Smoke and Candles

In the heat of summer, I wrap a sweater around my shoulders to combat the chill in the nave. I have four, thin, beeswax candles in hand, purchased in the foyer, called the narthex, on the way in. I fancy I smell honey in their golden softness.

I cross myself as I enter, first three fingers of my right hand pinched together for Father, Son and Holy Spirit, ring and pinkie pressed to my palm for the two natures of Christ, and sweep my fingers from forehead to abdomen, then from right shoulder to left shoulder, “Push, not pull,” as taught. There are no windows in this space, save for those which let in a small bit of light from the windows in the narthex. Soft up-lights cast a glow on the ceiling. Recessed lights direct light onto each of the tall icons running the length of the room on both sides. In the gentle, unobtrusive light, the candles and vigil lamps in front of the altar area cast a warm glow. There is a familiar scent of spice, resin and rose incense, an aroma which permeates everything.

I make another reverence in greeting to the icon of Michael the Archangel, whose stand is just behind the pews. I ask him to pray for me, to guard me and to help me, before another reverence. At the end of a slow walk down the center aisle is an icon stand, so beautifully carved I want to caress it with my fingers and examine every centimeter of the polished surface. On the stand is the icon of the week. This week, as it often is, it is the icon of the Theotokos, Mary, Joy of All Who Sorrow. Mary is depicted standing, in a red cloak. Around her are small scrolls which state what she is credited with; but the print is too small to read so the explanatory scenes that surround her remain a mystery to me. This icon, as the others, is precious, otherworldly. The deliberate lack of perspective can be unnerving at first; but over time these representations of Saints, Angels, and  the Holy Trinity have become as beloved as treasured family photographs.

Beside the icons of the Theotokos and  Jesus Christ are large, gleaming brass stands for candles. After bowing and crossing myself, lean in and kiss the icon of Christ, soundlessly; the scent of beeswax and frankincense fill my senses. The icons are mounted with gold leaf which shines in the light of the candles. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” My whispered words, as I lean in to kiss the icon again ask, “Help me.” I cross myself again and bow slightly, always conscious that the truly devout often bow to the floor. I wonder, is my bad knee an excuse to avoid embarrassment should I need help getting back up from the floor, though there are few others present at the moment. I ask forgiveness in case that is true, as, taking a candle from my hand, and lighting it from the central flame, I whisper the name of a friend who longs to be married and have children. The smoke curls up toward the heavens, taking my prayer with it. The candle burns for about an hour and a half, and in all that time, that smoke will be a representation of my heart cry, the whispers of my soft prayers.

I cross the narthex to stand before another icon of Mary; this one showing Christ coming forth from her, a representation that she carried the creator within her, a wonder that cannot be fathomed by my human mind. I cross myself, bow my head, kiss her icon, and breathe the words, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Pausing, then continuing, “More honorable than the seraphim and more glorious beyond compare than the cherubim, who as a virgin gave birth to God, the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you.” I cross myself and bow again, pondering the honor that Jesus might wish me to show to his mother. I ask forgiveness for any lack of respect or understanding I might have. After lighting my other candles, I placing them in the stand filled with wheat berries to hold the candles upright. These candles represent the loved ones who have died. I whisper their names, “Robb, Bob, Pat, Jack, Rich.” A co-worker’s son passed recently, so I add, “Nicholas.” I whisper the names of my grandparents and my niece, also deceased, “Chet, Doris, Berger, Isabella, and Tiffanie.”

There is a song we sing during Lent that runs through my mind as the smoke from these candles goes up, “Let my prayer arise in your sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” There are clouds of smoke from the incense curling around the doors to the altar, and soon the service will begin. I am happy to be here early to have time to greet the saints that line the walls, Joachim and Anna, Saint George, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Seraphim (a particular favorite of mine), another favorite, Saint Nicholas. There is Saint Xenia, who lived in the cemetery by her husband’s grave from her late twenties until she died, no matter the weather, with only her late husband’s overcoat to keep her warm. Many of the saints have stories as yet unknown to me, but I greet each of them with a kiss. I kiss my fingers and touch their cathedral size icons on the walls. I whisper to each of them, “Pray for me. Help me.”

Saint Seraphim, for some reason, always brings tears to my eyes. No matter which depiction of him it is, I recognize it immediately; and as I gaze into his eyes, I think of the icon of him I have at home, an icon that is so peaceful I can scarcely bear the holiness.

My final stop is the icon of the Synaxis of the Saints of Carpatho-Russia, which looks over the area where the choir sings. Most of these saints have stories I do not know, but greeting them, asking them to pray for us, and to give us strength to sing the service well is a special but ordinary part of this preparation.

It is in this time before the service begins that my mind and heart is calmed. This is the time to try to set aside the worries of today. Soon the rest of the choir will come up the stairs, music stands will be shuffled, purses stowed beneath the seat, precious floor space apportioned, elbow room claimed, and it will be difficult to pay attention to the prayers arising from those candles. I entrust my prayers to the saints, to Christ and to the Theotokos, and trust that they do not need me to guard these prayers, but that they are safe where they are.

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Partings

Before taking the long drive west, I came to her one last time to visit, to talk, and to tell her I was going. I had a cough and laryngitis, neither of which were troubling, the likely result of ragweed season. I padded my way up the boardwalk, loving the dune grasses and shrubby evergreens and soft sloping sands.

As my head cleared the top of the walkway, suddenly I could see her in all her splendor. She flirted with me, coming closer, then pulling back. She was so confident, my lady, elemental really. She put on no airs, begged no pardon; she simply is. Sometimes stormy, sometimes calm, she can be a lovely playmate, but you should never forget that she is never fully safe.

I set my chair in the sand, set down my bag and simply watched her, breathing deeply of the warm salt air. It’s good to gauge her moods before making a final approach. Sometimes it is best not to engage with her when she’s wild, stormy and clawing at the shore. Anyone who goes to her then could be pulled into the deep.

The Atlantic is a woman, and I am in love. I love her songs, her whispers, even her roars.

img_0774This day she was slapping the waves hard in places, loud noises that startled me, moving this way and that. Her sister, the Pacific, tried to drown me years ago, and I have never forgotten the memory of that day. I was remembering that day as I looked out at the Atlantic, thinking that the water was too rough for me, so I sat and watched her frolic for some time.

She enticed me with seafoam chasing along the shore, moving along invisible paths. I approached a float of foam, enchanted by the rainbow shining off the bubbles, which formed and disappeared, growing smaller and smaller as I watched. I had chosen a safe bit, high on the shore, but the foam was soon gone and I followed another pile of seafoam and then another, until my feet were in the silky waters. She lapped around me sweetly, reminding me of other times, other days of sunshine and play.

She called me to come swim, but I didn’t trust her. She can be a trickster, hiding her furies in coyness like a southern belle, all smiles and sweetness with daggers hidden in her words. I stepped deeper. The water was pleasantly cool and the waves, as they reached me had lost their fury, curling around my ankles and caressing my calves. I treaded deeper, mid-calf now, in love with her. A surprise surge slapped me about my hips before pulling back. There was no strong undertow, as I was expecting. Where I was standing the pull was a playful tug, nothing more. The waves further out calmed as she beguiled me. The water effervesced. She was in a spa mood, it seemed.

The red danger flags are posted for a reason, but conditions change, right? And I longed to swim, buoyed by the briny deep…all was calm, the wind warm. I decided that I wouldn’t submerse myself due to the nagging cough. I hate being cautious when adventure awaits, but an adult has to be smart, and I remember crawling to shore in Carlsbad, all but drowned, so many years ago.

So I stayed in the shallows, kicking and playing in the luscious water, the salty smell in my nose. A few of the waves heading toward me were bigger than before, but they calmed right before reaching me and stroked my skin as they splashed me to the waist.

I dipped down and dashed water on my arms and shoulders, careful to avoid my hair. A rogue wave hit me from the side, splashing up and over me, pulling my feet from under me. I got up, spluttering, and laughing, soaked from head to toe. It iwas a fairly gentle shove. Ah, she was in a playful mood now. For the next hour or so we played together, the water warm and soft. I heard her breathing, her exhalations on the shore and then the wide intake of her breath, deep and balmy as she withdraws.

After a time, she had nearly lured me into complacency, but I felt it when she grabbed at my ankles and pulled. She didn’t want me to leave, and I had to decide whether to stay with her permanently or to regretfully leave her behind. She wasn’t quite patient enough and I was still on guard. I felt her greed for me, her longing to pull me to her bosom for a last, wet kiss, and I quickly turned and walked up the beach.

I stood for a long time at the top of the walkway, saying my goodbyes and attempting to burn her sights, her sounds, her smell into my memory, trying not to cry.

That evening, I discovered her final gift to me. By 8 o’clock, my lungs whistled, and sucked, and pulled like the surf. Within a couple of hours, every breath sounded like whale song. By morning, the doctor at Urgent Care had diagnosed me with bronchitis and pneumonia. I’ve had them before, but I’ve never heard breathing sounds like this. My lungs were pulling like a rip tide, and still calling to humpbacks. What I coughed up in the night hours looked suspiciously like a long muscled tentacle, though that could be my imagination.

It’s my final gift from the Atlantic. She doesn’t want me to leave. It’s not that she loves me; I’m not so arrogant as to believe that, it’s more like she’s greedy for her human admirers. I can’t honestly say. But for now, I wish the only whale song I was hearing was on a noise machine or a PBS documentary. And no matter how horrid her parting gift to me, I will always return. Love isn’t rational. It just is.

When I’m a Mess

Originally posted on Facebook May 18, 2010. Edited May 18, 2016.

When life hits hard, that sucker punch in the gut;when pain attacks me; when friends turn on me; when the job goes to someone else for reasons no one can put into words; when the losses are overwhelming; when you hear me cry out in pain and you think, man is she a mess, you are tempted to give me platitudes. You are tempted to feed me truths, and at those times, those truths, which I already know, already acknowledge, already believe, have chosen to believe, stop. Those phrases, “God is in control”, “God has something better in mind”, “You just have to trust” and all the other things that you want to tell me hit me like more punches in the gut. They take the wind out of me. Yes, you wound me with truth.

What I hear is that you will not acknowledge the pain and difficulty I am facing, that you somehow think that the pains of life should not be experienced. What I feel is that I am expected to live in some kind of ethereal state of joy that dismisses all problems as meaningless. I feel the pressure to be fake and phony, to pretend that bad things aren’t bad, that painful things don’t hurt, and instead of “counting it” all joy, that is determining it to be joy, or a joy because of a conscious effort of mind and will that acknowledges the result, I am supposed to actually be experiencing joy at the moment of the greatest pains and disappointments.

I have known some people who experienced supernatural joy and happiness at the moments of great pain—the loss of a daughter and of a son. Those times are, I believe, a special gift of God, allowing them to see a window into heaven, or a special measure of grace and comfort poured out on them in their most difficult hours. Do we see this as regular occurrences in life? I don’t believe we do. Nothing in scripture indicates to me that we should expect some supernatural experience at our times of hurt and pain, that we should be miraculously spared the very real human experience of the pain and disappointments of those times. Our Savior was not spared that.

Are there times when God steps in, when the curtain between earth and heaven opens? Scripture shows us times when it does, but these are the unusual occurrences. Our faith is not based on being spared the experience of suffering, of disappointments and of pain, but on the evidence of things not seen. Our hope is not based on the lack of experience of suffering. Our hope is based on knowing who holds us in the suffering, in the pain, in the disappointment. Our hope is in the one who suffered for us and who understands our pain and sorrow. He bore our griefs. He carried our sorrows. We do not walk in this world with teflon coated hearts, shedding all the emotions of this life without any real impact upon us. We experience grief. We experience pain. We have sorrows. We have fears and disappointments, losses and wounds of all kinds. God meets us in those. He teaches us, He matures us, He completes us, He joins us in our suffering and we partake of His suffering. He works things out in us in those things, in these times of pain. What he rarely does is to MAKE THOSE THINGS NOT HURT.

When you respond to me in my own disappointments and in my own hurts and sorrows with easy words, I feel a loneliness that is hard for me to describe. I feel a gulf between you and me that tells me that you do not understand me, that you expect me to either pretend, or to somehow be in a state that is more spiritual and godly than I am, and in that way I am not measuring up.

I’m sure I have said thoughtless things to others that do not acknowledge their pain. I regret that. I don’t remember all the stupid thoughtless things I have said, so I cannot apologize for them individually, but I will if you would but bring it to my attention. I do not want to make others experience this odd loneliness that enters my spirit when such comments are made.

I have given myself permission to be real. I have given myself permission to be a bit of a mess. I see no paradox in acknowledging God’s goodness, in believing he is working everything together for my good, and acknowledging that the process is painful, is difficult and that sometimes it just makes absolutely no sense to me. I do not understand that light is both a particle and a wave, but I do understand that God is good and things hurt, that I can trust him and not like what he is doing, what he is allowing. These are not mutually exclusive things as I see them.

For the record, this thing of not getting this job is not a big deal to me. I did have about five or ten minutes of shock and of doubting myself, of wondering “what’s wrong with me?” That passed. It isn’t earth shattering. Am I sad? Yes, a bit. Do I feel rejected? Sure. Who wouldn’t? I am also glad that I don’t have a seventy-five minute or more commute morning and night. That isn’t the point of writing this.

When I think of how Jesus walked this earth, he does not seem to have hung out with the pretentious crowd. He spent his time with those who acknowledged their sin, who admitted their flaws, who, when they wanted to see him, they did not hide their enthusiasm (think Zacchaeus or the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair). The apostle Paul acknowledged discouragement. Trust and faith and discouragement are not mutually exclusive. Trust and faith do seem to preclude pretense.

I do not think I am better than the one who sends me platitudes, but when I’m a mess, I refuse to pretend that I’m not a mess. When I’m a mess, I will still trust, still believe, still hope. If you understand that about me, about the work that God has done in me, you can feel free to simply acknowledge my pain and disappointment. When I need a reminder that God is faithful and true, you can rest assured I will ask for it. When life is tough, I have been known to call up a friend to say, “Tell me that God is faithful and true.” Their acknowledgment shores up my faith, gives me strength and encourages me.

Some friends know me well enough to be able to encourage me with platitudes. Or rather, I know them well enough, know their loving and encouraging hearts enough to know that they totally get that I’m not falling away from the faith, merely experiencing a tough time. It is a fine line to walk with others. It can be hard to know when you can say certain things without pouring salt in a wound and without making people feel more alone than before. For all of us, we might want to be careful. When in doubt, chose the course of acknowledging the feelings of the other prior to expressing the truths that are dancing on your tongue. For me, I have to be careful not to dismiss other’s feelings in a lot of ways. I recently discovered that the thing many of us do when someone mentions that they (pick one) have cancer, once had a sixth finger on one hand, once suffered from leprosy, or had a facial transplant, is to immediately go into a “oh, my cousin Lenny had (name the condition)”, that thing is considered offensive and annoying. I’m gonna do my best not to do that any more.

If I hear of your pain, your struggle, your trial and respond with platitudes, or merely tell you my own story of experience with that, or the experience of someone else I know in a way that causes you to feel less understood, less valued, less heard, please stop me and let me know. I do not want to be insensitive. And when I’m a mess, I will do my best to forgive and to understand if you say the condescending or dismissive thing to me. You probably don’t mean it that way.

“You Need to Write a Book”

A co-worker, a friend, and a doctor, among others, have all told me in recent weeks that I need to write a book telling my story. It’s a good one, I think, though difficult, and I don’t come off well in the telling, but I have seriously begun. I’m writing it longhand, with a Pilot G-2 fine point (0.7mm) blue ink pen in a Punctuate notebook with a bright floral design cover. This notebook won’t hold it all, but it’s a start.FullSizeRender (1)

There is a challenge to be truthful, but not to hurt others. The Orthodox morning prayer that asks that we would not belittle or embarrass others rings through my head. So telling the truth with gentleness toward others. How to be truthful about oneself?

There is a challenge to the memory. What memory is fact? What has been altered by time and imagination? How shall the story be told?  Do you go chronologically? That’s rough for me because I don’t have a chronological memory like my husband does. Give him a song and he will remember where he was and when it was that he first heard that song. My memory isn’t like that. My memories are jumbled, with some of the details unclear. In one of my earliest memories, I remember the chair my dad was sitting in, the lamp next to him, I remember the stinging, burning of the peppers, and I remember him laughing, but I can’t remember if he had a beard. I don’t think so, but sometimes my memory tries to paint a beard on him, as he wore one through most of my childhood.

For some reason, I seem to work better writingFullSizeRender longhand, as if longhand accesses the memory better. For this, a comfortable pen with a smooth flowing ink is really helpful.  I think of folks who have written on whatever they had at hand, be it toilet paper, whatever, and with whatever they could manage and I realize this preference is a luxury.  But then writing is a luxury, even when it is necessary for the spirit. The riches of language stored and disseminated is an incredible luxury.

Sometimes I go to the local bookstore and am overcome. I’m overcome by the sheer number of stories that are told on those shelves and by the uncountable number of writers telling them. Take that times the number of hours spent putting ink on a page or tapping at a keyboard, then the amount of time getting an agent, perhaps getting many multiple rejection letters…it is a wonder. It makes me feel simultaneously big, that I get to select from among those stories, and small that I am but one small voice in a world of voices, one small story in a world of stories.

 

 

Conflict

I’m not good at conflict. I hate it. I think I get this from my mother, but I’m not sure.  The thing is that fighting and arguing makes me feel ill. I hate tension around me. So when two people I know started verbally sparring in a meeting the other day I left. I left as quietly as I could, but I left and I think that made a statement, but I wasn’t trying to make a statement, I was just trying to get away from the tension and unpleasantness in that room.

Ordinarily I would have stayed. I would have been silent and unhappy, but I would have stayed. But my patience was at a bare minimum and I was afraid of what would happen if I stayed. I am often afraid of my own mouth. I have a temper. I try to keep it under control, for it is an ugly thing and I don’t want to spew ugliness. Plus, I have never found that I am helpful in these situations.  I don’t diffuse the bomb as I’m trying, I always seem to cut the wrong wire.  I try to be gentle, I try to be kind, I try to inject humor…none of that works. If I intervene it precipitates an explosion.

Maybe that is what is needed, an explosion to clear the air, but sometimes what you say you cannot take back. And who am I to instruct someone else on their behavior?  I’m the last person who should do that.

The Heavens are Crying

The skies are gray and it is raining. It’s not a gully-washer at this point, more a constant drizzle that seems suited for this Good Friday. The world has gone quiet and hushed.

It is not lost on me that the Lenten period and this Holy Week are periods set aside for repentance, for reflection, and for self-control. We are, in fact, to set ourselves aside. This is a difficult thing, though some make it look easy. Sometimes even getting to the services is a challenge, not of logistics but of physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual challenges (although we do not break these into separate categories, seeing them as all intertwined.)

For some of us, this period has been punctuated with death, death of friends, of loved-ones, of celebrities who have touched our lives, of the death of loved ones of those close to us..touching us by degrees and making us think of the end that is to come for us all on this earth. It is somber; it is sobering.

The dogwoods by the church are in bloom, a sudden profusion of delicate pink. It is a reminder that even though the world seem dark and dreary, life returns–resurrection,  life from death, comes to bring hope to this world.

Knowing this, we cannot be fully stricken with grief.  Our joy, our relief tempers our grief and sorrow, just as our joy and our relief are tempered by the knowledge that we haven’t fully experienced the resurrection. I think the earth weeps with us that it is so.