something to know

I sat in it for the rest of the afternoon, staring at the lake. I still had 334 miles to hike before I reached the Bridge of the Gods, but something made me feel as if I’d arrived. Like that blue water was telling me something I’d walked all this way to know.

This was once Mazama, I kept reminding myself. This was once a mountain that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed. This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water, what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.”

-Cheryl Strayed, Wild

I watched this movie with my friend after a day luxuriously full of words–all the words we had saved up for each other. We spent a quick few days eating, and talking, and enjoying her family, and talking, and seeing beautiful things, walking through the drizzle of Seattle, and talking. We sat in a theater and watched this woman walk 1100 miles alone, holding an enormous weight on her back, making her way to somewhere she needed to be. We felt the same heaviness and the same lightness, I think, about our shared history and our shared letting go.

We both used to have this big, complicated, form-giving understanding of the world and we both know now that it’s possible for that to fall away. We know the chaotic swirl of possibilities left in its wake. We know a simple stillness, too.

I went home to my life and slowly made my way through the book (breaking the sacred rule of read the book first) and took my time with Strayed’s journey. Many times, I’ve instinctively known that I need time alone in the forest or the mountains or the desert, whatever is available to me, to heal what is broken. I know this. I always return home filled with what I needed.

Sometimes you need to walk alone and carry heavy things, only so you can reach a place of beauty and set the heavy things down.

And then, you will know forever that you did it and could do it again. It will always belong to you.

for my dear friend E.

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On Sacred Spaces: My February Confession

 I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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We, just the two of us, went to Italy. It was a feast for the senses–the language was music and the food was earthy and elegant. Interesting details were everywhere, from moss on stone in the Colosseum to Jesus’ face in a painting by Michelangelo being the exact same face on a Roman sculpture, to train station cafes that served sandwiches and wine, and boasted more elaborate espresso machines than you’d find in any Starbucks. People in Venice, leaning out of their windows, hanging sheets out to dry. Hopes for resurrection etched into the stone walls of winding catacombs. Empty wineglasses on windowsills outside canteens. A small piece of the arrow that is said to have pierced St. Sebastian. Plain whipped cream (the real stuff) lopped on top of melone gelato, cutting the sweetness perfectly. Tiny spoons for stirring sugar.

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We ate what we wanted and walked almost everywhere. We bought things to bring home: bottles of wine, limoncello, a stovetop espresso maker, a pair of babysoft gray suede shoes, biscotti, magnets depicting pieces of the Sistine Chapel. It’s not really possible to bring the spirit of a place home with you, but we all try.

After a few days, the churches and the exquisite art within started to seem almost common. They’re simply everywhere. Armed with a guidebook, we took in as much as we could without rushing and defeating the purpose of vacation.

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In Rome, we spent plenty of time admiring the scope of things as well as feeling uncomfortable with the scope of things. Both in the secular and religious realms, it all seems to be about excess and power, but my sensitivity is to the religious. (My Protestant is about to start showing, but no variation of religion is free from the love of power.) While the art is precious and the craftsmanship well-worthy of admiration, the places that house them hold the silent echoes of stolen riches and trampled innocents. Hollow, not hallowed. “Think of what they could do with all that money,” I vent to Ricky over coffee and pastries after touring St. Peter’s Basilica. “I bet Peter would be completely uncomfortable in there, embarrassed even.”

I imagine Peter grilling fish on the beach with his Savior, wrestling with the call of do you love me? then feed my sheep and wanting Him to stay forever. Alone, hanging upside down, dying in love for the Person who changed it all for him. How does a simple message of love turn into a power structure? Maybe his bones lie down under the enormous altar, but it’s that moment on the beach that matters. How do you contain that in a building? Even on vacation, I cannot escape this constant dialogue with religion and spirituality. It fascinates or wearies, depending on how much space I have for it.

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Last month, I wrote this:

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long.

I wish I could find a way back to that beach, too.

Surely there must be a space in this world, in our lives, for art and beauty and sacred spaces. And our various tribes understand those things differently. Give me a cathedral of pine trees and birdsong over marble and organ anyday, but I must understand if you would rather have the marble and the organ. I must try to imagine, if that is your beauty, what you would feel in a basilica such as St. Peter’s.

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As we were moving to leave, a Mass began, with hauntingly beautiful voices singing in Latin. It didn’t matter what they were singing; all could understand. They were singing devotion and longing. They were singing human things in a human place that speaks of all the humanly complicated intersections with divinity. The singing made it beautiful–not the gold or the carvings, the relics or the prestige. The singing–filling that huge empty space.

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Is feeling and seeing beauty what makes feel “the rapture of being alive”? Details of beauty were everywhere in Italy; they are everywhere here too. Aimee’s unbelievably long eyelashes, Nicky’s tight hugs, Silas’ warmth and humor, Ricky’s steadiness, and my own sensitive mind, looking for clues. The people we share our lives with, that fill the empty spaces. I’ve rejected a lot of things that were once precious to me, but I remain in wonder of things old and new. This is my baseline: wonder. Perhaps I can build upon it, but I can always burrow my way down to it.

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In the cathedrals of New York and Rome

There is a feeling that you should just go home

And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

-Jump, Little Children

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The State of Things: My January Confession

“It’s hard to capture it in one word,” I say, chewing on my lip. This is an ongoing conversation with myself, with my husband, with a few friends who know this terrain well, and with her.

“Instead of one word, can you describe it with a group of words?” she presses, gently.

I try. Every other week, for almost a year now, I am in this room, paying attention to my state of being. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. We talk about a lot of things in this room–parenting, childhood, marriage, dreams and goals, grief, my evolution from fundamentalism to evangelicalism to progressive Christianity to whatever it is I’m doing now.

Humanist? Post-Christian? Atheist? Post-Evangelical? Progressive/Emergent? Naturalist? Person of Faith? Believer? Unbeliever? Spiritual? Agnostic? Recovering Fundamentalist?

I’d like to be on a path to greater clarity, if not certainty. To that end, here’s my confession for the month of January. I’ll be back in this space at the end of each month this year, doing my best to honestly evaluate where I am on this journey.

*****

I still believe that Sundays are for vulnerability and soul-searching. I still believe in sacred spaces, in a regular centering practice, in confession.

I find myself outside of the boundaries of Christianity, and I’m coming to terms with it. The ability to believe many things has simply left me, and this has been a source of both great relief and great pain.

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long. It’s been heavy for the better part of ten years. And yet, some of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever known (personally and historically) are/were devout Christians. This thing just isn’t simple. I feel steadier and healthier outside of it all, but it absolutely saves some people; it absolutely has made the world better in some cases.

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My faith was never bland or obligatory for me. It was the frame of reference for everything. I fell head over heels in love with Jesus somewhere around age three, and continued to do so for years and years. What was real? What is real now? I keep saying goodbye and then taking it back.

A Lutheran pastor I’ve spoken with here, who has encouraged me greatly in this journey, makes the point that there are two different Jesuses. There is the historical person, and there is the Christ figure, which is what people constructed (and what we continue to construct) from the historical person. I find some comfort in this idea–that I can continue to appreciate so many things about Jesus, even as my ideas about him have changed, and probably will continue to change. There is so much more to explore there. I can’t face it all at once, but there is this: all of the good things his life has represented to me remain. A lot of good remains. I choose to believe that the Jesus story matters in the greater human story. He remains beautiful to me.

It’s not lost on me that these words will cause pain. That makes me hesitant to share them, but then I think of the private messages I get sometimes, in response to what I post here. Me too. I feel the same way. I haven’t had to do this alone, and I don’t want anyone else to.

I’ve always felt refreshed on a spiritual level when I’ve spent some time alone in nature. Maybe it’s just that stillness is the goal, and nature encourages me to be still in a way that nothing else does. Before I had children, and there were Sundays I just couldn’t stand to go to church (I imagine my cognitive dissonance began many years before I was aware of it) I went out into nature by myself. That is an instinct I’m paying closer attention to now.

So what’s the plan? Now there’s a question. I have a husband with his own mind, on his own journey, and we have three amazing children to raise. Right now, what I want for them are lessons that are easily taught in church: generosity, kindness, humility, elevating The Other. Community, looking out for the needs of others. Love, honesty, self-control.

I want other things for them, too–values they may or may not get from church.  Reason, curiosity, critical thinking skills. The ability to go to their classes and simply listen without an agenda–to love learning for itself.  Open-ended questions, fresh perspectives. Wonder. Gentleness, understanding, joy. I don’t want them to ever think there’s only one source for good things. Good things abound if you don’t have to make everything line up a certain way.

I’ve thought of God in metaphorical terms for something close to a year, desperate to see universal connections. Now? I don’t know. The jury is out. I am still overcome with wonder and gratefulness on pretty much a daily basis. I still say my thank-yous out loud.

So this is the state of things. I’m thinking, more and more, that it’s all going to be okay.

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Christmas, in a moment

Two weeks ago, our little Aimee spiked a fever, became lethargic, and refused to eat. She slept. And slept. And sat up to drink juice, and slept some more. It was worrisome, but I figured she’d pull through it like our kids always do. Three days passed, and she wasn’t getting better. We were watching her chest rise and fall way too fast, muscles pulling in, sucking in air. All she wanted to do was sleep. Ricky bundled her up and took her to Urgent Care on Saturday morning. Her oxygen level was 83%. They called an ambulance.

My family was in town, and we had plans to spend the weekend at a cabin, with snow and a cozy fire and presents and the like. It all fell away. My brother helped me get to the hospital (my keys were in the vehicle Ricky had taken), my mom went into laundry and cooking mode, my other brother played with the boys. Family.

At the Emergency Department, Aimee was receiving breathing treatments, fighting her mask and looking pitiful. She kept rasping juice….drink…..go…..no and we could only hold her, and try to distract her, and keep her from pulling at her lines.

Her tests started to come back. Negative for flu. Positive for RSV. Chest x-ray shows right lower lobe pneumonia. She was still breathing so fast. Her heart was beating 180 times each minute. Faster than a newborn. Grunting. Retracting.

Albuterol, Xopenex, repeat, repeat. No significant response. The doctor came in and said Aimee needed to be transferred to a Pediatric ICU for close observation and high-flow blended oxygen.

I tried to get Ricky his backpack and phone charger before the transport team arrived, but had just pulled into our driveway when he said they were there. He went with them, and I told the boys what was going on and started getting things together.

Aimee was well cared for. We all were. The high-flow oxygen was holding her airway open, providing positive pressure. She stopped grunting, which had been her attempt to stent her own airway. She had been working so, so hard. The first night, I slept in the chair, pulled right up to her crib, lulled to sleep by the knowledge that she was on monitors and they would alarm if anything went wrong. I was so grateful for that. It was like having that first newborn–just needing to know that they’re still breathing until you get used to the idea that they’ll be okay.

Ricky and I switched off, twenty-four hours each. Aimee was a little better each day, and we texted each other updates. O2 down to 6. Back up to 8–she started grunting again. Down to 7. Down to 6 now. Clear liquid diet. O2 at 3. Soft diet. Assessments every 4 hours now. Watching Dora. 

We couldn’t eat in the room, so I talked with other parents in the kitchenette over our food, asking about each others’ babies, offering well-wishes. You feel a bond with other parents whose kids are suffering, and walls break down a bit. You recognize the same tired, brave look in their eyes.

After four days, she was transferred to the regular pediatric floor. No more glass door and constant lights. Oxygen at 2. Regular diet. These markers of progress being checked off, one by one. Little victories.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, she was lively enough to video chat. Nicky did his silly slapstick routines and it was the first time in a week we had seen her smile. Oh there you are, little girl. We’ve been missing you.

I packed up the boys and we made the now very familiar drive into downtown Baltimore, and went up to the family lounge outside the unit to bring Ricky his lunch. To our surprise and delight, both boys were allowed to come in for a visit (Silas with a mask, since he’d been coughing) and Aimee lit up.

A few days earlier, I’d been invited, along with other parents in the PICU, to upstairs and “shop” for any kids on my list. A volunteer handed me five tickets and took me to a ballroom filled with toys (and very nice toys at that). I chose some things for the kids and took my gifts to a row of more smiling volunteers who wrapped them for me. I put them in the corner of Aimee’s room, thinking maybe we’d have a chance to open them. At that point, she wasn’t excited about anything, so I knew it might not happen.

There is something magical about more than one child in a room. They speak to each other differently than we can. So when Aimee and Nicky and Silas were together, the mood changed completely and their two tired parents felt a new energy.

Since we had this unexpected time together, we (giddily) told the kids we had a surprise for them and pulled out the presents. It was a much sweeter moment than I’d thought to hope for.

We had our Aimee back.

Even though we were able to go home later that evening, taking our girl with us, that moment was what made it Christmas. There is no better gift than having your people all together in one room.

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church.

This is probably a thing I’ll never be done talking about.

In the early, cold months of 2014, I drew back from my own life. I couldn’t bear managing things anymore. I’ve already talked about all that. I let go of heavy things, so very slowly, and just as slowly gained clarity about why I was so tired. I gave myself permission, at long last, to stay away from a Thing that causes me anguish and irritation–a Thing that does so much good, that has done good for me too, and that I have served with sincere love–but a Thing that is complicated and a vehicle for manipulation as well as those good things. Church. I went on a gray Easter Sunday and didn’t return again until two Sundays ago. Another gray, cold day.

I went for the ritual of it, for the beauty of spending a Sunday morning with my family, and thoroughly enjoyed that part of it. I went as an act of love for them. I wasn’t scared. I didn’t need to run away or cry in the bathroom or put on a Sunday face. I regarded what was said, found much of it to be incomplete, and went out the doors. It felt like a production, but a wholly sincere one. They think this is what we want, I suppose. I could keep doing that, keep going so that my children have a familiar place to gather each week, but don’t know if I should. There are good people there. There are good people out of there too, but they are harder to find–not gathered so easily.

I’ve missed the ritual of it. Here is the honest truth: I need something outside of myself to bring me to care like I should. As this lovely song says, we could use a guiding star.

It’s getting to where I can incorporate little snippets of Biblical wisdom into my children’s morality lessons. Generosity–if you give to the poor, you give to God. Kindness. Love. Servant-hood, estimating others highly regardless of social station. There is so much good there. I don’t immediately get knee-jerk angry when I open the good book, because of all the things I’ve worked to let go. My parents showed my what it is to give joyfully. I carry this with me.

I want my children to have the gift of faith. I don’t want it to be a heavy thing they feel obliged to carry. I know this weight–it makes you old while you are still young. It makes life seem like a survival trial rather than a gift.

Am I one of the nones? Perhaps. Or I’m one of the alls, because truth is simply true. No one has to bend over backwards to prove it.

I sleep heavy. I used to take such a long time to finally drift off. I’m not afraid of the dark and remnants of my childhood fears of demons lurking, harassing me because I was “doing things for God” have slipped mercifully away. I’m not afraid, and I’ve been afraid my whole life.

When I attend births, I feel like I’m in a holy space. This is what church used to be for me. Now: the trees, the wind, the water, the air–my church. Groups of people sharing life together, watching their babies play, eating good food, telling their stories. Whispering love to my husband. Watching my children grow into amazing and beautiful people, stumbling and flourishing. Watching the seasons come and go. Breathing easier than I ever have. Finding ways to make others breathe easier–I’m bad at this, at not burying my head in the sand, but the struggle is church.

I haven’t found it in myself to declare a label for all of these thoughts and feelings. Maybe 2015 will bring that ability. I don’t need to, for now. I have no desire to cause pain to others, but also no desire to cause pain to myself. I’d love to be understood, but I’ll settle for live and let live.

The brain is so strange and wonderful. What seems completely obvious to me now was not in any way merely a few years ago. I said to my brother, as we hashed out some things like you only can in the wee hours of the morning, that only three years ago I sincerely believed that people who hadn’t spoken a specific set of words were going to Hell when they died. We are capable of holding such conflicting thoughts at the same time. We laughed, we understood. We grew up in the same alien world, and now we’re trying to live in this one.

A fear-based belief system is just a house of cards pretending to be a fortress. It looks small and sad now, but it kept me up at night for how many years–twenty-five? twenty-eight? It’s hard to say. It was everything. All-powerful.

That moment–sitting on a kitchen counter, finding commonality with my little brother, just knowing that we both know–church.

In 2015, I want to seek out more of this. I hope to find it.

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real

Once I lay my spinning head down

on the desk

and it danced through

the open window, cool and light.

I took a breath, and something filled.

It was a sludge day, but with

the most calming gray sky and

assuring air.

My head kept spinning but it was there

with me, hinting at better things.

In that moment, hope and a breeze were the exact same thing.

Whatever real is, it was.

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a few words to help with the church mystery

Where we go to church, or whether we go, isn’t the point. The point is who are we becoming? Does church help you to become the sort of person you’d pick to be stuck on a desert island with? Good! Go! Does it hurt your chances of becoming that person? Run!

Flee from exclusionary certainty. As the bumper sticker says, “Mean People Suck!” And that goes especially for people who are mean in the name of love.

There is only one defense against the rising, worldwide, fear-filled fundamentalist tide engulfing all religions (including the intolerant religion of the New Atheists) which once engulfed me: the embrace of paradox and uncertainty as the virtuoso expression of love.

The follower of Jesus’ example–be she an atheist scientist working on a neuropsychology project, a pastor counseling gang members, a husband bringing his wife coffee or a mom picking up her child at preschool–will do anything it takes to live the reality of what it means to walk in another person’s shoes. To help us do that is the only point of going to any church or, for that matter, logging on to an atheist website.

Atheists, believers, and everyone in between can show empathy equally well. It never is about correct belief, but always about character. And religious people and atheists are no better or worse than each other.

If you are a Church of One, do you trust your congregation? When you want to be inspired by an icon representing something bigger than yourself, don’t you ever get tired of just looking into the mirror?

We’re all stuck in the same rudderless boat. It is about the spirit we share or about nothing. It is about how we treat others or about nothing. How we treat others is the only proof of truth we have. That proof is not found in any book. It is only found in the expression of unconditional trust we may sometimes see in the eyes of the people who know us best.

-Frank Schaeffer, Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes in God

(emphasis mine)

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What I Most Want To Be True: A Tattoo Story

For my twenty-ninth birthday, I wanted a tattoo.

Maybe with my thirties approaching I needed to do something a little reckless, but I also felt the need to pay attention to permanence.

I knew I wanted words, and maybe an image. Jesus’ invitation to the weary and burned out,  learn the unforced rhythms of grace, came to mind. And then, I remembered lyrics from a gospel song that had often caused me to stop and pay attention when I heard them: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. It’s a beautiful song that’s often sung at funerals–occasions that merit hope, that call for speaking and singing what we desperately need to hear.

If I’m honest, these words activate my cynicism and faith equally. Like all good poetry, they ask me to wrestle my way to a larger meaning.

I was learning to live with uncertainty. My faith was growing up: out of the chirpy God has a plan! stage and into something a lot more like the dark glass described by the apostle Paul. Someone I loved dearly had slipped quietly away from this life; it was cruel, quick, and strange. I felt I’d seen a righteous man forsaken; his children begging for a certain kind of bread. I could find no purpose in it, and certainly didn’t know how to reconcile the situation with the notion of a loving, personal God, or more specifically, with the God of my childhood who granted good parking spots and lengthened limbs, who filled dental cavities with gold and made suspicious lumps disappear. It was confusing–I thought I had left that particular notion of God behind (keeping other ideas that still made sense) but I can’t deny that I wanted Him to show up and fix things.

In the wake of this loss, there was a choice to be made: pine for the old God who works magic for those He loves, or move forward into the unknown, where God isn’t so easily explained. Like Elijah, I found that God was not in the whirlwind, earthquake, or fire, but in the still small voice. Sometimes, when our pain causes us to be very quiet, we hear that Voice–achingly familiar but missing elements we had in our minds before.

In the absence of easy answers, it was the quiet presence of friends that offered the most healing. I believe a sacred presence saturated those moments, too, that God (or something like God) is with us when we share a friend’s grief. Maybe what we learned in Sunday School–that God is up there and we’re down here–is incomplete. Maybe God is in, around, and through us, not part of us so much as tangled up with us.

The Book of Job, thought to be the oldest chronological book of the Bible, is often cited in times of sadness and loss. I’d heard my share of commentary on this book: that it’s a lesson to praise God in all circumstances, that God rewards the faithful in the long run, that God is God and we are not. I have no doubt that I used these explanations to attempt to comfort friends in the past. None of that was helpful, I discovered, when I was the one hurting. I had no stomach for the text until I learned to read Job as poetry rather than explanation. In Job, we find an ancient wondering about the nature of God. I took comfort in knowing that humans have been asking essentially the same questions about suffering for thousands of years.

Like Job’s friends, it’s in our nature to simply sit with people in their grief for only a short while before we start to offer explanations and solutions. Lest we feel too confident in our understanding of the state of things, it’s good to revisit this book and be reminded that God offers mystery in response to Job’s questions rather than reasons for his undeserved hardship. There’s a tension in the book that’s never truly resolved, much like the tension in my heart whenever I hear the words His eye is on the sparrow.

So I asked my friend, a talented tattoo artist, to design something around these words. He drew an elegant cage with a swung-open door and a bird flying free, I chose a font and gritted my teeth through the pain and made light conversation as the image, and the words, became a permanent part of my body, etched onto my foot. It hurt, but it felt good to be documenting something sacred.

The image serves as a reminder to me that God can live and breathe life through our actions, through our ability to sit with a friend in sorrow without offering explanations or tired promises we may not even believe ourselves. The bird is faith; the cage is certainty.

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With tattoos come questions. Understandably, people want to know what causes another person to do something so permanent. I never quite know how to explain mine in one or two sentences, especially if I’m doing something completely non-serious like getting a pedicure. Still, it’s a gift to be asked. We all need to tell our stories, don’t we?

I look at this message on my foot, and think  this is what I most want to be true. I want to believe that it’s in the nature of God to know of every fallen sparrow, every hair on the head of every abused child. Every hair that falls from the head of a cancer patient. Every vacant look in the eyes of a mother who’s just lost her child. Every person in a pew who attempts quiet bravery, no longer speaking or understanding the language that rolls easily off the tongues around them. The homesick who haven’t left home. I’ll be honest–I have no idea what to think about God right now–but I want to believe that God orchestrates comfort for them, in ways I don’t understand, simple and profound.

If I get to the point where my conscience demands I let go of religion altogether, and I think about that quite a bit these days, I will be left with this mark on my body. But shouldn’t things that matter leave a mark?

As for my questions, and there are many, I find hints of answers, not enough to sustain me for more than a day or so. When Jesus spoke of daily bread, maybe this is what he meant. I try to keep track of the hints. I’ve experienced love in this life–is that to say I’ve experienced God?

Whatever the force behind it all, I’m grateful for the pull of poetry, the healing presence of friends, and life-changing questions: these things have served my faith well–whether it’s a faith that holds on or a faith that ventures out.

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third parent

You were Spirit-filled women wearing soft perfume and pantyhose, shoes kicked off and crying freely, arms raised, mascara smeared, interceding for husbands and children. You listened and gave advice, and encouraged me to get up and sing into the microphone. You praised. You nurtured. Full of spirit, indeed.

You taught me the sacred stories, Sunday after Sunday. You told us the story of Noah and the Ark and we sat, our full attention on your facial expressions. You taught us to sing, to harmonize, to act, to tell stories through music and motion. You gave us a space to fall down and get up again.

We gathered for potluck meals after hours-long Sunday services. It was like eating around a fire after a hunt, I imagine– everyone so hungry for food and so full of human companionship, tapping into an ancient need.

You were men in three piece suits with shiny cufflinks, giving sermons about the End Times and insights about Old Testament prophecy, selling books afterward. Once, as I sat in Sunday evening service on the second row, you called me out for not paying attention. With a red face I raised my notebook to show you I was taking careful notes of your words. You apologized and moved on. I wanted your approval.

You gave up your Saturday mornings to do car washes with us, raising money for camps and conventions, buying us pizza and soda, and you may not have known but known we looked forward to it all week: your attention.

We snuck out of Wednesday night service and went down the hill behind the church, for no real reason other than we could. You found us and brought us back inside. You let us throw pies in your face and tolerated our immature sense of humor without ever letting us know it. You cried with those of us who missed parents, who came to church looking to fill holes in our lives. You made us believe we would change the world with our prayer, our witness, our zeal.

You took us to the river, to Mexico, to Africa. We held ourselves down on the Land Rover seats, driving along bumpy red dirt roads, and I heard you say if one of those fags ever tried to touch me…; my face went hot and I don’t remember the other part of that conditional. I learned that you could be small and scared and pitiable.

One of you sang in the choir and took out your rage on your wife at home. More of you practiced compassion in your families. You drove miles to pick me up, let me stop by your house after school, gave me cold water and cookies, told me stories and gave me important clues about this life.

You gave me a car. You looked me in the eye. You teased me for the impossible crush that lasted all through my teenage years. You drove us out for a concert and almost hit a horse on the way home, and we rolled toward the front of the van, waking rudely from our sleep on the floor. 

In college, when I tried to sort out the complications of falling in love, you told me that if I married that boy, God would take away my calling. I followed my heart (thankfully) but spent the first year of my marriage trying to figure out what that even meant–to lose one’s calling. I had once thought you wise on a spiritual level–discerning–and it took so much time to see what it was for what it was.

You told me stories of the day I was born, how I wore a onesie that said The Apple of His Eye and you sang skidamarink a-dink, a-dink, skidamarink a-doo, I love you whenever you saw me, even at my Dad’s funeral all those years later.

I remember thinking you were God when you stood behind the pulpit. All through my childhood, I saw your face when I prayed. 

I’ve been thinking lately about this village; about what it meant. We, the children, were given heavy things to carry. We were given great amounts of love and affirmation. We were given falsehoods with the very best of intentions, and I’m still unpacking them. 

You were my third parent: teaching me how the world works. How much love we’re capable of, how little we really know.

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finding my words

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

-Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

I stopped saying things on here because my words left. I think, maybe, they’re starting to come back. We’ll see.

A few years ago, a strange dullness came to visit me and stayed. I found it partially familiar, because of genetic things and probably culture too, but as time went on I started to lose something to it. Some of what I’ve read about post-partum depression sounds very similar to what I’ve felt. Biologically, that doesn’t really make sense but I think maybe I entered into the pain of my daughter’s story and couldn’t quite find my way out? So many I-don’t-knows.

We moved, and it was a long snowy winter–dreamy at first and then smothering with indoor heated air. I let myself numb.

Sunday mornings were easier, without all the emotional dissonance I’d been trying to sort out in recent years. I’d grown accustomed to going one week, and recovering for two. That all faded away, as I sat in liturgy and sank my teeth into real bread and felt the wine wet my throat and warm my insides. Sunday morning became peaceful, and I was grateful. I felt that I might be on the way to wholeness.

But then the dullness gave way to despair. I found myself daydreaming of slowly floating away on the lake, or simply sleeping for months, or longer. These were the only things that seemed pleasant at the time. I took a deep breath and told this to my husband, who reacted with a very sane fear, and the next day I called a counselor.

I can see now that I had a response to trauma–a response I really should have had long ago. Watch the documentary Jesus Camp and you’ll see glimpses of my childhood. I took the weight of the world on my shoulders, and I was always and forever not enough.

The talking has helped (I skipped a week and felt a profound difference; it really surprised me). I also took another deep breath and called to inquire about medication–a doctor listened carefully as I tried to outline all of this for her and said the D word–“when you feel like you’re just done with life, that is depression”, she said and I nodded emphatically. “I’m done before I even get out of bed.”

So, I’m getting help from some extra serotonin and norepinephrine, and things are getting better. I’m recognizing old happy things and welcoming new things too.

This thing is multi-faceted. I needed some chemical help (bubble wrap, my counselor calls it, which makes me smile) and so, check. I needed to have a safe place to house my many troubled thoughts, check. Now there is this faith thing. What to do with it?

I haven’t been to church in probably three months. This feels partly like freedom and partly like loneliness. I loved the little church we were getting to know here, but the realization that church has, in many ways, been traumatic for me led to the decision to simply let it go. Whether this is for a season or something more, I don’t know yet.

I’ve never actually given myself a break from it before. This whole summer has felt like a sweet and simple break from all those heavy things. There will come a time when I’ll need to move from this transient state to some sort of decision, I know. I’m not yet there. 

A good friend of mine said, “I have this void, and I’m deliberately not filling it with anything, and it feels good” and I thought, Aha! That’s it. All of these years, I’ve been fillingfillingfilling it with songs and texts and philosophy, but right now I’m just feeling the ache. The ache of being a human being with a brain and a body and a story in this world.

I am of this Earth–clay and bones and blood, sweat and tears. I’m a physical being. I don’t know if this all gets transported away and turned into eternal wisp, or if the physical is simply put into the ground and decays and there’s perhaps even more beauty in that because this one wild and precious life (thanks, Mary Oliver) is truly all we have?

There is beauty and truth in the Bible, for sure, but there is beauty and truth elsewhere too. I’ve missed out on so much of the world. The bubble popped years ago but I’ve been trying to climb back in. Why go back to things that don’t work anymore?

For prayer, lately, I simply say this:

May I be filled with loving-kindness

May I be safe from inner and outer dangers

May I be well in body and in mind

May I be at ease and happy.

And then I say the same for the ones I love.

The little girl in me, who knows all her Bible verses and when to be quiet and how to keep the peace, thinks that this prayer is rather selfish. I try to be kind to her, and hold her soft, shaky hand, and tell her we’re going to find a way forward.

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