, just maybe, I’m learning not to fear them, even to lean into them.  Especially the ones that defy scripted  answers.  

photo credit: Mandy Fiock
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I feel the need to emphasize here that my intent, in no way, is to generalize any groups of people: those who marry someone with whom they have much in common, or those who marry with many differences; Catholics or Pentecostals.  Nor do I desire to exclude people who aren't of the Christian faith from the dialogue of marriage.  I am merely telling my story as honestly as I know how, and all of these pieces mentioned happen to play defining roles in its telling. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Just Write: Life on the verge

I imagine I'm sitting in the living room, waiting, listening for the sound of a car pulling up in the driveway, for footsteps outside my door.  I wait, but all the cars drive by.  I stand up, restless, pull the door open and peer over the threshold, into the slow-fade of daylight.  Nothing.  I shut the door, lean against it for a few full breaths, and sit back down.  

Here I wait for words to come, the urge to write pressing from within my chest, and there is nothing.  Nothing, and yet I'm sputtering in a deluge of metaphors, searching for the words to express the deep waters astir.  I find there is much to speak and nothing worth speaking, coexisting in the tension of irony.  

I refuse to write nothingness.  And there is a time for pushing through, a time for writing into inspiration; but I'm finding, too, there is a time to sit back and wait, to quiet the torrent of words, until static gives way to a clear, resounding note.  If it is true, I write because I must, then it is also true that I wait to share words because they must be told. Because I wonder, along with so many wonderers who walk this lonely path of writing, Why is this worth sharing with the world?  What is this all about?  If I'm going to bare my soul here, by God, let it have a purpose beyond mere disclosure. 

This past year and a half, I've walked through the darkest pages of my story thus far, and I've wrestled and agonized and dared to bare my soul in this humble, tiny space, in hopes that it might resonate with even one other soul.  Like sitting across from a friend, looking unflinchingly into their eyes and saying, "You're not alone."  This is why I write.  

I've gone deep into the cave in this dark season, and I've written from that place, and I've struggled with the onset of tunnel vision.  The blurry-eyed seeing of someone just trying to survive, barely able to focus in on the stories of the ones right beside me.  I've been the bicyclist wearing glasses riding home in a downpour, where I squint between drops collecting on glass and everything becomes about this urgent matter of making it home safely.  In this place, I tip to and fro beneath the dance to balance grace for my weakness with grace-filled eyes that remain open to others.  Most days, I fail, and it breaks my heart.  I get up, with scraped knees and puffy eyes, and ask God to help me take the next step toward love.  For I will not give up; I want to love with a full heart. 

First, my heart must be filled. 

In this season, I've certainly grown tired of my own voice, my own story.  I often fear that I'm living a story that is an Amber-sized imitation of the greater song that swallows mine whole; the one where I find what is mine woven tightly in the threads of what was and is and always will be his - my Creator's.  It's been a couple of weeks, now, and the cave that I've been trying to find my way out of for so long, my back is to it and the cave grows more distant each day.  My eyes are adjusting again to light and joy and the faint pulse of hope, growing steady, and the shapes of others around me are coming into focus.  My story is adjusting, too, from Then to Here, even though I don't yet know what Here is.  And still, still, it's all static in my ears, and I wait for words to come through.  

It's life on the verge, that's what it is, and I kiss the ground, grateful for life outside the cave walls, for the Maker who redeems all things, who brings forth light from the darkness, who gives sight to the blind, who makes all things beautiful.

I will wait. 

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Joining Heather over at Just Write, where I haven't been in a long time.  And while, admittedly, this was written more like pulling teeth than letting words flow freely, I'm grateful for this community of writers and a place to know others and be known.    

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Five-minute friday: Together

Walking into the animal farm and pumpkin patch, it’s a sanctuary of earth and fur, dirt and feathers.  I feel Christmas bubbling up in my heart as it did when I was a little girl, an invasion of joy as I haven’t experienced in months.  Each time I’m in the company of animals, I notice my heart lifts off the ground, swelling until nearly bursting.  My eyes, warm and blazing, two stars lighting up my face.  I feel alive.

I’m in a dance on this farm, my feet caught between desire to move on to the next sight and rooted to the spot in the dirt where I stand and gaze with longing.  I move from crazy, bedhead Silkies to turquoise peacocks and brown peahens with emerald chests.  From ducks vying for the feed in our dixie cups to black pigs with fleshy snouts.  In a stall, I stoop and with one finger stroke gentle lines across the fuzzy yellow backs of ducklings hatched last week.  We huddle near, peering into an incubator where tiny beaks poke through egg shells like telescopes surveying the outside world, unhurried explorers. 

But it’s here, with the goats, where I enter in and rest.  A mama and two babies are curled up together in a corner of the pen.  I crouch low, find a seat in the hay beside them, and stroke one of the babies’ faces.  The baby moves closer, leaning in, until her face rests on my shoulder and my head rests on hers.  The scent of animal and earth, the warmth of this small head, this innocent gesture of trust, I wish to freeze this moment.  I could sit here, with her, all the day long.


And I know, deep, deep, I know, this tiny dream grows within its shell, trying to poke its way through to birth.  This crazy love of goats and chickens, ducks and donkeys, is tucked inside my vision of home and family, where we share life together.

And maybe, I’ll taste that vision of home here, in this life.  Or maybe, there’s a farm awaiting me on the other side of eternity.
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Joining Lisa-Jo and the Five-Minute Friday community for this post, to the prompt of "Together."

Friday, October 18, 2013

Five-minute Friday: Laundry


Across the ceiling from wall to wall, they dance and sway in the gust of our opening door, like colorful laundry strung on a line in a summer breeze.  Papel picado - purple, red, blue, pink, yellow, green, orange and white tissue paper cutouts - herald life and death in images of festive skeletal characters.  A constant reminder as I come and go that things are not often as they seem, if we probe a little deeper.

I always thought El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, was a morbid affair.  An exaltation of death in an irreverent parade of costumed skeletons.  At best, I believed it to be the Mexican version of Halloween, dismissing it as anything of interest.  After all, what did I possibly want with skeletons?


Until, quite by accident, two years ago I wandered into the Seattle Center the last weekend in October, during a festival celebrating this holiday.  I had come to the Center grounds with a notebook and pen to write a story I didn’t find, and stepped instead into a world of history and art, folklore and traditions, altars and remembrances; a world of calavaras de azucar, pan de muerto and ofrendas; the world of Jose Guadalupe Posada and his satirical depiction of the rich and the poor in Mexican society at the turn of the twentieth century, embodied in his famous drawings of La Catrina

I came and beheld, and no longer did it all look like death glorified.  It was life celebrated and the fear of death mocked.  A rich way of remembering loved ones who have passed on; a grappling with the human experience; how in the end, we are all skeletons beneath our costumes, whether elaborate or plain.  The drawings, the altars, the parade of calaveras, poetry, marigolds and photos, they whispered to me, We all share the same end, so let us not fear it.  Let us live with joy the lives we have, embrace the loved ones who have gone before us, the ones who are still with us, the ones whose histories are woven with ours.  We are all part of something bigger.  Let us stop and remember. 
Let us even dare to throw a party, to come together with music and dancing and feast, to pause in the midst of all the tragedy and glorious ordinary, to hang our translucent colored papers on the line from past to present.

And finally, I saw beauty where once I saw only skeletons.

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Linking with Lisa-Jo and the community of Five-minute Friday writers.  Today's prompt is "Laundry," to which this post is only abstractly related... 

I didn't spend much time explaining traditions during the holiday in this post, but for those who are interested, I wrote my first post on El Dia de los Muertos two years ago.  You can read it here