Do It For Love

“So one can talk and write of love. People still want to believe in that even when they are all but convinced it is an illusion.”

Dorothy Day

Christ died for love, not an idea, writes Dorothy Day, but most people no longer believe in Christ as God. Christ has been reduced to idea: the idea of higher Love.

Meanwhile, those of who hold to His Mystery mumble prayers to Him even as we concede to use the lower language: love as the Noble Idea because, as Day writes, it is hard to talk about God if your listener does not believe in Him. At the end of my sister’s life, she became one of these people.

A Parable, Forgive Me

I’m still rummaging through my memories and my grief over Naomi.

ASIDE, HERE: I’m totally ripping off Nora McInerny’s TED Talk to justify this return to events previously blogged about but I retain my right to do this because “We don’t move on from death. We move forward through it.” BTW, she has a TED talk which I know will be great. I haven’t viewed it, but listening to her podcast Terrible, Thanks For Asking, has been therapy for me. It’s better than getting my nails done. Thank your or you’re welcome, TTFA and Nora. Love you. And for good measure, because I’m from the Midwest, Sorry.

I suppose I made Naomi’s death a bigger bomb by strapping her to me right after her diagnosis. I chose to make her the focus of my MFA thesis project, interviewing her frequently, increasing our time together and then confiding as much as interviewing. Then I agreed to help her have a green burial. And, the bi-state living I did for the last few weeks of her life. I lived mostly in Maryland through September and October, far from my beloved husband and my children, and working from my parents’ house so I could mutter at her when she putzed into the kitchen. I’d mutter at her while she reheated soup that she didn’t eat it.

“Are you excited about the release of Stranger Things season two? Should we re-watch Season one?”I asked while grading exams. But I knew the answer. She’d stopped watching TV. The sound hurt too much. Then, her husband, our siblings, watched the first episodes while she slept in her chair, dehydrated, mostly asleep, the smell of stale phlegm filling the room and the sound of her clearing her cannula overwhelming our sensations.

I have not moved on. File your complaints with the complaints department in room…. (indistinct voices). I am moving through. I am changed. I am having epiphanies about life and death and God and faith and stuff. Neuroscience says the memory cycles and rewires with each regurgitation. It makes new meanings. I’m reassured because I live the seasons of a liturgical religious cycle where this is valued. In the Church there’s an official season that returns us to life, death and the meaning of our actions. It’s Lent. And in it, thoughts get real, y’all.

Like, I realized that I end up praying for her more informally than formally. We have these services called Soul Saturday liturgies. I’ve missed them all. We are supposed to show up and remember our beloved dead. I let my husband, the priest, whisper her name. In place of that, I pray other services alone, while running or riding my bike, exercising or exorcising myself.

On the first anniversary of her death, I invited all my coolest friends to a party and bombed them with a prayer service. Heck it was also my birthday, and she would want me to wallow only for a few minutes, giving her credit for her awesome effects here and there, then go on being inspired by her ethos of joy.

So, my prayers are my punch in the face to the painful flashbacks, like a surprise cube camera flash to the eyes. Like this memory, this parable of a memory of her final days.

She jabbed weakly at the plaid fleece throw on her lap just days before she died. She was trying to talk, which required blocking her cannula while gesticulating.

“I’m trying… my life, like the parts of ….” she pointed at the brown on the plaid lap fleece “dark and light, trying,…” long breaths breaths and hacking between “to find my way to this light.”

Right as it happened I thought, this is a God moment. I wrote about it shortly after it happened. I interpreted it one way. I’ve heard my mother explain it another since, but I recall my father, mother and me at her knees like suppliants to her and God, whispering prayers for a girl who said:

  • It’s easier not to think about God and guilt and the church.
  • I don’t believe in God anymore, but I respect that He’s important to your life. He’s part of our family culture.

My breath snags at that memory. I lose my spiritual certainty on this God, heaven, hell, love thing. I conjure another memory where told her about a night of jaggy weeping for the future souls of her and our siblings. God forgive them should they ever lose their faith. It’s what kept me awake at night when I was sixteen, I said. What kept her awake at night was us dying young. When I try God on this, in response to readings, in Confession, in prayer, I find a pretty systematic answer.

God is Love.

For Lent, I picked up a published set of talks that Metropolitan (fancy title for one of the Bishops over a region in the Orthodox Clerical hierarchy) Anthony Bloom. Tonight I read the chapter about the nature of damnation in the book entitled Churchianity vs. Christianity. The Judgment is real to be sure, writes Bloom, but that’s in his third point.

I’m getting ahead of myself because it goes the first point I would present about my sister. She knew love. I think she knew love, then she got lost from the source of it because of disease. Disease shows up like a physical manifestation of the spiritual crisis: the co-existence of good and bad that leads to death while hiking through the valley of misery. Some of my **favorite** (sarcasm voice here) are long-acting diseases like cancer, NMO, MS, Lupus, Parkinson’s, dementia, and Alzheimer’s especially because they twist parts of one’s self into its own enemy.

Disease is the living experience of death. It’s the one we live to tell about. No wonder we want to end it early. No wonder some want nothingness afterwards. And no wonder we make heroes of those who somehow hang onto their humanity, showing what humor and love they can, like my sister did. It’s makes a lot sense since disease is stealing the energy of love, which is life, one cell at a time. It steals energy from self-care, keeping up with a heart bursting with love for your children/partner/friends/family. Yup, who has time for the Ineffable when the physical now seems like a mystery or less than real? Only pain is real.

But back to my sister’s essence and the Great Judgment

In the parable of the Great Judgment, writes Bloom, the first judgment that confronts us is “the vision of who we are.” Have we been “simply human,” in the simplest sense of mercy, compassion, charity? First this, before communion with God.

Proof

At her funeral in Michigan, one of our cousin’s outed Naomi on a good deed she’d kept from us. – I knew she was good at secrets because she said she never wanted me to read her cancer reddits. And, I still haven’t found them.- My cousin had called Naomi some years before when she lived near Detroit. A friend of his was about to be released from prison. If the friend didn’t get picked up and given money for a bus ticket to Ohio, she’d fall back into the old incarceration cycle. Naomi put the money on the credit card. **Side note: When Naomi died, she and her husband had tens of thousands of debt in college loans, crappy cars, medical bills, and her absurd belief that eventually they’d land decent jobs. They’d pay it off by the time they died, she figured BC, that is, before cancer. Naomi gave love.

But about that parable, the counter narrative…

Her husband doesn’t want that plaid blanket, light/dark vignette transformed into legend. No mystery. No spiritualizing the hallucinations of a dehydrating woman on a pain pump. I get that. What can we know about the coherence of the human psyche at the end? Yet I can’t help but think her intellect and spirit were too powerful to give in until she was comatose. I know he wants her final memory to be one of the sister who allied with him in a firm rejection of the idea of God. “What kind of God (fill in the blank)?” ask all manner of intelligent, good people like him.

Yet, here is where I choke. Because Naomi was good, yet she chose to reject the idea of God as love. She wanted love without God. Love that is pure materialism. But what is that? I am too much a mystic to know that. I’m stuck with the fact that there is only one way to out of God is Love. It’s to reject God. Lots of folks do, while hanging onto an idea that dies with each of them. An idea that becomes Noblesse Oblige, a gift from the privileged to the other. A bit paternalistic or bougie, when removed from the Mystery of the eternal. But that’s just my opinion. But in my worldview, we then have to ask a harder question.

What is the nature of damnation?

Met. Anthony Bloom tackled that procedurally.

First, that God is love. God did everything out of love. The law of God is love. Out of love and communion God created all things.

Second, damnation comes with the metaphor of the judicial system, i.e. judgment, comes with some imprecision and incompleteness. Ah, the nature of the metaphor is to circle the elephant and try to define a large thing by comparisons to parts. He points out that of the courts we know this: there is the lawmaking and there is the law judging. The judges are not those who make the law but who execute it.

I teach Karel Capek’s “The Last Judgment” to my 10th graders. I hope the story haunts them as it does me. It’s about a killer, a man guilty of 19 murders, who finds himself on trial in Heaven before a panel of cynical judges who dread and despise the one and only witness ever called to defend all the accused. The witness is God. He always blathers on about hidden motives and mitigating circumstances: the childhood abuse, the life of emotional damage, the needs, the hard edge, the muted conscience, the slow bleeding out of humanity because no one gave thought to love, or forgive or reach out to the person. They are the judges who execute but do not make the law.

Where does the law come from?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa said in doctrinal terms what Capek hopes for, what I hope for: “it is impossible that the God whom he knew as God of triumphant love, of exulting life, should ultimately reject and condemn his people– the people whom he had created, loved into existence, to whom he had revealed the depth of creation, the depth of their souls, and even his own presence and depth” (Bloom 55). But here’s the trouble. The church needed to call out Nyssa on this. They rejected it because it doesn’t square with the entirety of Scripture, yet they validated some of it. God is love. Who the rejector is, that is the issue. The rejection lay on the terms Saint Gregory of Nyssa set, writes Bloom. A God of love cannot reject anyone, but we can reject God.

It is not enough to be loved, it is not enough to be forgiven, it not enough to be offered any gift: we must accept and receive forgiveness and mercy. Met. Anthony Bloom

So the judges in Capek’s story condemn the killer. He asks the witness, God, why he is not the judge. Because he created the man and knows his heart and all that happened to him, replies God.

Third, death is not the finale. The bell tolls, to be sure, but a human’s body and soul, though separated at death, do not end a human’s mark. Yes, our actions in this life cease, but the good and the bad we did remains a force.

Do It For Love

Did Naomi do it for love? What did she do for love? What kind of love?

For love, did she seek to make sense of the light parts of her life, even when it was too tiring to tremble before the fearsome version of a God who is the ether of modern Christianity? Am I reading into her too much to think she confused him with the law itself? That law is a force of nature, like a law of spiritual dynamics. It came into being when man and God were separated. The law of spiritual dynamics says that darkness and light are real, that we are separated from light, the Creator of light, that the principle of death can only be overcome if we commune with our Creator. We need rejoined. I like to tell myself that she wanted rejoined. In the end, maybe she saw the Creator in the only way she could see Him.

I write this for love.

For my sister, for whom I will whisper prayers all my days. For myself. (Lord bear witness: I’ve done terrible things, like kneel down and hurt myself in front of my kids in a cycle of deep depression.) For my friends with horrible diseases who just trying to put one day after another. For those who don’t want to hear me talk about God while I prattle on believing there is a hidden longing in them for communion, for the fullness of Love (God. That’s God, if you didn’t catch on earlier).

Post Script

I don’t do love well. Maybe if God looks down and sees me (the self-harmer) who selfishly wants herself and all her favorite people in a wonderful communion with peace light joy and, well, God. Then He will look on the times when I didn’t give up wine for Lent, didn’t go live with the poor when every instinct in me says I should do it now or I will keep getting too comfortable with my stuff (aka why I read Dorothy Day), when I hawk my words for a vacation in Ireland instead for others. Maybe God will look down on me and say, still, Maria, I love you. Maybe I won’t be good enough but His love will be.

This is America

Thanks to the Grammys for giving “This is America” space.

Last  year what dominated my imagination:

  1. Music: Sarah Valor Groce sharing that her kids loved Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and Redbone, which I was spinning as we parked for…
  2. Black Panther. Wakanda Forever.
  3. Speaking of movies- BlackKlansman.
  4. Ladybird, Eighth Grade, Patterson, The Ghost
  5. TV:-Atlanta Season 2 especially but also Queen Sugar (while doing my boga — bogus yoga because I don’t meditate.) and finally, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
  6. Podcast Episode- pretty much all of Revisionist History again and Radio lab, especially More Perfect Episode “Sex Appeal.” and my new fave The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green.
  7. Back to music: Kendrick Lamar and Lin Manuel Miranda because DNA and Immigrants
  8. Specials- Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.
  9. Books: A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk, A Tale of Two Americas collection, Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, The Hate U Give (movie is just as good), Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  10. Pretty much every episode of Terrible, Thanks for Asking, which is amazing because This American Life (this year is still my fave with Code Switch being a close second.

Honorable Mentions to Caleb Wilde for Confessions of a Funeral Director, Michelle Wolf for the White House Correspondents Dinner, Trevor Noah book and The Daily Show, This is Us, The Good Place, Victoria on the BBC, discovering the poet Chen Chen via The Slowdown podcast, Jim Gaffigan for keeping me laughing, Joel David Weir for the local scene, good beer locally with a dream for good wine someday and Old 55 Distillery. And a trip to St. Augustine which an amazing historic town.

And John Prine at the Grand Ole Opry for New Years, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and Rhiannon Giddens.

The Winchester I: Inspiring Brewmasters

This new series on my blog will be reviews of local dives, joints, restaurants that I frequent with my partner, my friends, or are owned by friends. I pitched a column about reviewing beer joints to some Indianapolis publications, but never heard back. Too bad for them. Here’s my pitch to kick this off.

 

     My husband thinks he can inspire our friend Chris McGarvey, the latest brewmaster at Front Street Brewery in North Carolina, to brew a new hefe by a snappy name. He’s convinced “Cof-hefe” dictates the flavor of the Hefeweizen he’s imagining, a traditional hefe with a hint of coffee. Like Covfefe, only beerish. (Like bearish or bullish terms for the markets, only a beer pun.) 

     He makes this pitch to Chris gesticulating at a line of empty snifters in front of him. We’ve been here a minute. Busy with a brewing issue, then running to pick up his wife, Chris just sat down across from us. He’s as eager for us to meet the love of his life as he is to share his recent success, becoming the brewmaster at Front Street Brewery after winning a contest. He introduces her as a literature professor, know that I share her love of writing and literature. Chris and my husband soon start talking of seminary and beer. They wear the goofy grins of nerdy bros just reunited after a few years. My husband is all beard and pony-tail, something of a hipster looking minister. Chris is barely younger looks like a teenager, short curly hair, a big grin, part math geek, part bookish.

     In minutes, Chris too hitches an elbow on the tabletop and rests his chin in it.  He’s already quizzed us about which of the eight brews on tap we’ve tasted. We tried all but his raspberry wheat. What we wanted to try , the Tomb Rocker, one of McGarvey’s first home-brews from his years in Chicago, is tapped out. We tasted it over eight years before, when craft-brewing was a science for a few. Nowadays, craft breweries are reviving small towns, like our home-base of 15,000 people back in Indiana.  Chris is helping Front Street make a name for itself and helping the quaint East Coast downtown feel like a destination. We know that our favorite, Tomb Rocker, will someday rock him some awards.  He tells us about the recipe’s evolution from the 2006 Glenfiddich Tomb Rocker  to the sold vintage of this year, when his priest came to bless the batch. Front Street tapped it on Eastern Orthodox Easter and ran out before the religious holiday of Pentecost, forty days later. When my husband says he wished he could have been in the South to taste it, Chris grins. He may be able to scare up a bottle for old friends. Then he offers to take us on the secret tour.

      On our way out the front door, he hands us each a snifter then snakes us outside and down the alley next door. Wasps buzz around our ankles as we wait for him to unlock a battered door in the back of the brewery restaurant.

     “Few of the waitstaff know this is here,” he says as he leads us into a small, cold room with six bourbon barrels aging his test batches. He pulls a nail from a barrel and lets a dark golden stream pour into each of our glasses. This batch is 43% rye, a rarity, he explains. It requires him to strain it several times because at 20% or higher, rye gums up the machinery. We swirl it and sniff. It smells of its two other key ingredients, molasses and caraway. In my mouth it’s chewy, like a Russian bread he’s describing. The bread inspired him to put together the ingredients. It’s rich and caramel thick. It’s one of the best brews I’ve had in a while.

     “I call it “Napoleon Ryenamite,” he chuckles. 

    “You know,” my husband says. “You should name one Soren Beerkagaard.” The two former seminarians laugh at the shared joke. Then they start discussing that it’ll be an existential beer. Whatever that tastes like.

The missing prayer of my Kadish, the Third Kneeling Prayer of Pentecost

This year my grief hit lows I never believed possible outside of Hades. I hit obstinate walls of emotional distance, even an unseemly, persistent unforgiveness, which haunted my dreams. Fr. Stephen Freeman’s podcast this week sent me back to the 3rd Kneeling Prayer of Pentecost. Had I only prayed this over and over last year. I will pray it now and will pray it. It is my Dadish for this year. To listen to the podcast that reminded me of my need to pray it, listen here.

Will You, then, Master, accept our prayers and entreaties, and give rest to everyone’s fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters and children, or of the same family or people, and all the souls that have gone before to their rest in the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life. And place their spirits and their names in the book of life, the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the land of the living, in the kingdom of the heavens, in the bliss of Paradise, Your angels of light leading all into Your holy mansions. And on the day You have ordained, raise up our bodies as well according to Your unfailing promises. In departing our bodies to dwell in You our God, there is no death for Your servants Lord, but rather a change from the more sorrowful to the better and more pleasing, to rest, to joy.

And if we have in any way sinned against You, be merciful to them and to us; for no man is free of stain in Your sight though he live but a day. Only You, Who came sinless to earth, our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom we all hope to find mercy and remission of sins.

Thus as good and loving God, remit and forgive them and us our failings, whether witting or unwitting, committed in knowledge or ignorance, intentionally or unaware, in deed or in thought, in word, in all goings about. Both to those who have gone before and to us who await, give release and repose, granting us and all Your people a good and peaceful end, opening up to us Your heart of love and mercy at Your terrible and awesome Coming and judging us worthy of Your kingdom

Stanislaw Lem and Yelling at God

When I realized my sister Naomi would die denying God. I fell into despondency. I thought she and I too much alike for this. She’d been a kind of intellectual twin to me, a mini-me but better, smarter, snappier, happier. That is until cancer. Until disbelief became unbelief, not just among friends but then family.

The Christmas nearly two years before she died, we began documenting her end-of-life plans. The scene was a dark room, full of young children, absorbed in their Disney, while we whispered our way through questions on Everplans.8e750187f3c0b07d2593bd44e3d43113

“What kind of service do you want?” I whispered at her.

“It doesn’t matter. I mean, what you guys need.”

“Not a faith service?”

“I don’t really have faith anymore.”

I chose not to unpack it that night. No more questions. It already hurt too much, the cancer, the failed rectal reconstruction, the wasting away, the auric headaches and dehydration, her sense of doom.

She lived another two years. Most of those not actively dying. We several times a month and one night I told about my year of weeping, as a 16-year old afraid for my siblings souls. We headbutted over faith in those last years. The way I saw it, she, along with so many friends and family, were giving up God. \

She died without regaining faith. Her loss of faith and my clinging to it are partially about the difference that we held on time and existence at the end of her life. I believe it goes on. She thought she entered nothingness. If it goes on, its hard to think how we will connect again in eternity. For the past year I’ve been fighting the brutal takeover of despondency about this.

St. John Climacus says that despondency is, among other things, “a neglect of asceticism.” During my husband’s years at seminary, I worked to develop a quiet soul through asceticism: reduced caloric intake, vigorous exercise, morning and evening prayers, steep limits on alcohol and sugar and sleep. But in this past year I’ve indulged my whims, my grief. My morning prayers have shrunk; my evening prayers evaporated. I began drinking hard liquor and to an extreme. I took in many more calories than needed. I began to crave dreams. I ended up this year having restored all the horrible habits of my youth, eating, sleeping, worrying, despairing, controlling. My body and appetites have become unmanageable again.

A few months ago probably fueled by overindulgence, I fell asleep after an hour or more of raging at God. I anguished. I yelled. I bit my pillow. I bit God, metaphorically. That is, unless what one imagines she does with her body has spiritual force. I can’t recall what I said, only that I woke with salt in my eyes, the kind that lasts for days, and a wounded soul. I knew I’d crossed the line. It is time to reckon with my despondency. It is time to respond, as Dr Nicole Roccas writes about in her book Time and Despondency.

It is time to stop pummeling God with my fists. After all, I remind myself, Most people have survived and lost more of value than I have had in all my 43 years. I live in a first-world nation. In most of the world, women lose many of their children. People are widowed young. They have few of the “comfort” items I have: food, a good bed, alcohol, any other indulgence I could procure if I wanted, therapy, vacation days to take when it’s too much. They have more illness, loss and difficulty than me, but most have more resiliency. I have to reckon with the question: What right have I to yell at God?

I’m wrestling with how to respond, how to think of God, after my sister died. I am wrestling through literature, because literature speaks to me. As I continue through my “Read Through the Bible in a Year” I have come again to Judith and Job. Again, they remind me of the thematic ambiguity of  Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. 

How can we know God when we don’t know ourselves? Humankind cannot plumb its own psyche. How can it claim to understand God enough to spew out or eschew the Divine or hate God for not being what we think God out to be?

Judith, a widow about to go out and seduce the Persian general Holofernes, goes first to her king and people, who despair of God and rescue. She says to them what Job ends up concluding after God speaks out to him and his friends.

Judith 8

12 What right do you have to put God to the test as you have done today? Who are you to put yourselves in God’s place in dealing with human affairs? 13 It is the Lord Almighty that you are putting to the test! Will you never learn? 14 There is no way that you can understand what is in the depths of a human heart or find out what a person is thinking. Yet you dare to read God’s mind and interpret his thoughts! How can you claim to understand God, the Creator? No, my friends, you must stop arousing the anger of the Lord our God! 15 If he decides not to come to our aid within five days, he still may rescue us at any time he chooses. Or he may let our enemies destroy us. 16 But you must not lay down conditions for the Lord our God! Do you think that he is like one of us? Do you think you can bargain with him or force him to make a decision? 17 No! Instead, we should ask God for his help and wait patiently for him to rescue us. If he wants to, he will answer our cry for help.

In many ways, I think Judith distills most of the book of Job into a few short sentences. Be humble before what you cannot understand. Neither Judith, nor Job nor any human is the Creator. Job is wiser than his friends for holding onto his clear conscience but when he objects to his fate and God answers Job saying what do you know, in your finite being, Job repents. (I would love to read a good deep Jewish commentary on Job because I suspect not every word out of Job’s three friends lips are blasphemy. Instead, they puff themselves up as wiser than they are.) Judith’s words bother me in the same way the books of Job and Ecclesiastes do. They seem to say “when it comes to God, human, you are not going to get it. Admit it. Don’t curse what you cannot understand.”

And we humans have ourselves as the first example of what we cannot understand, which is why I think of Lem’s book Solaris. The premise of Solaris is that humanity has conquered space travel and found the first “living” planet. Believing themselves wiser and more progressive than they are, they come to study the planet. What happens as they study is that the planet turns out to be wild, something they cannot understand or control. It manifests their human desires and fears. It is a mirror but faced with the mirrored image of themselves, the humans cannot make meaning of what they are being shown about themselves. I love the following passage. I leave it for you to wrestle with along with me.

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don’t like it anymore.”
― Stanisław Lem, Solaris

 

On the Table

What do you think about when you strip to your tighty-whities, lay face down on the table, and wait? Do you think about when in the rotation of penny whistle covers you will hear “Danny Boy” or Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”?

I think the following:

I shouldn’t think.

I could pray.

I hope my nose doesn’t drip.

Is it okay to tell her that’s not enough pressure, that I want the crap beat out of me?

I can hear my husband breathing- this is a couple’s massage- Is his therapist applying the right pressure?

They are whispering in an Asian language.

Are they skinny? Mine is strong. She sounds older.

Are they Chinese like the woman who took my appointment and checked us in?

Is that woman Chinese or am I assuming?

Are these legal immigrants? Are they safe? Are they paid fairly? Are they working here of their own volition? Is this an industry where people are trafficked? Do they like their jobs?

Do men who come alone expect happy endings?

That review on Groupon  “No happy endings but good massage anyway”-  made me feel icky.

She is sitting on the edge of the bench. She is gripping and loosening her hands up and down my biceps and forearms, my hand jelly in her grip. It brushes her. Does a sick, predator of a male make his move here? Does she wonder if a person will make a move? Does she have recourse?

Where does she live? Does she have an apartment and friends to hang out with on her days off? Does she share a tiny space with too many other people? You know, like my Hispanic neighbors?

Why do these places ask you to book without Groupon the next time? They say, “Book with us. We give you same price. Not Groupon next time.”

She is strong. She will leave my muscles sore. I love her right now. What is more than a twenty-percent tip?

Tomorrow I will wake up and run another dozen miles by sunrise. I will be sore again. I need massages every three months.

What does she and her fellow therapist think of American bodies? Mine used to be yoga-stringy and hard.

Since my sister died last year, I’ve been eating and drinking too much, sleeping eight to ten hours a night. I’ve added a layer of doughiness.

I am ashamed of my body now.

Does she think Americans are fat? Or hairy? I forgot to shave. My legs have the tiniest prickle of hairs.

Does she shave? What would she think of my husband’s growing hairy-ness?

Why do I sleep so many more hours? Is that part of what makes me fat?

Do I sleep because everything hurts? Because of the two fractures in my pelvis and hip socket that I either ran, biked or walked through, so that MRI’s showed inflammation two years out? Do I sleep because I’m depressed that my sister died last year? That she was only 33? That God didn’t save her?

The last “couples” massage was with her. She came in the beginning of the summer, shortly before her last “NED” scan, a scan that turned out to be false. She had an aggressive tumor climbing down from her tongue, half of which had been reconstructed from her arm. We didn’t know then that it would kill within months, but her instincts hinted as such. Her instincts said this pain was more cancer. She’d squeezed in one more solo trip to see me, Grandma and some of her gal pals in the Rust Belt. While she was here near Indy, I sprang for the massage.

She’d said she appreciated it. Her MIL offered massaged but her MIL worked so hard that my sister struggled to ask or accept offers. In the waiting area, my sister wrote on her form, “I have an ostomy.” She had to say this again in case the girl, who’s language skills seemed in doubt, needed reinforcement.

We’d undressed as if e were little girls, sisters without shame, sisters who had given birth with midwives, who were comfortable revealing imperfect bodies. She had full breasts still. Her’s swung with a graceful heaviness one could cup. Mine looked like green walnuts compared to what swung out front before I nursed two kids almost sixteen years ago. She wore a skin colored belt over her ostomy bag. I sucked my thick waist, a lifetime imperfection. After our massage, we brushed our wild oily hair, dressed and drove to a nearby Pho restaurant for noodles and spring rolls.

Another first in a yea without her. I realized I thought about her because I’d had a dream about her two night before, a dark dream where my entire family was indigent. We were staying in a broke-down shelter, a community building in disrepair. She was in labor and my mother, sisters and I were going every whichway to get a phone, an ambulance, money, someone to help, someone to watch kids, and she gave birth to a baby on the dirty bed, wrapped in dirty blankets and wouldn’t stop bleeding. The bed turned out to be on rollers and we pushed her to the service elevators to get her downstairs to any broke down van to get her to any clinic but she kept bleeding. Under a huge swaddle of blankets she bled to death while we held her infant. Helplessness shows up over and over when I think of her.

Fuck.

I realized why I am sleeping so much. Dreams, man. I hate them and I need them.

After a dream like that I cannot  muster the energy to get out of bed. The dream vivisects my waking self. It knifed me. I loved her alive again in my head, I hate the nightmare. The past and the present are confused about their identity.

I want her alive again. I want the pain. After all this, the pain makes sense to me. It makes sense like the four years leading up to her death.

I fractured my right pelvis the week after Christmas 2012 and walked fifteen miles a day at my treadmill desk to replace the usual twelve or thirteen miles I ran outside before dawn. I popped a dozen ibuprofen a day and drank several shots of Evan WIlliams a night to sleep. Later, while I still popped six or eight ibuprofen a day, she told me it contributes to cancer. She also told me that by relationship to her I was at risk for the rest of my life.

I complained about this sprain to y crazy old doctor, coincidentally Chinese, who, in turn, told me I had “strain,not sprain” for the first eight weeks. The week after my sister’s diagnosis with stage four rectal cancer, I demanded an x-ray. A hairline fracture had slowed me from seven or eight miles an hour to one mile an hour.

In the four years my sister lived with cancer I broke a wrist trying to avoid crashing my bike into the seven am Amtrak and I fractured the ball of my femur. The sports orthopedist told me I’d better start paying attention to my pain or I’d end up with a pin in my leg. My pain, I could tell him, is how I cut myself to stay aware of my sister’s pain. It was the language that united us in the frequent calls where I interviewed her about her life before and during cancer. My pain paled in comparison, but I knew what it felt like, in the same way she’d bonded with me about the year of mysterious gut problems she’d experienced leading up to her diagnosis. Whereas I have an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder that likes to take me one wild rides – I ride the anemic danger zone, the zero-menses osteoporosis dare, the I-exhibit-signs-of: blood cancer or lupus–  she actually had cancer.

I thought about all this on the table.

And the Pho noodles. Also that in one exact month I will turn forty-three and remember the day of her death, the same day.

And I realized why I sleep eight to ten hours. It’s not because I’m getting my wish– to have a fatal disease that will let me out of this loop of pain and loss– but because I need my dreams. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember more than I used to. My dreams keep me in bed so late I have to rearrange the daily run that keeps me from getting digestive pain and thus my work days.

This disruption looks like depression but it’s something undocumented in grief and mental health. My dreams help me make sane what is insane. That is, my sister died at 33 with a husband and two kids left to live without her, not to mention the rest of us.

While slurping Pho in a generic strip mall in Carmel, Indiana, I asked her what she thought about the state of the Asian women who’d massaged us. We took a pass on speculating too much. We couldn’t know. If we did know that they were trafficked or paid unfairly, my sister and I would have one more thing to wrestle. We wouldn’t take a pass on it either. The cancer card doesn’t trump the abuse of another human being. She was the kind of person who would live with pain before allowing a person to be abused for her relaxation.

At the end of my massage I tip generously. While on the table I pray. I thank God and think, I need to do my research.

Incongruities of the Women’s March

I’m glad I went to the Women’s March on Washington with my sisters.  I’m glad we let ourselves undulate with the flow of women throughout the streets, warming what was frigid the winter overtaking our country. We flowed with our kind, taking any route that our forces desired. When we met someone in law enforcement, we thanked them. Every now and then, we consulted our phones for the official route, but mostly we throbbed like blood. We gave in to the body electric and after several hours, made it close enough to the front. We heard some of the speakers projected onto giant screens, speaking to the life issues of immigration, health care, diversity, women’s rights. We ogled each other’s posters. We cheered each other.

My sisters and I formed semi-circles around Abby and her ten-week old, swaddled against Abby’s chest under her coat. When she needed to nurse her infant, we found a warm spot on the grass. We stretched our legs over the grates of the office complex exhaust systems. We lingered, snacking on fruit and chatting with strangers. We gave thumbs up to our favorite signs.
I couldn’t believe Abby had recovered enough from the emergency c-section two days before Thanksgiving to wander the capitol a day after inauguration without passing out. Then again, Abby had demonstrated her stamina by delivering her daughter a couple of days before Thanksgiving then showing up to the dinner, in spite of fresh stitches. The next day she orchestrated the family photos. We didn’t know it would be the last group photo to include all thirty of us living. We’d costumed in shades of scarlet, purple, gray and black. We’d posed under the red boughs of the tree line separating my parents’ property from the manse next door. It was as if Abby and Naomi had nudged each other through their pain. Naomi had pledge to be Abby’s birth to be a doula, she hadn’t been needed because of the c-section. Nevertheless she shown up at the hospital and stayed. In spite of her cancer, Naomi had denied herself rest. Just the same in January, Naomi dragged herself to the diner for sisters-and-mother’s dinner on the night before the march. She’d fight me for that word choice- dragged. Naomi never wanted or would admit to dragging herself anywhere. But we knew. She’d had to sleep in cars while her kids tumbled the backseats, just so she could take those trips to visit grandma, me, her gals in the Rust Belt. She’d slept part of our father’s 60th birthday party, just so she could show up to part of it. She’d show up as much as her body let her.

But the Women’s March she left to us. We marched with the ghost of her between us. As she said, she’d never survive being wheeled for six or eight hours through the cold streets of Washington DC. I suspect Abby was determined to be hale and whole just to honor Naomi.  Abby never complained as she marched with all of us creating a guard around her to keep the baby from being smooshed in the crowds. When we explained our funky formation to women, they cheered Abby.

“You’ll be able to tell her she was here.” They’d jerk a chin towards my niece.

16114315_10154263270967023_2605335422726022735_n

*****

Abby mentioned several times the thrill of participating in a movement bigger than us.

“Doesn’t this feel…?”

I can’t recall the specific word she chose. You know why? Because I was aloof. I’m always removing myself from the exhilaration of a moment. The music in my head is either “Won’t get fooled again” or “I exploit you, still you love me, because I’m the cult of personality. ” — Either The Who or Living Colour.  Either the movement or the person. Where did I get this yellow light—Warning: You might be suckered?

Part of me thinks it’s innate. Another part of me questions the hubris of that prior assumption.  I don’t want to identify any childhood system- church or family- that might have conditioned or indoctrinated me. That would have been an abuse of authority. But I know some of those systems did abuse their authority over a soft-souled, pleaser of a child like I was.

So there’s Abby, thrilling with the moment. And, there’s me, thinking judgy thoughts. She thinks this is a zeitgeist, an almost spiritualized exhilaration, a thrill, a movement.
I could appreciate the moment, I think, but I won’t because of that childhood manipulation. I remember when I’d been told to march with my Sunday school in local parades and with the Right to Life movement in high school. There was the time when the statewide homeschool group sent me and a buddy into our statehouse to confront strangers. Our task? Tell strangers, hopefully lawmakers, that evolution was a heresy and it was sin to believe the universe was over 6000 years old. –Within three years, I’d realize my pastor grandfather believed that the earth was millions or billions of years old and that the Big Bang had credibility. — What happened to my buddy and me? We’d been kicked out, which left me ashamed and questioning. Who sends children into political activism when they cannot parse the nuances? They’d made me a tool and resisted it ever since. It sewed the seeds of doubt. I don’t know what became of the otehr homeschooled kid who was kicked out with me.

So, that’s the context of me. Even at the Women’s March a part of me held back: knowing that what the March meant in the moment and to the future takes time. In the moment, the its impact should elude the best formed minds. A collective action can only be evaluated by the collective witnesses, not a singular opinionator. I am a singular, opinionated questioner. Would we change anything, meandering the capitol in pink pussy hats with signs? Would our numbers and the rhetoric of the day become a catalyst for out-powering those who’d just be granted the authority?

Furthermore my internal voice resisted the idea that social justice might replace true faith and mystery. I don’t want it to become my enlightenment, my epiphany. How dare I get high on it and let that motivate me. That would be placing my faith in princes and sons of men. If it became that, it would eclipse the quiet, eastern spirituality I’ve been cultivating.

That eastern version of Christianity calls for humility, silence, quiet, being present in the moment and dispassion. It meant freedom from the legalese of Western Christianity which turns the Bible into a system of rules and reads spiritual texts likes science and legal texts. Or, it swings wildly to another side of the spiritual pendulum where all things are hyper-mystical in a solitary personal sense. I wouldn’t return to the spiritual state I’d known in high school wishing to be “slain in the spirit,” which is to say have some kind of religious experience. I’d learned to dislike the idea of myself as a spiritual warrior, a leader, a change agent, the little martyr girl.

I wouldn’t want social justice to be a high, or a morality rule by which I order my life. It takes away the personal relationship that defines me, the one that makes my relationship with Jesus Christ the defining archetype around which I try to order every other relationship in my life.

So, in my head, I thought one thing, an unspoken retort to the thrill of the moment, but I want to be clear, it was not against Abby. I respect her. To negate her experience was to disrespect what opinion she brought to our collective reality. It was the thing. I held my “stand offish” position, wondering inside, If this is the thing, what is it? What’s its end, its downfall, its weakness? What were we all to think after a reality TV star known for bankruptcy, beauty pageants, sexual assault, inconsistent ethics, amorality, nepotism, narcissism, and deception could fool people into voting for me? The whole moment baffled me. It probably always will. I doubted a march would make a difference.

Confession: In the closet of my mind I thought dark thoughts about what it would take to end what dark power unleashed his control. In Biblical language, if you say “fool” in your heart you are guilty of murder. If true, God have mercy. I’m guilty of assassinating the current president, vice-president and most of his cabinet every day. While I exculpate myself by thinking I would never kill a person, not even him, how do I address that simultaneously what’s running through my head is that the next guy would be worse? I exculpate myself by thinking, maybe cardiac arrest, ISIS, accident. But still, the next guy is just as bad. Everything in my imagination ended badly then and now.

Looking back, I needed that march. I needed the strong bodies, the curves and muscles of women who spoke strongly worded resistance. I needed other women, different from me making kindness with me. Our bodies hard with yoga and running and birthing. Our bodies soft with mothering, loving, eating, living, abiding. Abby had something vibrating in her as she watched women swerve to create a protective swath around the baby girl swaddled to her chest. I needed it, I realize now. I needed that flow. Hot between the arms and legs, fingers and toes of the government.

Still the incongruities of it niggle at me.

What never made sense to me was, and is, how we recognize the lives and rights of the faces in front of us, but not the ones inside of us. We women, having lived under threat and violence so long, how can we not emotionally and intellectually evolve beyond cutelage and hanger, saline and pump, fistfuls of excess hormones? We know our bodies as no man can. We know the force of life that wants to press out of us. Most of us who resort to the clinic and cutelage have some control our bodies. If I read the #makeabortionpositive stories, most abortions are not of rape or incest. They are of will. Are we surprised when fife wills itself? We women should empower this flow.

When we abort, we are salting our own soil. We deny ourselves the credit that we have enough, that we are resilient to face nature, that we are homesteads who can withstand the storms, the heat, the flood, the rampages, that we will find gratitude for the harvest. We can have the vocation, the career and be mothers. We can find sound support and make roots in strong communities. Might we have enough yield to hire gardeners and landscapers to aid us? We need not appeal or live in fear of scarcity and threat as previous generations may have needed. We can sustain what germinates within.

Caveat here.

We: I’m speaking to middle and upper class white women particularly because we have  advantages. We are too quick with abortion when we have a multitude of preventative methods, and we have either other escapes or supports. Having offered to adopt two at risk fetuses and having been rejected, I know another story. Young women can and do one-up grown career women on this point.

We treat pregnancy as if it were weeds in the lawn. Why are we are as quick with pesticides on the life within as with the life outside? Weeds are not a scientific denominator. Dandelions may be harvested for many good uses, as may lamb’s quarters, banana plantains, and creeping charlie. Each offers beneficial qualities to the human body, like cells of our unborn children who leave in us better ways to fight illnesses. They leave their immunity gifts for future siblings too. While we remove them with blades or poison, we do undocumented damage to our future. I lament our feeble, short-lived attempts to control.

All this comes to me as I recall about the hard, strong, round, happy, angry women around me at the march. They smiled at the baby we protected. They gave a thumbs up to my rainbow colored sign that read, “I march for the least of these.” Did they assume the rainbow meant I was equating LGBTQ citizens with the least of these? I played the double entendre on purpose. I knew if they thought about it, it might seem I was infantilizing people based on gender identity. They’d think about it long after the first emotional-gut reaction when they thought it was cool. Later when they intellectualized my sign, they’d see, I might not have meant what they thought. Like poetry, the sign used ambiguity to evoke multiple reactions, multiple meanings.

What I literally intended was to link the unborn to their assumptions of the least of these. If they came to that idea, it would alight, not rest, though. Because a few of the same women who affirmed me with a wink and smile also turned to face the Catholic Women’s marchers with their pro-life signs. They trashed the Catholic women with threats and mutterings as they floated on. I know the militancy of the right after a lifetime of their indoctrination. I know too the militant social justice warriors who pledge to religious affiliation. I knew that some soft women’s bodies become brick houses when they want.

What is this faith I now hold?

I have a confession to make. I struggle when asked to pray for miraculous cures or quick resolutions. It’s tangling me up inside because my faith has changed over the years, starting back when I left my evangelical roots, but more so now that I’ve lost so many loved ones to cancer.
Here’s a look inside the changing nature of my faith in God.

A few weeks ago, in June 2018, my husband played a show with friends, a married couple, who toured together with their own acts. He was excited for me to meet them because they shared so much about their faith journey. They were excited to tour through the Ville and stay overnight with us. They planned to attend our liturgy on Sunday morning. Of course, they rocked Backstep Brewery that night. Later, we sat on the back deck, drinking tea and snacking on all my usual weird healthy snacks under twinkly lights. Because of my running addiction, I retired early. When I came in from my pre-liturgy run, they were packing up. M looked peaked. During church, he clutched his stomach. He slipped to the bathroom a couple of times. When he returned, he sat through the service. I noticed his wife stroking his  back, as if channeling his pain.

christ the shepher

Within the week, M was hospitalized. Within two, he’d survived a botched biopsy on his stomach and learned he had stomach cancer. He and his wife are now focusing on M’s healing, miraculous or medical. It will be holistic, at this point, since oncologists say operations are out of the question and chemo is the only answer, though that is changing day to day as the cancer aggressively attacks his liver.

The whole string of events feels surreal and heart-breaking. He’s asked that we focus on hope and God in this. I’ve read enough about positivity and healing to buy into the clinical value of hope. (Or ignoring it, such as Lulu Wang’s family helps Grandma do in this real life account).

Yet I’m struggling with how to pray for M, because my sister’s cancer. Actually the cumulative affect of so many of my loved ones deaths by cancer has altered how I pray, and the nature of what I believe.

After Naomi died on Nov. 4th, just shy of her 33rd birthday, my faith changed. Kathy said Naomi’s death would change me. Explanatory note. Kathy is my dad’s cousin’s widow. Her husband Randy was like second dad to me in high school. He was a Reynolds through and through. He reminded me of my grandfather, my dad’s dad. He never lost his thick full head of hair. Only in the end did his booming voice, his belly laugh, his stocky build fade. I remember him to the end as a man of prayer and church. In my growing up years, he and my grandfather would choke before passing up a chance to joke. Randy died of pancreatic cancer within about nine months of his diagnosis. He died on Nov. 5, two years before Naomi died. When he died, Naomi was just beginning one of her better periods. She rode out to his funeral because she was inclined to do all things family, and a coterie of siblings took the car trip out to Indiana to be there for Kathy and our cousins. We stayed in a janky hotel together outside of Blufton and cried a lot. In the months since, Kathy became my grief doula.

While Randy went through surgery and chemo, I went to visit him and his eldest son, Caleb, a Nazarene minister with whom I bible-quizzed during high school. I sat with Caleb, Randy and Paul (Caleb’s brother-in-law) during what I think was Randy’s first chemo. He described the placement of the tumor and the surgical procedure to treat it. I already knew from Facebook that he’d survived months of mystery symptoms and gallbladder surgery, all of which eerily mirrored my father-in-law Dean’s misdiagnosed gallbladder problems and the pancreatic cancer that killed Dean. As Joel and I visited Kathy and Randy in Indy from time to time, we saw how their faith journey also mirrored my in-laws. I bit my tongue about the speedy decline my father-in-law experienced in spite of all the similar”good news” his physicians gave him.

In 2004, Dean had gallbladder surgery and kept getting sicker. When his doctor finally realized it might be cancer, he referred Dean to an IU specialist promptly. Dean heard his cancer was detected early. Good news! The “whipple surgery” was the most advanced treatment. Good news! Some of the stats thrown around suggested Dean had a fighting chance. After his surgery, he felt pretty good, so the holidays seemed hopeful in spite of the C word.

Dean died within a week of his 70th birthday, hours after Joel and I celebrated our tenth anniversary in August 2005. My father told my husband, “You’ll feel like an orphan. You’ll want to talk to your dad about something but you won’t be able to call him.” Those words, and the words of our priest, “This isn’t how we were created, to see someone we love die,” got my husband through the first weeks.

We went camping on Labor Day weekend to unplug. We sat by the fire and listened to coyotes howl. We stared at the stars. We began the long slough of grappling with the death. It changed my husband. His hands shake now when he is stressed. He wouldn’t talk about death, even as he prepared to bury parishioners or as nearby parishes joined up to create a green burial cemetery. For years, in fact through my MFA thesis on end-of-life issues like grief, death planning and green burial for Orthodox Christians, he shut down any discussion of my research.

“I don’t want to talk about death, hear about death, think about death,” he said.

I think I bear some responsibility in that. While we suffered through near-poverty, health problems and an semi-oppressive atmosphere during his years at divinity school, we’d conjecture about the why suffering of certain types had plagued us since his dad’s death. I proposed that all this suffering would make it so we could identify with, empathize with, and serve all manner of people once he was placed in a parish. I remember sitting on the couch late one night, when he was emotionally shot, and he lashed back at my proposal.

“If one more person says ‘maybe your dad died to help prepare you for the ministry’…”

That became a refrain until years later, when I apologized for ever intimating anything like that.

I learned to think about death as happenstance, impersonal, unavoidable, with chances at 100%. We will die and the longer we live, the more people whom we love will die before us. It’s how we who go on living make use of it afterwards, not because that’s God’s intention, but because we can turn good to bad and bad to good, according to our needs or wants. My husband wanted to do something useful with his spiritual self when he went to seminary. After that, he has had to use his experience with grief to ease others through their grief. He’s good at it, but it’s the one aspect of his ministry that I think he hates most (except financial paperwork and silly theological spats).

I tell you all this because my faith swerved when Naomi got sick. At first, I pleaded with God for healing or an even trade, her life for mine. Then she lost her belief in God, and I realized I’d been praying wrong, at least in part. I hadn’t factored in soul-health. So I started praying for body and soul, which is in our Orthodox prayers. I’d now paid attention to the souls part when I talked to the “Physician of our Souls and Bodies.”

Then, Naomi died. Because Kathy said this would change me, l just tried to sit with void and change. I tried to perceive, not resist, it.  I felt, still feel, like a part of me was cut out. I have a missing appendage, the part of her that made me a different and better person. Shortly after Naomi died, another very young woman I knew started losing her life to breast cancer. Then a litany of friends received grave diagnoses. One day, I realized I had stopped praying for miraculous cures. Right now, it feels as if uttering such hopes would steal away my last bit of hope or faith. Is this what losing your soul to a dementor feels like (ref. Harry Potter)?

Sts. Kosmas and Damian working miracles
God uses humans in divine work. Humans wrote every book of the Bible and doctor saints Kosmos and Damian used medicine and prayers to heal.

What is this faith I hold now? Do I believe God no longer does miracles (outside of modern medicine)? It’s possible. It’s possible I’m grief-blind or just confused or jaded. Afterall I  grew up in a pentacostally-kind of church where the church would lay hands on you, the minister anointed you with oil, and if that didn’t work, they took you healing services. If those didn’t work, you heard outlandish ‘splain-aways or blame. In the Orthodox Church, people pray Akathists to saints and Jesus for healing of cancer. They speak of oil and myrrh gushing miraculous icons that cure cancer or infertility or other diseases. It’s not that I poo-poo this as snake oil. I just don’t pray hastily for a miracle, or rather blindly. God forgive me for this, if it is doubt. I can’t help that I shy away. Because….

Because all of us are going to die.

Because in some countries, mortality is ordinary. For instance, the children’s mortality rate is obscene. Because in the USA, the infant and mother mortality rate is lower than many other developed nations, particularly among certain minority groups.

Because why does God heal some and not others.

Because I don’t what healing means if one person survives cancer after years of prayers and treatments, then dies of cancer, though having had many happy returns in the midst of the disease.

The thing is, God does miracles. Some are in the heart or head, some in the body. And, sometimes, we don’t recognize them. Maybe some we mislabel, like calling a misdiagnosis a miraculous healing.

I’ve not stopped praying, but my prayers are less for moving mountains and more along the lines of changing the human. I am praying now like it’s what we do with what we are given. Do we turn good to bad? I’m struggling with this. I’ve pretty depressed and negative since Naomi died, more than my usual skeptical, contrarian, glass-half-empty, melancholic levels. I need prayer for spiritual healing. My prayers these days more like the following verses:

“Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Ps. 90: 14

People frequently allude to Job 14:5 and Psalm 139:16, about how God numbers our days. Okay, But do we as the Psalmist prays for us to do? Do we number our days aright? What do I need to do to conform to God’s long view? Take the long view, Maria, I tell myself.

Or my other prayer:

“Give me beauty for ashes. The oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness that we might be trees of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.” Isaiah 61:3

Or

“A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?”  Prov. 18:14

Here’s the thing. There are loads of verses about God identifying and becoming one with the mourning, the sick, the broken-hearted. There are plenty about miraculous healings too. They call the elders of the Church for the laying on of hands (James 5:14-15 and Hebrews 11:1). They ask the righteous man to pray because his prayers are powerful (James 5:16). They affirm that God heals (Jeremiah 17:14, Psalms 30:2, Mark 16:17-18). There’s also the opaque verses of Phil. 4:19 and 1 John 5: 14-15.

Do you hate me yet for sending references that I’m not quoting? This tends to annoy me. My point are the numbers of verses all over the continuum of healing ideas. My point, if nothing else, is that I don’t know what to pray except from my brokenness. I haven’t lost my faith. I may be doing one of two things: a) losing my grip, as in relinquishing what I cannot control or b) living my way to the answers through the questions, as in getting real with reality without losing mystery. I’ve always identified as a mystic as much as contrarian and melancholic. So here I sit, in the quandary of a self I cannot know. If I can’t know myself fully, how on earth can I purport to have the answers regarding what cannot be seen or quantified?

I’m a crappy person. I’ll pray for you, but I’m not good for the words of miraculous healing. Right now, I’m just stuck in this hope:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Rev. 21: 4

My son explains weed to me

Weed creates a shield
Like glass between himself and everything else.
He motions over his eyes till his lids droop closed.

Like, you know, to daydream.
Because he stopped dreaming.
Because of what? I wonder about all
The bombardments on his young brain,
the screens that invade the space between

silence, himself, and imagining?
Is this why?
He “needs” weed, like, you know?
I want him to gift him another kind of shield between
what dive bombs him and peace.
Like I know what that is, other than what I had,
creeks and rivers, paper and nature,
a head full of literature, a cassette player,
permission to talk to myself and God.
God knows, what assaulted my mind in those years.
Shit, kid. You need trees, not weed. Dirt, not screens.

A mother and her son, mediated love.
We have the chats and spats and texts and videos.
He sneaks. I peak. For when he says,
“I just need the fucking space to dream.”

I see a prophecy in his word, truth spoken to all of us.

Someone heard my poem

about the slum house across the street.
And committed. A miracle.
Whoever saw her, that old whore house plastered with plywood
like eye shadow over her windows,
the eyes into her interior blacking out the noonday,
trapping in the demon of her soul,
heard my poem. Someone saw her as she truly can be:
someone’s someday safety; They committed her to rehab.

 
From top to bottom, they’ve been taking the trash out of her.
To rehabilitate, re-inhabit her.

 

I called her a bitch of a house. Ashamed
of her across my drive as men swaggered
up to her, jiggled her knocker and pushed her door.
Ashamed that I, like the men who entered
her, abandoned her. They pimped her. I dismissed her.
Her plumbing leaked like an incontinent hag.
Her children sloshed through her sewage
up to their ankles in her hopeless estate.
They threw unused weights and broken cribs and deflated balls at her.
She kept pruned and plucked out front.

She kept a menacing dog at her side, chain jerked short.
She let them flip her switch, glow orange from her porch light at night.
She warmed herself by the hearth of an open stove,
entertained herself with flickering images on rent-a-center televisions
between the johns, matts, chads, toms  learing and flashing their stash
as they passed each other on the way out.
Sloppy hoi polloi who sat out front in cars
with phones, waiting to be summoned, burning
their blunt odor which seeped out of the cracked windows of their cabs,
while I cursed the cunt who turned my neighbors into the hood.

 

But someone heard my poem about the drug house
across the street. She’s been shorn of balding shingles.
She’s being transformed. Someone gave her a tawny new crown.
Shedding, dismantling, trashing the unwanted lace curtains,
stained mattresses, rotting flooring, shattered porcelain,
useless appliances, week after week. She’s had in repairmen.
HVAC and electric, plumbing and glass.
Light, through which pain may stream out. lets sun in.
Someone heard my poem for hope across the street
and I like to think, the fixin’ up done here, has spoken
that these old Victorians may come back.
Warm, motherly homes with good bones,
redeeming what is hidden in a woman’s bosom.