Category: Faith

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.

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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. 

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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.”


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Unneccessary

Four days ago, I received my first parking ticket, allegedly for staying longer than the two hours allotted to those wishing to park there.  It was in the parking lot of my pal Marge’s apartment complex, a place I frequently visit for longer than two hours at a time.  If it’s me reading the signs, I can stay as long as I want.

I let it fester in my glovebox for four days before doing anything about it.  I drove back and forth to Indiana to meet a baby, I went to work, I called a friend I haven’t talked to in months.  But there it still was, lurking in my periphery, nagging at me with the threat of a late fee and vague injustice, circling over my head like a gaggle of vultures in a young adult western novel.  It had apparently made its way out of my interior life and into my exterior one, because I found myself kvetching about it to my acting teacher over dinner and halfheartedly talking about contesting it at court.  He had this to say: “Don’t let it live in your head rent-free.”  He said I should just shut up and pay it because the second I did I would never think about it again.  As simple as this sounds written down, it was a novel idea for me. But, but! No buts, just pay it and be done letting it live in your brain.

In the play I am working on, we recently completed our Chicago run (and we will be performing in New York in July and this is a shameless plug if you are in that area to COME SEE IT PLZ).  I was running horrifyingly late to our preview, having been thwarted by traffic, construction, locusts, bad drivers, and all the other daily plagues of I-290.  I was irritated, with a vicious inner monologue at work, fire coming out the ends of my hair and making those awful scoffing noises you hear in grocery stores from ladies with expired coupons.  Arriving finally at the venue, I parked my car (another nightmare, natch) and marched over to the lawn where I could see a few of the other actors warming up with our director. I halfheartedly joined in to the warm up, trying to shake out my feet and roll my shoulders and get my breath lower, all of which is normally a very sacred and enjoyable exercise for me but at the time felt entirely stupid and useless for my purposes and in general.  I knew I was being immature and willed myself to get over it like a “real actor” would, but no amount of deep breaths or rolldowns or siren calls could pull me out of my own head.

My director, who has perhaps the keenest sense of intuition of anyone I know, caught on that this wasn’t doing it today.  She is a big fan of energy healings, auras, and the like, and suggested we abandon the work we were doing to instead go through our chakras before the show.  Bear with me. To be frank – the first time I heard about chakras was on an MTV special when I was 9 years old, and even then I was skeptical and there were no signs of that changing in the 14 year interim since then.  And, to be fair, there is still a hitch from my conservative Midwestern upbringing that makes me ask “Is this biblical???” reflexively to anything spiritual that takes place outside of a church (though we all know She moves in mysterious ways, as Bono tells us).  All that to say, that was surprisingly not my reaction when Liz suggested we go through our chakras.  The first thought that sprang in my head in response was, “He moves in mysterious ways!!” even amidst my frustration and awfulness.  Part of that is surely because I trust her nearly implicitly, but the larger reason was because sometimes you need a new way to get through an old problem.

For those who don’t know what going through your chakras looks like (or don’t want to!), it’s basically focusing on a different part of your body and trying to locate and focus the energy attached to it.  Each area has a different color to represent it and purpose behind it, working together to do their best to make you walk through life as aware and peacefully as possible.  If I’ve lost you – it’s fine.  I get it.  But don’t lose what I have to say about it!

If it’s me reading the signs…

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oh my soul

“But nobody said things were going to be easy. A taste for the sublime is a greed like any other, after all.” – Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole”

“A mustard seed was all I needed to sow a dream” – Chance the Rapper, “How Great”

“When David heard that Absalom was slain, he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, and thus he said, ‘My son Absalom, O my son, would God I had died for thee.’” – Eric Whitacre, “When David Heard” (2 Samuel 18:33)

 

Holy Week has just ended. The Church has collectively remembered that two thousand years ago we killed God and he loved us anyway. We said, “We have a law, and according to that law, he ought to die,” and so God died at our hands. God gave us a temple and we said, “We don’t need that, we have other places to go.” God said, “I’m here to talk to you,” and we looked behind us, around corners, over our shoulders like “Who? You must not mean me.”

Please don’t think me a good Christian. I don’t know what I am, but good is not part of it. Me, I’m confused. I’m pretentious. I don’t really doubt much, but I definitely do question. I hate to pray aloud. I am a judgy church-goer. I despise contemporary worship music. I’m terrible, really. I want everyone to believe in God, to know that there is more than just humans and our toils, but I am unwilling to evangelize. Sometimes I read the gospels and Jesus seems like a robot to me. Sometimes I don’t read the gospels at all. I feel embarrassed to tell cool non-Christians that I’m a Christian. I feel nervous about writing all of this. I fear that I’m not being humble. In fact, I know that I’m often either proud or mute and bashful or a weird combination of both.

But my soul belongs to God. I gave my soul away long ago, the most precious thing I own. I gave it back to the being who made it in the first place, and frankly I’m astonished that I was strong enough to do that. My faith is a fertile, fertile mustard seed, planted in my simple childhood, rooted and sprouting, irreversible, though my grubby fingers often try to pull it out of the ground and put it somewhere else for safekeeping. I’ve read the Bible, I love the stories and know them. I think the Bible is the most beautiful thing in the world and I also frequently think myself too cool to think about it very much. I have not been consistently attending a church lately because it felt socially exhausting, and our schedule has not allowed it. I am not a good Christian.

But I am one. All the way.  My soul belongs to God.

I spent Good Friday at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue thinking about Jesus, about sons, about death and fear and grief. About humans, mostly, and how heavy the weight of life is, how bad we are at living well. The words, “my son, my son, my son, my son, my son” rang in my ear, and I felt my future children stir somewhere in the half-light of another world and I grieved for their death, someday. Rachel weeping for her children. I don’t know Jesus because he was an actual human and he is no longer on earth, but I do know that love is stronger than death and nothing can make sense of the pain of being alive except God and his own grief. The choir sang this passage: “When David heard that Absalom was slain, he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, and thus he said, “My son Absalom, O my son, would God I had died for thee.” At the end of the service, the bells rang thirty-three times and the lights dimmed in the cathedral until only the light of Christ was left, the candle, which was then snuffed out by the pastor, a woman. And for a moment, all was silent and dark on Michigan Avenue in this giant stone room, and I could hardly breathe.

And then everyone around me got up too fast, shuffling silently down the aisle, so pedestrian. And I still could not move, was angry that anyone had moved, wanted to stay suspended in the otherworldly holy darkness, God’s grief and mine too, black reverence, Jesus’ death. God’s son, God’s son, God’s son. Until I did. I got up and walked. A little girl walking beside me looked back at her mother and whispered, “Where’s my hat?” In the lobby I saw heavy rain out the door, busses roaring past, the John Hancock building. The world still zipping by though Jesus, who I do not live in the right time or place to have known personally, had died again and I had killed him, though all my future children will die too and I cannot save them, though children weep in Syria and everywhere, my son, my son, my son. And I too wondered, “Where’s my hat? Why didn’t I bring an umbrella? Where should I wait until my husband can pick me up when he’s done with work? What will I eat for dinner?” Feeling everything and nothing, simultaneously feeling silent in the weight of the darkness and getting up right away to shuffle on to somewhere else. I sat on the steps of the church under the eaves and waited for Isaiah to come pick me up. A homeless man asked me for money, and I lied and said I had none.

So complicated to be human. So complicated to belong to God.

The view from the steps outside Fourth Presbyterian church on Good Friday.

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