Category: Backstroke

Cusped

Last winter, at the end of a texting conversation, my friend asked me to describe my current life in one word to get a head start on the catching up we had just planned.  I, of course, took this very seriously, and sat with fingers suspended over electric keyboard as I searched for the perfect word.

“Cusped,” I replied.

I come from a long personal history of heightened expectation.  I expect good things.  Big things.  I also expect heaven to touch earth semi-regularly because I have seen it happen as often.  And when I chose that word, it was with a very real expectation of some combination of the three.  Cusped.  Like the moon.  Like I’m standing on my toes.  The breath between warrior poses one and two.  The moment between the lean-to and the kiss.

I would still choose that as the one word of my life at the moment, but my expectation and understanding of it are different this winter.  There is a little more awareness of the waiting itself, and decidedly more mist around the thing waited for.  I was recently in my acting teacher’s office with Amy, looking over the finished product of the portfolio we put together for him.  I hadn’t seen him since July, and he asked what I’d seen on the road since I’d seen him.  I’m not even trying to be poetic – that’s what he said.  “What have you seen, Jessie, since I last saw you?” I cried a little, because he’s an extremely emotionally available person and has that effect on people, and gave a sort of cursory response in regards to the route, and then he asked what it felt like to come back home.  I didn’t know how to tell him about 3 months of my life, and so I said, “I used to feel stuck, and now I feel stalled.” He replied, “Well, maybe you’re just waiting.”

Cusped applies to both.  I felt cusped when I felt stuck, and I feel cusped being stalled.  But I mostly feel cusped in the waiting.  Poised for movement, but rivetingly aware of my own lack of motion.  Literally like the moon between phases, in the space between shadow and light.  Aware that things are moving, and I am not one of them.  It’s more amusing than anything else.  And it’s hard to write about, because there is less to say.  Waiting requires less words of me, because I don’t know what happens yet.  And, as a person who likes to learn the lesson without making the mistake, this is a good thing.  This first post about it is just that – a first attempt, an initial tapping into the thing that will surely be revisited as long as it needs to be.   Perhaps I may simply continue to say the same thing over and over again, until I figure out what it is I mean to say.  It’s only ever an attempt anyway.

Also last winter, I came across a book called Watch for the Light, a collection of Advent readings focused on the nature of waiting in general, and also in specific application to the waiting inherent to Advent.  My friend Bethany recommended it to me, after a Bible study where I read Luke 2 aloud and could not contain the tremor in my voice.  I cried where it says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” It struck me then, only slightly, how wild it is to live in the thick of belief that a promise will be kept.  That something, even now, is being worked out that you cannot quite see.  That it will come to pass, has already come to pass, is happening even while you are waiting for it to happen.

I am not Mary, but I think part of Advent requires you to believe that you could be.  That an angel could conceivably crash through your ceiling and change every thought you ever had about your own life.  That there are things happening now and things already past that are actually beyond imagining.  One of my favorite Christmas carols is on Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas album, “Mary Had a Baby.” There’s a line in it that me and my mother love, where he simply says, “Moving in the elements, ah Lord, moving in the elements.” He never says what – but it’s moving.  Something is moving.  Oh, don’t you just wanna know what it is?! And I think that’s part of Advent, too – paying just a little more attention to what’s adrift in what we can’t see.  To be in a posture of waiting for we know not what, but somehow know has already happened.  To be in the shadow between the lights, in a profoundly personal but entirely cosmic way.

Keep reading…

Thanksgiving

In case you are just now joining us (or in case you haven’t been paying attention), I love holidays.  All of them.  I used to say Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, until I realized I was saying every day was my favorite holiday (though to be completely accurate, it’s technically Valentine’s Day, as previously articulated) and thus I couldn’t call it my favorite holiday anymore.  But it need not be my very favorite for me to have many reasons to adore it.

Firstly, it’s a holiday that isn’t really celebrated all day.  On Christmas, you start as soon as possible.  On your birthday you do the same.  The celebration involved on Thanksgiving is inseparable from the event involved (i.e., the food), thus making it concentrated.  It’s a 3 hour window, so you better use it.  Second, at least in my family, it’s pretty transient.  My family is scattered literally from coast to coast, so however many of us can gather for it varies from year to year.  It’s the easiest to invite a friend to (because apparently some people feel “intrusive” when invited over for Christmas??? but not Thanksgiving???), and I wish all holidays were more friend-friendly, because I am constantly looking for nonchalant ways to get as many people that I love as possible into the same room at the same time to do the same thing.  Third, and perhaps best of all, Thanksgiving is the least disappointing holiday.  As a person who lives in a nearly perpetual state of heightened expectation, I can attest to the Christmas Eves and Halloweens (and, weirdly 4ths of July) that have gone by slightly less adorned than hoped for.  But Thanksgiving is simple, no trappings or high stakes.  You are simply asked to come eat at the table with as many people as you can find, and to call what is blessed by its proper name.

In my planner, there is a designated section to write down the sundry gratitudes of any given week.  There is never enough room.  And so, I am making a list of what I am grateful for on Thanksgiving Day, because running parallel to my love of celebration is my love of cheesiness and leaning in.  I’m trying to limit myself only to what I presently find myself grateful for, as I would surely drive both you and I insane if I tried any time period outside the present.

1. Swiss army knives, for when you move into a new apartment and lack most kitchen appliances

2. Lady Bird.  Haven’t seen it yet, but know I’m grateful.

3. friends, family, and kindred spirits smattered from coast to coast

4. Stranger Things 2

5. walking home at midnight down my street and feeling safe

6. meeting angels in grocery stores

7. Anton Chekhov

8. ”the gay great happening illimitably earth

9. the new Taylor Swift album (haters back off)

10. yams

11. that the farthest I have to walk to get water is to my refrigerator

12. the use of my legs

13. slats to hold my bed aloft

14. my janky window that lets the breeze come in from the alley

15. that I’m not working today

16. haikus

17. the peppermint milkshake at Chick-fil-A

18.  that God already knows everything there is to know about me, but still wants me to tell him

19. emails from my uncle

20. Spotify (zero percent irony – my day-to-day life would be significantly altered by its absence)

21. the fact that being sad about losing something generally means you had it to begin with

22. collaboration

23. “There’s a hypothetically bright future for everything / each wounded creature that is bitten, or bites”

24. prophets

25. savory hand pies

26. that it is genuinely possible to take a break from your own life

27. dancing

28. that sometimes I do the wrong thing and so far it hasn’t caused me to die

29. lakes

30. my own imagination

31. progress, no matter how slow, no matter the measure

32. basketball

33.  that there is a gap in my planner from August 5 to October 13

34. that everything that I see of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak

35. nightgowns, bathrobes, and generally all garments that have to do with sleeping and comfort

36. that I didn’t completely ruin my computer when I spilled water all over it

37. coupons

38. Love Actually (it’s so weird, why am I always so excited to watch it?)

39. Trader Joe’s.

40. that I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland 

I am grateful that the sum of my weaknesses is not the whole. I am grateful that there are days marked for gratefulness, days marked for mourning.  I am grateful that there truly is a time and a season for everything, and that the next one is only ever just outside my line of vision.  For the record, I’d love to know what you’re grateful for, too.  And I’m sure there are at least 3 important things I’m grateful for that I’ve forgotten to write down – isn’t that great?!

From tender stem hath sprung

Advent is swiftly approaching. Ordinary Time is coming to a close – how fantastic that it is called that, truly. I suppose officially there are two more weeks till Advent begins, but I am notoriously a person who needs quite a bit of time to transition, and better to do it now, early, than to miss the first two weeks of a season, trying to wrench my heart into gear.

The irony is that my heart need not be wrenched this year. It’s waiting at the door. I am waiting, anxiously, for Advent, where I will wait some more. I am, thoroughly, the girl who listens to Christmas music well before thanksgiving, who smiles at the store displays and old-fashioned tinsel snowflakes affixed to streetlights in small towns and big cities alike, the first hint of a bough of holly. I love special things, and Christmas is a special thing that everyone seems to agree on. But, beyond all the trappings, Advent is where my heart has been living for some time, without my asking it to, without any sort of tinsel, without the prompting of any sort of liturgy or black friday sale. The truth is that I was living my life in Ordinary Time, not entirely unhappily. But, like angel song, Advent just started happening to me and has gone on happening. I’ve been writing about it, I’ve been thinking about it, can’t stop thinking about it. I could tell you that everything has changed, but I think you already know that. I could tell you that a life, like a calendar year, like a church calendar year, has seasons, each season designed to nourish the soul in a different way, with varying intensities and focuses and sorrows, but you surely already know that too.

I take the church calendar seriously, or try to at least. My blossoming Anglicanism in college taught me to care about these things, to seek to invite them into my consciousness and muscle memory, illuminated the beauty of tradition, of certain colors at certain times, of keeping track, of letting reality be framed by something historical and a little bit impossible. It’s the project of practice, of ritual, of repetition to let something become habit. I’m learning more everyday how to let these rituals become postures for my heart, things to wake and sleep with, to carry around within, more than a thing to think on, words to say, a color to wear, a place to be. I’m learning more every day how to notice which season my soul stands in, both in and out of time. In chronos, chronological time, my soul is on the cusp of Advent, 2017, marveling at Wisconsin snowfall and Chicago store awnings sporting pine boughs, delighting in twinkle lights taking over. In kairos, God’s time, the time that holds everything, all at once, my soul is standing bewildered and strong in Annunciation, my soul is saying, irrationally, “here I am! send me”, my soul is scouring the sky for angels, my soul is carrying an impossible baby, in pain, in wonder, no place to stay, nowhere to go. My soul, wild, following a star. 


All at once, the other day, I remembered a book I picked up a year ago but never finished. Madeleine L’Engle’s 
The Irrational Season, where she, adopted godmother to my soul, writes warmly and honestly about the church calendar, about the very same things my heart keeps turning over and over. So I bought it used on amazon for $5 and it came without the first nine pages. Typical. I was sad about it for a moment, but then I snapped into action, deciding to find the book on Google Books, where the first chapter was completely intact and waiting to be received! (And where you too can read the first chapter, which is about Advent, if you’d like!) I sat and transcribed the first nine pages, typing each word, ingesting it a little differently than I would if I were simply rereading it again, one year later. In a way, it almost felt like I was writing it myself, fingers flying to keys to record a phrase held right at the front of my brain, moving on to the next thought before even considering everything, everything about the thing that came before. 

The next day, as I, for the first time in a long time, read some of the archives of my personal blog (which I’ve been sorely neglecting), I came to an essay I wrote just about this time last year. And, oh my soul. One year, and so much has changed. One year, and so many prayers answered, so many things written and strangely, with mystery, fulfilled. I was astonished to read my own words, so true and tremulous, so different from anything I would write today — and yet still so present, so poignant for me, even still. I am that woman still, astonished at all I must be missing, full of hope and faith for things not seen, desperate to be actually carried with everlasting arms, unaware of the signs and wonders on the way. Strange prophesy, the way I stood right on the edge of a new season without knowing it and lamented all that had come before, all the years waiting, all the knowing but not knowing. And now, what more do I know? Not much. But enough for everything to have changed. Enough that, somehow I’ve gone from feeling left out of the story entirely to standing smack in the middle of it. And that, I suppose, is a change complete. That, I suppose is a new season. The night, half spent, closer, somehow, to dawn. Lo, how a rose e’re blooming, see the bud? From tender stem, mine. Yours.

I am republishing last year’s advent essay in full below. In so many ways, it seems like I’ve hardly moved. I’m still sitting with The Irrational Season beside me on the desk. I’m still finishing up quilted things, still needing to run out to get more thread. Still looking for Jesus, still considering Mary every day, and yet, and yet. Everything is different. I live in the woods instead of the city. My heart has traveled miles on miles. I’ve seen, somehow, the angels — they’ve come for me with messages. I’ve glimpsed just enough, touched just enough of the edge of Jesus’ hem to know that I am right in the center of something unfolding all around me, within and without time and space. Advent, mine entirely. Yours too, with the end of time and the beginning all folded together into an impossible baby placed in our human arms for safekeeping. What has this irrational year taught me? That I am right in the center of God’s good will. That I don’t get to sleep through the night of Jesus’ birth. That the pain will be great but the star shines above. That though I am small, an angel found me still. That Jesus is, somehow, mine to carry. That though nothing makes sense at all, underneath are the everlasting arms. I still know nothing at all, but somehow I know these things, in all their wildness, all their IRRATIONALITY. I can’t question them anymore, I just have to figure out how to carry it all forward. I’m living there, in irrational advent, on my island of madness, a woman bereft and blessed. And somehow, I am so much more myself than I’ve ever been before. 

Keep reading…

Unnecessary, Pt.2

As anyone who has read my previous thoughts on the matter will know, I detest parking tickets, not simply because they are inconvenient, but because they serve no real purpose.  A car needs parking; streets have space for that.  There is zero percent need for money to get involved.  It’s not even that I don’t like spending money – it’s the lack of logic that a street  made for cars to drive and park on can’t be legally used for the latter in certain places.  Whose idea was that?

And yet, this morning, I (you guessed it) received a parking citation, after double and triple checking the area to see that I could park there.  The reason listed was for “parking outside of my permit boundaries,” which I am 100% sure is not the case but don’t want to deal with proving it to the powers that be.  This would be less irritating if not for the fact that to purchase said permit costs an arm and a leg in Oak Park, where I currently find myself living.  When my imagination starts going, it only gets worse.  I see a tiny, tiny man with a clipboard and headlamp lurking through the streets during the 2:30-6am hours when citations are most prone to be given, mouth-breathing on the back window of my car to check that my papers are legitimate and I am who I say I am.  His mouth mangles into glee as he takes out his pocket-typewriter to punish this faceless Neighborhood Criminal (aka me) and come one step closer to his monthly quota of rule-breakers and fools.  It’s like the worst game of Monopoly ever, with the opposite of Free Parking.

I am occasionally a rule breaker, but I am no fool.  And I do not like feeling like one because of a tiny piece of paper given by a faceless nighttime troll (who is probably just a normal person with a job trying to pay for things like me).  But it’s never just the one thing, is it?  The reason I was getting in to my car when I found the citation was to head to the tech support store down the street, because I spilled water on my computer the previous night and, while I mercifully, miraculously didn’t lose any of my files or information, it would only turn on when attached to my charger.  Nub computer on my back and parking citation in hand, I marched into the tech support store to see if any legitimate damage was sustained.  The technician – who legitimately had one of those persistently perspiring brows from a cartoon – whisked my laptop behind some colorless wall and began his work.  I heard strange noises from the other side, what sounded like large pieces of tape being ripped off and the whisps of tiny fans whirling away.  I heard the sound of my laptop restarting, and it occurred to me how strange it is that we go places to get things fixed and we often cannot see them being worked upon and simply trust that they are in fact being fixed.

After about 6 minutes, the technician returned from his side of the wall with my computer in tow.  His words were “mysteriously, miraculously” – nothing but the battery was touched by water.  None of the water sensors had gone off, and there was no sign of any physical damage to my computer but the battery, which simply means that my computer has to remain plugged in at all times and will essentially exist as a desktop computer while I figure out the best way to replace said battery.  Which really is a miracle considering the size of the glass of water I spilled.  The first word out of my mouth after the spill was a curse, the next one a prayer (both come out of my mouth all the time – go figure).  And I don’t know why I was surprised that God had answered my prayer that the damage not spread, that the waters be dried out and the damage controlled.  But here was the man with the sweaty head telling me he had, and the consequent cost to fix the small damage (not quite proportional, but is it ever?).  He said the repairs need not be done immediately, which was a mercy, considering this computer is essentially my job as most of my work is freelance writing.  A tiny technical miracle, sandwiched between a citation and a semi-sleepless night.

Keep reading…

But with wings.

  1. I’m thinking about angels, and it’s all a-jumble. Fragmented angel thoughts.
  2. A quick inventory of things I know about angels: Organized into categories: cherubim, seraphim, archangels, etc; Can wrestle (or was that God?); Can pass as humans like when Abraham entertained them (or was that God/the trinity?); Sometimes sing; Sometimes terrifying; Can speak, and have conversations; Worship; Bring messages; Can play trumpets
  3. The angel who stirred up the fountain at Bethesda.
  4. It’s probably best that I haven’t seen an angel face to face. In fact, it’s probably best that so much of the most holy things pass right by me, unnoticed till the very last minute, till I turn my head and catch a glimpse of a shimmering robe disappearing into the air. It’s enough to know they exist. It’s more than enough to imagine them.
  5. I am DEFINITELY forgetting so much from “Study of Mary,” which I took my senior year of college. Oh, to take that class again! Oh, to take that class every year for the rest of my life!!! (Note to self: find notes from that class!!!)
  6. I’m in my information-gathering mode, my obsessive research mode, where really nothing becomes more clear, I just stack up more and more things to refer to and consider. Some things stick out.
  7. Like Marie Howe’s “What the Angels Left”. I’ve been reading it over and over, wondering how Marie wrote this poem, what thing in her life became this poem, what she knows about angels that I don’t know. It’s stuck in me. I want more things to happen to me that I can’t explain. I want more things to attribute to angels. Less order, more mystery. Thicker things, deeper things, things to knock the socks off my sense of control. This is a terrifying thing to want, but I want it. I want to be mystified and terrified, to be told, “FEAR NOT!”
  8. Almost all the images I’m gathering are images of the annunciation. Have to narrow it down somehow, and it’s Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel that I can’t get out of my head. Not sure who or what I’m more captivated by, Mary or the angel. It’s the two in combination that get me. It’s the human in relation to the angel, the moment of it, the way time must have stopped, of having a conversation with an utterly spiritual being, one that stands in the space between humans and God. The giantness of the information being exchanged. The very fact of the angel’s presence. Did the air change? Did Mary know instantly that there was something new in the room? A new smell? The sound of bells? A thunderous voice? Heat or chill? The angel in images of the Annunciation is almost always depicted as a woman, and often looks a lot like Mary herself. Could Mary’s angel, Gabriel, really have just been human-ish, almost a mirror?
  9. Fra Angelica, The Annunciation, north corridor, Monastery of San Marco, 1438-45.
    Here, they are like twins, the angel and Mary, and seem to be looking deep into each other’s eyes, gesture matched, mirroring each other. There is a unity here. They both look uncomfortable? Or Mary does at least. Unable to move, perhaps. Unable to look away. Here, this Mary could say, “the angel looked just like me, but with wings.”


    Keep reading…

From the Notebook: Sister Moon

[Tuesday night. Me, twenty-four-year-old woman, full of some grace and some truth, full of fear and trembling too, perpetually, sitting on a footstool before an open sliding door at 11pm, husband asleep three feet away. Scrawling furiously with black pen in a cream gridded journal, unable to look away from the moon. 45 straight minutes on the footstool, interposing writing furiously, incoherently, and sitting motionless, eyes upturned. Cold feet but no time to get socks. Light rain throughout, silence otherwise. 50 degrees, open door.]

The moon on october 3rd. A sign. A wonder. 

Bless us anyway.
Bless us anyway.
Bless us anyway.
We need to be healed and blessed.

How is it so silver bright? 

I’ve never in my life seen a brighter moon. Unimaginable moon. Moon better and brighter than I dreamed. Clouds somehow behind. Pure silver light I CAN LOOK AT!!!

You’re not allowed to look at the sun but you can look at the moon. See the sun in the moon, through the moon, more nuanced and imperfect. 

MAKE ME THE MOON. Full and silver. Or crescent or new. Harvest, winter. Reflected in water — clouds passing over. Make me the moon. Making night real and viable. So steady. Such its own color — SO BRIGHT. I can’t look away. I can’t go to sleep. The moon! La bella luna. I cannot attain unto it. It is high. It goes right through me. It is me — or I am it. Pulling tides, ordering months, affecting my whole body — bright. Full tonight! The clouds move so fast, animating it. A rainbow around it in my eyeglass lenses — such rays! The clouds dive at her, but she is not overtaken. Clear and calm. Sure on this shining night. Night isn’t meant to shine, so. She’s going off script! Running away with the plot. Smart and funny — she makes night bright. Can’t describe the color. Can’t describe the feeling. The whole body is affected. So bright. I’m a student of this moon. Disciple. Friend. This moon is my sister. Myself. 

It’s moving, somehow. My view keeps changing. Behind tree branch. Don’t go away, but do go on your course. Please go on. I have to sleep sometime. 

Crazy things keep happening to me. Crazy things like the moon. This moon. Tonight. 

I can’t see it really from my spot anymore because of the tree. Just as well. There’s no hurry. The moon’s here every night. I have to lean off the balcony and get dripped on to see it now. Just as well. Goodnight!

 

 

23

I was sitting in a very hip restaurant in Portland earlier this week, recommended to us by the gas station attendant at the Shell we stopped at on our way up from Medford.  Our meal had just arrived – our first of the day – and we essentially pounced on the artichoke sandwich and eggs benedict, though the homemade biscuit and blueberry scone had slightly abated our hunger in the meantime.  The time was just past 2pm.  I’d ordered a cocktail, which I don’t think I’ve ever done at lunch, to celebrate the beginning of #birthdayweek, a succession of small allowances to stretch out the actual day as long as I can.  We were chattering away about the scone and the biscuit, and I made some sort of comment about hoping our waitress would pass by so we could ask for more butter.  My sister offhandedly replied, “It’s the climb,” as probably many people roughly our age have about many a low-key complaint or observation in the wake of the infamous song performed by Miley Cyrus in the Hannah Montana: The Movie, “The Climb.”

What happened next is hard to describe in its fullness, and I’d ask that you do your very best to suspend both judgment and irony to understand it, because it sounds very ridiculous but was in fact very near the miraculous.

For whatever reason, I started slowly saying the lyrics to the song right there, out loud, from the beginning.  For those who somehow managed to not memorize every word, here’s how it begins:

I can almost see it, that dream I’m dreaming, but

There’s a voice inside my head saying,”You’ll never reach it.”

Every step I’m taking, every move I make feels lost with no direction, my faith is shaken

And I started to cry.  Right there in the middle of hip Portland, saying the lyrics to a 2009 Miley Cyrus song.  I’ve laughed at and imitated this song about a million times, but in that precise moment it was as though I was hearing the words for the first time – the way that you always wish the Bible sounded, or the way you wish you could say Shakespeare in front of other people.  It was simple.  So incredibly simple.  Like every thought was a completely new idea that I’d never heard before, without any lens or judgment to convolute its message.  I paused a moment to ponder each thought individually, and then continued by saying the words of the chorus:

There’s always gonna be another mountain, I’m always gonna wanna make it move

Always gonna be an uphill battle, sometimes you’re gonna have to lose

Ain’t about how fast I get there, ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side – it’s the climb

And then I really lost it.  My sister Arielle did her best to not laugh at me, and even in the midst of my dead serious internal experience, I was very aware of the humor in what was happening.  But it was so, so not funny! It was the most serious a thing can be!

Saying those words out loud brought me back to how I have felt for much of year 23 (DUH), because the last 5 weeks on the road have felt like the first honest to goodness break I’ve ever had from my own life.  Even though I’ve been crying a lot lately, these days out west have felt very straightforward and sure, like my body has been preparing for this revelation in my brain. I had forgotten that I spent most of this year going back and forth about what my dream for my life actually looks like, as opposed to what I’ve told myself it is for a very long time, and how dreams change in light of time and experience and people.  What I want is pitted against what I’m supposed to want, making it convoluted and disheartening to pursue any aspect of it at all at full speed, which is the only one I’m accustomed to.  I covered the walls of one of the million places I lived this year with huge swaths of white paper, drawing maps on which I desperately tried to make paths for myself out of anxiety and despair and confusion to a realistic picture of what it is I actually want.  Every day for pretty much the first six months of 23, I woke up with a very loud voice inside my head saying I would never, never, never reach any aspect of any of my dreams, because I couldn’t articulate to myself what they were anymore.  And for whatever reason, in the moment of saying the words of this song of all songs out loud, a year’s worth of questions were answered simply and clearly and swiftly in my brain.  It was like as I said each line out loud, a second silent line was said in my head, months’ delayed answers to questions I wasn’t even able to let myself fully ask, answered baldly and simply in between lyrics.  A duet between the past and the present, in real time.  A revelation made at the end of a month on the road, typical and predictable and even mathematical that it should happen this way, yet I somehow didn’t expect it.  And, of course, it was a pop song.  And that felt like a gift, too, made richer by the fact that I’d forgotten I’d asked for it in the first place.  The particular gratitude that comes from having questions answered that you aren’t quite asking anymore.

Keep reading…

to bend and not bend

ARE WE OUT OF THE WOODS YET, ARE WE OUT OF THE WOODS YET, ARE WE OUT OF THE WOODS YET, ARE WE OUT OF THE WOODS?

ARE WE IN THE CLEAR YET, ARE WE IN THE CLEAR YET, ARE WE IN THE CLEAR YET, ARE WE IN THE CLEAR YET, IN THE CLEAR YET? GOOD.

{Silly but poignant, this is the song that most often ran through my head throughout the past week.}

I’ve just returned from six days of backpacking on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) in Northeastern Minnesota, and am in full-on recovery mode. I’m listening to a new playlist full of old favorites, wearing a new sweater from Goodwill, and eating dark, dark chocolate as needed.

The wilderness trip was included in the orientation for the program I am a part of at my new home in the woods, HoneyRock. I’ve done wilderness trips with HoneyRock before, when I was a camp counselor in the summer, which were fairly straight-forward and stayed close to camp. Wilderness trips then were not my favorite part of the HoneyRock experience, but they were certainly manageable. My experience this past week was entirely new, and entirely difficult. The SHT is a hard, hard, trail to hike with unrelenting hills to ascend and descend, lowlands full of thick mud, and long and winding ways between campsites. I struggled the whole way through, my anxious and unadaptable heart using all its energy to wish to go home. I would trudge up a hill, giant backpack digging into my hip bones, heart pounding, repeating in my head, “I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here.” The six days were long. I didn’t eat enough. I felt worried about the water we had to filter from streams and lakes. One night toward the end of the trip brought a massive thunderstorm near midnight that shook my soul for an hour and a half.

This is nothing against HoneyRock, nor is it anything against hiking, backpacking, camping, and the like. Six days in the wilderness is a worthwhile undertaking, I believe this firmly. Over half the people in our group were thrilled to be hiking, taking on challenges, letting the rain roll off their backs. I watched people around me growing, rising to the trail. No, this is not about backpacking, this is about me: my soul, my body, my ability to bend and not bend.

I was not surprised by my feeling of being entirely out-of-place. I think that if the past two years I spent in Chicago did anything at all for me, they taught me to know myself well, to pay attention to what feels safe and doesn’t, to learn what things about me are concrete and what things are in flux, to determine where I can challenge myself to grow and where I really just ought to be tender with myself, to let the soft animal of my body just love what it loves. I know myself much better now than I did two years ago, which I think is a big part of my becoming an adult. I am much better at advocating for myself now, at confidently articulating what I think and what I need, at refusing things that don’t feel right. I know better what I hope to find in a home, in a meal, in a friend, in a church, in a place to sit and rest a while. Things are starting to come into focus, all with the knowledge that everything is always shifting, that people are never set in stone, that the spirit in me is what makes me ever-flowing toward something I will never understand until the end of time, is what makes me feel so on fire. I know better than ever that God is unknowable but full of all good things. I know better than ever that I am small and broken. I know better than ever that there is something in the middle of me that is green and alive and trying, always, to radiate outward. I know better than ever that there are things in the world that are true.

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Wild Heart

Over the course of the past month, I have had an alarming number of altercations with defecation, in 3 different geographic locations.

The first occurred in Central Park, at the end of July. I was sitting with a few friends, watching ducks swim in one of the ponds and eating cherries.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that within 2 minutes of sitting down, a bird shat on me.  Right on my back.  While wearing a white shirt.  My friends were not particularly concerned that this had happened, so I sat with it on my back for 2 hours trying to think about bagels instead, with middling success.

The second incident was in Philadelphia last week, in my room in my stepmother’s house.  She came in around 9 in the evening to see if I wanted to watch a movie, bringing with her the two dogs (whom I already loathe, which is entirely out of character, but these dogs are 100% certifiably #theworst) and in the 30 seconds it took to have that conversation Awful Dog #1 peed on my laptop.  Unceremoniously, surreptitiously even, he just peed right there on my laptop, and my new AAA card, on the ground next to it, for good measure.  I remained calm, mostly because my laptop was closed so no real harm could be done, and wiped it down with disinfectant while she took the dog outside.

The third was the most impersonal of all, and happened two days ago.  I was walking through my childhood neighborhood in Indiana (my sister and I are making an unprecedented stop on our road trip as we wait out the hurricanes in Texas), praying and thinking.  I was walking on the sunnier side of the street and switched over to the shadier one, and within 15 seconds under the trees an unseen bird from the caverns above shat on me, all down my right side.  I was still a 10 minute hoof from my house, and had only my mother’s borrowed rain jacket as extra material, so I had no choice but to walk home covered in bird shit.  Though this was the third in an escalating series of unserendipitous events, it was the most shocking and the most horrifying to me.  Probably because it was the first skin contact incident.  I’d like to stop talking about it now.

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I’ve also recently been accosted by a colossal wave.  Last week, I randomly got an intense nosebleed while getting my nails done (the irony is never more than a moment away), staunching it with an inch-by-inch cotton pad, which hasn’t happened in over a year.  I have had a splitting headache for three days.  I am also flush with emotional pangs which I won’t go into, because as devoted as Amy and I are to contending with emotion here and as firmly as I believe writing isn’t worth writing that doesn’t put yourself at risk, I have to draw the line somewhere.  There are hurricanes and eclipses and symbols everywhere, personal and colossal, to otherwise indicate that the universe is literally and figuratively shitting on me.

The tree that started it all, in Central Park

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Think: Magic

The first time I heard the phrase “magical thinking,” I thought of animals talking.  I saw large exotic birds blinking baldly at me and communicating telepathically, confiding in me what it really was like perching in a tree all day in the tropical heat.  This had nothing to do with the first place I heard the phrase.

It was in the title of a book by Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.  The book doesn’t feature her portrait on the cover, as so many of her other ones do, always cool and just slightly in motion, as though she’s about to exhale.  For a title that suggests imagination, it’s pretty straightforward: 5 words overlaying a cream background.  At the time, I had only read her infamous essay, Goodbye to All That, about her first years in New York, and assumed this book was some next step of that, a personal account of some holy and frightening experience made idolatrous by youth.  Not quite.

The book is in fact about the year in Joan’s life in which both her husband and daughter died, the first of a violent heart attack and the second of pneumonia and septic shock, though this particular book only covers when her daughter is in a coma.  The magical thinking she refers to is of the survival variety – choosing to live in your own version of reality because the alternative is too unbearable, and because your brain actually can’t take in the information of what’s really happening.  It’s quite common in grieving, and far less palatable than losing your shit the normal way.  You walk around expecting the person who died to walk through the door in the most pedestrian way; you respond as if they’ve asked you a question.  People pity you.  That doesn’t really matter.  You’re a magical thinker; what do they know anyway?

Despite exposure to this memoir, my tendency was still to understand magical thinking as the whimsy it more obviously suggests, but its true meaning was reintroduced to me while listening to the Rookie podcast episode featuring Roxane Gay called “The Good Kind of Magical Thinking.” My reflexive thought was, Is there a bad kind? Well, yes. Of course.

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