Thursday, May 29, 2014

Seeds of creativity: on knitting, planting and growing an idea

photo credit

I've been writing in my black and white composition book all week long, scratching words on paper to tuck away for later. It's the first time since starting this blog that I've written so much that I'm keeping to myself. 

It's a new experience for me, outside of my years of journaling.

I feel as though I'm tucked away, knitting a scarf whose length is yet to be determined. I have a style in mind, held loosely with the acceptance it may turn out entirely different. Or, I may never finish it.

I'm even hesitant to say this, but because I'm not attached to a certain outcome at this point, I'll make the leap of faith: I think I may have begun the process of writing a book. 

Is it normal to be uncertain about something like this? It tastes like peace to me, but also adventure, the unpredictability of what I'm embarking on.  I've wanted it for so long yet been unwilling to force it. I still am.

I always wondered if I would just know when it came to me, or if I would need someone else to point out the obvious. Would it be like uncovering a buried treasure, or would it be like growing a baby in my womb?

It's felt like both, this week. I'm uncovering a treasure that's been here for awhile, and something is growing in the womb of creativity. It took a dear friend to point it out to me, with a simple heartfelt comment. The seed was planted, and it may be too early to tell if it will make it past germination, but I'm embracing it nonetheless. Where it goes from here, what it becomes or doesn't become, is not for me to say. Only that I see it there, in the ground, and yes, I will water it. I will tend it, as long as it lives.

I have to say, I wasn't expecting to write about this seed.  I wasn't looking for it. It's not something entirely original, and I worry some, that I'm borrowing from someone else's style and content. Did this come from within me, or is it merely remnants of inspiration gleaned from works I've read recently that settled deep in my soul? Does it matter, ultimately, as long as it is my voice, not an imitation of theirs? What is original, but the voice with which we each speak our common stories, when nothing is ever new under his canopy of sky and earth? 

I must strive to let my voice be true.

Intertwined with my writing this week, I've been finishing a moving memoir, Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams. I have savored this book and as it comes to a close, it seems more like confirmation than imitation that I have been reading it at the same time this seed is planted for a book of my own. She includes a poem in her final chapters by Wendell Berry, The peace of wild things. As I read it, the page might as well have been lit by a star. This, right here, is the essence of my seed, and he says it more eloquently in twelve lines than I ever could in an entire book. 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I'll be honest, I'm fighting the urge to back out of everything I've just written here, to leave it entirely open-ended and non committal, so I won't disappoint you or myself. I am afraid of coming up short. But I choose, today, not to let that stop me. If this is my act of courage for the day, it is enough. And if this seed comes up short, in the end, it will not be a loss, merely a journey I embraced, a seed carried in my heart for however long it was given me.

It is enough.

* * * * *

Linking up with Kelli and Jennifer

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tales of beauty from the rubbish heap: The juxtaposition of death and life (Church on a bike)

This week marks the end of my guest post series, Tales of beauty from the rubbish heap - at least for the month of May. I will be looking for more ways to create a space here where the voices of other storytellers can be heard, a collection of redemption tales. It has truly been a joy for me, and I hope it has been for you, too.

And now, I want you to meet a friend of mine, Melissa Otterbein, who writes at Like Birds on Trees (can you see one of the reasons I love her?). This adventurous soul writes with an insatiable curiosity toward the world. She's bold enough to look at things long enough to allow discomfort to settle in, to question and doubt, to write the things that others may not say; she's humble and gracious enough to hear and see from others' perspectives, open enough to be changed by those she brushes up against.  She writes raw and real, intelligent and compassionate, and always hopeful. Would you welcome her with me this week?

* * * * *

“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.

“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hung in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, recalling the brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I was in my third year of working in an HIV/AIDS clinic. I primarily worked with patients who were considered AIDS-defined, meaning their CD4 cell (white blood cells of the immune system) count was under 200 cells per milliliter of blood. Our program focused on assisting patients in getting into HIV medical treatment. Unfortunately, some individuals found out about their diagnosis so late into the infection, or were not ready to face the reality of their diagnosis, that there were deaths, such as the one I experienced that day. HIV is completely treatable and people living with HIV can live a long healthy life, so long as antiretroviral medication is taken consistently and medical care attended regularly. But there is a lot of misinformation many people in the population I work with have encountered, and it is not uncommon for some patients to delay or avoid medical care because of the friends or family they’ve seen pass away in decades past, when medical care was not as developed as it is now.

As I fought to bring myself back to the present moment, I got ready to leave my office after a long work day. I strapped on my helmet to bike home, my bike commute being one of the most rejuvenating parts of my day. I see the face of the patient who passed away as I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail, when something caught my eye. Outside of the jail were activists holding bright colored placards protesting peacefully against the death penalty. I smiled at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthused, giving them a thumbs up from my yellow bike gloves and pedaled on my way.

A second later, it hit me. Tears rushed to my eyes but refused to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contracted; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me. The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

It was a holy moment.

It was Church, on a bike.

I skipped church yesterday, but all of this just reminds me that God still speaks through every medium around us.

Life. Death.

A life that cannot yet speak is growing inside the womb of a woman I pass by.


Three dozen birds lined up shoulder to shoulder chirp on the overhead telephone wires like white colored lights hugging the perimeters of homes in December.


My heart pumps blood and oxygen to mobilize my legs as they go up-down, up-down.

More life.

All around us, death and life, life and death. Pitch black darkness, confusion, pain, redemption, hope, joy, life, and healing hover around us and within us each day and it’s rarely a smooth, seamless process. Situations feel impossible to traverse through. We enter into dark places of human trafficking, urban poverty, and violence. And yet, still, a thin glimmer of hope is somehow able to sneak through the cracks of our breaking hearts. The hearts of Lazarus’ sisters when he becomes sick, the sorrow they experience in his death, and the joy that unfolds as he miraculously rises from the dead. Jesus gets mocked, criticized, and experiences sharp pangs of a sword entering his side. They call it Good Friday, but in this moment, it feels anything but good. Doom. Defeat. Grief. The nadir. The zenith. Valley of the shadow of death. Whatever you want to call it. And what was he doing on this cross, anyway; is this all some sick joke, God? Ah, but, alas, Sunday comes and he rises from the dead, refusing to let hopelessness and death have the final say, as both coteries of Jesus’s followers and his biggest cynics realize that all of the things he stands for cannot be taken away.

And so the story of death, life, and rebirth continue to emerge out of thin pages composing scripture into our everyday experiences today.

So may we find the hand of God in the mysterious places between life and death.

May our eyes be opened while we pedal and walk around our cities and our towns, ready to find God in the faces we meet.

May we discover hope in hands held tightly in embrace.

May we choose to believe in redemption and healing and that joy can truly return again in the morning.

May we discover our Fridays, and let our Sundays, much like Jesus, have the final say.

And may we discover the peace that longs to be given to us this side of heaven.

* * * * * 

For more in this series, please read here.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Familia del Lago

We are nosy neighbors.

Down the street from where we live, we invite ourselves into our neighbors' homes. We would knock, sure, if they had doors, but they don't. So we call out, "We're here!" and step right in, treading respectfully across the threshold, though sometimes sprinting like children through the living room. 

We come with our own dinner. 

We come with binoculars. 

We stay as long as daylight, lingering with the last shreds of light that drip from branches and coat the city skyscrapers with gold across the water. 

We come, and our neighbors provide dessert.

* * * * *

I've taken to calling them family - familia del lago - our family of the lake. I call them family, knowing this is not the name they would call me by in return. There is nothing they do for me, practically speaking, but by their existence alone in this shared plot of earth, I feel a deep kinship and stirrings of belonging to something bigger. And in that, they give me more than they will ever know.

They sing, and we listen. They move about, and their lives instruct us, feed our souls with mystery and simplicity. When they are not there, we feel their absence.

First, there is Abuelo, our grandfather Great Blue Heron.  We do not know his age, but in his stately bird stature, the mass of his body and distinguished plumage draping down his chest, we know he's been around for awhile. We watch entranced as he performs his nightly rituals along different points of the lake house, speared toes and legs like arrow shafts. He bobs and crouches, hunches and balances like a seasoned Tai Chi master and Yogi combined. He is a patient hunter, waiting, always ready, to spear fish with his dagger beak. His eyes are rings of golden fire encircling the end of a dark tunnel. 

We follow him wherever he flies. By car or by foot. Wherever we drive along the lake, our eyes swoop to the trees, always looking for Abuelo.

The other day, we watched as a redwing blackbird attacked him repeatedly from behind while he perched on a log. I cried out, "No! Don't do that!" and promptly shut my mouth. They have arguments I know nothing of, after all, and I imagine Abuelo has ravaged his share of bird nests. Abuelo mostly ignored the defensive bird, then turned his head in irritation, shaking him off like a fly. 

"Just fish, Abuelo," we teased him affectionately when we left. "No baby birds, ok?" But Abuelo is old and he's a bird; he'll do as he damn well pleases. We know this. 

* * * * *

The newest addition to our family arrived unexpectedly this week. We were watching Abuelo and a chorus of swallows, a lone hummingbird and one rogue turtle, when we looked out and saw his head in the water. 

A beaver, come to eat his fill of lily pad tacos. 

The guy was hefty and through the binoculars we could see his little hands grasping tightly to these lily pads, shoveling them systematically into his mouth, one after another, without a pause.

Only a few nights before, we'd trekked all the way to a park northeast of us, maybe forty minutes away, in hopes of seeing beavers like this one. And we did, after over an hour of waiting. One beaver, just like this one, feasting among the lily pads. 

We had no idea beavers were among our neighbors, less than two miles down the road.  Yet here he was.

Ricardo named him Justin.  Justin Beaverly.  Because one time, he was trying to remember the name of Justin Timberlake (I don't recall why, exactly, he was a topic of conversation) and referred to him as Justin Bimberly. I wrote it down, of course, to remember for occasions such as this.

It just seemed fitting. 

And last night, I followed this pull toward my family again, after dinner. I was alone and sad and knew that if I were just in their company, my spirits would be refreshed. Once I arrived at one of our favorite spots, Abuelo was nowhere in sight, nor any turtles, but I saw two beaver heads hovering above water. The first beaver hung out close by for a few minutes before disappearing in the lake. I walked down to find the other, and scooted with him, bit by bit, further down the lake, until my view of him was obstructed by trees and I was running around to keep up with him. Along the lake shore I ran with my binoculars, standing on benches and hovering at the water's edge in sheer delight. I followed him until he climbed onto a bank, beneath a tree with low-lying branches, and continued his feasting. I couldn't believe how close he let me come. At one point, he turned his head and fixed me with his black glassy eyes, then slid into the water.  

 * * * * *
I stood on a concrete platform last night, my husband finally catching up with me after arriving home to find me gone. We watched as a large bird with dark brown wings and white underbelly flew toward us, above us, a fish clenched in his talons. 

"Oh! An osprey!" We had hoped to see one for several months. In a flash, he was nothing but a shape growing smaller in the distance, a mirage imprinted in memory.

* * * * *
This familia del lago, they speak to me in their own languages, this story of belonging and otherness. This wildness I can't fully grasp, can't ever get close enough to satisfy, reminds me, we are all like this. How this sense of mystery so often wears off with familiarity and we forget, even if we feel it down in our souls: we never fully grasp each other. The moment we think we can finally grasp the ones we love, they slip away, into the water, and we are standing on the shore whispering a bittersweet goodbye. Tomorrow, then, we concede, if there is tomorrow. But if not, we will hold precious this seeing of each other, glimpses of the other's wild beauty and mystery. We came close, but never close enough.

Joining Heather and  Emily and Kelli

* Also, linking up with Lisa Jo for Five-Minute Friday, even though this post is way longer than a five minute writing exercise. The prompt this week is "Close," and I had written this before I knew that - it just fit too well.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tales of beauty from the rubbish heap: When redemption looks a lot like a daughter

For more than four years, this blog has been my space of storytelling. Where I come and lay out the trail of crumbs from Then to Now, evidence of beauty emerging from what I like to call the rubbish heap of life. But it's always been in the back of my mind, how I want this space to be more. I long for it to be a home for your stories, too, somehow, not only in the comments section. I envision this grand, limitless book where we're all contributing pages of our redemption stories-in-process, witnesses to the pain and the glory, the searching and the finding. And I'm so happy, dear friends, to tell you that I'm starting something new this month of May. I've invited four writer friends to contribute stories each week of the month, their tales of beauty from the rubbish heap. I hope it's only the beginning of a bigger story being told here on this blog.

And now, I want you to meet someone I greatly admire, for the beauty and resilience of her spirit and the way she sees and loves and makes art. The first time I met her, we were in the fifth grade, still climbing trees, playing dress up and creating worlds with our imaginations. The next time I found her was in this online world, and she was a gorgeous grown woman with a breathtaking daughter and a burgeoning photography business.  This woman exudes grace and weaves stories through photography that stir a place beyond words, drawing out the magical and majestic essence of everyday life through the eyes of an artist who doesn't miss what the real treasure is. And to top it off, she is also a compelling storyteller with her words.  You can lose yourself for hours in her work over at Simply Splendid, but for now, it's my honor to introduce my friend, Marla Cyree.

* * * * *

Mother’s Day 2014 was a lovely and relaxing day spent with my daughter on one of the prettiest days of the year we’ve had yet, but it was also a day rippled with internal conflict.  Why would I be conflicted on a glorious and relaxing spring day celebrating mothers across the nation?  Reason: in no way did I want to connect with my own mother on Mother’s Day.  Admittedly, I did send her a little note card the Friday before. In it I wrote, “Happy Mother’s Day Mom.  I hope you have a nice day.  Love, Marla.”  Basically the most generic of greetings lacking in personal tribute or sincerity.  After writing it out, it sat on my desk and I wrestled with myself internally about the whole thing.

--You must send it.  It’s the right thing to do.

--On the other hand, is it unkind to send such a note?  Is there anything better I could have said instead?

--No.  Anything else would be forced and contrived.

--If you don’t send it, surely you will have to call her on Mother’s Day...

So off to the post office I went with my little card that contained a pathetic attempt at a nice Mother’s Day greeting.  But my duty was done and she would be appeased.

This isn’t how I really want my relationship with my mother to be at this point in my life, but it is better than it has been in times past.  I’m actually not even sure if better is the right word, but surely to the standards of others, the sort of contact we have is better than no contact at all?  It feels lacking in honor though.  So I grapple with how do I extend honor to a woman who has been hurtful and hateful towards me the majority of my life.  How do I protect myself and have safe boundaries, yet have affection toward her when just days before she tore into me about what a horrible, unkind, selfish person I was... that she would almost rather that I was never born than be the person I am today?  The woman who sent me 20 text messages at 2:30am just nights before, angry about a thing I said to her 30 years ago (I’m only 32) and what a trial I’ve made her life since I was born.  I’m still hearing the same story about how I ruined her life... the one I’ve been hearing since I was 4 years old.  What do I do with it all at this point?  I still don’t know, after all these years, I still really don't know.

One of the first commandments was “to honor your father and mother.”  Over and over again the Bible offers verses and commandments where God has told us to honor and obey our parents.  It even promises that when we do honor our parents that life “will go well for us” and that it is pleasing to Him when we honor them. The Bible also offers many consequences for when we don’t--like trouble and death for instance.  How do I honor her? I feel as though I’m in this stalemate position.  I know God sees her hurt and my hurt and is broken-hearted for us.  I know this is not His vision or desire for us.  Yet it remains and I feel that any way I turn is at the point of a knife nearly piercing my flesh.  It hurts. Being her daughter hurts... even at 32.  Perhaps what I have to offer at this time is honoring.  I don't know really.  It isn't how I'd like it to be, but maybe it's enough.  It's certainly all I have to give at this time.

How am I managing our relationship right now?  First, I choose to peacefully not engage with her when she is hurtful.  Do her words still hurt?  Yes.  Is it effective?  I'm not sure.  Secondly, I pray for her and for us.  It is hard.  I have found it to be a struggle to sincerely pray for someone who feels like my enemy.  It’s not easy and I tend to get easily distracted during that time, so I could be better at this.  Third, I try really hard to have grace for her.  Over and over and over again.  I remember where she’s come from, what she struggles with, I have compassion.  I  I try to extend little olive branches at arms length, even if I don’t feel inclined or want to.  Lastly, I forgive her.  Forgiveness seems like a sticky thing.  I have to keep doing it--for things she’s done, things she hasn’t done, and things she continues to do.  But the forgiveness has been the most life-giving part.  It has kept me from bitterness and has allowed me to be different than her, thanks to God’s grace.  I am so glad He can see my heart and that He loves me, that He saved and rescued me from my despair so I can be who I am today.  I am beyond grateful that He has sustained me and helped me see beyond my circumstances, beyond my mother.  I am grateful for His redemption, that the enemy hasn’t won despite attempts to break me.  I am grateful for the hope He has given me since I was a very small girl.  And I am grateful that He has always been with me, that He has held me through all my hurt, that He caught every grief-stricken tear.

I used to wish for a different family, a different mother.  I would imagine myself as a new person and create a whole new life for myself.  I fantasized about what it would feel like to belong to that different family, to live in that life.  Each imagined family was peaceful and loving, uplifting and kind.  These fantasies brought momentary solace to my shattered heart, but only offered a short-lived peace, as fantasies do I suppose.  

As much as I’d just love a really great mother, the birth of my own daughter has felt like the realization of my dream for a new family.  I see my beautiful, healthy, and very special relationship with my daughter as a sort of redemption.  I am far from perfect, but I am a great mother.  I have learned so much from watching other great mothers and by knowing what not to do by my own mother’s example (and if that is the only positive result, I'm content with that).  My daughter is so very loved, and not a moment in her life has she ever thought otherwise. Our family is peaceful and loving, uplifting and kind, and she is completely secure in those values.  It brings me true joy to know that she will never feel what I have felt and I praise God there is a new legacy starting from the two of us!  And deep down I know it is God’s heart for true healing between my mother and me.  I’d love to see that also.  I honestly don’t know what that looks like anymore, but I’ll continue to hope for it.
* * * * *  

For more tales of beauty in this series:

Karmen's story
Kelly's story

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Eleven years down the road from Compline

We step into the semi darkness of St. Mark's Cathedral, fifteen minutes before Compline service begins, and slip into a pew near the front. My husband has never been here, and we're both swallowed in the grandeur of high ceilings, the curve of windows lighting this beacon on the hill above our city. On the stage in front of us, a woman lies on her back near the altar, her legs and arms falling open in a meditative posture, completely still. College students and couples trickle in carrying blankets to spread on the marble floor and across the steps. A young man with tattooed sleeves on each arm settles in on the steps with a backpack, pulling out a notebook and pen, poised to reflect.  Coupled women sit close, speaking in hushed voices. A group of gay men sit on the steps in front of the yoga woman and make themselves comfortable in the waiting.

It's been eleven years since I was here. And while it looks much the same as I remember, I see it through such vastly different eyes it doesn't look the same at all. The building, the service itself, have not changed from how I remember them. 

But I have.

* * * * *

Eleven years ago, I came to Compline services on occasion with a few college friends from Seattle Pacific University. It felt like a radical move for me, this former pastor's kid, this girl coming of age in a wildly Pentecostal church, now darkening the doors of an Episcopal cathedral, and one in particular that ordained gay ministers. I wasn't at all familiar with liturgy and I'd been taught most recently that it was a lifeless form of worship. And honestly, I wasn't comfortable with gay people, let alone gay clergy; I had no clue where they fit into my faith.  I stepped inside, and while I found the atmosphere and the monk-like voices chanting liturgy soothing, I would look around and inwardly shake my head in discomfort, in pious sadness. Where is God in this place? All this pomp, this grandeur, and I don't feel him here. They're missing the point.

I didn't understand it.

I was so afraid of what I didn't understand.

* * * * *

Each time I think I've scooted out to the edge of God, I find, 
once more, 
he is vaster than the ocean. 
I cannot see how far he extends beyond the horizon, 
only that he does.

* * * * *
Eleven years later, I worship among Presbyterians with my Catholic husband and delight in the culmination of the service in the Eucharist.  I love my Common Prayer pocket-sized book
sitting on our makeshift altar with candles. When I play my guitar in the solitude of our apartment, that free-flowing, Holy-Spirit-loving spontaneity of my Pentecostal days is unleashed. There are weeks and seasons when we hunger only to participate in Mass, in Spanish or English - sometimes both - and I know much of the liturgy now by heart.  I love to visit St. James, the Catholic cathedral near downtown, when Mass is not going on, so I can wander the edges of the sanctuary and slide my hands along the benches, breathing worship in the intricate artwork, lighting candles below Mary's statue and whispering prayers that float high above these stately ceilings. 

* * * * *

Sitting in St. Mark's, soaking in the mens' voices as they chant the last prayers of the day, I let the words wash over me. I'm familiar with them. They are lullabies to my soul.

It feels like home.

Tonight, as I steal glimpses of the others who have come to receive whatever they are hungry for, my eyes see them differently.  I am moved, not by pity or youthful piety, but by a love that surprises me with its tender fierceness.  Many of the faces I see here remind me of ones I've seen before, voices I've heard through the years, of those don't feel welcome in many churches.  This music, ancient word and prayer in acapella voices, may be the only morsel of bread for some of the hungry ones who find their way here each Sunday night. The only time they hear something akin to the voice of God singing over them, whatever name they may call him by. 

Compline seems to be one watering hole in the desert for those who may not see a place for them at the table of Church, and it happens to be in the neighborhood with the largest gay presence in the city.

* * * * *

I find my eyes drawn to one of the gay men sitting on the steps and I can't help but watch him. The beauty of witnessing a fleeting moment of vulnerability and I am undone.  I don't know what's being sung at this moment in time of the liturgy - was it after Psalm 23 and before "Into Thy hands O Lord, I commit my spirit"? - when he lifts the sleeve of his cuffed shirt and wipes below his eyes. His lips are not moving, but his eyes are closed, and I see his hands cupped so gently near his feet. An open cup, lifted to the one who sees him and knows every square inch of him, every cell in his being. Whether or not he knows this, he is a son and he is utterly and completely loved and accepted by a Father. I feel this knowledge seep into me, not for his sake, but for mine - for this heart that is ever so slowly being wrenched from the grip of judgment and freed to love. 

We are not all that different, he and I. We are empty cups held out to be filled.

All the years of being pulled into debates of who's in and who's out, theology of what God thinks of people who fall under the church's label of "controversial," devising strategies for "loving" people who make us uncomfortable while keeping them at a safe distance, it hits me with the force of a bear hug in this moment: I'm not uncomfortable with the same people anymore.  I've known this for a long time, but here in this place where I once sat, it settles on me like a pronouncement.  And I recognize this tenuous dance, where now I'm less comfortable with the types of religious folks I used to be like, and I know I need to watch my heart so I don't swap one kind of self-righteousness for another. I don't want to take my finger and point it in the opposite direction. 

That is missing the point.

But I dare say, I don't even care to know those answers that once mattered so much to me, to the stability and credibility of my faith. They're not mine to know.  And I know this, God is bigger, vaster, wider, deeper than I can wrap answers around.  I've been growing and stretching out into this bigger place in God these past eleven years, and now I see the change through eyes that are changing the way they see.

What this man is hoping to receive, with tears, I dare not guess. But watching him, I find my own tears to wipe away, for he has touched me profoundly. I'm shedding tears - of what? Joy? Wonder? Gratitude? Sober awareness? - for my heart that is being enlarged; for my eyes that are seeing through new pupils; for my small and fragile self that still has so far to go to journey to the core of God's love, if that is even possible. 

Here in this cathedral with its rainbow streamers draped from the stately ceiling, among all types of lovely and diverse people, I sit back and rest in the collective sigh of peace that seems to emanate from our souls. With my brothers and sisters, I have come to drink, and we have sat in mutual thirst, and we have been filled. And this is a mystery to me, so sweet, I can barely contain it.

I am forever being changed.

And please don't read this as my implying that we all need to change in this way or that way. Really, please. This is how I have needed to change, and that road stretches, twists and turns in ways I cannot see from where I stand. The same is true for you. God will take us where we need to go to come to the end of ourselves and the glorious reflection of him - can we all agree on this?

We are walking each other home.

But this, this is the path he has me on. And I know it by the way it makes my life and God less small, less safe, less contained, like the wings of a thousand birds taking flight from an open field.

Joining Kelli for Unforced Rhythms, Jennifer and Emily.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tales of beauty from the rubbish heap: Sucker punch (a story of openness and vulnerability)

For more than four years, this blog has been my space of storytelling. Where I come and lay out the trail of crumbs from Then to Now, evidence of beauty emerging from what I like to call the rubbish heap of life. But it's always been in the back of my mind, how I want this space to be more. I long for it to be a home for your stories, too, somehow, not only in the comments section. I envision this grand, limitless book where we're all contributing pages of our redemption stories-in-process, witnesses to the pain and the glory, the searching and the finding. And I'm so happy, dear friends, to tell you that I'm starting something new this month of May. I've invited four writer friends to contribute stories each week of the month, their tales of beauty from the rubbish heap. I hope it's only the beginning of a bigger story being told here on this blog.
This week, it's a pleasure to introduce you to Kelly Chripczuk, whose writing I gratefully stumbled across several years ago. Each time I pull up a seat next to this intelligent woman, hearing her stories of wisdom from everyday spiritual practices, I leave pondering life in a fresh way. Over time, she's endeared herself  even more to me with her beautiful prose drawn from a love of birds, land and nature, descriptions reminiscent of Wendell Berry. Please give her a big, warm, open-hearted welcome? 
* * * * * 

Sucker punch: 
A story of openness and vulnerability
We wrote an offer on a big old farm house – a solid, happy looking place with great bones, two acres and a “tenant house” – the day after Christmas 2013.  Then we waited a week for the bank representative to return from vacation and reply to our offer.   

This was the fourth house we bid on over an eight month period.  We'd been through enough ups and downs to be cautious, but this time around we were very, very excited.  We tried to simmer down about it, but one day I brought home a stack of Organic gardening magazines I found on the free shelves at the local library, then my husband started researching chickens on-line.  Soon I was scanning Craigslist for the cabinets and fixtures needed to bring the place up to speed for a family of six.  

But it wasn’t until the last day, the day before we would hear back, that I really let myself get excited.

It felt so right.
It was the first house we hadn’t had to make a list of pros and cons about – just one walk-through and we were certain, yes, this will work.  Despite the old oil heating system, the paneling on EVERY wall and the half bath that was more like a corner closet with an accordion style door – despite all of that, it felt right. 

It felt like it did when we found our first house, too good to be true and everyone we consulted seemed to feel it too – it’s time, surely this one will work. 

The day I got excited was the same day I started writing about my OneWord for 2014.  This is what I wrote about my word, ‘open.’

I picture feet planted firmly, a good solid stance – open body language. 
Arms hanging down long and lose, hands turned out toward the world. 
There's no defense in openness, no closing off, no fear maybe too, which tells me that openness is rooted in something wide and life-giving, like love.   
The posture of ‘open’ leans back a little, open can take a hit and stay standing.  
Feet planted, hands open, embracing what comes.
 I’m open to 2014 and whatever it brings, “Let it be unto me.”

I was prepared to wait an extra day – I told myself it might drag out through the weekend ahead, but underneath it all, I figured the house would probably be ours.

So I didn’t expect my husband to call, near nine on Thursday morning, with that heavy sound in his voice.  The one that makes me think he must be kidding, because he’s so terrible at delivering bad news.  
There was another offer.  It was cash, no contingencies, not even an inspection.

At the word “cash” we knew we’d lost and by one that afternoon it was all wrapped up.  The house went to another buyer.

The news hit me like a sucker-punch, right square in the gut.  I felt literally sick to my stomach.

I walked around crying silent tears that whole day long, I felt the grief of that loss in the way one does when one has been vulnerable, open.

Not long after, I read this on my friend, Shawn Smucker’s blog,

. . . choosing hope is difficult because it involves opening myself up instead of closing myself off. Hope requires vulnerability. It insists that we get back up, no matter how many times we’ve already fallen. To live in a place of hope means to live in a place where pain, should it come, finds us defenseless, with our hands down at our sides, our most sensitive areas unguarded.

Looking back I can see that we embraced hope during that week of waiting – a careful cautious hope, but hope none-the-less.

We opened ourselves to hope and it caused our hearts to flit and flutter in unexpected ways, awakening anticipation, leaving us vulnerable and exposed. 

It was painful, it was awfully close to heart-breaking.  I cannot remember now how exactly we recovered from that blow, except that we also opened ourselves to the pain, acknowledging and grieving the loss as it came.  Then slowly, slowly we picked the pieces up and moved on facing again with openness and vulnerability the possibility of another place, another dream. 

Reading my friends words I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Breathing deeply again, I chose to open myself again to whatever might come, I chose hope.

I hesitate to tell you this, because some of you may also be in the middle of a difficult wait.  Maybe you also know the sucker-punch of vulnerability, the heavy weight of lost dreams.  My husband and I took a hit to the stomach and stayed standing and that in itself is story worth telling because, from where we stood, we had no idea where our story was going. 

But what I think you also should know is this: One month later our realtor called back.  “Sit down,” he said, “I’ve got some good news.  The offer fell through, write another bid just like the one from before and the house is yours.”

That dream? It came back, it was given back and we stood there with our hands open and overflowing.

I can’t explain the why of it all, but I do know that the loss of that dream made its return all the sweeter.  I do know that I learned the cost of “open” early this year when the wind was knocked out and I know that “open” is worth choosing despite the possibility of pain for with it comes also the possibility of deep joy.

* Kelly writes at A Field of Wildflowers or follow her on Facebook @ A Field of Wildflowers.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Grateful: A partial inventory of odd and unexpected gifts

With each passing year, it seems, I notice how many gifts in life come wrapped in ugly, prickly, mismatched, ill-fitting paper. Paper that is stretched too taut, with the tiny gap in between where the edges don't quite meet up, and this is where the tape tries to cover it all. Paper with designs that hurt to look at, they're so hideous. Paper that cuts your fingers as you struggle to open what's inside and makes you bleed.  It can be so tempting not to open the package at all. Most of the time, though, we don't have that choice. It falls open one way or another, and in the opening and the beholding, we choose whether or not to view what's inside as a gift.

* * * * *

The week rent is due is almost always, without fail, a stressful time for us. This week was no exception. And so, by the time it was all said and done, I slipped away to walk down by the lake near our apartment. I set off, initially, to walk fast and long - I needed a workout, I said, to release some pent up anxiety - but I quickly recognized what I really needed was to slow down and sip the air. 

God knew this, of course.

He caught my attention by the shore near the rowing center, where a tiny flock of ducks, crows and Canadian geese were winding down for the day. I tiptoed to a picnic table close to the birds, with a sweeping view of the I-90 bridge stretched from shore to shore and the clouds reflecting their images in oil paintings across the surface of the lake. 

This bench along the lake shore with the birds and the water and the clouds was the door to losing myself. 

I lost myself, in the sound of buffleheads skimming graceful landings with their tiny feet across the water. In the quiet gurgles of the geese sipping water. In the simplicity of the robin submerged in a pool of water in the grass, the feathers around her neck fluffing, shaking the droplets from her wings. The crows scouting the grounds for food, flying away with morsels in their beaks.  The oil painting of the evening sky, fluid, ever-changing color right before my eyes.

One of the geese, nibbling at the grass, gradually moved closer to the table where I sat, lifting her head to regard me with tourmaline eyes. For a moment, we held each other's gaze. I held my breath and she came closer, continuing to feed. Soon, she was underneath the bench and I dared not move until she'd had her fill and moved away.

"You're so beautiful," I whispered to her backside, and my soul's cup filled with peace.

I lost myself there, in the evening rhythms of bird life along the water and the trees waving leafy hands while swallows danced in the sky above. I lost myself in a moment suspended in time, outside of time, where I saw God in the eyes of a goose who let me into her home.

It was here I heard so clearly, words so ancient and dear: "God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.  You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from.  True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I'm not afraid when you walk at my side... You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I'm back home in the house of God for the rest of my life" (Psalm 23, from The Message).
If I could only trust him like the birds who bathe nightly in puddles, who feed in the grasses and nest alongside still waters. They seem to know something I am only just now grasping the edges of.
 * * * * *

Two years ago, I was lying on my back in bed, leg propped up in a clunky cast on a huge red pillow, full of pain. I didn't know, then, how much injury would be my teacher.  How two years later, I'd still be wondering if my calf muscle would ever return, but I'd be marveling at the way I'd learned to walk again.

Not only how to physically walk, but to walk through life at a slower pace, with hands open to gifts of pain and wonderful beauty.

When you're a runner, it can be more challenging, I think, to notice the beauty around you. Your mindset is different. At least when I was a runner, I rarely stopped to admire things that caught my eye. I had a route, a workout, a destination and often a time constraint. I didn't care to be interrupted on my runs. I was in training mode. 
But then came the day I couldn't walk. Not for four months. And even then, I was limping for another two or three. And yet, I didn't care how long it took me to get from point A to point B. The point was, I could walk. My heart has not ceased, two years later, to stoop and kiss the ground for this gift of walking - and sometimes running - that I'd taken for granted my entire life, wrapped in the paper of injury.

My pace of life has changed. I'm more in step with a pace of wonder, and this, I've found is a slow pace. We can't catch hold of wonder in a blur.

* * * * *

April was a month of anniversaries. My injury. Our wedding. Physical and spiritual breaking apart, joining together; pain and love, rest and revelation.

We sat recently inside a chapel, all to ourselves, in quiet reflection as these anniversaries bore upon us.  A canopy of translucent lights bathed us in this urban sanctuary of green velvet-covered benches stretching from wall to wall, our green pastures, where God lead us to lie down and drink from the stream of presence.

I lay my head back against the wall in a room all to myself, staring up at a tree, tall and curvy, growing from floor to ceiling. A single lantern hung down, amber glass, illuminating words on stark white wall.

And I was filled with the full force of my hunger in this moment, pondering another year gone by and let the tears flow their streams down my cheeks. How I live in a perpetual state of not enough, hungering for love and so afraid to hunger - for if I eat of it today will there be any for tomorrow? And God's wordless whispers answered my whispered prayer:

My love is enough to sustain you,
come what may.
With me, you will not starve of love.

I lifted up my broken cup and let this Love pour in, spilling over the sides.

* * * * *

For all these gifts with all their odd and unexpected packaging, I am learning to unwrap, behold and receive. 

And friends, I have no other word to utter but this: grateful.

* * * * *

Joining Lisa Jo and the Five-minute Friday community of writers, to the prompt of "Grateful." Please note: I clearly could not have written this all within 5 minutes. I am fully guilty of taking the prompts and writing as much as needs to come out. Thank you for your graciousness with this long post today!