It is 113° in Redding, California, and the Carr Fire continues to burn, destroying boats at the marina and buildings to the west, and filling the sky with ash and smoke. Those who haven’t been forced to evacuate stay inside to keep from breathing it in.
Blood-red skies and flickering horizons bring perspective, especially if it’s your family holed up in a motel hoping their home is still their home at the end of it all.
As all fires worth knowing about tend to do, this one leapt out of control quickly. As far as I know there haven’t been any casualties at this time, but there are no guarantees.
A week ago, I dreamed that I died. It wasn’t a dream of monsters chasing me, but it felt as real as those nightmares often do. I was in the liminal space between death and life; time had stopped, the time had come, and I was about to find out what really happens when you die. I only knew it was a dream when I woke up, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Have you ever almost died?” It’s a question that surfaces on social media and road trips, and like others I have stories I dust off for just such occasions. Those of us who haven’t gotten nearly as close as we think we have laugh about our near-misses, but it’s only a temporary reprieve. I am a future dead girl.
Those who were once living wrote about beautiful and terrible places in their sacred books, but whether they have gone to those places, I don’t know.
We will all die, but we don’t like to talk about it, except in the wispiest of language. Maybe that’s why we love stories of resurrection so much. In fact, I’ll be telling one myself soon, with my fancy editing tools, and with my body. The camera will find me lying on a table, still and gray, then it will move close to my face, and, just as we planned, I will open my eyes.
Sometimes, the real thing is so full of glory that no matter who is telling you about it, or how, the glory will seep through. This is that sort of thing, where nothing earnest can be misrepresented, where even the blurriest picture will cause us all to gather around.
I fill my arms four times and carry food and suitcases and books to my room. I know there are mountains outside, here in Snowmass, Colorado, but it’s too dark to see them. I stack my books high, and there are too many for one pile.
This is the day after Easter, or rather the night, and the Retreat House is empty except for me. Everyone came for Holy Week, and the second of April isn’t Ordinary Time, but it seems it may as well be to everyone else.
I fill my journal with the past and the future, with remembrances and visions. I truly pray for the first time in a long time. And as I fill in the rocks and plants and other features of a labyrinth in my coloring book, At Play in God’s Creation, my eyes fill with tears, and the decision I had come here to make, and indeed thought had been made, turns into grief and I let myself grieve.
It isn’t always the story about the story, but it sure seems that way to me. I awaken to dreams and hopes, and then I fall asleep and sleepwalk through the grid laid before me. And then one day, when the sleepwalking starts to take a nightmarish turn, I wake long enough to remember and cup my chin in my hands as I take in the beauty in the distance, the beauty I could be a part of.
I want to come awake long enough to do good in the world, a good I can sustain because it bubbles up from the truest, deepest parts of me.
I only leave the Retreat House for Vespers (I thought about going to Mass, but I don’t know whether or not I’m allowed to take the sacrament, so I skip it). I try to take in the details of what I see and hear, not just what I feel. One monk sits on a cushion. Blue jeans poke out at the bottom of their robes, ending in sandaled feet. Sometimes I turn to the right page in the book and can follow along, but sometimes I lose my place and can only listen.
The services end in darkness and quiet, but the silence is not absolute. The monks greet us on the way out, and I find myself shy.
I meet Sarah and Pat at Vespers, and they invite me to drink tea with them in their hermitage, a separate guest accommodation. It is the best tea I’ve ever had, a tea that actually tastes as good as it smells. And we talk about wistful things and tangible things, wise men and meaningful stories and standing in unfrequented spiritual spaces. And I know I am talking about my life as I wish it to be, my time as I would like it to be spent, not as it is.
We only have so much time in a day, time to decide what we will fill ourselves with and what we will spend ourselves on.
I pad across the thick carpet and lay on the floor of the Prayer Hall. The low lights make wondrous shapes and so do the wooden beams far above me, and the silence is deep. I take pictures and I walk back and forth, alone and at peace.
I feel like I am on holy ground. On my way out, I stop at the bookstore and pull objects to myself, trying to bring this place with me: a book about this monastery, a CD of Gregorian chants, beeswax candles, cards made of pressed flowers that aren’t perfect in form, but are perfect for having been made here.
I keep craning my neck to see Mount Sopris, and looking hungrily in the rear view mirror. The mountain was before me three days ago when I was arriving, but in the dark I hadn’t known, hadn’t seen. And now I am stealing glimpses as I come down off the mountain.
My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.
It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.
Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.
I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.
But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.
More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.
But I was always finding things too.
Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.
I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.
Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.
It is the moment when you sheepishly return to the party you left 20 minutes ago, the one where you hardly knew anyone, the one where you stayed your usual amount of time and then slipped away. When the door closed behind you, though, you realized you didn’t actually want to go home, that you weren’t tired, that you weren’t quite done, but you kept walking because you had made your choice and that was that, right? But then, halfway home, you turned the car around and changed your story.
It is the moment when you say, “Yes, I do have something to say, can we talk?” to the person who intimidates you, or the person you might disappoint, or the person who would rather not hear what you have to say.
It is the moment when you pull your car to the side of the road and call the friend you just said goodnight to, the friend you’ve never prayed with before, and ask her if you can maybe come over and pray.
I didn’t plan for any of these moments, but they all found me over the space of two weeks. And as the same scenario seemed to unfold again and again with different players and different stages, I felt the deja vu and I saw my agency, pressed against the glass of my mind’s eye, neglected for so long. Would I keep doing things the way I’d always done them? Would I keep avoiding conflict and fearing what people might think and staying in the safe zone? Or would I take the risk to find out what would happen if I kept the curtains open and stayed on the stage longer than I’d ever done before?
In almost every one of those stories, I landed on my feet almost immediately. My face was flushed and my heart was racing, or I felt foolish and awkward, or I was afraid of disappointing people, but soon, very soon, my feet were on sure ground again, and the new landscape was bright and welcoming, and I was happier, and I felt braver.
And then I did not land on my feet. The fall was longer and the wind made my eyes squint and water. I slammed into the ground and I came away bloody. I still felt like a fool and I still felt afraid, and this time I wanted to take it all back, and this time I needed bandages, and this time I was not happier and I did not feel braver.
But I was still brave.
Bravery looks different for everyone. For me, though, it almost always looks like speaking up or turning around when it would be easier not to. It looks like finding my voice and using it. And it sometimes looks like trembling hands and clumsy words and misapplied shame.
Whether you are standing on the edge with shaky knees, or standing in the victory of a safe landing, or barely standing with dripping wounds, take heart. It will get easier, and it will get harder, and it will be worth it, even if you can’t see it now.
I ran a marathon last week, and it broke my heart.
“It was hard, but at least I finished,” I tell the people I don’t know as well. With others, the words “excruciating” and “demoralizing” and “disappointing” might make their way into my answers. But I’m still smiling as I list the reasons why my race was all those things.
I’m not very good at letting people see my grief. I know this because sometimes they’ve laughed when I’ve told them about my race, and I’m sure they thought they were laughing with me.
One week ago, I was shivering in shorts and a T-shirt and marveling at the colors in the morning sky. It had been a long week and I knew it would be a hot day, but I had no misgivings, no latent fears that my body might fail me.
It was Easter Sunday when I first put my hair up and ran a few blocks down the street and back. Before the month was out, I had all but decided that this would be my year to run a marathon. I printed out a training schedule: 168 boxes with 168 assignments.
I was an outstanding pupil, waking up while everyone else slept, strapping water to my waist, filling my weekends with running and recovery. Little by little, running became my life in a way nothing else was.
I can write, but I haven’t written much this year. I have people I love, but there is almost always some sort of distance. I love to talk, but fear has kept me silent. I have dreams and desires, but I slip into nothing and everything.
Running has been my constant. I can run, and I did run. I hated always getting up early and running the same routes until I was sick of them and taking the bus to yet another street corner. But I did it. This was my success story, my purpose, maybe even my identity.
Every so often when I wondered if I would really be ready come October 18, the stars would align on the trail and I would be smiling through the sweat and my confidence would rise.
And then October 18 came.
The first half of the race went as expected. The second half did not.
I must have started too fast. I must not have eaten enough that morning. The sun did not relent. And then pain slowly took over my pelvis.
I virtually stopped running by mile 18, but by then even just walking was hard. I almost cried at one point because I was so miserable. I don’t know exactly when I realized that I would not be bouncing back, that it would not be getting better, that there would be no glory in this day, but I know that by a certain point I wasn’t just physically shattered; I was heartbroken and ashamed.
I texted my roommates, who were waiting at the finish line with homemade signs, that I would be much later than expected. How low I have sunk that I’m texting during my marathon.
I passed people holding signs and cheering. They must think I didn’t prepare for this at all.
I thought of the pin I had proudly purchased at the Expo two days before. I can’t imagine wearing that now.
I turned the last corner and saw the finish line just ahead. I started running so that I could finish with at least a modicum of dignity. It’s barely even accurate to say that I ran a marathon.
It felt like a cruel trick. I had done everything I was supposed to do since May. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I felt no sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line, when I posed for a picture with my roommates, when I answered excited questions later. Rather, I cringed and cried heartbroken tears and wished I hadn’t told so many people about the race.
And then I decided I had to redeem myself by running the Colfax Marathon in May. Never mind all my reasons to take a break from distance running; I had to fix this mess as soon as possible.
This is where I am right now: grieving, grateful that the questions are subsiding, and realizing that my identity is clipped onto my ability to run longer distances than most people I know. I’ve had moments of joy on this journey, but it’s all been too dependent on what happens on a single day in October. If I end up running the Colfax Marathon next year, I want it to be for the right reasons.
But for now, I am letting myself be still and grieve.
On one side of the weekend, the happier side, I sigh and let go and sink backwards into a soft chair. But then I don’t get up, not really. The loneliness and the depression are always waiting to welcome me back.
I wake up on Tuesday, the feet on my back and chest still there, the sugar comas and screens still fresh in my mind in a hazy sort of way, and it is with the usual Monday dread that I think of my office, waiting for me. I pull my sluggish self up, I try unsuccessfully to pray in the car, and then I unlock the door and turn on the lights. Amid the piles of papers and the blinking red light on the phone, what’s waiting for me — again — catches me by surprise — again: relief.
Maybe I’m just losing myself in busyness, but I’d like to think there’s something sacramental in the movement of my hands, the microcosmic rhythms of meaningful work, the ebb and flow of order and chaos. Either way, this is my balm.
Until the Son of God appear Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
As usual, the sun shades are pulled low over the windows, and I can only see dark shapes from my swivel chair. September did not feel like fall, but it was cold enough in my car this morning to turn the heat on intermittently, and it was cloudy enough to set aside the sunglasses. I hear the rain, sometimes, and I write October 6, 2015 on forms, and I think that “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
Hours later, the coffee shop next door closes for the day, sequestering itself behind its metal wall. The chairs are empty and the staircase is empty and there is no movement behind most of the doors. Real darkness descends beyond my shrouded windows, but I am not there to see it. Instead, I am in my windowless cubby of a file room, separated even from the idea of people by two sets of doors, and I am softly singing Christmas songs.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
I marvel at what a difference twelve hours can make in reanimating ashes, turning back the clock to make live coals pregnant with promise once again. But maybe the clock isn’t going backwards but forwards; maybe this is a resurrection.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
I am singing louder now, in my car, and it’s yet another reminder of what music is capable of doing, how it fills and quickens and whispers. And yet it isn’t music that is saving my life, and it isn’t work. But maybe, just maybe, there is something in the pulse of both that holds the key to resurrection.
I am standing at a street corner in the predawn blue. A gas station to my right outshines the few remaining stars, and behind me the green-yellow-red rhythm regains its usefulness. We are all waking up.
Ahead, the sidewalk curves into a trail along a river, where I will see deer and rabbits and ducks, and I will keep looking to the right, past the highway to the eastern horizon, and I will be grinning.
Most runs aren’t like this.
Mostly it looks like waking up at 5:30 and sticking band-aids on my blistered toes and putting in the time so I can cross off another box on my marathon training plan. It feels like sweat dripping into my eyes and wanting to stop.
I can feel the way my body has changed, I can close my eyes and taste glory, I can pat myself on the back for my dogged determination. But I can’t make it all feel worth it in the moment.
“I’m so over running,” I was telling people and telling myself. “I can’t wait to have my life back again.”
But then, once in a while, something happens as I go through the familiar motions of strapping on the waistband and the armband and curling my fingers around the water bottle. And then this something, this brightness and hope, carries me into the thick of it and whispers, “Remember.”
Remember that your body knows how to do this. Remember how strong you are. Remember that you have been preparing for this and you are ready for this.
On that 20-mile run, I remembered.
Two hundred and seventeen minutes after the gas station and the traffic lights, I saw the bridge that doubled as my finish line that day. As I passed into the shadow underneath and slowed to a walk, it was with the deepest sense of awe and completion. I felt not only the usual relief of being done, but the power of every step that had brought me to that bridge, of the birdsong and iPod-song that had kept me company, of the amazing thing this body of mine had done.
Maybe October 18 will mark my last race. Maybe distance running is my today, but not my tomorrow. Maybe these shoes, figuratively speaking, don’t fit me as well as others I have worn and will wear. But there will always be shoes that are even harder to squeeze into, seasons and circumstances that will burst upon me, that will blindside me, that will stretch me thin and turn me inside out.
And yet, even in the middle of the pain and the barely-hanging-on, the blisters and the ragged breathing, may I catch glimpses of grace and remember.
I’m not much of a concert person, even less a music festival person.
The soundtracks and stages of my youth were limited, and it was a long time before I fell head-over-heels in love with music. But fall I did, and for no one more deeply than Mumford & Sons.
Start a conversation about their craft and technique, and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than agree with every good word. But bring up their lyrics and ponder what their music means to people? I would be so full of thoughts. It comes down to their incredible ability to express the deep longings of the human soul, I would say, and for that reason they have sunk into my whole being and I have carried their music with me for years.
Their new album came out a few months ago, and I made it my (somewhat belated) mission over the first few weeks of August to learn and fall in love with it. Even with the banjo gone, it wasn’t difficult to make room for these new offerings.
But when I saw the band in concert two weeks ago, it was what was in long-term memory that made the deepest impression.
I had been standing in the same place for four hours, in a mass that only grew denser as the sun sank behind the stage. I was excited, even though my back ached and I was tired.
“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said the only one in my group who had seen them in concert before. I knew it to be true.
The space between indie-rocker Jenny Lewis and the much-anticipated final act was a collective inhale. Darkness settled on this mountain town. We all leaned forward as another background song faded out, hoping that this new silence would give way to what we had been longing for.
Finally, it did.
The thousands of us, we cheered. And then we began to sing.
Maybe other concerts are like this too, I don’t know, but to be packed among so many, all singing soul-deep songs, felt more like a religious experience than simply being in the presence of a talented band. A private concert wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect – not just because we could all sing along, but because of why we had learned those songs in the first place.
As much as I like their new album, I haven’t spent enough time with it for it to become part of my story. I haven’t learned the chords on the ukulele. They haven’t accompanied me on nearly as many car rides or late nights. They haven’t inspired me to take melodies and write my own lyrics. And this is even without counting the Christian undertones especially present in those first two albums.
The realization that I was actually there, actually in the same space as these singers of truth with other lovers of truth, was pure joy. Every song was worth the drive and the price and the wait, but only the ones woven deeply into my soul – only the ones in my long-term memory – led to the truest of out-of-body experiences: ones that made me forget my aching back and cast off my self-consciousness. To not only know who you are in a moment, but to actually and fully be that person – it is a gift.
When Mumford & Sons comes back to Colorado, or somewhere else in reaching distance, I will be there.
These songs and others like them access the deepest parts of my soul in ways that music slapped with the label Christian can’t. Hope and redemption stories can be guiding lights, but only when they are truthful … and the truth is often a mess of doubts and pain, anger and fear. When these stories come in that raw package, they don’t look anything like those happily-ever-after tales we heard as children, and still hear now.
We are all a mass of loose ends and contradictions and lingering questions. The unfinished stories are the ones I pull closest to my heart, because I too am an unfinished story.
Six months ago, she hugged her family goodbye, and the page turned as they went upstairs and she stayed downstairs.
The night before, the first night, she lay on the blue-and-white rug looking up at the ceiling, knees pulled to her chest. She won’t remember most of her thoughts from those early days, but she’ll remember these:
There are so many memories waiting to happen in this little house, in this big city. I know there will be days when I’m lying on the floor looking at the ceiling and I won’t be able to stop laughing. Other days, that view will be blurry with tears. Now, though, everything’s a blank slate. Anything could happen!
That slate is full of colors now, some sparkling and some dull, and when she has eyes to see, they blink back at her from every surface she passes.
In some of these new memories, there is déjà vu: Riding the bus again, but this time without Mandarin coming out of the PA system. Running again, but in parks and on trails and along city streets, not around and around a sleepy Midwestern school.
She counts the cyclists who fly past, she pulls yet another book out of her backpack, she walks in the rain and in the night. And on some of those nights, she sprawls into the welcoming grass outside the house, hair sweaty and soul at peace and stars twinkling.
Oh the joy of solitude. Oh the pain of solitude.
She’s seen whole weeks swallowed up in loneliness, in which the darkest rooms have been the most crowded ones. She’s longed to link arms with people, but has often recoiled in fear, scratching out spaces just big enough for one and crawling into them.
That sort of darkness, though, is fading into dawn. Her box of treasures is filling, filling, filling with the gems found in moments and evenings, found in people: That time she stopped to pick up tickets and stayed for four hours; that night walking almost aimlessly through downtown Denver after the game; the many times of sitting around dining room tables and coffee shop tables and restaurant tables. In short, those moments of truly seeing and being seen, of freedom and flung-open doors and hands that reach back.
But how do you know when you’ve woven your story too deeply into someone else’s? When you don’t know what your purpose is apart from them?
Nine hours in the office Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Three days of structure and spontaneity, static and movement, but all with an undercurrent of restlessness.
In the quest to uncover the truest, oldest imprints in the clay of herself, she keeps coming back to three words. Sometimes they seem to drip with magic; sometimes they seem like just words:
Write. Speak. Teach.
And behind those, behind everything, beats the most mysterious, frustrating, and confusing word of all … but the word that just might hold the deepest magic:
In a few days, I will be offering to others something that is not mine. I won’t be able to take credit for a single taste, for the mystery that’s among us, for any trembling hands or averted eyes, and I don’t want to. The body of Christ, broken for you, my friend, for you, my neighbor, for you who are hungry. The blood of Christ, shed for you.
I tell people I’ve found a church in Denver, but most of them don’t understand how big of a deal this is for me. They don’t know the backstory of doubts and church-weariness and all the sharp points that started poking out of my skin two or three years ago. This church I’ve found now, rich in liturgy, gentle in spirit, a meeting of the old and the new, is a gift in my rocky faith story.
I’ve inhaled that same sweet air in the written word too, in those men and women who write blogs and books that remind me that I am not alone in the questions I ask, in the injustices I see, in what I’m frustrated and passionate about.
One of those writers is Rachel Held Evans, whose third book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, came out yesterday. Her book takes us on a journey through the seven sacraments (Communion, Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage) that carries us into the Bible, into church past and church present. At times, I felt like I was reading a series of interconnected and yet unique essays. One moment, I would be nodding at an oh-so-familiar description of doubt, and the next I would be catching my breath at the enumeration of the many ways throughout its history that the church has descended into darkness. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.
When Rachel would revisit Bible stories, she would do so in such a rich, sensory way, attuned to the history and humanity of it all, that it felt familiar in the best way. My favorite of these, I think, was a chapter that wended its through parables of seeds and wheat, through kneading and baking, and brought us to the Last Supper.
I learned more about Rachel’s story through this book, and I also learned about how the early church celebrated communion, how the Orthodox church celebrates weddings, and how church as it’s meant to be is present in Alcoholics Anonymous and the Gay Christian Network.
There are many reasons why I love this book, but the main one is that it has given me another place, another conversation, where I can breathe a little easier, where I can be myself and yet have hope in this journey at the same time.
Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”
This Sunday, it’s my house church’s turn to set up the chairs, to welcome people, to pray with them, and to hold out the elements of bread and wine as we all remember together. My doubts are still there, but the weariness is lighter, the cynical daggers are blunter, and I’m hanging on. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this church is a place of peace and welcome, a place that resonates with my soul, and it’s worth it to be a small part of this mystery.