April 28, 2009

Review: a long way gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier [kris]

The dark browns and deep greens of the forest peel away from the road as the beams of my headlights stretch forward into bluish darkness. There are no streetlights. The road and forest are much darker than I’m used to. I’m used to cities where artificial light is always present. My sunroof is open and the moonlight literally pours over me. I’ve never seen anything like it. I glance down at my arms and the tops of my legs, illuminated by the warmth of the moon. I’ve never seen the moon this bright. I’ve already been crying but now the tears are coming freely from a deeper place in my chest. I have a familiar sense of my Father speaking to me. There is no exchange of words. He is near me. With no other cars in sight I slow down and stare. A warm globe of bright yellow and white lightens me in its presence, regardless of the deep pull of a violet and navy night sky around it. The moon’s glow even seems to draw warmer colors from beneath the blues and purples. If I look closely enough into the sky I can feel bold reds and magenta pressing through the darkness.

* * *

I read a book this week that has de-railed my writing projects.

Last Wednesday I was grazing the book section at Target in an upscale Brentwood shopping center waiting for my Mom who was looking at party favors in another section of the store. Not looking for anything in particular, I scanned the back covers of several marked-down books: Eat Pray Love, Twilight, something new by Candace Bushnell, the third installment in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series, and then my gaze rested upon a book cover with a young boy dressed in a bright red tee shirt and navy shorts, a gun slung across his chest. a long way gone. Immediately I grabbed it off the shelf and began to read the back cover. “Child soldier Ishmael Beah tells his story in his own words…” I bought it. $11.93. Ishmael waited patiently on my nightstand for two long days of work, small group, the gym, and a pre-scheduled lunch with friends—his presence never going unnoticed. At 5pm on Friday night I finally made the time to sit down and read, broke to text Jeni and cancel our plans at 7, and read the last page around 11:30.

There isn’t much to say about the book, only because Ishmael’s story stands so powerfully on its own. There is an advertising quote on the front cover from the Washington Post. The quote is actually true for once, “Everyone in the world should read this book . . . We should read it to learn about the world and about what it means to be human.” I received Ishmael’s story, and cried deeply as I listened to his telling of the pain and darkness he experienced and was part of. A son of God’s and a brother of mine, completely ravaged by evil and made an active part of the devouring.

A theme from Ishmael’s memoir that my spirit deeply connected to is the significance of the moon. I’ve had a fascination with the moon since I was a kid. And have often wondered about what God wanted to tell us through it. In Ishmael’s village the moon is a symbol of hope and wisdom. Through Ishmael’s story I’ve come to think that what God is showing us in the moon is presence. Atrocities like Ishmael’s experience as a child soldier show us the extent of the darkness that has enveloped the land. In the darkness of night the sun’s light is gone. All of its warmth and glory has left us as we are, and retreated beyond the horizon, out of our reach. We are helpless to bring it back. As Micah tells the prophets “Now the night will close around you, cutting off all your visions. Darkness will cover you, putting an end to your predictions. The sun will set for you . . . your day will come to an end”(3:6-7). But even in this darkness the moon is present. Its presence is different than the sun’s. The moon demands nothing. It is patient in the sky. The moon waits in darkness with us. It is a different kind of light. A reflection, an image of something we cannot see but, by hope and faith, believe is coming. All encompassing light is coming, light that chases away all trace of darkness. In the sky’s story this hope is realized every morning. This daily rhythm is a picture of the larger story that we hope in. That our Father will come for us. For Ishmael and for me. Our Father will return and restore His light in our land. And the moon that we all share is our symbol of this hope and promise.

...continue reading...

Fortress [julie]

Its not over
Till I bleed for good
Until I understand
This was all pretend
I never saw it coming
But I felt it land
Changing all the mystery
From mind to words
A blade of grass
Among miles of concrete
What did you expect?
To actually find me?
They're watching at every corner
And can withstand the cleverest of plans
All this, but I will find no savior
Because I believed in its protection
Instead of the fields you could yield
From a crack

...continue reading...

April 24, 2009

The Best Medicine [nate]

The day that she died the doctors told me, “no one expected her to live this long,” like it was some sort of consolation prize, like it was supposed to make me feel better. I felt the word long shouldn’t have been anywhere near that sentence. Twenty-four years isn’t long. Two years of marriage isn’t long either, but that’s all we got. That’s all I got. After her death I quit my job and moved back to my parents house. I couldn’t take the empty apartment. I used my savings and bought a nice big truck that I hardly ever use. I also bought a fifty-three inch plasma screen and a collection of DVD’s that, at the time, could rival a small video rental place, but now feel old and used. When people would ask me how I was doing I would say, “My wife died,” and they would leave me alone.

Every year, on her birthday, I drive out to visit her gravesite. I never miss it. I pay my respects and remember how my life used to be, before she left me. The drive is about three hours along a stretch of practically empty two-lane highway to the graveyard where her family had a plot. On the drive, I tend to keep the radio off and I look at the clouds. It reminds me of when Rebecca, my wife, and me were dating. We would spend hours laying in the park, arguing over what we thought the clouds looked like.

On the most recent trip, the sky was particularly full of clouds, but the sun was high, and on the long stretches of highway, the heat was unavoidable. The A/C was on but my hands were sweating from the sun baring down through the window. Along the side of the highway ran a small ditch that at the top, along the edge of the highway, was lined with small white rocks, and down in the ditch patches of small white flowers sprinkled the grass. I was so focused on a particularly interesting cloud high up in the sky that I did not notice the car stalled on the side with about a fourth of itself still on the highway. When I hit it, the car slammed forward and my truck, with me bouncing inside, spun 180 degrees around and rolled backwards into the ditch. My air bags did not deploy and my head bounced against the top of the steering wheel and I fell back against the seat and I saw through the window some clouds until they started spinning and I blacked out.

When I came to the sun was in my eyes. The truck was still running and I could feel the A/C blowing on my face. My head was throbbing and I felt for blood but was relieved when my hand was dry. The lump was rather large, and looking in my mirror was painful in itself. I turned off my truck and stepped outside, crushing a patch of flowers beneath my feet, and I felt a sharp pain run up my right leg. Looking up I noticed the clouds were cleared and I wondered how long I had been out. When I looked down the ditch towards the car the first thing I saw was the blood on the white rocks. I climbed, slowly, out of the ditch and with the sun to my back I started to sweat.

I was practically dripping by time I got to the man pinned down halfway underneath the front of the car. I figured he must have been standing in front of the car when I hit him. He looked about my age with short blond hair and tanned skin that was turning red. Blood had pooled behind his head and another puddle was forming beneath his back. The sun had dried some of the blood against the rocks creating the smell that reminded me of the hospital and I thought of Rebecca. I looked down the highway and couldn’t see a car for miles. In the distance I could see massive white clouds rolling in. I kneeled down and felt his neck; pressing my fingers hard against his moist skin. I thought I felt a pulse and leaned down, closer, and realized that he was actually breathing, softly, too. Shocked, I decided I had to do something right then to stop his bleeding and keep him alive, for both our sakes. I slowly lifted his head and nearly puked when the blood poured out of his hair. The smell was overwhelming. I stumbled, painfully, back to my truck and grabbed my pocketknife from the glove compartment.

When I was back at the man’s side, I cut off a long strip from the shirt he was wearing and carefully wrapped it around his head, pulling it tightly. I had his blood and sweat, from both of us, on my hands when I slowly pulled him from beneath the car and turned him over, revealing the wound on his lower back. Inside his car I found another shirt and I wrapped that tightly around his waist. I really didn’t know if it would help, but it was really all I knew to do. Back inside his car I found his cell phone in the center console and I figured the ambulance would come from town so I could continue my way to the graveyard without them seeing me. I knew I would need a doctor for my leg and my head eventually, but for the time being I would be fine.

I used his phone and told the dispatch that I thought I’d driven by an accident, and I put his cell phone back in the console. I checked one last time to make sure he was still breathing, wished him luck, and hobbled back to my truck. It started fine and I was able to reverse up and out of the ditch. With each press on the gas pedal my leg ached. The A/C kicked in and it felt great across the lump on my head. Looking back at the car through my rearview mirror I realized I was lucky my truck even started.

I drove into the mass of clouds and the cover brought a nice relief from the sun. My head was beginning to throb but I was only an hour from the graveyard and at that point there was no way I could turn around. I kept replaying the accident, what I could remember, over and over in my head. I wondered if they could figure out if it was me, and if the man would even survive. I wondered if I wasted time even trying to help him, and wished I had an extra pair of clothes because I had his blood on me. I couldn’t believe that this had happened to me, after everything I had been through.

About thirty minutes away from the graveyard I had an overwhelming need for something to drink, and I decided I should probably clean myself up a bit as well. I pulled off the highway into a small gas station and tried to sneak in to the bathroom past the attendant.

“You all right mister?” he said, catching me halfway across the store.

“Yeah, uh, I hit a, uh, deer, about thirty miles out.”

“Wow, you’re lucky to be alive, was the deer as lucky?” he said with a laugh.

“I’m not really sure.”

“Poor thing, if not, hope it didn’t suffer very long.”

I was covering the blood on my hands behind a display of candy bars when he finally left me alone. In the bathroom under the fluorescent white light my face looked worse than I imagined. The lump on my head had swollen into a dark purple mass and the sweat in my hair had dried making it knotted and stuck to my forehead. I slowly washed my forehead, every touch causing me to wince in pain. I purchased a bottle of water and as quickly as I could got to my truck and left.

When I reached the graveyard the pain in my head and leg was so hard to bear that I forgot about the hill I would have to climb to get to Rebecca’s grave. The graveyard was empty and the sun smothered me as I walked, nearly dragging my leg, up the hill. I drug myself through headstone after headstone, reading the names quietly out loud. Robert Bardon… Douglas Winfield…Julie Folklin…Reading the names became a sort of mantra to keep myself going. Howard Smith… Jessica Lawson… Bradley Saxwell…My head was throbbing and my thoughts were cloudy. Jacob Burton… Ronald Stanford…Alexis Walton… Finally, I came to Rebecca Harding, and I collapsed beside the headstone.

Lying there, beside her grave, I wanted to know what his name was, and if he died would he be buried here too? I thought about how the gas station attendant called me the lucky one, and how he laughed as if he knew. Like he knew it was all some joke that everyone was a part of, even the man lying bloody on the side of the street, that I would someday be let in on. To some people, everything is a joke. I could hardly keep my eyes open as I stared into the sky, and I saw a single cloud, and I wondered what Rebecca would think it looked like, and I started to laugh.

...continue reading...

Mermaids and Millstones [judd]

Bathing the niece
One winter eve
Pure innocence
Emerges and asks

“Do mermaids go to heaven?”

Sitting on the ledge
Shimmering child skin
Dotted with cumulus
Clouds of suds

She anticipates
‘Seriously, mermaids?’
You think looking
Into curious eyes

Rote answer rises
No need to search
Just repeat what
You heard in church

‘There is no doubt
Who gets in
Those who believe,
Cry out to him’

But mermaids they
Cry out to ships
Pull sailors deep
Down to their sleep

So? What holds your tongue?

Tell her, this fish
This lithe bather
Tell her your myth
The one you believe
You start

‘No mermaids

You stop

Say it aloud
Set her straight
Bear witness so
Young ears can hear

Yet, you recall,
Cherubim and Seraphim
Strange creatures
Fall down before him


You’ve seen no more
Cherubim than
You’ve met no more
Seraphim than

‘Good question,
I don’t know.’
She goes back
Into the water
Free to ask
The next question

Just bathe her
Your innocent
Let her swim
Without your weight

She’s too young to stop
Believing in mermaids
And the wonder of creatures
Half woman, half dolphin

And you need her
To be your mermaid
One day more

...continue reading...

April 21, 2009

No Words [kory]

As I stand in silence
My chest rises and falls from the race I have run
The false sense of victory is rapidly squelched
as you arrive in the doorway to transfer your rage

You have covered the distance
Your target is cowering
Duck and cover becomes its only escape.

The blows on the flesh that made your blood boil
travel straight to the center of its staggering soul.

It cries not from sadness, but as a last line of protection
Hoping you will believe the lesson was learned.

Your rampage grows silent
The hall light is left on
I should not have disturbed you
I am just afraid of the dark

...continue reading...

April 17, 2009

Sundress [jason]

you wear a simple sundress
of loud, white and floral print
breeze and sun combine to hint
drawing my gaze to confess
at your body naked underneath
a fabric light and loose caressing
little stands between undressing

you are natural and vulnerable
awakening my carnal senses
lowering my weak defenses
with an intrinsic instinctive call
to protect and cherish above all
and to know and touch each curve
and heighten pleasure upon each nerve

you walk and dance around me
your feet bare and sensual
your stride swift and gentle
your knees flirting with me
your eyes moist like fresh dew
shimmering desire from your face
with legs made eager to embrace

submitting, nature does begin
ten toes pointed, touching sky
as wildflowers awaiting evening lie
tumbling with the rushing wind
you flow in patterns beautiful
your stem arching to again revive
what is rooted, aching deep inside

basking in the light of sun
smiling and laughing without care
cool breezes playing with your hair
knowing what is cannot be undone
because man's desire to love more true
can grow beyond a passion natural
when fantasy realized unveils the actual

...continue reading...

The Murderers [joshua]

The men came into the William Penn at half past six and two sat down at the counter. One went to the bathroom.

“Why they got a hot dog on the sign?” said the one called Jim.

“Guess all they got's hot dogs,” said Cal.

“What can I get you?” asked the man behind the counter.

“Hot dogs I suppose,” said Cal.

“We're out.”

“You gotta be kidding.”

Paul, back from the bathroom, sat down next to Jim and said, “I'll take two hot dogs.” He was grinning.

The boys chuckled.

“We're out.”

“What's the matter?” Paul asked.

The man behind the counter didn't answer.

“I want two hot dogs.”

“We're out.”

“Now you listen to m-”

“Take it easy, Paul,” said Jim, “no reason to make a fuss now. Let's just get outta here anyway.”

“Hey, waiter, you got anything but hot dogs?” asked Jim.

“We got omelettes.”

“Oh you're a real smart one, aren't ya?” said Cal, “I'll tell you what, you make me and my boys here three omelettes with peppers and I won't do anything you'll regret.”

Paul snickered.

Jim glanced at the door nervously.

The three men wore short jackets made of black pieces of sticky leather all sewn together. All wore jeans. Each of them kept his left hand in his jacket pocket and wore second-hand shoes. Jim smoked a cigarette.

“Whadaya lookin' at?” Paul breathed at the small man on his right.

“Depends,” said the man.

“Oh you're a real smart one, aren't ya?” said Paul, “You better take a hike, jack.”

“What's on your shoe?” asked the small man.

Paul looked down at his shoe and then took the small man by the scruff of his neck and shoved him off his stool.

“Hey!” said the waiter, “I'm calling the cops.”

“No you're not”, growled Cal, slowly drawing a gun from his left jacket pocket, “Gimme the phone.”

The waiter slid the phone down the counter to where Cal could reach it. Cal raised his gun high in the air and brought it down on top of the receiver. He bashed it to pieces.

“Now go get our omelettes.”

The waiter hurried into the kitchen and returned with three omelettes hastily placing them in front of the men.

“Now lie down on the floor, all of you,” said Paul as he took his napkin and wiped the blood from his shoe.

The waiter laid down on the floor, as did the man next to Paul, and the couple at the window. Cal yelled for the cook.

A short, fat man scurried out of the kitchen with a confused look on his face.

“Lie down on the floor,” Cal told the cook.

Paul snickered.

Jim glanced at the door nervously.

The men started eating their omelettes.

“Why are you doing this?” asked the small man.

“Why are you doing this?” mimicked Paul.

The men snickered.

“Cause William Penn here ain't got no hot dogs,” said Cal, “and hot dogs is the reason we came in here. You got a problem with that?”

“Depends,” said the small man.

“I'm 'gittin sick of you,” said Cal.

“Let's get outta here,” said Jim.

“Okay Jim,” said Cal, “after you.”

Jim pushed his barely-touched omelette away from himself. He stood up and started for the door but tripped over the small man and hit his face on the small man's stool as he fell. Paul drew his gun and shot Jim in the back. The woman screamed. The small man cried out.

Paul and Cal snickered. They stood up and headed for the door.

“Bad day,” said Paul, shutting the door slowly so as to minimize the annoying jingle.

“Coulda been worse,” said Cal.

“Hehe, yeah,” said Paul, “they coulda been outta omelettes.”

The men chuckled.

...continue reading...

April 14, 2009

On Observing Wires Cross [amanda]

I hate my thoughts but they are what I have. They follow me to the grocery store, to history class, to the mall and to dinner. I know my mind has to be doing something with itself in order for me as a mental and physical person to live, but my thoughts are extra. They are an excess of natural disposition, an unwanted voice in conversation, a groping hand for the light switch in daylight.

An obsessive personality does not struggle with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; their obsession is not compulsive. I don’t wash my hands excessively and don’t mind picking candy up off the floor to plunk on my tongue. I don’t even arrange my M&M’s according to color.

I have often tried to discover the triggers for its mania because my obsessions are picky. Emotion triggers it here and there but only on occasion. Am I chemically imbalanced? Maybe once a month. Ideas come into my head and maybe that is where the obsession lies waiting even while I was a child, about nine or ten. My mother asked me why I set out to memorize all the mailbox numbers within a two-mile radius of our home and I told her it was so that when I grew up, I wouldn’t have to look in a rolodex for the house number of a friend, I’d already know where they lived. As the car whizzed down the road, my mind fired, 1049, 1051, 1053, 1057, 1063, 1065, 1067, 1069, etc., etc., etc. When I got a few years older and drove myself to high school, the obsession deepened into calculations. 1049. 1 plus 4 is 5, 5 plus 4 is 9, 1 plus 9 is 10, and I have room for the 0. If I add 1 to 9, then it’s 10 but if I minus 1 from 9 it’s 8 – which is better, 10 or 8? They’re both even, so if I add 2 to 9 it’s 11 and if I subtract 2 from 9 it’s 7. 11 is higher and 7 is lower, which is better the sky or the ground? I think the sky’s prettier, but if I didn’t have the ground, then what would I be driving on right now? The grass? But the grass is the ground, too. 1051. 1 plus 1 is 2 put that together with 5 and it’s 7 and then the 7’s match.

To this day I don’t like driving. The calculations are on a consistent basis, but I don’t count stairs or bathroom tiles and don’t add digital clock figures. In fact, I hate math altogether and hardly skidded through passing a basic Community College Mathematics class. The obsessions are finicky and entirely unpredictable. A mischievous child racked with boredom. For weeks, months, sometimes years, my mind is at rest until I in horror realize my eyes are stuttering and mind racing for an unintelligible, dead-end solution to a question I did not ask, but asks itself again, again, a thousand times like the stammering repetition of a skipping CD.

A few words or a single phrase from a movie iterates through my head. “Stop. Stop, please, stop.” The words of Scarlett O’Hara played by Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind when she ran outside her aunt’s house in Savannah, Georgia. A Confederate officer is galloping away, and Scarlett runs out and cries, “Stop! Stop, please, stop!” Of course, he stops, but my mind doesn’t, or it can’t, I don’t know which it is. I’ll hear the Southern-accented, high-pitched voice of Ms. Leigh shrieking out in my head as I take a shower, eat breakfast, try to read, go to the store with my brother, as if she’s play-acting on the TV-set in my head. Begins to sound like a musical score – flat, flat sharp flat. I could play my violin to it. Down-bow, down-bow up-bow down-bow. I have tried different methods to exorcise the obsession. Watch the scene, which doesn’t work so I’ll watch the entire movie, which doesn’t work either so I turn to reading a book or calling a friend or bury my head in a pillow, moaning, ‘God, take it away.’ After she has had her fun, her voice vanishes, entirely, ‘yes, we’re leaving you to the Yankees,’ and allows rest for my exhausted and ringing head.

Qualities in obsessive personalities frequently deceive both the onlookers and the personality in question. People praise, ‘you have such determination! I wish I had your passion. What makes you tick?’ For a long time I believed my swollen vanity, ‘It’s my genius, my natural talent for super-human capabilities. I have mastered the art of discipline.’ (Being awarded the senior superlative Biggest Slacker in high school roused me to the realization that my head was actually filled with aimless calculations and fiction characters rather than the War of 1812 or linear equations or necesito ayudar, por favor.) ‘Do you have A.D.H.D.?’ No, I prefer lectures and can sit calmly in a single position for hours. Besides, my personality is too relaxed to be hyper, not at two p.m. or at two a.m.

After a few years, I mused that it could, possibly, be used for a meaningful function. Could I not employ this vice for some sort of purpose? I thought I could, so in middle school, I started writing a fiction story and purposefully chose to keep writing it for nine years until the speedometer of my obsession pushed so hard that the all-terrain wheels starting losing their grip on the road. With red-rimmed eyes, I approached a friend and could hardly raise my head as I confessed, ‘I can’t stop writing the story.’ ‘What do you mean? I haven’t seen you writing a story.’ I was too exhausted to explain further than ‘it’s always in my head.’

Admitting that my mind has a screw loose is humiliating, degrading, lonely. I make fun of nature’s miscreations as much as the next person, but it is a different story when the sweating spotlight turns on me. All of a sudden, what I have tried to hide, what I have sought to stuff down into the pit of forgetfulness climbs out into the fresh, revealing air and inhales the shared oxygen of real living people. They are always surprised to see it. Do I hear voices? Other than Vivien Leigh every now and again, no. Do I see hallucinations? If I did, I probably would not be able to tell, but I don’t think so. My cousin and I tested the theory one afternoon – we were not entirely certain that the other person was real so I pinched his arm and he poked my shoulder and that was enough for us and we walked into the kitchen to share a pint of Perry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream. But I don’t ask the questions anyway, that is my counselor’s job. I have had four. The latest prognosis claimed that my mind is a giant movie-screen, and my wild imagination and editorial disposition finds the appeal too great to pass up and stories of inestimable fascination flash across the silver screen. My obsessions find a massaging satisfaction in watching the characters dance to a beat, sing to a tune, walk, talk, think, feel – anything they want, always in different ways and as many times as my obsession pleases. It is a balm to my frantic mind giving it something to hold on to while I work on my English homework or pray to God. Creating stories sooths the straining elastic tension into a calm, distracted hum.

Making peace with myself takes manipulation. After much trying and failure and tears, I have discovered a few methods to either ignore or redirect the rushing channel into a state of normalcy. With considerable effort I taught myself to snub the passing mailboxes and to slap my hand telling it that the stentorian crush on John or Kevin or Nathan is another useless game for the intellect, another endless challenge for the pride. Chastisement makes me listen to myself and in many ways repent of flailing in a near-intoxicated rout – but without close monitoring, again it picks up its feet and runs wild in frenzied disobedience. Frustration blinds me until I argue with myself for hours ‘Why that? How come? So what?’ and through slow persuasive reasoning, admit that I cannot answer back. The obsession loses its vim. I have worn it out. Then it disappears in unhappy surrender, and sometimes does not return and sometimes later and sometimes in its stubbornness refuses to leave at all. I will not always bow to reason because it needs more convincing, for an obsession is what it chooses to be.

Then comes the vital question, Is it getting worse? I don’t know. No formula I have employed ever manufactured a final reversal to the stubborn flow. Some obsessions I hardly recognize. The cares and duties of years waft them into a state of accepted normalcy. I forget that waking up at 4:30 a.m. from a recitation of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is odd or that upon closing my eyes I always see a stop sign at dusk, standing tall at an intersection by my home in upstate New York. But when the situation turns especially desperate, when sleep refuses to visit me because a short story weaves itself word by word in continuum throughout the night, I play music so that my hands will stop shaking or recite a Bible verse to lull my mind back into its metronomic pace. After all, little else gives me power than the virtues God sent to us – music and stories and time. An obsession likes time. Because I suppose deep down in its volatile instability, it wants finding out. I have not found it out. But I pray that I will.

And then, extinguishes.

...continue reading...

The Serpent [tony]

I am a tree; for that is what he has set upon my mind for me to be
For I have wandered too far from the valley
My eyes set upon something stirring in the brush

As this serpent slithers toward my direction
I do not stir, I don’t move a muscle
For I am terrified he might strike at me
So he comes closer

I act like I don’t notice him
Hoping he will slither by; knowingly, he senses my fear

So he slithers faster and faster
Like a carnivore after his prey
I can’t stop him, for I am only a tree

So he, with ease, invites himself onto my roots
And gradually gently wrapping his body around my trunk

And I can do nothing
I wait patiently for the wind to blow
But I have wandered too far from the valley

I am only a tree
I am only a tree
And this is a wandering serpent
Wanting to constrict its prey

Is there no other fate for me?
Must I be the prey?
For I have wandered too far from my valley
Is there no wind?

Is my fate to be constricted from this hideous serpent?
Is there no greater power?
Is there no stronger being?

It must be my choice
I chose to leave the valley
I chose to go where there is no wind

So this was all my choice
I have chosen to be constricted
By this serpent which I have placed upon myself
I have chosen to become helpless

...continue reading...

April 10, 2009

Cavern of Culture [liz]

I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon
But I live in a cavern of culture that divides East from West
The ground moves and beauty is upside down
I am surrounded by the beasts of misunderstanding
As each hour passes, my questions increase—why
Why spit, push, call me fat, lack compassion for the dying?
It may not be wrong
But I feel wronged
And so the canyon gets bigger
Like two lovers who forgot to share their hearts
Every word, gesture, and silence separates
I from one land, and you that other land
How do I make my peace?
I will never be you, nor you be me
But I want to see what makes our difference lovely

...continue reading...

Memory's Rags [d. jay]

Pablo was the first Filipino boy my age that I was friends with. I met him my second week in Cagayan De Oro when my dad, uncle Keith, and his son Greg (aunt and uncle is used for all missionary adults by missionary kids) took my family to see our new house in the far western part of the city down a long muddy road. Like all nicer houses in the Philippines our home was surrounded by a large concrete wall with shards of glass protruding out of the top to ward off thieves and Muslim extremist kidnappers. Squatting against the outside of the wall at the far end of our plot were two young boys about my age. Like most of the children I had seen in Cagayan they were dressed in rags and wearing thong sandals worn as thin as cardboard.

From the moment I saw Pablo I knew that I wanted him to like me. Having had no cross cultural experience, and knowing no Cebuano (the dialect spoken in Cagayan) I had no idea how to initiate contact. I looked over and nudged Greg (uncle Keith’s son who had grown up in Indonesia and the Philippines) and pointed out the two boys to him.

Greg grunted his acknowledgment and understanding. Turning to me he pulled a peso coin out of his pocket and told me to throw it at them. Trusting in Greg’s superior grasp of the situation I took the coin from him and flung it towards the boys, who had not stopped staring at us from the moment of our arrival. The boys started laughing, picked up the coin and ran off towards their homes.

From that magic moment onward, until I hit 7th grade, Pablo and I were inseparable. We did everything we could together. He taught me how to spear fish, kill chickens with my hands, steal mangoes, and millions of native games played with rocks, string, and sticks. I gave him basketball cards, taught him English, and brought him home for dinner every night.

In the middle of my 7th grade year my family moved to another neighborhood across the city. The last several months before we moved Pablo acted strangely, but I equated his behavior to our upcoming move. He didn’t stay for dinner as much and was much more moody than usual. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the move myself, so his testiness got under my skin quickly.

After we moved to the new house Pablo visited sporadically and then decreasingly over time. His family lived in a crude hut made of rotten planks of scrap wood with a roof of woven palm leaves. They didn’t have a phone, so communication was limited to Pablo’s surprise visits. Eventually our friendship faded to all but a memory.

The neighborhood we moved into was a bmx biker’s sweet dream land. For my birthday that fall my parents bought me the nicest bike I had ever seen. I spent as much time as I could riding through the streets and park of the neighborhood with my friends. One Saturday morning I walked out of my house to a shed in the back where I stored my bike. I opened the door but my bike was missing. I searched all over my yard and called my friends to see if I had left it at one of their houses. No one could find the bike but I had a vivid memory of putting it away for the night the evening before.

Several weeks after my bike went missing I came home and found my parents deep in conversation with a red eyed Pablo. My dad asked me to give them a few more minutes with Pablo alone and then he would call me back. As soon as the words came out of my dad’s mouth I knew what had happened.

After ten minutes of hell my parents called me back into the room and then quickly left. Pablo stared at the ground for a few minutes of silence. After the long silence he spilled out a confession of stealing my bike and selling it. He also confessed to stealing several hundred dollars from my parents.

One of the fiercest internal wars that I have ever experienced exploded in my chest. I wanted to kill him, I wanted to strangle his pathetic body to death. I wanted to hug him and tell him that I loved him. I had shared everything with him for four years. I would have given the bike to him if he would have asked for it.

Neither one of us had dared to look the other in the eye up till this point. I lifted my eyes and gazed into his. His eyes remained on my feet. I told him that I loved him and that I forgave him. He mumbled a thanks and left the house as quickly as he could. I never saw my friend again.

There are two things that I learned to love in the Philippines, basketball and guitar. Basketball is by far the most popular sport in the Philippines and nine out of ten Filipinos play guitar. After that I didn’t play an organized game of basketball for over five years. When my family moved back to St. Louis halfway through high school I smashed my Filipino hand made guitar on a pine tree.

Last year my mom went back to the Philippines for several weeks and asked if she could get me anything. I asked her to get me another native guitar. I have always regretted my burst of rage. My mom is not a musician and doesn’t understand the importance of the woods used in making guitars. She bought me a beautiful, but thin and weak, wooded guitar that dried out as soon as it left the tropics. The first time I played it a crack ripped through the face of the body.

I forgave Pablo and I still love him and our memories. Pablo is not the only reason I withdrew from the native culture but when our friendship broke I broke off my relationship with the land. I attended an international boarding school on a different island starting the next year for the rest of the time I lived in the Philippines.

Last year my fiancĂ© Julie also bought me a guitar, a nicer guitar than I’ve ever had. It has not been smashed, or cracked, and plays beautifully. My friend Jay started dragging me out of bed at 5:00 am every Friday morning to play basketball with him and friends. I look forward to playing all week.

I’m learning to love the people, land, and culture of the Philippines again. I want to take Julie to those beautiful islands soon and share the wonder of their jungles and people with her. Maybe next summer we will be able to go.

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April 7, 2009

Spring [teddi]

Why do we believe that spring shall come?
Because it is what we are told?
Or because it always has?
Or because we feel like it will?
What if spring forgot to make its stop,
missed the flight,
forgot the date,
came a little too late.
What if it never showed?

Winter is basking in its glory,
in chapped hands and street side snow.
It is stagnant, static, constant
and it provokes:
"If spring never comes,
you will get used to Me.
Eventually you will cease to want to feel
the sunshine on your skin or the taste of
berries on your tongue or the breeze in your hair.
You will no longer care,
You will settle into Me like a pillow,
Resignation cradling you,
and I will be all you know."

We do not know when and we do not know how
but we trust:
that just as we inhale to breathe,
or chew to swallow,
or close our eyes to enter sleep,
so will spring proceed winter.
We've seen it happened before and we will see it again:

Her birthing from the ground,
raining from the sky, dancing in the song of the birds.
She is brilliant, she is beauty, she is nature's metaphor of hope.

And She is on her way.

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Healing [rachel]

The floor was hard, painful to my knees. I thought fleetingly of the dirt, the germs that must find their way onto the tile in hospital bathrooms. But I knew that I needed to be there, kneeling, tears coming, face contorted in concentration and yearning. “God, heal her. God, just please, in the name of Jesus, heal her.” I knew He heard me. He is so good.

Standing, anxiously opening the door with the sleeve of my shirt, walking briskly down the hallway, I approached the room feeling a mixture of nervous anticipation and fear. The doctor was there, white coat, pens in the pocket, my mother’s file in his hand. “She’s out of danger. Her heart rate is normal, and she didn’t have a heart attack. We’ll keep her overnight just to be safe.”

Maintaining a timeline is nearly impossible. I think that hospital visit, the three day two night stay in Reading, happened in Winter 2007, but I can’t be certain. I know that her cancer surgery was some time before that. I remember the Christmas prior, the melancholy mood, our attempts to produce cheer, the sinking feeling that something wasn’t quite right. And I know that in some place at some time, maybe in another world, Mom took long walks, went on day-long shopping sprees, even bought an old bicycle. Once we started making daily trips to Ephrata for chemotherapy, I was convinced that our afternoons at the park, our day trips, our late TV nights were over. In fact, I was sure more than that was over. Does joy make an appearance in cancer clinics and hospitals?

Soon the long car rides, the hours spent in the infusion room, the chats with patients became the norm. My mother’s stubbornness and her will to live proved strong. This was a woman unwilling to give up. She didn’t, however, always employ the stubbornness in the most helpful way. Only days into the treatments, she refused to let anyone access her port (a healthier alternative to daily IVs) because it caused her so much pain. Nurse Judy was the only one with the right combination of tact, gusto, and cheeriness to convince my headstrong parent that accessing her port was a necessary part of chemo treatments. I scrunched up my face in pain, waiting for the cry, the shout, the “No, no! It hurts.” Such a strange mixture of relief and disappointment flooded into me once the needle was in and the chemo was pumping. I never wanted her to feel pain. I had tried so hard for so long, since before I’d entered middle school, to shield her from hurt, disappointment, and rejection. Watching her walk through cancer was my worst nightmare. Not only did it threaten to take my mother from me, but it became an unstoppable current of pain, one against which I, though I wouldn’t admit it, was powerless.

While the chemicals attacked the cancer, eating at a faster rate than the disease could grow, things started to change inside me. I remember one day in particular. The feelings are vivid. The day in question marked the first time Mom experienced no pain when Nurse Judy pressed the sizable needle into the skin just below her collar bone. The degree of relief and joy, yes joy, that flooded my heart was surprising. It had somehow seeped through the glass doors, the brick walls, the waiting rooms, the laboratories into the infusion room, into me, into my mother. I even laughed.

A year later, last summer I think, Mom and I sat down to talk about the experiences of the previous few months. I heard, almost in disbelief, as she admitted, “Last year at this time, I felt so dark and empty inside. This year there’s hope, joy, light.” Her spirit was shifting, growing, illuminating.

I went to Mexico the summer following Mom’s diagnosis and the summer after that. For a week each time, I helped lead mission teams of junior high youth. The first plane flight felt like heaven. As the airplane lifted off the ground, the stress, released from the gravity that bound it to my shoulders, floated upwards and away. Cancer didn’t dog my steps in Reynosa. The second summer, though, it was more than present. The threat of its return, even after all the treatments and the surgery, was looming.

That second summer all 40 of us, leaders and youth, helped build a church in Matamoras, a border town. On the final day we gathered in the structure, laid hands on the congregation members and the walls and joists, and prayed a blessing on the people and the place. Then Pastor Jesus started to speak, Ivan translating: “God woke me up this morning. He told me I needed to pray for someone from the team. I didn’t know who it was, but now I know. It’s Rachel and her mother who is suffering from cancer.” And with that the hands of my teammates and our new Mexican friends found me. Over forty voices, in Spanish and English, spoke on our behalf, spoke healing for my mother, asked God, pleaded with God, declared in faith that this woman would be healed. The sweat and the tears mingled on my face. I felt hope. Sweat, tears, hope. I felt overwhelmed. I remembered the hard bathroom floor, the pleading, the sight of the doctor in the white coat. I knew God was hearing. He is so good.

But the cancer did come back. In fact, I found out shortly after that last trip to Mexico. Where is the goodness? What is healing? I started questioning then, and I’m still asking now after the third round of chemo, the latest hospital visit, the endless medications. The answers are just beginning to come.

Just this year at the end of February, a light bulb illuminated the dark places in me that were questioning whether God was even good at all. Mom had been having trouble eating and drinking because of the chemotherapy. She became dehydrated, so dehydrated that her organs were starting to malfunction. I met her and the rest of the family at the hospital. I heard her refuse to even wear a hospital gown, refuse an IV, refuse the liquid that would restore her strength, her very life. At first I thought, maybe she’s done. Maybe she wants to go home, not just to Stouchsburg, but to Jesus. And then, slowly, an understanding dawned. I remembered Nurse Judy. I remembered the pained expression on Mom’s face before the needle even touched her skin. She didn’t want to hurt anymore. She wanted to live; she wanted healing, but she didn’t want the pain.

When she finally did accept treatment later that night, the liquid dripped into her body one tiny tear-shaped drop at a time. Over the course of the next four days, her organs began to function well and her appetite started to return. She chose the pain, and in doing so, she chose the healing.

I didn’t want to write about this, any of this. Somehow it makes the whole set of experiences more real. I never wanted the hospital visits, the cancer clinic episodes, the doubt, the fear, and the worry in my heart to see the light of day. I wanted to live, to heal, but I didn’t want the pain.

I came home from a hospital visit that week Mom was treated for dehydration, feeling such a strong mixture of anger, disappointment, outrage, and fear that my face had no way of hiding it. The hospital was keeping Mom longer than they’d initially thought necessary. I shared the day’s experiences with a friend, shared them through gritted teeth. Realizing I hadn’t been thanking God, I started to list evidences of His goodness—my cousin Sheri was one of Mom’s nurses, Mom was no longer experiencing such strong pain, the dehydration was rapidly reversing. Perspective stepped in and my friend spoke: Stop listing. The list is a limitation. That whole day, that whole week—God was good. God is good—in the hospital, at home, in pain, in happiness, in needles, in white sheets, in cancer, in blood, in water, in joy. Blood, water, joy: Jesus healing, interceding. I know a light inside. My mother knows a light inside. I know God hears me. God is so good.

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