Future Dead Girl

Carr Fire
Photo of the Carr Fire, taken by Ted Goldsmith

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.

If only it were that easy.

Live Coals and Broken Places

a multitude of candles

When a live coal sits atop a piece of wood, powered by breath and prodded by sticks, the wood eventually becomes a coal too. And with enough time, the heat begins to chip away at the wood.

The fire and I, we made a bowl yesterday.

A few hours before, I was sitting in my car, vaguely aware of a headline, picturing a building or a street corner or another place surrounded by police tape and contained. Then I switched on the radio and learned the truth: of a restaurant and a stadium and a concert hall, of AK-47s and explosives, of death and fear that could not be contained.

I’ve never been to Paris, but I could easily picture myself there, out on the town on a Friday night. I have been to concerts and sporting events and restaurants. I have walked the streets of cities glittering with history and beauty.

I turned up the volume to catch every word spoken in French accents. Between Centennial and Arvada, my world expanded with the weight of grief.

And then I got out of my car and met four others standing around a fire, and for two hours, my world shrunk to the size of a smoking piece of wood.

In this slow work of making something, in the conversations that ebbed and flowed, in the smoke that filled my hair and the breath that left my mouth, I found one of the simplest, most natural pleasures of life.

After the coals had done their work, we took tools to the glowing black, scraping and shaping with stones and curved metal, until it was the right depth and width, until it was smooth to the touch.

My feet were cold when we finished, examining our creations by firelight.

“You have some coal dust on your face,” Megan said.

We laughed and I smiled for the camera without running my sleeve across my face.

But when I was alone again, it all came back to me, this most unnatural destruction of life thousands of miles away.

In a car that now smelled like smoke, my grimy face felt like more than a mark of achievement. I thought of Ash Wednesday and lament, of sackcloth and ashes, of mourning and solidarity.

The night could not end here.

I am not a person who jumps at the chance to pray with people. I am not a person who prays much at all, honestly. But tonight was different, so I pulled to the side of the road and made a call and changed my destination.

Over hot drinks, we shared what we knew and settled in on the couch. We had no candles, and the Old English words of Scripture felt unwieldy on our tongues, but it was right, somehow, to speak aloud our hopes and our once-removed grief, to let the words stream from our lips and run circles around us.

But as the night wore on, a new question percolated in me:

Why was tonight so different?

I haven’t felt this strongly for those in Syria or Iraq, South Sudan or Burundi. I haven’t lit candles for the victims of sex trafficking and hate crimes, racism and oppression, starvation and natural disasters.

Maybe because my world looks more like Paris than the broken places in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia. I can more easily picture a world that is safe, safe, safe, then suddenly, horribly, not safe, than one trapped in an undertow of violence. My walls don’t shake from bombs falling two streets over. I do not wonder if my family and I will survive another day. I am not faced with the choice of whether or not to risk death by fleeing from death. I always know where my next meal will come from.

We are praying for Paris, and rightly so.

But may our hearts be split open for those living in constant violence, as well as for those to whom it comes like a scream in the stillness. May we light candles and fall to our knees and be moved to action wherever life is being destroyed.

Sometimes the work of justice and shalom and love is a consuming fire, but more often, I think, it is slow work. It is one page, one cup, one word, one coal at a time.

But when a live coal sits atop a piece of wood, powered by breath and prodded by sticks, the wood eventually becomes a coal too. And with enough time, the heat begins to chip away at the wood.

The fire and I, we are making something.

Day 18: Suffering and Adventures in Odyssey

Mother Holding Child

“I’ve heard all the theological explanations: Because we’re in a sinful world. Because we have free will. Or because we don’t have free will. Or because it’s good for us somehow. But when people are really suffering, all those things don’t mean much.”

Connie Kendall

I’ve always loved Adventures in Odyssey, Focus on the Family’s long-running children’s radio drama. But even though I’ve become more rather than less of a fan since I turned adult, the older episodes are the ones I return to the most often, are the ones that find a natural place near my heart.

Then came this three-parter, “Life Expectancy.” I was blown away, and I know it’s not just because of the amazing acting and the emotional resonance and the surprises of this weighty storyline.

For those of you who haven’t heard it and want to, I won’t spoil it for you. This isn’t an episode review, after all, but I had to say a few words about how this episode deals with death and suffering.

Like any good Odyssey episode, “Life Expectancy” centers the conversation around God and biblical truth. But I think what makes these episodes so strong is that they add to conversations rather than finish them, that they value the characters and let them be real people who journey forwards and backwards and side to side rather than props for a sermon illustration who passively receive the “right answers.”

Death and suffering are messy, and even though we hear a few of the Christian characters philosophize about death and suffering, I heard the right context for those musings and words of wisdom. I heard “I see it like this…” rather than “This is how it is….”. Sometimes I heard “I don’t know” and “I can’t explain it.”

It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” It’s okay to really wrestle. And even if you do have peace, it can be hard to know how to explain it. It’s okay. It’s all okay.

It’s not all about having the “right answers” about the whys of suffering, or being able to explain those “right answers” in the smartest, most eloquent, and most convincing way possible.

It’s about being there, and being honest, and asking the hard questions, and listening with discernment. It’s about letting love do its work whether you’re the sufferer or the comforter.

(If you want to listen to “Life Expectancy,” you can do so via the Listen Online links here for at least the next week).

When Love Cries

My baby birds died yesterday.

They weren’t actually my birds, but it felt like they were.

Last month, a pair of blue jays built their nest right up against my house on top of two floodlights. Another pair of jays had done the same thing five years earlier, but we hadn’t known it until we’d heard the chirp-chirp right outside our kitchen window.

2008 baby bird
A baby bird from the first nesting in 2008 (not one of the ones that died).

This time, we realized what was going on much sooner. I was overjoyed to see the parent birds fly by the window carrying twigs and grass. When I didn’t see them at work for a few days, I was afraid they had changed their minds. When they set to work again, I cheered.

I love spring. The greens, the freshness, the new life unfolding and awakening all around me.

I loved adopting these wild birds and getting a front row seat to their little lives for this time. I had such joy watching them. I named them Lipton and Twining (after the brands of tea), I pondered names for their future children, I pressed my face against the glass and peered at the nest with increasingly greater anticipation, straining to see new movement, new life.

birds' nest
The blue jays building their nest last month.

On Sunday, I saw the first sign of life: a little beak protruding upward, barely visible from where I stood outside on my green plastic chair. I didn’t know how many babies there were, or if all of them had hatched yet, but I had most of the names prepared (they were to be named after types of tea).

On Monday afternoon, I arrived home from work and glanced up as I usually do when I’m coming or going.

The nest wasn’t there.

Confusion. My heart and my eyes dropped. Shock. There was the nest, lying on the ground, mostly intact … and there were two mangled baby jays. Disbelief. Anguish.

I don’t consider myself to be an overly emotional person, but this day was different. This day I was sobbing loudly; sobbing with raw, erratic emotion; sobbing for these fragile little ones who had fallen and broken their necks only days after hatching.

I found out later that two other baby birds had fallen from the nest earlier that day.

Four tiny blue jays died that day. I wrote their names on a plain box and buried them behind our house.

I named them Green, Black, Earl, and Oolong.

Before this happened, I was looking forward to writing a blog about these birds. A blog about life. Now, it’s a blog about death.

Or maybe it’s about more than that.

Maybe it’s about the fragility of life, or the importance of having a soft heart that loves deeply even when that means weeping freely. Maybe it’s about the God who holds us in our fragility and cries with us.

I wept for my birds because I knew them and saw them and named them. And yet, their deaths and my sorrow are only a miniscule example of the sadness and suffering in this world.

I don’t cry for those I don’t know, not unless someone tells me their story in a compelling, poignant way. Seeing my birds die, or saying a hard goodbye, or hearing about a friend’s pain breaks my heart, but the suffering and injustice among unfamiliars doesn’t affect me as deeply.

But it should, shouldn’t it?

Life is precious, beautiful, sacred. All life.

I want to weep for the lives I know personally and for the lives I do not know. I want my heart to remain soft, delicate, and yet full of hope. For we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” We can’t fix everything and cure everyone, but we can breathe hope into one life at a time — one moment, one conversation, one helping hand, one word at a time.

I don’t know why the nest fell, and I don’t know why there is so much pain and sorrow in this world. But I know that God cares about it all, and that he doesn’t generalize suffering. He sees each individual life and hears each individual cry.

Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”