A Daily Walk with Death

In honor of the first Sunday in advent and this season of hope and waiting — of the now and the not yet, of the light and life that is coming into the world — here is a poem I wrote in October. 

“We die daily. Happy those who daily come to life as well.” -George MacDonald

Recently, I have been dead.
Mostly dead, or perhaps all dead —
it’s hard, sometimes, to tell.

It came to my attention
while watching the beginning
of a YA sobstory — she’s dying, he loves
her, the typical.

But what caught
my interest in the midst of too long
pauses, and awkward stares, was her life.
The one she was still living. Her house of white
furniture, her bookshelf of stacked books,
her time spent writing, and building, and thinking,
and growing.

Simultaneously, Rainer Maria Rilke
has been speaking to me
from my beat-up ipod, via a dead
poet he once wrote to — telling
me to take my sadness and let
myself inside it. The suffering, the solitude,
the mystery, the life.

Saying to trust to time,
to the slow work of living. As long
as one is living.

But I have spent so much
time learning not to live.
Learning to hide myself inside
the worn pathways of my thoughts.
The stories I retell inside my brain,
turning and turning them
until they, too, are dead. Burying
my discomfort in that airless
room where no breath of wind
can rustle it.

I used to be alive. I know this. I remember
this. Remember (though it grows vague, muted
by time and inattention) what it was to be
a child. To have skin so thin the light shone
through. To have the world always
present to one’s senses. To have nowhere
to hide from the bigness of life, of solitude,
of joy, of pain. To have everything
mean too much.

How do I find my way back
to that beginning? Only when
dry bones dance, and children
are reborn, and petrified hearts
return to flesh —
only then could such a thing
be. And so we say, Come
Lord Jesus, come.

I Come From the Borderlands

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

baby picture 2a

I wrote these for a prompt I assigned my creative writing class this spring.  I don’t often write poetry, but somehow the medium seemed right this time — a form just fluid and fragmented enough to allow something to be said about identity.  

They were an attempt to name some of the threads which most strongly define me — most strongly influence my story. Threads that don’t always overlap. In the words of Whitman, these are some of my “multitudes.”  

Borderland Child

I come from summers at the ocean –
from the hot sand, and the bright sun,
from bathing suits, and rough
grains between my toes.
Sea glass, and the rhythm of the waves –
the cocooned quiet of a towel’s warm embrace.
Breathing in, and out. Too many
stories in my head.

I come from the desert. From the scorpions
pinned in glass. From the rolling of the dunes,
from the brittle desert rose. From the barnoose,
and the camel’s soft step, and the Berber
marks across a kohl-lined face. From the
crimson cloth and the gold and silver clasps. From the
tea, both sweet and bitter, served with mint
on a sizzling day.

I come from the bougainvillea vines.
From the jasmine blooming
on a summer’s night. From the quiet
of the sheltered courtyard. From the movement
of the sun and shade. From cool tiles
against smooth feet. From the blue
and the green, and the couscous bowl, and the
henna tinged fingers, reaching
to draw red-soaked khubz through
the marka broth.

I come from cross-legged meals, and wild
chickens roaming the street. From sun-
flecked barley, and poppy-strewn fields, and sheep
slaughtered for the feasting of the eiid.
From rusty machines in overgrown lots,
from unfinished houses, and neighborhood
dares, and the thudding feet
of chasing
dogs.

I come from pigtails, and school
uniforms, and the unnamed
desires for pencil cases and sticker books, and a few
cents to spend on an afternoon snack.
I come from Arabic letters, and flowing French
verbs. From a too-heavy
backpack, and childhood alliances
turned into war. From the letters for
a-p-p-l-e,
i-c-e c-r-e-a-m
and a-e-r-o-p-l-a-n-e –

from the sound of propellers,
from the taste of goodbye.

I come from the travel,
and the going.

From the remembering,
and the missing.

I come from the nomad,
and the bedou –
from the people
who will not be named.

I come from the land
of mosaic floors –
from the broken turned beautiful.
From the shards of color
piercing my skin.

I come from the not-here,
and the not-yet.
From the longing,
and not
the having.
From the faith,
and not
the sight.

I come from the borderlands –
from the spaces
in-
between.

 

Um el Dunia

I come from
the city—

from the over-
crowded taxi cabs,
and the blaring
conversation of too-
loud horns.

From an absence
of clouds,
and of stars,
and of blue—

from the grime
streaked sky and the soot
lined walls.

From twenty-million
sleepless bodies,
and the screeching
cats and the alley
dogs and the crunch
of a cockroach under
bare feet.

I come from apartments
in the sky—
from buildings
that move, from
concrete, and earth-
quakes and thirteen
floors to fall.

I come from foul
and tamia—the blandness
of beans and the
comfort of food.
From strange new
sounds, from speak Arabic!,
from ghawaga,
from refuse packed
beneath my feet.

I come from the green
of the Nile,
from the rainbow
sea, from the brown
of the desert,
from the Pharaonic kings—

I come from a place
I lived for one fourth of
my life—

a place that was never
home.

 

Magnuson

I come from
the North.

From cups of coffee,
and Minnesota nice—
from stoic faces, Baptist
churches, and Sunday
roasts.

I come from farmers,
from pastors,
from a long line of teachers—

(For the life of the mind
               is a good life, my children.)

from libraries, historians,
and from books, books, books, books.

* * *

For my inheritance:
thoughts and ideas and a tradition
of faith. Of marriages
forged of prayer,
not convenience—
of tennis balls and
Boston Terriers and
little boys
in thick glasses.
Parkinson’s disease
and hospital rooms
and a Jeddi who
sang even when he couldn’t
speak.

* * *

I come from PhDs
and dissertations and long
hours in the Bod. From the silence
of learning and from dinner-
table debates. From the blue art
book in the kitchen
and the Pieta in Rome. From West
End theatre and Les Mis every night.
I come from ballet classes—
from point and flex and
point and flex
and plie—
from too tall
siblings,
and so many boys.
I come from beards
and basketball—
from Vikings, and warriors,
and the epic tales
of mythic kings.

* * *

I come from Lamentations.
From wakeful nights and desperate
dreams—from brokenness
and woundedness
and a God who heals all.
But not always

today.

How Does One Say Goodbye?

This is, in part, why I have not written all spring.  I needed to say this first, but did not (still do not) have the words.  

I have never known how to say goodbye.

Oh, yes, I can say the word. Those two easy syllables, balanced perfectly between consonants and vowels, moving through one’s mouth from back to front – urgent, simple, quick.

But the meaning? The irrevocable ending? My life turned, once again, into nothing but memory, and the threads to my past cut like so much insubstantial mist?

I can never wrap my head around the bigness of it.

I have moved countries nine times. Watched dear faces (too many to count) disappear in rear-view mirrors (both literal and figurative). Packed and unpacked suitcases. And the enormity of change, of time, have never ceased to overwhelm me.

The whole landscape of my inner world is made up of places that no longer exist (not as I remember them), of people who have grown and changed in my absence (even as I have grown and changed in theirs) – and I do not know, have never known, what to do with that reality.080

I always swore that I would not become one of those MKs – those TCKs – who could not settle. Who could not stay in any one place long enough to risk roots. And yet, looking at my life, I know that is indeed who I have become. Any one place can only ever hold a fraction of who I am – of the worlds contained beneath my skin – and so I must keep moving, must keep searching for those other pieces of myself. Those other faces, other tastes, other sounds, that make up my definition of “home” – my definition of what it means to be me.

And I know, deep down (have always known), that what I am really looking for is a certain combination of colors, of scents, of sounds, branded upon my imagination during my earliest years and rendered sacred.7509708606_878ef51ebf_m

As children, the world is shaped by our imaginations as much as it is shaped by the “reality” of our senses. All the world is miracle because we are not old enough to have become used to it yet – to take any of it for granted. Thus, snails making tracks across a white wall, and flowers blooming to life every spring, and the wonder of other human beings, thinking their own thoughts, inhabiting their own realities, existing behind their own eyes, are all as much magic as talking fauns or invisibility rings might be. Anything might happen, and the world seems – the world is – rife with possibility.

This is a reality that all our great myth-makers have known – and the names of C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and George MacDonald were certainly significant to my childhood.

But the person truly responsible for unlocking my imagination was someone much closer to home.Karem

Karem Boubaker spent hours in the courtyard of his family’s dwelling (or sitting on the edge of my very own bed), telling me stories about displaced ducklings, or the man who had come one night and stolen the roof from right over his family’s heads.

He filled my childhood with wonder and set my feet upon a path I still walk today.

I cannot remember a time in my life before his stories, and somehow I had never considered a time in my life after them.  Never considered that on some ordinary February day, still much too young, with so much still to do and to say, with no warning whatsoever (no chance for loved ones near or far to say all there was to say), his heart might stop beating.

Never thought I would be left trying to figure out how to say goodbye.

7509696266_bafb11b4d4_mHow do you bid farewell to the man who taught you the power of stories? Who baptized your imagination in the colors of the Mediterranean sea and the swirling patterns of Tunisian courtyards? The man who stood gatekeeper for your memories, and – even when Aslan’s own rules declared you too old for Narnia – held the door open to Mahdia, to your childhood, to your home?

I do not know.

I can call myself a writer all I like, but I have no words for this.

Marilyn Gardner uses the Portuguese “saudade” to encapsulate the longing (the homesickness) that refugees and immigrants (and TCKs) feel for a world that no longer exists. For a place that is no more. The unique lostness experienced by those who can’t ever, quite, be found. As Frodo Baggins knows too well, the world is very large, and very lonely, when home is no longer a word that truly applies – truly exists.  Is no longer a place that can be returned to.

I have lived inside that word for many years now.

Lived inside it, as Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy must have done when they returned from Narnia and found themselves once again children in a world that knew nothing of them. A world that did not recognize the kings and queens they had been, or the people (be they talking animals, or living trees, or forest fauns) that had made them such.

Have lived inside that word, yet never as fully as these past few months.

102I thought my home was a place – a place that didn’t quite exist any longer. I discovered this spring that it was, in part, a person – a person who had carved a door for me and held it open. Who will hold that door now?

Who will remind me that life is magic? And serve me tea – strong and bitter – in tiny shot glasses, surrounded by laughing family? Who will know about Pinky 1, and Pinky 2, and all the other Pinkys, along with Blacky 5? Who will make me feel like a princess, tucked away in a canopy bed, fingers bright with henna dye? Who will serve me marka, and sit with me on cool summer evenings (when jasmine lies heavy on the breeze) beneath the Tunisian stars? Who will know – as Karem always seemed to – that all those smells, and sounds, and sights, still swirl inside me even now?  Still call to me like the taste of home?

Who will remember who I was, and thus recognize who I am?

7509743412_729928614e_mI wrote today in my journal that maybe “Goodbye” is not so much a letting go (because how does one let go of the very fabric of one’s own identity? what am I, if not a composite – a mosaic – of all the places and faces I have loved? what will be left of me, if they are no more?) but rather a relinquishing over to God. I do not know how to weigh these memories. How to balance what is against what was. How to rightly name this loss. C.S. Lewis says that we are not at home in time because we were not created for it – we are infinite beings inhabiting finite space and it hurts with the hurt of death and decay and endings. The hurt of “gone” and “goodbye” and – most scary and painful of all – “forgotten.” But God can hold what I cannot.

So in God’s grace and mercy, I entrust you, Karem, to God’s care. May you be welcomed 089home with the same hospitality you always offered us, the strangers on your doorstep. May you ever journey further up and further in – deeper and deeper into the wonder and mystery you pointed me towards from my earliest memories. May you be swallowed up in love (that same love you offered us, unconditionally, even when my tongue no longer spoke your language, and the little girl I’d been had disappeared into this other me, no longer quite so certain of anything at all), and may you know yourself, at last, at last, at the place where all true stories grow into the truest story – the story where all goodbyes shall cease.

I hope, one day (when days themselves are no more), to sit at your feet again and hear your tales. Until then, I will try to find words to tell the stories you planted in my being. To let out the colors that saturate both my memories and my dreams – and that remind me, oh so strongly, of a certain courtyard in Mahdia where I sat on a stool (in the company of my brother) and listened in wonder to the discovery that roofs could disappear, and carpets could fly, and ugly ducklings could turn into swans. What a world it was I lived in; what a miracle to be alive.

Karem2

A Lifestyle Of Gratitude

Enough people have asked for a copy of this that I’ve decided to go ahead and post it here.  I lead devotions this week for the Rosslyn staff, and this is the basic transcript of what I shared.  It’s a challenge specifically aimed at teachers (specifically aimed at myself), but I suppose it’s really a challenge to us all — a challenge to see the people, and the world, around us.  Still, and always, in search of waking.  

It’s the week of American Thanksgiving, and I’ve decided to talk about gratitude — gratitude as a lifestyle of awareness.

In her book, One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp challenges her readers to be awake to the ordinary beauties of their lives, to the thousands of ways we are surrounded, every day, by the fingerprints of God.

“I want to see beauty,” she writes, “In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.”

I want that, too, because I, too, believe, that to live fully alive, to be awake to life and to God, means to be awake to the beauty that surrounds us.

We are currently studying tragedies in Global Literature, and the thing about tragedies is that they remind us that the world is full of suffering — and it is. But I love what J.R.R. Tolkien has to say in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” where he reminds us that the truest story is not the tragedy, but the fairytale. The fairytale with its unexpected — some might say unbelievable — happy ending.

God has not left us to play out the trajectory of our downfall. Rather, he has entered into our story, into our tragedy, and he has irrevocably altered its ending.

The truest thing about our world is not its brokenness, or its ugliness – it is its beauty. A beauty that is the fingerprint of God on a world that he has not forgotten or abandoned – the presence of God in a world that he is actively working to redeem.

A friend of my parents used to say that he was an optimist because he was a realist.  Spoiler alert: God wins in the end.

I believe that to be awake to beauty is to be awake to God, awake to his continuous presence and work in the world. And to live a life of wakefulness in this way is to live a life of prayer, for – as we were reminded at church this Sunday – prayer is continual abandonment to God.

Growing up, I was always embarrassed by own lack of testimony. Here I was the child of missionaries, and I couldn’t even pinpoint the moment of my own salvation – the moment I had “asked God into my heart.”

Looking back now, I recognize that God was always present in my life – present in the immense sense of wonder, of awe, that I experienced by simply observing the world around me – the scales on a tortoise’s back, the pearl-white smoothness of a snail’s shell, the movement of tiny creatures burrowing in the earth.

My childhood was so full of miraculous wonder, so heavy with it, that to simply sit and look was the purest form of joy.

I sometimes wonder if this was, at least in part, what Christ meant when he declared that we must become like children if we are to attain the kingdom of heaven – must learn how to look at the world with fresh eyes, eyes that see through the veneer of the banal, of the everyday, to the glorious miracle beneath.

G.K. Chesterton references this idea in his book Orthodoxy, stating: “It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

And Father Gregory Boyle, in his book Tattoos on the Heart, speaks of a God “who walks into a room and loves what he finds there.”

Could it be that by practicing gratefulness – practicing delight – practicing truly seeing the world around us – we not only draw close to God in prayer – in an awareness of his presence in our daily lives – but we actually become more like him?

Father Boyle challenges us to think about how the world would change if we, the church, would consistently practice the delight of God – if we were to spend our days calling forth, and seeking out, the beauty of the world around us.

And where does the greatest source of this beauty lie? It lies in the faces of the men and women, the girls and boys, whom, in the words of C.S. Lewis, we “joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

It lies in the faces of our students.

One of the more “memorable” aspects of this semester has been Dr. Del Tackett’s Truth Project, and if you once experienced it too, you probably remember that one of his favorite phrases is about gazing on the face of God.

So I would like to challenge you today – two days before Thanksgiving – have you been gazing on the face of God? Have you been gazing on his face in the faces of your students? Have you searched for, and found, his beauty reflected there?

It’s easy to get caught up in the challenges of this job – and there are many – but I sometimes think that the most powerful thing we can do as teachers is to delight in our students. To see them, truly see them, every day, not as troublemakers, or brains, or manifestations of apathy (or whatever else we might be tempted to label them), but as God’s greatest handiwork, and – once again in the words of Lewis – the holiest objects presented to our senses.

The Old Testament is full of stories of people who encounter God in the face of the Other – and I think our lives would be pretty transformed, and pretty transforming, if we could learn to do the same.

Beginnings

There is a tortoise in my yard.

I am only five or six, and I’ve recently cut off the fly-away tendrils of wispy blond hair that once framed my face.  All I have left is an inch or two of chaotic, burnished gold, rather resembling a halo.

The steps into our backyard are cool, even in the sunlight.  The smooth tile reminds me of the fragile porcelain of seashells, each discovered, like a story, amidst hot sun, coarse sand, and the Mediterranean’s ever-moving waves.

Within the house there is laughter and work.  My older brother is sure to be bouncing a basketball down the marble staircase while my father grades assignments in his roof-top office, and the kitchen hums with the melody of interwoven spices — garlic, harissa, cumin, and the dense, pungent richness of ripe olives.

But here, with the North African sunlight on my face, and the garden alight with an interplay of shadows cast by hibiscus plants and bougainvillea vines, the world is hushed, and heavy, and expectant.  My tortoise moves in lumbering steps, a gentle giant with scales like dinosaur skin, and I watch him with the awe I feel for all small things.  The earth is alive with tiny insects, burrowing in pursuit of unknown goals, and pearl-white snails carry their homes from one small leaf-island to the next.

I am five or six, my family is within the house, and I want to climb inside this moment, with its promise and its hope, and never, ever come out.

———————

I will move forward from this moment into baptism, and communion, and membership with the saints.  I will move forward, but when asked for a beginning, I will always hesitate.  For I have no story to start from, no account of incantatory prayers or white-light visions or unquenchable certitude.

I have only this: a childhood immersed with the sacred holiness of existence and a God who met me in the profound stillness of my joy.

It never took a voice of fire and smoke to awaken me to the holiness of the ground beneath my feet; rather, it began with a tortoise and a garden and the feel of sunlight on my skin.  It began with joy — for “in the beginning God,” and it was good.

On Writing With Fear

I first put stories to paper the year I learned to write in English.  Travelling across America in the back of a very blue, very bumpy van, I discovered that my native tongue possessed its own alphabet, its own magic of symbols and sound.

I was eight, going on nine, and was considered fairly bright for my age.  Despite this fact, the only words I could spell in English were the three we had learned in language class, tracing the strange letters (so similar to our French familiars, yet used in all the wrong ways) at the direction of our highly accented teacher: apple, ice-cream, aeroplane.

But that year in the van, hovering between countries, schools, and languages, I learned that the language I’d been born speaking (though never used except at home) could do more than put disparate objects to paper (apple, ice-cream, aeroplane) — it could create sentences, and sentences could create paragraphs, and paragraphs worlds.  I lost myself in books that had hitherto been closed to me (or only accessible through the translation of my parents), and decided that if someone else could trap magic on the page, then surely so could I.

And so I began to write.  I wrote the stories you’d expect a nine-year-old child to write (stories about talking animals, with awkwardly drawn horses in the margins); I wrote the stories I knew to be true — stories unique, perhaps, to my position as a blonde American, with an Arabic middle name, growing up in the Middle East (stories about unlikely friendships unhindered by barriers of skin-tone or culture or religion or language); and I wrote the stories that hovered on the furthest reaches of my imagination (stories that somehow turned, inevitably, into passionate love-tales, despite my disinterest in romance as a general rule).

I still have these stories locked away somewhere — notebook pages held together by haphazard stapling or worn-out paperclips, the ink smudged or fading, the paper beginning to yellow.

Looking back on these first forays into the world of writing, I suppose what strikes me the most is the utter absence of fear.  I could barely spell my name in this new and unwieldy alphabet (and if you had asked me what a comma was, I doubt I would even have recognized the word), yet I had no compunction about letting my imagination run far ahead of my knowledge.  Language existed as a door to release all that was within me — and it was a tool to be used, not a master to obey.

I approached writing with all the confidence of a child who knew herself to be, not only loved, but lovable, and not only valued, but valuable.  It never entered my head to doubt the worth of my imaginings, and though my mother tried to reign me in with exhortations to edit and spell-check, I mostly ignored her advice in favor of unhindered creativity.

So when Stephen King says in his biography/guide, On Writing, that fear is at the heart of all bad writing, I suppose I can testify to its reverse: all good writing must have fearlessness somewhere at its root.

Because writing, like everything in life, requires room to fail.  Putting your thoughts on paper — exposing the deep darkness (and deeper light) of your own heart, and brain, and soul — requires excruciating vulnerability.  It is always a risk, and risk is difficult when one is afraid.  For fear demands that we protect ourselves.  That we put up walls and refuse to engage, for we can’t fail (according to fear) if we refuse to try.

But the other thing we can never do is learn.  We can never plumb the depths of our own hearts, and brains, and souls, and discover what there is within us.  What burns to be said, and how best to say it.

The road to great writing begins with faith.  With the enthusiasm of a child who knows that what is in her to be said is beautiful and valuable — and all the rest of it, the getting it down on paper with commas and spell-check, is just detail.  Detail that will come over time, through effort and risk.  And yes, it will come through failing.  But it is worth the fight, because what you have to say can be said by you alone.

It’s a sacred trust, so hide it not.