Thursday, September 27, 2007

stand firm therefore

“Is that pepper on your fries?” Larry asked me. He was sitting across from me as together we enjoyed the fine dining experience Eastern Ky’s McDonalds.

“Yes,” I said.
“You are so weird.”
“It’s true. You’re the sort of person one wants to hide away from the world lest she be ruined…Amy Scissorhands.”
“Ha, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“You should.”
The simple exchange was the turning point in what had been a dismal day. He had been unreservedly and rightfully angry with me only a couple hours ago.

“She put up with my ranting,” he told Martha the next morning.
“I would have been worried without it,” I said.
“We have a very honest relationship.”

Outside of my family Larry is one of the few people that I feel is fully aware of my faults while still admiring of my strengths, even those I can’t yet acknowledge. With him, I feel as though I am not on a pedestal, but I am precious. He is one of the greatest challenges and greatest blessings of this new life.

I don’t know how to describe the past days. I didn’t write yesterday at all. I couldn’t muster up the energy to do much of anything after work. I did call Laura and tell her I had a hard day. This seemingly insignificant action was rather a monumental one for me. I tend to wait and talk about my struggles when they can be referred to in the past tense. It wasn’t a bad day and I knew that. It was a day of learning, hopefully of growth. I made a mistake. Partly from inexperience, partly from insecurity, I failed to ask the proper questions and wound up paying the consequences. Wasted resources, an extended road trip, an already wounded woman left waiting a full hour. This was when Larry expressed his vexation and I sat silently, holding back tears, planning the resignation speech I’d give to Martha when we got back to the office. Fortunately one of the classes we are teaching the women of Healing Rain is Self-Esteem. The text addresses distorted thinking, including the idea that if you make one mistake it means you’ll never get anything right. I thought of all the times I’d quit. I have never been fired, I always quite. As for relationships, I am fond of quoting, “everyone brings something to a relationship, to my relationships I always bring the end.” But I knew, I know, this doesn’t have to be.

“I’m fighting my all or nothing thinking,” I finally said to Larry after we’d had a brief break from one another.

“I know you are. Don’t allow that negative self-talk.”

“I’m trying.” It was everything I could do to keep from bursting into tears.

Later we interviewed a woman who has experienced every tragedy in the book. Physical, sexual, mental abuse. Emotional disorders. Death in the family. Betrayal of lovers. And perhaps the worst of all, no one to hear her story. She was a beautiful girl, mid-twenties, long dark curly hair, grey-blue eyes and olive skin. She alternately smiled and wept as we spoke. The one person she has to support her is her mother who is almost entirely deaf.

“What are you looking for in a recovery center?” Larry asked.

“Someone to talk to,” she responded.

I feel so frustrated and angry right now. There are some mournful things that have happened at work I cannot write publicly about because of the confidentiality our program promises. Poor Sheila bears the brunt of my pent up emotions. Every aggressive nerve in my body is ready to jump on her. I’m not accustomed to anger being the out-pouring of my skinned heart. We did go for a beautiful walk today on the trail where I found her. The sun was low, the air was cool. We walked through the damp grass, following the sunset into town where we laid down and watched the pink clouds fade.

Today’s bible study was our first day of tackling the book of Job. I don’t know why so much suffering is allowed. Job asked why those who would suffer are even born. What’s the point? His question was never answered, rather, his right to even ask was questioned. Yet, I don’t believe that God is threatened by our questions. Part of drawing along side him can be saying, I don’t understand, but I trust you, will you tell me what I ought to do? “Why,” doesn’t get us very far. Better to ask, “how shall I respond?”

Monday, September 24, 2007

as a watchman waits for morning...

The Lord saw fit to let me live today. Driving home from work I was sailing down SR 25, a silver and blue GMC Sonoma pick-up in front of me, a pristine white SUV behind. Suddenly the truck in front of the GMC realized he needed to make an emergency stop at May Bees grocery. GMC slammed his breaks. In a matter of moments I began slamming mine, realized SUV wasn’t going to be able to make the break, swerved to the right as he did to the left. The next minute SUV and I were stopped and virtually parallel to one another. We paused a beat and melted back into place, sailing—a little slower—down SR 25. I kept watching SUV in my rear-view mirror and feeling a kind of kinship at our shared aversion of disaster. Perhaps I should have said something?

At a traffic light in town GMC pulled into the turning lane adjacent to me.

“I saw you almost got smashed girl.”

“Yes,” I said. An expressive response indeed.

I remember in the defensive driving course CAP required I scored the worst on judgment but the best on reaction. Thank goodness I didn’t have time to think.

There was a time when I was known to think too much. “Get out of your head!” the fella I ran around with would always say. It took a lot of practice for me to get into life, but sometimes I miss that other world. It is still spinning and dancing and weeping; I’m just not privy to it’s happenings the way I used to be, more caught up with the lives and actions occurring around and emerging from me.

Thomas Merton writes, “There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.”

Reading that passage I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a friend. We were talking about the inner landscapes of our silly minds. I said that I believed once we expressed the “inner self” it instantaneously becomes outer and in doing so invalidates it’s “innerness.” Yet, we cannot be without an “inner self” and so invariably this “in” that was out-ed must be replaced. Even in discovering that we have a new “in,” we are moving it to a place closer to the surface and thus displacing it and causing it to necessarily be replaced. And so, we not only cannot be completely known by another, we cannot completely know ourselves. The very pursuit spurs the mutability of our nature. Mankind is a glorious mystery. Though, not the only or most glorious by far when set ourselves in the context of the universe. Truly, the heavens declare the glory of God.

I was driving to Jackson House last weekend, taking the curve around Big Hill, a wonderfully winding road that passes between a blasted out hill surrounded by waves of rolling green. Every time I drive it my heart sings and I rejoice in the privilege of our blessed senses. Particularly when the sun is valiantly burning a brilliant orange, tingeing the sky with rosy streaks and scattering the pale blue clouds. I am eager to cry out with the rocks and stones, “Glory, glory, glory.” In appreciating these wonders, soul-ish delight often turns to sensual longing and I wish for one to walk the inner landscapes with. Why in the midst of pure delight does the heart so recklessly yearn for one thing more?

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found…we will never be fully real until we let ourselves fall in love—either with another human person or with God (Tommy Merton, again).”

God of the universe, let me love you truly, and revel, satisfied, in the majesty of your kingdom that is always and not yet.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The time of year has come when my heart crawls into my throat and stays there until summer. Each day meets me like a lover in whose presence I revel. I am undone.

Love took me be surprise this weekend. It was a cliché story. I had loaded my white '90 Dodge Shadow with dirty laundry and was on my way to the Laundromat. Outside, the sun shone bright in a cobalt blue sky, white clouds, crisp air; beautiful. The thought of sitting enclosed by cement walls, surrounded by swishing washers and steaming dryers was somehow less than enticing. The Shadow, almost of its own accord, leaned to the left toward a walking trail near town. I was looking for something, I didn’t know what. She found me. Unfolding her fawn like legs, a waifish black and tan pup with pointy ears and startling, steady blue eyes staggered from the brambles alongside the trails entrance. She was unsteady on her feet but followed me (not without encouragement) nonetheless.

“I haven’t any food,” I confessed, turning my empty hands upward. She stared and continued to amble alongside me.

“If you finish this walk with me I’ll take you home,” I told her.

Twice she got sick, going into the woods and digging a little hole for privacy and cleanliness. After the second time she seemed too weary to continue.

“Ah man, forget it,” I scooped her up, turned around, and took her home. Driving home I knew I was falling.

My fortune today said, “When in doubt, let your instincts guide you.” It was the last from a box of fortune cookies I had bought when preparing a Chinese Chicken dinner for a family at church. ( I try to encourage racial diversity by being stereotypical, the results are ambiguous at best.) Some of the fortunes included such priceless nuggets as, “You have strong spiritual powers. You should choose to develop them.” “You are inclined to enjoy life.” and “Your love will never want to leave you.” What is most comical about these random phrases is the way in which I allow them to effect me. I treat them as mini-horoscopes somehow attached to my current state of mind or circumstances. For instance, I was fostering a once forgotten crush when I cracked open the latter and for a moment had a glimmer of hope that he’d not really given up on me as he said. Today’s gave me a feeling of affirmation regarding my puppy, though, only yesterday I’d lamented, “I only make big decisions on impulse and I only decide to adopt broken things (i.e. the Shadow and Sheila).” Depending on the way I choose to think of it, both my car and my puppy can be seen as a blessing or a curse. Both found me. Both have fulfilled a need—the Shadow gets me to and from work every day, whatever its problems; Sheila, though an “unnecessary expense,” brings me joy and an opportunity to nurture.

All my careful calculations about how long it would be before I could responsibly own a dog, how old it should be, what requirements I would demand, flew out the Shadow’s manual crank window before the puppy and I even got home. She was very sick with the disease of the least, lost and lonely of the canine realm; Parvo. The vets have a great deal of hope and so have I. Despite a day and mass text of calling her “Grace,” I wrote her name “Sheila” on the intake form at the Animal Hospital. Sheila is doing so well. I’ve allowed myself to start dreaming of our future together, blazing trails and being discovered.

Since the new addition to our Commerce Drive Community my thirty minute writing attempt begins later than usual. What was becoming my schedule, all of my industrious plans for exercising my body and mind, are severely diminished in the black and tan face of Sheila. Even now I cannot just sit and set to work. In mid-sentence I jump up to catch her peeing right beside the back door, or sneaking up the forbidden stairs. She is sitting on my lap now, watching in wonder as my fingers run across the laptop keyboard. Another inhibition, as far as writing goes, is that we try to keep her downstairs. Not wanting to leave her alone, I keep myself downstairs too. I set up my computer in the kitchen on a circular end table--our apartments only piece of furniture--where I am able to keep an eye on and interact with her. This has it’s pros and cons. The majority of the pros and cons can be summed up in a single sentence, “I spend more time with my roommates.” In other words, “getting things done,” downstairs, amounts to doing very little.

Amblyn and I both woke this morning to Sheila’s petulant cries. I feel that I can empathize better now with the parents of cranky children with chronic illness. As a parent, you allow them to be whiny and demand, in fact, you invariably foster these characteristics by responding to their cries with eagerness and elation. Any sign of life, of the will to live, is a cause for celebration that the caretaker cannot conceal. I didn’t plan on having a puppy, certainly not a sickly sassy one. But she found me and I found a way. This place is becoming unavoidably home.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

anticipation and realization

The first day of open windows, I love it. Outside it is cool and mild. The sky is blue. It is cuddling with white clouds. Suddenly the brownness of the grass, the premature yellowing of the leaves, the days of drought; these things don't matter. We revel in the glory of fall's tease, "I am coming. I am almost there." Oh, autumn, won't you stay with me forever? All night long it rained and in the morning the gray clouds continued to assert themselves, weeping at their reunion with the earth. The rain here is more a soft sort of tearing than an out and out bawl. Here the sky broods darkly for days before expressing itself in condensation. On the other hand, a Florida storm can barrel in and out again like a flash of anger. The thankful trees are satisfied directly by the pounding rain. After ward the sun breaks out with a bold blaze saying, "you can thank me for this."

During a whispering rain in Kentucky, a magic mist rises from the hills, escaping through the trees; it crawls surreptitiously over highway 25 on which I make my daily commute from Berea to Mt. Vernon.

I am becoming increasingly imbedded at work. I have an office, with Larry; a table pressed against the back of his desk, a chair. We brought in our own coffee pot and mugs. Maintenance installed my phone. I even have my own extension, "for Amy Nee, press 6." The office phone directory is recorded, as of today, in my voice. "You have such a gentle tone," the coordinator said after asking me to spell my last name, "would you mind doing the recording." I thought it a funny request but shruggingly acquiesced.

"I'm almost famous," I whispered to Larry as I left the room.

"Almost?" he exclaimed, "You're a superstar kiddo!"

When ebay asked him for the name of his pet as a security question he said, "Amy!" More often than not though he refers to me as his "fifth child," between he and Martha they've four. He was on ebay looking into bidding on a '65 Volkswagon Beatle, beautifully restored. The scanned photos said '03.

"Those pictures are four years old," I said, "no telling what's happened in four years."

"Shut up!" he said, palming my head as he left our office to have a cigarette. We share an office and listen to Irish music off of his iPod, or internet radio. My dad and I used to do that when we shared an office. My dad loved to experiment and find new music. He read the news online and would start reading out loud when he came across something interesting. Larry does that too. I stop whatever I'm doing to listen.

Recently, we visited a former participant. She graduated about a month ago and is living in a trailer, in town, with her husband. They are trying to get custody of their year old son. Their place was tiny and seemed strewn in a plot of similarly situated trailers, surrounded by overgrown grass, brown from the draught. A dumpster sat out front. "I'm worried about the roaches, and mice," she said when pointing it out. Inside though, the place was neat as a pin.

"Sorry for the mess," she had said, but there wasn't one. It was neat to have her ask us to sit down, to hear her offer, "Do ya'll want some water, or a pop?" We declined but it was good to have her ask. She's upset that social services seems to be dragging their feet about her regaining custody. Larry reminded her it was going to take more than a month to convince people that a ten-year addict with a legal history a mile long was going to be a good mother.

"You know as well as I do gaining trust takes time. You blew it, now you'll have to build it back up." It's true. Not everyone welcomes the recovered addict with open arms and applause. The prodigal son's not just a story in the bible, but it's not a prevalent part of the common human experience either.

taking the bus

Lindsay G and I are at Ground Effects coffee shop. She is working on lesson plans and I am working on distracting myself from racing thoughts and an appalling sense of indecisiveness. Christmas music is playing over the intercom and I am wishing the time was right. I can't wait to go home again.

Jonathan's wedding was incredibly lovely. The visit, though short and partially responsible for afore mentioned uncomfortable thought patterns, was a pure delight. I saw everyone my heart had been longing for whom I normally miss on my visits; Daniela, Jenny Pea, Jacob, Hunter, my family. Even Elise seemed a sight for sore eyes, thought I've not shared much life with her, she is such a treasure.

The night that I left Daniela met Adam, Pop and I at the Greyhound station. They waited with me. Daniela laughed and cringed at the security guards noose tattoo. The man behind us with long dirty hair shook like a druggie in detox. The atmosphere was very like that at the less exemplary jails I've visited. Employees at this station embodied the same sense of disregard for fellow humans that I've encountered in guards.

"Amy, if you want to change your mind, I will help you buy a plane ticket," Adam said.

"I will definitely get you a plane ticket," Pop said.

"Maybe you can get a refund here," Dani added.

"No thanks," I said, trying a laugh. I was terribly nervous. I was rigidly determined. I had no thought of leaving any way but the one I'd planned.

They walked with me all the way to the glass door that swung open for ticketed passengers only. I uncertainly set my bag in front of an indifferent man in Greyhound uniform. His expression indicated I may look like an alien at the moment, so I hurried to the bus before he turned me away. I waved at my nervously huddled loved ones from the window seat.

A neatly dressed Korean woman with oily hair tied up in multiple clips sat beside me. Daniela had asked her to take the seat next to me. "Take care of her for us," Pop had said to her.

"Are you the baby?" she asked me after telling me this.

"Not really, but I am the youngest away from home."

"Oh, you are the baby," she said, patting my shoulder.

Mom asked me later if we'd exchanged numbers, but I never even got her name. She was on her way to a Korean bathhouse in North Carolina,

"That's why I'm not clean," she explained. "My family worried about me too," she said, "but I tell them, 'I'm just going to sleep, no problem.'"

The woman was telling me about her first time leaving home in Korea, "…everyone cried. I missed them so much. But, now I have husband and my own child. My first home will always be home," she said, "just like with you."

Before the bus took off from the station we overheard a disturbance in the front. The driver was arguing with a woman trying to board. He called security. We watched as a small sinewy woman with limp apricot-colored hair hanging down her back was led back to the station; howling miserably.

"Oh let her on," my new friend murmured, "that could be me."

They did not let her back on and we watched her watching us slowly pull away.

Saying goodbye to my family hurt this time. It was really goodbye. On the bus, in the dark, I wondered if my decision was good.

"Lord grant me wisdom," I prayed, watching the cement landscape slide away, "your brother James promised you would. Don't make him look bad." I conjured images of the ladies of Healing Rain to strengthen my resolve. I thought of what was being left behind because of distance and time and choices. The Prayer of Confession asks forgiveness for things done and for things left undone. It is often the latter that haunts me most. My Korean friend seemed asleep. Iron and Wine crooned through my iPod earphones. I sent a foolish text. I cannot dwell in the past. Not now while most of me is moving determinedly forward.

I was sad to part ways with my seat partner in Atlanta. We wished each other luck and made our way to separate connections.

"I'm in Atlanta and its much nicer here!" I texted to Pop. It was about 7:30a.m. Here, a fellow passenger held the terminal door for me. Blue and white tile reflected fluorescent light. Announcers spoke coherently. Doors were labeled.

A wiry, dark security guard a few rows from the one where I was queued held up a plastic baggy of pocket knives and razor blades.

"Anyone else?" He yelled in a sopranic Disney-side-kick voice, "Did everyone give me their knives? Or will I have to search you?"

Before boarding I saw him playing with a huge puppet of that critical old man Muppet character. The puppet's head over-shadowed the man's. A waifish girl with slender, hunched shoulders covered by a bright green sweater over a bright yellow shirt approached him. Her dark hair was cut in a wavy bob. She wore black rectangular glasses.

"Do you want to help me with this," the security guard squawked, flapping the puppets mouth. The girl shook her head, raised her cell phone, and took a picture.

"How much you wanna bet this guy gets us lost?" The big red-bearded man sitting next to me whispered in my ear. I'd sat behind the driver per Adam's suggestion and this fellow had joined me there.

"I hope he doesn't," I responded.

"If he does, he's S.O.L."

"We all are."

Our bus had been redirected because of some race or marathon transpiring in Marietta, GA. The event had traffic at an utter standstill leading to great protestation and foul comments amongst my fellow travelers. A shiny bald-headed man leaned against the drivers plastic guard rail and continually asked him questions he had no answers for.

One of the most vocal and profane objectors was the young women in front of me. She had bleached blond hair, scabby pimples and wore a wife beater that revealed beautiful shoulders. She was traveling with her four-year-old son whom she alternately curses and plays with. Their interaction was more like adolescent peers than mother and child putting me in mind of the family dynamics class I'd recently facilitated.

At one point I was lucky enough to catch the little boy's attention. We played hide and seek, rising and ducking around the seat-back. We played hand slaps.

"Don't let him be that annoying little kid on the plane," his mom said.

"Oh he's fine. How old is he?"


"My nephew is four. He's really doing great for this long of a ride."

That made her smile. "We've been traveling since yesterday afternoon."

They were on their way from Miami to Knoxville. It sounded like they'd be going to her mom's. She'd never been there before. "If it's like this, I'm leaving!" I overheard her say as we drove through the sparsely populated outskirts of Chattanooga.

Behind me was another mother-child duo. A lightly built but strong looking African American woman, very young, and her tiny toddler daughter. The baby had pipe-cleaner appendages, knotted black curls and a gummy smile. She loved to laugh, and to rage. They both were able to sleep and I praised God for the mother's momentary respite. At the depot, a man saw her struggling with her baby and baggage. He offered to take one.

"It's heavy," she muttered.

He gently took the bulky suitcase from her hand, "It's all right."

People show their fears in different ways, and their graciousness too. I am glad to have shared a scene with these characters living out their assorted stories. Every day I wonder if staying in Kentucky is a mistake. Yet, I stay. There is a reason for this solitary exodus. I want to learn to live the beatitudes; to know Jesus as he desires to be known; to love you well. I am glad for this adventure. I am grateful for this life.