Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15.15: HERE'S HOPING (RUDY! RUDY! RUDY!)

"Thanksgiving precedes the miracle."-Anne Van Kamp (1000 Gifts: Gratitude, Joy, and the Miracle.) Yeah apparently she is the chick who wrote a whole book on this entirely original idea I had last month. It's whatever. Also, yes, thank you, I know, yeah, I'm roughly a week late on this. I know. I got a little overwhelmed at my last post, got a little exhausted with all the frustrated windbagging I did, plus I pretty nearly bled myself dry on day 13. So all I have to say is, damn good thing I didn't call this series "Fifteen CONSECUTIVE Days of Gratitude." Winning!

This experiment in gratitude has actually, legitimately changed my life. And by my life, I mean my perspective, which is 90% of my life. The other 10% is mostly coffee and Spotify (shout out to Paloma Faith)

I learned to stop and be still. That sucked at first, so I threw a tantrum. I'm not making that up. I laid on the floor and everything. I was just covered in dog hair and I had a weird mark on my face when I got up.

I've relearned something I used to be very good at: to look around. My complaints have grown smaller, my gratitude has grown exponentially (well geez, you'd hope so after all my type-type-typing and gab-gab-gabbing about gratitude), and my perspective and hope have grown as well. I am more aware than ever of the remarkable people I'm fortunate enough to have in my life. I legitimately love this city that I live in. I drive down the street and look around at the view and I smile, a big smile that starts from the inside and unfurls like a flag til it's waving around like an embarrassing, goofy, really bad dancer. It's like the Elaine dance. Yeah, go ahead, picture it.

Okay that's enough.

Bottom line, I've found that joy is available to the new girl with no job, in a new city with very few friends available.  I've begun to value people in my life, because I chose to think about them differently. In some cases it just meant that I chose to think about them, period. I've realized how much I have. I've also interacted with some of you, readers and friends, who have, in the process of doing this exercise in gratitude with me, realized how much you have to be thankful for. I've reconnected with people I'd long since lost touch with, and we reconnected on the notion of gratitude. That's beautiful.

The complicated line for me, here, is the distinction between the fair skinned, plump, glowing siblings, Contentment and Gratitude. They have their boring, chubby, abstinent older cousin, Complacency, and her rumored-to-be-slutty younger sister, Desire who is always barefoot and making messes she doesn't want to clean up. The first three, I'm still not totally sure how to tell them apart, but I'm working at it. I'm also remembering what I already knew: I am remembering that desire, itself, is something I'm grateful for; wanting is not necessarily the opposite of gratitude.

I want to move to the East Coast. I want to love. I want to be loved (duh). I want to take the LSAT. I want to go to law school. I want to travel. I want to be able to run again without injuring myself like a moron. I want to live in the same house as my piano. I want my own place. I want to have Natascha McElhone's hair. ("It's good to want things." My friend and professor Dave Marley used to say that. Usually it was in response to some absurd request for a deadline extension, or mercy, or a final that didn't involve an essay question on the three principle causes of the decline of Western Civilization... but you get the idea: "Its good to want things" = "fat chance")

Wanting is fun, like hungering and thirsting. You can't survive without food and water, but you could go the rest of your life satisfying mere necessary urges, without enjoying it. We could probably fit the earths population comfortably in Delaware if the means to populating weren't so thrilling. But back to food. What if we didn't have taste buds? I'm so glad we do. Having desires, and then enjoying (or sometimes not getting) the satisfaction of our desires, that makes living so much more... like living.

And then there's hoping. Hope is tricky.

Here is what I think about hope. I think hope is simply about recognizing goodness, right where it stands. I believe in God. I believe that God is good. That gives me hope. Hope isn't based on current circumstance; that's the beauty of it. Hope is based on what our circumstances are not yet. I believe that with all the goodness my own gratitude has unveiled all around me, there is much goodness that has been untapped.

Gratitude is a muscle. So is hope. The person who wrote the words above on a wall somewhere during the Nazi occupation... she may have survived the Holocaust, or she may have died. What if she died? Does that make her words any less true? What if she lived? Is God more real because she survived? Did the sun cease to exist because she no longer felt its warmth? Hope is the muscle of our spirit.

Again, I say hope is a muscle. If the picture below sickens you, and makes you want to retch, or leaves you desperately sad, or overwhelmed... there is hope. The opposite of hope is despair and indifference. So long as we are moved, there is hope for us. Today is April 9th, the day Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for conspiring to kill Adolf Hitler. He was a man who made a move. He was the body of Christ; the hand, the foot, the fist.

 So I'll be real with you- I get sick of hearing talk of the body of Christ. Cliche, yadda yadda yadda. But you know why? It's because I always HEAR ABOUT IT. I don't SEE ABOUT IT. Its just like listening to a dance, or eating a sculpture. "Yeah, you know, I'm really glad you- appreciate that statue so much, but you're really gonna wanna sit down for this..." Yikes.
If the church is the body of Christ, we need muscles or nothing is going to get DONE. And this is NOT an argument for action based works-righteousness, please don't even make me go there.

But my point is that the body of Christ is the body for a reason. Not just the heart, not just the smile, not just the mouthpiece or the brain. I am more of a thinker than a mover just by nature, so I am not disparaging the brains and the mouthpieces, without you in the Church there is just a big dumb well meaning animal lumbering around with bad coordination and embarrassing "theology."

We are the body because bodies reach other bodies; bodies do the holding, the catching, the carrying, the guarding, the warding off, the tending to, the healing, the visiting, the enacting of the love that we think on so often; and the basis for this able bodied ability is nothing other than the Love and the Graciousness of God. Gratia plena. Which we can't tap into without gratitude.

The justification for my gratitude is this: you cannot exaggerate the goodness of God. I have many things to be grateful for; but I know first that I have a good One who I am thanking for the things, people, notions, places that I am so grateful to have, to know, to understand, to see.

Things may be thought of, discussed, extrapolated, hyped, shamed, but people who have gratitude are those who hope, because they have tapped into the Ultimate Goodness of God. If I was relying on my own goodness, which is finite, I would give up because I know my own limits. Gratitude makes for cheerful, joyful, strong-willed beings with the will and the determination to walk out the things that we think on; the Philippians 4:8 passage springs to mind:

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

So we think on these things. For what purpose? To sit in a holy huddle (I know, I said it, lame) and wait for the Apocalypse?  No, we think on these things, because they ennoble and they enable. They remind us that we are to hope. Hope is the ammunition of courage. Hope, like gratitude, is an exercise. It is something we are free to choose to ignore. And just as you can choose what you worship (as I mentioned in my blog on desire, 15.1), it's your business what you hope in (Notre Dame). And it's scary to hope, just as it's scary to want. Hope kind of reminds me of Lenny from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Boy, he sure is dumb. But he is really, really strong. You also can't help but like him, even though you want to occasionally knock him unconscious. But you don't want to kill the guy, even though his intense energy is sometimes a little overwhelming and deadly.

Jeff Goldblum could just as easily been talking about hope in Jurassic Park when he spoke of the tenacity of life itself: 

"If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is.... I'm simply saying that life, uh... finds a way."

Well, there you have it. Anyone who ever did anything worth doing didn't do it because they were guaranteed to succeed. Who has guarantee? Well, maybe the kid who is a legacy to Harvard and was guaranteed admission regardless of his grades. But no one went to see the movie about the blonde Michael Bolton wannabe from the Harvard Bar in Good Will Hunting. People want excuses to hope, because it's just how we're built. Some of us are more emaciated than others, but that isn't wisdom, it's just giving up. 

So while you're choosing whether to hope, or to despair, just know that hopers are in good company. That's where the good stuff is. I'm grateful for people who hope out loud, because they encourage others. I'm reminded of Marianne Williamson's argument for confidence (confidence, incidentally, just means "with faith." Chew on that) and she says it better than I can, so I'll finish with her words on what is, essentially, hopeThis is the quote I placed on my door during the year I was an RA in college, when I had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing young women I've ever met. I wanted them all to remember this, as I wish for you, and for myself:


"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."


Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15.14: LES MISERABLES (OR: WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE)

Justice: getting what we deserve.

Justice is the thing we seem to have a firm handle on, but not in the way I'd like. I see a lot of people determined to right the wrongs done them. Reality TV seems to zero in on this retaliatory, reactionary way of life. This impulse is natural. But so is going to the bathroom, it doesn't mean we do it whenever and wherever we want. We do as infants and toddlers, and then we train our impulses. Somehow we don't always train our emotional impulses though. And we don't refine them as we should.

Justice is one of my favorite ideas, an attribute of God that I used to identify with the most. But then I realized that justice on it's own is a little dismal. We're always ready to dole it out but never ready to receive it when we have done something wrong. It is 'right' and it is the best that we can come up with: the justice system. So useful; and that is why our crime rate is plummeting.

False. Our crime rate is not plummeting. Even if it was stagnating, it would not be an argument for cold, stark justice. "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." What we need is something that transforms. Justice is not transformational. Righteous, but not transformative. Everyone expects it, so justice has no surprises.

You know what? I've been a Christian my entire life; never left the church, never "fallen away." And I used to think that Christians were some of the most justice-oriented (read: judgmental, cannibalistic, ruthless) people around. I developed this opinion after going to bible college. I figured that outside of church circles, there would be a lovely, soft-hearted, non-finger pointing club, people who had been hurt by judgment, by religion, by pharisaical blood-lust. I thought that in non-Christians, I would find a club of people united by their mutual distaste for the feeling of being criticized and judged. Maybe a little solidarity.

There is no such club. I was legitimately shocked and disappointed by what I found instead. I found backstabbing. I found people who were intolerant of others' mistakes and failures. I found people who were quick to point out the speck in the eye of their neighbor while they had a plank dangling from their own. But this didn't prove to me that non-Christians are worse than Christians. No, this showed me that the most basic desire for justice is inborn. That even people who deny the existence of God, demand justice (interesting). Too bad justice isn't enough. And justice for the sake of following the rules... that will kill you. The law will bring you death. We've all broken rules.

Mercy: not getting what we deserve.

Mercy is the most beautiful thing.

Mercy is not retaliatory.

Mercy is the story of Les Miserables, my favorite story in the world; I will do it no justice here, so read it yourself and watch the films! (I saw them four times in theatres, and am watching it now.)

Jean Valjean is lost in the "justice" system... 20 years imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to save his nephew from starvation. Once released, he finds that the world is a cruel place for ex-convicts. No one will give him a job, or a room to sleep. The first person to offer him mercy is a priest who welcomes him into his rectory to eat and to sleep. Jean Valjean, realizing that he is going to face living as a convict the rest of his life with no one willing to give him a job, or a roof, decides to steal the priest blind. Old habits die hard.

When he is caught by the authorities and returned to the priest -the man he just robbed- he is stunned by the mercy he is given: for while the just thing would be for Jean Valjean to go back to prison, not only does the priest, the victim, have him released... he gives back to Valjean the items he had stolen, and to sweeten the pot, throws in the last bit of silver that Valjean had neglected to steal. Does anyone else find this incredible!?! The only human who had the right to accuse Valjean, absolved him. And in return, he asked only that Valjean become a better man and live his life for God. Valjean stops reporting for parole, and reinvents a new life for himself as a man of mercy, patience, and kindness.

Mercy is transformational, but only if we can quit being so stupidly blind that we fail to recognize it. Mercy seems like weakness to those blinded by the repetition of "an eye for an eye."

The world doesn't know what to do with mercy; it's otherworldly. That is why we need more of it.

Inspector Javert, the policeman, is aware of Valjean's failure to report for parole. He cannot see that Valjean's life is reformed, that he is a kind, generous man. He can only see that a rule has been broken. And that has consequences. He doesn't think outside the box. He's not a "think-for-yourselfer." But Valjean repeatedly shows mercy to the man who hunts him relentlessly. Yet this does nothing for Javert, ever the ledger keeper; when the tables turn and his life is in Valjean's hands, he is spared because Valjean is not a murderer, and he is not vengeful: although he has every reason to rid himself of this insanely legalistic blood thirsty inspector, he is merciful.

Mercy shatters his paradigm, and he has nothing left to live for.

He is an example of a person who lives for justice and cannot fathom mercy when he sees it. He's given it, and despises it. I've seen people like this. Given every mercy, they receive it and don't let it change them. They just take it, like a greedy beggar, and they abuse it. They have no eyes for mercy. This is the mystery to me. A guilty and hardened convict can be transformed by an act of mercy, and a spoiled rotten sorority girl with a vicious tongue can be shown the same forgiveness and mercy after she has betrayed a trust or slandered another, and take that mercy in a stride, as though it were nothing more a decoration or a trinket.

Entitlement is what I think I've discovered here. Blinded by our own self-righteousness, and desiring to punish those who've wronged us, we fail to see that our own hands are filthy.

Grace: getting what we don't deserve

If we viewed ourselves through the lens of grace, we would realize that not a one of us are innocent. Realization of our own failures should free us from the self-appointed task of judging others for theirs. It's far less stressful, seriously. Just breathe. We then remember that without grace, none would be spared what we're due.

Justice is a demand of the world. It is not a demand of the church. So the fact that the world demands we answer for our wrong doings is not something Christians can take the blame for. Desire for justice is not wicked; but we are failures when we shriek for it while forgetting to carry that same concern for justice to the rest of the oppressed. We all would suffer the consequences of our actions in the hands of justice, and you would think- YOU WOULD THINK- that the reality of our own guilt and imperfection (raise your hand if you're perfect. That's what I thought), would keep us from pointing fingers.

Grace is unearned. You can't be good enough. You won't be good enough. Justice demands that we all pay a price: on this earth, we pay different prices. Some of us pay the cost of friendships lost through careless words, selfish actions, and inconsiderateness. Some of us pay the cost demanded by justice when we lose relationship with those whose trust we have violated. Some of us pay for our laziness with poverty. Some of us pay the cost of cheating by being kicked out of school. There are 6 billion price variations. Everyone pays a price for something we've done.

But one of the best moments in life is when we are given a second chance. Or a third. Or a fourth. If you've made more than four mistakes, you need to pay it forward in granting forgiveness and mercy at least four times.

"To love another person is to see the face of God." -Victor Hugo

I'm so grateful for mercy and grace. Because you know what? I NEED IT.

You are a much-loved child of God. Learn what that means, and then act like it.

In Jesus' name.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15.13 WHEN LITTLE HILARY FELL IN LOVE (OR: Love Came Down- A Good Friday Tribute)

*This is my official "Good Friday" post. It was initially supposed to go up yesterday, but Easter weekend travels prevented it. Folks, if there was ever a topic that involved me opening a vein... this is it. If you can enjoy this story, or be encouraged, I hope you will.*

Setting: April 6th, 2012

Inside: Broken. Years of cynicism and failure to hope leave me bereft of the desire to believe in love; my heart is concealed beneath layers of dried blood and disbelief, shame, and devastated expectations. Vicious, more recent circumstances have left me a bag of bones. Cracked and dried, I am likely to disappear any moment now. I can't find myself in my own reflection. My heart and mind are in a dark room; I try to stay in the light for fear that if I don't, I will vanish.

Outside: I had been in England just under a week, and this was my first trip to London. Some friends from the base and I had taken the train into the city and stopped at the Green Park station, just near Buckingham Palace. We split up and I walked down the South Bank of the Thames with Clara, my friend from Germany. The crowd was pressing in on all sides as we squeezed through the bottleneck by the London Eye. We walked through throngs of travelers, old and young; it was the start of spring break, it was Easter weekend, and there were thousands upon thousands of people crowding the pavement. As we squeezed our way down the River Walk, we watched a magical display: street performers, jugglers, African acrobats, contortionists,  dancers, human statues, musicians, gypsies with massive bubbles blown through the air, bubbles large enough to fit a person inside! We walked under Waterloo Bridge. As we neared Oxo Tower, I saw a sign written on cardboard and propped up on an upside down tin bucket. It said "SHAKESPEARE." Obviously, this caught my eye immediately. I looked up to see who this Shakespearean busker was.

Inside:  "... Wow."

Tall, dark, and handsome. A beautiful, Tom Selleck mustachio'd face, a charisma that you cannot fake and would have to be blind to miss, and that rich voice that grabbed the ears of all the passersby until he had a crowd surrounding him, captivated. He drew you in, made you wish he was talking about you. I wish I could remember the monologue he was doing at the time. I was too distracted by the fact that he had an American accent. I honed in on this like a homing pigeon.
Outside: I wait until he is done with his monologue. The crowd cheers, tosses money into his bucket, and dissolves. Poor Clara wants to move on, but I stay and say "Where are you from?" He looks at me, smiles, cocks his head to one side and says "I'm from Texas... where are you from?" An hour later: we have wandered the streets surrounded by soaring architecture so rich with history and life in the brick and stone that it vibrates with a pulse that was matched by my own quickening heartbeat. After wandering, we settle in at a pub. I could literally feel it in the air. The tension was palpable. I've heard of this sort of thing, but never experienced it. We are like magnets, moving toward one another slowly and steadily, both knowing and hoping. My heart is thump-thump-thumping in my chest (even now, I have the reminiscent adrenaline and the thumping of the computer keys is hiding the shaking of my hands as I type away). He buys me my first cider and we bask in the thrilling tension of this new unexpected, beautiful prospect, which is immediately larger than the sum of our parts.

A casual graze, a hand on the arm, a touch on the knee, sliding our stools closer to each other and fitting together like dancers who are waiting...waiting...waiting for the music to start. I realize the time, and I have to leave. He accompanies me to where I will meet my friends, at St. Stephens Tavern across from Westminster Abbey. He's only been in England a couple weeks longer than I, but he knows his way around, and I follow in sweet relief. He reaches over and takes hold of my hand. *If you knew me then, you'd have known that you do not hold my hand. Not. Ever. And yet, I looked down at our hands and our fingers, interlocked, looked like the most natural thing I'd ever seen. We sat in St. Stephens, sharing fish and chips and linking our ankles underneath the table, beneath the low-hanging ceilings of a room lit by an orange glow of amber glass bulbs. When my friends stepped outside, he grasped my hand, his own eyes smiling as he looked into mine... then slowly leaned in to steal a kiss. I let him, at first holding still and then leaning into him as the softness of his forehead pressed against mine. I smiled shyly and laughed away my embarrassment at this public display, which I never allowed before... but I was also surprised at how it felt like the most normal, and necessary, thing in the world. And I'd known him not three hours.

The next 6 weeks are a dream. Meetings in the city, trips out to the countryside to meet his sister with her husband and her children, who live in a fairytale Beatrix Potter landscape; late night strolls through London awash in the bright lights of street lamps and the buzz of a city that holds us in the palm of its old, knowing hands. Bridges, train rides, tulips, always tulips... wine, sudden thunderstorms... the rain soaked adventure of a couple so young, free, and hopefully in love that we rested in the ease of each other like a ship that had finally reached port and now anchored, rocking, peacefully, her beams creaking in the slow cadence of the sea as she held closely to the strength of the dock.

He and his friend did occasional performances of Shakespeare in the Tube (the London Underground)... pretending to be mere passengers and then breaking out into performance mid-route. It was amazing to watch. I was his Juliet; the stunned looks on the faces of the passengers when he took the kiss from my lips. They thought I didn't know him from Adam... the gasps were audible. It was a thrill ride.

Never was I safer, more accepted, more lavished with kindness, respect, tenderness, and love. Never was a man so
eager to know about my passions and interests, more interested and enthusiastic about my own life than I was. He handled my fears and doubts and hesitations like a .... like a woman whisperer. And his patience was a mile long... although I can't know for sure, since I never once reached the end of it. Never once was it exhausted. And I lost my train pass at literally every stop. Every. Stop. You need it to get in and out of stations and onto the double decker buses. That's dozens of times a day where I rummaged frantically through my many coat pockets and my canoe of a purse, searching for that little orange slip of paper. Never once did he grow angry or impatient. It was remarkable. I could've cried. Never a roll of the eyes, or a bite of the lip, or a shake of the head. Never: "WHY can't you just keep it in the same place?" or "Why do you wear so many layers?" or "why is your purse so big?" (I would've asked those questions!) ... only: "Here, darlin', let me hold your purse for you so you can look." What kind of man was this? He was an angel, I tell you.

Prior romantic experience had taught me that deep "love" breeds passionate intense highs and with it, bouts of emotional boxing, long, protracted arguments, stress breakouts, emotional spasms, exhausting trials and tests of my sanity. All in the name of love. And there was always a hardening and breaking, both of my will and of my heart. None of that was to be found here, and it was such a gift.

Love is tested in adversity, and mine was no exception. Our respective stays in England ended, and we parted. Promising to see one another again, we made plans to relocate, to be together. This is where the "alas" comes in. Time and distance did their worst. It killed us both in cycles; first me, then him, then me again. But what I noted in myself, and what I wrote about in my first ode to my love (my blog from last May, "On Speaking Italian"), was that my instinct for self preservation was gone. Gone. That has never happened before. Let me emphasize this for you, because this is pivotal. It was like having terminal cancer (self preservation), and then being told that you were in full remission (boundless love). Not a trace of my former shell; my heart had emerged from years of hibernation. There was life and strength in my bones, no longer the dry and brittle things that were so close to dust before. And in the testing of my resolve, and in the trying of our relationship, my test results showed that my heart was good, my blood was moving, and I was strong. 

When I say strong, here is what I mean: in prior experience, if I detected any trace of breakdown in a relationship, I was out of there while the body was still warm. Pain, rejection and failure were things I wouldn't tolerate, and had no time for. A deteriorating relationship was not worth my time, especially because (I came to realize) I'd never really cared enough for the person to walk out the dying process with them, to allow the thing a natural death. This isn't to say that I've never cared for anyone. But in times of conflict- when the first red flag went up, I was gone. And yet here I was, faced with the possibility that time, distance, and circumstance were tearing from me the only man I have ever loved, and I was determined to stand there. Not leaving -waiting. I was going to cut myself open and hold my heart out, keeping nothing hidden and holding nothing back. If he didn't want me, I would've accepted it. In fact I tried to end it several times, because I thought that was what he wanted. I would've waited forever, but more than anything, I wanted him to be happy and free (even if that meant without me). I really did. But he wouldn't sever the tie, at least not with his words. He couldn't. And I wanted him so badly that there was very little I wouldn't have done to make it work. But in love, you cannot do the work of two people. One can be willing but their willingness cannot compensate for the others' slack. That is the boundary even I couldn't cross.

So I was the woman who wouldn't be moved. He could let this relationship slip away if he wished, but as God was my witness I would not be the one to leave. I'd be the last one standing. This was some love I had, Jiminy Christmas. I would have taken a bullet for him. In a strange way, I think I did. And the me you would've met a year ago, this morning, she would've said that no man on earth was worth putting your heart on the line for. There was no love that was beautiful enough to risk anything for. No farce, no matter how alluring, was worth setting down your pride and your armor. A year ago this night, I would've begun to say that I wished it were possible. And within two days, I would've told you that I was terrified to see how alive this type of love really is.

If I look back with perspective, I know in my gut that the love itself was the gift. He gave me a glimpse of something I thought was a myth. You may say that since I no longer have it,  it was a mirage. But I defy that. I held this love in my hands, like a dove, and felt its heartbeat. It was as real and alive as I am. And I am. With the I Am. And the realization that fell on me like first rain on a barren field was this: the love that he showed me a glimpse of is the Love that He has for me, which is already in my possession. That is the truth that gripped me, beyond my own ability to grasp it. I have no bitterness; only a little pain. The song "Somebody That I Used to Know" has a line that says "You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness" and that is so true. The reason is that sometimes the sadness is the only souvenir you have left, and you want it to be tangible still. If the pain is gone, you're afraid you've forgotten them. Sadness is like a memory that we keep; we worry that we will forget the voice of a loved one who has passed. We fear will we lose the emotional ecstasy of a love that we have lost, so we cling to the pain of it to remind ourselves that it was real.

This love came and rescued me, so poetically, on Good Friday. The power of that has never for a moment been lost on me. I saw a love manifest in my own soul that I'd never known or seen before. Of course there was what seemed to be bottomless sadness, hurt, and disappointment, but the true immense love I held for him, and my gratitude at having gotten to experience him even for a short time, killed my selfishness... and from it's very grave, forgiveness sprang up like a desert flower. I couldn't be angry. I sensed that this was too important. And in me, an unrecognizable Love had risen up from this vast desert place, a desert place which I knew very well. It was a shockingly robust and muscular love that showed such strength I couldn't believe it had been there in me and I'd never seen it before. I guess it had been lost. Like flesh put on a valley of dry bones, like a sleeping giant awakened, was the love that came out of my desert. And that is how I know that love is real. And I am so grateful.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15.12: A SMATTERING

No rest for the grateful. Just a shorter blog. I couldn't decide today! Could. Not. But there was this awareness that I only have 4 posts left. And 2 are spoken for. So I'm cheating.

Here are a few things which I am very, very grateful for, don't let the condensing that's about to happen convince you otherwise. You don't have to be grateful for them, or agree with them, but it's my list, now get off my lawn. :)

1) Color Easy to take for granted, since it's everywhere. "But all your wear is black, grey, and black!" Shut up, those are colors. I wore a pink top somewhere once and felt like a piñata; suddenly, everyone could see me. It was terrible, so I went home and changed. But as long as I don't have to wear it, I love it. Especially on trees in the spring and fall. And red is great everywhere.

2) Fall and Winter We don't get them in California, but I hear good things. I love them because I love pumpkins and I love scarves and I love coats and fires in fireplaces. I love the smell of burning wood, and I love the leaves on the ground. I love walking from the freezing cold into a warm room. I love drinking hot things, and I love having an excuse to be really grossly pale.
Here is a fall
Here is hell without chains

3) Rain I love overcast days when the sky is grey. I love lightning, and thunderstorms, and I love the way the airs smells afterward. I have lived in California most of my life, and I'm not supposed to say this, but I'm a little sick of the sun. I already invested in sunspots and premature aging; looking for those around 30.

4) Friends  You people deserve your own cell block. I mean blog. My friends are top notch. Créme de la créme a la Edgar. They make me laugh (I only have funny friends, remember!), they listen to me when I'm in the mood to "verbally process"
which is probably a real thrill, they humor my paranoia, and they forgive me when I do stupid crap. And I've done stupid crap. For one, I'm terrible at returning phone calls and text messages. The. Worst. On a fail scale from Charlie Weis to the Titanic, I'm off the charts. I'm Ted Kennedy. And I'm also a biter.

Now, this next part is going to appall some of you, but it'll seem like a no-brainer to the rest: if you're wondering where you stand with a friend... a surefire way to figure it out is to A) Read their diary in  a public forum, like an open mic nite, or B) set out for a fun night with your pals, go completely off the reservation, get irretrievably hammered and forget where your face is. The people who laugh at you the next day when you're looking around for your shoes and your dignity... those are your friends. Sure there are better ways to be a friend, and there are plenty of ways to show forgiveness. But people fail you in unexpected and surprising ways, so there are plenty of opportunities.

My point is, friends don't always agree with your behavior (it doesn't have to be inebriation. It can be backstabbing, getting stoned out of your gourd, borrowing clothes without asking, you know what makes you mad) and they certainly don't have to condone it, but they know and love the real, better you, and they will summon memories of that better you in the moment when they'd rather leave you in a pile on your porch. Hear me, babies, that's not license to be foolish! But if they gave out licenses to be human, you could get it here. And it would be unfair to my friends who've gone the distance if I didn't own up to these shortcomings. So if you're a close friend who was at my 21st, or at a gonzo bachelorette party, or maybe in Alex's parents backyard that one night after finals week... you have gone the distance. Possibly while carrying my purse and/or my person. Hi, mom!

5) Honesty: If you haven't noticed, I have a tendency to over-divulge in certain areas, and here's why: I once had an unforgettable conversation with the mother of a guy I was dating. We were talking about him... his job, his hair, his childhood, his cat allergies yada yada yada, and at some point midway through the conversation I realized that she had no idea what her son was actually like. It was like listening to Al Capone's mother explain that he spent all his time volunteering at the Marjoree Mason Center and coaching the Special Olympics. And it made me sad for her. Consequently, I tend to want to spare people disappointment and disillusionment later by trotting my big failures out for show and tell, right away: "That's a picture of my first boyfriend... heeeeere's me the day after my 21st birthday party... that's me in gaucho pants... Here's one from the night I called Jacques Chirac the UN Secretary General... Oh, here's every picture taken of me in eighth grade..."  (I often pretend to be worse than I am, just to weed out the iffy folks.) So for people who are honest even when it's uncomfortable... I'm grateful for you. Because it's cold out here, under the lights, with all your self showing.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15.11: WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU (just leaves a baldspot)

What doesn't kill you may just maim you. What doesn't kill you will instead resort to identity theft and then purchase sixty adult videos from pay-per-view with your credit card. What doesn't kill you leaves you with severely debilitating psychosomatic conditions, which may or may not be covered by your insurance. What doesn't kill you leaves you balding. What doesn't kill you accidentally shrinks your pants in the dryer and gives you a stress related, jaw-disfiguring meteor-zit on your chin, and then pats you on the butt and sends you to your high school reunion. What doesn't kill you makes you wish it really had just gotten it over with and actually killed you.
Rubens, Thetis Immerses Achilles in the Styx
All this to say, I hear so many people chanting "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," but I'm not convinced they mean stronger, and I'm actually not convinced it hasn't killed them.  I looked up the definition of "strong", and I highlighted the parts that stood out:

1 having the power to move heavy weights or perform other physically demanding tasks
• (of an argument or case) likely to succeed because of sound reasoning or convincing evidence: there is a strong argument for decentralization.
• possessing skills and qualities that create a likelihood of success: the competition was too strong.
2 able to withstand great force or pressure: cotton is strong, hard-wearing, and easy to handle.
• (of a person's constitution) not easily affected by disease or hardship.
not easily disturbed, upset, or affected: driving on these highways requires strong nerves.
• (of a person's character) showing determination, self-control, and good judgment: only a strong will enabled him to survive.

But some people have a different idea for stronger, like an urban dictionary version. Sure, what doesn't kill you often makes you "stronger"... if by "stronger" you actually meant "bitter, vengeful, and crazy as a feral cat in heat." "Strong" people sometimes look like they're related to "Persistently Angry and Miserable" people. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but being bitter and vengeful is not strength, it is weakness. Being crazy as a joker, on the other hand, I hear that might actually make you physically stronger, depending on your prescription.  I read somewhere that holding onto unforgiveness is like drinking poison, and expecting the other person to die. Crap. That's like "Suffering from depression? Try Debilify! Side effects may include suicide." Bitterness is a gaping, unhealed wound, which is, I think, the opposite of the look you're going for. No one gets very far while they're wounded. Just watch Jurassic Park.

I think our response to pain has something to do with this whole "killing me stronger" thing...

1 physical suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury
• mental suffering or distress: the pain of loss.

I'd like to expound on the notion of pain by giving some examples of little pains and big pains, which I have we all may have experienced at some point:
  • Ridicule
  • Being tuned out
  • Being taken advantage of
  • Bounce houses
  • Being talked about behind your back by someone you trust
  • Humiliation following visible failure to locate public restroom
  • Realizing someone unfriended you, and you can't figure out why
  • Figuring out why
  • Taking 10 bags of clothing to Platos Closet and being told "We were able to buy 8 of your items" (out of EIGHTY)
  • Losing someone you love
  • Being the designated driver for a person who doesn't remember where they live, but who keeps forgetting to remember that they don't live in a field. ? Exactly.

Okay. So I know that the knee-jerk reaction to pain is to push yourself away from the cause of the pain. Also, break things. Find out someone lied to you: lash out verbally and/or destroy their person/property/reputation. Find out someone two-timed you: accidentally back into their house with your truck. Two times... "Tawanda!" Feel hurt and discarded: immediately decide that I hate them, I'm sorry I met them, their haircut is ugly, and I didn't even like their dumb jokes.

Yeah, oh, I'm strong and tough. Never gonna get me again, oh, I'm so angry, oh you wouldn't believe the toughness and the anger, oh see how feisty/cute I am when I'm mad, look at the memes I made, don't you wish you had me back now that I've posted all these pictures of myself with my revenge outfit (it's a bra)? What I'm really doing is being spastic, disassociating, and lying to myself. Pretty much a guarantee that it will happen again. Doesn't it seem like anger addresses the symptom (pain) rather the cause (sadness, rejection, betrayal, disappointment, embarrassment)? When I skip pain and go straight to anger, I'm cheating myself, and negating every choice I ever made before the moment of injury. I mean I guess you can just stumble through life like a drunken toddler... In the famous words of Paris Hilton "I don't really think, I just walk." No waayyyyuh. So there's always that. Is pain really so bad? Yes, of course it is. But can you imagine if we treated our physical injuries with the same brute disregard with which we handle our emotional injuries?

You're jogging along, good for you, oh you just love to jog. You don't see a hole in the asphalt, you fall and hurt your ankle, ohhhh it hurts so much, oh the worst pain in the world, it's probably infected already. So you get up, started yelling at your (maybe) broken bone, cursing the hole, and telling yourself every day "I'm never jogging aGAIN!" You start posting bitter Vaguebook pictures saying really "strong" things like "Trip me once, shame on you, Trip me twice, shame on me... #betterwithoutyou #joggingisforsuckas #sluglife." You start making fun of the people, throwing tortillas at them as they jog, and holding solidarity meetings at the YMCA. But you never get your ankle looked at, you'd rather just not. Sure, it's no longer a "weight-bearing" ankle, but its fine because you don't plan to use it ever again anyway, that's how you hurt it the first time, duh. Icing and elevation is for suckers. But uh-oh, what's this? Suddenly, one day, you look outside and its so sunny and bright and you find yourself missing the thrill of running. Oh, look at all that sunshine, oooh don't think, just run! Run like the wind! So you take off sprinting through the front door but the shooting pain is so monstrous you throw yourself on the lawn and scream like a banshee, because you've got... I don't know, gout, or something like that, and now you've also got grass stains.
I hope this seems really really stupid to you... good, because it is. But this is pretty much exactly what we do with emotional pain when we refuse to acknowledge it, because anger makes us feel more in control. First we go put trust and hope in someone (friend, family member, romantic interest), because we like them, we like ourselves when they're around, and we want them to make us feel something (smart, safe, pretty, needed, respected, talented, wanted). When they do something that brings out feelings we didn't want to feel (unwanted, inadequate, insecure), we lose it and start saying crazy crap like "I'll never trust again" or "I'll never let anyone hurt me" or "I'll never let myself need anyone"...which is about as rational as "I'm pretty sure this is a broken bone. I'd better never walk again" and "serves me right for going outside" Well, that's an overreaction. And it's also a lie. You're forgetting that you got hurt because at one point, your desire for something outweighed the risk of pain that was associated with it. And that's nothing to be ashamed of. Desiring is good! ...But know what it is you actually want, what you're really hungering after, and try to want things that are good for you. If you really enjoy running with scissors or dating other people's husbands, I want to suggest branching out.

It takes a discerning palate to recognize what we're really craving. We can't just eat everything in sight the second we realize we're hungry. We're not bears.  Have a little self-respect? I think its very much about recognizing our vulnerable spots, and not destroying them. Because vulnerable parts, the parts of us that need others, they don't need to be gotten rid of. Unless you're Hitler, he was all about weeding out the vulnerable. Besides, if strength really is partly about showing good judgment, then that means we can't just indiscriminately remove all vulnerable parts in order to dispense with the burden of having to be careful with anything, or anyone. (I have done this for years: I called it "casual dating"... where we say things like "I'm not really looking for anything serious right now," but we mean "let's spend too much time together with no strings attached so I can start to get unjustifiably upset about things." It's sort of like Jim Gaffigan's spin on Vegetarian Hot Pockets: "For those of you who don't like meat but would still like diarrhea.")

I'm grateful for pain because it's honest. If it's emotional pain, it will not kill you. I mean, you'll probably want to die. Pain just draws attention to parts of us that need tending to. Just don't do a lot of Facebooking during this time. We're begging you.  If our hearts are like engines, pain is the "check engine" light. And for the love of God please check that engine with a mechanic. Or perhaps a therapist, or a priest, so long as he keeps his hands where you can see them. Mother Theresa had this to say about pain and love: "I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love." I think I have to believe her. Being bitter is like burying our hearts in a box underground, and that's just plain lazy because it means we don't have to take any responsibility for the way we interact with others. That is not the way! But loving is the way, and what I've known of love so far has shown me it is worth every scar, especially since they're emotional scars, and those aren't disfiguring kind.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15.10: MUSIC

As an aspiring writer, all I am really doing is rolling up my sleeves and digging elbow deep into evasive, slippery notions and emotions. We tap into veins and trace them backward toward the heartbeat. We identify the nerve endings and flick them, like toddlers thumping on piano keys (Look what I can do!) When I was a kid, I used to sit on the counter with my legs swinging freely, then I would whack my kneecaps just below the patella to see how high my leg would fly in the reflex. At first, writing is kind of like that. Keep hitting the spot until you get an uncontrolled response. As it progresses, it is about trying to string together word pictures and weave nets for catching the "a-ha!" moments, moments that seem as unspeakably beautiful as the sun disappearing beneath the sea, and just as impossible to keep. That's why nets are dicey: some things get away from us. Songs, however, give voice to human ways and emotions, where words alone may falter (therefore this whole effort may be a setup.) So I'm putting my iTunes on shuffle and I'm taking a trip to a place where words fail.
This is the only post that intimidates me more than my post on humor, mostly because writing an ode to laughter is like reading a song or eating a painting. Just isn't right. Besides, writing about how and why I love music is terrifying. It's like eulogizing your best friend (or, if you watched the recent episode of New Girl... your boyfriends father: "I'M NOT ASKING YOU TO DO TOO MUCH! JUST WRITE MY FATHERS EULOGY!!") In that light I'd rather just leave a playlist, or some flowers or a nice card, because all I can hope to do here is impart the feelings, the exhilaration and intensity of a sound that hits a home run. You already know what I mean, I'm sure of it. So here are some notions and emotions about music.
Tonight, I sat with my housemates and watched "The Voice" and tried to figure out what to write about. My roommates are ridiculously talented, and they do music for a living. I'm not exaggerating. No, they don't wait tables on the side and play gigs between and say "I'm a recording artist"... though that is legit, too. No, people fly them all over the world to sing and play, and they have a record deal. They tour. It's fine. And when I'm watching "The Voice" with them... I feel like a six year old watching to the State of the Union address with her dad. Not sure what's happening, I recognize that there are words involved... But mostly I watch my dad's response and when he frowns, I frown. When he laughs in derision, I laugh too. And I want to clap every time someone claps (clapping is fun!) but my dad isn't clapping, because he heard something I didn't hear. Imagine watching the Super Bowl with a football team. I know I like the game... but I don't know what to look for all the time. Suddenly everyone is in an uproar and screaming and I can't tell if they're upset or elated, but they're yelling. I have to assume there are things I don't see yet. Lets train our ears and eyes.

For me, it's like the chorus to Boston's "More Than A Feeling," which I used to lose my mind for in high school. It was like a frenzy when that song came on. Heads banging, windows shaking, people mildly concussing. Or there's Christine McVie's haunting (it's about witches so I get to say haunting) piano intro in the live performance of Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon." It gives me chills, even though it lasts for maybe 5 seconds, tops. I'll never forget hearing "Paradise" by Coldplay when I was driving through a mountain pass over the borderline from Cork into Kerry.  The song began, and as though I were in a music video, suddenly I topped the hill and before me was a panoramic chorus of color and landscape that was more beautiful because of that soaring symphonic arrangement that yanks your breath out of your chest, almost like the moment after a swimmer jumps off the starters block in a heat, but right before they hit the water; or when you fly over the crest of a rollercoaster and your stomach and your lungs and your heart bang around like fireworks in a telephone booth.
You remember in the movie Hot Rod, when they talk about the Tai Chi move that makes a grown man crap his pants? Yeah, well, music can probably do that Tai Chi move. It can stir up almost anything. Laughter, tears, rejoicing, harlem shaking, that Ally McBeal baby dancing. It can even make you die a little... like the slowing of your step when you wade into the water. Or like parachute pants. You tell me what it stirs up in you, they're your pants. For me, there's the song "It's Me" by Sara Groves; it's about a fight between a woman and her husband. I've never even been married but the lyrics still seem like I could've written them. That's a powerful kind of writing... to make strangers believe you. And the music of it! It's so simple I doubt many people would be stunned by it, but therein lies the beauty. There is a point in the song (3:56) where the electric guitar makes a wailing noise like (what else) the song of a whale. A disappointed, surrendering sort of sound, like a flare that is burning out over a sinking ship.... a long, last parting look.
Or if you're not particularly into pained glances... check out "Shipping Up to Boston" by Dropkick Murphys. The whole song is like the musical equivalent of a rumble, West Side Story style, except they're Irish rather than Puerto Rican, so instead of stabbing each other to death, everyone gets in a few blows, feels like they won, and keeps drinking.  If you could literally walk on sunshine, I don't think it would sound like Katrina and the Waves said it would... I think walking on sunshine would sound like "Dreams" by the Cranberries. The thrill of love at first sight? "Sweet Disposition" by The Temper Trap. Longing? It sounds like "Never Let Me Go" by Florence and the Machine or "On My Own" by Samantha Barks.
Melody and percussion move in like a wave that catches you off guard when you've gone into the water just far enough that you are out of your depth. Suddenly it's pulling you and pushing you and coming from out of your lungs and your eyes and your skin... that's why I listen to music when I exercise!  It's like an interior gas pedal. When I don't want to move, music makes me want not only to move, but to run. Or punch, or pedal, or ignore the shredding of my tendons. Whatever. i like to listen to "Down with the Sickness" by Disturbd when I'm doing squats and lunges: I go from zero to Lara Croft in 30 seconds... more than 30 seconds and I turn into the Hulk. And I can run for many miles further than I should with either "Take Us Out" from the Rudy soundtrack or Lady GaGa's "Americano" on a loop.
When Napster first became a thing, I would spend hours on my dads computer, crafting playlists to accompany me on "tasks" that would take no time. Playlists to listen to while I cleaned my room, while I wrote a paper, while I worked, while I got ready for school. It's like drinking wine as you make dinner... only you're making top ramen. The music was actually better, and more important to me, than anything it was accompanying. It never occurred to me that music didn't matter to people. In fact I have only met one person who was somewhat indifferent to music, so I'm hoping that is an anomaly, like the baby born pregnant. I will go ahead and assume that all of you love music just as much as I do.

I still have those playlists... they're like time capsules. Isn't it astonishing, the way music transports you? "Select... play... BAM!" The soundtrack to Garden State is also known as the soundtrack to my first breakup. I couldn't hear it without getting wistful, which really pissed me off because I liked that album. So one night I sat in my car, in the dark, and forced myself to listen to it over and over and over, and I squeezed out that reserve of tears and sentimental associations, until I didn't associate it with anything but the dashboard of my car, the pink lei hanging from my rear-view mirror, and the bright lights of the football field across the street. (7 years later, I can still see it) If you were to put my heart on puppet strings for this week, you could make one string Adele, one string Florence + the Machine, and one the Epilogue from the Les Miserables soundtrack. I once sat in a parking lot, waiting for my car to get towed and listening to that song, openly crying. When the tow truck operator arrived, he looked at me and said "What happened?!" I shook my head and smiled bashfully and said "I was just listening to the Les Mis soundtrack." He looked at me blankly and said ", what happened to your car?"

There's a Rolodex in our brains for music. We forget, until we hear a few introductory notes and then there it is, that snapshot of a memory, looking at you knowingly and tousling your hair and punching you "playfully" in the arm, just hard enough to knock the wind out of you and make you hope no one saw. It's personal, uncomfortable, mysterious, and glorious, and it's all yours. The "shuffle" button on the iPod is like hitting that kneecap until you get a kick. I've been writing with my iTunes library on shuffle this whole time (just to slow me down) and as I stretched out on the couch with coffee by my side and holes in my socks, I went all over the world, through a myriad of memories and moments and heartbeats, through the maze from childhood to college and beyond, from bad decisions and raw, exposed nerves to pure bliss and back. Someone said "music is what feelings sound like." Well it's half past 3 in the morning and I feel really tired. What song is that.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15.9: STORYTELLING

These posts are challenging! I woke up early this morning and went for a long walk by the river looking for inspiration. I didn't find new inspiration, but I guess I did reap the benefits of earlier gratitudes. I forced myself to walk at a leisurely pace (which was a struggle because I was still listening to my RUNNING playlist. Yeah, just try strolling to Titanium) and then I looked around long and hard, with intentionality. It was brilliant. I walked along, appreciating everything, trying not to get hit by cars when sidewalks disappeared. There was a lot to see! All the random street names, the shockingly neon green buds on the trees, and the efforts people put into making their houses homes; I'm also grateful for the high fences that sheltered my eyes from questionable lawn ornaments. It's your business, and I love it even more when you choose to hide your business. Fences are like pants for houses. Curtains are underwear. And please wear pants if you aren't going to close your curtains.

This walk didn't do much except to leave my resting heart rate decidedly unaffected, and give me a general map of my various pollen allergies. But I did spend the rest of the day getting distracted by fiction. Namely, Pride and Prejudice. The Keira Knightley film version. (I've read the book several times, its one of my favorites) I don't know if I'm getting soft in my old age, but I sat on the edge of the couch the whole time getting misty eyed and then pulling myself together in twenty minute intervals.

As an English major, I was supposed to have a highly developed appreciation for fiction. Well, I didn't. I kind of despised it. I was interested in writing, and I liked reading, and no I didn't want to talk about it. I managed to get political in my Literature by Ethnic Minorities class, and annoy a few people with really dumb jokes (I have not changed). Additionally I chose to develop my awareness of current and historical events, social injustice, and political science, which was why I also got a degree in History/PolSci. Naturally, I leaned heavily in the direction of non-fiction. I used to go into bookstores a lot with my ex. We would immediately part ways when we walked in(what a foreshadowing that was! See what I did there), I for the nonfiction section, and he for the plays (actors!). He'd memorize a monologue from, oh, I dunno, Orange Flower Water, and I'd read about Really Important Current Events. We were both pretty snobby about our respective sides of the bookstore: I thought his was flighty. He thought mine was dry. I was wrong, but don't tell him I said that, I will deny it and burn Utica to the ground.

What kind of posture did I have to be in to dismiss fiction as flighty? Part of it was my hero-worship of radicals like Joan of Arc (per Jules Michelet), the sword wielding hellion who made things happen in real time. I didn't imagine her to be particularly poetic (I think I imagined wrong, btw)... she was too busy being useful. Then there was, as I mentioned before, my discouraged romanticism. This is actually where part of the "desire masquerading as bitterness" comes in, which I mentioned in Day 1 of the 15. I kept reminding myself that there are more important things to do than play make believe when human rights violations are being perpetrated in our own cities. You need to be informed! You need to sharpen your minds! You need to put down whatever novel it is that you're reading and smiling about! Yay for issue-oriented, solution-averse activism!

Oh and I was also reading Harry Potter under my blanket with a flashlight, like Jimmy Swaggert in a seedy motel. I bet J.K. Rowling would love that comparison. Man that Harry Potter stuff sucks you in! Sheeze. It's really just such good story telling, I so misjudged it. We all find familiarity in struggle and defeat and sadness and yearning for love. We just prefer it to be scripted because we haven't seen all of our happy endings yet, but somehow we just... know that if someone invented this happy ending, surely it is only because a real happy ending has actually existed somewhere else at another time.

Of course, fiction employs the willful suspension of disbelief... we're asked to set aside our impulse to shoot down the impossibilities and to accept the fantastic. And that is easy to do, because we already want to believe the fantastic. This is why we get caught up in shows like Lost, The Walking Dead, and in my case Once Upon A Time and Felicity. This want, this desire, is a free standing truth, in and of itself. You can extract it from the story, like a backbone from a body, and it will stand on it's own... maybe a little wobbly because it lacks the supporting musculature of characters, but it'll get the point across. There are many wants... love, adventure, justice, loyalty, excitement, family, beauty, rest, realization of hope/desire/ambition, revenge, estrangement, reconciliation, etc. For example: Pride and Prejudice's characters and plotline make me want to believe in beautiful love stories, and in chivalry: gentleman who looked but didn't touch, who spoke kindly but didn't flatter, who were principled rather than manipulative, who were understated, humble, and intelligent. Who could fall in love with a person, and with a mind, and a spirit, and not just a body. (These traits ar  desirable not solely, in gentleman, though. Ahem, ladies. Where are my ladies? I know I want to be one. Although Jane Austen wouldn't approve of my language.) So, the backbone of this story is characters with character, who end up together.

This is where the willful suspension of disbelief comes into play, because I have to silence the awareness that many marriages end in divorce, that many girls are not ladies and many boys are not gentlemen. Instead, I choose to recall the actual stories (rare, fragmented, but existent nonetheless) of people who have found that sort of love. I think of the people who have been living proof. If it didn't exist, where on earth did we extract this notion, or come to find such things desirable? You all know at least one person who exemplified ladylike or gentlemanly qualities... or courage, selflessness, chivalry (You may argue that we fantasize, but within what frame of reference did we construct that fantasy? You don't create a blue eyed prince when you've only seen black and white... Simply wanting something to be true does not make it true. If that were the case, I'd have wings and a Prius by now. And Kristen Bell would have her sloth.) Now, these things, these desirable notions, they are the backbone I spoke of. Pride and Prejudice inspires a latent desire. We, as humans, want to see heroism and magic and, statistically, if the 1 in 5 stat is true, then 4 out of 5 of us still really want the good guy to win. (The 1 needs love, or therapy, or an exorcism.)

The stories we become enraptured by show us some of the realest corners of ourselves... our desires, before we mess them up in the doing. The excellent ones are real enough to give us hope, and idyllic enough to give us inspiration. Now the question is, which are the excellent ones? What stories do you love, and why? Me, I love Anne of Green Gables, Pride & Prejudice, Les Miserables, and the Harry Potter series. And while I had the flu I watched both seasons of Once Upon A Time, back to back, and I'm not sorry.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15:8 KINDNESS OF STRANGERS (See also:Hospitality, Angels)

(this warms my heart more than all the rest so far... i hope it warms yours as well.)

Traveling by yourself as a single twenty-something female is a fantastic idea if you are looking for new friends, freedom, adventures, sleeplessness, and just a skosh of hypertension. I experienced all of these last spring when, fresh out of my 6 week TESOL certification program in England, and with over a month of overseas living under my belt, I felt ready to tackle the world. And by "the world" I, of course, meant another English-speaking paragon of Western culture with Judeo-Christian underpinnings and potable drinking water. So I went to Ireland.

When I left the Dublin airport, I had only a map (given me by the kind airport attendant), an address, and a rental car. The latter I procured after a two hour circus of pissed-offedness that involved me dragging 70 pounds of luggage in circles between the payphone and the Budget car rental, waving my rental reservation in their faces like a lunatic and Skyping my bank because my phone carrier didn't seem to remember that Ireland was in my itinerary.

The address I had was the address to Calvary Chapel in County Waterford, Ireland, several hours south of Dublin down the eastern coast. It was a church my good friend Sebastian had helped to build; the pastor of Calvary Chapel Waterford was gracious enough to let me sleep in a little apartment connected to the church, along with several girls from a visiting bible college. I arrived in Waterford around midnight... knowing only the building number and having no clue what the church looked like, or for whom I should be asking. It was late, it was dark, and I didn't see anything that looked like a church, or any person I was inclined to roll my window down for in the middle of this rather rough looking neighborhood... until suddenly, miraculously, a blonde angel appeared next to my car in a pea coat and a scarf, walking alongside my car and crouching down to see my face. I rolled my window down, and she said in a beautiful Irish lilt "Are you Hilary?" I'd never been more happy to hear my own name. It was Dee, an incredibly kind girl around my age who worked for the church, was friends with Sebastian, and who had just left a late night prayer meeting (thank GOD) with an inkling that she should look for me.

She showed me into the church, and some wonderful, strong young gentleman came and carried my bags up the several flights of stairs (70 pounds of luggage, if you recall). They introduced me to a roomful of the most sweet-faced girls, who were expecting me, and who'd prepared a sleeping bag and pillow for me! They said that they'd be getting up early for morning prayer (around 6 am) and that I was welcome to join them if I liked, or that in the morning I could move my sleeping bag upstairs to the room where they stored their luggage, and I could continue to sleep. When the morning came, I wanted to pray, but I opted to sleep... so I moved my party upstairs. I placed my sleeping bag adjacent to (read: inside) my suitcase, which was lying open-faced against the wall near some desks. The room was packed to the gills with suitcases, chairs, and office supplies, and they told me they'd been keeping their belongings there, so I'd be fine to sleep.

I'm an extraordinary sleeper. You've no idea. I sleep through trains. I also sleep through a school of girls quietly cleaning up their suitcases and moving them to another location in order to free up the room for its original purpose: church office.

Oh yes, this is happening. I woke before I had actually opened my eyes... eased out of a stupor by the sound of typing. I realized I had blankets piled on top of me (these sweethearts had covered me with some of theirs), and I wasn't sure where I was or what I'd see when I opened my eyes. I slowly peeked out from under my pile and saw a guy sitting at a desk, doing his best to work with a homeless person sleeping in a suitcase on the floor of his office under a fort of blankets and unfolded clothing.

"Hi, Hilary."

I pulled the blanket back over my face. Who was this, how did he know my name, and why were all the other suitcases gone?! Why were people in this room?! I was too mortified to move, because honestly, what do you do in that situation? I couldn't tell you. I don't remember. Nate, the church worship leader, was the fellow in the office and he tells me I pulled the blankets back over my head and fell asleep again. I believe him.

I think I was subconsciously waiting for a lull.

When I pulled the blankets off my face again, the coast was clear. I got ready in a hurry. When I emerged from the bathroom, another church staff member, Brian, popped his head in the office, greeted me by name, and asked if I wanted to go to coffee. All these lovely people knew my name and so wanted me to feel welcome that they let me sleep on their floors, blow dry my hair in the corner of their office during a WORK DAY, accompany them on their outings, and participate in their church events (with food!) for the duration of my stay. I could go into immense detail outlining the extent of their kindness, but it would take hours.

Suffice it to say, the folks at Calvary Chapel Waterford fed me, housed me, and loved me for several days, for no other reason than that we had a mutual friend. This extraordinary kindness was the only thing that could have prepared me for the continuation of extraordinary kindness that I received for the duration of my stay in Ireland, as I migrated westward to my homeland in County Kerry.

I arrived in Killarney, Kerry, and thought the city so beautiful that I decided to stop. I knew there were hostels, but I didn't have that quite planned out. I parked my car in a carpark and walked into the first pub that caught my eye... O'Connors. The moment I walked in, I was greeted by an incredibly kind man with a huge grin and a pint, who extended his free hand and said "Hullo! I'm Fergal! What's your name?!" I introduced myself, first and last name, because I hoped to sniff out some relatives. When he heard my name, he smiled. Well, would you believe it, he knew a fella whose grandmother married to a guy who was probably related to me, and then he ushered me into the next room in the pub.

That's where I met Tom O, the Irish Godfather. He had the kindest eyes and the biggest knuckles I've ever seen. He was a little older than my father. I sat between Fergal, Tom, and a shy, kind fellow my age named Darren; they bought me a pint and told me stories and asked me questions, marveled and worried that I was traveling alone, and inquired about my lodging. I told them I hadn't any details ironed out, and lo and behold, Fergal tells me, "You're in luck!" Tom O tells me he owns a boarding house... and there's a room, it turns out, that's so small no one wants to rent it. "You can stay as long as you like," he says, "for free." I sat there, thinking... Is this real life?

He didn't pressure, but offered to show me the place. He'd had a couple pints, and didn't want to drive his motorcycle, but said that if I drove, he'd show me how to get there. Fergal gave me a nudge and a wink, and said not to worry.  Off I went. It was, in fact, a boarding house. I was wary, but I also sensed: this is alright. He gave me the tour, gave me the key, and said "Stay if ya like, no charge. And keep the key in case you return."

I drove him back to O'Connor's pub, where they regaled me with more fantastic tales, and I also heard stories of him from other men in the pub, and from the bartender; he was feared. But to me, he seemed like an angel...  a gruff, kind, gentlemanly, and paternal angel with a bald head, several five point bucks mounted on his living room wall, and a virtual armory in his room. Yes, he was an angel and a stud- I could liken him to Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot, and it turned out that having him watching out for me was like having Michael Corleone as your private bodyguard. No one wanted to mess with me. But I learned all of this later... and while I had a good feeling about him, I still wasn't sure. I will tell you this much, I have experienced more than my fair share of trouble and hurt at the hands of strangers I trusted unwisely. So I was wary. But I didn't want to sleep in my car! What to do?!

Luckily I had met a sweet English couple, the Clarkes, whom I met through Fergal at O'Connors pub. They were vacationing there in Kerry. I sat with them for a couple of hours and we talked about life, while an Irish singer serenaded us. I explained to them my dilemma regarding lodging (or lack thereof), and they were concerned for me (always fortunate when you can engender parental concern from kind strangers. Page two in my Travel Guide for Single Girls.) She took my phone number so that she could check on me in the morning to know that I'd survived the night.

Meanwhile, Tom had procured for me a free ticket (right?!) to a show that night at the Grand Hotel down the street, just a stones throw from O'Connor's. Anne and her husband accompanied me to the show, and they were great sports. They stayed quite late, and Anne wouldn't leave until she knew I was alright. I assured her I was, so we embraced and parted ways.

After they'd left for their hotel, and while I was in the ladies room of the Grand, I prayed: "Lord, this seems too good to be true. And I'm tired. I am too tired to try to discern whether this is a bad decision or a good one. If you don't want me to stay, send someone to tell me it's a bad idea." Verbatim. As I walked up the stairs from the basement bathroom to the concert, the bartender from O'Connor's passed me in the hall. He smiled, stopped me briefly, and said simply this: "Hey, I just wanted to tell you, in case you were worried: Tom's a stand-up fella, you needn't worry about him, you'll be okay. He probably showed you his gun collection, don't let it worry you. He's a good guy."

I could've cried. And I thanked God in a haze of travel-weary bliss as I climbed those stairs and proceeded to enjoy an incredible rock concert and meet some fabulous Americans Kate (pictured) and Andrew, who befriended me and then rescued me from the awkward advances of a drunken Australian tourist. To return the favor I drove them to their hotel, which was coincidentally across the street from Tom's, and we sat chatting in the lobby until we were delirious. I spent the following day touring the Ring of Kerry myself, and when I returned to Killarney that night, I was shown a grand time by Darren, Alan and some other Irish guys (true nocturnal creatures who got their second wind around 1 am) who were incredibly accommodating to a pitiful American girl traveling by herself. Tom, the saint, so kindly cooked me a full Irish breakfast the following morning, and sat with me at his kitchen table as we ate, showing me his family photo albums and (my favorite) his scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his run-ins with the law (which were ah-mazing). They make films about men like this.

As if that weren't kind enough, he took me on the back of his motorcycle,

of his own volition, for a tour of Kerry. At my request we visited a few graveyards where my familial headstones could be found, and he patiently let me wander through, taking pictures like an tourist. The best part, by far, though, was next: he took me on a motorcycle ride up through the mountains and around beautiful lake so that I could witness firsthand the most majestic views (and terrifying heights) of the Kerry countryside. One of the most singularly exquisite experiences in my entire life. Thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes.

I am grateful for the kindness of strangers. When you're lucky, it becomes the kindness of friends. The Irish people are better than gold (Nate, Kate, and Andrew are American but the Irish spirit bred these warm encounters, I like to think!). They welcomed me, a stranger and a foreigner, into their lives and their homes: they fed me, they loved me, they rewarded my trust in them by trusting me in return (who gives a perfect stranger a bed? or a key to their home?!), and they spent time with me. I wonder at the time they gave: Dee, Brian, Anna, Nate, Danny, and all the lovely people from Waterford; Eline, Heather, and the gals I shared a floor with; Tom, Fergal, Darren, Alan, and Anne, the wonderful folks I met in Killarney who made it, and I do not exaggerate, the experience of a lifetime. I can only hope that I am as kind and loving and welcoming, and that I will have the means and opportunity to offer what they gave to me, because even now the gratitude I feel to them is overwhelming and I'm not sure their kindness can be repaid, except to give it on.