When Death Comes: The Legacy of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver died today. The poet was 83 years old, and while she lived she reminded us of the miracle inherent in the everyday details of our world: the white heron taking to the sky, sleepy cats dozing in the sun, a grasshopper perched on an open palm.  She taught me to see the links between poetry and prayer, between attention, gratitude, and worship. She instructed my heart “over and over / in joy / and acclamation” — in “the prayers that are made / out of grass.”

She was a soul fully awake to life, and she welcomed her readers into that wakefulness — into a fearless embrace of the present moment. She was, indeed, “a bride married to amazement.” And I hope that I, too, can declare, when the end comes, that I wasn’t just a visitor to this place.

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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Knowing We Are Alive | Words of Wednesday

To know that we are alive, that we can be in contact with all the wonders within us and around us, is truly a miracle.

–Plum Village Meditations (with Sister Jina)


Enjoying the gift of Christmas with family (in the Minnesotan homeland, complete with cousin-dominated Saturday broomball). This quote is from a series of meditations recorded at Thich Nhat Hanh’s former monastery. If you aren’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s life or teaching, I strongly recommend you become so. (Fifty-one years ago, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr, if that helps put his work in perspective — he’s currently 92 years old.)

Introducing Words of Wednesday

To be a writer, you must be a reader. This is a truth every writer knows. But it’s not just because we learn something of form and the rhythms and music of language from studying the masters. It’s because, as writers, words are our medium. What fill our souls, activate our minds, and grant us something to ponder.

Without the words of others — the works that move me and call me to life — I really would have nothing to say. Writing may be a journey into wakefulness, but I am taught to walk that path by those who came before me — those who startle me from complacency and inspire me into recognition. Those who reflect life, and truth, back to me in a form that I can process, grasp — be grasped by.

In honor of those voices that are feeding me on a daily basis, I’ve decided to start something new. An experiment, if you will. Every Wednesday, I would like to highlight some of the words that have spoken to me that week — some of the words that have called / are calling me into wakefulness. Fragment, paragraph, or poem, I’ll tell you where I found it (so you can retrace my steps if you’d like) and I might, or might not, explain something of the whys and wherefores of my choice — what power, relevance, or meaning it currently holds in my life.

The purpose of this is two-fold: 1. The pure joy of celebrating, and sharing, beautiful words. 2. To act as a sort of monument or artifact — a place to collect, and pay tribute to, some of the beauty I’m finding along the way.

That, after all, is what this blog — In Search of Waking was always meant to be about. An invitation to mindfulness. A reminder to pay attention. To wake up to the details — to the gift — of one’s life. My life. Writing, for me, has become, more and more, about a practice of gratitude. A way to cherish wonder. Nurture awe.1

I want to be alive and awake to the mystery, the miracle, that is my life. This life. The only one I get.

And part of that miracle — that gift — is ink on the page. The power of other writers’ words to call me back to myself and wake me up, remind me what I had forgotten or teach me what I never knew.

Since no one says what I’m trying to express more exquisitely than Annie Dillard (I almost wrote “more clearly,” but my high school students would have passionately disagreed), here is one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life to get us started:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

Footnotes

1. As Anne Lamott alludes — both in her writing book, Bird by Bird, and in her audio-lecture, “Word by Word (which I recently re-listened to) — being a writer is about slowing down, becoming conscious, and asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be? Every writer I’ve ever loved has said the same thing in their own way.

To Give Thanks

In honor of American Thanksgiving (the first I’ve spent with family since 2013), and a week spent celebrating (my nephew’s birthday, my youngest brother’s presence, the beginning of that holiday feeling), here is a list of 31 items I am thankful for in this season — one for each year of my life.

1. For the sojourn itself. This painful, beautiful, challenging journey that is living. For the grace of time — to grow and learn and change. For all the possibilities and potentials of a day, much less a year, much less thirty-one.

2. For the places I have loved and been loved. The soil where I have planted my roots (however briefly) and called home. Seven countries, three in Africa (that most beautiful of continents?), two further east, and two further west. The mosaic that is my heart, filled with pieces from each of them.

3. The people who have journeyed beside me in each of those places — those whose friendships have spanned continents and decades, but also those who have come alongside me in specific seasons, for specific times — their impact, no less eternal.

4. My family, the only permanent home — outside of God — I have ever known. The stability and permanence they have offered in the midst of an oh-so-changeable and transient existence.

5. For trees (ancient olive groves, towering redwoods, outspread acacia, and so many others), branches spread against a myriad of skies.

6. For the oceans I have spent my life between — the salty waters of baptism and rebirth. The Atlantic of my birthplace, the icy refreshment of the Pacific, summers on the Mediterranean, the hidden wonders of the Red Sea, the warm embrace of the Indian Ocean.

7. The mysterious, beautiful creatures I get to share this planet with: tortoises, baby rhinos, lilac breasted rollers, butterflies, snails, grumpy camels, stealthy cats, building-sized whales, all-too loyal dogs . . . and all the rest of the teeming, living wonder that inhabits this planet. This world of marvel and awe.

8. All the experiences of stillness and silence: empty, sun-streaked rooms, fields and mountains, abbeys and churches, back yards and the small space under beds.

9. My mother’s laugh — a blessing and inheritance.

10. The art museums of London and Paris and Rome: that Van Goghs, and Rodins, and the Pieta all exist (which would be enough in itself), and that I’ve gotten to share their space and breathe their air, even if only for a moment.

11. The books, books, books, books (and the writers who wrote them).

12. The teachers who shaped me. From my parents, to the faculty at CCS, Moundsview, George Fox, and Oxford, I wouldn’t be the person I am if they hadn’t believed in me, challenged me, inspired me, befriended me, taught me. I owe them more than I will ever be able to express. They called forth the best that was in me, and set me free to wander the world of ideas, fearless, hopeful, full of wonder, and always confident that in doing so I would encounter the face of God.

13. The privilege of teaching. The platform it gave me and the lessons it taught me — from self-awareness to a forced embrace of imperfection, I am stronger, wiser, better for it. It remains (to this point) the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but also so very worth it.

14. My students. The lessons they’ve taught me (in grace, in patience, in joy — in the nature of God), the laughter they’ve brought me, the trust they’ve given me. If to be an adult, as opposed to a child, is to love as parents love (not for one’s own sake, but for the sake of the beloved), then I think my students quite literally “grew me up.” That I’ve received so much love in return remains an overwhelming bounty.

15. That, despite growing up overseas, live theatre has graced so much of my life. From high school productions, to college productions, to West End musicals — from acting to directing to viewing — this art form has brought me so much joy. Some particular highlights include Rosslyn Academy’s production of Les Miserables and In the Heights, George Fox University’s House of Bernarda Alba and Machinal, Oxford’s Last Five Years and Medea, every time I’ve seen Wicked or Blood Brothers, David Tennant’s Hamlet, and Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov. Not to mention watching my Whitman acting class perform scenes from Lion in Winter and Richard III.

16. A body that moves and finds joy in movement: feet that dance, legs that walk, arms that row, lungs that run, fingers that climb.

17. The women (and men) who have helped me grow confident in my own skin. Who have given me the space to be both female and strong. Who have encouraged my voice, respected my intellect, and honored the human God has created me to be — regardless of gender.

18. The gift of writing as a path to self-knowledge, spiritual growth, and healing. The encouragement and support I’ve received, especially from teachers who helped me discover writing as a tool for understanding myself and the world.

19. The spiritual communities that have invited me in and given me a home: our family’s supporting churches, the international churches I grew up in, the Quaker communities I discovered in college, St. Julian’s recent embrace, the interwoven families I grew up with (who remain one my truest experiences of what it means to be the body of Christ), and many others over the years. Places where — to one degree or another — I have been seen, valued, and known.

20. The prayers prayed over me by my parents, by my grandparents . . . by generations I’ve never even met. And all the other prayers as well — prayers prayed by mentors and friends and brothers and students. Those I have knowledge of and those I do not.

21. That I was raised an adventurer and gifted with adventure: from junkyard forts to mountain climbing, my spirit has always yearned for wilderness, for a taste of the wild. And I’ve gotten more than my fair share, from Oxford’s walking club to climbing fells in the Lake District, from roadtripping Alaska to hiking the Oregon Coast Trail, from scuba diving in the Red Sea to sleeping under the stars at Wadi Rum, from camping in Samburu to climbing Mt. Kenya. . . . There is so much I still want to do and to see (the northern lights in Iceland and the Camino de Santiago, for starters), but how rich am I to have already seen and done so much?

22. That there is still some wilderness in the world (where no roads mar the landscape) — and I have seen a portion of it.

23. Thirty-one Christmas seasons, with carols and candlelight and Handel’s Messiah and sleeping under the Christmas tree and fairylights and sugar cookies and spiced drinks and figgy pudding and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and lefse and stockings and Advent breakfasts and dear friends and so much light and warmth — everything tinged with love and contentment and the joy of togetherness, of family being family.

24. That I have lived so much of my life in sunlight and warmth — open courtyards, wall-less bandas, sunsets in the desert, oceanside resorts, tropical climates, equator living. So much of my life with sun on my skin.

25. Prayer labyrinths.

26. All the roses I have lived my life among.

27. Warm drinks — especially the mundane joys of daily coffee, matcha, and tea.

28. The color purple. There really is no way to express the joy this color brings me, just by existing. (Did God design it just for me?)

29. International cuisine — Korean food, and Ethiopian meals, and Thai flavors, and Middle Eastern salads (baba ganoush!). But, most of all, growing up in the land of harissa, red sauces, markas, couscous, and salata mashwiya.

30. That I journey onward with hope.

31. That from the moment of my birth — until now — I have been surrounded, always, with love.

The Sacrament of Choice

During a ten day silent retreat on the outskirts of Nairobi, a Jesuit priest stood before our group of retreatants — a community linked by silence and prayer, the communion of shared meals, the mundane kindness of a passed pitcher, a proffered mug, a quiet smile, and the holy mystery that is the Eucharist — and told us that to be human is to choose. To choose, and to accept the consequences of one’s choice.

It was the day of the feast of St. Ignatius (the man who founded the Jesuits upon principles of discernment), and four months later the priest’s words still echo in my heart and mind: to be human is to choose.

We live in an age ripe with decision fatigue. Where many of our foreparents were expected to live the lives set for them — by circumstance, by parental authority, by God — we are expected to choose our own. To forge our own paths: what to study; where to work; who to marry; where to live; when, and if, to have children; where, and if, to worship. Few of us have either the restrictions, or the comfort, of the seemingly ordained.

Yet I have chased that sense of destiny across continents, longing for a sense of calling that would put doubt to rest. Wanting to relinquish control (and responsibility) with the cry, “It wasn’t me, it was God.” Not my choice, not my fault, not mine, not mine.

I’ve never liked the weight of control. The responsibility of driving a car that could cause injury. The possibility of starting something only to see it go wrong. The culpability of saying “yes” and risking someone else’s heart. I’d rather be a passenger, called to the holy work of submission. Of finding contentment in the midst of a life handed to me, rather than forged through my own action and choice (with all the potential for getting it wrong).

And certainly we are called to that holy work: for we are not, will never be, truly in control. And there is great freedom to be found in accepting, and embracing, that fact. As Emily P. Freeman writes in her book Simply Tuesday, “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This day belongs to the Lord. And he has set out craft paper and Play-Doh. . . . He invites me to come sit at his table and pull up a chair made for small legs. He invites me to surrender myself to his agenda and trust that he intends good things” (134).

But the call of God is complicated and paradoxical. And even a child, invited into a preschool playroom, must choose where to start, where to focus, what to do. (Children, however, seem to lack the fear that paralyzes — trusting all choices as good, they inhabit the fullness of their moment without mourning the loss of what they did not choose. If only I, too, could embody such trust and fearless embrace!)

Perhaps I take choice too seriously. Rather than seeing it as an invitation to playful encounter, a way to explore the world God has placed before my feet (trusting always in his presence to comfort me in the bumps and bruises attained along the way), I dread choice because I recognize too much room for error. Certain choices preclude others, and how can I choose the best, when I know myself short-sighted, lacking in wisdom, ignorant of the future, blind to variables? When I know, in short, that I am not God?

Yet perhaps that is the point. That knowledge — recognition — of my limitations. That moving forward in a fear and trembling that is nothing if not faith.

I’ve been reflecting recently on grace. On what exactly it is (and isn’t). Within protestant traditions, we have a tendency to think about grace in the widest possible way: an unmerited gift. And don’t get me wrong, I love that definition. The breath in my lungs is grace, as is the strength to get out of bed this morning; the colors of last night’s sunset; my nephew’s smile when I walked into the room. I have done nothing to earn any of this, and the more I recognize the gift inherent in the details of my life, the more my soul is set free to worship. To exist in a state of wonder and awe not unlike that of which Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Mindful“:

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.

Yet that is only one definition of grace. The more specific one (what Catholics usually mean when they refer to it) is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”

The significance of this difference, in my mind, is that it helps us recognize — with gratitude — that which does not manifest as obviously as “gift.” Under this definition, much is grace that is also painful, difficult, and heartbreaking. As Cowper declares in his hymn,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

In fact, if the great human rebellion lies in determining to be God — to exist in ourselves and for ourselves, immutable, self-sufficient, and in control — then grace is precisely that which awakens us to our limitations. That which reminds us that we can’t, in fact, do it alone. That we are not — cannot be, will never be — God.

Choice, then, is not simply an oft-dreaded, ever-present, and inconvenient reality of my 21st-century life. It — like marriage (that joyous and painful winnowing ground) and singleness (a furnace all its own) — is a sacrament: an external reality through which grace enters the mundane, sacred details of our everyday lives.

My brother and I have discussed this subject often this fall, as we’ve walked through the fields around Santa Cruz or driven the hours to L.A. and back. Regardless of one’s best intentions, it seems transition cannot help but raise questions about the future. About all the unknown paths and the choices that must be made between them. As I’ve fielded questions (my own and others’) about those choices, my brother has been there to remind me that, while I might theoretically prefer a world in which the future was set and all I had to do was face it with humility and love, that is not my calling — is not the life I was born to.

My calling (the life I must strive to submit myself to) is this messy reality of choice. This is the sacrament I must accept with open hands. The tabernacle in which I am invited to meet with God.

The church calendar begins anew in two weeks (with the first Sunday in Advent). As we go forward into this new year, readying our hearts once more for Christ, may we face our choices with the courage, faith, and awe that Mary demonstrated in accepting her own sacraments — a pregnancy and marriage not of her own choosing. May we know the truth of Christmas in the deepest places of our being: we are human, we are frail, we are limited, but Christ is with us; we are not alone.

A Simple Tuesday

“But here, on our ordinary Tuesdays, is where we make our homes and learn to be human.” –Emily P. Freeman

I startled a deer today. (Well, to be accurate,
Magnus startled the deer, arms waving in a frantic joy,
calling out, in recognition, one being to another, in wonder,
in celebration, in the ecstasy of living. Do you see me? I’m here,
world, I’m here.) It raised its delicate antlers, eyes serious and calm,
the curve of its nose, its ears, its flank, somehow gentle
in their outline, a peaceable wildness in our midst.

Earlier this morning, I sat on a bench, traced words
onto brown paper, the patterned cloth of my Kenyan notebook
smooth against the inside of my palms. The wooden bridge before me
unfolding beneath a canopy of trees (Magnus sings them songs, these trees,
so tall and straight and heavenbound), as the dappled sunlight
filtered onto my pages, into my hair, between my fingers,
and Magnus studied the outline of a long sleek pen,
and wrote no words at all.

Later, I’ll crawl into my bed and nap,
papers strewn across my room’s brown rug
(Magnus’s fingerprints on each and every one), and
later still, I’ll walk beneath a rose-edged sky, wondering
about these moments, and what it means to live them well.
I’m here world. Do you see me? I’m here. A deer grazes
peacefully as I pass. Overhead, the sky darkens
towards dusk, and the first planets blink
into existence. I blink back.

Magnus and Deer

A Homesickness Unto Life

I spent over a year wrestling with the decision to leave Kenya — preparing my heart spiritually and emotionally for the move.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the deep ache of homesickness that accompanied, not leaving Kenya, but leaving Jordan. Jordan, where I stopped briefly to visit my parents before heading on to Santa Cruz (where I am now ensconced in a room that welcomed me with fairylights and roses — engaged in the slow process of familiarizing myself with new spaces and new rhythms).

Home is complicated, as Marilyn Gardner recently reflected. Complicated for those of us who spend our lives flitting back and forth across the world, but also complicated, it seems to me, for all of us who have reached adulthood — whatever our backgrounds. We are all — in one sense or another — the dispossessed.1 Have all outgrown our childhood rooms and so much of the safety and belonging that went with them. Have all been exiled — like the Pevensie children — from a childhood kingdom we no longer possess.

As I flit once more from this continent to that, packing my life’s possessions in three overlarge suitcases (discounting, of course, the books, pottery, clothes, and childhood toys that live in perpetual storage in my parents’ house and grandmother’s attic), it strikes me that home is a gift that must be given and received.2 It is bound to our conception of place (the familiar, the safe), but, at its core, deals in intangibles that transcend the physical world home inhabits: love, acceptance, belonging. Home is that place where one is sheltered and cherished. Not simply where one is known, but where one is desired to be known. The place where grace is extended and perfection is neither required nor expected. Where there is room to play, experiment, and fail.

Where there is room to grow.

At least, this is my experience of home, an experience I know I am blessed beyond telling to have received. Global nomad I may be, but though I bear the ache of many places loved and lost, my parents, like Bedouins who carry their tents with them, or the Mongols with their yurts, transplanted our home to each new country we encountered. They carried it wrapped in the guise of familiar tapestries and rugs, favorite paintings on the walls and pottery on the shelves. We unpacked it with our belongings in each new city, each new house; yet despite its need for a place to unfurl its leaves and unwind its roots, it was never quite contained within those possessions, those cities, or those houses.

Like the Eucharist, which both is and is not the bread and wine which transmit the mystery, or a human being, which cannot be conflated with its physical form, home is the good kind of magic, always more than the sum of its parts.

It was the holiness of a life shared — embodied in the place in which we shared it. In which we played and laughed and read and ate and learned and talked and created and became. A place hallowed out for us (pun fully intended) by the resilience and joy and love and wisdom of our parents. And even as a child I recognized it for the sacrament it was — for the gift and the grace, the love, it transmitted to my life.

As Douglas Kaine McKelvey reminds us, in his liturgy for homesickness, “It is a good, good thing to have a home.”

That home — the one that grew and nourished me, and shaped the person I have become — no longer quite exists in any world but memory.3 My brothers and I are grown, my family scattered across time zones and continents, and though our love has stretched to fill the gaps that lie between us, we no longer share the holy, day to day sacrament of living.

But the resounding echo of the gift remains, reverberating in eternity, in our individual and collective lives, and — as I was reminded just last month — in my parents’ third-floor apartment in Amman, Jordan.

An apartment where I never lived, in a country that never bore witness to my childhood.

Those details seem insignificant, however (as do my 31 years of age), in light of the memories that pervade the space — memories encapsulated in those same tapestries and rugs, paintings and pottery that have so long transmitted home to me. Memories preserved in the Arabic on the streets and the food on the table. But most of all, in the presence of my parents — in the resilience, joy, love and wisdom that have only grown with the years (whether theirs or mine), manifest (as always) in the hallowed space where they partake in the day to day faithfulness of their ordinary, extraordinary lives.

A space that stands open — as it always has — to the fullness and brokenness of the person I am, the person I was, and the person I am becoming. And, thus, a space that is still home in the richest definitions of that word: an embrace, a belonging, an unearned gift. An invitation to intimacy. Room to grow.

I had not anticipated — grown-up that I am, competent traveler, nomad extraordinaire — to find quite so much of home still waiting for me. An elixir to strengthen the soul for the journey.

 

As I wrote in my journal in the LA airport, as I awaited my flight to Santa Cruz, “Though I’ve grown in my ability to be away from home — to be content and settled in my own life — going back reminds me what it feels like — what used to be eternally mine, and what I have been missing.”

So in this time of transition, as I find myself reflecting, once again, on what it means to have a home, to create a home, to be at home, especially when one is a 31-year-old, unmarried, globe-trotting nomad (as Christ once was before me), here is a liturgy for homesickness, and a reminder that the longing itself is its own kind of grace. Its own gift.

May it comfort and strengthen you, sojourners all, wherever you find yourselves on this journey. May you cast your eyes upon the One who has tabernacled with the wilderness-dwellers and built his tent among us.

Excerpted from “A Liturgy for an Inconsolable Homesickness” in Douglas Kaine McKelvey’s Every Moment Holy:

Let me steward well, Lord Christ,
this gift of homesickness–this grieving for a
childhood gone, this ache of distant family,
lost fellowship, past laughter, shared lives, and
the sense that I was somewhere I belonged.

It is a good, good thing to have a home.

But now that I have gone from it, let me steward
well, O God, this homesick gift, as I know my
wish for what has been is not some solitary
ache, but is woven with a deeper longing
for what will one day be.

This yearning to return to what I knew is,
even more than that, a yearning for a place
my eyes have yet to see.
O my soul, have there not always been signs?
O my soul, were we not born with hearts on
fire? Before we were old enough even to know
why songs and waves and starlight so stirred
us, had we not already tiptoed to the edge of
that vast sadness, bright and good, and felt
ourselves somehow stricken with a sickness
unto life? Hardly had we ventured from our
yards, when we felt ourselves so strangely far
from something–and somewhere that we
despaired of reaching–that we turned to
hide the welling in our eyes.

We knew it, even then, as the opening of a
wound this world cannot repair–
the first birthing of that weight
every soul must wake up to alone,
because it is the burden
of that wild and
lonely space that only
God in his eternity can fill.

That is the holy work of homesickness:
to teach our hearts how lonely
they have always been for God.

So let these sighs and tears, Lord Christ, prepare
me for that better gladness that will be mine.
Let all your children learn to grieve well in this
life, knowing we are not just being homesick;
we are letting sorrow carve
the spaces in our souls,
that joy will one day fill.
O Holy Spirit, bless our grief, and
seal our hearts until that day.

Footnotes

1. Though I believe this to be true, in a metaphysical sense, let us not forget the all-too tangible, tragic, and violent dispossession of almost 1% of the world’s population. “It is a good, good thing to have a home.” Let us care for the refugees in our midst.
2. As a single person, in a world where commitment and community are predicated upon marriage and family, this poses a complex quandary: for if home is a by-product (must be a by-product) of love exchanged — if home is a gift — then can we never experience it for ourselves? To be barred from home is a hard, hard thing to contemplate, and I think we must find new ways to give and receive that belonging — to practice hospitality — that redefine family along broader, more expansive lines.
3. This no longer holds quite the ache for me it once did, for surely God’s memory is the safest, most real place one can reside.

The Slow Goodbye

I mentioned, in my last post, that I have been practicing a slow goodbye. (To Kenya, to teaching, to this season of my life.) A discipline of taking time. Pausing at the threshold. Recognizing, and naming, the griefs of transition, the fears of loss.

Despite all the leavings of my life, I have never felt I know how to end well — how to grieve well. How to move my life — with all its threads of memory — from one place to another, and not feel somehow lessened by the process. A piece of me lost in transition, misplaced (with a pair of shoes here, a favorite book there) along the way.

When one is a global nomad, with a life that must fit in suitcases, one carries very little but one’s memories. And that is a heavy weight to bear alone — the sum of one’s life, in all its pieces and fragments. Oneself, all too often, the only connection between the disparate places and people that one loves.

And though my greatest longing has always been (and likely will always be) to rightly understand my life — to weave together the loose threads and create a coherent whole — I am learning that such a task may be too large for anyone but God. My role, it seems, not to grasp my life — with its frayed edges, misplaced elements, and empty corners — but to be grasped by it. To give myself up to wholehearted embrace. To saying “yes” to each journey, each sunrise, each moment, each breath. To living wholly alive.

And in that strange, paradoxical way life seems to function, it appears that being able to let go, to unclench one’s fist, to say goodbye, is rooted, not in self-protection, but in that fearless embrace. Being fully present, loving well, naming the gift, the key to trusting that this new journey — even with its accompanying goodbyes — is somehow also gift.

In the words of the Lady from C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, “We shall meet when [God] pleases…or if not, some greater good will happen to us instead” (78). “Every joy is beyond all others,” she tells us, and “the fruit we are eating is always the best fruit of all” (74).

So this season of transition — this last summer, which I chose to spend in Kenya, and the year that preceded it — has been for me, not a season of mourning (though grief and joy, it would seem, are often intermixed), but a season of gratitude.

Of mindful attention to the details of my life — the specific joys of this particular place, and the people (glorious, beautiful, so very much themselves) I have known within it.

And it has been sweet beyond the telling of it. Though I will never be able to list all the blessings of this past year — all that I am grateful for in this time of transition — here are a few of my lasts from this spring and summer, a few of the goodbyes (oh, how strange to say it!) for which I am thankful:

1. The first church I visited in Kenya was St. Julian’s, a small Anglican chapel nestled into the hills outside Nairobi. Though I loved the environment I found there, I opted for something closer, attending an international church in Nairobi for almost two years before eventually finding my way back to St. Julian’s. A mixture of Anglican practice (the ritual, beauty, and intentionality of the liturgy) with Quaker beliefs (the insistence that each person — each voice — has value, regardless of sex, age, or level of education), it is a place where my spirit has found room to breathe, to live, and to find itself at home. With no official clergy, it is a congregation that takes seriously the priesthood of all believers — a church (the first such I’ve ever actually attended) filled equally with the voices of women as the voices of men.1

It is also one of the most fearless faith communities I have ever been a part of — a congregation where questions and doubts are voiced, rather than silenced, and where the community gathers to worship, even as it wrestles together with grief, loss, and the very nature of faith, doubt, hope, and belief.

During Lent, I had the honor of being asked to speak, and, on March 18th, I gave my first ever homily (on themes similar to those I reflected on here).  As someone who has grown up in the church, and loved the church, but been so often silenced by the church, I’m not sure I can overstate the impact of the experience. Having my personhood (woman though I am) recognized and valued, my identity as a Christ-follower — child of God, joint-heir of the Son, image-bearer of the Divine — so explicitly acknowledged (not with lip-service, but with action) was powerfully healing.

A final gift from a community that has blessed me in innumerable ways over these past years. A benediction for my going.

2. I first visited Sunbird Lodge, on Lake Elementita (in the Great Rift Valley), during the fall of 2016 — while I was considering whether to stay in Kenya or leave. I had expected the weekend, which I’d set aside for reflection, to confirm my choice to renew my contract for another two years. Instead, it set in motion the beginnings of my transition away from teaching.

Thus, Sunbird has played a significant role in my current journey. And, more significantly, has become one of my favorite places in Kenya to be quiet, reflective, and restful. At the beginning of May, I managed to visit one last time. It was a grading weekend (my last!) and the perfect mixture of productive and restorative.  I spent the days marking poetry collections from the comfort of a hammock (which overlooked the flamingos on the lake’s distant shore) and the evenings fellowshipping with a dear friend who had accompanied me.

It was a lovely end (of sorts2) to four years of intense grading, a lovely beginning to my final month of teaching, and a glorious (if bittersweet) start to the process of goodbyes — the Rift Valley (as beautiful and green as I had ever seen it) with its lakes and its birds and its acacias and its memories.

3. Nothing, of course, has defined my experience in Kenya as much as Rosslyn itself — my classes, my students, my colleagues. Despite various end-of-the-year acknowledgements (a staff banquet in which speeches were given and pictures taken; an all-school assembly in which gifts were handed out), the true goodbye to this part of my life has been a cumulative process over weeks and months. A litany of lasts — both the large, obvious ones, and the smaller, no less significant ones3 — leading inexorably to a stack of graded finals, an empty classroom, and a pile of handwritten notes I shall always cherish.

What a journey it has been.

4. Despite its late introduction to my life, climbing (with its twice-a-week frequency) was a defining factor of this year for me — both in the joy I received from the activity itself, and for the community that came along with it.

If there’s been a crowing achievement of my bouldering thus far, it was probably Jam Rock — the spring climbing competition I allowed my friends to talk me into joining. Not only was it a highlight for the experience itself, but I also climbed the best I’ve ever climbed — either before or after (I guess adrenaline’s a real thing). I flashed problems I couldn’t even send in the weeks following the competition, and managed to catapult myself from V0 routes to V1+ in a single day.

I kept climbing consistently until the last week or so of the school year, when I inadvertently missed my last few chances due to other obligations. Thus, my conscious goodbye to Climb BlueSky was actually later in the summer, when I took visitors there in June. It was delightful to climb with my brother and sister-in-law — to introduce them to bouldering (such a significant part of my life this past year) and be introduced, in turn, to top-roping. A celebratory ending to my time in that gym (though not, I hope, to climbing in general).

5. My first trip to the Indian Ocean was during my first year in Kenya, when I spent spring break with some friends in a rented house a few hundred yards back from the Watamu beach. It wasn’t until the next year, however, when I visited the white sands of Diani, that I truly fell in love with the Kenyan coast. Since then, a semester hasn’t passed without at least one visit to the beach — or, occasionally, two or three.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to say goodbye to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean (that make even the Red Sea seem cold by comparison), or lazy days spent reading in the shadow of a baobab, or the warm, quiet breeze of coastal evenings. I am thankful, however, for every moment I was able to spend in that humid climate: my pulse slower, my limbs looser, my soul attuned to the rhythm of my body and not a clock’s demands. Thankful for the books I read under the waving palm trees (The Chronicles of Prydain, Annals of the Western Shore, and Lonesome Dove, among others), by the sparkling water.

And thankful that the spring contained, not one, but two final trips to that shore: over spring break, with the family of this incredible poet (and one-time student), and again when the chaos of the year had faded, and there was naught to do but process and write and rest.

The Coming
by Reid Carpenter

This is the way the sun comes up over the Indian Ocean:

A painting erupts
out of the long darkness
of a Kenyan night.
The clouds wait for the sun like
disciples who wait for the Coming.
They face due east, their edges slowly, slowly
turning white then orange with anticipation.

The birds, small white and black creatures,
flit over the low ocean, flipping and diving and flying as if
escaping a monster that has long since given up.

The sand — coarse and forgiving, “a pearly rubble” —
slopes down toward the ever reaching fingers of the waves.

The crabs scuttle back and forth, carefully
and methodically digging a temporary home for themselves,
knowing that the waves will come again and again.
Their eyes are attentive and their legs quick.

The palm trees lean toward the sea.
Always rejoicing, they offer their branches
in celebration.

The baobab tree stands in the shadow
of its own branches, the leaves dark green.
Grandparent of the ages, it is
playground and home to the monkeys.

What I’m saying is this:
We have been made as alive as the
ocean and clouds and sand and crabs
and palm trees and the baobab and monkeys.

You, too, are waiting.
You, too, belong here.

6. While my two most recent Thanksgiving breaks were spent in Diani, at the beach, my first Thanksgiving in Kenya was spent on safari. I was homesick, and tired — so, so ready for Christmas break — and the pavlova4 I’d baked to share at a neighbors’ Thanksgiving feast had not gone according to plan; I remember Skyping with my parents, in tears, the weight of life heavy on my spirit, convinced I should cancel the following day’s trip to the Mara. They, however, talked me into going, and I shall ever be thankful for their wisdom.

It was my first safari, and my first time at the Mara Naibosho Conservancy, and it felt like the trip of a lifetime — one of the most miraculous and worshipful experiences of my life (which I wrote about here).

Over the course of my time in Kenya, game drives were an experience I was blessed to repeat over and over again — in places like Samburu, Ol Pejeta, Tsavo, Amboseli, Nakuru, and, of course, the Nairobi National Park.

No matter where else I went, however, the crowning jewel was always Naibosho’s Encounter Mara — with its tented camp, its bush breakfasts, and its soul-piercing views of acacia trees against open savanna. Two summers ago, my parents and I repeated the experience (along with days at Ol Pejeta, Nakuru, and Mt. Kenya National Park), and this June I had the privilege of visiting one last time (thanks to the incredible generosity of my brother and sister-in-law) before saying goodbye to this country of roaming lions, gentle rhinos, parading elephants, towering giraffes, and elusive leopards.

7. If I had to name the one joy of my time at Rosslyn that has most impacted my daily life, it would have to be the beauty of the campus. The view of the open sky — and whirling kites5 — from both lower and upper fields; the thoughtful architecture with its embedded mosaics and hanging glass; the tall acacias and even taller Seussical trees; the flowers, blooming as they do every month of the year (though some of them — especially the trees — take turns adding their colors to the riot of campus verdancy); the armies of safari ants marching back and forth across the nature trail; the peaceful quiet of the prayer labyrinth at dusk. It is a campus laid out by artists, and upkept by hardworking, talented gardeners, and though I loved the small, quiet yard of my off-campus housing, I never regretted my choice, two years ago, to move onto the campus itself — the days I spent watching the sunrise from my porch, or enjoying the rainfall from my hammock, or experiencing the sunset as I huffed in circles around the track.

Like my goodbye to the school itself — my classroom and my classes — this particular farewell was conducted over weeks and months. Many lasts slipped in, slipped by, without me quite realizing what they were — the final afternoon spent reading in my hammock, the final run of the campus and neighborhood loop, the final sunrise viewed in reflected colors across the Rosslyn gorge, the final walk of nature trail and prayer labyrinth, the final time laying out my shuka to bask in sunlight on the lower field, the final morning spent wrapped in that shuka on the porch, reading, writing, drinking matcha, eating my yogurt and homemade granola. And, of course, the final time seeing the acacias of upper campus spread against an African sky.

The Acacia

The sun is bright
on the leaves of the acacia,
its bark like parchment,
smooth, yellow,
the secret green of living wood.

Does the Creator’s heart
stir like mine
with joy and longing
in the presence of this
masterpiece?
Did she bring me
here to love it?
Did she create it,
somehow, just for me?

Though I may not have realized, the last time each of these activities occurred, that it was the last time, I had a whole summer of days filled exclusively with these activities (with some mandatory sorting and packing on the side), and I am thankful.

8. Two week before my departure, I took eight of my last days for a silent retreat at the Mwangaza Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Karen. Following on my first such retreat by almost a year exactly, it was a powerful time of looking back at where I had been last August and where God has brought me since. It was a time of giving thanks and letting go — handing memories, fears, and hopes alike into the hands of the One who has never left me destitute.

Though I had been unsure of taking so much time, at such a critical moment, to withdraw and reflect, I think it was the single most important choice I made in the transition process, and I returned from the retreat with a spirit at rest, ready to engage my last week with a full and grateful heart.

9. If you asked me about my favorite activity in Kenya, I would probably tell you about camping. Escaping the city into the wondrous wild of this spectacular country. I’ve camped in Tsavo (where an acacia thorn pierced the sole of my shoe and embedded itself half-an-inch into my foot), and in Ol Pejeta (where I walked within meters of the smallest elephant I have ever seen — and its quite protective mother), and in Samburu (where our campfire attracted, rather than repelled, neighboring scorpions and elephants), and in the Ngare Ndare forest (where I jumped off waterfalls and caught glimpses of brightly hued turacos), and, of course, at Camp Carnelley’s in Naivasha (where I’ve eaten pizza with dozens of teenage girls during integrity retreats and survived a stampeding giraffe).

One of the longings of my heart was to camp one last time before leaving. To get out of the city with some of my dearest people — to enjoy time with them and with nature — to fellowship in the joy of God’s creation. My friends graciously humored me, and my final weekend in Kenya, right before students returned to classrooms and the school year officially began, six of us embarked for Carnelley’s campground one last time. With a full day and night at the lake (before returning to Nairobi for tattoos), we had hours of glorious conversation, sunlit naps, bird-sightings, photo-shoots by the water, good food, firelight, and s’mores.

Everything my heart had hoped for.

The Leaving Behind
by Reid Carpenter

Naivasha, Kenya. February 2017.

I sit watching the marsh plants and the
tree skeletons ‒ there is a
bird now resting on top of one, just
a silhouette (who can imagine its eyes?) ‒
and the white egrets, bright among the greens.

I am listening to the ibis cry loudly,
and the other birds whom I don’t know by name,
and now the bird on the skeleton tree
has flown away.

I am imagining his eyes ‒ wide, I
think, and bright and moving.

And I breathe deep enough that I
feel the very spin of the earth, the inevitable
movement, the passage of time, just an idea.

And as I sit, the world waking up,
I can only think of leaving.

What if I never had to cry goodbye to the
sacred ibis? What if I never had to leave
this bright existence, this bright life?

10. And, of course, there were a myriad of other “lasts” both large and small. My last birthday celebration in Kenya (and, simultaneously, last dinner at a favorite restaurant). Last Java House coffee and almond croissant. Last Stoney (which I first tasted after climbing Mt. Longonot for the first time during my first week in Kenya). Last Krest. Last fresh passion fruit juice. Last Domino’s delivery (no, I don’t buy Domino’s in America). Last time at Artcaffe. Last time at Village and the Maasai Market. Last time getting my legs waxed, at home, for under ten dollars. Last affordable massage and manicure/pedicure. Last walk down UN Avenue. Last meal at Habesha. Last walk through the school offices, the flag poles, the zone. Last goodbyes to friends, co-workers, and students.

So many places, and tastes, and experiences that — for four years — were the ordinary, everyday details of my life.

In the face of such bounty, what can one do but say, Alabanza?

Footnotes

1. A church where it is considered no more strange, on a given Sunday, for the liturgist, homilist, and readers all to be women than it would be, in most churches, for the opposite to be true.
2. There was still plenty of grading for the month of May, but those were the last of the large written assignments for year.
3. A few of those lasts include: my last chance to watch a Rosslyn production (In the Heights, the spring musical); being asked to speak in chapel one last time (representing singleness on a panel about relationships); praying with my last AP Lang class before they sat for their exam; addressing seniors on the topic of consent (my last chance to speak into their lives); my last Roscars and Award Ceremony; being given the honor of presenting the Eagle Award; graduation parties; graduation; and all the final conversations, classes, hugs, smiles, laughter, and tears.
4. Pavlova has always traditional at our family’s Thanksgivings — thanks to a dear Australian family friend.
5. The birds of prey — not the flying toys.

 

The Setting Out (and the Letting Go)

I would apologize for all the Perelandra quotes in the footnotes — except it’s the most powerful book I know on the subject of embracing gratitude in the face of the unknown. So I guess I’m not actually sorry.   

Almost exactly two weeks ago, on the first day of the Rosslyn school year, while my (former?) colleagues welcomed students back to their classrooms and worked to set the groundwork for the year ahead, I walked in Karura Forest one last time, processing endings and beginnings, and the 31 years I have now spent on this planet (four of those years, and five of those birthdays, having been lived, and celebrated, in Kenya).

Two days later, I ate my last Ethiopian meal, gave my last hugs, and got on a plane bound for all that comes next.

As I have written elsewhere, I am not good at goodbyes. Not good at endings. Not good at letting go of the things, the places, and the people that I love. Not good at holding the tension of the eternal and the temporal.

At reconciling meaning with brevity.

Which is one of the reasons I have taken so long with this particular goodbye. This “so long” to a community, a place, and, it seems, a profession. This letting go — in some ways — of the first third of my life.1 Of this particular story arc, with its heartbreaks, lessons, losses, and joys.

And so we circle back around — back to what feels, in many ways, like the beginning. Back to the precipice of the unknown. Of looking out at the mystery of one’s life, and wondering what could possibly lie ahead.

But, of course, we are not quite who we were the last time we were here. Like Santiago,2 finding his treasure at last beneath his very own sycamore tree, or Gilgamesh,3 returning to the walls of his city, the journey itself, circular though it may be, has changed us — more, perhaps, than even we know. As with Santiago and Gilgamesh, perhaps we are now capable of finding the treasure that was always before our eyes (or beneath our feet) because the journey itself (and all we have encountered along the way) has taught us to see our world anew. (And at least a little bit more truly.)

Has taught us to find beauty and meaning in the world around us — in sunsets, and deserts, and cities, and art, but also in mortality and suffering and distance and loneliness and tears.

Maybe we’ve learned how to find traces of God with us, here, at this moment. Whatever this moment may contain. Maybe the words of the Catholic mass have become engraved upon our hearts, proclaiming “it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,4 always and everywhere to give You thanks, Lord, holy Father, creator of the world and source of all life.”

Maybe we’ve learned to let go a little more. Trust a little more. Be human a little more. Be loved a little more.

Maybe we’ve learned something of grace.

And so, as I face my thirties, knowing little of what comes next, I am not afraid. And though I recognize that girl I was in my early twenties, so desperate for life to mean something, for the picture to cohere, for the story to make sense — she also is not me. And I am thankful that I am no longer (quite fully) her.

Yes, she is younger, with more potential, more drive, more certainty in her vision of the world and its requirements of her — more expectations of herself and of life.

But I think I am more patient, more self-aware, more at peace, and more dependent upon the God who is not me.5

Walk Cheerfully

My newest tattoo, in honor of my birthday, transition, and my favorite George Fox quote: “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.”

I think my palms are open wider to whatever good God may choose to place within them.6 My heart more attuned to the gift. My soul more fully submitted to a journey I may never wholly understand.

And so I set out, once more, upon these winding paths of life. More vulnerable, less certain; more brave, less armored. I set out, seeking to walk cheerfully, to walk courageously, to walk humbly, to walk gracefully, to walk wholeheartedly. To walk with my hands wide open.7

I set out, trusting that — in the words of Julian of Norwich — “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” and that the power of an unearned grace shall sanctify every moment of this precious, precarious life.

May I never forget what a miracle it is to be alive.

Footnotes

1. At least conceptually. Who knows how many years any of us might actually have upon this globe.
2. From The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (one of the required reads of Rosslyn’s 10th grade Global Literature curriculum).
3. From the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of my very favorite texts to teach.
4. As C.S. Lewis demonstrates in his beautiful and wise Perelandra, it is within our ability to reject the gift, and thus reject our own joy: “One joy was expected and another is given….The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished…you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of the turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.” (61)
5. “But how can one wish any of those waves not to reach us which [God] is rolling towards us?” (60)
6. “The best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not [their] own.” (Perelandra 194)
7. “‘I thought,’ she said, ‘that I was carried in the will of Him I love, but now I see that I walk in it. I thought that the good things He sent me drew me into them as the waves lift the islands; but now I see that it is I who plunge into them with my own legs and arms….It is delight with terror in it! One’s own self to be walking from one good to another, walking beside Him as Himself may walk, not even holding hands….I thought we went along paths–but it seems there are no paths. The going itself is the path.'” (Perelandra 62)