Squeaky Red Ladders

by Mandy

In the morning when Eve and Adam

woke to snow and their minds,

they set out in marvelous clothes

hand in hand under the trees.

Endlessly precision met them,

until they were grinning in time

with no word for their close

escape from that warm monotony. 

- Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

I’ve explained it twice now, and both times I felt as if I was betraying some pact I had signed in blood years ago while I was still sleeping. It had very little to do with how they reacted, although the “hmmms” and the hesitant head nods could have added something to my self-consciousness. But it was more so the hearing it come out of my head, listening to it transposed into the vibrations of my unique voice, the forming of my own syllables into words to attempt to explain a mystery that is, as mysteries often are, better left unexplained. It was that which left me feeling pale and drained of life, my hands cold and wringing, my heart brittle and far too near the surface of the skin.

I wonder now, in retrospect, if that’s what it feels like to stand so close to truth. To say the unspeakable things outwardly and wonder if they’ll survive the harsh conditions of the “real world” which is not at all as real as everyone likes to think it. I may have been closer to death in that instance than I have ever been. Or at least I must admit that some sort of death hung in the balance surrounded by all that vulnerable life.

All that life which I first experienced the day I sat in the cozy room full of wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, complete with two red wooden ladders made to slide along a track. I tried to slide one of those ladders once, imagining it would slide with a fluidity like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, with me on it, soaring romantically from one set of shelves to the next. But it squeaked and it resisted and it felt as if to force it would mean to knock it off its track like I used to do with the screen door to the back deck as a child, much to my mom’s chagrin.

But lean in close, because here’s the part that I never tell anyone. I prefer the red ladder to stick. In fact, precisely because the red ladder resists, I feel at home in that room. I am the one that invites such hindrances into the story, and this feels like some sort of major confession as I type it. As if I am Eve taking a bite of a juicy piece of fruit and then tossing it over my shoulder and hoping it decomposes before anyone notices. The truth is, I am the one screwing it up for everyone.

I sat there that day while my daughters read chapter books a room over, while my husband nodded off over a book somewhere near the fireplace, and while my boys sat at my feet zooming Thomas Trains along a big wooden table with tracks. More tracks.

I am the one always off-track, I said to myself. (And then in a whisper that only the ancient light of stars could interpret I continued…) Most days, I actually prefer it that way.

I picked up a compiled poetry book that day and was flipping through it. Poems for Saying Goodbye, or some sort of melancholy title like that. It reminded me of the time my daughter came upon me art journaling, reading over my shoulder the prompt I had collaged in my book - How to get the most out of death. 

Her brow furrowed, “Why would you write about something like that?” She asked. To which I replied, “It’s quite enjoyable actually. Relieving even. I don’t mean it like I’m actually dying. I mean it like I’m letting things go. Letting nature have its way. Like leaves have to die and fall off a tree. Death is a sort of getting free.”

And so there I was sitting in my most favorite bookstore reading a book about goodbyes because I am always ready to part with more if necessary to keep my cargo light. It was in this moment, between train crashes with sons and daughters asking me, “What is this word?” that I stumbled upon Jack Gilbert and his words,

“It’s the having not the keeping that is the treasure.” 

I flashed back to reading Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine where Lena says,

“How long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last?…After awhile, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let’s have something else…Sunsets we always liked because they only happen once and go away…if the sunset stayed and we got bored, that would be a real sadness.”

This is the moment I felt more alive than ever. Like the room was spacious. Like I was floating. Like I wasn’t my kids’ mom or my husband’s wife, but I was love and joy and meaning personified. Like finally someone somewhere knew what I had been thinking all along just had been to afraid to say. If we find out that there is just one like us on the face of this planet throughout all time, then somehow we can continue being ourselves. And that day I felt like I shook hands with myself and then wrapped my arm around my shoulders and said, “Let’s go for a long walk, shall we?”

I flipped to the biographical information about Jack Gilbert. I read that he had written a book called Refusing Heaven. I read that as controversial and rebellious as it sounded, Jack Gilbert preferred this life with its uncertainties and messiness, with its mixture of struggle and alienation and delight, to any sort of paradise. That perfection bored him and contentment was a land of monotony.

“Yes!” I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream it and then I wanted to jump on a rusty resistant red ladder and squeak and shimmy my way in mere millimeters at a time across the room.

Yes to mystery. Yes to uncertainty. Yes to unknown. Yes to dissonance and unresolved musical scores. Yes to discontentment that keeps us searching and finding and searching again. Yes to sunsets that don’t last. Yes to heavens that don’t drone on with predictable answers. Yes to resistant red ladders. And yes to my life, the one I’m living now for the last time.

I hate to admit it, because it leaves me vulnerable, with my heart pulsing too near the skin, but I am the one who likes the coffee my friend spilled on my purse in Starbucks, leaving a stain that crept its shadows across the twill of the houndstooth pattern.

I am the one for which the story contains the hiccups, the resistance, the tension, the answerless questions, the chipping paint, the mess. I am the one that has put us in this predicament, and I am the one that is not even apologizing for it. I’m not out looking for a way to escape to a realm where everything has been cleaned up because I actually like finding the portals, the secret gardens, the open gates hidden by overgrowth that lead out into the wild. I like finding heaven on earth. Kingdoms already come. Living in all this dying and hellos in all these goodbyes. I am the one for which paradox was created. I am the one with my heart beating far too close to my skin.

Does this make me the one refusing heaven or embracing heaven as it is already given?

Dot On a Map

by Mandy

We had errands to run and he hates running errands. Specifically we had to go to the post office and he HATES going to the post office. “Can you just do the drive-thru post office?” He asks me every time with a whiny plea and every time I say, “No, I need postage.”

“I wish you would learn how to do the drive-thru,” he mumbles, throwing his hands back in exasperation.

This time it was like his little four-year-old mind was being proactive, planning in advance for the perpetual boredom that was destined to ensue.

“I’m taking paper, so I can draw,” he announced, holding up an oversized sheet of card stock.

“OK,” I said, “I think that is a really good idea.”

Upon arrival to the post office, there were no comments made in regard to the drive-thru. In fact, he was unbuckled and ready to go in before I was.

“I made a map,” he said, climbing out of his car seat and into the front passenger seat where he held the paper out to me proudly.

“Perfect,” I said, not really thinking about what he was saying because I was going through the mental checklist of, Do I have my wallet? And Do I have my keys? And, Can I lock and shut the door now?

We walked inside. Well, I did. His entry was more of a gallop, in black cowboy boots, nearly running into a man because he was looking back at me, still talking about the map.

We walked through two sets of double doors and then took our place in line. He started swinging on the narrow wooden counter that runs along the line of people, the counter for people to address mail, the counter he has been previously asked not to swing on.

“Why don’t you come over here and show me your map,” I said.

He took the bait.

“Where are we on the map?” I asked.

“We are this little dot right here. I put a dot so we would know where we are. See the dot?” He put his finger on the lower left-hand side of the drawing and waited for my acknowledgment. Then he continued, “And then there is all this and this and this and this,” he said running his finger along the squiggly mess of lines.

“So where is the school?” I said, reminding him we had to pick up his siblings after our post office visit.

“The school is here,” he said, pointing to the middle of a jumble of scribbles. “BUT, we have to go here and here and here and here and here BEFORE we can go to the school to get my kiddios.”

“I’m quite certain if we go all those places first we will run out of gas.”

“Silly, Mommy! We can go to the GAS station!” He exclaimed, rolling his eyes at my ignorance.

“Did you put a gas station on the map? How do we know where it is?”

“It’s right here,” he motioned, without skipping a beat.

“Oh, well that’s good. Whew!”

He smiled.

The lady behind us in line got intrigued.

“That’s a very nice map, sir,” she said to him.

I thought he was going to do his usual melt into shyness and hide behind my legs. He hesitated and then exclaimed, “I made it. I made it all. And see this dot, this is where we are. We are here. We are always here. We are never lost.”

“Well that’s very helpful,” she said with great enthusiasm. I half-expected her to ask if she could have the map to keep, to which I would have replied with a snappy “No!” I was getting sort of attached to the map myself. I wanted to snatch it and fold it up a hundred times so it was itty-bitty and then stuff it down my shirt like I’d seen pretty ladies do in movies when they are given a treasure they plan to protect.

As we were leaving the post office I realized I had somehow forgotten to mail a portion of the envelopes that I had bought postage for.

“Luther, it looks like it’s your lucky day. Does that map happen to tell you how to get to the post office drive-thru?”

“Yes! Of course it does!” He said, handing it up to me in the front seat .

This year I’ve created an Advent calendar of sorts. My intention is to create space for self-care this holiday season. As I was spending some time thinking about what gifts I would like to include for myself in the days of December in order to make it a cherished time, I thought about Luther’s map. More specifically, I thought about Luther’s dot on his map. I decided that’s what this Advent Season is asking to be for me. A dot, on a map.

Life is crazy. It has a lot of squiggles and scribbles and we usually end up going here and here and here and here and here even though we may not want to. And this time of year, we sometimes do that even more so. I bet we all can attest to a time we really have run out of gas. But my intention this year is to touch base every day with that dot. That little purple dot that allows me to say, “See this dot? This is where I am. I am always here. I am never lost. I know where I am. I am okay.”

And knowing where I am on a great big mess of purple squiggly, somehow makes the purple squiggly less overwhelming. Maybe it even gives me eyes to see the purple squiggly as a bit of a mysterious adventure.

The best part is, with a little awareness, I might even get to visit some places this Advent that my heart has always begged me to take it. Like the bless’ed post office drive-thru for example.

Something Small Against Something Big

by Mandy

“I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment…and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.”

- Alain de Botton

It was because of something an atheist said that I started salivating for church again.

I haven’t gone to church for several months now, a decision that wasn’t made lightly, nor was it made with a spirit of finality.

My dad asked me recently about this decision. “But what do you do with the verse that says ‘Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’” (Hebrews 10:25)

“I don’t know,” I answered, wishing I had more words to offer that would ease his worry.

At the same time that I was in Ohio visiting my family, I visited with one of my English teachers from high school. The subject of church came up at one point and he said, ” Why don’t you do some interviews? Meet with some pastors or priests from a variety of different churches and tell them where you are in your faith and see if they feel like their church is a match.”

The thought intrigued me, if for nothing else than the learning opportunity. I loved the thought of having a discussion one-on-one with a variety of spiritual leaders as opposed to merely sitting in a church service. And as a writer, surely it could add to my storytelling.

Sitting in a park one day, letting my three-year-old play while we waited for his three siblings to get out of school, I started looking up churches on my phone. Episcopalian churches, Lutheran churches, Catholic churches, Unitarian Universalist churches, Church of the Open Arms, all of which had been recommended to me by one person or another. I glanced over their core beliefs, I perused their programs, I checked out what it means to be a member. I even attempted calling one, but then quickly hung up the phone after the first ring.

What was I doing? I didn’t have a good feeling about this. In fact, I felt like I was using a dating service, trying to set up blind dates when I wasn’t even really sure I was ready to get back in the ring. Why was this so difficult? When had I become such a skeptic?

Looking through all the churches websites made my stomach turn. What if the interview with the ordained clergy went okay? Would they expect me to check out their church, like I owed it to them? I started to imagine myself walking in on a Sunday morning where I would be greeted with what would feel like a conjured up warmness. Where I would sit and listen to the ordained tell me what to believe or feel convicted about. Where I would perhaps be introduced to the person that handles Visitor Relations: “Can we get you more reading material? Can we drop off a loaf of bread at your home sometime later in the week? Can we follow up with a phone call? Will you be returning next week? Have you seen our children’s programs? We have so many different places to get you plugged in to serve. We can get you into a small group that will make church feel more intimate.”

I don’t want to be the fresh meat at a church looking to save me, convert me, or get me to fill a seat, a volunteer spot or a budget goal.

I just want to feel God and converse on big wondrous, creative ideas with other wanderers in the flesh (not merely online). But truth be known, I’m terrified I would lose the wonder of God in a church. It seems I don’t trust anyone anymore who manages a gateway to God.

“Tony, I even looked at the Unitarian Universalist website, thinking maybe it’s just Christianity that bothers me, but even that one made me uncomfortable,” I said to my husband, baffled at my discoveries. “I don’t think it has to do with their doctrine as much as it has to do with the structure of it all. The organized church feels a bit too organized for the messy God I’ve come to believe in. And I know that must sound dreadfully prideful, but I don’t feel I’m being prideful by wanting to protect my own faith.”

Later in the week I was painting a logo on a window at my kids’ school and listening to a podcast where Krista Tippetts was interviewing Alain de Botton author of the book Religion for Atheists. He has started an organization or a community called The School of Life that offers guidance on how to live out the great challenges of life because he believes strongly in not doing life alone. Maybe I am still pining for a local church, I thought, as I heard him speak about his School of Life. Even his book, which I’m currently reading, is fascinating to me because he’s able to help me see some of the benefits of religious organizations, and help me understand why I am both drawn to and repelled from them.

At one point in the interview he mentions the grandeur of standing in a cathedral, how it makes you feel so small up against something so big. I decided that right there was what I needed a church to be. A place where people are having conversations about something indefinably small against something indefinably big, in which both the big and the small are of great worth.

“I find it so fascinating that I would have more in common with this atheist gentleman then I would with many Christians,” I said to a friend. “He just seems awake and alive. He seems like he still has questions left to live. I feel certain I could sit down with him and we could talk for hours.”

“Yes, it seems there is an awakening that goes deeper than just the surface of diligently meeting a religion’s standards,” she responded. “Those ‘awake and alive’ are the sort of people you’re looking to be around,” she said to me, “whether in an organized church setting or not. Those are the like-minded people you want to be ‘meeting together’ with, like your dad suggested in that scripture. Those are the people that breathe wonder into your faith instead of suck the wonder out of it.”

So the search continues, but really, deep down I know, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

 

Chocolate Bunny Sacrifices

by Mandy

Image credit Valerie Randall at HappytoCreate.com

Someone had to be the sacrifice so that we could continue to live. It might as well have been the chocolate bunny.

It was the first time seeing my friend Valerie in five years, and when I pulled up into the hotel parking lot and saw her miniature sports car with the California license plates, I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest and race me into the hotel lobby to wrap arms around her neck.

I got out of my car to the sound of the thump thump thumping in my chest, as if I was anticipating the seal of some cosmic golden envelope to be ripped in two and my name read off as the winner of life’s beauty pageant of the day.

I’d already had that moment of freak out the night before, when one considers that this may well be a congregating of souls that wouldn’t occur again for several years, and so there is that momentary pull on the chest of the host to make it the most memorable event in the history of the relationship. Should one give in to this pull, a detailed itinerary is required complete with an obligatory visit to the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. Luckily in a second wave of sanity, I opted to not give in to this pull on the chest. This was my friend. We could make a memory sitting on the side of the road stranded. “We’ll know what to do when it’s time to do it,” I thought before I shut my eyes for sleep.

Now, here I was, making my way across the blacktop with no agenda, running a little behind and my gas tank on empty. It was going to be a fabulous day.

And then I saw her. She stepped outside of the hotel, the doors parting to either side like the Red Sea, and she stood there like a bride on her wedding day, only dressed in head to toe black. I made my way to her and we embraced and I told her, “I don’t want this moment to ever end. Could we stay frozen here forever?” I could feel the mutual sigh in her chest and she didn’t let go.

We spent the morning at a local coffee shop and ate lunch at a local Thai restaurant, cashing in on the $6.99 lunch special. We ate Pad Thai with chopsticks and talked about her life-size ceramic Jesus statue that was being loaded on a moving truck in Northern California at that very moment. She was riding on the coattails of a couple years of extreme physical loss. (I was riding on the coattails of a couple years of extreme spiritual loss), and now, in an effort to jumpstart a new beginning she was moving from the West coast to the East coast, and I was a blip on the cross country jaunt of miles upon miles.

She flashed her mobile phone screen at me. Her brother had sent her a picture of the back of the moving truck, and in it, the giant wooden crate that safely housed Jesus. Underneath the photo the text read, “Jesus is loaded.”

I laughed out loud, feeling the burn of Thai spices in the back of my nose. “That might be the funniest text I’ve ever seen.”

“My friend built me this crate as a safe way to move Jesus,” Valerie told me. “Of course I have to take him with me, even if I don’t know where he’ll fit in my new living space. Now I can officially say, ‘I have put Jesus in a box.’”

I smiled, but my mind was flipping back like a rolodex file until it came to stop on that small index card marked California, Spring of 2006. That was when I had first met Valerie and her Jesus in person. And quite frankly it was when I remember presenting her with my own “Jesus in a box.”

“Jesus says he is THE way, THE truth, THE life. I don’t think he leaves any wiggle room.” And then pulling a tiny hammer from my dusty evangelistic tool box, I pounded her with a bit of reflex tapping knee jabs I’d memorized from CS Lewis. “He’s either a liar or a lunatic or he’s lord. I can’t see a way to like him as only a good teacher.”

I didn’t want to say that. What I wanted to say was how taken I was by her Jesus. But I felt obligated. After all, I’d spent my youth rehearsing for moments such as this, had I not? It left me feeling uneasy, distant, lonely. It felt chilling, like running my fingers through a box of cornstarch.”

I pushed aside the rolodex, and returned to the Thai restaurant in 2012.

“How did we last, Valerie? I mean really. How are we still friends? Why did you want to stick around after I essentially told you you don’t know Jesus. You don’t know Truth. Why didn’t that make you angry, offended, uncomfortable around me? Why did you hold out for me?”

“Mandy, you were always asking questions. Always. You were always wanting to hear about another perspective. You never put anything in stone. If you didn’t understand something you spoke up and said so.”

“Did I? So much has changed since then. So very much,” I said, almost to myself.

Five years ago, I bought Valerie a chocolate bunny for Easter. She never ate it and over the years we fantasized about a rendezvous in which we would partake in the bunny in some way. Valerie named the bunny Jane Doe, and perhaps this was foreshadowing of the no-name corpse role she would play so faithfully in our story. Valerie brought Jane Doe with her on the epic road trip, and as our time together came to a close, we realized she was to serve as a sort of sacrificial lamb. We stood at the side of a slimy stagnant pond behind the hotel, and said our last words and then I chucked her into the pond with a satisfying plop. She floated on the water amidst the moss, her slanted bunny eyes telling us she’d be happy to stand for all that we were leaving behind. All the things that had to die so that we could go on living.

“It’s fitting she was an Easter bunny, don’t you think?” Said Valerie, as we walked back up the hill to the hotel.

I thought about Valerie’s Jesus. If he was really safe in his box. I thought about where he would fit in her new life. I thought about where he fit in mine. I thought about Jane Doe, dying so we could live.

“Why don’t we quit Valerie? I mean, look at you! You’re so brave to keep going. Why haven’t we just curled up with our loss and our questions and died?”

She looked at me, her eyes twinkling with the very things of fortitude and intrigue that, for such a time as this, kept Joan of Arc alive, and she said, “Now that wouldn’t make for a good ending of a story, would it?”

When Fish Can Fly

by Mandy

I gasped at her words when we were burying the fish.

I gasped and then I felt the burning in my nose and the tears filling my eyes and the lump in my throat because I knew it was something of a Divine moment.

We were camping lakeside, spending nearly every waking hour in the water because it was cool and because it just felt good to float and splash and get all smothered in sun-kisses.

I am the one that saw the dead minnow. That pointed it out to the 8-year-old who couldn’t pee in the nicest campground bathrooms I have ever seen because she saw a spider, and yet could pick up this floating bug-eyed dead fish and cuddle its fins in close to its sides in her pinched fingers.

I marveled at her immediate action.

“Fill the sand bucket with water Nehemiah,” she told her brother. “If we have enough water it might come back to life.”

“Oh, Charis, it’s not going to come back to life,” I said. I had not anticipated their sadness.

“I can’t believe it died,” Nehemiah said. “It is such a good fish. My friend.” His eyes were welling with tears. What was a momma to do? This circle of life isn’t easy for any of us.

“Let’s bury it,” I said. “It’s lived a good life. Let’s bury it right here in the sand. Give it a proper beach burial. Send it off. Honor it’s little life.” I was getting into it despite myself.

So they dug a hole with the tiny purple plastic shovel.

“You’ve lived a beautiful life, Fish,” I said. “Now it’s time to move on into the next world. Fish heaven,” I flinched in my sentence, remembering a childhood conversation with an adult that assured me my dead dog would not be making it to heaven. Who knows what we’ll find in the afterlife.

“Who can really know?” I thought, wondering if the air around a death is always made up of mumblings in which we piece-meal out to ourselves our deepest hopes of what is to come. What else is one to do?

The adult in me silenced the child in me, but my daughter ran on, brave and fluid in her words.

“Now you go to fish heaven, where fish fly instead of swim. Where the sky is the water and there is no longer air that you cannot breathe. You really are entering the best part of your life, so don’t be sad.”

This is the part that made me gasp. How could she see with such clarity, speak with such warm wisdom?

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a concerned teacher once. She was teaching my daughter the Bible, and she was concerned because she felt my daughter didn’t understand heaven.

“She has some odd assumptions about heaven, and her questions sound depressing, and I was just concerned that the enemy might be confusing her and making her think badly about something that is supposed to be joyful and happy.”

I remember feeling conflicted inside. Am I supposed to prove to my child that life after death is happy and right and good or am I supposed to let her question, and ponder and imagine? How much of our beliefs are based our own muddling through best guesses, and how much are they based on what we’ve been told is “factual” and “proper” to believe? How much of faith is hoping and how much of it is knowing? What if we are never allowed to question? What if we are never allowed to come to our own conclusions? What if we are never allowed to say, “You fish shall fly and breathe the air you never could”?

“My poor friend. I really did love him so much. Why did he have to die?” Nehemiah added, sniffing and brushing away tears.

“I don’t know, Buddy. I don’t know. All I know is that living and dying both happen. Alright now, let’s cover him up and carve a stone to mark the spot so we can remember him.”

So we did. We picked out a big smooth stone, and talked about the letters RIP, and carved them in deep grooves with another smaller stone. And we buried a minnow lakeside, one little family noticing and questioning and hoping for some beauty in the circle of life to death to life once again.

That damn mirage of a god

by Mandy

Maybe it’s the pounding. The beat that comes down hard and pulsing, like the Incredible Hulk is the one putting “one foot in front of the other one” and the repercussions are thundering shocks through the earth and leaving monster-sized craters in my gut. The pounding certainly doesn’t detract from the message, that’s for sure.

I close my eyes and hunker over. It’s too heavy to feel it all, but I’m feeling it all anyway and wondering what I’d look like if I could watch myself move. Like a tribal dancer? Like a boxer? Maybe more like a machine? Like a robot.

I remember when I had that ligament injury from basketball in high school and I had to wear that black brace that I velcroed tightly around my atrophied leg, so that it could become an extension of me. And I remember how the tall one used to tease me mercilessly as I walked into Chemistry class. He would make robot noises, the buzzing and whirring coming from his mouth synchronized flawlessly with my every step. One foot and then the other, buzzzz, whirrrrr, metal, gears, electric surges. Meanwhile everyone would laugh. Everyone except for me.

The song by Fun continues, reverberating ’till those two lines that take my breath away. The lines that hound and haunt me. The lines that say, “But I will die for my own sins, thanks a lot. We’ll rise up ourselves, thanks for nothing at all.”

“Why do they haunt you,” someone asked me. “Because they come from a self-assuredly dark and lost place?”

“No. Because I think they’ve been my words before,” I replied. And probably because they’re still my words now, so rebelliously terse, like a middle finger flashed and held with pursed lips and pinched piercing eyes.

When I hear the previous lyrics about the ongoings of an internal church that keeps people locked up in boxes, why, I feel my own Hulk-anger flare and like an over-exerted machine the smoke bellows out my ears. “Maybe I should learn to shut my mouth.” I’m certainly not making a good name for myself with ear spouting smoke flares warning people to stay away, but I can’t help but say out loud that the way of the church is just not working out like I’ve been promised. And no amount of paying homage is making my life clean up.

“But it’s not fair that he is going to get bicycling gloves, and I’m not,” one of my daughters whines.

“If you wait around for life to get fair before you enjoy it or before you take care of yourself, then you’ll wait around your whole life,” My husband responds.

“And you’ll be bitter,” I add, re-tasting my own bitterness as a sour film in the back of my mouth, a reminder of what it felt like to wait on God to clean up the messes of my life. Who told us life should be clean?

I remember when my husband had that stint between jobs where he drove a Red Bull van and carried cases of the energy drink into bars and strip clubs and gas stations, and as he drove from one stop to another he would yell at God for not doing his part. For abandoning us. For letting all these messes remain. “After all, after all I thought we were all your children.”

“I have R-rated conversations with God, Mandy. Those Red Bull van walls have heard it all. I don’t hold back.”

My friend recently said about her own f-words of anger with God, “I felt freedom to be mad at Him because I began to realize He didn’t need me not to be.”

Suddenly it feels very apropos to thunder my own shocks of “I will die for my own sins, thanks a lot. We’ll rise up ourselves, thanks for nothing at all.” And the adrenaline that flows along with it, might just be enough to keep me from a fear-induced paralysis.

But something has shifted in me. Most days, I’m surprisingly no longer angry with God. My screams of thanks for nothing at all are directed to that mirage of a God that I was promised in my desert days by a Christian belief system that told me A Healer was always available if I just said a little prayer. My prayer language has dried up and the ground is cracking, and when I sit across the dining room table from my friend who still sheds tears for her boy that died even though they faithfully drove him one night to that man that was supposed to have the gift to heal all, why the terse middle finger just has to have its way. And somehow I think God is on that side of the church walls too. The outside. The side of messes and mournings and middle fingers.

I’m like Dietrich Bonhoffer for an instant, and I am saying “Even if means I go to hell, I’ve got to take things into my own hands. I can’t just wait around for you to take care of me anymore. I have to find a way to enjoy my life in the midst of this mess.” Maybe this is more entirely what it means to sacrifice yourself for yourself?

I think the saying it, the dismissing God as the fixer and recognizing myself as the container for Divine Possibility sparks something. All my whirring and buzzing and smoke bellowing and finally there is a spark, a tiny spark like the tiny speck on Horton’s flower, that jumps the wire and ignites action, and suddenly I don’t have to feel so guilty anymore or so puny or so paralyzed or so bitter. I can muscle my way through putting one foot in front of the other one.

“I don’t need a new love, or a new life, just a better place to die.”

Don’t let me die amongst the whitewashed box walls of painted over unmet promises, let me die in a messy field of my own making, so at least I know that when I’ve died it was with my arms open wide, my heart feeling it all, and my humanity doing all it could to not thwart my divinity.

Maybe we all need that mirage of a god to throw stones at with the dark and mysterious power of the God that lives within.

 

 

 

 

 

Buddha? What Happened?

by Mandy

“Which of my treasures will you deny?”

- The Quran

 ”I will not violate my intimate relationship with my Beloved for the sake of pouring myself into the container that you’re asking me to use to confine my spirit.”

- Mirabai Starr

I didn’t set out to purchase a buddha statue, but it has quickly become a favorite element of the backyard.

For months and months whenever I would write dream lists the lists always included a magical backyard. Sometimes the lists would even be specific: fire pit, prayer flags, picnics, white lights, candles, moonlit conversations with friends, dinner parties, early morning time alone outdoors. I wanted to create a sacred space, and in my head the vision kept looking akin to the Mad Hatter’s outdoor tea table in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

Last year I went to Fort Collins, CO to visit a college friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen for ten years or so. Having spent the day with another friend in Boulder, it was dark when we arrived to Fort Collins. I knew it was her house though because she had all the lights on, and I could see her and her dogs through the windows. We embraced on the porch and she invited us inside.

It didn’t take long for my kids to make a straight path through the front door and out the back door into my college friend’s magical backyard. She had lit it all up for us. It was breathtaking. Candles hanging from the trees, an outdoor patio with white lights, handmade wooden chairs around a fire pit, art, plants, gardens, all a welcome sight for these tired travelers. My kids found hiking headlamps and strapped them around their foreheads as they explored the backyard. A few days later I would sit with new friends around that fire pit, chatting, laughing and sipping wine out of mason jars, my soul feeling at rest for the first time in awhile.

I discovered a second magical backyard when I met Miss Martha. It was colorful and full of statues and art sculptures and sacred spaces meant to be wandered. It reminded me of a solitary trip I took to a Sisters of Benedictine retreat center a couple years back. Lots of space to explore with meaningful art hiding around each corner. There was even a prayer labyrinth made out of red brick.

I have managed to do a lot of things on my “To love on me list,” but the backyard had not been addressed yet. Alothough I suppose in all fairness, I had taken baby steps by moving a set of handmade prayer flags out to hang on our fence, and using a ratty old beach chair from our California days to sit on my slab of concrete at night and take in the moon. I had even started practicing yoga outdoors once or twice a week.

The big change came when my husband sent me a text out of the blue saying, “We should really probably buy some patio chairs and side tables and a fire pit for our backyard, huh?”

Immediately the tears welled up. I hadn’t realized how badly I wanted something like this.

What I purchased was simple really. Four black metal stackable chairs, a small black metal fold-up fire pit, two black metal tables, a couple wicker lanterns with glass inserts to burn candles, and a couple smaller little tea-light table lanterns. Oh and spray paint! Every color of the rainbow of spray paint.

It was in the candle aisle at Target where the real inspiration hit me though. I saw at the end of the aisle a 1.5 foot statue of a buddha. His legs were crossed in lotus pose and he had his arms extended with a plate in his hands, for which to burn a candle. I really debated getting it, trying to ignore the fact that my heart was leaping for joy in my chest. Should I ask my husband first? Would this make him feel uncomfortable and really did I want to be buying a religious icon that had become so mainstreamed it was selling on the shelves of Target? But I have gotten oh so good at soul listening. It is my default. And my soul was saying yes. So I lifted him off the shelves and looked him eye to eye.

“Are you getting a buddha?!” One of my girls asked in an excited voice.

“Yes, yes I think I am,” I said, my mind well aware of all the misunderstandings his presence in my life might cause.

I placed him down in the cart and felt like skipping through the aisles on our way to checkout.

When I arrived home my husband helped me unload the car.

“Oh, and you got a buddha,”  he said when he saw it. There was not surprise or disappointment in his voice, just acknowledgment.

“Yes, I did. He’s my guilty pleasure.”

Over the next few days I worked on the backyard. I mowed the grass. I edged the patio with a shovel. I hung up lanterns. I spray painted things, including my buddha from black to cream colored. I even thrifted him a colorful beaded rosary cross necklace and a few friends – namely an accordion playing yard gnome and a couple of elegant lady ashtrays for incense or the occasional “smoker” as my kids call cigars and cigarettes. The vision of my magical backyard was coming to life.

I sat there this morning, outside in my sacred space, thinking about a comment one of our Christian friends made in response to a picture we had posted online: “Buddha? What happened?”

And I thought about what had happened in my spiritual life over the past couple of years. Renewal. Revival. Resurgence. There was a deepening of my faith that followed after an acceptance of uncertainty, and unknowns, and question after unanswerable question and a believing that God’s love really does never fail or give up or run out, and a decision to therefore believe in my desires and listen to my inner voice, and to set myself free. The way is uncharted and we’re all just making best guesses about the great mystery in the light of what we’ve been given. For once in my life I’m at peace about my decisions because I know they’re mine.

I laid on a quilt the other night with my family and watched shooting stars and told my daughter that while the buddha was holding a candle currently, it would really be a perfect place to make symbolic offerings to God.

“Like you could put coins there on the plate?”

“Yes,” I answered, “Coins or things you found in nature, or little painted rocks with words on them. Why you could even write out things you want to get rid of in your life and burn them in the fire that the buddha is holding.”

“Oh, that would be cool,” she said.

“It’s very symbolic of approaching life with hands wide open, ready to receive and to give.”

My faith has become a journey of visiting with God in whatever space I can find the Divine, largely where poetry meets reality, and I’m not about to plug up the places I feel that bubbling up. I’m not worshipping a buddha, but I am most certainly enjoying the journey of awakening more and more to all the places I do feel God’s spiritual presence. And when I look at my backyard, this sacred space that I have created and will continue to add to, I see several different facets of my faith combining to make one trembling vulnerable arm extension out to what I hope to be the Divine, and I feel a peaceful reciprocal movement reaching towards me.

I am pleasantly surprised that God will go anywhere with me. I have permission to be completely honest. My artist, gypsy heart is prone to wander, and I hear a Divine whisper, “I made you that way on purpose. Let’s run with it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have a Little Faith

by Mandy

I couldn’t help but follow her the first time I met her. Her floral print dress, with the little sweater overtop. Her slightly graying hair pulled back in a loose bun, held in place by some askew bobby pins. Her rectangular glasses covering half of her small face. She was the only one that went outside that day, and I found that compelling.

We were being hosted in an artist’s home, a  small gathering of women, there to create art journal pages and share them with one another. After a short opening to give us some direction for our time together, we were invited to find some space in the home to play with art supplies and create an art journal page.

This was when I noticed Miss Martha who made her way through the home studio and out the backdoor to have a seat alone in the colorful chairs on the deck. I decided to follow her.

“Hi, do you mind if I join you? It’s so nice to be outside.”

She looked up at me and just smiled, a thin smile that looked as though she was remembering something her mother told her once about being nice to others. Then she went back to her business which involved pulling an altoid tin out of her colorful purse. She opened it carefully and laid it beside her. Then she lit a cigarette and proceeded to flick the ashes into the tin betweens drags. I knew why she was outside now.

I found her mysterious, eccentric, maybe even a little scandalous.

Later, during the time that we shared our creations as a group, the facilitator mentioned that Miss Martha was partly deaf, and so to talk to her we were going to need to speak loud. To which I replied in an extra loud voice, “I would really like to hear what Miss Martha has to share.”

I was not disappointed. Martha went on to read a poem she had written, the only line which I can remember being “flaunt that magic,” which she recited in a scratchy low enticing voice. It was breathtaking really, and only managed to feed my infatuation.

Later, at the end of our time together, I introduced myself to her.

“Hi Martha, I’m Mandy,” I said in an awkwardly loud voice because I wasn’t sure how high the volume of my voice had to be in order for a half-deaf person to hear. “I loved your poem.”

“Oh, why hello Dahling. What land do you come from? Are you a stripper?”

I sucked in wind. I blushed. I tossed my head back and laughed with the thrill of her words.

“I, well…no, no I am not.”

“I don’t mean to be offensive, it’s just there is this look about you.”

“Trust me Martha, I didn’t take it offensively.”

We exchanged cards as she continued talking about compasses and finding your way and getting rings, like a tree.

Just before I walked out the door, she grabbed my arm and in a half-whisper said, “I would love to buy you lunch some time. Call me.”

“Oh, I would LOVE that too. I will. I will!”

For two months, or gosh, was it three? The words “Lunch date with Miss Martha” remained on my list of How to Love on Me. It was sandwiched between buy new panties and purchase the Where the Wild Things Are movie soundtrack. Finally just last week, I managed to meet up with her for a secret rendezvous over brunch.

We talked about a number of different subjects. Homeschooling vs. public education, parenting, science, politics, art, religious fundamentalists, homosexuality. Eventually at some point in the conversation she mentioned that she was a Christian. Honestly, it surprised me. And though I tried not to show my surprise outwardly; inwardly I was embarrassed, maybe even disappointed.

I tried to pinpoint how my limited knowledge about her had made me draw the assumption she couldn’t be a Christian. Was it because she swore or smoked or asked me if I was a stripper? Was it because she used the words ‘flaunt’ and ‘magic’ together in a sentence? Was it because she was a democrat, loved gays, was pro-choice? Was it because she seemed free and gritty and uninhibited?

I think she picked up on my surprise because she said, “I’m not a good one Honey. I’m a  damn bad one most of the time, but I am a Christian.”

I pressed her on it a little further, asking her questions. She didn’t miss a beat, very willing to answer each and everyone without feeling threatened or insecure.

“When I was 16 I told my mom, ‘Those people at church are hypocrites. All of them. I hate it there, and I don’t want to ever go back.’ And the amazing part, as I think of it now, is that she never questioned me. She said ‘Okay,’ and dropped it. She never nagged me about it.”

She told me a little later in the conversation,”I miss the hymns. I’ve thought about checking out this church called Church of the Open Arms. They have a congregation with quite a few gay people. I think I would like a church like that.”

“Oh, that sounds lovely,” I said, and scribbled down the name in the margin of my art journal, while considering my own need for Open Arms. Christianity left a bad taste in my mouth, even though I too, at the very stripped back version of my faith, still consider myself one.

Maybe one of these days I will go with her to church, I thought. Maybe I’ll sing hymns with Martha and I’ll pick up another piece of the spiritual puzzle I am missing. I love to find Christians who don’t make me twitch.

“When it comes down to talking about my beliefs to people, I don’t ever hide it. I try to be very clear and up front that I am a Christian. I’m not ashamed about it. Several of my friends are atheists who can’t understand why I believe it. I tell them I can’t explain it. It’s faith. That’s it.”

After listening to me speak about my spiritual journey over the past couple years Miss Martha encourages me that my faith is intact, despite my searching, wandering, wondering heart. She tells me my journey to figure out what I believe is so healthy. She tells me it’s giving me rings, like a tree.

Suddenly this Christianity that at times seems so stale and uninteresting and frozen to me, it starts to melt, and the cold drips of water feel refreshing to my skin. Perhaps I could love it if Martha loves it. Perhaps there are still things for me in a religion that threatens to feel like the fossilized dinosaur bones of a previous Mandy. Perhaps I haven’t given up all hope.

After all, it just takes a little faith. As little as the sesame seeds that balanced on Miss Martha’s lip as we ate bagels for brunch. A little faith. That’s it. And my faith, why, my faith has been to the dark place and back, to a place of empty silence and back, to the questioning it all, finding very little answers and hoping anyway. I might not look much like a Christian, but my faith is intact, and I have ring upon ring upon life-living ring to show for it.

 

 

 

 

 

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