May 30, 2008

This Small-Town Life [jessi]

If I could blog freely about work and my customers without the danger of getting fired, I would. When I took my Customer Service position at a small office in a small town, I thought I would deal primarily with two-parent church-going families, and retirees. And there are lots of those, but in the last two years I’ve been delighted to find that the best and worst of humanity congregates in unexpected places—including the teller line at the bank.

Even better, my office and job have made me suddenly visible to the community in which I grew up. Having never gone to school or church here, I never had a reason to be noticed, but now I’ve somehow joined the club. I feel a little bit like Norm from “Cheers”; and my regulars all know me, and they call me “kiddo”, “honey”, “babes” (from one former East Coast-er), and my favorite: “Wee bit of an angel.” Some of them bring us cookies, or buy us coffee, and every once in a while, we get a postcard from someone who has gone on vacation. When was the last time you sent your banker a postcard? We’ve been invited to 85th birthday parties, and church potlucks, and I have my own personal girl scout cookie seller, who skips in with her order form every Spring so that she can bilk me out of $5.00 for each box of cookies that I’m sucker enough to buy (usually at least three). I can’t help it—she’s so adorable.

Now, it’s really not all sunshine and lollipops. I’ve had to curb my aggressive driving tendencies. Honking and tailgating gets embarrassing really fast when the driver in front of me ends up being someone I know. And of course the Customer Service industry still has the same pitfalls here as anywhere—namely irate and exasperated people. Money is tight, gas is above 4.00 per gallon, and everyone gets cranky when it’s time to fill up their Suburbans and Tahoes. But for the most part, I feel privileged to be let in to people’s lives this way.

Without names and situations, maybe the following doesn’t mean as much to you as it does to me, but here are some of the things that I’ve been told, either at my counter or around town in the last few months:

“We’re pregnant”

“We’re adopting from Africa”

“It’s breast cancer—this is the second time”

“We lost the baby”

“My wife is in a coma, and the doctors don’t know if there will be brain damage.”

“Which would you like me to make for you—a hat or a scarf?”

My grandson is single, and about your age…”

“My daughter is graduating”

“I’ve brought my new grand-baby in to see you”

“I sold the farm two months ago, and I hate being retired”

“We’re getting divorced”

I’m not sure if I just have a sympathetic face or if the openness comes from this being such a small and highly-churched community, but either way, my prayer list is getting longer. I’ve started giving hugs, and sending cards. It’s one thing that makes me glad, even on the days when I want to buy a ticket to Anywhere and tramp off across the world, that I am where I am for now.

...continue reading...

May 27, 2008

Nonabel [jay]

The land of Nonabel was beautiful place of lush green mountains ruled by majestic trees and valleys with fish-filled streams running through them. Every day the sun rose and every night the sun would set, and the time in between was filled with wonder and delight for all the inhabitants of the happy land.

Then one day, some people from another land happened upon this choice peace of beauty and decided to make it their home. Because the land of Nonabel was large and expansive, it was declared a kingdom that was divided into four provinces ruled by four governors.

The first governor ruled the Land of Business.

The second governor ruled the Land of Politics.

The third governor ruled the Land of Family.

The fourth governor ruled the Land of Church.

Each citizen paid taxes annually to the government to ensure the efficient and healthy growth of the kingdom. The governors distributed the funds to the each province as was seen fit by a selected group of leaders that no one knew personally but that everyone was sure they did not like and could not trust.

The citizens of Nonabel would live their lives in the various provinces, moving from one to another through the course of a day as fit their needs. When it was time to work and make money, they would catch the tram to the Land of Business. Important decisions were made in the Land of Politics, while love, peace and harmony were sought out in the Land of Family. No one was truly sure what the Land of Church was for, although an archaic manuscript was discovered that seemed to speak authoritatively to the matter. But the manuscript was strangely worded and understanding it would require reading it and discussing it, and reading it and discussing it would mean lots of work and possible conflict and things were going so well in the other three provinces that the citizens really wanted to concentrate their time there. So at a regular Tuesday night meeting of The Discussion Of Important Things in the Land of Politics, a decision was unanimously passed to simply divide the province of Church into a thousand tiny provinces. The governors of the lands of Business, Politics and Family simply passed a resolution that required the small provinces of the Land of Church get along as well as they could and not stir up too much trouble. In fact, as a measure of safety and peace, an amendment was added that everyone should simply reserve their time in the province of Church to one morning per week – Sunday as it turned out -- except for some select rebellious splinter groups who chose to meet Sunday evening as well (mostly people who called themselves Baptist and Pentecostal). This decision was wonderfully received and everyone loved the way it made them feel. Nonabelians even began dressing up for the occasion.

No one really knew what happened to the governor of Land of Church. As it turned out, He was asked by the citizens of the kingdom to remain in hiding except for Sunday mornings. He could be a pretty demanding fellow and the people didn’t want Him stirring things up when affairs in the other provinces were going so well. The governor of the Land of Church was pretty offended by this request and decided that, for the most part, He wasn’t going to show up where He wasn’t invited. Very few people in the kingdom of Nonabel could hardly find the time to issue such an invitation or pursue such a relationship. He even went so far as to suggest that He be allowed to run the whole Kingdom. That was a bit too much for the Nonabelians. As stated before, He could be demanding.

These arrangements were put into effect immediately and the people enjoyed overall happiness and prosperity. Concentrating all their efforts on three provinces instead of four provided a streamlined form of capitalistic bliss that put money in the Nonabelians’ pockets and stuff in their lives. There were the occasional disputes here and there, but a firm hand from the governors of the Lands of Politics and Business kept things moving very smoothly.

Then something began to go terribly wrong in the kingdom of Nonabel.

In the Land of Family, the fathers and mothers began to leave. Eventually, a search party would be formed, and they were almost always located in the Land of Business or Politics with him passed out in a gutter, or her at the office late at night, or with his arm around a woman who was not his wife, or with her at another endless meeting of The Discussion Of Important Things. This absence of fathers and mothers caused a massive disconnect in the homes of the Land of Family. Overworked and undervalued, the mothers and fathers became control freaks who, according to the fathers, “won’t stop nagging” and according to the mothers, “won’t see me”. This tension between mother and father drove peace and harmony out of the Land of Family altogether. And the children felt like orphans.

This concern was taken up by the governors of the Kingdom of Nonabel. They called for a joint meeting of the governors at the next Discussion Of Important Things to talk about this issue at work in the Land of Family. Of course, no one knew where the governor of the Land of Church was. A letter of invitation was sent to His last known address, but secretly, the other governors hoped He wouldn’t show. After all, He could be a demanding fellow.

The next Discussion Of Important Things was the most well attended meeting in the kingdom’s history. It seemed like every Nonabelian in the land had come out for this Discussion Of Important Things. As the meeting opened, it was noted that the governor of the Land of Church had indeed received His invitation. He was standing outside the door of the meeting hall but, for some crazy reason, would not enter unless personally invited to come in and granted permission to run the Kingdom. He said He had brought Kentucky Fried Chicken for everyone and He could break more if there were more people than there were biscuits and chicken. The governors declined His invitation stating that they just weren’t comfortable with the demands of such a governor. KFC would be nice, but His presence was not worth the cost of their power. The people unanimously agreed. They suggested He disperse the chicken and biscuits to the tiny provinces of the Land of Church for the Sunday morning time that week. He agreed, stating His desire to not run them over, and that He would simply stand outside the door for the duration of the meeting and knock. The first resolution passed that evening was to cover all the doors of the meeting hall with foam padding.

The meeting continued with each of the governors voicing their profound concern over this absence of fathers and mothers in the Land of Family. Therefore, three other resolutions were passed that night to curb the lack of peace and harmony in the Land of Family:

1. A time of freedom was established that would coincide with time spent in the Land of Church. This declared time of peace was to be known as “weekend”. Things were declared to be peaceful during this time and parents were to cater to the needs of their children for this two day period. “Being a taxi service is no shame”, the governors would say. “You don’t have to talk to the other parents during this time” they would declare. Just be peaceful. Engagement in the affairs of the Lands of Business and Politics during this weekend was encouraged, but not mandatory.

2. A longer time of freedom was established. This two week period was to be known as “vacation”. Families were to live for this judicious experience together – the ultimate in peace and harmony. It was reasoned that the obvious lack of peace and harmony (some even used the word “love”) could easily be rectified with this extended time of concentration on said virtues. The governors also assured the fathers and mothers that this “vacation” would curb the complaints of children that they were tired of being forgotten. How could a kid feel bad about his home life while having his feelings anesthetized in the indulging of extreme excess at Disney Land?

3. Every citizen in the land of Nonabel received part of their yearly income tax, as well as part of next year’s income tax refund, direct deposited into their checking account. The governor of the Land of Politics put it this way: “A good bit of money that looks like a gift even though it was their money to begin with will shut the mouth of even the most virtuous of people.” He wasn’t far from wrong.
The citizens of Nonabel in attendance at that Discussion of Important Things left the meeting hall extremely pleased with the outcome of their time together. No one actually believed that peace and harmony would be restored, but they were very satisfied to have something to live for in the form of “weekend” and “vacation” and very pleased with a gesture of monetary generosity from the governors of the kingdom. The incessant thumping on the door of the meeting hall was a bit distracting. But after the meeting concluded He had set up a table with the chicken and biscuits and a note attached to it that read:
I’ll keep knocking, and whenever you want to open the door and let me in, I will show up with chicken and biscuits and sit down and hang out with you while we eat. Bloody knuckles are worth it for you.
Everyone was deeply touched by this gesture of affection from governor of the Land of Church. A resolution was quickly passed on the lawn of the meeting hall to increase the amount of foam padding on the doors so as to alleviate the bloody knuckles of the governor.

The children of the land of Nonabel were tired of the lack of peace and harmony, not just at home, but in the whole kingdom. To them, Sunday mornings were terrible because they hated getting dressed up and the Land of Church was horrifically inauthentic because it was a bunch of fathers and mothers who were doing their duty of being peaceful and harmonious while being hateful and selfish at home. All the tiny provinces of the Land of Church were trying not to upset or offend any other provinces, so Sunday mornings became this putridly boring time of inoffensiveness. Furthermore, they could not understand why in the world no one was inviting the governor of the Land of Church to rule His own province. The children knew exactly where the governor lived and they loved to go play on His playground and sit on His lap and eat His chicken and watch Him make something out of nothing.

In the wake of this situation, some of the children of the Land of Nonabel decided to start their own province and they invited the governor to rule the province. This proved to be a wonderful situation. They didn’t have to dress up anymore, they could be real with the hurt they felt from their parents and the governors and they could really have fun with Him when they got together. More and more people started coming to this province and things started to get a little crazy. The children in the province had a lot of fun and enjoyed their relationship with the governor, but the governor kept asking this annoying question, “Why are you here?” No one had an answer, so they just ignored the question. He would keep asking, “Why are you here?” and still, no answer.

Finally the children got tired of the question, so they said, “Why don’t You tell us why we are here?” And the governor pointed to the archaic manuscript that had been discovered centuries before.

As the children read the book, they loved the wonder of the stories of the governor in all his majestic exploits, especially the ones where He healed people or made the winds and waves be still or made the governors of the other provinces drop their stones. They especially loved the one where He conquered death. As they got to the end of the book, they started reading about their very own province. It was like He had seen it in advance, maybe even planned for it or made it happen Himself. They could see themselves in His story and they could see the insanity that was taking over their very own province. The governor was right! The answer to their confusion was in the Book. But the answer caused them to pause in fear.

“You must trust Me,” He said.

“We do trust You,” the children declared.

“Then you must trust one another,” He replied.

So the children called the governor of the Land of Business to place an order for their own bulk shipment of foam padding.

...continue reading...

May 22, 2008

Penitence: Eleven Thousand Words [justin]

Eastern State Penitentiary, located in Philadelphia, has stonewalls 625 feet wide and 30 feet tall–it reminds one of a gothic castle. The prison operated for 142 years (1829-1971) and in 1994, after more than two decades of unsuccessfully trying to redevelop the land, Eastern State had its first season of regular guided interpretative tours. Its walls housed intimates ranging from pig thieves to murderers to famous mobsters, such as Al “Scarface” Capone.

Eastern State was unique to its day: its true warden was Solitude, its head guard, Silence. The psychological framework was a mixture of prison reform, Enlightenment thinking, and Quaker theology. The philosophy was that all people are inherently good and have an inner light in them, an instinct to behave rightly. This optimistic mindset, at best, points to the Image of God in everyone; at worst, it is blasphemy in regards to original sin in humans. The power’s that be at the prison thought that severe isolation, from everyone including family, the culture around them, even others at the prison, would facilitate inner spiritual reflection that would make the inmate truly penitent.

This “directed” penitence had mixed reviews. Some inmates, as they reentered the vast, real world, went insane after leaving the forced sensory/social deprivation of the prison.

From Alexis de Tocqueville (1831)

Thrown into solitude... [the prisoner] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him. Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness?

From Charles Dickens (1842)
In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing... I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,.. and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

Penitence - Justin Boyer

...continue reading...

May 20, 2008

Burn In/Side [sean]

Oh God. And the room gets heavier/my knees get weaker.
There's a filling and a flame which screams into my chest,
It or He takes my heart in His hand and makes it beat.
In surrender here there is all or none defeat; there is rest.

"Please forgive, please renew, and I will bow the knee to You."
"I'm so damned wicked that I'll never earn this by what I do."
"If You'll take the bullet I will fall before Your resurrected frame."
"If You will act, then I will never be the same."

And that's what happened.

God, how I long to shed this body and polluted instinct, free;
Put off the dwelling and be what You intended when You bent down,
Picked up the dust, and named it me. Because that's what happened.
It took the wood and nails to make me see.

A booming voice splits the sky and bye and bye, I have tasted
I have tasted that the Lord is good. Goodbye, and hello New Design.
Somewhere in this rhyme and the clatter of the keyboard keys.
I can't get my head around how all the evil that I am was put on He.
And the good He did was giv'n to me; I can run with that but I can't

Please don't lift my head yet, please don't lift my head.
Because it belongs here on the floor beside my shoulders,
   soaked and wet.
I will take this parched and thirsty tongue and yet teach it to praise You.
I see Your outreached hand, but (though taking it),
   I do not yet understand.

I am so afraid and so at peace;
   You can strike me down if You so please.
"Perfect love will drive out fear," I know,
   but I know my love is never perfect.
My reciprocated love is a shadow of what it's meant to be.
   Take all I have to offer.
And breathing hard, from my chest,
   I know that this is what's right and whole and Best.

"Please forgive, please renew, and I will bow the knee to You."
And that's what happened.

...continue reading...

On NOT Writing [jana]

In a recent email from an old friend, she told me to feel free to send along any new creative writings I had on hand, as my writing was sometimes entertaining. The casually dropped comment rankled like a mosquito bite. After a few days of this, I decided to explore a bit further into why I was feeling like Thomas Kinkade would if one of his paintings (a real one, of course, not one of the assembly-line artistically-daubed-by-a-Kinkade-trained-artist prints) had been tagged with a crude symbol in spray paint.

For one, it made me think about just how much my writing has dropped off since I left California 2 years ago. Previous to this, I had blogged nearly daily; all through college and the two years following, chronicling lighthearted anecdotes, angsty emotional breakdown moments (mostly during finals weeks), Big News events, discussions on movies, music, books and religion, thoughts on the war, and various original (or not) moments of clarity. Though actual journal-writing was less consistent, I found that writing for an audience of friends and relatives was encouragement to write consistently (admittedly more a form of freewheeling, ego-stroking communication than honing serious writing skills, but it was writing nonetheless). It has something to do with the voracious people-pleaser in me.

Whatever the case, I wrote regularly through the procrastination years of schoolwork, when writing a blog post was a compromise somewhere in between actually writing my Lit 215 paper and giving up to veg out on videotaped ‘Friends’ episodes. And through the summers working at camp, intermittent summer posts were prayer requests for students and ways to connect to home. After the summer was over, a rush of posting filled the gap of missing camp and friends made there. And then through the years of teaching Jr. High, when it was one of the few important ways to get a tiny bit of peer interaction in the course of a day split into 7 periods, where gum on the desks and grade point percentages were the most adult conversations I had all day. Writing for my audience of friends became a habit, and a form of redeeming my experience. Writing was a spiritual release. Frustrations burned off like alcohol as awkward experiences were chemically altered into satire (the horrible singles conference I attended by accident), song (infrequent posts of lyrics which impacted me in some way), or reflection. Moments when the heart overflowed with grief or fear or joy found footholds in my consciousness as I typed them into the little box on the computer screen.

So I read my friend’s request with a bit of guilt on my own account, since I do feel a certain sense of guilt about not writing (As Madeleine L’Engle would say, “The gift is to be served.”), but I also read with a more than a bit of righteous anger. My words are not mere entertainment, to provide you with a moment of comic relief. My creative writing is important, valuable…is… doesn't really exist right now, anyway. And why not?

I started thinking about the reasons why I have not written much in the two years since I left my house, job, car, and friends behind in a state of near-shock at the abrupt change in my situation. Upon arriving back in my parents’ house, I had a dilemma. My habit was to write for friends whom I trusted and loved, and who loved and trusted me in response. A safe audience. When I left, under a cloud of hurt, guilt, and grief, suddenly my audience was no longer safe. The people who would be reading from a distance now, I felt, could not be trusted with my confidences. Additionally, I began to discover, what was now in my heart to write was not acceptable for an audience. Deep feelings of regret, anger, blame, fear…people might think I was A Nut Job. And though I definitely have my neurotic periods, I don’t necessarily want to spend the page count on them that say, Anne LaMott does. Maybe I’m just not that honest. Whatever the rationale, writing slowly and finally dropped off until it came to a full stop except for random posts now and then. When I did journal, it was, oddly enough, in lyrics and undisciplined poetry, as if a rhythmic structure was the only one that could support the vast outpouring of bitterness, confusion, and sorrow. I would like to now insert a little paragraph about a timely realization that it is really Not Always About Me, but unfortunatly, I haven't healed that much yet.

Perhaps there is a point where art moves from the public to private sphere, like grief. True grief, to someone outside the experience, appears a little indecent. It reveals what most would consider weakness or shame. People avert their eyes at the funeral. Conversations get stilted or awkward. Or maybe if bitterness and anger are directed at God, and not another human being, it’s ok to spill your guts on the page like C.S. Lewis did in A Grief Observed, because God won’t write a sarcastic, or worse, sweetly insincere and guilt-trippy comment in response to it and he won’t hold it against you. Here is the problem, I think. I want to be bitter without consequence. I want flaunt my angst without its guilt-laden reaction. But how cliche--how old fashioned--how Garden of Eden-y.

So how does this unforgiveness—this is really the only word for it—relate to my writing (or lack thereof)? Written words are solid. The process of writing and editing forces me to articulate the problems, the questions, the resentments…and to face them. I cannot write without addressing the very deepest beliefs through my fingers to the page or the screen. When I can physically see one of my irrationalities in written form, it becomes clearly irrational. Writing reveals the questions, then provokes resolution. I am not cured by writing, but I begin to realize that I can be helped to healing...though it's a long, slow, painful and delicate process.

...continue reading...

May 16, 2008

Sleeping at 90 MPH [matt]

Tonight I held my daughter, rocking her for what felt like hours. She was obviously tired and her six-month body needed sleep. With my soothing whispers and gentle movements in the rocking chair she reacted with screams and tears. After she is asleep, I discover myself rubbing my eyes and yawning in a similar fashion. But I too choose to stay up, ignoring the cues my body provides. I am discovering that there are some major complications in our relationship with sleep.

Bud, my wife’s grandfather, was in a Yakima hospital showing symptoms of dementia, but also exhibiting moments of clarity. At one point I was standing at the end of his bed while he slept. I was most likely thinking of how inept I felt when it came to what to say to a person in this situation. When he woke, I clumsily asked him how his nap was, to which he replied “I was sleeping ninety miles per hour, Matt, and I didn’t ever want to wake up.”

My daughter sleeps at seventy miles per hour. No matter how fussy or awake she is, the moment my Subaru hits I-5, her eyes get heavy and her head begins to nod.

Ezekiel, in a dreaming vision, saw four creatures made of wheels. Does this mean the great prophet also slept at high speeds? And if so, how fast did he sleep?

Helene Cixous once claimed “we can hope to move closer to everything we can’t say without dying of fright through the School of Dreams.” It’s a complicated statement, but one which I believe points to the paradox of sleep; we need it, and can find safety in it, but there is something to be feared there as well. Jacob dreamed of the ascending and descending angels; there is something peaceful to think of angels ascending, but descending angels can stir fear. After all, these are the same beings who a few chapter before had performed some serious brimstone punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah. In dreams, in sleep, there is true biblical awe, the kind of awe that is charged with an excited fear.

When it became obvious that my dad was not going to defeat cancer a second time, he started to fight against sleep. He knew that most cancer patients ultimately die in their sleep, or at least a drug-induced coma of sorts, and he had no intention of going gently into any sort of night. Instead he fought. Though he was on a variety of high-powered painkillers, including oxycodone, he insisted on staying awake as much as possible. He would sit next to you in a daze, but refuse to close his eyes. He would take a nap, but remind me to wake him up in under an hour. He was afraid, though I will never know if it was a fear of death or dreams.

I rarely dream. When I do, I typically forget all or most of the dream by the time I wake. The one thing I sometimes remember is who was in the dream. Every dream I remember includes at least one relative and one celebrity. It’s a funny thought really, my mom, Brad Pitt, and me running errands together. Sure, it’s not angels moving up and down on some celestial escalator, yet there is still something fearful there. There is no control. I have to slip into a strange new world and trust that it will be good. Cixous describes this as “crossing the frontiers to the other world without transition, at the stroke of a signifier.” She finds this enjoyable. I am not so certain.

Describing faith, Abraham Heschel claimed that it “is an event…a moment in which the soul of man communes with the glory of God.” He goes on to say, “Man’s walled mind has no access to a ladder upon which he can, on his own strength, rise to knowledge of God. Yet his soul is endowed with translucent windows that open to the beyond.” Perhaps every time we close our eyes and allow sleep to take us, it is a moment of faith. Maybe sleep is where the largest translucent window is hidden.

Dad died in his sleep. There was no coma, just a very tough day, followed by a long night. When I woke up in the morning, things were too quiet, and I found him sitting on his chair with his eyes open. Heschel said, “God is not always silent, and man is not always blind.” I hope at least one of those was true for Dad.

The one dream I actually remember came after a close friend died of a drug overdose. He and I were in a valley where multiple rivers converged. It was a warm day and we were running across meadows and wading through the waters without fear. I woke up in tears, happy and sad to have seen and spoken with my friend. The paradox of sleep is too much for me. It is too profound and moves too quickly. It is too amazing and too frightening. But tonight, on faith, I go there yet again to learn from the School of Dreams.

...continue reading...

May 12, 2008

Closer to the Light [karen]

          to the light

            to see


      but always closer
        to the warmth
    to the light

      the brightness
         the clarity
            the truth

          being drawn
         ever nearer

            to the light

...continue reading...

May 9, 2008

Rain [mark]

It rained today; I love the rain. I have been in Calgary for two and a half months and this is the first actual rain that has fallen. We have had huge blizzards of snow and ice; we have had sleet and freezing rain. But this, this is a warm spring rain. The kind of rain that you can smell on the breeze as it saturates the asphalt. I stood outside the store Karen and I were walking into; for just a moment we were alone, we held hands as I looked up into the misty drips. I opened my mouth to absorb as much of the rain as possible.

I have many memories of rain; my favorites are the ones in the warm spring or summer rains of the Pacific Northwest. I remember with joy my brothers, sister and my sister’s friend who is now my sister-in-law pouring out of the house into the street lamp lit intersection, getting drenched immediately with a blanket of warm wetness. There are, however, also memories of pain.

Rain fell briskly covering the cold pavement outside my window as the weight of my discontent rested on my chest, phone still clenched in my hand. Two weeks stood like a stalwart sentry between myself and matrimony. The dream crumbled; by the time I reached my car it had all but dissolved. A restless discomfort furrowed grooves into the once stable soil of my future. I looked up into the dark sky, feeling each pearl of moisture soak into my skin and flow around my cheek and down my neck; all feeling disappeared.

Over the next few months, acres of intention would be tilled and churned until none of what I thought I had remained. Walking to my desk at work felt like I was six feet under water, I scarcely breathed for fear that I would drown. Faces of only sorrow were turned to me and all happiness hid in fear. The field was churned, weeded and toiled.

Our first meeting had been carefree with laughter and singing in the summer; we met again, fear on our sleeves, trembling with uncertainty we poured out our hearts and drew in close for an embrace. Love stirred to the surface with hope and understanding; what was once important slipped away and with tears we kissed. I felt the saline pearl grow on the edge of my eyelid. I felt it flow around my cheek and down my neck. I felt.

Outside the window, behind the house, the schoolyard is wet and empty. The pavement glistens in the elemental gloom reflecting the dark skies above. Soon children will pour from their classes and splash in the pools and the mud in sopping freedom, cheering a rainy day with their carefree yelps and flailing, uncoordinated arms and legs. I check and re-check the countdown of our engagement.

As much as I pray that it will not rain on our wedding day, I long for the poetic rush of sweet summer rain filling my shoes and flooding my tuxedo. Holding her hand I would look up into the misty drips, open my mouth and imagine God, in all His glory, pouring out His glass and smiling on me and my bride.

...continue reading...

Bridal Musings [guest]

He had one arm around me and the ring in a leather pouch, cradled in his rosary; and at the age of thirty, after years of the slow agonizing that is a normative part of single adult womanhood, I finally found myself loved enough by one man to covenant for life.

Between engagement and its goal, however, lies a monster of an event--one that must be undertaken in some form whether or not the prospective bride and groom enjoy parties, or planning, or being the center of attention. In a most unfeminine manner, I never thought much about my wedding throughout my teen and early adult years. Three years ago, during the preparations for a family wedding, I began to consider my options should it happen for me, and until I met my fiancé, all of my ideas were negatives on the American wedding traditions. No matching bridesmaids' dresses, no processional, no big show and fussy dinner, and absolutely no Wagner. I really do not like Wagner.

It did not take experience with vendors of the wedding business to give me the general sensation that the average wedding nowadays is a sham, a rigmarole designed to give girls a chance to take a three-hour glamour-photo session with their man and show him off to all their friends in high fashion. Not that I'm against attractive pictures or formal dress; merely that such empty show combined with something supposed to have such meaning felt farcical, absurd.

The problem is selfishness, and the temptation to selfishness--as I found out early in the planning stages--is extreme, even for someone as indifferent to the usual parade as I am. After all, a person only gets married once ... at least, that's the original idea ... one might at least enjoy it.

As I've watched others process into marriage, however, I have learned strongly that a couple can hardly make a bigger mistake than thinking of their wedding primarily as "their special day". Too many longsuffering parents and relatives and friends have taken too much hell from must-have-it-all brides and control-freak grooms. Granted, not everyone can be pleased at once, and some people cannot be pleased at all. But community, not two individuals alone, participates in the sacramental liturgy, and we believe this day is as much about our God and our family as about us.

This fetish needs watching, too: as much as possible, though, I want everything to mean something. My mother makes my dress herself--it's her wedding gift to each of her daughters, and though I well know that it will be fabulous, I would want it even if I expected something far less perfect. My sister and his brother will stand up for us. The procession in behind the cross, instead of the typical bride-centric format; the white lily in my bouquet; the Bible readings my beloved and I chose together--simple things, most of them, but they matter to us.

My beloved reawakened me to the sanctity of it all. I knew that marriage is sacred, but his powerful faith put the concept of the marriage of two Christians into a context so religious that--without feeling the need to be legalistic about it--I would only choose to solemnize that sacrament at the altar, literally speaking. The truth of sacrament is of spiritual reality accomplished by way of physical ritual; hence the formal vows in the presence of witnesses and an authorized facilitator, not merely a general unspoken commitment between the couple. It matters to us, then, to celebrate this 'holy mystery' in the very place where Christ meets us regularly in the sacramental sense.

It matters to us ... thank God so many of the same things matter to us. I don't know how, exactly, but I knew we would marry—in some way I felt that even on our first little unofficial date, or at least by the middle of that night when sheer thrilled emotion forced me awake to relive the two-hour conversation we'd had over coffee. That 'knowledge' took several months to confirm, of course. But I had met someone likewise shy and hesitant and open, likewise determinedly Christian, likewise disillusioned and hopeful; and unlike anything I'd ever known, I'd met someone who actually seemed to like me—as I am, tall, awkward, serious, childlike, and all.

Somehow we'll make the wedding work, even if it can't be perfect or even everything we could ever want. The goal, after all, is the marriage. I could be nervous about marriage, as many excellent girls are during engagement, even though they know they have 'the right one'. Perhaps the nerves will pick up somewhat as the day approaches; that's more likely than not, I suppose. But I'm not afraid, not of life with him. And as I try to surround our nuptials with all of the 'meaning' I can, I hope it accentuates the burdened little phrase that I plan to mean with my whole heart and soul: "I do."

Jennifer Olwin is planning her wedding from Bellingham, Washington. Her contribution to her future home includes sixteen potted plants and the fiction half of the library.

...continue reading...

May 6, 2008

A Good Meal [liz]

I believe in the power of a good meal shared between friends and family. We start out isolated and alone, but then someone steps in to buy food, cook it, and share the blessing with others. A table brings us close, and the food in the middle provides the space we need to linger and not run away. We reach and pass the bowl giving strength to the other, and in that we transfer part of ourselves.

During the last supper, Jesus took the bread and told the disciples to eat—to eat his flesh, to eat the nourishment he gave them. We are to drink the cup he gave, his blood—his strength, his life. And when we share a meal, we share the strength, the life we have in ourselves. Together, we remember the abundant life Jesus gives us. He pours into us, and we into each other.

...continue reading...

May 2, 2008

Nine East [jay]

Nine East is blue. The desks are actually cabinets with counter tops wrapped in blue-gray Formica, some twisted, faux marble concept from Michelangelo’s nightmares. The tile is alternating light blue and dark blue, twelve inch squares of monotonous patchwork stretching on forever. Royal blue is the padding on the chairs as well as the curtains in the rooms. The carpet in parts of the hallways are azure mixed with tan (looks like azure mixed with puke to me), the paint on the walls and in the closets is alternately deep blue and pastel blue. The sheets, pillowcases and blankets are blue in varying shades depending on how many times they have been tortured in the industrial washers and dryers. I could never understand why they chose blue for the motif. They should know I am already blue.

Nine East is bright. There are lots of windows, which is great because the St Louis skyline is truly beautiful late at night. The lights of the city dance on the curvature of the Arch as Mighty Mississippi lazily plods south beneath it. There are walls of windows in some of the rooms dividing it completely in half. A couple of the floor to ceiling windows on one end of the wall are on tracks and act as a door from one side to the other. The eyes of the kids that live on Nine East are windows as well, windows into innocent and beautiful spirits that know they are here for a reason, just not quite sure what that reason really is.

Nine East is confusing. It is always under construction, so parts of it that were previously open the last time you were meandering through are suddenly closed off and your favorite thoroughfare for an escape to a time of sanity in the fresh air is now shut down with no explanation and certainly no map offered. The elevators are confusing. There are three sets of them: one for staff (off-limits to normal people), and two for normal people, but none of them go to the same places. If you get off the main elevators and turn left, you are headed to the room where your kid is, but if you take the secondary elevators and turn left, you end up in oncology. That is the last place you want to be – a place where little kids with no hair get more and more sick while their parents are begging God to make this suffering worth it in the long run by hanging everything on one word: remission. Talk about confusing…try telling your child they are losing their hair and throwing up ten times a day because the medicine that helps them hurts them too. Now that is confusing.

Nine East is happy. Everywhere you look, there are smiles. The staff is exceptional, especially in the CF wing of the floor. Most are young, bright, beautiful young ladies who are not fresh out of nursing school, but they are not cynical and hard either. Being a nurse on Nine East can take its toll. Oncology and CF kids spend a lot of time in Nine East, so it is almost like a strange second family. When a family on Nine East loses a son or daughter, so does the staff. The nurses wear these crazy clothes called “scrubs”. It is typical to see nurses in scrubs out and about in the real world, but the types of scrubs on Nine East are really strange. I guess in these days of internet access to all types of merchandise, nurses can customize their scrubs. A lot of the nurses would wear scrubs with SpongeBob, Barbie, Spiderman, Strawberry Shortcake and Superman, and all of the characters were smiling crazily, like they had just watched the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld. Some days the happiness of the scrubs and smiles of the staff made sense, like when the doctors told you your baby was going home. Other days those smiles were so demeaning, like watching your two year old stare at the smiles on the scrubs while she screams as they take her blood for the eighth time that day.

Nine East is terrifying. There is nothing worse than living on Nine East for three straight weeks. When you are there for that amount of time, you watch the turnover of patients. In three weeks, the kid on the other side of the glass changed four times. Two of the cases were child abuse, one was a one month old that contracted the common cold and it killed him when it got in his blood stream, and the last was a welfare mom who honestly did not know that she was starving her baby by only feeding her three times a day. It’s not the disease that your kid has that is so scary -- although it’s awful -- it is watching the pain of the world cycle through this blue world over and over. A completely different form of terrorism.

Nine East is hopeful. For people in those types of life situations, hope is the only thing you have on which to build any foundation. It is the common denominator among every person on Nine East. Nurses, parents, visitors, chaplains, doctors, patients, friends, social workers, therapists, siblings – everyone is holding on to one thing: our child could get better. It makes no difference if you are atheist or Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, the desperation of the situation does away with the pathetic labels we wear. The thing about losing the label is that when it is stripped away, we are left naked. A bunch of raw, emotionally and spiritually naked people left grasping at the answer to a very simple question: where is hope?

Nine East is an ark in a flood of brokenness. It is a blue, happy, terrifying, bright, confusing, hopeful oasis that you never hope to reach. But when you do, you find that everything and everyone is not quite what or whom you thought. It is a double-take of reality and a revelation of hurt that is deeper than pain and life that is higher than hope.

Nine East is a place I never want to be again, but that I embrace when I am.

...continue reading...