Of This World

Lately I’ve been spending my lunch break on the steps of the town’s abandoned church, hunched over the subway sandwich in my lap and book of poetry in my hand. St. Stans has been emptied of real services for years, the length of city block it sits on staying mostly quiet as trucks and trailers whir down highway 8 towards main street just four blocks down. Behind me, the double white doors framed in red brick sit locked, and the arced glass window swirls with swampy green stain, a hot and weighty wind rustling around my ears, causing the aged evergreen’s flat boughs to bob like a ship on water. Besides the occasional wedding or craft show, the church, its clock tower, the saintly white busts carved into its sides have been left alone, and I am relieved to be left alone with it.

~

Somewhere along the course of my life, perhaps as soon as I first sucked breath, I became a worshiper of beauty, and I have been stricken with the pursuit of it ever since. I feel how easily it drives me, how inextricably drawn I am to whatever anchors my stomach with awe. I’ve been spending more time in cathedrals and libraries, sliding my palms down the cool railings of marble staircases, gazing open-mouthed at gold mosaic ceilings and chandeliers dripping light, curving upward like diamond-draped tree limbs. I’ve fastened my eyes to the work of poets, inscribing line after line onto the sticky notes pressed against my office computer, by closet, my writing desk. They hang there, make me question the quality of life I’m living, the satisfaction I’ve never been able to grasp.

~

I pull my fiancé through the white arches of the St. Paul James J. Hill Library, stopping and spinning round for a moment to read the names etched into the perimeter of the ceiling—Da Vince, Socrates, Shakespeare, Dante. I ask him whether everyone dreams of being inscribed into history, and he says no, not everyone. I wonder whether they don’t dream or whether they simply resign themselves to the unremarkable in order to refuse the pressure of doing otherwise.

Before penning a word, Fitzgerald declared himself to be the next great American novelist, and Zelda would write how ”she quietly expected great things to happen to her and no doubt that’s one of the reasons why they did.” I wish it were possible to claim a legacy before knowing whether or not I had earned one. And I wish I knew whether all artists and the poets knew they had been selected for remarkable things even if the world never suggested it—whether they knew it but were still disappointed in the end.

~

Charles Bukowski wrote that he had no time for things that have no soul, and perhaps that’s why the idea of money and wealth and social status make me feel nothing, and why poetry and point shoes and paint brushes bring me alive and defeat me all at the same time—like the feeling of the ocean and sand swishing through my fingers before effortlessly slipping away. The deflation of such temporary bliss.

This is what I’ve been longing for more than anything else: to become significant by creating something that is even more so. For my name to be remembered with the beautiful and the troubled and the very real things of the world. I’m not supposed to care about the temporary nature of this place but I do. And I don’t want to leave it without truly seeing it as it is.

~

C.S. Lewis protests that if he and I have desires that nothing in this world can satisfy, the only explanation is that we were made for another world. So I keep on hungry and relentless, hoping that I’m doing all I can, that I’m leaving behind what I am meant to. I keep emptying pens onto paper and keep turning the pages of books and keep praying this madness of realizing how short I fall of knowing and seeing and loving will eventually collapse into eternity, will bring me rest.

From the Walls of Your Mind

“If you are not learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed.”

-Tony Hoagland

I am leaning against the kitchen counter as Mom pours an afternoon pot of coffee, me gushing about the latest author I’ve been reading. We spend many days this way, and the best part of my coming home for the summer is having access to far more bookshelves than I can fit in a dorm room, stealing what Mom’s been reading, her listening to the essays and poetry I’ve been cramming into my mind in my freetime, on my lunch break, before I go to sleep. I’ve just finished an essay by Wendell Berry—one work out of hundreds of essays and poems and novels.

“Can you imagine having written that much in your lifetime?” I ask her. She pauses while she pours in her hazelnut creamer, quietly adding: “Or having that much to say.”

That notion has struck me and stuck to me closer than anything else, because if I am to contribute anything to this world, I would want it to be a voice. But it’s more than that. I want some way to scorch the world with meaning and purpose and beauty and whatever else actually matters. Or maybe I just want a name for myself—something that achieves the concept of legacy we all inwardly struggle for.  Either way, it’s days like these recent ones that have made me feel more silent, more powerless than ever.

Because in a culture where you’re expected to prove your opinions, experiences, morals, and political agenda through tweets and statuses, remaining silent isn’t even an option. But the irony, or course, is that though everyone has nearly unlimited opportunity to speak publically and influentially, fewer and fewer people actually have anything of substance to say. And when media controls the story and dictates what people perceive as truth, and when the media is controlled by the people who yell the loudest, all you’re left with is noise. This doesn’t make people any less determined to add to it.

~

Zora Neale Hurston asks “What do you hang on the walls of you mind?” And so I wrack the corners of mine, scraping through the cobwebs and dust, searching for the things I know to be true. Looking for what only I can say, wondering if my mind could ever be full enough to fill the pages of books with words people need to hear. Not words they will buy, not even words that will get me published, but words that will stir and churn up the surface of lives.

But I’d be foolish to assume that I have within me some entirely original thought that had never been thought or expressed before. And that’s part of the reason for the stack of books I cycle through on my bedside table, as I keep hoping to learn and soak in the methods of these people who all had something built up inside them, needing to emerge. I pray that by reading and memorizing and imitating the sentences that have survived the oblivions of the world, the words that have kept on breathing, I’ll be able to communicate the truths that are bigger than what I can carry. The truths that aren’t exclusively or uniquely mine, but real.

I spend quite a few of my lunch breaks in my town’s library, running my fingers along the spines of books pinched back to back on the rows of metal shelves. Books on every topic, attempting to answer every question imaginable. I’ve had trouble trying to write lately. I think it’s my idealist nature still questioning whether the things I think are the things I need to say. And every time I walk through these aisles breathing in old paper, a part of me doubts that I really have anything to possibly add. I try to remember how stories matter. How there are things that are worth being said over and over again.

~

To speak about meaningful things, I am pursuing the ability to think meaningfully—that uncomfortable process that most have no real interest in. It means wrestling with myself, with my views of the world, comparing them with those wiser than I, treading water exhausted when I can find no answers and no explanation to cling to. And only the most broken and hurting parts of the world can topple us into that kind of questioning. But the broken and hurting parts are also the ones that mean the most. Look for the parts that grieve us and tangle us and cause us to double over in sorrow, and you will find the truths that make us human. You will find the treads that connect us to every other soul.

Not everyone wants to hear those stories, those truths. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be said.

Riding Through Woods on a Snowy Evening

There were no mountains in that place, no waterfalls, no rocky gorges, no vistas. It was a country of low hills, cut over woods, scoured fields, villages that had lost their purpose, roads that had lost their way.                        -Kathleen Norris

 My grandpa bought the 160 acres behind my parents’ farmhouse so that when he came in the November he could hunt turkeys and shoot trophy bucks. But most of the year the land sits quiet under snow drifts. Subdued and still.

Much of it consists of thin woods, slender sprouts and silver-barked birch trees. Narrow deer trails wind like tunnels into the brush off the main trails that were cut and carved out years before I walked them, dark round droppings spilled like berries into the dips and tracks left by delicate hooves.

Gray, gritty brush surrounding the miles of open meadow that spreads itself below the crest of the tree line, opening itself so wide you have to turn your head both ways to take in it all. Rolling in a waving sea of gray-brown prairie grass poking like stubble through the white, the shallow frozen creek cutting through the bottom of the open field, a grove of pines blocking the northwest wind that burrows under coats and into your skin, sharpens the inside of your nose.

It’s a threatening beauty that impresses through intimidation. The starkness of it is enough to knock you back, its sheer endlessness enough to shrink you into humble awe.

I’ve always considered the land best witnessed on horseback, the smell of leather and animal sweat and alfalfa under your seat. I’ve been riding the same horse since I was nine, and when I was home in January, after months of being away at school, I heaved the worn saddle onto his warm black body, thick with staticy fuzz he’d been growing all winter. He is stomping the frozen, hollow-sounding ground and bobbing his high head, eager to be out, to have a purpose again.

When we are on the end of the trail and the meadow is framed between the two oaks that mark its beginning, my right hand is holding the reins under the curl of my fingers, the other is on the horse’s taught neck, his ears spring-coiled forward, twitching at every rustle of wood, every bird and gust of wind. Paused, but charged with the air that tastes deeper and fuller in the bottom of my chest. He can taste it too, and when I lean into him, my hand giving him the full length of his head, he bolts forward in voiceless, touchless obedience, pure willingness; the power in his legs pounding with a terrifying force, striding longer and faster until tears whip the outside corners of my eyes.

I don’t bother faking control, the thought of such only makes me want to cling on for dear life, knowing an animal this wild can’t be held back any more than the wind or the movement in the trees. So I move my body with his, raw energy pulsing into me until control’s no longer the point. We are the ground and we are the air and we are the gruesome aliveness that just simply is. And while the familiar, hear-racing fear spills into me and grips like the abruptness of stepping into January air, it is this that reminds me of how shockingly good and costly it is to feel.

With Abandon

On Tuesday morning someone pointed out a far corner of sky that wasn’t shrouded by muddy clouds. Just a small slice—delicate and brilliant. But by that afternoon the short glimpse of robin’s-egg blue had been consumed by the grayness that has managed to consume everything else.

It was raining in the mostly abandoned campus parking lot I had to cross to reach my room—solid, slow-falling raindrops smearing the lenses of my glasses, pecking their way under my sunflower umbrella, my green turned-up hood, cold and surprising on my neck. I tried to imagine myself a flower stalk, turning up my head to catch the water spilling onto my face, filling my pores, my very cells to bursting. But I only focus on the next step, shrink further into myself, block the impact.

The 6 o’ clock dusk dimming, walls of dark wooly cloud mass, the gray only becoming thicker, I couldn’t tell the depth of the water I was treading in, stepping awkwardly and lurching through on my toes, though my buckskin boots were already stained dark up to the ankles from the wet, my socks squelching under the steady and hollow rustle of water slapping blacktop. The drops hit like mini Saturns, rippling out into infinity while another instantly took its place. Street lamps ignited them like dying suns, burnt orange reflections smoldering and toppling in piercing fractures.

I walked fast and breathed shallow, the air damp and moldy like the patches of acid-yellow grass that refuses to green, the month that refuses to shed it’s winter skin, unfurl the light needed to make me open.

I wanted to force the rain into an excuse to feel alive again, wrestle it into metaphor for new beginnings. But maybe it’s just me that needs to be wrestled with.

When the girl with the pink polka-dot rain boots burrowed in her bag outside a dripping Honda civic, I thought about stealing the rubber boots off her feet so I could stomp flat-footed against the wet and watch it spray out from under me, kick the puddles into streaming arcs. Better yet, abandon shoes all together and surrender the careful confinement of it all. I should have left the umbrella in the lot, should have stood out there until the drops stopped feeling like an intrusion on my skin, shed the layers, felt my hair sting and plaster against excited cheeks, baptize myself out of submission, out of expectation.

But I didn’t.

And all week I’ve been thirsty for the child-like abandon that I lost somewhere in the seriousness of the adult world, that was smothered like a slice of blue in a season of gray. And I know that next time I’ll stare longer. I’ll get my feet wet. I’ll stand there until nothing else matters.

Desert Floors

As we pull off a highway near Phoenix, hazy Superstition Mountains looming over us just west of the horizon, I point out the car window off the road and ask, “Grandma, what’s that tree called?” It’s waxy bark the color of pea soup, it’s trunk curves slender and smooth and graceful.

“Palo Verde,” she answers. “It’s the Arizona state tree. Green stick.”

For the few days I’m able to spend with my grandmother for the weekend, I’m still amazed that this landscape has any vegetation at all. Arizona is a desert. Underneath rough shrubs is red dust, cracked and dry. In metropolitan areas, what they haven’t paved over, they’ve covered with similar colored rocks and gravel. Yet even through that something lives.

Large-pored fruit sags from locals’ fiercely green orange trees, the star-shaped blossoms  saturating the air with their sweetness. Bright fuchsia Bougainvillea flowers grow thick in brilliant clumps, tender, but capable of recovering from both frost and drought.

Even the cacti with their crisscrossed spines awe me, towering with thick limbs lifted up into the sky. Many plants have the means to preserve water in such a climate, but the cactus knows how to be more hydrated than the soil it’s growing in. When rain comes, new roots shoot out to absorb all they can hold, but when the soil runs dry, the roots break off. It has to disconnect itself from the soil in order to not lose its nourishment to it.

There is a quiet beauty to the desert. It’s full of subtle color–warm and always changing in every light and time of day. It’s here I’ve come to get away, to spend precious time with my grandmother, but also to be alone. Maybe to recover. To understand the wilderness I’m wandering in.

I echo the cacti’s version of survival. Looking for but also fighting solitude, I’m aware of how I’ve closed myself off. I struggle with the guilt of the relationships I’ve distanced myself from, mostly due to my own thirst, everything I can’t presently afford to give. I’ve broken myself off from the soil I’ve known because it’s proved too costly. And I’m bleeding myself dry.

But there is rainfall even in the desert. There is cleansing that is so much more treasured when I’m in the drought. For the people, the words, the blessings, the God that pours into me, I stretch out every palm and reach for every drop. My desert floor is cracked from cancer and death and failed friendships and suicide and broken families and too little time. But even on that barren dirt, the rain still comes. Through the cracks, plants grow, flowers bloom, and they suck in every ounce of life. I’m stretching along with them.

And I am alive.

 

The Eternal Heart

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…”              ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

It’s painful for me to say that this post, in addition to this last week in general, has held nothing that I would have even dared to expect, and somehow, though I would rather write about anything else, nothing else seems acceptable to address.

Over Christmas, my family experienced incredible tragedy in the form of my cousin’s death. For the sake of our family’s privacy, I will not go into details, and I’m here to say not only that this post is not that story, but also that it is not my story to tell. I can only tell my own. And this happens to be part of it.

Until Christmas morning, I had never had to face death in this degree of closeness. Never had to experience grief in those circumstances or to that level. I’m afraid I’ve even caught myself in the past saying that I doubted whether I had experienced enough, known enough darkness to pursue the world of writing. Was this what I was asking for?

Shock is an emotion (if you can call it an emotion) that dulls and blurs all others. My mind has been thick with it and has left little room for me to feel anything else. I feel pressure to mourn, to grieve, to undergo a process that acknowledges these things, but I am utterly lost in what such things look like, let alone how to go about them. It’s easier for me to act strong for others, whether siblings, parents, or friends, ask how they are, but not nearly as willing to seek an answer for myself. I’m not always sure how to respond, and as a result, I’m learning my own process for coping. And it turns out that all I know to do is what I’ve done for the majority of my life, and that is to write it down.

So here I am. Two poured-over journals, fifteen pages of handwritten scrawls, an open Bible, and four hours in the loft of the town coffee shop have gotten me to this point, though I’m still not sure exactly what that is.

The first few days proceeding the news, the same thoughts kept replaying in my head, over and over again.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

I kept repeating them with some hope that they would tie me to reality, make the truth of it stop hovering in the air and sink beneath my skin, keep me from drifting off into the world inside my own mind. When I felt myself slipping into normalcy, and saw how easy it is to do even in the midst of such turmoil and tragedy, I kept snapping myself back, trying to force something I don’t understand.

But I’m beginning to realize that seasons run together even more than we expect. Not only do we have seasons of weeping and seasons of laughter, but we experience them together, despite how unnaturally they feel. I am learning to mourn death and loss, but also allowing myself to laugh at my sister dancing around our room in her Batman pajamas. I will give myself these opportunities to reflect and grieve, to spend hours journaling by myself, to cry with close friends, but also appreciate the moments of my family gathered around the living room, making fun of the old Star Wars special effects. Treasuring the life, the moments, the continual and constant support and empathy around me.

I’m witnessing first hand that our souls hold more than we can measure, and our hearts are capable of greater suffering and greater joy that could ever be imagined or contained. Even the depths of suffering tend to make room to hold an even deeper love and a greater degree of life. We are creatures with eternity placed in our hearts, and like death, like anything of great permanence, we do not know how to understand it, but the thing is that we don’t really need to.

I may not know how or what to feel at times such as this, but I am determined to continue feeling despite my lack of understanding. We continue to live in the presence of death. We continue to laugh in spite of tears. We allow ourselves sorrow, and we make room for joy. We love in a broken world because the broken does not take away from the beautiful. And it is the encounters with the beautiful that I keep my heart open for.