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Jan's Blog

Her Shalom

I Swear I Heard the Beaver Laugh

 
The Beaver
 
The backlit river was kind, as she can be, so
I strategically found my seat on cool, curved granite to make room for
her to swallow up the sullen shadow which
had encroached into my exuberance– when? - lately. Subtle days or decades, I wasn’t sure.
 
When had I become that woman on the trail stepping aside
for an entourage of youth, faces ripe with the sap of sexuality, smiling as a recollection of my luster gave way to the
mocking creak in
my knee?  
 
Wait.  When am I the one to say wait.
 
It’s too fast, I said, aware that even alpine chill did not penetrate
mottled skin as my hand traced
the frigid water.  I felt a foreign sorrow,
panic born of gravity. Then!
 
Peripheral vision is a keen pairing of words, isn’t it?  Both happened. 
His molasses and chestnut fur – is it fur? – glistened as he showed up to help -
intent,
   seductive,
       knowing.
 
His waddle over river stone
rolled under the shadow of the bridge as he disappeared into what I knew
was the water dark.  Gone, I suspected. 
Not enough
time.
 
Come!  A deafening command allowed no choice but to rise from the
tomb, to exit the monument to my shimmering past.  Familiar voices, my cloud, these witnesses, said we are so sorry, keep going. Go!
 
Scrambling, frantic, I exhaled relief at the sight of him.  His wake in the glass water so slight, I swear I heard him laugh.  He beckoned with buck-toothed humor, pulled me, light-footed in a timeless quest over old-growth wood scattered with red berry bushes, in a serpentine trail along the lake edge until the forest quiet
was pierced with the inextinguishable squeal of a curly blond, pig-tailed, freckled girl. 
 
 
 
 
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Reflections on Clean Windows

Early Spring in Colorado can be maddening.  A warm day can beckon like a lover, but the invitation is a nervous one; her frost is sure to follow.  The offer of fledgling blossoms and birdsong is predictably withheld in the next blanket of snow. 
 
March 27, 2012 was a pristine tease.  I had a few free hours before work, and gardening, walking, reading outside were all options.  It was gorgeous.  But another whim rose in me. A winter film had grown on the windows of our home, and I wanted it gone.  I wanted the fractured light to stream in, un-muted.  So with the warm temperature cheering me on, I began a chore which I actually really enjoy:  washing windows.  
 
I filled my bucket and went around to every window in the house, removing screens, wiping glass, as beads of sweat formed on my brow.  I made great progress around the outside and now inside.  I felt full, my satisfaction growing.  I remember musing on the proverb, “Her arms are strong for her tasks.”  I liked it.
 
I reached for the corner of the highest indoor window, set above our stone fireplace mantle about six feet.  I do not remember my foot slipping.  I do not remember knocking the rags and cleaners to the floor.  I do remember the corner of the heavy, wood coffee table, coming toward me in slow motion, as the full weight of my body fell long to meet it like a heat seeking missile.  Just prior to impact, I had a molasses- paced thought, “This is going to change things for a while.”
 
I have never felt such pain.
 
I crawled like a broken inchworm across the floor until I found my cell phone.  I do not remember, but my husband Steve can tell you of receiving only a whisper into the phone, “Come… home.”   I knew something was terribly wrong, but I did not know that I had broken five ribs on one side of my body - three in front, two in back, with one in back broken in two places.
 
Thus began my altered reality:  a three day hospital stay, and six week convalescence.  And more opiates than I ever thought I would ingest.  I don’t know about you, but I never thought about my ribs, until they made their presence known, shrieking with every breath, every movement.  I can tell you this:  ribs matter.  Each trauma doctor repeated the same mantra:  there’s nothing we can do except manage your pain, the ribs have to heal on their own, we can’t bind them in any way for fear of inhibiting your lungs.  And this will take a long, long time.
 
So, I’ve had some time on my hands to think.  Even in a drug fog, I could sense some things becoming clarified for me.  I offer them, with hope that you’ll never need them.
 
1. Comparing Suffering Is Not Helpful.  To say this was a vulnerable experience would be like saying Victoria Falls is a quaint stream.  It was an exercise in trusting the bones to somehow ‘find’ each other again, while they moved with my movement.  I slept sitting up.  The pain often broke through like a jack hammer.  By week four I found myself gripped with fear, wondering if the pain might be present throughout my life.  I was mindful of those I know whose bodies have been taken from them; for whom pain is not recoverable. A friend in a wheelchair, soldiers coming home without limbs, a courageous woman who endures chronic pain, the brother of a dear friend as he lived into dying of a brain tumor, my own brother’s skeletal form as he was racked with pain in the last stage of esophageal cancer.   But I have learned it is not helpful to compare our own suffering with the suffering of others.  If the baseline for our suffering is not the suffering of others, but Eden, then we can be kind to ourselves for the way we, too, suffer in this world.  I was reminded of other seasons of my own suffering:  the pain of confusion as mom slipped into mental illness, the two years a lethal form of Dengue Fever had me debilitated, and the pain of a broken heart.  Remembering their pain, as well as my own, helped me bear it when I could not roll over in my bed.  So does this mean that, in our suffering, we are to be self focused?  Oh no.  The Apostle Paul captures the communal nature of suffering, how the comfort given to us is then meant to be shared when he said, “Jesus comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”  My dying brother comforted me as he would quote the book of Isaiah from memory, something he cultivated in the bedridden last days of his life.  My friend’s dying brother comforted their family with his humor midst the fearful experience of losing his brain functioning.  I don’t know what it will look like, but I have a feeling I’ll comfort more, better, from having to extricate myself from pain medications.
 
2.  You Can't Hide when You Can't Move.  Nouwen said, “Entering a private room and shutting the door does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force.”  No kidding. And he was referring to the Spiritual Discipline of Solitude, not the forced aloneness of broken ribs!  I love being alone.  Throughout my life it is in solitude that Jesus has spoken most clearly.  But I swear I had no idea the amount of internal chatter that would surface as I was forced into quiet exile. I mentioned being afraid; the truth is, I was gripped with fear.  I became aware of how much my thoughts of the future are fear based, rather than presuming the abundance of love which is my inheritance.  And honestly I realized how often I feel justified in the big rocks I pick up to throw, even in my mind, because stones are not big enough.  Try not moving for a while…and introduce yourself to your need for the communion table.
 
 
3. You Cannot Stop Life.  Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics are helpful here. The law of the conservation of mass – energy tells us:
 
When Einstein discovered the relationship E=mc (in other words that mass was a manifestation of energy) the law was said to refer to the conservation of mass-energy. The total of both mass and energy is retained, although some may change forms. The ultimate example of this is a nuclear explosion, where mass transforms into energy.”  
 
All I will say on this point is:  as my life took the form of being still on my bed, the energy inside of me remained the same.  And I wanted to explode.  But slowly, over time as I simply had to let go, all that energy got transformed into a kind of contentment I cannot explain.  Einstein and the Spirit of God, my mass-energy friends.
 
4. Love hovers over those in pain.  Basil, bishop of Caesarea, crafted the first treatise on the Holy Spirit in the latter part of the fourth century.  I think he must have felt like a charlatan, trying to bottle beauty.  Seriously, how can the Spirit be put into a document?  But his thoughts captured the fire that fell on Jesus’ friends and his own enjoyment of utter love, and they originated much from his love of the book of Genesis, where God’s hovering over His creation is shown as loving, fun, and kind. When he returned to the Hebrew language he realized that the Spirit “is like a bird that covers her eggs with her body and by her body’s warmth imparts the vital force that will give them life.”   Steve and I have chickens, and they are so sweet as they nestle down on their eggs.  Yet Jesus exposes our resistance to that kindness:  "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me.” (Matt 23:37).   I experienced that hovering.  It was the only thing that got me through, even when I fought it because I was mad that I was missing my gardening, gathering with friends, or work with peoples’ hearts.  God was kind and often comical; a blanket of healing over my pain and complaints.
 
5. Only non-self-righteous care helps.  We’ve all experienced it.  Open up and share a bit of your struggle at your small group, and usually the response is either an awkward changing of the subject, or immediate advice-giving.  Annie Dillard would say that’s when we should “put on our crash helmets lest the true God wake up and find us.”  But loving  is not about cures and advice.  The most helpful friend is the one who, as Nouwen says, “can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”   Casseroles were welcome.  I appreciated those who cleaned my house.  But it was when Steve simply sat with me that healed my heart.
 
6. Pain is horrible, but a gift.  Physical pain is awful.  The only place it doesn’t exist on this earth is in a colony for leprosy patients: “where people literally feel no pain, and reap horrifying consequences. “ Dr. Paul Brand’s work with leprosy patients in India convinced him that pain truly is one of God's great gifts to us.  He was referring to the ability to sense when there is danger.  I mean it in the way that Jesus comes to us, so tenderly, in our pain.  That is a mysterious gift.   
 
I’m (sort of) coming to believe it. 
 
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Beauty Changes Things

I am a reluctant blogger.  But I do want to share with you the following excerpt from a current writing project, Her Shalom.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Beauty changes things.
 
In my upbringing, it was unexpected beauty which saved me countless times.  And in my adult life, when beauty seeps out of my heart, words, touch, presence, it often comes as a slight shock.  I'm caught off guard when I allow myself to be the way I was meant to be:  open, vulnerable, settled, strong, fierce, playful, receiving of my husband's gaze.  I somehow know these treasures are mysteriously unlocked from a place set in me, memorized by heart, in the land I love.
 
The stunning terrain of the high mountain desert, in which my heart was shaped, was balm to a bewildered and confused young girl. It allowed me to lean into something safe, steady, always there. It told me I could be open and vulnerable, playful - myself - at least in the presence of the God who gave it to me.  I could count on the comfort it provided, and I needed comfort. 
 
My mind wanders to the familiar trek our family would take to the little village of Chimayo, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe.  We were a limping and bleeding family, but when we loaded up the car to head to Rancho de Chimayo for a special family dinner out, all was well for a while. 
 
Coming to the crest of the meandering road, the fire of golden cottonwoods smoldered in the valley floor. Chimney smoke carried wafts of pungent pinon into the arroyos, weaving through juniper and sagebrush.  Chamisa was blazing, adding dots of mustard to the perimeter of the village. Maple splashed red here and there. The sun was long over the creviced mesas, accentuating every eroded pocket in the hillsides, its finger stretching to the top of Truchas Peak.  Even if I had never heard a word about the Spanish and Native American beliefs in the sacredness of this territory,I would have intuitively known that where we lived was holy.  The land itself asked you to contend with God.
 
The land told me the truth.  Its beauty allowed me no other conclusion but that goodness always exists, even when my heart sputtered for breath.  No amount of internal struggle, rage, fear, bitterness, confusion or conflict could remain intact in the presence of this land’s sheer proclamation of something more.
 
We passed the old wood sign carved outside the church, ‘El Sanctuario de Chimayo.’  Tales of this place were passed around our world – how the holy water, or was it the ground itself, held special healing properties.  Good Friday, every year, found thousands of present day pilgrims donning Gap or Banana Republic attire alongside piercings and tattoos or frilly dresses, walking the perimeter of the interstate or on country roads, trekking with minds set on Golgotha, a hope set on this little village under a new Spring sun. Together in sin and individual hope for healing.  One year I was jolted to see some of these pilgrims – a small sect called the Penitentes – dragging themselves, bleeding into the dirt and rock, and flogging themselves and each other with leather straps along the way.  I felt helpless and feeble as I watched.   It was in moments like this that it seemed we lived a world away from most people, and I liked that feeling.
 
We pulled the Ford into the gravel parking lot. Wood shutters on adobe, red geraniums cascading against clay from window boxes – it took me someplace other. I anticipated the chatter of Spanish conversations spilling from the kitchen, mixing with our own very white conversation.  I always loved coming here because a sampling of all of New Mexico showed up here – Hispanic, White and Pueblo Indian.  But we were all New Mexicans. We blended and commingled and never gave it a thought.  It was striking, though, how we could walk into this place and immediately know the families, like us, who had driven the forty minutes down from the hill, Los Alamos.  There was a bologna sandwich quality to us when you threw us in that sea of color.  We had a slightly stuffy, subtly stiff quality.  Maybe it was the bolo ties our men tended to wear – it was almost like we were trying too hard.  The ties may have been silver and turquoise, but they were donned on men who had spent the day with laser technology or plutonium processing, not out harvesting a field or laboring until sweat beaded on bronze skin.  Maybe it was the way our women fretted over their food choices, or wore large brimmed hats to protect them from the harsh sun.  Whatever it was, was unmistakable.
 
As we entered the ancient structure, we found warm, quiet conversations alongside tables filled with laughter were inside, and small fires lit the corners of the rooms.  The earthen walls were splashed with intricately woven rugs, certainly from the Ortega family, who had done refined weavings in this valley for generations.  The rugs looked like paintings, tightly woven and carrying the colors of the earth.  Red chile ristras and wreathes packed with pinecones and sage and berries hung close by.  I noted that these wreathes would look out of place in any other home, any other environ.  Here, they celebrated the arid but robust land, and somehow joined the chant, “Sit down, have a drink, and eat something hot and flavorful.”  The smell of a deep fryer filled with sopapaillas produced an instant anticipation of the fluffy pocket bread and honey alongside green chile enchiladas or chili rellenos.
 
As we were seated, I savored the moment because I knew the power of this place.  Here we gained the ability to have kind conversation, a family bantering around the food we loved. A culinary salve holding our fractured family together for one more day. 
 
Moments like this highlight what T.S. Eliott (quoting Julian of Norwich) said, ‘All is well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”  At Rancho de Chimayo, all was well.  There was Goodness – the table beckoned our family to sit across from each other regardless of tensions, to commune around food which exhilarated, to glimpse each other as we walked the foothill paths around the ranch property, as we stepped from shade to scorching sandy dirt.  And there was Truth.  I looked across at my mother, a woman tortured by the demons of her own body’s war with manic-depression and the unspoken shame in her own story, and I saw more than a woman in torment – I saw sweetness, I saw a light in her eye which soothed all of us, her children.   I looked across at my father, a stoic man of few words, a man for whom I ached for connection, and as contentment softened the features of his face, I felt peace.  This table intrinsically invited us away from our disappointments and the conclusions we made about the emptiness of our lives, and we were reminded again that there is something bigger, greater, more real, than the smaller stories in which we live.
 
So beauty finds us.  It simply shows up.  It shows up in the terrain around us, as it shows up inside our heart.  The question we must ask ourselves is simple:  will we allow ourselves to recognize it, and will we be changed by it, when it comes. 
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