Hope is the Thing With Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me. 
                                  –Emily Dickinson

For the first part of the year I was hopeful for a job and to pay off debt. Now I’m hoping to leave my job, work for myself, and jump back into debt by buying a house. I’m also hoping to stay in a church I’ve found after years of searching, finding, backing away, and restarting the search.

Advent is a season of hope for me. It’s the tipping point into the New Year. It’s hope for the long-expected coming of the infant Christ. It’s the time of year I like the best. Contemplation, choral music, commercial cheer, even Walmart becomes a beautiful place to me for the first week or two of Advent.

Hope is the thing with feathers. It perches in my soul. I have always assumed that my life is the sum total of my experience in the world. That I’m a hopeless distance from attaining the wisdom and experience I should have. On my worst days, I believe life WILL probably end today, right now. But I look at Dan and see how quickly a year and a half together has gone by. That there has been such healing for me inside my marriage, and I hope and trust that we have many more years together ahead of us. Hope is like a cold I keep catching and giving to myself.

On Saturday, Dan took to our church a huge paper mural he created for the members to color on through Advent. We don’t know many people there yet and I hope we will stick it out before wanderlust and the old feelings of being at odds with church set in. It’s hard to enter a new compact with people we don’t know well. To show up week after week with others and say, “Hello, I’m here for you even though I don’t know you very well and we keep forgetting each other’s name.” To look longingly at others’ children and wonder if it’ll happen for us. But we keep showing up, hoping for Advent and for friendship. The paper mural is part of that. Hope, as Emily Dickinson says, is the tune without words that never stops. It’s the song stuck in your head you wish would go away, even as you hum and tap your fingers to it. wall-mural-2

The mural is a thing of beauty. It is the best of Dan’s art. It’s whimsical and playful, big and generous, and the priest loves it. Everyone immediately began to draw and write prayers on it. It’s public but intimate—just like Advent. The mural was pristine when we put it up Saturday and on Sunday it became imperfect. It was covered with the eager fingers of children who colored in the Star of Bethlehem with black Sharpies, ignoring their parents’ requests to color in the lines and to please use the eighty beautiful hues of markers and pencils available. Like the little bird in the poem, these children are unabashed. They hope they can finish the coloring job unimpeded, by the end of Advent.

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This morning at church I spoke with a woman I met last week. It was a glad meeting of recognition. We’re trying to become friends. I even remembered her name, Sarah. Our greeting was formal, warm and over too soon. I walked away out of countenance. But it’s the hope of friendship that makes me press forward. We’ll talk again. We might even let slip one or two revealing opinions about the election or other people we know, and we’ll wonder if it’s alright to say them out loud in church. And we’ll look at each other sheepishly and our friendship will really begin. Hope doesn’t need anything from me, not even a crumb. Just belief. It will precede every friendship and every encounter in this church, in this city, in this life.

The First Sunday After the Election

It was the first Sunday after the election, and I wasn’t the only one who came to church in search of healing. Our congregation is many in terms of race, culture, background and class; but we gather because we were also one. One hope. One faith. One Lord. One old red-brick building facing east, perched on a hill overlooking a wide, crowded valley. Overlooking the city that is my home.

Pittsburgh, Pa. November 13, 2016. Mercifully, the sun had risen another day.

On that Sunday, I gave and received hugs, eased my body into a pew, and tried to settle my mind. Our daughters were collecting crayons and paper from the table in the back, and my husband sat close, leaning into my arm. He knew I was barely hanging on.

I sighed.

Psalm 27 filled the first page of the bulletin. Too much text, I thought. I need to sing. I was desperate to gather up the chaos inside and release it into words, notes, and vibrations. I needed our collective voices to transform some of this pain into hope.

But I had no choice. This was how we were beginning. And so, as sunlight through stained glass filled the room, I submitted to the many words.

The Lord is my light and salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

And I thought, Lord, would you like a list?

When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh–my adversaries and foes–they shall stumble and fall.

Or win elections. Betrayal was still bitter on my tongue.

though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident… for he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble… Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

The psalm went on and on. And on. Together we heard it. Together we allowed it to soak in. Together we let the light crack through the stone we were using to protect our aching hearts.

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Photo by V. Wolkins

You could almost hear the chisel at work: Do not forsake us, Lord–the Lord will not forsake us–Do not forsake us, Lord–the Lord will not forsake us.

Chip, chip, crack.

I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord!

Now it was time to sing.

* * * * *

Later, during prayer request time, we shared our own words.

I know a lot of army recruits. I’m concerned that the fear and the rhetoric will lead to more deployments. These recruits–they’re great kids.

Our foundation cannot be shaken–God is still in control. God is king of kings, president of presidents. No politician has ultimate power. Don’t be afraid.

How can we have reconciliation with Christian brothers and sisters who don’t even understand why this hurts so much? 

If Muslims are forced to register, we will also register as Muslims. Because Jesus is Lord.

First, we cast our votes. Now, we cast our lives. This won’t be the first time. 

And, like Psalm 27, we went on and on. And on.

* * * * *

My family left before the end of the service. We had previous plans to visit my parents, who live an hour out of the city. But first, on our way to their house, we would go on a quick bike ride. It was a beautiful fall day in Western Pennsylvania, and we had wanted to try this trail for months.

But now I was nervous.

As we drove north, the Trump yard signs multiplied, and my stomach tightened. Paranoia surfaced. Why had my husband insisted on wearing his “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt? Would someone say something disparaging in front of the girls? Or worse? We would be in isolated places on the trail. What if someone tries to hurt us?

I had one comfort–it was cold. My husband  would have to wear his flannel over his t-shirt. We could blend in. None of us had dark skin, or wore a hijab, or seemed ‘other’ in any other way. No one would know who we were and where we came from.

And that quickly, I forgot who we were and where we came from.

* * * * *

The other day a friend said to me, “There are people who are deeply invested in the divisions in America.” This didn’t make sense at first. Aren’t the deep divisions our problem? But then I realized–it is the divisions that keep us safe.

As long as my husband wears his “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt in the city and his flannel in the country, we will be safe. As long as we vent our frustrations about the election with like-minded friends, no one will challenge us. As long as we pray with people who feel our pain, we can comfort one another.

Now. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, venting, or self-preservation. But we can’t stay there. Somehow we must find a way to bring our whole selves into the scary and uncomfortable places. We must listen. We must speak, somehow, in a way that can be heard across the divides.

We must learn, and learn again, to love more than we fear.

Last night I wrote out the text of Psalm 27 and posted it by my bathroom mirror. It is a reminder. A clue. A signpost on the way to hope, which I might be needing in the days to come.

The Lord is my light and salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

No one, Lord. No one.

A City, Stopped

Fifteen years ago, my wife Maile and I drove the straight stretch of 95 North where it races through New Jersey, slowing to a stand still as we waited to drive into New York City. The traffic converges there, just outside the Lincoln Tunnel, then slowly submerges, everyone holding their breath for the passage under.

But what I remember most is the way the smoke still billowed from the ground on the other side of the river, a cloud of it reaching out over the Hudson. We were moving to England, one month after 9/11, and the whole world was tipping off its axis.

* * * * *

Our move to England required visas, and those pieces of paper were tied up at the British consulate in NYC, so we hit the road that day in hopes of retrieving the visas personally and in time for our flight to London the following week.

I had been to New York City many times before that, and I looked forward to returning. There was something about the chaos of the city, the constant horns and maddening flow of people, that made it feel like anything might be possible. But when we drove up out of the Lincoln Tunnel and turned to enter the parking garage in the heart of the city, we were met not with the promise of adventure, but by guards with machine guns.

There had never been guards outside the parking garage, but there they were, carrying machine guns, staring straight ahead. They wore what looked like police riot gear. Their faces were emotionless landscapes. They asked for my driver’s licence. They searched the car. They reluctantly took down our license plate number and waved us through.

Still shaking, we climbed out of the car and then out of the underground garage, out into the light. It was then the silence hit us.  New York was quiet. I couldn’t believe it. A hush hovered in the alleys and drifted through the streets, like fog, and everything was muffled by it. Barely any of the cars blew their horns. People scurried from here to there, looking over their shoulders.

And there was the cloud. Always the cloud. Rising up like a smoke signal.

* * * * *

We sat for a few hours in the office. We presented our passports. We got the small pieces of paper we needed to start this new life on the other side of the Atlantic.

We walked the quiet streets back to the parking garage and we found our car. The same guards waved us off, and I stared at them in my rearview mirror. They were the new reality.

Back down through the tunnel, up and out again, then south on I-95, all the way. But I kept glancing in my rearview for as long as I could see the column of smoke, and it was deep, and it was foreboding. In those days we wondered what might be next.

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* * * * *

A few weeks later, visas and passports freshly stamped,  we walked the streets of London, our new home. Black cabs sifted through the traffic, gliding past pubs and red telephone booths. A low, slate-gray sky was barely held up by the buildings.

And on that day, everything stopped. Everything. Cars. Pedestrians. Businesses stopped serving people. A minute of silence for the United States and all that we had lost in 9/11, and a minute is a very long time in a city.

I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. A city, stopped.

* * * * *

Shawn is a writer living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 9/11 photo by Kristen on Creative Commons.

In Memoriam

It’s my fiftieth birthday and I’m wandering around a graveyard.

It’s not that I am feeling morbid, or even that I am attempting to come to terms with my mortality. (Although it’s hard to deny that there is something about turning 50 that pulls the whole mortality thing into sharper focus.)

My younger brother is visiting from New York City, which doesn’t happen very often, and we have decided to take a drive into the country to visit our parents’ burial plot.

“Do you have any paper towels?” Vern asks, as we merge onto the interstate, heading south from Pittsburgh toward Washington County, Pennsylvania.

I point to the glove compartment and raise my eyebrows. “Why?”

“Remember the last time we visited?” he asks, and I do. We planted marigolds, and we scrubbed dried bird droppings from the marble headstone. We laugh and agree that this is par for the course in a graveyard surrounding a church with the word “pigeon” in its name.

Forty-five minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. A stone monument to the left of the wide front door proclaims the church’s historical significance:

The Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church was founded by John McMillan August 24, 1775. It is the oldest church west of the Monongahela River.

***

pigeon-creek-church-graveyardMy mother’s mother is a descendant of the Rev. John McMillan. Pigeon Creek was the home church of my mother’s father—and his parents, and their parents, and so on. This little red brick country church, perched atop a hill near the intersection of Brownlee and Church Roads, is in walking distance of the house in which my mother grew up, and in which I lived my first two and a half years.

Grandpa Hamilton was an elder at Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church, and Grandma Hamilton taught Sunday school and accompanied the choir on the piano. This is where Mom and Dad were married, where my two younger brothers and I were all baptized, and where my parents are buried, in a plot next to my grandparents.

It never fails to amuse me, as a person descended—through my mother’s line— from a long line of English, Scots-Irish, German, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, to see the Maczuzak headstone adjacent to the Hamilton one. My father, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant coal miner, married into a family of WASPs and is now buried among them.

I am descended from a Scots-Irish Presbyterian missionary who opposed the Whiskey Rebellion on the western frontier of America in the late 18th century. And I am the granddaughter of a brave Eastern European 18-year-old who sailed to Ellis Island in 1913 to labor in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. The presence of my surname in Pigeon Creek’s graveyard, just a few hundred yards from a handful of Revolutionary War interments, speaks eloquently of the American story—and of mine.

***

Since my mother’s and father’s funeral services, a decade ago and nearly three years ago, respectively, I have attended only one worship service in this building—the installation of its new pastor, my friend and former campus ministry colleague, John Dykstra. That intersection of past and present is a story for another time, and a bit of serendipity. Another chapter in my history with this church.

Today, we stand together in the center of the small sanctuary, and John catches us up on the modern-day happenings of this congregation. Vern and I reminisce about our childhood memories of this place—how much brighter it used to be before the clear windows were replaced with stained glass, how the Hamilton/Maczuzak clan always sat in the same pew—second row on the left, as you face the altar.

We walk to up to the chancel to investigate the inscribed plaque on the side of the upright piano which has graced this space for nearly 40 years, a living monument to our musical grandmother:

IN MEMORY
FRANCES F. HAMILTON
MAY 7, 1978

gravestone-gridWe step into the bright September sunshine and walk together down the steep bank to visit the matching marble headstones for DAVID A. & FRANCES F. HAMILTON and for JANET HAMILTON & JOHN ANTHONY MACZUZAK. My grandpa and my dad were both predeceased by their wives, and when visiting the graves, must have experienced the jarring sensation of seeing their own names and birth dates etched into the marble, a blank space waiting to be filled in at some future time.

By the time they were my age, my parents knew where their earthly remains would rest. I am now 50 years old, and I have no idea.

***

“Are you two related to the Hamiltons at the top of the hill?” John asks, and curious to find out, we climb the steep bank to check out the headstones closest to the rear of the church building. Catching my breath after the climb, I pull out my phone and snap a photo of an ornate headstone:

David M. Hamilton
Aug. 28, 1846–Apr. 26, 1911
———–
Elizabeth A. His Wife
Mar. 15, 1855–May 16, 1933

I text the picture to my mom’s brother and ask, “Who is this?”

Uncle John replies within minutes, identifying my great-great grandfather. After some back-and-forth Q and A, he wishes me a happy birthday and teases me about how I have chosen to spend it.

***

I don’t visit this cemetery often, and I confess that I am never really sure what I’m supposed to do when I get here. I feel connected to my parents in all sorts of places—even moreso than on this quiet country hillside.

But this is where we gathered with our family and friends shortly after they died. This is where we shared memories about how grateful we were to have known them. This is where we chose to erect a monument to commemorate that, once upon a time, they lived and breathed and laughed and cried and loved.

Like my ancestors at the top of the hill, most of whom I never met, and the people buried in the nearly illegible Revolutionary War era graves, the headstones in this cemetery represent flesh-and-blood men and women who lived full, rich, complicated lives about which I know very little. But I do know this: if they had not lived, I would not be here.

As Vern and I say goodbye, my friend John assures me that it’s not too late to purchase a burial plot in the Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church cemetery, and we laugh. But then I wonder. Maybe I should. I’m not getting any younger.

***

Amy Maczuzak is a writer and editor who has lived most of her fifty years in or near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Strings, Attached

When I said goodbye to California when I was seven, I didn’t realize that I was letting the only home I’d known slip through my fingers. At seven, packing up two large moving trucks with everything you own seems like an adventure. I got into that large yellow truck and didn’t look back for a long while.

Home, for me, is the place I’ve lived most of my days since: Spokane, Washington, a medium-sized city with a small town feel, far from the rain and gloom of Seattle, on the coast. All of the bedrooms I’ve had to myself are in this city. This is where my favorite swing hangs, in my favorite park, the place I go to contemplate life, or to wait for a phone call from a boy that may or may not come. We have history, Spokane and I.

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I woke up in the wee hours to catch my flight to California. The temperature hovered somewhere right around freezing. This is the October I have come to know. Once we’d made it through security, there was little difference in temperature between airports and planes as we made our way south. But when I stepped out of the airport and into the Southern California afternoon, I intuitively peeled off my cardigan. My bare shoulders recognized the October sun.

There’s a part of me that has always protected myself against loving my birthplace. I’ve told myself that it’s expensive, and that it’s smoggy. I’ve told myself that there are more drive-by shootings there than there are in Spokane. All of this is true. But I tell myself something else: San Diego doesn’t belong to me. It takes more than being born into a place or a family to make it yours. That isn’t true.

Although my skin pinkens and burns easily, I notice that my joints are less creaky in the warmth. I don’t have to take several times the recommended daily dose of vitamin D by mouth, but allow my body to synthesize it while I walk along the beach, listening to the music of the seagulls and the way the waves come in, always persistent, never stopping.

In Spokane, people frequently look bemused when I tell them that I’m not an outdoorsy person. My Tinder matches tell me that their perfect date includes a hike, or a bike ride, or a snowshoeing excursion. Though I don’t love Spokane’s brand of outdoor activity, I could walk along the beach for hours, drinking in the smell of the sea. I could drift through the streets of my birthplace endlessly, following the scent of Mexican food.

On this last trip, I sat down with my family at a restaurant I’ve visited on every trip to San Diego, and many times before we moved. As we waited for a table, I watched the hypnotic motions of the women making homemade tortillas, tossing them onto an endless pile that never seemed to dwindle as waitstaff came to wrap a handful in paper to take to one of their tables.

I like to try new food and drink wherever I go, but not here. Here, there is only one possible order, a tostada suprema (which comes with shredded beef and pork). I order fresh flour tortillas on the side and heap the contents into extemporaneous soft tacos. I close my eyes and I am transported to any one of my previous visits. It’s undeniable: I have history with San Diego, too.

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But there is more to it than that, of course, more than just the food and the sunshine. We pass the hospital where I was born, and my mom points it out. Sharp Hospital. Someone in the marketing department in the 80s decided to create tiny shirts that said “I’m a Sharp baby.” My mom still has mine.

I have family in this city, and a bit further up, in Costa Mesa and neighboring places that roll off my tongue easily, although it takes me a moment to connect them with the signs on the freeway inviting me to exit. I know the names because I’ve heard people say them. Sometimes, that’s how my faraway family feels. The names are familiar, natural, but I don’t quite know if I can claim that as mine. There is so much distance, so much life lived away from each other. 

But on this most recent trip, I began to try. I shimmied into the role of cousin, niece, granddaughter. I soaked in each person and the way they blurred together with every other memory we’ve had together, indistinct, layered.

I was sorry to leave. Perhaps that is what I’ve always been protecting myself against. There is an eternal, persistent ache to belonging in more than one place. There are Cara-shaped holes that cannot all be filled at once. There are strings that pull at me no matter where I am.

* * * * *

Cara Stickland is a writer from Spokane with some warmer roots reaching south. Spokane photo by Michelle Lee; Palm Tree photo by Jesse Collins.

People of the Red Willow

Picture a hot, bright, red sand landscape. High trees surround it and there’s a sacred mountain in the distance. There are adobe dwellings, five stories high like an apartment building, but with walls three or four feet thick. A creek cuts the reservation in two. Dogs run aimlessly across the sandy clearing. You can call them but they won’t stop to be cooed at or petted. The people living there ask, sometimes angrily, not to have their pictures taken.

Dan and I visited the Taos Pueblo, a dwelling that has been lived in continuously for 1,000 years. I went with feelings of trepidation and eagerness that I believe are common for white people shouldering the invisible knapsack of our privilege. Our tour guide, White Feather, had his hands full with us, a mixed crowd but mainly well-heeled retirees.

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Taos Pueblo

The Taos Pueblo is the home of the Red Willow People, he explained. Named after Red Willow Creek, the stream that crosses the reservation. He told us that the Pueblo was first conquered in the sixteenth century by the Spaniards. Then there was a revolt and a reconquest several times over. Even though the Puebloans in the end accepted colonial rule and the accompanying Catholicism, they retained their secret religion. That and their language they have kept guarded from linguists and scholars for years. They don’t need anyone to disseminate cultural findings on them. The Red Willow people are content to preserve their own culture, never minding the imperialist mindset that says all research should be available to anyone.

“What about your taxes?” one tourist asked.

“What about them?”

“Do you pay taxes?”

“Yes, of course. We are United States citizens. We all pay our taxes.”

The woman hung grimly on to the subject. “But how do report how much you’ve made? Word of mouth?”

White Feather explained that all Puebloans report their income on the standard forms. “Just like you,” he said.

The woman pursed her lips but backed off. White Feather returned to his talk about the exodus of many Puebloans from the reservation when the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 incentivized leaving the tightly knit community in favor of separate housing.

It was easy for me to feel sorry for the Red Willow people, so obviously at the mercy, for the past nearly 500 years, of foreign rule and cultural imposition. But another idea crept in. They  have an unbroken, continuous history. A deep understanding of their past. The narrative has everything to do with rootedness, unlike the story of most of us in the western world.

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Iglesia de San Gerónimo – Taos Pueblo

Some of us spend hours in libraries, doing complicated genealogical research, trying to make the silent record speak to us. Some of our ancestors were ashamed of where they’d come from. They changed their names and concealed their family history with skill. They invented themselves anew. The Red Willow people, protecting their culture, families, and religion have safe-guarded against fragmenting. They keep both their Spanish and native names. They are the richer for it, even as they face twenty-first century problems–especially the abandonment of the Pueblo by the younger generations.

We spent an afternoon there that I will remember for the rest of my life. It was not a happy time. But it was one of deep meaning and eventual prayer.

I don’t know how to pray for the Puebloans but I remember them to God. The sorrows are entrenched in the richness of the place.

Isn’t that how it goes?

Of Mists and Stones

We arrive early in the morning, while the mist from the sea is still floating in among the long rows of stones. We can barely see the tops of the trees through the fog. The sky is a dull, opaque gray that blocks out the sun. It is eerily beautiful.

Everything is covered in a thin layer of dew and the air is chilly, chillier than I expected. I wrap myself in the only extra piece of clothing I brought: a red and gold scarf that clashes with my rose-colored shorts and teal sneakers.

No one knows exactly why the stones are standing here or what purpose they served. A local legend, dating back hundreds of years to the Celtic past of the region, tells of Roman soldiers turned to stone by the wizard Merlin.

In my childhood, I was captivated by Celtic stories of priestesses, fertility rites, and the struggle between the feminine spirituality of pagan traditions and the patriarchal religion of Christianity. Stories set in wild forests, on mystical islands, and in big craggy castles enthralled me. Now standing in a field of mysterious stone formations on the Breton coast, I feel like I am walking through those enchanted tales.

This is Brittany.  Stretching out into the Atlantic in northwestern France, Brittany, or Breizh, is one of the six Celtic nations, where Celtic languages continue to be spoken. Its distinct cultural heritage dates back to the early medieval era. We have visited our beloved France before: strolled the cobblestone streets of Paris, rode bicycles through vineyards of Chardonnay and Syrah, basked in the sun of the French Riviera. This is a different France, earthy and untamed.

Here I stand, on the southern shores of Brittany, on the Gulf of Morbihan, in a town called Carnac, known for its Neolithic menhir, or standing stones. There are thousands of stones, dating back thousands of years. Some in long rows, some stacked to form tombs and burial chambers, and others just standing alone, towering, keeping solemn wdscf7070atch, marking time as centuries go by.

The Ménec alignments are eleven rows of stones standing in a grassy field, and that’s where my husband and I wander on this misty morning. At the western end of the field, the stones rise up way above our heads. My husband pretends to hold up a large stone that is tilted toward the ground and I laugh. As we walk along the rows, the stones get smaller and smaller, as if sinking into the soft soil below. At the eastern end, they are barely two feet high.

Later in the afternoon, we walk past a copse of trees, thin spindles of wood, partially covered in lichen, ivy vines snaking up the trunks. The light is ethereal and golden, breaking through the leaves and flooding the area. It feels otherworldly. Even the air feels different, cool but weighty. It is easy to see how legends of wizards and Druids, priestesses and sorceresses came about in this misty place.

And it calls us to slow and observe, to wonder and wander around these stones that stand guard, these trees that cast spells.  It invites us to graze our fingers along the rough edges of stones who have stood on this ground for thousands of years. Go ahead, ask your questions of us and we will tell you all that we have seen.

The stones hold secrets and the trees offer communion and the cool, damp mist coming in from the sea cloaks it all in a mystical magic I had never seen before. We are walking through the present, but also through the past. We are out in the open, but also within the close quarters of ancient whispers.

Here, I am connected with the past, entrenched in it. The history isn’t on display in a museum, kept safely behind glass. It is here, where I can reach out and touch, where I can wander inside it, where I feel the pull of time transporting me back through the centuries. And it leaves me with the incredible impression of magic and legend and secrets, all tucked into the beautiful seashores of northwestern France.

* * * * *

jywatkinsJamie Y. Watkins is a wife, sister, daughter, and friend. She works at a non-profit by day and goes to school at night, trying her best to find times to write in between. Her biggest passions are travel–France in particular– film, and good conversation. She lives in New Jersey, where she and her husband open their house to others with good food and wine. She blogs at Seek.Follow.Love about wrestling with faith and church, looking for meaning in the every day, and feeling her way through life. Twitter: @jamieywatkins Facebook: @jywatkinswriter

 

Dear Diary

“Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year old school girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.” —Anne Frank, June 20, 1942

“She found that when she didn’t have a notebook it was hard for her to think. The thoughts came slowly, as though they had to squeeze through a tiny door to get to her, whereas when she wrote, they flowed out faster than she could put them down.” ―Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

***

I am 14 years old, sitting cross-legged on my yellow bedspread behind the locked door of my bedroom. A college-ruled three-subject notebook is open in my lap, and I scribble away, thoughts coming to me faster than I can get them down on paper.

Excitement about the cute boy on the bus who actually said hello to me today. Anxiety about the oral report I’m expected to give in social studies class tomorrow morning. Heartache about being ignored in the cafeteria by a girl I used to consider my best friend.

***

I am 20 years old, a junior in college, tucked into a wood-scarred booth in the campus grill. Snow is piling up outside, and I am settled into my favorite study spot with a hot mug of tea and piles of manila envelopes full of submissions to the literary magazine, of which I am co-editor. I arrange a stack of blank index cards upon which I will record my impressions of the poems and stories.

But first, I open the hardcover black and white lab book that has served as my journal since last term’s poetry-writing class. Now that I am no longer expected to periodically turn it in for review, I feel a new-found freedom to write without editing myself, comforted that no one will read my private thoughts but me.

I write about my confusing romantic feelings for a male friend who happens to be dating someone else. I vent about my concerns for my father, who is weathering the downturn of the steel industry and seems to be aging at presidential speed between my visits home. I jot down prayers and snippets of Scripture to comfort and encourage myself.

***

journalI am 29 years old, working in a job that I love, in a city that I love, involved in a quirky inner-city church that I love. I am sharing a quaint townhouse with two other single women who have become good friends. And I am falling in love with a man I met seven years ago, but started dating only after we lived a couple hundred miles away from one another.

Every evening before I go to sleep, I pour my heart out on paper, into fabric-covered journals given to me as gifts and filled at a record pace. It isn’t decision time yet, but what if this is the man I am supposed to marry? What will this mean for the life I am building in this place, with these people?

Over the next several months, in the pages of several more journals, those questions are answered. I am even more deeply committed my job, my city, my friends, and my church. I write with excitement about buying a house and living alone for the first time in my life.

***

The day after I turn 40, my mother, diagnosed seven months earlier with pancreatic cancer, goes into hospice care. I open a Word document on my laptop and type my grief and fear and rage onto the screen. Tears stream down my face as I hit save and shut down.

***

I celebrated my 50th birthday last month. For a decade or more, my journal entries have become more and more sporadic, as I check in to write at least twice a year—on my birthday and on New Year’s Day. Email and blog posts and social media have replaced my hand-written diary as venues for self-expression. Almost everything I write has an audience.

As I wrote my annual birthday journal entry in the leather-bound diary that I only occasionally crack open these days, I made a resolution. I haven’t missed a day of writing in my journal since.

***

Amy bio YAH

The Inner Room

I am at the front of the room, facilitating conversation with the ten teenage girls who signed up for the seminar. I don’t have any experience with youth ministry but I was willing. In a small country parish, that is enough.

I recognize a few of the faces in front of me, members of faithful families who have “regular” pews.  I’m not sure why the others are here. Perhaps someone convinced them to come or they were so desperate to get out of the house during the summer weeks that they showed up. Their faces are a blend of emerging confidence and awkward child-likeness. They are lovely and quirky, innocent and fear-filled.

On brown paper, written in my fanciest handwriting, is our theme: You Were Made to SOAR! The themes are bulleted below: Sacraments, Silence, Service and Renewal, Relationship, Real Joy.  At the moment, I’m setting the stage to talk on the topic of silence.

Some describe silence as going into your inner room. A place inside where you are safe and calm and you can talk to God — even if everything on the outside is crazy.

We flip to Matthew’s Gospel and read about going to your inner room. I talk about the holy witness of people who were imprisoned and couldn’t “do” anything to serve God that we still recognize as saints. Their eyes indicate engagement; the ever-so-slight creases on their foreheads show it’s not quite clicking yet.  

I hesitate for a moment and glance downward around the bland classroom, a little unsure about sharing something vulnerable. When I was their age, I always felt like I was on the outside from my peers. The little girl in me is still afraid: Were they going to judge me? To ridicule something precious?  

“For example, when I am trying to get serious about silence, I envision a cozy cabin in my mind.”  I glance up to see if it will be okay to continue with the illustration. Seems so.8a4c4b877410e253d9c7e52aaa7afd74

I roll up the thick carpet on the floor to reveal a trapdoor. With a candle in my hand, I open the door and descend into the dark cavern below. It’s a cool, safe space –no spiders!– and when I am ready, I blow out the candle.That’s my inner room.”

From the looks on their faces, I *think* the concept has clicked now. It’s okay to transition to the next step.

We walk over to the church, and I prep them, “I am going to play two songs and then, we are going to sit in silence for three minutes. It might feel like a long time but I’d like you to think about YOUR inner room.” My nervous energy hasn’t dissipated. Something in me wants their approval, wants them to think I am cool. I push the arrow button on my outdated technology and the songs fill the space, a musical repetition of the phase: ”Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.”  

When it’s time for us to be silent, the seconds creep by, and the creak of the pews is a telltale sign of the girls shifting uncomfortably in their seats. When I glance around the open space, there is a definite awkwardness lingering in the air; a couple of the girls are giggling into their hands. I’m tempted to cut it short but keeping my eyes focused on the rounded edge of the pew in front of me, I push forward with the plan.

The time of silence blessedly comes to an end and when we walk back to the hall, the girls fall into small groups to chitchat. I trail behind and try to come up with a backup plan to fill time if needed.          

As we settle back into the session, I pose the question, “Would anyone like to share about their inner room?” My voice is upbeat and confident but my spirit fears that awkward silence will again fill the space. A moment passes.

But then, they begin.

“I was at the ocean, the noise of the water blocked out all the other noise.”

“I thought about the couch in my house…I knew my family was nearby but I was alone.”

“I thought about crawling inside the tabernacle in the church.”

“I imagined myself in bubble that was filled with love.”

My heart rejoices at their responses. “Thank you, Lord”, I shoot a silent prayer.

One brave girl pushes back. “I don’t get it. I don’t know what everyone is talking about.”  The blue streak in her long hair is apparent as her fingers seek out split ends.

I affirm her willingness to speak the truth of her experience and try to say it another way.  “You know that voice in your head that can be really mean, that tells you all sorts of nasty things about yourself?!? I am trying to suggest that there is a place inside of you where even that voice is quiet.  And that’s the place that you talk to God.”

Her eyes shift slightly and a flicker of impact is momentarily revealed. She continues to push back but now, it is for the sake of rebelling. “Yah well, I don’t get it.

That’s okay. Stay open to the idea and maybe some day it will make sense.”  

We push on to the rest of the day’s content, talking about how a sacramental worldview and silence help you to understand how you are to serve. Service is a theme the girls connect with easily and the conversation flows naturally. The tension I have been holding in my shoulders begins to release.

At the close, we gather around a candle and I invite everyone to share their prayer intentions out loud.  Their voices ring out in the silence as we make our requests known to God. I am troubled by the magnitude of what they carry.

“For my mom who is fighting for her life with cancer.”  

“For my friend who has to leave her foster home.”  

“For my cousin who is in jail.”    

That night, I open the door of my secret place, the rustic cabin of my mind.  The floorboards creak as I walk to the center of the space.  Lowering to my hands and knees, I roll the thick carpet and raising, stash it in the corner.  My fingers grasp the metal handle of the square door to reveal a wooden staircase and raising it, I descend, bringing the glow of a candle into the space momentarily. 

In the silence of my inner room, I recall each of their faces.  I sit on the cool of the floor in the dark chamber and I pray.

mary bio YAH

 

Flying Home for Christmas

The black suede coat my sister passed down didn’t fit me quite right, but it let me play the part of the cosmopolitan European with a little more believability, so I cherished it. I loved wearing it with my knit burgundy scarf tucked in at the collar. I loved how it trailed around my shins as I clip-clopped through airports with bags of gifts and luggage I bought to blend in.

I was flying home for Christmas. I remember changing planes in London, walking down the dismal beige corridor from whatever low-budget airline I’d just taken to the bright spacious British Airways international terminal where I would board my usual flight to Denver. I had been living abroad for a couple years and flying often enough to want to appear confident, worldly, and self-possessed as I navigated the airports of the world.

On this particular day, I got into the line at the gate and stepped up close — very close — to the person ahead of me, just as I was used to doing in post offices and grocery stores in eastern Europe. But I only stood there a moment or two before I started getting strange stares from my fellow passengers.

I was standing less than a foot behind the person in front of me, near enough for my long, ill-fitting coat to graze the back of their boots. All of a sudden I was painfully aware that I was applying my new-found eastern European personal space rules to a bunch of Americans.

Embarrassed, I stepped back a few feet and sheepishly looked around. Surveying the line, I realized I was surrounded by a field of North Face parkas, Denver Bronco hats and Colorado college team t-shirts. These were my people. We might have been in a boarding line in London, but these were westerners, used to wide open spaces and neighborly elbow room that spans miles.

Personal space is one of those secrets you learn only by trial and observation —by finding yourself on the receiving end of strange stares, or by being cut in front of when you habitually leave too much space between you and the postal clerk. My moment of embarrassment in applying the wrong personal space rules to the wrong context was a moment when I became aware I had left one place and arrived in another without realizing it.

Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out where you are.

3995564048_0d9bc6fb97_oFurthermore, airports are full of another type of ambiguous space, places of boundaries and thresholds. Doorways or hallways, corridors, waiting rooms, boarding lines —  these are not destinations in and of themselves. They are liminal, or in-between, places; places where we make transitions or where changes happen. 

Liminal spaces can be places of discomfort, anxiety, and self-consciousness, but also of freedom. What I experienced during my years of frequent travel was both the anxieties of transition, and, more significantly, the presence of God in those spaces. Liminal spaces were where God met me more intimately because I was in motion, open to surprises.

There was the Christmas morning flight when I spent an hour in on a layover, reading from Isaiah in the Bible laid open on the airport chapel table; or the times when the music in my earbuds would transform an ordinary security checkpoint into a holy sea of pilgrims. One flight, two missionary women were seated in my row and we spent nearly the whole flight sharing struggles and praying together.

And once, a German woman in a train station who saw me crying in a moment of frustration promised, “Morgen Besser,” which I understood as, “it’ll be better in the morning.” In the enchanted terrain of liminal space, I felt carried and carried along.

Morgen Besser. God has always spoken the most clearly and dearly in these secret spaces of travel, holding me as closely as baggage that might be lost along the way.  

When I think now about how vividly God met me in those turbulent times, I am tempted to think that I no longer have access to knowing Him with that particular intimacy.  Then I remember, life itself is a liminal space. I don’t have to be on an actual journey; there enough metaphorical ones to keep me alert. We’re all moving between birth and death, between one identity and another almost constantly, and God is still waiting to meet me in these in-between, unsettled places.

* * * * *

jenniferJennifer Stewart Fueston writes in Longmont, Colorado where she lives with her husband and two young sons. She has taught writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as internationally in Hungary, Turkey, and Lithuania. This year, her poems have appeared in Windhover, The Other Journal and The Cresset.  Her chapbook of poetry entitled, Visitations, was published in 2015. She blogs very sporadically at jenniferstewartfueston.com and uses Twitter (@jenniferfueston) primarily during playoff football and for ranting during election season.

Photograph by Kevin Dooley