Cathexis

Each year I find myself more befuddled by Valentine’s Day. It has nothing to do with the saint himself (although I doubt people would celebrate the day in quite the same way were they aware that the man was imprisoned and martyred, with bouts of torture more than likely occurring somewhere in there too). Certainly it’s a fun event as a child, but the shine begins to wear off the older you get, and for many people eventually becomes painful as they watch couples around them celebrate relationships in some myth-like rapture of chocolate and true love.

By no means am I aligning myself with the opposite end of that spectrum, though. For all the balloon-popping anti-valentinites out there there’s an equally stern lecture for them about learning how to accept singleness with maturity, and without conversely trashing the joy of others. Believe me, I enjoy raining on other people’s parades just as much as the next person (admit it, you’ve laughed at least once at the person who’s just lost a biscuit in their cup of tea, no matter how many times it’s happened to you too). However, feeling embittered towards the day and the millieu decked in varying shades of red and pink isn’t the answer to dissatisfaction with a relationship status of any kind, and it certainly has nothing to do with why I don’t care for the day as a whole.

I dislike Valentine’s day first and foremost because it’s another holiday for the poor sods of the world to not only struggle to remember, but another towards which to put ridiculous amounts of money. Valentine’s Day is highly marketed: the sales for chocolate and flowers are higher that week than any other of the year in the US, with the jewelry sales that month rivalled only by the weeks preceding Christmas and New Years. I understand that gift-giving is a legitimate form for expressing affection- it’s tagged as one of the primary love languages (however much stock you choose to put into that theory). Heaven only knows I love receiving flowers almost as much as I love receiving books (or doughnuts). However, it’s not everyone’s love language, a fact that the marketing industry strives to help you forget. Which brings me to my biggest issue with the grandiose celebration on Valentine’s Day.

I know very little about love and doubt I’ll become well-acquainted with it: I’m single and foresee a future filled with cats, worn suitcases, an ever-growing collection of books, and exceptionally large cups of tea (and I’m willing to embrace it). But in my understanding love is details, and affection is communicated in the smallest of gestures: the ability to sit comfortably in silence together for interminable periods of time, saving them the last bit of coffee or sharing your favourite song, the lull in conversations in which the real communication occurs, falling asleep together on the couch during films, finding old annotations on the dog-eared pages of their books like opening a window onto the soul of their past thoughts. Better yet, it’s the way your book and film collections look pressed together like old friends on the same shelves. It’s garden-fresh flowers brought in during the spring; it’s laughing uncontrollably for reasons neither of you can remember. It’s choosing to be steady and present when the darkness reaches out its long fingers once more, threatening to pull either of you under.

Or at least that’s what I’d like to think it is.

I grow weary of seeing the flashy, pastel-and-bright-red version of love that gets tossed around each February (and don’t even get me started on Hallmark films). I also don’t understand why this concept of love must be relegated to romantic relationships alone. None of the things I listed above would seem strange in the context of a friendship. (Now would probably be a good time to apologise for all the of the books I’ve inadvertently pilfered from friends over the years on the pretext of “borrowing” them.)

This challenge isn’t issued to the couples or singles of the world alone- blissful or otherwise: it’s directed to anyone who has loved ones, friends, pets, or a heart (tin men and cowardly lions included). I would only ask you to think about what you do to show love, and consider taking the simpler route, whatever that may be.

 

A Grief Observed

The process of loss is never easy. It’s as if death and tragedy are handed down in an overflowing container- too large and cumbersome to carry- leaving you to grapple with the surface as you try to find a way to hold this thing that seems heavier than the entire universe. Then, after a while, there’s the grey dog grief: that faithful, sad-eyed creature following closely at your heels, a constant reminder of a million odds and ends you’ve tried so vainly to sweep under the rug and forget in the name of “moving on.” Odds and ends that eventually find their painful way back out again.

With all the times I’ve come face-to-snarling-face with loss, I still don’t know how to bear the things that follow: I don’t think anyone ever does. I can move like a machine through the formalities, but still must relearn how to breathe every time. I spent the entirety of a eulogy today sifting through eleven-year-old memories: picking berries next to the man in the humidity of a Maryland summer afternoon, cicadas sawing rhythmically away in the trees as he talked about his garden, guiding my hands away from the thorns, then running into the twilight to catch and hold fireflies with our stained fingers before setting them free again. 

Any good Christian will tell you that it’s wrong to be angry with God. I’ve sat through a hundred sermons on the evil presumptions of daring to ask Him why, about the importance of humbly and faithfully accepting the lot He has graciously given us. They would tell you that the best faith blindly accepts and trusts in the promise of His inherent goodness. 

But I am angry with God, and I cannot accept that the One we call Father doesn’t, in all His love, also have room for those of us who are sometimes Jacob, caught in a headlock and wrestling Him for hours on the road, begging for an explanation. I’d be lying if I said that I’ve simply and peaceably accepted the horrors of another sudden death, that I can move meekly through the aftermath. I expect that as a Father who felt the greatest of griefs, He makes allowance for mine, that He will continue to hold me even as I beat my fists against Him, that I can scream against the darkness of death and He will watch with compassion because He knows death was not meant to have a part in our world. I have asked why so many times this week, I’ve forgotten what the words even mean. I keep reading passage on God’s love, trying to understand how He could possibly be manifesting it here. I know the anger will eventually leech its way out again- that I will once more look at God without hostility-because it always does.

In the mean time, I am trying to understand the Creator as He tears down, the Giver of Good Gifts as He takes.

And He takes.

And He takes.

The Ball and The Chain

It happens in an instant.

One moment asleep, tossing fitfully with dreams, the next jolted awake, snatched from bed by rough hands moved by jeering faces, invisible in the dark. Panicked confusion fills my mind as I’m half dragged through winding passageways and across rough stone, with only the occasional blinding light punctuating the shadows, illuminating the backs of my captors and the narrow halls through which we weave. Nothing more.

We stop before a door, flickering like a mirage in the torchlight. I glance back the way we came, searching desperately for a hint, some sign, any clue to our whereabouts. My eyes fall on a thin, dark line spreading its way slowly across the ground and only then realise the pain that ignites my entire body, feel the warm ooze of blood seeping from wounds I didn’t know I had. The door opens slowly- an eerie, silent hole- and I am shoved roughly inside, forced into a chair, and held still by heavy hands. A figure fills the chair opposite the table and me, his face a distortion of shadows and half-light in the dim quarters. He observes me for a moment, eyes piercing beads buried in the gloom, then makes his statement.

“You are found guilty –”
“Guilty? Guilty of what?” I interject. He continues as if uninterrupted.
“–and are hereby sentenced to the cells below.”
“But..”
“Gaurds?”

I struggle against the hands seizing me once more, pulling me from the chair and towards the door. Struggling in vain to writhe my way from their grip, my hand grasps the doorjamb in one final protest.

“But you haven’t told me the charges!”

The guards pause and the figure smiles, his teeth a sharp row set in the humourless grin that seems to dance in the gloom.

“I don’t need to: you already know.”

The guards prise my fingers from the wall and drag me down the winding stone passageway. But the force is unnecessary– every ounce of resistance has drained from me because he is right: I do.

I’m shoved through a door at the end of a damp hall, plunged down a short flight of wooden stairs that bend with rot beneath our weight, and hustled to the ground. Cold iron closes around my left ankle and I hear the grinding clank as a clasp is locked in place. Then as quickly as they came the guards are gone, leaving only the sound of echoing footprints and the steady drip of condensation in their wake.

Something stirs in the darkness, scraping across the damp stones and accompanied by the sound of haggard breathing. I am not alone. As though aware that I’ve sensed its presence a voice emits from the shadows before I can open my mouth to speak.

“Hello little mouse.”
“Who are you?”

Silence. The voice speaks again.

“No one– not anymore. Neither are you.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is where they put the things they want forget.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will.”

I nervously search the shadows, hunting for the source. Then I see it: a slight break in the gloom. The door is open! I struggle to stand, wincing at the pain that shoots through me.

“They didn’t lock it!”
“Of course not. They never do.”

I go to take a step forward. Only I can’t. I look down and try once more to lift my leg: the scrape and echo of metal on stone resonates dully. I crouch and feel the thick iron chain that makes it way in coils from my ankle down to a heavy metal ball. It speaks again.

“Have you tried lifting it yet?”

There’s a note of humour to the voice. I grapple with the smooth, cool sides of the heavy ball, straining to lift it from the ground. The orb shifts only slightly. I try gathering the long lengths of iron chain into my arms but cannot hold more than a mere yard.

“I can’t: it’s too heavy.”
“You sound surprised.”

Desperation gnaws at me, the open door taunting me only yards away.

“If I could just–”
“You can’t.” the voice echoes, interrupting. “Even if you did manage to make it through the door the sound of the chain would betray you and you’d be gone long before the guards got to you. There are wolves in the walls.”

I strain once more against the ball and the chain, every fibre of my being willing it to move but to no avail. I collapse against the side of the ball too tired, too confused, too overwhelmed even to cry. An idea strikes.

“Perhaps together–”

The dry, worn chuckle interrupts once again.

“You’d need someone much stronger than either or both of us for that.”

I hear it stir and yawn as if settling back down.

“They don’t lock the door because they don’t have to. You’re the reason you’re here. You’re the reason you’ll stay.

Silence fills the cell once more broken by the steady drip of water and the scrape of metal on damp, cold stone: the only sounds in the overwhelming darkness.


I have spent the last 365 days reacquainting myself with the heavy guilt and shame that comprise the dark void created by a suicide. The story does not have to end in the dark. Whether you are the one ready to jump or the one left after their leap, there is light, and there is hope. You are not alone.

Community Experiences

The bell jingles overhead with the door, admitting a flood of smells- the sharp bitterness of coffee, the warmth of black tea and steamed milk, the comfort of fresh pastries- to momentarily flood the street. I’ve been here more than once before, always anticipating the entry, and that moment of finding yourself embraced by a hundred thousand sensations. This time, however, I’m greeted by something new: music. And it’s not the stereo-muted recordings of acoustic guitars and husky vocals that comprise the norm; tonight it’s the unmistakable volume and quality of a live performance, punctuated by the laughter and conversation of the small crowds that will always inevitably form around a man and his guitar. 
 Duffy'sIt’s amazing what something like open mic night can do to a town: it draws everyone- from the quiet, tortured poet and the moody indie guitarist, to the amateur blues bands and nostalgic grandads-into one pool of performer and audience alike, all finding the definition of community in a mutual love for music– perhaps one of the most universally enjoyed and shared languages. It gives voice to things we can’t express, and it turned a quick coffee run with a visiting friend into an impromptu date as we settled ourselves into the refashioned old church pews, to talk and listen.

Grumpy Coffee

There was nothing of magnanimity about the experience- the talent was a mix of both surprisingly skilled performers and some set-your-teeth-on-edge participants- but rather that as a whole it encapsulated some sort of paradigm or idea for me. I realised as the evening wore on (serenaded first by a fan of old blues) that this was what thirteen-year-old me had envisioned as adulthood, something that the big kids got to do. Live music with friends in a dimly-lit coffee shop was the thing of my secluded dreams. I doubt that same thirteen-year-old envisioned these experiences set to harmonica and vocal combinations, the lyrics “I’m a hoochie-coochie man, everyone knows I am” floating along somewhere in the background.

Then there is community: something I’m learning and experiencing in every hands-on way imaginable these days. Community builds off of a shared experience or passion and creates people groups out of mere individuals: in it’s very essence it begs commitment, and at its hardest moments requires hard work and sacrifice. But it also has its moments of ease, of mingling over hot coffee and music and laughter, and finding more common ground to grow on from there. It takes strangers, willing to clap for the humble talent of the boy dreaming of larger stages as well as the shaky voice of the girl trying to learn how to stand on her own two legs, and builds a distant sort of family of vaguely familiar counterparts. And from there culture is born.

The evening wore on: my friend and I finished our coffee, tied up loose conversations, and beat a somewhat hasty retreat as the talent passed into less capable hands.

Be that as it may, I hope that the community continued to clap and pass the coffee pot a time or two more, rallying in their own way around each other in the amber-glow of that small carpeted stage.

And I hope that thirteen-year-old me (wherever she may be) smiles knowing that I made it in the end.

Priceless

Do you ever look around you- the circumstances, the places, the people- and marvel, think “you can’t make this up,” laugh at the oddity and splendour of it all? Life has a funny way of recycling information, impressions, and images in ways indefatigably new and meaningful, and I can’t help but think it’s another example of God using the simplest of means to confound and delight us, the not-so-wise.

I’ve caught countelss scattered moments like this since somehow being deposited in one of the loveliest places to attend school this side of Oxford (because let’s be honest: there are very few Universities whose fusty, stone and oaken classrooms can quite touch the academic paradigm that is Oxford U). I attend a class  led by a teacher who assigns us to listen to old chorale masses and examine Bruegel paintings each week, yet opens the class periods with Sylvan Esso music videos. My literature professor is just as picky as I about who’s translation we read in class (Longfellow’s the only way to read Dante’s Comedy, if you must know) and uses copious amounts of fun vocabulary words.

Oxfordish

Don’t think for a moment that I’ve enjoyed every second of being here. In fact, I’ve spent the better half of the past two weeks in a foul funk, blaming various externals for what is truly just a bad attitude. I have permitted myself to love only the lovely: the high, arched ceilings of the columned library; the brick-and-mortar walls, rich with history; the way the halls echo with the sound of passing feet, shadows in motion cast across the tiles bathed in sunlight as it slants through oak-lined windows. I could endlessly snap pictures and pen raptures about these while studiously ignoring the unpleasantries: a senior year spent feeling like a freshman once again; having to get to know new groups of people, adjusting to a new community; meeting new professors and, more importantly, learning how to meet their standards. Inconveniences that selfishness and negativity persuade me are paramount. I begin to blame and forget to pray. As if all of the issues that I stand amidst are anything more than mere shadows without form, shades that simply shift when I swallow my fear and step through them. I plunge myself into busyness in an effort to make them all disappear. It isn’t hard as a college student to fill life with priorities in the shape of assignments and checklists that need not include relationships or stillness– those things that require us to pause and take stock of our own hearts or the needs of others. In these times God becomes a distant fatherly figure I’m afraid to look at, else I meet a disapproving stare and impatient, tapping foot. I’m afraid of being wrong. I’m afraid of shame.

I drove into town today with the windows rolled down, admiring the passing view thinking long and hard about the places I’ve occupied lately. So much of this year has been spent gripping onto things that needed to go, carving the names of fears into rocks that I keep in my pocket, always close by. I’m the small child, afraid of the dark, clutching at objects that don’t belong to me, and I can feel the Father in His gentle persistence reminding me that He knows best as He takes each thing away and pushes me further down the shadowy path.

But then there are the image-bearers we meet on the way, carrying the light and ready to be an encouragement or rebuke as they pass. It’s funny how the two are often wrapped as one. And with those passing moments comes the awareness that the places in which we stand most certainly are not all there is. We are creatures in motion and, as such, must remember that the shadows fall away as we continue to move, keeping our eyes and minds fixed ahead on the prize.

So a week ago this place was merely a pretty thing to look at. Now it’s a portion of the path and group of people I not only get to participate in and with– I find that I must.

The Wolves in the Walls

Tell them I’m going home
To the dark corners of dusty attics
Where the wolves in the walls
Seem safe
Compared to this.

Tell them not to wait,
That I’ve packed my bags and left,
That the rattling chains awaiting me
Are lighter than the invisible bonds
Of hateful words

Tell them to draw the shades
And quench the light
Shining like a lie in the window:
A flickering counterfeit
Of hope.

Tell them I won’t write,
That the ink has dried
For the last time
Offering little comfort,
No joy.

Tell them I won’t be back,
That I’m happy to go.
I’ll repair the mirrors
And the vase
On my own.

Being Here

What Gardener is it that fills his plot with weeds?
What Author is it that builds his stories on weak words?
What Potter cherishes the broken shards of his work?
What Shepherd chooses ailing lambs?

A scandalous love indeed.
A love for stories
And for songs;
A love that breaks curses,
Saves lives.
A love eternal.

I am learning to follow a leader who goes to dark places to make light.
I am learning to trust a physician who breaks bones to heal wounds.
I am learning to to obey a King who takes lives to save them.
I am learning to serve a master who’s unkindness is love.
I am learning to love a God who is good, but not safe.

I am learning as I run home
To Him.