"The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing —
to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from —
my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing,
all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back."


~C.S. Lewis




Pages

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Only humans have birthdays

7:43 a.m. 0 degrees. Christmas Eve. The dogs are eating breakfast. I wait for Riley to finish his kibble; I could stand and watch him chew, or pull The Horse Owner's Veterinary Manual off the shelf and read a half page, or fold three sweaters from the laundry.

Or step outside (where it is beauty incarnate).

Later my father would ask why I went outside—me? Who is always cold? Out in my pajamas and stocking feet?—and I didn’t have a good answer, other than I needed to feel alive. A 60-degree temperature drop in three feet and two seconds is enough to drive your thoughts to God, as happens to me, now, when I feel most alive. Cold. Pain. Tears. Joy. Sitting next to a Christmas fire so long your face burns hot or breaking a paper-thin Christmas tree bulb you didn't mean to destroy, or pinching out the flame of a candle with your bare fingers or trying to tear open a present that refuses to give up its prize—this is life, pure life that rushes your heart like zero-degree air.

So I stand outside and frozen concrete pounds through my socks.


4:54 p.m. 12 degrees. Christmas Eve. I swing my black-suede boots out of my dad’s blue Corolla and cold air freezes my skirt, black beads on white satin—outlines of flowers and leaves in swirl and sparkle. My father and I are silent, thinking of what I’d just read out loud by moonlight:

The Voice was and is God…
His breath filled all things with a living, breathing light—
A light that thrives in the depths of darkness…
It cannot and will not be quenched…

The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the cosmos… The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us… Through this man we all receive gifts of grace beyond our imagination… God, unseen until now, is revealed in the Voice, God’s only Son.

We had been silent a moment, and drove past snowed-in pine trees.

“What should I read next?”

This is the revelation of Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King: an account of visions and a heavenly journey. God granted this to Him so He would show His followers the realities that are already breaking into the world and soon will be fulfilled…

“This is not the time for fear; I am the First and the Last, and I am the living One. I entered the realm of the dead; but see, I am alive for now and for all the ages—even ages to come.”

It is a candlelight service tonight—heat of flame and cold of snow and voice of God.



7:32 a.m. –14 degrees. Christmas Day. The dogs are eating again. I wrest open the sliding door smudged by dog nose prints, step over Anya’s soggy blue ball, and walk into the backyard onto the one patch of concrete patio not covered with snow. Wrapping my arms around my waist does nothing against the glass wall of ice I just entered—wake up! good morning! merry Christmas!

Earlier, sitting by the fire and the lighted Christmas tree before my parents were awake, I had seen on Facebook a friend post a picture of a cake with “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” written in green icing across its face—a family tradition, as proclaimed in the comments.

Beyond the mesh yard fence lies unbroken snow to the treeline. Happy birthday. I rarely think of Christmas as Jesus’ birthday—perhaps this is sacrilegious?—but today the air-torn cold won’t let me forget one thing: I am alive. I am human. And only humans have birthdays.





Saturday, December 22, 2012

Wildflowers don't cry

I once knew a girl who walked in the woods.

She would remind the sun to wake up; without her, it might not make it above the horizon. So winter Minnesota mornings she stepped through oak trees; frozen pond, frozen branches, frozen sun.

Frozen.

But also agonizingly alive, with sunlight glancing daggers off bitter snow, making eyes sting and cheeks burn hot by unmixed energy and light. (You know what this is; the purer life is, the more it can hurt; this is the great irony.) When she breathed in air breathed out by pine trees, she could feel the scent, like you feel music or light or a bleeding heart.

Her favorite wildflower was the bleeding heart; it always had been since it grew wild around the trees she walked among as a child. Her grandmother told her its name that afternoon gardening by the barn, and she never forgot bleeding hearts. Not others’. Not her own.

She gave her own spirit away, once, twice, more; to people, to dreams, but it was dropped and stepped on and now bled—was still bleeding—like the wildflowers. She asked Jesus about the pain, and He told her about her heart that was no longer hers. Take a breath, take it back, and don’t make the same mistake again.

Her eyes are dry, because wildflowers don’t cry.

Today unbroken snow rests, waiting for mice and leaves to draw on it, and she walks on the covered path and crushes ten trillion snowflakes, ten trillion marks of the holiness of the world. Once she made a snow angel, but it didn’t look much like an angel; untouched snow seemed more divine in the end, so she didn’t do it again. Destroying beauty hurts too much, especially if your heart already bleeds.

I knew a girl once who remembered a poem she heard a long time ago.

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way…

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel…

Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.

The sun is above the horizon now, has burned off dawn’s golden light, and underneath the snow are bleeding hearts waiting for spring.



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A world where you could run

For now we see in obscurely in a mirror, but then it will be face to face. Now I know partly; then I will know fully, just as God has fully known me. 
~1 Corinthians 13:12

Mourning doves speak, and I don’t catch their words; I get so frustrated when I cannot understand, and sometimes I stop trying. The doves bounce on their birch branches, crying with frustration over my stupidity: “Why can’t she hear us?”

I feel like I live in one of those dreams I used to have when I was eight, when some awful man was trying to kidnap me—or a witch with wild hair to grab me—or a train rushing down on me—and I couldn’t run away.

I knew I could run—I remembered faintly that in some other world there was running, as there was sunlight and wild mountains and prairie grass at noon—and I knew, somehow, that in that impossible, forgotten otherworld that everyone around me did not believe existed—I could run. Though my mind was locked away from it, my heart was still raw to the touch of a half-remembered hope: It remembered the world where I could run.

I knew I was born to run. It’s the knowing that was the worst, because in your dream, there is no question that in that other world, you were able to run. You haven’t forgotten, and you never will; you just want to go home.

Or perhaps it is like when you cannot remember a word you know exists. You’re not stupid. You could use a different word, get by, move on, rush forward, not take the time to say what you really mean. But you can’t. There is that feeling behind your soul and your words aren’t saying what you mean. There is a deeper reality and it just crashed into your own, unable to stay out any longer; “the Lord knows what He is after.” It’s the reality behind your words, the place of true meaning.

And you try to reach for that word—that deeper place—the one that will let you finally be at rest—the word you were meant to say, or, perhaps, the world in which you were meant to live. You don’t know what that word—that world—is or how to find it or if you ever will. In fact, there is only one thing you do know: there is another world.

So I listen to the doves when they try to tell me of the hawk who disturbed their breakfast, and I watch a December sunrise and try desperately to think of in which other world I’ve seen it before, and I fly in a plane and wonder why the sunlight reflecting off the tops of the clouds seems so familiar—and why primroses pushing through matted oak leaves are supposed to make me cry—and why the princess in the stories was supposed to be me—and why music makes me homesick for a place I’ve never been.

It makes me think of what I did to forget, to forget home. What adventure I had—what mistake I made—to suffer such amnesia.? How did I get here, so far from my true world? And I can only conclude that this must be a sort of dream, a mirror land, in which my greatest calling is to go home.

“The Eagle is right,” said the Lord Digory. “Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. That was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here… And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” 

It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling... "I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!"
~The Last Battle 


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How do you feel the sunrise?



And I wonderwhen lights go down, and I hug my knees to my chest and fear who I am and my deepest desiresand I am a star who has left her constellation and cannot find her way home.

Homewhere mocha sunrises are greeted by silence and prayer, where stress is seen as sin like we always wished it were, and you see your reflection in the pondthe reflection as in a mirror, your truer selfand you finally know who she is.

And in this life you walk down the street looking strangers in the eye, for you know who you are, while taking the greatest risk you ever haveto Live. For it is easier to live in painful rules that bind, for away from them is fearful freedom, the sort of life not dictated by another and so not safe.

Good, perhaps, but never safe.

And pain is easier than fearbecause it is easier to seek for strength to merely endure than it is to risk being wrong about what it means to live alive, to risk losing everything you stayed up late nights for and prayed tears for.

And you wonder at a world that seems the antithesis of who you areor know you are, somewhere, if you can find her and set her freeand question how it is you live so you feel the sunrise.

So you stay behind rules in the half-lived life, ordering yourself around everything but yourself, and you wonder why God is silent.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

In which I cut off my toe and sew it back on with a Band-Aid

I know many of you were concerned for my safety as I traveled around Israel and Europe this summer. If you weren’t anxious I was going to get kidnapped by some wild Israeli shopkeeper, then perhaps I’d be murdered in my bed in the hostel in Barcelona, or drowned in the ferry from Calais to Dover. At least, you fretted, I might get a cold.

Thankfully, none of that happened, and I thought I was going to get away with the worst injury being water in my ear from swimming in the Sea of Galilee. (And, besides, I figured maybe since it was water Jesus had touched, it wouldn’t be so harmful…)

But then I found the Toe Amputators.

It was my last Sunday in Jerusalem before we took the vans to Nazareth, and I, along with a few from my group, was walking to a Scottish Presbyterian Church, St. Andrews, for Sunday service. I, of course, relished the opportunity to chuck my appallingly un-feminine hiking sandals and wear my cute strappy ones instead on this pleasure trip a few blocks to the church, as obviously there was nothing dangerous between here and there.

Right.


I’m walking to church, chatting with the guy next to me, not bothering the sidewalk any, when without warning the thing attacks me, shatters my foot, and I lurch forward with one of those airless gasps of horror and pain. I’ve just impaled my poor unprotected bare foot into a ragged chunk of metal sticking up out of the middle of the sidewalk. (Who decided having those was a good idea, anyway? “Here we go, let’s see what stupid tourists aren’t paying attention and then PUNISH THEM FOR THEIR NEGLIGENCE!!”)

This is the church we went to, St. Andrews. There were all sorts of beautiful flowers outside that I put in my hair. They kind of matched the blood on my foot, come to think of it. I planned that, obviously.

So I stumble along for a few strides, trying to pretend my foot was overreacting and the almighty pain is totally in no way indicative of any permanent damage beyond a pretty purple bruise. I also refrain from looking down, as it’s one of those moments when maybe you’d rather not know how bad it is. But I looked.

No blood.

But actually that didn’t comfort me at all, because it sure seemed from my previous experiences with smashing body parts into sharp objects that in the worst gashes, it takes a few seconds for the uncontrollable bleeding to start. Maybe the arteries you severed just need a little time to get organized.

So I continue to limp along down the sidewalk, knowing full well that my next glance down is not going to be pretty.

No kidding.

You would’ve thought I’d cut my toe clean off. I’ve got blood all over my toes, all over my foot, all over my shoe, and pretty soon it’s going to be all over the sidewalk. I never knew you had arteries in your toes, but I sure don’t doubt it now, because I apparently found one and cut it clean through.

But the sidewalk is narrow, with a fence on my left, crazy Israeli drivers whizzing by on the right, and a whole group of people stampeding down behind me, so stopping to sew my toe back on right at this particular moment isn’t exactly feasible. So I keep staggering along and try to remember what sort of emergency medical equipment—you know, tourniquets, casts, wheelchairs, etc.—I have in my purse.

I remember. One single Band-Aid. (Oh, I think, that’s really great, that’s really going to go far.)

But it’s better than nothing, so when I finally get out of the herd of people, I move to the side, sit down, hike my skirt to my knees, and look down at my toe. There’s so much blood now it’s pooling in my sandal, and my poor lonely Band-Aid is looking a little outgunned. But I pull it out, slap it on, and think triumphantly that at least I won’t have to wash the cut, because losing half my body’s blood through it has probably cleaned it out pretty impressively.

This, my friends, is a Toe Amputator.


I stand and keep hobbling up the hill toward the church, trying desperate to keep pressure off the front of my foot, because now I have a new problem. This Band-Aid made a heroic effort, but it wasn’t meant to be a tourniquet, so my toe happily bled straight through it. Great, I think, I’m going to get blood all over the church. I’m going to walk in, they’re going to look down, and they’re going to freak that this crazy girl came in and is tracking her bloody footprints all over their nice clean pretty stone floor like she’s part of some sort of zombie apocalypse.

Ironically, I was way more concerned about the church floor than about my foot. Because that makes sense.

Or not.

But I wasn’t hired for my logical thinking, so I keep worrying about it as I stagger up the hill. Some Arab boys whiz by in a white pickup and whistle and yell out at me. Sorry, guys, but unless you happen to have a roll of bandages and some surgical tape and maybe a stretcher, you’re of no interest to me right now. Actually, ever, but especially right now.

I glance down again. If this thing doesn’t clot soon I’m going to need a blood transfusion.

The church looms overhead, and I push open the massive double doors: This is it. This is where the tourist walks in and horrifies everyone with her copious amounts of blood, and I consider ways to lessen the drama of the situation. (Smile? Nod? Pretend I don't speak English?) Thankfully as I step through the door, I see “W.C.” written off to the right of the aisle and rejoice at my new opportunity to rectify this situation: just wash off my shoe in the sink, clean off my foot with paper towels, and sit down in church like nothing happened and I didn’t just lose half my appendages.

I hurry into the ladies’ side, set my foot on the counter, and start to pull at my sandal when I realize I have a new problem.

I can’t get my sandal off.

The way it fits, there is no way to extract my foot from it without damaging the valiant Band-Aid now only holding on by a hair and re-opening the whole area, which had finally managed to slow it’s bleeding from its imitation of Niagara Falls.

I study the site. My white sandal. My white sandal with the great pool of blood in it. Red blood.

Certainly I can’t leave myself looking like I just got mauled by a rock. So I pull off a wad of paper towels and start mopping and wiping at the worst of it in an attempt to rapidly make myself presentable (after all, service is starting in two minutes) while salvaging Monsieur Band-Aid, who is having a mournful time of it.

No longer afraid I’m going to faint from blood loss, I toss the stained paper towels into the garbage and reexamine my foot. Unless you looked closely, now, you wouldn’t know I had just reattached my foot with a single Band-Aid and a few paper towels.

And nobody ever did.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Letters to London tourists during the 2012 Olympics

Daniela and I paused at the crosswalk. Left. Right? If you drive on the left and you stand on the right while the car is coming around a roundabout from the left but turning to the right, yet you want to walk down the sidewalk to the right and are coming from the left, which way do you look at the crosswalk?

Yeah, I didn't know, either.



Actually, neither did any of the other 250 thousand tourists crowding around London while we visited there during the Olympic games in August. Unfortunately, there were a lot of other things the tourists didn't know either, leaving me with a few speeches I wanted to give to them. In in case any of them read my blog, here are a few of my helpful life lessons for next time...

First, the Olympics has clearly inspired many of you to take up running, and I commend you for your dedication to the sport. However, when the Olympians run through London, their streets are actually blocked off for them, not sure if you knew that. Meaning, next time you set off on your morning jog, maybe find a different place to do it other than the wrong direction down a one-way single-file aisle to Buckingham Palace.

This is a one-way London street, as in one way and one direction only. Walking.


Girls, I know you love your boyfriends, and you are very cute together, good for you. But the trouble is, when you wear that deer-in-the-headlights expression, clutch to his arm like you're walking through a crowd of serial killers, and refuse to move an inch from his side on the London Bridge sidewalk, you take up twice as much room as a normal human being and are really quite troublesome to manuever around. (Besides, he looks nearly as clueless as you do, so I wouldn't trust him quite so blindly to guide you flawlessly around around the city.)

Brits, I appreciate your valiant attempt to adapt to us tourists stumbling around from left to right on the sidewalks like drunken ping pong balls. We can't remember where we're supposed to be walking, so it's terribly disconcerting to us when you appear not to remember either. Don't try to walk on the right to adapt. It's your sidewalk. Own it.

So... are we on the right or left or what?

For all you tourists, please remember I'm one of you and refrain from your attempts to give me a concussion. Next time we walk beside Big Ben together and you're three inches in front of my face, please do not suddenly slam to a stop in astonishment and whirl open-mouthed to take a picture of the marvel, causing me to whack into you, stumble to the side, and nearly obliterate the rest of my tourist friends across the entirety of the road. Good grief, people, Big Ben is like 300 feet tall. You've been seeing it for blocks. It wasn't a surprise. 

Not a surprise.


Yep, London was great, right up until the point where I realized I either had to leave or sit down and cry. I'd love to go there again, but next time, I'll avoid the Olympics.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Saying goodbye to the stars

The quilt binds around my bare shoulders as I twist to face the window and see the stars. Midnight, and in five hours and twenty minutes my watch will beep, and I will get up and put on my backpack and leave Austria for home.

But that doesn’t matter when you’ve seen the stars.



The door to the balcony swings wordlessly—respecting those who dream while asleep, not while awake. No makeup, bare feet, hair loose, I greet the cow bells on the hills, and the mountains look up, brushing my gaze toward the crescent moon. In Paris, I watched it rise alongside the Eiffel Tower, full—now it steps back, making room for the stars.

Ten million stars, each a window God slit in the curtain of this world to allow the outside light of heaven through; now, He whispers, you can see home. If I spent ten minutes looking at God’s stars, heaven's stars, each night, I would love life more. In the city, we drown and build our own stars, flickering halogen that makes moths commit suicide, and humans too. A breeze blows off the mountain, and my face is cold to the touch.

Above me, an ivory rainbow. I haven’t seen the Milky Way for three years, since the farm, when my sister didn’t live on an island and there were four at the dinner table each night. On those evenings, Dad would bring us to the end of our driveway, a quarter-mile walk between fields of crickets, and teach us about Cassiopeia. I don’t see her now and don’t remember where to look.

Yet perhaps I’ve never seen the Milky Way, for even now when I look at her, she fades. But, then, of course she does; beauty doesn’t make sense and you can’t explain why it matters and it’s only on faith you see it at all. Beauty is the greatest builder of faith I know.

Above me, a shooting star, God’s prayer. And I wished on it, that I would always return to nights that are cold and skies full of stars, if not in this world, then in the next.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

In praise of solid people

In Praise of Solid People
 ~C.S. Lewis, Spirits in Bondage

Thank God that there are solid folk
Who water flowers and roll the lawn,
And sit and sew and talk and smoke,
And snore all through the summer dawn.

Who pass untroubled nights and days
Full-fed and sleepily content,
Rejoicing in each other’s praise,
Respectable and innocent.

Who feel the things that all men feel,
And think in well-worn grooves of thought,
Whose honest spirits never reel
Before man’s mystery, overwrought.

Yet not unfaithful nor unkind,
With work-day virtues surely staid,
Theirs is the sane and humble mind,
And dull affections undismayed.

O happy people! I have seen
No verse yet written in your praise,
And, truth to tell, the time has been
I would have scorned your easy ways.

But now thro’ weariness and strife
I learn your worthiness indeed,
The world is better for such life
As stout suburban people lead.

Too often have I sat alone
When the wet night falls heavily,
And fretting winds around me moan,
And homeless longing vexes me

For lore that I shall never know,
And visions none can hope to see,
Till brooding works upon me so
A childish fear steals over me.

I look around the empty room,
The clock still ticking in its place,
And all else silent as the tomb,
Till suddenly, I think, a face

Grows from the darkness just beside.
I turn, and lo! it fades away,
And soon another phantom tide
Of shifting dreams begins to play,

And dusky galleys past me sail,
Full freighted on a faerie sea;
I hear the silken merchants hail
Across the ringing waves to me

—Then suddenly, again, the room,
Familiar books about me piled,
And I alone amid the gloom,
By one more mocking dream beguiled.

And still no nearer to the Light,
And still no further from myself,
Alone and lost in clinging night
—(The clock’s still ticking on the shelf).

Then do I envy solid folk
Who sit of evenings by the fire,
After their work and doze and smoke,
And are not fretted by desire.




Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tales from Dover, the city of creepy old men

"Well, we know what to call Dover," Daniela whispered, eyebrow lifted. "The city of creepy old men!"

I laughed, but my focus was on the man with no hair who was stomping toward us on the sidewalk. He hadn't stopped staring at us for half a block, and as we were approaching him, his gaze never shifted. Dark eyes narrowed, he glared into our very souls as we fell silent and passed him just as we went by the fish and chips shop.

Fish and chips in the town square!
As soon as he passed, Daniela and I doubled over in a fit of hysterical giggles. "See! See!?" I shouted in a whisper as I smothered my laugh with my hand, "Point proven!"

Actually, by the end of our three days in Dover, we had started to keep track of how many creepy men we had discovered. We got up to at least six. I'm sure you'd like to meet them.

First was the man opposite the street from our hostel above the pub, and he had a cough. Generally I don't begrudge people for coughing (I am the one who introduced the joys of whooping cough into our family a few years back), but this man needed a doctor, and I don't know what kind. He'd see us and give a little cough. As we got closer, he'd cough harder. By the time we were passing him he'd be gagging and choking and hacking so hard I felt the urge to mentally rehearse my CPR training just in case he keeled over right then and there. If he was trying to extract some pity from us, it failed. We were creeped out instead.

Next was the Grecian Brit. Or the British Greek. Or the lying Brit? We didn't never did figure it out. As we wandered around the outskirts of Dover one morning, suddenly this man appeared by our side, smiling at us.

"Do you know where First Street is?"

Sorry, I admitted, we were only here for a few days and didn't know where that was. Oh, that was okay, he grinned, he'd find it eventually. So, where were we from? How long were we here? What were we studying? You're awfully weird, I thought, and resisted the urge to give him a fake name and fabricated story and answered with vague replies that got shorter and shorter as the conversation continued and his intentions became clear. I was going to be ending this conversation pretty quick if he didn't find something better to do.

He was from Greece, he told us. Oh, what part? I asked. Oh, just around, he answered. (Sure.) How long have you been away from your Parthenon homeland, Mr. Perfect British English and Perfect Caucasian Looks? Oh, a long time, for sure. Yeah, I bet.

Well, enough of the chit chat, we'd known each other for at least two minutes, time to get serious.

"So, do you want to go out for coffee?"

I nearly choked on my reply, I answered so fast. "Nope, no, actually, we're just leaving. Good bye!"

Oh, well, he fumbled, rather taken aback, good bye! And he marched off down a side street with all the confidence of... a native Brit.

Greece. Sure.

But surely in the morning all these strange men would be asleep, right, and I'd be safe? Wrong.

The town square with the large  screen that showed Olympics all day long.


I'm reading in the town square one morning and only there for five minutes before a skinny black man comes right up to me on the bench. I eye him warily. Don't talk to strangers, my mother said. Yeah, well, buddy, you count as a stranger.

"Miss? Miss? Can I talk to you?"

How about not, actually. However, conveying that was no problem, for, thankfully, after Israel, Austria, Germany, Spain, and France, if there was one thing I know how to do, it's to look utterly confused and pathetic when someone speaks to me in a foreign language.

And suddenly, English became a foreign language.

I looked at him, mouth a little agape, eyebrows together, mumbled incoherently, shook my head, shrugged, went back to my book, and tried to look as Norwegian as possible. He stared down at me for a bit longer, obviously totally confused at my response, weighing whether he should try again or if whether doing so would cause this foreigner to blurt out a whole string of words in an incoherent language.

Apparently I wasn't worth the risk, and he wandered off. Score.

Yet our list of men gets even better. Driven inside by the rain one evening, we found ourselves in the company of two rather old, rather stout men watching the Olympics in the pub. Surely they would be safe, we hoped. Just sit down, say hello, be quiet, and watch the gymnasts.

Ha.

The one fellow was sitting just in that chair there, facing the screen.
Somehow, inexplicably, within seconds of our initial hello, we found ourselves being lectured to with great enthusiasm on everything from university pranks at King's College to the terrible state of the Dover ferry (who impounded the one fellow's car, and he had his "knickers in a twist" about it, very sad) to President Obama, nuclear war, the Republic of Congo, and, obviously, Josef Stalin's daughter (whom the one man knew personally, of course).

Olympics long forgotten, the one man plopped down on the couch next to Daniela (I had safely retreated across the room to a single chair), the other swiveled in his seat to better impress us with his knowledge, and the two hammered back and forth at each other for at least 20 minutes, each trying to out-do the other with his intelligence and wit.

After they had utterly run out of topics to speak on, they deemed it time for their exit, heaved themselves out of their chairs, impressed on us how terribly wonderful it was to meet us (scintillating conversation, yes?), let us know they were also staying in this hostel (what luck!), and, with a grin and a wink, said they'd see us later.

Sure you will. You'll see our backs as we run away.

But it still didn't end. The next night, a huge black man was in the pub, once again watching the Olympics. Forced to endure his presence while we cancelled Scotland's hostel reservations on the only computer in the facility (an ancient behemoth, with the words, "back to the future 1980s Internet experience" scrawled over the moniter), he evidently saw us as his new best friends. And what better way to treat best friends than to confide in them a secret?

"Hey!" he whispered. We looked at him. Hey what.

"That Frenchman over there? He's... weird, huh?"

Now, you'll meet the Frenchman later, and actually, this black man's assessment was rather correct, but he seemed so proud of his astute observation that we could do little but shrug and nod. Wrong move, for, now spurred on by our obvious deep interest in everything he had to say, he took great pleasure in trying to find out about us and our lives.

Fortunately, it wasn't too hard to keep it vague. I actually still don't know if he ever figured out what country we were from, for not 10 minutes after Daniela had explained she was from Austria and not Australia and they didn't have kangaroos and it wasn't an island (and I was conveniently ignoring him at the computer), he grinned at her.

"So! You're from Australia!"

Despite my attempts to be entirely distanced from this conversation, at that comment, I burst out laughing, tried to smother it in a cough, and ended up sounding like a hyena with the flu. At my breach of propriety, he realized his mistake and backpedaled, but it was enough to make us ready to exit the premises.

So I cleared my Internet history (who knew if one of these creepy men was a stalker as well), and, in the silent communication of one girl to another, I got up, smiled at Daniela, told our nice man good bye, and started to march out of the pub.

At which point Australia Man leaped off the couch, bid a hasty good bye to everyone in the room, and came following right after us toward the back door.

"Hey, so you're going out with the girls?" Stalin's daughter's friend called.

No, he most certainly is not, I spit out in my head. Daniela had the same sentiment and turned sweetly to me. "Actually, should we go upstairs instead?"

Why, yes, Daniela, marvelous idea. Let's go.

And up we went, leaving Australia Man at the bottom of the stairs to go out on the town alone. I'm sure he managed somehow.

Finally, our last creepy man was the perpetually drunk Frenchman who lived down the hall from us. He was more interested in Daniela than myself, as, fortunately for me, on our first encounter he had deemed me a complete idiot. He had spent the balance of the evening trying to convince Australia Man to show him around Dover, the pub owner to go into business with him, the two Republic-of-Congo experts to discuss religion, and Daniela that she was from Australia. Apparently rather exhausted by this herculean endeavor, he had little patience for me when we bumped into each other on the stairs.
The stairs to our attic room (almost like the ones I met Frenchman on)

"Sooo," he slurred, "You're from Aussstria?" He thought he was talking to Daniela.

I wasn't interested in discussing anything at all with him, actually, so I kept on climbing the stairs and ignored him.

"Are yooou from Austria?" he called again. Obviously I was just a little hard of hearing.

Sighing, I turned. Fake smile. "No, actually, I'm from America."

Though probably saddened I was not his new friend Daniela, he nevertheless seemed overjoyed at the prospect of a thrilling discussion of American politics.

"Ooh! Wehll! I hhhave a few commplllahints for yoou," he nodded.

He had what? I was having a difficult time following.

"What?"

Stupid girl. Well, Americans, you know. He repeated himself.

"Iii have a feew complaints fooor you!"

Oh. Got it. Complaints. Right.

"Okay..." I raised an eyebrow.

He puffed up. "Why Vieeeetnaaam andnooot Syyria?"

What? He couldn't possibly be asking me about Vietnam. Did I look like I knew anything about the foundational politics behind the Vietnam War and the relative merits of Vietnam versus Syria as it related to France and international politics? No, that couldn't be it.

"What?"

Gosh, I was a stupid girl. He rolled his eyes and raised his voice, maybe that would help me understand.

"Why Vieetnam and not Syria!?"

You've got to be kidding, he was asking me about Vietnam.

I raised my hands helplessly. "I don't know, that was before my time."

He rolled his eyes. Typical clueless American. "Ooohhhyeahh, before yourr time!"

Yes. That's what I said, good job. This conversation was really rollin' now.

Unfortunately, disappointed by my inexcusable lack of knowledge regarding American politics, he didn't think so and started to drag himself through the door back to the pub when he stopped. He squinted up at me.

"Amm I just tooo smart for yoou?"

I gaped open-mouthed down at him from the top of the steps before I choked on my own laughter.

"Yes, that's it. Yes, yes, you are."

Right. He smiled, victorious over the stupid American, and wandered back into the pub while I crumpled in a fit of giggles in the hallway off the stairs.

You sure do meet some interesting people in Dover.


Monday, August 13, 2012

15 things you didn't need to know about Israel and Europe

I've learned many wonderful lessons on my trip to Israel in Europe, but sometimes, there's just a limit to the useful information a person can handle. Therefore, here are 15 things you totally didn't need to know about Israel and Europe...
  1. Fish eyes cooked in Israel don't really taste like anything. And they're kind of crunchy.
  2. But rabbit cooked in Spain tastes like chicken crossed with pork.
  3. And Italian mochas made in Scotland taste like motor oil.
  4. You can just barely hold your breath driving through the tunnel under the Mount of Olives.
  5. The flashing light display on the Eiffel Tower after dark repeats itself every two seconds.
  6. Sticking your hand into nettles is just as stupid an idea in Austria as it is in America.
  7. When you don't know French and the boys in Paris try to flirt, they fail rather miserably.
  8. You're hotter and more sweaty after you swim in the Dead Sea than before.
  9. The smaller the wastebasket in an Israeli bathroom, the more upscale the facility is.
  10. Apple pie in Barcelona isn't pie and barely has any apples.
  11. You find single shoes by the side of the highway in Europe as well as in America (what is with that?).
  12. If you can say hello, good bye, and thank you in a language, look confident, and smile and nod knowingly, in most situations you can pass as a native speaker.
  13. The best way to bargain in Jerusalem is to walk into a store with all your textbooks and wearing your backpack, and then try to back out out of the store repeatedly while protesting, "I'm a student! I'm a student! I have no money!"
  14. If an Arab man asks you if you're single, the answer is NO.
  15. If you look completely pathetic and say, "What? What? What?" to the French rail conductor when he tries to talk to you in unintelligable English, he'll give you a great price on your ticket.
Don't you feel smarter now?

It took me quite some time watching the Eiffel Tower to estimate the flashing pattern repeated itself every two seconds, but obviously it was such a critical piece of information, I couldn't give up... To see for yourself, click here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In which I prepare to run away from an Austrian shopkeeper

They don't yell at you here.

Yesterday I was walking in the Old City in Innsbruck, Austria, shopping by myself, browsing through the dozens of tourist shops with their mini cow-bell keychains and Edelweiss jewelry. In Israel, that would have been a problem waiting to happen: the Old City. Narrow street. A young woman. By myself. Obviously a tourist. Going into a shop, of all the scandalous things.

The first store I walked into in Innsbruck, there was a man about my age at the counter, and all my Israel instincts went off -- as soon as he opened his mouth, I cringed and unconsciously prepared to fend him off and flee back out into the street while he shouted after me waving some scarf or souvenir asking whether I was single, if I wanted anything, how much could I afford, wasn't this scarf lovely, where was I from, how beautiful I was (and did I want some coffee?), how he had the best prices in town, and would I please come back.

As I mentally prepared for this, the Austrian shopkeeper looked at me calmly and said something that nearly made my jaw drop.

"Can I help you?"

I gaped. He wanted to help me?

I smiled and declined, then waited for more -- protests, exclamations about his skirts or scarves or silver jewelry -- but instead, he nodded and went back to his work behind the desk.

Amazing.

As I stepped back out into the sunny street, I realized I hadn't heard those words -- "Can I help you?" -- for weeks. I enjoyed the Israeli shops and culture -- I truly did -- but despite being only a few hours' flight from Austria, the mentality of each is worlds apart.

I am glad to experience both. And tomorrow it starts again -- Spain, France, England, and Scotland await!

The view from outside my bedroom window...

Saturday, July 7, 2012

On dry heat and other such imaginary tales

"Oh, you won't feel it," they say. "It can be almost pleasant," they say. "It's a dry heat," they say.

Sure it is.

Imagine someone snatching a sizzling branding iron from the furnace and waving it gleefully in your face. As you leap back with a shriek of terror, the person shouts, "Don't worry! You won't feel it! It's a flameless heat!"

Yeah. Right.

I'm standing up the beach from the Dead Sea, eyes and mouth still vaguely stinging from getting liquid salt on my face ten minutes ago. The minerals have made my skin greasy-gritty, like sand in olive oil, and I'm waiting for the rest of my team to come up from the water.  I feel no more refreshed than I did before I entered the water: hot air, hot sand, hot sea, and I just drank the last of my water. My t-shirt, damp a minute ago, dries almost instantly in the "dry heat.".

Yeah, it's dry. It's also 112 degrees in the shade.

Of course, dry heat does have it's advantages: you cool off quickly in the shade, and you rarely feel gross. Why? Because your sweat evaporates instantly. No sweat, no gross.



I floated so easily it was actually really hard to swim. You couldn't get anywhere, as the water would keep you so high in it it was hard to kick or swim. But I felt very smugly satisfied that I could finally do the front crawl without putting my face in the water (as doing so would make you blind with the salt), just as I always tried to convince my swimming teacher to let me do when I was seven years old.

On the beach where I was drying off thinking about "dry heat."


But it's not all hot. The weather is incredibly varied here, from the 112-degree afternoons in the Dead Sea to the 65-degree nights in Jerusalem. The land is just as varied, with only miles -- or even feet -- separating unbelievable changes in topography. What types of land would take you hours or even days of driving to see in the United States you can see in just minutes here.

What land have I been seeing? Why am I here? I'm part of a two-week course entitled "Jesus and His Times" at Jerusalem University College. We're traveling all over Jerusalem, Galilee, Bethlehem, and Israel in general seeing many of the sights of the Bible. After my two weeks here, I will spend a week in Nazareth at Nazareth Village. And after that, I'm off to Europe. :)


We have the best room on campus -- on the roof! This is my view. It's unbelievable, especially at night, and the wall is perfect for sitting on and having long conversations, reading, and eating ice cream (though not all at once).  


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On singleness and souls: My first day in Jerusalem

I walked with my friend down a crowded Jerusalem street, vendors with glorious scarves, headbands, jewelry, sandals, bags, carvings -- overhead, underfoot, on all sides. >We laugh (clutch our purses like obedient tourists), I point out to her a purple scarf with dangling golden medallions, we take in the streets and shops and land. The shopkeepers sit outside their booths, want you to come in, want to bargain. One calls out to my friend. 

"Are you single today!?"

We both gasp and give an appropriately shocked look at the ground in front of us (did we just hear right?) -- refraining from staring at each other with mouths agape until out of earshot, where we burst out laughing. Single today? Why, certainly, glad you caught me now, as I wasn't single yesterday and may not be at 5 p.m. tomorrow. But today, yes, of course! We laugh until silenced again in the beauty of the city.

It's different here. But of course it is.

I'm in Jerusalem, I'm in the city of God.


Here I'm walking through a crowded Jerusalem street. Notice the two things you always see: beautiful scarves, and signs in three languages.
I didn't know what to expect arriving here, but what I am receiving is enough. There is endless stone, rubbed silky raw by millions of feet over hundreds of years; it's like walking on hot ice. Olive trees grow like weeds, and there are no flies; I thought there would be.

Always three languages --usually Hebrew on top, Arabic next, English on the bottom. Orthodox Jews dressed in black move by Muslims on their way to prayer while stepping to the side for a Christian coming out of church. People warn of tension here, of violence. What I am amazed by, humbled by, is not that there is sometimes violence, but there is not so much more. So many people so passionate about their faith, their very souls tied into the depth of this land, each person disagreeing with the next about so much critical to who they are, knowing that disagreement simply by the way the other is dressed, with centuries of violence behind them -- and yet, side by side, day after day, year after year, friends, coworkers, selling each other bread, bargaining over a skirt, and smiling at the laughter of the other's child.

The human soul is a remarkable thing.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The mountain is calling...

As much of this blog seems to be about adventures, I think it is fitting I am now off on my own adventure for the summer -- I will be gone from now through late August in Israel and Europe. I won't have my computer and Internet access may or may not occur but will try to post some updates on here when possible.

To adventure!



Image by Leah Flores (http://society6.com/floresimagespdx/Muir-Mountain_Print)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Purple-flowered prayer

Four braids. Three, actually, with one still undone. Maia’s tangled black mane reaches to her chest, my fingers run through it, and rainy wind breathes on eastern pasture.

It’s nearly supper, and I haven’t had lunch; a little dizzy, but I don’t notice; long ago I learned to keep myself from fainting. I stand and the world swims, can’t hear, can’t see, hand reaches silently for a wall. But I learn to hide, to sit and look in embroidered purse for something invisible, and no one knows the imminence of a fall. They go on with their lives, and in a few moments, my world returns, and I continue with mine.

Maia breathes free from halter or rope. Fourth braid almost finished, and horse dirt sticks to mane-greased fingers. Maia is not quite sleeping, standing with me in the field. She would be, except for the turkeys poking through violet clover on the far side of the hill. They need watching, suspicious things.

Maia never misses anything. I get dizzy, stop breathing, and she knows, but she also feels when I live the joy of my grandma’s purple-flowered trellis. She never asks me to be anyone I cannot be at this moment, but she does demand I live in all the beauty I can today. This is a good lesson, to live in the moment.

I crouch for the green comb in the grass, stand, vision blurs, hand touches Maia’s shoulder, she stays still for me. When I stand and darkness closes in, I don’t think well, and sometimes all I can remember is the presence of God. Then I understand the meaning of prayer.



Saturday, June 2, 2012

Asleep in my arms

Into the West



Lay down your sweet and weary head
Night is falling, you have come to journey's end.
Sleep now, and dream of the ones who came before.
They are calling from across the distant shore.

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
all of your fears will pass away,
safe in my arms
you're only sleeping.

What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea a pale moon rises—
The ships have come to carry you home.

Dawn will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass.

Hope fades
into the world of night
through shadows falling
out of memory and time.

Don't say, "We have come now to the end."
White shores are calling
you and I will meet again.
And you'll be here in my arms
Just sleeping.

What can can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea a pale moon rises—
The ships have come to carry you home.

And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the west.

Good bye, old friend.






Thursday, May 31, 2012

Waiting for a ship

The May spring water pulsed over my bare feet, and I curled my toes against the cold. I knew it wasn’t ocean water; it was Lake Michigan water; that didn’t sound as poetic. A half hour ago on this beach in Door County, Wisconsin, my friend and I had stood on the broken shells and looked out at the breathing mist.

Clouds as low as the lake. “Did you ever pretend, when you were a little girl on the beach,” I closed my eyes, “that if you looked long enough at the ocean—at the horizon—were careful not to blink—and just knew, and waited—a ship would come for you?”

My friend has mounted the hill to the house, but I am still in the sand and dawn. Down the beach a clatter of rocks migrates toward the wet horizon, and a seagull preens. When I reach it, my bare feet find their place in the water-washed stone: islands.

“When I am alone on the beach,” my friend told me, “I turn into the wind, turn into the water, and sing.”

But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over 
Neither have I the wings to fly… 
But I'll spend my days in endless roaming, 
Soft is the grass, my bed is free...
On that long road down to the sea. 

If a ship were ever to come for me, it would be now, on the water, in the morning, while I sing.



Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The invisible princess

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place. 
~Author Unknown 


“You’re an incredibly intimidating person!”

I looked at him, dumbfounded. I’m intimidating? I walk out of the yellow-walled classroom with a friend—protesting that I try to be pleasant—and my friend bobs his head emphatically, insisting, oh yes, I am a terribly nice person. But incredibly intimidating.

And I heard it again from a professor walking out on the sidewalk in the April sun, and again from a former roommate when reminiscing about our first meeting: I have it under control. I get things done. I’m on top of everything. I’m intimidating.

What those people do not know is my inability to let myself even timidly approach anything close to weakness is itself one of my greatest weaknesses. The struggle for authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability fights bitterly against the deadly safe walls of a “perfect” exterior—and a false self. It is easier to be perfect than to be vulnerable, to give others the chance of hurting you, laughing at you. It is easier to be perfect than to let others down and cause them pain and risk them leaving you for your clumsy life.

Not allowing myself to be weak—to not be perfect—has affected me as a woman. I know I was not the only little girl to dream of being the great beauty rescued by the prince—I always secretly wanted to be dramatically kidnapped and  even more dramatically rescued (complete with epic battles and castles, swords, and dragons, preferably).

But as soon as I started dreaming up those adventures, I’d bite my lip and anxiously push back those stories, because, I knew, if I were silly enough or pathetic enough or dumb enough to get kidnapped and in trouble in the first place,  the prince would surely be annoyed he had to come rescue me—he’d think less of me—“Good grief,” he’d gripe, “that stupid girl got herself into one heck of a mess”—and I’d have only shame where I wanted love.

If only I’d been smarter, braver, or better, I could’ve earned the prince’s love, I could’ve avoided getting in trouble in the first place or at least could have gotten myself out of it on my own and proven my worth. Ultimately, I would be rescued only because I had failed.

You are not enough, the world tells me, If you show your weakness, others will leave you. This lie is not only for me—I have found through coffee shop conversations with friends that this fear grips the lives of many girls: the fear of becoming the invisible princess. We are afraid of being the girl, who, when she finally summons up the courage to show her weakness, finds herself abandoned by her prince and by others at the very moment she needed their strength. It is in that moment she learns she was just not quite worth fighting for.

So she determines to never be weak again—and it is then she learns what loneliness is.



Friday, May 11, 2012

Pleading sanctuary


Minnesota meadow, late July
Sewn to woods by seams of thought,
Evening splashes her face with moss;
I walk past unmade deer beds.
Alfalfa, dusty with the sunlight
Wades in dry riverbeds of brome—
Asks why I failed
To build a cottage here, with flowers
Slipping to the door.
But gone too long, I’m deaf-blind to family—
Oaks holding red hawks’ hands.
Roaming hallways of perfected air
To Butterfly Point, my childhood room,
I remember monarch clouds
Ten thousand wings—
How heartbreak feels
Blowing through your coat. Adrift
On meadows’ whitecaps,
I hear the muddy rhymes of home
Calling me back, in time for supper:
Moored as unsettled ice
In harbor of stone.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Why people rode west



When wondering
Why people rode West,
I ask horses.
For once I knew bright wanderlust,
Tears when sun wove down to flax—
But now I stay, as statues stay:
Sleepwalk.
Yet mustang herds in picture books
Choose godly mud, swim
Through oceaned fog as rivers
Under Utah stars—
So I mount my mare to rise
To fields of blistered sky,
Scale a cliff of glass or grass—
Let September sun trade places
With flickering holocaust of birch:
Fiery life in stirrups with muddy tread,
Nails pushed full of dirt and sand,
Living without permission—awake.




Monday, April 30, 2012

Moonlight

We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small. 
~Tara Brach 


As a college freshman, desperate to loosen the choke of city’s fingers around my throat, I would walk carefully beside the sidewalk. With eyes focused on the ground, I’d see only grass, pretend I was home on our 30-acre prairie farm. Three years later, a senior at Northwestern College, I have learned to see the beauty of a Minneapolis skyline trading places with the stars. I still leave the paths, though no longer for fear.

My high heels clip the sidewalk and stick in cracks as I walk to my Corolla, classes over at three in the afternoon. The tulips are like the breathless aurora this April, and driving onto campus this morning, I most respected the white-tipped scarlet ones—“beauty is the secret sound of the deepest thereness of things.”

A hill rises to my left, Riley Hall seated on top, radiating spring heat thick from its roof like a dry riverbed. The sun drenches, dripping golden-hour light down redbrick walls into a watercolor of tulip rivers. Warm wind brushes aside my bangs and breathes gently on my forehead. I find myself with shoes deep in grassy surf, peasant skirt twisting around my knees, climbing up the hill to the flowered stream, searching for tulips already broken onto the lawn; I will not pick any. Three torn crimson petals and a damaged blossom offer themselves, and I cup them in my fingers to bring back with me—somewhere. I balance on hill’s crest.

Uplifted. Below me on concrete path, a football player who appears to have his summer home in the weight room. He watches, tight-lipped; I feel petal silk on my fingertips and know he sees only a torn-up tulip, though it isn’t his fault my world is lit by a different sun—Oscar Wilde said, “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight.” For a moment, I feel childish and wonder if someday I’ll know someone who treasures shattered flowers. The boy looks away; perhaps he thinks staring is rude. I stare at the rubies in my hands.

In the car, I place wilted tulip and three petals on my dashboard, and when I reach the freeway and 73 miles per hour, I roll fully open every window so my hair tangles and lips dry out and I can listen to silence. The fiery petals flicker and twirl under the wind; after minutes of straining, one slips out the window, a blink, or a breath.

I watch it leave and wonder if a little girl will find it on her doorstep and stare. She will see the dawn, Wilde says, before the rest of the world.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Face to the darkness



I didn’t buy a scone today. I was going to, assuring myself after wandering through the makeup aisle in Kohls, I’d visit Caribou—support the Minnesota king of coffee shops—live scandalously on both coffee and blueberry scone. But when the white-blonde cashier asked if I wanted anything else with my latte, I shook my head and put my credit card away.

My fingertips scald through the ridged cardboard cup holder. I turn my back to the wall of windows, wanting the sun to talk less, the clouds to stop asking for directions, even if it is almost May and warm enough to leave green peacoat crumpled on the car’s back seat. I want blindness toward the waitress counting three pumps of sugar-free hazelnut. There is a brunette leather armchair facing the wall; it is good.

My seat pulls me down, and I watch the left-most wall, covered by a chalkboard, turquoise rivers on the map of a black hole. Scribbled words I used to think beautiful, but now I dig painted fingernails into my hand and leave red marks in my palms. A man’s plaid shirt skitters into my vision and hops out of it again; the man averts his eyes as he passes and does not see me try to smile. The fireplace sews quilts for all of us, even the ones who don’t notice, like me.

Two Wednesdays ago when I did homework here, I sat the other way, high on a stool facing the open room and the smiling cashier who talked too loudly, and two skinny high school boys in sweatshirts played Jenga and glanced at me every thirty seconds to see if I was impressed. This afternoon the only person my age is struggling with his friend to remember the name for people who make balloon animals. He smells weird. Is that cologne or sweat? He’s sitting too close. You should go away. But I don’t say it.

The cup with the caribou is lighter now. Don’t doctors say caffeine is bad energy?

I want to know what my breath knows, why when I breathe my horse’s eyes go soft. If my sister were in the opposite nylon armchair, her mind wrecked Jenga blocks on the coffee table, I would insist on what I understand, this place is still beautiful. But trapped with the blackboard, my words aren’t loud enough to be heard over my silence.

The coffee’s Splenda sludge at the bottom of the cup isn’t worth the calories, and I push it away.

The walls are strident. Breath drops out of my lips, trying to relieve the stomach-sickness that makes my head cry, breathe in, back digs into the cushion. Caffeine, or spiritual warfare, or three hours’ sleep, and the backfire of the barrista’s cool whip container bruises my face and coffee-thick air splinters my hearing. The radio churns on with its garbled song. It’s 2012, and the Mayans know the world is ending soon.

The laptop screen gapes as I realize this essay on poetry will sound more holy than I am. My back twinges as I twist in the armchair, face right. Perhaps fear can’t attack if your face is to the sun.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

The saddest kind of tears

At least on days like this, I mutter, stomping down the Rosedale Mall sidewalk in high-heeled boots, I don’t have to worry about getting mugged. I look too upset—if I were a thug, I wouldn’t attack someone who looked mean.

It’s late April, Minnesota, but I don’t know what season it is; winter, I think. Snow huddles on asphalt edges, and flowering crabapple trees line the sidewalk like lighted Christmas trees. This afternoon the little drummer boy marched around my car to the tune of Enya as I drove to the shops off Snelling, and I didn’t have the heart to turn him off. Two hours later, I’ve rejected enough skirt suits to clothe a nursing home, and my boot heels slam craters into the sidewalk sludge. Stupid formal presentations, stupid idea to dress up. Smirking wind spits in my face.

I forge past Claire’s and a pink crabapple tree. Ragstock and a white one. I’m brushing by a third when I pause. And turn around.

I need to stop a moment. Dropping my purse to murky concrete, I perch on the tree’s wooden planter with woven branches overhead, dreamcatchers standing guard, and damp soaking through my jeans. My blistered feet press like inmates against black suede as I watch a hundred cars slinking through the parking lot, and I wait for something dramatic to happen. The raised flowerbed strangling the tree is barren except for a few soppy cigarette stubs. I’m glad. Flowers shouldn’t bloom when I’m miserable. 

It’s not raining now, as I’m not crying anymore: I remember a movie I once saw where the black-haired princess wasn’t sad because it rained; it rained because she was sad. Clogged skies drag themselves over the city. Tears, I stare at mud ground into planter boards, would be appropriately dramatic about now. But of course, here, when I have time to see the tree with pink blossoms, when crying would certainly bring a prince charging to my rescue out of Macy’s double doors, eyes are dry. Tears had come earlier during a meeting with a professor, when, fearful, I hid them and pretended I was fine: Why would you care? Don’t mind me, the robot. Just carry on. He didn’t notice. And no prince burst through a classroom door.

East of me 6,200 miles, a small Israeli girl also sits, back pressed against her stale brick house, feet tucked up, arms around knees. A breeze off the Sea of Galilee peers around the corner at her. Through the window the television announcer pursues: Israel preparing to bomb Iran, Iran likely to counterattack, war in northern Israel.

Israel to them; home to her. She watches the olive tree in front of her, sees its buds writhe vainly out of branches’ cocoons. When missiles scream down on her home, and her tree is shattered, house crumbled, mother disappeared, she knows she’ll cry. She stares at her dirty fingernails. Tears no one will see. 

A mother and her young daughter step out the glass doors in front of me, the little girl clomping along in dirty snow boots. “Let me tell you something,” the mother declares, “about shoes with heels.” She pauses for effect. “Heels hurt.”

I look down at my aching feet. Yes, heels hurt.

Tears hurt, too.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

No one sees you cry when it rains



When I want to shut off
                          shut down
Love—
I step outside, for no one sees me cry
When it rains.





Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Of beauty, why it matters

This is one of my favorite songs, because it says something I rarely know how to articulate: of beauty, and how it matters.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Black and white

On the north side of the barn, a large rock flattened by years of winters, with pitch night casting streaky shadows from flashlights. I set my leather church shoes on the rocky table, Minnesota April gusts ring my earrings like windchimes, and barn lights from seven stalls streak a lighthouse’s twenty-meter path from barn to car. The sandy ground pushes up between my bare toes; cold, though dry, no snow, I’m thankful for that. I pull on my boots.

From head to knees I remain in church—jeweled bobby pins, silver necklace, navy pea coat with four buttons and the long narrow belt that ties on the left. The feet are wrong, of course. I don’t suppose oversized untied mud boots go with my flared skirt. My thoughts drown in the smell of old hay.

The new hay is growing, its field stretching down from the barn for five acres before it joins to the woods like a seam on my skirt. The trees breathe life; I feel it from Maia’s saddle when I brush the fir branches from my face. We’ve heard the coyotes scrapping there some nights, and when we trot through the marsh, Maia always sniffs the air. Tomorrow perhaps I will ride among the birches and forget tonight.

It promises to be long, if I have to call the vet. I heard it said once that horses have a designated place to die, and they spend their entire lives looking for it. Phone lighting up in frantic silence during the Good Friday sermon—Chris never calls unless it’s serious. Perched on a stool, Scripture in front of me, I read my part of the evening service while visions of horses sprawled half-dead in muddy pastures emerge between descriptions of the manger and the cross.

And now, barn boots and church clothes.

And crouched in the dank stall with a blue nylon halter, and a hand on Laredo’s leg. Blood runs down his knee and onto my fingers, like the morning last summer when I cut proud flesh from Maia’s fetlock and stained hand and knife scarlet; I washed my blade and wondered why I didn’t feel queasy. But this cut wasn’t serious, just two horses impatient for supper and kicking each other for it—as if that helped somehow, one car passing another to be caught up with at the next red light.

When I leave my invalid’s stall, the horses are quieter, like tonight’s full moon crowded on the horizon, three inches wide. It is all of heaven I can see: stars are shy and only live in deeper country. When I was nine and knew only the farm, I read a children’s story that asked, what if the stars only came out once in a thousand years? At the time, I didn’t understand; it was like asking, what if you breathed only once in a lifetime? But now I stand outside the barn, thirty seconds’ drive from Fable Hill Development, and wonder if any of those children have stood at the end of their driveway and seen the Milky Way.

The boots are chafing my bare ankles. Leather lace-ups would have fit better—like those I wore last summer working weddings for Granville Carriage Company. White horse, black boots, white carriage, black skirt. White bride. I stood at Toby’s oversized Percheron head, grasping his bridle. No, flower girl, don’t pet him now, look at the bride, isn’t she pretty? I remained as footmen have for centuries, in the shadow of the horse, unseen, with all eyes on the lace-trimmed veil and low-cut dress and diamond on the left hand. I told myself that it was all right, that I was in black, and she was in white.

My rock is still there, twenty minutes later. I lean on it to kick off muddy boots.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dairy barn love song

DAWN
Up by the rooftop flies the little silver owl on wings free and gliding like a rainbow’s.

MORNING
Although the hayloft here has room for all, bats dig clawed naked feet deeper into vintage rafters, struggling against bossy relatives. For hatred of what they eat, I say nothing when sweeping the unclean hay below on Saturdays. People get pest control, the bats survive richly; I think this is good.

MIDDAY
By noon the sun is a hand pushing down on my hair, and the concrete block wall with the year 1976 stands out unflinching as a barn swallow’s nest. Dandelion’s airless pollen makes my nose run, and the clover’s trinity leaves open their holy heart. Gravel fallen from the wall is the dirt and the dirt where walls sit. The barn is loud as a blowing weathervane; when you notice it, I don’t, not forgotten sounds of home.

AFTERNOON
Across the patio from mowed-down elephant ears, three-foot leaves spitting one-inch confetti, a robin pecks in the hay pile of brome and timothy. Though I’ve never hurt him, he hops two steps away. “I wish you’d stay,” I say, “You’d be a magical pet.” Mildly amused, he peers at me, and flies away.

SUNDOWN
When the wind coughs through the aisle, wooden gates rattle like fireplaces. Sunlight fleeing out the window, I knife open the bale, passing the bag of twine. Knitting, knotting, the twine breathes its bittersweet scent, green dye against green hay, holding the bales for the horses, where pawing hooves mark down impatience. Below me, spilled-bucket water swims in earth. That night I remember hay splinters, needled through gloves, bronzed, pinning dirt to skin, and try to forget by rubbing a silk pillow.

AFTERWARD
Something whispers, you can become more human here, if you want to. I have: watch the weathervane’s twirling in the prairie winds, barn swallows’ nests with four eggs in them. Alfalfa and dandelion, McCormick and Farmall, barn cat and farm dog. Also two black horses with muddy legs and wringing tails; I watch them bite their sides, kicking at bellies against golden deerflies. Those flies have settled, now, into the hayfield’s grass, a blemish in the thick-fringed carpet of someone’s room, and stayed when I have not. Look at what I still have, dull knives with dirty handles, respect for owls and bats at night, and sympathy for the smell of twine.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Purple clouds

They're always the same way, I thought as I opened the coffee shop door—passive and serious, like the home you just left but better somehow, because the music whispered there was nothing to do, just a place to be. The idea made me discreet, productive: it was like thinking of being a writer. I was not a writer when I stepped out of my rusted Toyota, but passing through the door—now I was.

They are the same way, all coffee shops I’ve been in, from the nameless one with the broken chair in central Ohio to here at Nesting Grounds in my hometown of Wyoming, Minnesota. At three in the afternoon, the March sun was fool’s gold promising warmth and masking chill, but inside, the fertile smells thawed the air and allowed it to be spring.

Today was too long. Up early for accounting homework, to the barn to ride, to class, to a meeting, to class again. Now when I could’ve gone home, I rejected the living room—tan leather couch and awkward fake fireplace—and came here to the plaid armchair by the photograph of a tree with the beige tag that said “$20.” Be a writer, start with this essay, or start with a coffee shop. The sun slanted in, amber light on mocha plates, and you knew when you sat down with your purchase, you could let yourself into your thoughts.

I waited in line to buy my coffee, so many choices, a way to feel productive. My mother has given me a coupon worthy of an adventure—buy one get one half off—so I run my finger down the small sign labeled “FLAVORS,” tasting hazelnut, almond, Irish crème (what’s that?). If I’m inspired now, I will be later: marshmallow white chocolate mocha it is. I judge people by their coffee sometimes. Why did he choose just vanilla? Does she care sugar-free flavorings cause cancer? I suppose others are judging me.

The deer are eating the daylilies this year. At the breakfast table yesterday, Dad ate his oatmeal, Mother said, “I don’t know what to do,” and the doe relished her meal. Mother recited the arsenal she’d employed: the rotten egg spray smelled bad and worked worse, but the wire-mesh fencing was ugly along our residential road, and the deer weren’t eating the neighbors’ flowers. I drank my juice.

The daylily sprouts are now a crushed running board along the wooded driveway, but that is all right, I like the crocuses better. There is only one patch of them this March, set back from the mailbox, touching the crowded trees. I like them for their bravery as well as for their color; purple was always my favorite, because in it you could see the clouds.

I take the proffered mocha, resting it on its blue-painted holder under the armchair’s window with the cold apple muffin nearby to keep it company. With laptop on my knees, I am here but also present, and I am a writer.

Coffee shops listen to something you didn’t know you were saying. Sitting in my chair, patterned purse bound around my feet, I thought I heard voices in the espresso machine’s grind. The blonde waitress asked if I needed anything else, and the mahogany wood tables held their ground.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eternity under an oak tree

Lake Johanna before me, Nazareth Chapel behind. Oaks in front, so many, criss-crossed, a giant’s sideways version of pick-up-sticks. This is the seen, and the unseen is here too: now ahead, down the hill, to the right, by the shore, a small cave sleeps. In it is one awake and watching with sightless eyes—the Virgin Mary, hands upraised, blessing me, sanctifying the water. The sunlight does not reach there.

It does not reach me either. Wrapped in the oak tree’s stretching shadow, I am sitting in its lap, and it lets me be alone. The ground is dry here—drier than the manicured lawns I left minutes ago—maybe because it is happy, not crying, content to be where there are beaches and breezes and a view of the sea. My bare feet are pleased to be dirty, my hair not so pleased to be spitting out twigs onto my homework (I was rude to it when I lay in the dirt two minutes ago). Backpack, papers, Fundamentals of Finance, pens I keep losing, papers that keep blowing, shoes beached on their backs, I carried so much baggage with me when I came here a half hour ago. I should be doing homework. No, actually, I shouldn’t.

There is no one here. There are people, but there is no one here. We all came, this evening, to be alone with the hillside, to listen to the sun and hear the warmth and feel the silence, to believe it is June when it’s actually March, to pretend we are not prisoners in a dizzy anthill that won't let us go.

Beside me, a silent maiden descends the cold old hillside steps—awkward stone stairs too large for one step, too small for two—down toward the water, toward Mary’s shrine. And as she glides, the clouds open to allow glory-light to whisk out its rug ahead of her, making a royal path of heaven for her to walk on, the chosen one.

I am still in shadow. The light did not come for me.

A puffed-up chickadee, mottled black on swirly brown, flits on her song: up and down and down and around—“Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!”—until an owl with a headache finally shouts, “Hell-oh!” and she stops. Shocked. Muddy bark runs down in rivulets, headwaters in the sky; a good place to be from. Leaves spin and skip, no longer leashed to trees or imprisoned by snow, bouncy now. Clover buds, threads of grass, moss coral, waft out of the ground as steam from winter’s last breath. Just before sunset, all seems sacred—colors more royal, leaves more hallowed, trees more divine. Evenings and mornings were given so we could touch the face of God.

The water was silver before, flat, but now it shatters under the setting sun to reveal a glittering opal center, like the quartz-filled rocks I used to find and line up on my bedroom shelf—the ordinary holy. There is something of forever here, in the psychedelic water and the mahogany trees. Seeing it is like grasping at something you thought you forgot; it is a dreamy reflection remembering vaguely that “beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror” (Kahlil Gibran).

I know my eternity, now, my beauty, for the hillside told me so. Eternity sits under an oak tree with her twiggy hair and dirty feet, brushed by a scepter of light set with gold.