Friday, May 29, 2015

Our peeling skins: on friendship and the Everlasting

I'm drawn to them as I am to birch trees with their peeling skins, this handful of women in my life. 

These ones whose roots are mostly hidden deep under the earth, in love's sacred soil, and in part, erupting above ground where feet can tread their coiled arches.

These ones who have drunk the sky's tears to the dregs, tasted the abundance of grace, and who have waited, are waiting still, in months and years of drought.

These ones who have known the battering of winds, the pelting of rain, the tearing of branches, the toll of seasons, and still remain.

Their skins map lives of varied, exquisite textures. Gnarled knots, beauty marks of pain, of loss, of heartache, full of mysteries untold. Strips of bark, peeling back in layer upon layer of weathered parchment, reveal stories in scripts of flesh, falling to the earth. These layers exposed leave behind silken spaces, of soul and courage, open to the elements of life. 

How I love their scars, their invitations to pause. To behold. To trace the rough and smooth with my fingers and linger in the presence of redemption-in-the-making.

They are reaching toward the sun and tucking into shadowed places. Straight-backed in parts, bent and twisted in others. They give birth to leaves and buds, shelter to birds and all manner of creatures, and spread their arms out to me.

I come as I am to these women and I am known and loved in all my bare and peeling skin. We read each others' fallen parchments in holy hush, with tears and fits of laughter, without judgment. We gently hold up the broken branches and call out the beauty of scars and, at the end of the day, stand a bit stronger in the darkening night. 

These women, as these trees, carry the scent of the Everlasting.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On touching squirrels and the mystery of rebirth

If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, and everything in the cosmos. We touch life, and we touch the Kingdom of God.

Thich Nhat Hanh

She showed up outside our door the very same day I confessed to God, to the skies above, my hidden, yet unspoken fear: “I’m no longer sure I believe in resurrection.” Not in the Resurrection, as in Christ's, but in resurrection within the casualties of hope. Resurgence. Rebirth. The dead of circumstances, of a marriage, of dreams, of faith, trembling to life again. Did I still believe in that kind of resurrection? 

I didn’t know. So I sat in the hollow space of that confession, feeling nothing but the weight of empty.

* * * *

We heard her cry, thinking she was a bird and finally opened the door to the night. To our great surprise, at our feet sat a tiny gray ball of fluff with the promise of a bushy tail. A baby squirrel. How she ended up here, at our doorstep, from a flight of steps and parking lot below, we may never know. But she looked up at us with bulging brown eyes and squeaked loudly, without a mama to be seen, and we knew we couldn’t do anything but pick her up and bring her inside.

From the start, everything about her was magical. A work of art only just begun. Her perfectly cylindrical ears. Her tiny mouth ringed in white with two slivers of bottom teeth. Her soft gray fur. Her penny-sized paws, itty bitty fingers ending in black pricks of nail. And her tail, Oh. That tail. How it already held a baby curve, light and wispy, flicking about her face as she slept and wrapping beside her like a feather. 

She utterly mesmerized me. It took no more than a second of time for her to blow past all my defenses and seize my love-parched heart.

* * * * * 

I wrapped her in my oldest, most precious towel, one of the few remaining childhood artifacts. She remained there, close to mine or Ricardo’s chests, the next hour as we figured out what to do with her. My face aglow, I told Ricardo I’d sleep in the spare room that night with Little Squirrel (my intentionally uncreative, non-name for her). He must have already known this because he smiled, as if to say, Of course you will. I placed a bowl with Pedialyte and a syringe nearby, set my alarm to wake me every three hours, and curled into the futon with her on my chest. 

I never felt more joyous or alive at the prospect of a night of little sleep. I wasn’t about to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

I drifted in and out of a light sleep, always aware of her half pound body resting atop my own, rising and falling with my chest. Her breaths, squeaks, clicks and sighs flitting in and out of my dreams. Maybe, I thought, this is what a mother feels like with her newborn. Even though I possessed no grand delusions of being hers, nor a smidge of desire to imagine her as a human baby instead of an animal. Even though I knew this would only be for one night.

It was deeper than that. 

More like stumbling upon a wild mystery baring its beauty only long enough to wreck the heart, yet never long enough to be grasped. The kind where the most you can do is be fully awake in its presence and pray it imprints your soul before passing translucently through your fingers. 

In this sacred moment, a baby squirrel curled in the innocence of rest on my chest, my heart began to tremor.

* * * *

The next day, Ricardo picked me up after work and we drove Little Squirrel up north to a wildlife rehabilitation center. I stroked her face as she lay in a ball on my lap, breathing so faintly I gently roused her every few minutes to make sure she was still alive. I couldn't bear the thought of her dying there, in my lap; of being so new to life, so near to help, and not getting her there in time. I carried her into the center, still wrapped in my old towel, and handed her over as an offering. 

The woman who took her from me came back to ask, with some curiosity, where we found her. She looks like a type of squirrel that’s not from these parts, the woman explained. We told her how the squirrel showed up out of nowhere outside our door, uninjured, no other squirrels in sight. 

A mystery? Perhaps.

When we came home, I cried. Not because I wished we had kept her, but because my whole body ached with a feeling I couldn’t put words around. The familiar emptiness no longer felt dull, accompanied this time by an acute hunger. And all the next day at work I thought of her, sneaking glances at pictures of her on my phone and feeling a knot in the back of my throat each time I did. At home in the evening, I reached to pick up our tortoise from her daily soak, wrapped in a towel, held her to my chest and had to set her down soon after as the tears fell stronger. I sat in the laundry room with the door closed, sobbing into my knees, wondering from where all this emotion flooded.

It only kept coming and I kept whispering, What is the point of all this? Of feeling alive only for a night, only to be emotionally wrecked?

And in the stillness, the darkness, of our laundry room, I felt a faint imprint of hope respond: Resurrection.

* * * * *

Almost a month later.

I saw the letter from the wildlife rehabilitation center, addressed to me, sitting on our dining room table this morning as I lay out breakfast for us. With a mix of dread and curiosity, I tore it open and read:

"Dear Amber
Regarding the Eastern Gray Squirrel you brought to us on 4/20/15
Reference # 15-0583

We at PAWS Wildlife Center are sorry to inform you that this animal was humanely euthanized after careful consideration of his or her condition...

Thank you for taking the time to help an animal in distress."

Humanely euthanized.  I shuddered at the words, and wept.

At the loss of life. The stabbing pain of hope. The yet-unresolved question of resurrection. The mystery of her brief, inexplicably disruptive role in rearranging my insides. My inability to convey to Ricardo that this was not "only a squirrel," as we humans are so quick to say to minimize the value of a life, any life, that is not human. 

The unmistakeable impression of, in this squirrel, having touched the cosmos, the Divine Presence, the Kingdom of God, and in them, an invitation to rebirth. 

And so I wait in the mystery, and I honor this little life.  

For more on resurgence, my choice for OneWord 2015, you can read here.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

When I learn to fly

 It's hard for me to tell stories these days, without the aid of birds. And so I start here.

I wanted to die a little, of embarrassment, of self-consciousness, the other night when my I asked my husband to take these photos of me. We visited the Museum of Flight for the express purpose of seeing a tiny exhibit tucked against a wall, below all the impressive historic airplanes: How birds fly

From one end of this wall to the other, we watched videos and beheld stunning photographs, studied artifacts and framed wing displays and skeletons, honoring the sacred mystery of flight that has existed long before airplanes. My eyes misted over as I watched a short video clip of pilots raising Whooping Cranes from hatchlings to young adults, flying 1,200 miles with each flock to teach them their migration route, in hopes of raising their population to greater numbers. I held my fingers up to brush against photos of birds I may never see in person, to trace the edges of wings. I took this all in, breathless, that no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes it will never compare to the innate intricacies of bird flight. 

And then, I saw these graphics on the other side of the walls. 

Something in me rose up to hush the dissenting caw of embarrassment. I needed to meld myself to these backgrounds, allow myself to become one with them, or part of them, because this is my not-yet-visible reality that I'm leaning into. I have wings and one of these days I will learn to fly. 

We belong to each other, these birds and I. This whole of creation and I. In ways I yet have no words to convey but know so much deeper and more primal than many of the things I claim to know. And any chance I get to participate in this reality, even in the form of a painting on a wall, I will. Because I must.

Because birds, for me, tell a parallel story of my own unfolding journey, and sometimes the most I can do is speak of myself in metaphors, mirrors of them. 

But, oh. How there are things I'd like to share here, discoveries to quietly utter, stories to capture in words, transformations to pay my respects to in writing, relationships offered to me as gifts, from this past month of life. But even as they are being written on my insides, in the darkened places not often privy to the eyes of others, I find that words elude me. As they often do when so much is taking place right on and far below the surface of the everyday. I used to fear, and sometimes still do, if I didn't transcribe them from experience to words they might slip away forever, forgotten in their un-telling. 

I'm learning to get over that paralysis.

And yet, perhaps I'm learning to tell these stories through mediums other than written words. Through photos and laughter and tears and voxes and painted bottle caps, through road trips and binoculars and walks and yoga poses and all the quiet, pregnant spaces where life expands to fill. 

It's only a matter of time before these wings are formed enough to fly.