"And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love." William Blake.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fire in the Sky, or Trailer Court Lessons on Race

About race: my parents, grandparents, pastor and teachers all had lessons they tried to teach me about it. They taught me lessons called "Inevitable" or "Irreparable" or "Institutional, but...." But not, Race. Not a personal problem, if I don't say N******, if I treat everyone with dignity, if I see beyond appearance. They tried to teach me what they wanted assurance of: "Exculpated."

Those lessons backfired. They fed my contrarian habit of thought. If they got the lessons about personhood wrong, I was free to doubt all the other moralisms they tried to teach me. It took Ta-Nehisi Coates' to give words to that truth, which he did in Between the World and Me: 

"Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline....Dreamers... plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky."


Once on a Saturday night, my father pulled me over onto his lap and let me steer past my grandparent's olive green house. My grandfather named the road for himself, Bade Drive, and owned the only home, a standard American model with three bedrooms, no central air, one-car garage, on a basement in our trailer court. It seemed like a mansion compared to the trailer in which we lived. I felt my father's right leg moderate the gas pedal, so that we drove the car like a riding mower. With the power of the wheel in my hands, I felt like the reigning princess of a kingdom. One of the grandkids of the park owner. Special.

My grandfather took pride in his fiefdom. Enormous concrete pots spilled out flowers he planted himself. He owned two barns, a tractor and a cadre of small machines which my dad and uncles used to keep the roads black and dust-free. He built shelters for everyone's mailboxes on a patio so the mail deliverer could slide all but packages into slots in the back. Although it was illegal, he could slide in the lot-lease reminders as well. He made a shelter for all the kids who rode the bus, which was not me, because my parents homeschooled us. I didn't have to shelter with the freckled red-heads, the blondies, the nut-browns, the bleach-blonds, all those white-skinned kids who kicked me around after school for being different.

I thought being the princess of the kingdom made me their target. Yet, I knew the truth. I wasn't a princess. We didn't own the land on which our house sat any more than any other family in the park. In fact, we didn't even call our trailer park neighborhood. My grandmother called it a trailer court and my grandfather planted more flowers and called it a park.

And, I grew up learning bit by bit that my dad worked off the break on lease fees when he plowed the streets for my grandfather in the middle of the night, whether he had a shift at seven am or not.  I learned that a body could own her dwelling without rights to land beneath. This lesson contradicted the narratives I read in history and heard elsewhere. As a result I learned to unthink- or maybe just to  worry less about- the Dream.

Because my grandfather protected us, dealt bountifully with us, I decided we must be more like Chief Tecumseh and the Shawnee I read about on our Indiana history mugs. Each told the tale of the Indiana Territory- Mad Anthony Wayne, our city's founding father, and Chief Tecumseh, his rival. I'd read those narratives enough, evaluated them over shirley temple eggs, eggs on toast, scrambled eggs and pancakes that I found Mad Anthony and the white man's clutching at land superfluous. A body could live in a place without possessing it. We were fine. Our neighbors seemed content. We had our bikes and El Dorados under tarps. We had our bullies and hung-over single moms, the lady with emphysema. My best friend ate Cookie Crisp for breakfast, Boo Berry after school, let me sneak into her house for cartoons with her and never ratted me out. My parents told me not to go in there, not to disturb her dad, a Vietnam vet who slept odd hours but kept the house and curb spickety-span while his wife brought home the bacon. I didn't know what PTSD was then. We just weren't supposed to make loud noises.

When did I realize the truth?

My father never grumbled about what my grandfather exacted- okay, maybe once, but "Dad gets tired, Maria," my mother explained.

My mother could not explain why she had to turn away the neighbors when the three tornados touched down near us.

"Get back under the mattress," mom ordered. But I couldn't My best friend, her little sister, her mother and few other mothers and children in tow stood on our porch. They needed help. They saw a danger we didn't. Mom had us under mattresses in the hallway.

"What should we do if they turn our way?" The other moms pleaded. "Please, can't we go to your dad's house to the basement? Can't you call him?" I don't remember my mom's replies. I remember her silent despairing inability to help. I remember seeing one twister, a kind of ribbon shadow stirring smoky dust at the touchdown, off in the distance. I remember ordering my younger siblings to "get back under the mattresses in the hall." I remember that at some point after she closed the front door, my mom mumbled about what the radio squawked. Two more tornadoes had grounded President Reagan's Air Force One on the tarmac at the Air Force Reserve Base. It was two miles away as the bomber flies. I think my mother muttered something about staying put, somethings about sheltering in place being good enough for the president and good enough for the owner's daughter.

"Should we go to Grandpa's? To the basement?" She didn't answer. She shook with fear or anger, I'll never know.

We couldn't, I gathered. Not because grandpa would turn away his daughters but because the neighborhood would follow us and he'd turn them away. I remember something about it being a Christian thing to do. Whatever that meant.


Between our park and the neighborhood stood an tight arborvitae fence, tall and old. My parents said we should never ever sneak through and trespass. Sometimes, I wound a tight running line close on the other side or hid in the greens. It hurt my conscience to flirt with disobedience like that. But what was on the other side?

"Black people," my friends told me. "That's where the black kids live and they are all in gangs at school." I wouldn't know since I didn't go to school. "They are so mean on the bus, Maria. You wouldn't like them." My aunt transferred her boys to our church school so that they wouldn't have to be around black kids.

A few months after the tornadoes, a new menace had a couple of the neighborhood dads banging on our door after eleven on a Saturday night. Mom and Dad stood at the door, asking them to keep down their voices.

"A black spook with a butcher knife is running crazy through the neighborhood. Call your father-in-law, Pete." Mom said, "Pete, don't. Just call the police." Instead he called the brothers-in-law and told the men to go home. He didn't want a posse of white men trawling the trailer court for something was literally a spook or a woman defending herself.

I made up delicious tales for my friends the next day. We congregated on my red porch, the only trailer with a big porch, a motherly maple and a park-sized swing set on the lot. We had the best lot in the park, so even red-headed bullies had to kiss up to me from time-to-time. When my father figured large in saving the park from dangerous black women because he was the owner's son-in-law, all the kids had to come to me for the scoop. Of course my dad and uncles would take care of it, I assured them. My dad, the hero. But when my dad heard me talking "too big for your britches, Maria" he sent me inside where my mom rebuked me gently for gossip.

"But, she was real. People saw her. Other people's dads. Why didn't we call Grandpa or the police if she was real?" I asked.

"We never found her. We did let your Grandpa know, had to," my dad said. "They are just afraid of black people."

The kids had scattered when my dad sent me inside. Having cleared my way to the only version of the truth my parents would give me, I worked out my thoughts alone on the red porch. I felt full of big thoughts. Were we, our family- my parents and such- afraid of black people? Last night, was my dad of a black woman, crazy with knife? What about my uncle whose boys went to the church school to get away from black kids? What did my cousins and relatives think of the one black family in our church. I played with their daughter. My dad joked around with the dad, who preached much shorter and more interesting sermons when our pastor wanted a week off. So why did my parents order me never to trespass the greens into Crown Colony? Were they afraid of gangs and black people? Did they think old folks would be mean to me? (Probably. I didn't know how curmudgeonly some could be).  We had to stay in our park and come to think of it, we had no Orientals on this side. No Spanish. No black people. 

"Are there mostly black people in Crown Colony?" I tried for a bit of fact checking my parents. "I didn't see them when I had delivered newspapers," which my father had allowed while my cousin went to camp. One of the parents followed me sleepily while I threw papers towards front doors in the pre-dawn light. I saw only old people, shuffling down driveways between green lawns, plastic daisies, faded tulips, hedgerows. My mother shrugged. She couldn't say. 

According to my friends, the place was crawling with "blacks." I just had to see for myself. "You've only seen people in the early morning. Only old people are up then. Ride your bike with me. You'll see them." I wanted to see these people. I didn't have a television and only my one friend with her baby sister. I wanted to see the people my friends wanted nothing to do with. I needed truth, so I peddled further out, faster and longer on the clean white paved roads of Crown Colony. The unseen black people must be richer than us, like my church friend. They had things I didn't to keep them inside: televisions, cable, instant cereal to keep them inside.

Why don't black people live over here on our side, I asked my cousins. My parents never provided a satisfying explanation.

"Oh, Grandpa screens them out. He screens out all the dangerous people," my cousins educated me.

When my friends and cousins were at school, I pondered that on the red porch, my legs dangling off the side, kicking the skirting around our trailer.

That's not right, is it? Grandpa wouldn't do that, would he? That would make him a racist wouldn't it? Racist. A taint.

Why would Grandpa screen people out, I asked. I think my father gave a cagey reply. "I wouldn't do that, Maria. That's all I can say."

Next time...
2. Don't marry a black man and I'll tell you why...
 and after that, Dr. King wasn't a national hero because he cheated on his wife.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Dear Mr. Berry

Dear Mr. Berry

My husband wrote you, and you wrote back. Thank you. He wrote you on behalf of my despair. He wrote you because I graduated from a lovely little school, the one where Rachel Carson studied, out in Pittsburgh. I proved I was a writer by generating copious words, hundreds of pages, and defending those words. The paper next to my desk says I have a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. But I feel like a fraud. My thesis needs extensive re-working to be publishable, and a writer is a writer in two ways, as one who answers the call within her heart to put words to paper, and as one who revises her texts because writing requires discipline.  What that paper whispers to me is this: "You can put lots of words on a white blank space." I have yet to prove if I can make those words artful, as artful as I admire in your writing.

Thank you for writing back.

This sounds sentimental but when I ask my high school students who they'd invite to a dinner party, I give them my list to get them thinking. You are on that list. If I could choose from among the living and dead, I'd invite Flannery O'Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Brian Doyle, Barbara Kingsolver, and Scott Russell Sanders. You all come to mind first because of something I talked about with Mr Sanders during my first summer residency for my MFA. I said I loved Hannah Coulter andJayber Crow, but the first time I read Hannah Coulter I kept expecting something to happen. By that, I meant I expected you to manipulate her circumstances to "sex up" the plot. Please excuse the common parlance. When you confounded me by writing a novel that made me feel I'd sat with my friend's grandmother for several enjoyable hours, I felt resurrected. Your term. God's term. The one you used at the end of one of my favorite poems, "The Mad Farmer Manifesto." I stumbled around trying to articulate this to Mr. Sanders, and he took my ideas and lifted them to the heavens like a priest offering them as Eucharist. "He writes about fidelity," said Mr. Sanders and that's the hard thing to do. When I left that residency, I intended to write about how hard it was to love Mary, the Mother of God, because I converted from Protestantism to Orthodox Christianity and I am supposed to be devoted to her. -- I confess, she scares me. She has her stuff together. I am, again in common parlance, more of a hot mess after that two years earning that MFA than I was beforehand.

Which is why I want to say how important it was for you to write back.

My husband knew you would. Here's how.

You trade sheep with Adam Moody of Moody Meats. His daughter Rachel once wrote you about raising young boys. She treasures the letter you wrote back to her.

One of Adam's employees Josh met you. Another, Justin met you. They told me that you have such a generous heart that you sometimes entertain perfect strangers like we are angels. You do this in due season and when it works.

And, Mr. Sanders said he's met you several times. He spoke fondly of you.

I hope I meet you someday, on terra or in heaven. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis meets George MacDonald, his literary hero. I hope I stroll past them on my way through sharp, bright, dangerous place where God's love burns and I find you there.

Thank you for writing back in your handwriting. I should return the favor. I type this because my mind races with every thought I want to share with you. I pray this missive does not read like diarrhea of the pen.

I feel ashamed because the first essay I ever read by you, "Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer," chastised me. I'd been teaching high school language arts for an on-line school for a couple of years. The computer distracted me, divided me, kept me working, sometimes with thirty tabs open. I'd be texting someone, using a cyber-meeting room and have a phone ringing in my ear. When I finished those long days, I couldn't touch a phone. I should have slammed shut my laptop lid but Facebook, this horrible social networking tool, connected me to the people outside my house. It became my drug. I learned to think and write so many words so fast through fingers that tap keys like I imagine someone can read Braille.

Here I am tapping out this letter to you. I think I should do what Doris Lessing character does in The Golden Notebook. I should scrawl this out until my wrist aches, and I have a flat spot on my thumb. The computer tabs are distractions. I lack focus most of the time. I open tabs and stumble around reading The Atlantic,The New Yorker, or some Washington Post article, looking up recipes, or ordering supplies. I read your article and thought about those old days when I lived and wrote closer to the rhythm of reality. You wrote in your article that you work with horses. I smelled their dusty musk. Hot dirt, a hint of horse pucky. I smelled the cucumber-crisp air that wisps into my room because I sleep with the window open most of the year. I rubbed my empty hand and remembered the way the horses at a nearby ranch leave a film of body oil on my palm after I run their necks or coil their manes in my fingers.

I need to write like that, close to dark and light, dirt and dust, heat and cold. The blandness of temperature and the unsatisfying pursuit of a teaching career remind me that I live in a zoo. My controlled environment with easy meat bores me. I write words without the fidelity of meaning.

Thank you for writing back to tell my husband that you don't have much advice for a writer so discouraged she cannot write. "If she wants to write, she will." Admonishment of the kindest sort.

I've been writing since I was a teenager. At fourteen, after my parents with help from my grandfather and even us, the kids, built a home with our own hands, I took to sneaking off to write. As the oldest, I had to sneak away from chores and distractions. It didn't happen often, maybe a couple times a week. I'd fill my canteen with our sweet well-water. I stacked several mechanical pencils, a college-ruled spiral notebook and my cassette walkman with headphones. I balanced them with an apple and my 35mm instant camera on my left arm and snuck out the back door, a wood-framed screen door that had to be eased closed, or my mother might hear its sloppy whack and call me back.  I'd creep like a settler through the woods to a remote concrete bridge and lay on it, cold in the off-season, hot in the summer, while penning poems or ranting about parents. I finished stories started at my desk that morning.

I am writing again about that place. I'm reworking portions of my thesis, about the young years when my little sister Naomi Ruth slept at my feet while we built the house, about her desire to live closer to the earth, or rather to be buried naturally in it. She is thirty and surviving stage four cancer. Writing about her cancer, about the natural cemetery our church has initiated, about living and dying closer to our natures, that is the story to which I'm trying to be true. Writing about it leaves me broken sometimes.

I write you all these words because I wish I could redeem myself as a writer. I want to write something worth reading some day. It's a compulsion. I sometimes rebel. I want you to read this, but I know it's because I'm self-conscious that you might think I'm one of those writers who wants her name in lights, or on the cover of a book, at any cost. I don't. I want to write one thing worth reading. One thing about fidelity. One story with substance and style. I want to write one story, even slowly that does what your poems, essays, and stories have done for me. They've reminded me that living simply rewards me best. It expands my heart with gratitude, faithfulness, simplicity. Things of real value.

Thank you for writing me back. I've wanted to tell you how much your work has changed me. Now I have a reason.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

If you are not safe in the tub...

H.C. White Co Publishers, North Bennington, Vt., U.S.A. - Stereocard by H. C. White & Co. Via Library of Congress 
Then where are you safe?

One reason I fell in love with my 1874 Victorian was the claw-foot tub in the bathroom. At the bottom of the iron, the white porcelain has been scoured thin, leaving a gray trail. It hints at hardships this tub and this house have survived.

While we waited interminable days to offer, counter offer, close and take possession, I dreamed of solitary baths, deep in the tub, water and bubbles burying me. The gush of water swirling into my ear canals, shutting out noise. Children could thrash at the door but in water that deep, I would be a mermaid. I wish I could say I've actualized as many baths as I've fantasized. I've probably curled up in that dry tub hiding behind the white curtains that drape from above.

One curls in a tub because it's in the bathroom. The biological urgency of the bathroom protects a mother from reacting to the forces outside the walls. Children can slap each other. They can slam doors. They can swallow gallons of sugar. Bills can seep out of the bill drawer. Doorbells can ring. Fists strike wood. Timers chime. When sadness consumes a person, we stream silent tears and reply with cheer, I'll be out momentarily.

When my tears turn to heaves, I cover them with the stream of shower water. I stand in the water naked, and steam sucks the fabric to my legs. Seer-sucking mildew stained shower curtains want to hug  me when I want least to be touched. Don't even caress me. Sometimes, I don't want a kind look. I want to my disfigured aging body in a mirror and hate it. Only, I don't. I stand in the stream, beating myself up for the waste of water. I get out when I've washed the salt off.

I timed myself out in the bathroom of last resort. Timeout began after I stomped up the stairs, glass in hand, and holler on the lungs. My mother would have called my hollering a pity party and an angry one, at that. I threw my glass into the tub, hoping its tall walls would capture to the wave of glass, spraying like bullets from the ball turret gunner's bay.

Glass waved up and pushed past the curtains. I stood in shards, barefoot, and sobered immediately.

"What I couldn't figure out last night," my husband paused, "is why there was glass in the tub?"

"Oh, really. There was. I thought I got it all cleaned up."

"Well, I cleaned out the rest," he said. We said no more because we were brittle. I went to bed without apologies for the fit, without resolving the conflict. My daughter had knocked on the door. Goodnight, I said to dismiss her. I sound fake cheerful. My husband begged to talk about the issues. I told him I put myself in timeout. We'd talk later.

"Was there glass in the bottom of the tub last night?" My son asked. 


"I got glass stuck in my foot when I showered."

"I'm sorry. I thought I had it all cleaned up."


I thought they'd heard the whole tantrum. The flask ricocheted a thousand shards that would later embed in my son's feet. I washed out the tub. Like blood, some stuck in the pocks of porcelain. 

Our thoughts are material, scientists now believe. The material has a kind of consciousness. Genes and compounds react and relate in proximity, not even when mixed. Between what we think and atoms, another substance influences reality. Saint Porphyrious must have had premonitions of this when he wrote in Wounded by Love:
Man has such powers that he can transmit good or evil to his environment. These matters are very delicate. Great care is needed. We need to see everything in a positive frame of mind. We mustn’t think anything evil about others. Even a simple glance or a sigh influences those around us. And even the slightest anger or indignation does harm....When we speak evil about someone, an evil power proceeds from within us and is transmitted to the other person, just as the voice is transmitted on sound waves, and in point of fact the other person suffers evil. (Excerpt reprinted here)

An act of war. I committed such an act of war, in private isolation in the one place I thought I was safe to bury my evil. I thought my warring disposition would eek out its catharsis without true harm. But evil power transmitted. My son suffered glass. I became the ball turret gunner casualty of war, aggressor, dead myself. For causing suffering in another killed me.

No man is an island, entire unto himself," writes John Donne. Spiritual kill causes suffering and suffering diminishes me, more so when I am the cause.

Photo Credits:
Ball Turret Gunner, Public Domain.  Royal Air Force official photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//55/media-55317/large.jpg This is photograph CI 1028from the collections of the Imperial War Museums
Woman bathing, 1902. Public domain. Reprinted on Wikicommons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Bathtubs#/media/File:1902_bath_illustration.png

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Murder Most Foul, some disconnected thoughts and quotes.

Twas my last year at Purdue University and a pro-life group gathered outside the English hall with six foot tall signs printed with photos of severed bodies that in truth are the size of a dime. They meant... something. I want to be able to say, "They meant well." Even I, a seamless garment pro-lifer, against capital punishment, euthanasia, war, suicide, assisted suicide, and abortion, puked in my throat, choked and thought, "this will only wound, not heal."

Dr. King wrote the words 
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Sara Manguso wrote in Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend, that her friend's suicide made that option unavailable to her. I keep asking when that option will be unavailable to me. These times try my soul. Last weekend I found the most elegiac place to die. And today, on my run, I saw myself, like Judas, running headlong off the cliff to dash myself against the stone. What does being against all violence look like?
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that, wrote Dr. King. 
The light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, wrote St. John of our Lord, the true Word who saves.
Last night, I broached the topic of the materiality of our thoughts, which Elder-now-Saint Porphyrios talks about in Wounded by Love. Elder Zaccharias wrote a whole book Our Thoughts Determine our Lives. The podcast Invisibilia  explored this from a scientific standpoint. I encountered Emerson's quote at the outset of "Self-Reliance" -- and here we are. What does it mean to wish that our brother gets his just-desserts? What does it mean to hate? To hate ourselves or another? 
That quote from Emerson in "Self-Reliance:" Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. --

From Wounded By Love, select quotes on materiality and danger in judgmental thoughts.

"Above everything is love. The thing that must concern you, my children, is love for the other person, of this soul. Whatever we do, whether it is prayer or offering advice or pointing out some error, let us do it with love. Without love prayer is of no benefit, advice is hurtful and pointing out errors is harmful and destructive to the other person who senses whether we love him or not and reacts accordingly. Love, love, love! Love for our brother prepares us to love Christ more. Isn’t that perfect? Let us scatter our love selflessly to all, without regard to the way they act towards us." [p. 181]

Let’s have love, meekness and peace. In that way we help our brother when he is possessed by evil. Our example radiates mystically, and not only when the person is present, but also when he is not. Let us strive to radiate our good will. Even when we say something about a person whose way of life does not meet with our approval, the person is aware of it and we repel him. Whereas, if we are compassionate and forgive him then we influence him — just as evil influences him — even if he does not see us.

We shouldn’t be enraged by people who blaspheme or who speak and act against God and the Church. Such rage is harmful. We may hate the words and the malice behind them, but we must not hate the person who spoke them nor become enraged against him. Rather we should pray for him. A Christian has love and graciousness and should behave accordingly.
What will make suicide unavailable to me? Self-annihilation. For there brothers and sisters annihilated daily by no will of their own. When I go, Dear Lord, let it be under the wheels of this dark age, in place of another who needed to go on.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

It's been a week, folks

I wrote an essay that started as a poem years ago, called King Tut's Nubian and now I refer you to it because it provides context for this post.

It's been a week, folks. Usually on weeks like this, I look for full moons, but I've been grading till wee hours of the morning and too depressed to get out of bed for my usual dawnbreak runs. I'm not superstitious but I believe in magnetic forces. Some include:

  • I've worked and worked and worked to grade and conference with all my students so they can be successful at 11th grade writing standards.-- I internalize all these messages about teachers who don't try enough. Try this. Try carrying between 220 and 300 students on your gradebook. Do the math on reading papers carefully, holding them against a rubric and knowing that 70% of first drafts don't meet higher than a D standard. Not proficient. Now, I have to help these kids see this without robbing their dignity and help them see how to fix it. That takes conferences. Conferences take time. Right after they turn in their papers, my school -- a virtual school where kids do most work from home without me or a parent there -- assigns the unit test. If they didn't give half a rat's buttcheek on the paper, they gave less to the test. Even they are fried. One of my team members resigned. And we'd just welcomed a teacher to drop our loads from three hundred to two hundred. Now what?
  • My daughter seems alone at school and had a tough summer. I'm a worried momma. I want her happy. When I have a week like this, I almost hold my breath to hear who will have cancer, more cancer, more double-toil-and-trouble. Maybe it's the disturbance in the force, coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, most of the Middle East. 
  • It was the Elevation of the Cross Feast. This is the feast where we read the OT story about the Jewish people looking upon the snake on the staff to be saved and we are reminded to look at the Cross at Christ upon it. Huh. Every year something overwhelms me and I'm caught looking up at the Cross with the same desperation. It's no cheeky easy solution. I look at it with anger and hurt and sneering. So, God. Why again?
  • And, I just get depressed. Regularly and more so as the years go by. I've always been depressed. Now, I get panic attacks and depression. 
  • My health issues flared up enough that I had to crash my dear friends' home tonight on a run and beg to use her loo. She rescued me cheerfully. I love you, dear friend. I've only done that two other times in the eight years I've been running. It's so humiliating. Not as humiliating as pooing yourself in the middle of a half-marathon though. That's worse. Oh, dear dear GI.
In that, I spent one whole day rebuffing all the love my husband and son gave me. Backrub, mom? I shrugged it off. Eye-contact, darling? Couldn't make it. I slinked up and down stairs without so much as a hello.
 But why acid-burn others with my despair? So I told my husband I'd try to kick around in the dark for my big girl knickers. He came alongside me. God should give that man a medal when we get to heaven. He's put up with me for over twenty years. I told him it could get bad way back, while we were still dating. Neither of us knew how crappy I'd get, literally and metaphorically. Lots of couples don't make it. If anyone asks how we do, I point at him. And God, and some friends.

Like my friends Luke and Janna. On the anniversary of their Aiden's death, they wrote me, not I them. Luke sent a playlist which I pulled up when I went for a prescription jog. That's where I pretend I popped an anti-depressant and I turn up music loud and run. Hard.

I tried that again tonight but there was the poo thing. TMI? Just wait till I write about my colonoscopy next week. This is my third in a decade. The docs hate me because I never go fully under anesthesia. I start a conversation just when they think I'm out. It weirds them.

Luke wrote a great blog tonight, so this response is really a push for you to go to his post "Sorrow, Shrapnel, and A-D." Read it. He wrote about Aiden's death, about losing his other (god) kids, about his own struggles with anxiety and despair. As I read his words, I thought of last spring, when one of my fellow parishioners stopped to scrape me off the sidewalk. I'd sat down there so light-headed from my panic attack that I thought I'd lose consciousness and fall into the road. I thought of Luke and Janna's quiet way of being. These people not only save my life, they exemplify what happens when we get up and keep going. In Luke's words,
"In doing so, I have also discovered that most of the people I have looked to for my own inspiration are deeply flawed and hurt individuals themselves, but more importantly, those who allowed their pain to help shape them by dealing with the sorrow shrapnel as it surfaced, and letting Grace, as U2 says so well, “…make beauty out of ugly things.” 

So here's to a brother and a family in Christ who are like brothers and sisters. To a friend whose birthday is today and knows what it's like to fight melancholy and care for people with mental illness. To another friend whose family struggles with mental illness.  To the friend who parents an autistic child and lets us into her house every week to see what we can learn from it. To siblings and siblings-in-law who let me fall apart and give sound responses. I'm not calling you out to embarrass you. I owe my life to you. I owe my life to the friend parenting a recovering cutter and alcoholic. I owe another friend, facing divorce with shrapnel and grace. I owe cousins, uncles, and siblings with cancer and mental illness who keep on soldiering for Christ. When I'm rooting around for my big girl knickers, hoping they say it's saturday, I turn up my music and keep the beat. Maybe tomorrow I'll have slept enough to scrape you up when you need it. Maybe. I hope so.

I owe all to my God who in the words of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, "knows the multitude of my evil-doings."
 You also know my wounds, and You see my bruises.But You also know my faith, and You behold my willingness, and You hear my sighs.
Nothing escapes You, my God, my Maker, my Redeemer, not even a tear-drop, nor part of a drop.
Your eyes know what I have not achieved, and in Your book things not yet done are written by You.
See my depression, and see how great is my trouble: 

King Tut's Nubian

While we lived in Pennsylvania, I took my middle school daughter to see the King Tut's Exhibit. We paid a pretty penny to wander for an hour among gilt sarcophagi and intricate jewelry. Within a few minutes, Layla raced ahead of me, bored as myself but so childlike she didn't care to get her money's worth.

Take away the glittering neon and the homage to the Pharoah felt a bit like our visit to Times Square. Oh, look at what rich people stock pile. Look what happens to it after they die. Meh. I lingered to get my money's worth, like a girl trying to savor a six-dollar slice of cheesecake while the scent of NY trash wafts by.

Not that the Tut exhibit smelled of dust. But there was no head-heart connection. I couldn't conjure the wonder at what the powerful do with their wealth. Only one piece impassioned me. Without the Nubian staff to snag my imagination, I might have felt like any children's museum in the country had as good a replica.

That Nubian girl, fashioned at the curve of the staff head, fluttered in my sensations. I had a kind of synethesia in the back of my head. She looked first like a dancer or mermaid splashing with such perfect grace, such beauty in her back bend. She was in a copper dress. Her shoulders squared. She was anguishingly slender, beautiful to behold and the longer I admired her the greater my confusion of pain and sweetness. The perfect curve from crown of her noble head, her brow, her nose, her lips, that chin, all more lovely than I remembered Barbies and ballerina dancers, I stared until she became the truth and horror. She looked without looking. She hides pain behind beauty and pride. Tut had bent her to breaking. She held hands behind her shoulder blades and copper links hind her upper arms. Her hands were turned back, Her thumbs  she folded as if her muscles seized. Powerless.

The sign said Tut had this staff fashioned to show he'd bent the backs of the noble race of Nubians who marched against him. He destroyed their dignity by making them his slaves and bending them to breaking. Because he wished it. Because he had the power.

I began to cry as I cry. Not sobs. Not weeping. A mere swollen eye. Burning salt. A wounding. Looking up on her pain felt like seeing myself as I felt doing my job.

She was my poetry. The metaphor of me. I would have broken the glass in a fantasy, stolen her, taken her to a farrier and begged him to give her enough warm to be made straight again. I could no more straighten her than I can or have straightened me. I am still such a slave.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


When we passed into Mexico, south of Chula Vista in July, my husband looked around and saw that it was beautiful. All that God created.

Until we crossed the border the teenagers in our van -- a SKV  they called it, which stood for serial killer van -- looked out onto a concrete Euphrates flowing south to Tijuana. They looked upon the fish. Chevies. Mercedes. Audis. Sonatas. CRV's. They looked out of the side-slanted windows, into the eyes of these animals. Carp. Guppies. Druggies. Warlords. Boreds. Gangstas. Smugglers. Mothers. The collective teenage consciousness in our white whale looked out on the paradise my husband saw and declared it rife with weakness and duplicitous motives.

North of the border boasted the best of human superiority. Grand villas. Manicured. Landscaped. Cultivated. Controlled. Balanced. South of the border broadcast the bildungsroman of humankind. On its way to civilization, greatness mashed against trash. Homes founded on piles of tires. Towers of hotels arrested a floor or two short. Rebar crowns and tin slips, pavement dying away to dust. Below the cat calling billboards -- autoplastía, anaplastía, abogado immigracíon, -- men walk down the dust between our highway and the eyesore of concrete and wire between us and them.

"Really?" I am flabbergasted. "Why do you think it's beautiful?" But the kids jabber too loud to answer and he's soaking up the vista. And calling it beautiful.


The square mile looks the same as it did when I saw it first four years ago. I drove a rented guppy with my daughter in the front passenger seat, two boys from our Midwestern church in the backseat. The guppy's transmission choked on dust. I prayed the white whale in front wouldn't race away from us, The white whale behind us would let us be a barnacle on its nose if this transmission failed. I divided my energy between observation, the art of a writer, and driving, the responsibility of a team leader.

To be fair, the first trip into Tijuana was 2011. Even our town in Indiana looked like hell. 2008 came, stole our bread, stole our factories. Thrifty scared and bored, people in our town built labs in their attics for cash and entertainment. Our century's version of a still, my generation's version of hooch kills as many of us, or more. Houses blow up, or burn. Back home our main street looked like an abandoned Western town. The saloons, the lawyers, insurance agencies, pawnbrokers, tanning shops and motley folks put out their wares. Mostly everything looked beautifully abandoned.

Imagine Tijuana in that. In Mexico during the crisis, the government made the Tortilla Act. Farmers south sold their corn north of the border. Corn for ethanol sold better than corn for food. The two room, concrete-and-chicken-wire houses we came to build protected a family's claim. They squatted in something more permanent than tin and tarp.


The tires that triggered quiet "ah's" and "that house is literally built on" from the teens, those were part of well-designed repurposed buildings. The longer we rode, the more I saw rows of white and vibrantly painted homes inside compounds. To me, Tijuana had burst forth. It was reaching towards beautiful. More like the pretty side by side compounds of Guatemala City's neighborhoods, which I'd seen only once.

I traveled to Guatemala City in August of 2011, a few weeks after we returned from Mexico. For both my husband and me, this was a first. Our first travels out of the US. When we disembarked in Guatemala City, we walked past armed soldiers across the tarmac. Guns and guards seemed to swarm. I thought of New Orleans after Katrina, images I'd seen, not experienced. Now I walked among guards who couldn't care if I spoke only English.

My husband says he found Guatemala hard to look upon with love. I saw its zoologico and the uniformed students, waiting to see if today the striking teachers would show up to unlock their schools. I saw uniformity, not graffiti and dust. I went to bed at night inside the twenty foot high cinderblock walls surrounding the Hogar Raphael. The shipping trucks rattled until late. They picked up Sears furniture from the factories nearby. Nightclubs on the four corners of the compound took over the noisemaking around midnight. I heard weeping and music, hollering and fighting.

"Once, we found a knife in the grass," said Madre Ivonne, the nun who supervised the hogar. A man had been murdered on the other side of the wall. I thought about that every night as I fell asleep. I felt safe because we had check in with the armed guard at the steel gate of the compound, even with Jorge driving. Jorge was Madre Ivonne's brother.

 At four am, I woke up because no one sang, hollered, honked or cranked an engine. I heard clicking across my floor. I flicked on the switch. Large black beetles skittered under the crack into the jardín separating my room from my husband's. I shut off the light. They came back like that every night. I shuddered thinking of them ending up in my luggage, but what bothered me more was the wire in my showerhead. It heated my water at the spigot, but if it shorted I would be electrocuted. Our handyman warned me to take a cold shower before trying to fix anything myself. No worries, Joe, I thought. I would moan my way through a cold shower, wash away a little sweat and dust, and huddle in my covers. And flick on the lights if the beetles sounded too close. 

Several nights in a row, I did just that. But one night, when I flipped off my switch at ten pm, light seeped through cracks above me. I'd never seen it before. A swishing sound and dust sprinkled down on me. Like a subtle hint, I understood that I had someone above, the older hogar girls or Madre Ivonne. My late night light defense against the beetles probably disturbed the sleeper above.

 I loved Guatemala City, even Zona Una, even though the mothers said they had to get the kids out of there, it was just too ugly, too dangerous.

Coming home this summer, my husband told everyone he thought Mexico was beautiful.

 "I thought Guatemala was more beautiful myself," I said.

"I didn't," I take his response as a bit defensive, a kind of retort, as if we a have passive resistance to the mystery of beauty we each see. It's not true  but he sees something so expansive he has yet to capture the beauty, though he's been playing with lyrics and chords to get it across. "Whatever is lovely, whatever is true, think on such things," admonishes Paul, a writer, a saint and sinner too. We're all reaching to these mysteries, I think. It's no easy task wrestling with beauty. Sometimes it's easier to entertain with dust than mystery, with violence and ugliness rather that what is lovely and faithful.