Friday, January 31, 2014

An ode to my hero

I didn’t know in that moment, or many to follow, my hero was in the room.  I looked for him in the words of the song I sang beside Papa’s hospital bed, “Mighty to save,” tears coating the neck of my guitar and sobs like distant thunder in my chest.  And days later, I looked for him in a different room, in the basement of the hospital, watching Papa’s body in violent struggle to let go, until my whole soul, it seemed, was drained of sound and breath, and all was finally quiet. 

I looked for him in Guatemala, where I stayed with my friend for one month, Papa freshly gone.  Alone in her apartment with its high ceilings and cement floors I screamed bloody rage, “Where are you now!”  I heard no reply, only reverberations of my voice, and sank to the floor against the wall.

I looked for him in love, in the arms of a friend who grew to be more.  And for one sweet breath of a season, I thought I found him there.  But the love collapsed from the weight of all it had taken on, and with it, I found myself falling again into grief.

The lights went out again and my songs mocked me with their unanswered prayers, but this time, he broke my fall.  He lit a match and cradled me, all the pieces of me, singing low and deep and strong.  

Do not be afraid, sweet one.  You thought I died, too, but I never left you.  I’m always in the room.

And when I sat in the tiny room at urgent care, four days before my wedding, and heard them say, “Ruptured achilles,” he was there.  I felt him this time, rubbing my arms through my soon-to-be husband as I buried my face and sobbed, whispering, “It’s ok, we’ll get through this.  I love you.”

He was there, all those nights on the bathroom floor with the door shut, when I feared there would be no end to this pain, that my heart might disintegrate in salty tears and be swept away forever.  When he gave me answers, not in words but in presence, and his love was all that filled that space of room and my cavernous heart.   

And when I thought we’d lose our home, month after month, and when my stomach growled with hunger and the food barely stretched far enough and I just needed to make it one more day.

He was in the room.  He was always in the room.

My hero.  My sweet Jesus, mighty to save, even when the saving is through the winding valley, the darkened cave, the rocky floor and sound reverberating off walls, accusations flung from a wounded heart.  Even when the notices posted on doors churn fear and the mail turns up only more bills and the cupboards seem bare and the nights long and troubled, my hero grips tight my hand and whispers, “I’ve got you.”  He awakens barren days with songs of hope and teaches me to sing them back, in my own voice, until they are mine. 

He’s the only One who’s ever stuck it out with me, through it all, feeding love into the bottomless pit of my need. 

And with time, through changing landscapes, I’m beginning to see more than an empty room, but him, in all his beautiful but not often desirable disguises.

And he, oh, I need not look further.  What a sight for sore eyes, my hero.

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I'm over at Lisa Jo's today for Five-Minute Friday.  The prompt is "Hero," and once again, this did not unfold in five minutes.  But I'm grateful to share it, all the same. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

In which the dividing lines are blurred

I stand outside St. Mary's and stare up at her closed wooden doors, wondering if I made a mistake.  I reach for the door handle and slowly pull, and it opens.  There is no one in sight.  Behind me, a woman is walking up the stairs, and I turn to her.

"Is this your first time?" she asks.  "Is this the bilingual mass?" I reply.  She says yes, it's in the back room, and I smile, "Then yes, it's my first time."

We introduce ourselves as we're walking through the sanctuary and stop at the fountain, dipping our fingers in holy water, our hands moving from forehead to chest, shoulder to shoulder in the sign of the cross.  "Do you speak Spanish?" she asks.

"Yes, my husband is from Mexico.  But I'm far from fluent." I pause a moment and look at her face and see, she is kind and quiet and listening.  "I'm not even Catholic," I continue, "But I love the mass.  My husband is Catholic, but we go to a Presbyterian church and to masses as we can."  

She doesn't seem put out by this news in the slightest.  "That's wonderful that you love the mass.  Where else have you gone?"

I list off a few Catholic churches and we're walking slowly, talking quickly, and I already feel welcome here.

We enter a small, simple room at the back of the sanctuary, with maybe twenty people sitting in a half circle.  I look around and see a Mexican family, several African American women, an older couple from Southeast Asia, two Caucasian women, a few others I can't place, and a white-haired Father Tony to my right.  After a few more minutes of chatting quietly, we pick up our mass for the day, English and Spanish printed side by side, and open hymnals to a bilingual song.  

I'm reading and singing in Spanish and my cheeks are stretched with a smile I can't suppress.  I can't believe I'm here, without Ricardo.  I came on my own.  My hunger carried me here.

I feel I'm enjoying a private joke through mass, envisioning myself five years ago.  If I could only see to the future then, seen myself sitting in a tiny room of strangers for a bilingual mass, I'd have thought I was crazy.  Why on earth would I do that, if not for a cultural experience?  I'd have wondered. 

And three years ago, less even, I remember telling my husband I liked going to mass, but I didn't think I could ever become Catholic. I just couldn't see it.

Here I sit, basking in the glow of change that has spread gradually across the landscape of my life, transforming tiny piece after tiny piece, until I look in the mirror and see: I am different.  Seven years ago, I was leading worship on a Pentecostal stage and dreaming of Africa; and here I am, uttering liturgies in Spanish. 

Father Tony speaks on joy, short and simple.  How we who know Christ are the ones who have continual access to joy, and it is to be shared.  Joy, the very thing I'm tasting in this moment, in this place, bubbling up in my heart. 

During the Passing of the Peace, people move from their chairs and travel the room extending hands and peace to each other.  The woman pastor who leads us in singing introduces herself to me, and my new friend says to her, "This is Amber.  She isn't Catholic, but she loves the mass.  Isn't that great?"  The woman chuckles, "Better a non-Catholic who loves the mass than a Catholic who hates it."  I laugh with her, "Yeah, that's right."  

I like these people.  I've never met Catholics like them.

We come to the part of the mass when we prepare for the Eucharist; the part I love the most, and the part that makes me feel the most out of place.  Non-Catholics aren't invited to take the bread of Christ's body or drink from the cup.  I used to fight it, going forward anyways and "pretending," but I finally settled on respecting their tradition, if not fully disagreeing.  

We're all part of the same family, I ache inward.  Why do we need this distinction, Catholic or non-Catholic, if we all love the same Christ?

For this reason, I've loved mass, but I've never felt welcomed here.  I'm an outsider, and at this part of the mass, I feel it acutely.

Father Tony lifts a cracker and prays in Spanish, then in English, and does the same with the cup of wine.  People move from their seats and begin coming forward, and I move to let my new friend pass.

She touches my shoulder, "Father invites anyone to take communion," she whispers.  "If you want, that is."  

I can't believe what I'm hearing.  "Are you sure it's ok?"

"I'm sure."  Her gaze invites me out, and I step forward to accept the bread, looking in the priest's face.  Father Tony's eyes don't flinch or waver with question.  He doesn't suspect me to be a fraud.  The woman offering me the cup of wine says to me, "The blood of Christ," with quiet affirmation.  I feel a lump in my throat as I take my seat.  

I'm not Catholic.  But I was just invited in.  Here in this room, in this mass, the lines that have been drawn so sharply are nothing but a beautiful blur of color. 

We are all family. Black, White, Asian, Latino, Catholic, Christian.  

We close the mass singing a joyful song in Spanish.  Alabare alabare alabare alabare, alabare a mi SeƱorI will praise my Lord, we sing, and I belt it out.

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Joining Heather at the EO.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hard confessions on being a visitor

I've been reflecting lately on this idea of home, influenced by Ashley Larkin, who is spending 2014 weaving this theme into her writing.  As such, this is partly where my writing today stems from. 

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As a kid, I never put down roots.  We were never in one place long enough to call it home, in a rooted sense.  I grew up trained in the skills of saying goodbye and letting go, and at some point along the way, those evolved into the skills of not-getting-too-attached and not-depending-on-anyone.  

Pretty much, I make a great visitor.

It's been thirteen years now that I've called Seattle home - a twist in my life's trajectory I never planned, sticking around here so long.  Some days when I marvel at this, how much I love this place I call home, I even think for a fleeting moment that I have it down.  This whole putting down roots business.  

And other moments, that I have it completely backwards.

If I can be painfully, awkwardly honest, I need to confess a revelation that came to me the other day on a walk: I think I'm more attached to the place of home here than the people I love here.  Or put another way, I've learned to put down roots with a place but not with people.  

It's downright scary to admit that, because I'm afraid of judgment, of how it conveys things both true and untrue about me.  As I read those words, hear myself say it aloud, I know how backward it is.  I'm deeply attached to all the places that hold memories of my journey here the past thirteen years.  I've grown up here in Seattle, come into my skin here.  My worldview expanded here through my college and grad school years.  Seattle has seen me through tragedy and numerous heartbreaks.  It's here I met and married my husband, and it's here he and I have memories tucked away in neighborhoods and parks, taco trucks and Vietnamese restaurants, Chinese markets and Mexican tiendas, dance halls, Catholic cathedrals and Presbyterian sanctuaries.  I've known this city through running, walking and biking her streets, trails and parks; driving her crazy, twisted back roads; bumping along from here to there on her accordian buses.  

Even now, thirteen years later, each time my eyes sweep across the Puget Sound toward the Olympic mountains; each time I stand along the shore of Lake Washington and stare across to Mercer Island or Bellevue; each time I marvel at the way the floating bridge is lit up like a strand of luminaries from shore to shore, or catch sight of Mt. Rainier rising in a mist just south of where I live, my breath catches in my throat.  

How I love this place.

And I love my people here, too.  Lord knows, I've been blessed with some amazing folks along the way, and my issues don't diminish that truth.  People who have lived with me through the adventures of college, through my beautiful, messy season of social work, through my detoxing-from-church year and my practically-living-at-church years, through the utter exhaustion and joys of grad school, through relationships and break-ups and broken hearts, through misunderstandings and tension and forgiveness, through Papa's coma and then his death and all the years since of picking up the pieces, through job changes and wrestling with identity, through injury and marriage and surgery, through depression and withdrawal and coming back to the land of the living.  And I can't tell you why, as much as my heart loves these people, I think after all these years, I'm still a visitor to friendship.  

It's much easier to love a place than it is to love people.

A place can't hurt you, forget you, walk away from you or be too busy for you the way people can.

And maybe this is why it's been so heavy on my heart, this gnawing hunger to know real friendship more this year.  To be a real friend, one that risks painful goodbyes.  Maybe, after all these years, I'm finally realizing my "attacher" is broken, still scared to death of needing someone, still out of practice of asking for someone to be with me, to walk with me more than a block of this journey.  It's still easier to go it alone, because that's what I've known in my years of being a visitor.  

So today, I bring that broken, hungry, feeble piece of me to my Father God, and I ask him to heal, to make me able to be more than a visitor to friendship. 

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Joining up a day late (and never, per usual, in five minutes of writing) with Lisa Jo and the community at Five-Minute Friday.  The prompt is "Visit."  


Friday, January 17, 2014

Why words matter

photo credit

We sit in a booth at the Cup and Saucer in Portland, snatching a few bites of breakfast between words tumbling out fast, back and forth.  I'm more hungry for conversation than the food sitting on my plate, because I've been waiting for this for nine months.  This friend I met only one time before but have grown to love through our exchange of words and hearts, we lean in close and speak of transitions and journeys of healing, home and family, friendships and marriage - and of course, writing.  

She looks me in the eyes and admits she needs to dig deeper to the Why of her writing, beyond the "call" to write or the "I write because I must."  And I nod my head while my heart breathes, Yes

It's so easy to consider giving up when we don't know why our words matter.

As we continue to share our journeys, our stories, I see we are passing these balls of yarn back and forth, in and out, lines and weaves of color forming, outlines of Whys spread between us.  The more I share my story with her, the more the weave emerges, until the words string color from my mouth.

I know I write to tell the whole story, not just the "I used to be here but look! Now I'm here and I overcame all that!" I write the I'm-in-the-midst-of-the-cave-right-now story, the dark and the cloudy story, the tears in my eyes and heavy wrestling for hope, even when - no, especially when - I can't see traces of beauty yet. 

But why?

I tell her the story of how, just the other day, I'm driving in Seattle with a view of the Olympic mountains rising on my left, the sky alive in the crisp blue and bursts of sun.  How in that moment, it hits me so clear: I'm happy to be alive again.  I've been flying through a dark, dark cloud for so long and I've finally emerged into daylight, and as the sun hits my eyes, I tell her, it's even more beautiful than I remember.  Coming from dark to light is this way, isn't it? 

And here, it comes tumbling out.  I write this way because the light of hope, the beauty of redemption, is more glorious when it's birthed from the dark.  When we see the fuller picture, not chopped into pieces, but one seamless, messy, wondrous story.  

To inspire hope, that nothing is beyond the grasp of redemption when our stories are not our own, but his.  

Yes, it's tucked right here: I write to lay the trail of God's fingerprints across my life.  And that is enough for me.

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Linking up with Lisa-Jo for a (not) Five-minute Friday post.  Today's prompt: "Why your words matter."  

Friday, January 10, 2014

See: The birth of hope and other things

My eyesight often seems to improve this time of year.  At the beginning, when the year is fresh and I'm standing straddling two seasons - the year behind, the year before - and what is "old" becomes what is "new" as my eyes focus on what I wasn't able to see when I was in the throes of the present. 

I had a hell of at time seeing last year.  It was like driving through a rainstorm with the wipers on high speed and still everything a blur.  And it's amazing, really, how quickly we can move from un-seeing to sight, but here I stand looking back, looking forward, and I think it's been coming on for awhile now.  I just didn't know it.

I see hope.  It's been in gestation all along and only now is it ready for birth, and even then, it will be a newborn, an infant.  A year from now, it may be walking. And I see my struggle with hope, how I wanted it to promise something in my circumstances would change, and then how I fought for it to be a separate entity from the happenings of life.  How I labored to know, really know, hope.  And here I am, preparing to hold it in my arms, against my skin, and watch how I will change with its touch.

I see hope, and it is this: this life is preparation for another.  I am loved fully, unconditionally, eternally, and there is no circumstance, no brokenness, no disappointment or failing or loss in life that can rob me of that inheritance.  I am free to love because I am not empty.

And I see love.  All the days and weeks and months of loving out of promise instead of emotion, of falling down and getting back up again, I see that time is my teacher.  When I thought love was not there because for so long I felt anything but love and sometimes confused it with passion, I see it was there in the ground, a seed dying in order to live.  This putting the good of the other in front of my own, of picking up the towel and serving in the tired and the lack.  This looking into the face of the one I say I love and seeing a glimpse of the Divine in his tired eyes, holding the hand that has fit within mine through the last few years and squeezing it tight.  I've got you, it says.  I'm not leaving. We're sticking this out.  This love, I see, is deeper and quieter, wider and stronger than the feelings of love that sweep us along and then dry up or fade into trickle.  This is love that sustains, that perseveres, that redeems and beautifies with age.

Here, I see joy.  I thought I could know joy by sheer willpower and intentional choosing, but to know joy, I first had to know hope.  And with hope, to know love.  And with love that lays down, day in and day out, I see joy bubbling up through the cracks, refreshing and delighting my heart.  

I have a long road ahead of seeing, but this, too, is grand adventure. 

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Joining Lisa-Jo and Five-minute Friday to the prompt of "See." 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

When love is more like onions

We stand outside the security checkpoint as long as they are in our sight and wave.  Annecy's head of curly black hair bobbing in and out of view and Ivan's tear-streaked face breaking into smiles between soulful glances at Ricardo.  My husband is quiet, watching his older sister and nephew disappear in the airport.  His face doesn't betray much emotion, but I see it in his eyes, feel it in the way he leans against me. 

He is sad.

His huge heart is spread between Mexico and Seattle, and while he says goodbye to one he turns to embrace the other.

We are family now.

Finally we move away, arms around each other, and he whispers, "Thank you.  Thank you for loving my family, for making them feel welcome."

My eyes sting at the corners.  "Of course," I say.  Of course.  "They are my family, too."  I love them, even in my failures to love them as well as I want to, and I marvel at the grace of this reality.  I squeeze my arm around his waist and kiss his stubbled cheek and we head home on the train.

At home, he opens a letter from Ivan and reads it aloud until his voice trails off, hoarse.  He looks at me with eyes a pool of pink mist, buries his face for a moment in my shoulder.  I smell the onion on his breath from our sandwiches and think how much I love this man.  Just for who he is.  How love kind of crept up on me throughout the year, surprising me with its depth in moments like these.

We have not come by marriage easy.  

My memories flash, oh so briefly, to all the long nights.  The fights, the tears, the aloneness.  The eventual coming back together, talking, forgiving, letting go.  To the depression, the heavy lack of hope, the raw sorrow, the anger, the buried longing, the struggle to trust.  We have crossed many bridges together and we have fallen in the waters.  But we have not drowned.  

Ours has never been a morning-makeout-with-minty-fresh-breath kind of marriage.  It's only been this, gradual drawing close to onion breath and holding each other's gaze.  This refusal to let go, even as everything seems to repel us away.  I do not love him for how he excites me, how he satisfies my passion.  I love him for the depth in those twinkling eyes, right down to his soul.  

I love him, because to love him is to love God, and somehow this steadies my weak heart.  

How this Mexican boy and Seattle girl became family remains a mystery to me.  But as this year stretches ahead, just four days old, I know one thing.  I will love him even more by the end of it.