The Gaze of a Lion | Words of Wednesday

From “Serengeti” by Mary Oliver:

Can anyone doubt that the lion of Serengeti
is part of the idea of God?

. . .

the bone-breaker,
and the agent of transformation?
No doubt, in the beginning,
he rose out of the grass

like a fire–
as now he rises out of the grass,
like a fire,
gleaming and unapproachable,

and notices me,
and fixes me with his large,
almost fatherly eyes,
and flexes his shoulders.

I don’t know
anything so beautiful as the sunlight
in his rough hair.
I don’t know

where I have seen such power before–
except perhaps in the chapel
where Michelangelo’s God,
tawny and muscular,

tears the land from the firmament
and places the sun in the sky
so that we may live
on the earth,

among the amazements,
and the lion
runs softly through the dust,
and his eyes, under the thick, animal lashes,

are almost tender,
and I don’t know where I have been
so frightened,
or so happy.

A Couple of Lions

Today, I miss Africa.

Excerpted from Mary Oliver’s poem “Serengeti” in her collection House of Light (1990).

Have I Lived Enough? | Words of Wednesday

The Gardener

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I come to any conclusions?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

I say this, or perhaps I’m just thinking it.
Actually, I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.

Mary Oliver

From Mary Oliver’s 2012 collection, A Thousand Mornings.

The year (my year) is drawing to a close, and I find myself wrestling (as always) with questions of what it means to live well, to live fully. Have I shown up enough? Have I been present enough? Have I done enough? Have I been enough?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. But I do know that I got up every weekday morning, drank matcha, and talked to, fed, played with, cuddled, and generally spent time with my nephew. 

And, somehow, none of the rest of it seems to matter quite as much.

Magnus and Aunty Kar laughing on the couch

The Only Life You Can Save | Words of Wednesday

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

–Mary Oliver

This poem is not unproblematic. Especially in the deeply individualistic world we inhabit. And yet, there’s something here all the same. Something dangerous and sacred and true. At the end of all things, the soul stands alone before God. (At least on some level, at least in some sense.)

Did you do the only thing you could do? Did you save the only life you could save?

Quoted in Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living.  

I Go Down to the Shore | Words of Wednesday

I Go Down to the Shore

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall–
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Mary Oliver

From Mary Oliver’s collection A Thousand Mornings. 

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.

The Old Poets | Words of Wednesday

The Old Poets of China

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

–Mary Oliver

Introduced to be by a former student (and current poet) who used to visit my classroom during breaks to share beautiful words. From Mary Oliver’s collection Why I Wake Early. It speaks to the contemplative at my core.

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.

On Mortality: A Lenten Reflection

As Lent begins to draw to a close, and we find ourselves moving towards Easter, I have been doing some reflecting on the paradoxes of this season.  This time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, and fasting. This time of preparing one’s heart for the cross.

Lent begins with the words, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Yet as the cross is traced in ash upon one’s forehead, there is a powerful irony in the words: for we are dust no more. The living breath of God has been restored to us. Christ became dust for our sake — became a mortal formed from clay, destined for death — so we could know life. Yet we are still poised in this space of in-between. Caught between the cross and the resurrection.

Lent calls us back to our mortality. Reminds us of our frailty. But does not do so in order to imprison us there. Rather, we are reminded so we might turn and be healed. When Christ declared that he came not for the healthy but for the sick, he was not implying a dissonance between those who had need of him and those who did not. Only that there were those who refused to acknowledge that need, for only those who know themselves sick will seek a physician’s care. As I have written elsewhere, I am coming, more and more, to believe that salvation through faith is not about being saved by faith — by one’s ability to believe passionately enough — but in fully submitting to the reality that one cannot save oneself, and in ceasing to strive to do so.

And perhaps it is that striving, that insistence on a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency — a pride that demands we earn our own place in the world — that is, in itself, at the heart of our sickness. I doubt it was Eve’s longing for knowledge that brought death into the world, but perhaps it was a demand for that knowledge on her own terms — not a relational knowledge (and perhaps the knowledge of good and evil can only ever be relational if it is not to be destructive) but an independent, self-sufficient knowledge. The right to declare truth for herself and by herself. Give me my inheritance, demands the prodigal. I can do this on my own. But can such self-reliance ever be aught but a rejection of love? And can life exist where love does not?

The journey back to the Father, as Henri Nouwen reminds us in his The Return of the Prodigal Son, is simply (and not so simply) about allowing ourselves to be found by the love that has been pursuing us all the days of our lives.

Yet here, too, is irony and tension, for what lies on the other side of a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency but a vulnerable, broken, openness? Nouwen writes, “It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering.” And so we are brought back to the cross and the life that is somehow found on the other side of death. In this upside-down economy, where the first are last, and the last first — where one must lose one’s life to save it — it would seem that to be whole one must choose to be broken, for Christ bears his scars even on the right hand of the Almighty, and if love wears the face of suffering, then, in wearing that face, one wears the face of God.

Do we have courage enough to root ourselves here? In an open, vulnerable, brokenness? To choose to reject the temptation of self-protection and the illusion of control? To recognize that only God can be perfect and sufficient in God’s-self, yet even God has rooted that perfection within relationality, and chosen the dependence, vulnerability, and heartbreak of relationship over an independent self-sufficiency?

Is it possible we’ve misunderstood, from the beginning, where strength, wholeness, and life truly lie? Misunderstood what it means to be like God?

Whatever the case, Lent reminds me that coming home isn’t about striving for perfection, but accepting imperfection, embracing my humanness (and the death that comes with it), and allowing God to meet me there with the love she has been speaking over me since the day I was born.

God did the work, all I must do is allow myself to be found. 

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountain and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Commencement Address

I had the incredible honor of being the graduation speaker for a rather spectacular group of students at Rosslyn’s commencement ceremony yesterday. The following is a rough transcript of what I shared. 

It is such an honor, and a privilege, and a delight to be here today with all of you who have come from near and from far to celebrate these graduates.

However, I’m actually here to talk to them, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to turn my podium.

I’m going to start by reading a paragraph from a blog post I wrote in May of 2015, reflecting back over the spring semester of my first year here in Kenya. These are words that I wrote about you:

Seventy-four days (give or take), 300 periods (give or take), 18,800 minutes … and counting. And I’ve loved some (many?) of those moments. There is much that I wanted from this semester that I do not have. But one thing I do have is my students — courageous, tenacious, creative, and so, so beautiful. I didn’t expect to enjoy them ([to] be blessed by them) quite this much.

Class of 2017, you have blessed my life from the moment I arrived in Kenya. You blessed me with laughter, with creativity, with kindness, with joy — with your willingness to be challenged and to challenge. To think deeply, to listen carefully, to question courageously. Your willingness to bring your whole selves into the classroom — your passions, your interests, your convictions, your uncertainties.

You’ve blessed me with your acceptance of who I am — my love of the Doctor, my obsession with Shakespeare, my delight in all things epic. You’ve borne with my “unique,” Arabic-inspired handwriting, with my insistence on punctuation in poetry, with my tragic inability to spell, with my fumbling attempts to put ideas into words – to communicate in this unwieldy, imprecise language.

Through it all you have trusted me to walk alongside you in this journey that is learning, that is high school, that is life, and that is not something I take for granted.

You made teaching, for the first time in my life, an unmitigated delight. Something I woke up in the morning and wanted to do. And for that I can never thank you enough.

Class of 2017, do you know what a miracle you are? What I see when I look at you? You are athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, actors, scholars, questers, mathematicians, scientists, inventors, leaders, jokesters, activists … you are courageous, you are kind, you are servant-hearted, you are lovers of beauty, pursuers of truth, seekers of the good … you are fingerprints of the divine.

In knowing you, I have come to know a bit more of the beauty and glory of the God who made you — and all I can do is stand amazed.

And this brings me to my first point: As you walk off this stage and into the rest of your lives — into all of the journeys and challenges and joys that await you — know that you are loved. Know that you are delighted in. Know that the One who made you named you “good.”

Everyone sitting behind me, and those who would have longed to be here today, but are not — your family, your friends — they are proud of you. We — your teachers — are proud of you. Proud of what you’ve accomplished, yes, but much more so, proud of the people that you are. The people you choose to be.

Which brings me, rather quickly, to my second point: As you go forth into the world, do not accept its definition of success. Don’t let it define you by what you have accomplished or will accomplish. By what you can fit on a resume. Don’t let it reduce your worth to the things that you do, no matter how worthy those deeds might be.

We all long for purpose; for our lives to be meaningful. Refuse the narrative that says if you don’t change the world, you’ve failed.

One of my very favorite authors, Charles Williams, reminds us that the word “extraordinary” literally means “extra-ordinary.” The meaning that you seek isn’t to be found “out there” in what you do with your lives. It’s right here, in this present moment. Do you know that the ground you stand on is holy ground? Holy, because God is here, and you are here. This, right now, right here, is the place for encounter.

The place to encounter truth, the place to encounter God, the place to encounter the sacred Other who bears God’s image. C.S. Lewis reminds us that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

Remember that as you go forward from this place, and this community – as you find yourselves among strangers in strange lands – as demands are made upon your time, and you are forced to evaluate and re-evaluate where your true values lie – how you will spend the moments that will become your life. All that withstands the test of time are the eternal souls to your right and to your left. So if you desire greatness, seek to love greatly, and when you do, let no one – least of all yourself – doubt the meaning of your life.

No matter what lies ahead of you in the years to come — no matter how closely it resembles your dreams, or how far it is from your expectations – refuse the narrative that says your life is ordinary, that it is unimportant, that it is mundane, that it is boring. There is no such thing as an insignificant life. If we have done one thing at Rosslyn, I pray that we have given you eyes to see the beauty that is all around you, and to call that beauty forth. To partner with God is his holy work of creation, which is the work of healing and redemption, of restoring wholeness, of calling forth the good.

One of my favorite quotes is by George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, who told his followers to “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.” And Philippians 4:8 tells us to focus our eyes on the pure and the lovely, the admirable and the praiseworthy.

Choose to live with eyes that are open to the presence of God in your everyday moments. Choose to be awake to the miracle that is existence. Choose to find the sacred within the life that others may call mundane. Choose to worship.

Mary Oliver ends her poem, “The Summer Day,” with the statement:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

May you also know how fall down into the grass, how to kneel down, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, how to know peace, how to be awake – always – to wonder, how to pay attention to the gift that is your life.

And here is my last point: it is gift. You have not earned it, you cannot earn it, you do not need to earn it, stop trying to earn it. Salvation by faith means accepting that God has done for you what you cannot do for yourself. It means allowing yourself to be frail and human, imperfect, broken, yet loved beyond imagining by a God who makes broken things beautiful.

A God who takes the shards of our lives and turns them into masterful mosaics.

When life feels too big, the stakes too high, the task at hand too large, remember that you are not journeying alone.

Remember that your life’s worth does not rest upon your ability to succeed. Your ability to be good enough, strong enough, whole enough.

When you fail – and you will – remember that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness; that living water flows more abundantly through cracked vessels; and that your calling is to become less, so he can become more.

I want to leave you with a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi – a poem that reminds me of Josh Garrels’ “At the Table” which has been played in chapel and baccalaureate this past week:

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
It doesn’t matter
Come, come yet again, come.

Class of 2017, there will always be a place for you at my table; but more importantly, there will always be a place for you at God’s. You are always invited in. No matter how far you journey, no matter how long you wander, no matter where your sojourn takes you, you are wanted, you are desired, you belong.

May you take this truth with you as you walk across this stage. May you have strength and courage for the journey; may you know God’s comfort and goodness in this time of transition and in the years ahead; may you have hope in abundance.

I love you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for enriching my life. Thank you for showing me a little more of God.

A Year in Poetry

Once again, I tried to write a reflection on the year. This was what came instead.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding”

So, I realize we’re already into March and this post was rather pathetically long in coming.

But here’s the thing: 2017 has already been a rather eventful year.  Besides the requisite teaching and grading (rather time-consuming in their own right), I’ve climbed the second-tallest mountain on the continent, gone hunting with the Maasai (no lie), and, just a few weeks ago, been stampeded by a giraffe (while camping with some students during an integrity retreat).  It turns out I really do live in Africa.

2017 is the year I turn thirty, and while I’m trying to downplay this benchmark in my life, the reality is I’m a bit scared.

I know this is how everyone feels, but I’m just not quite sure where the time has gone. And the past decade of my life has certainly been rather different than I anticipated. These last few years it’s been hard to balance what is against what is not, to measure reality against once-upon-a-time expectations and potentials.

In my mid-twenties, a lot of my friends had the same questions I did — questions about meaning and purpose and the point of the narrative. But, for most of them, those questions seem to have slowly found answers, while I, at thirty — after living in 7 countries, teaching for 6 years, attending university and grad school, etc., etc. — seem destined to be exactly where I started (asking the same questions, pondering the same mysteries).

I have always been a lover of story, rather than a lover of poetry.  A lover of the journey that reaches its destination; the sacrifices proven to have meaning in the end; the narrative where no piece, no thread, is ultimately wasted or left without purpose.  These days, however, while I struggle to identify, in the jagged edges of my life, what my story is and where it lies — the narrative thread that will grant meaning to the losses and significance to the joys — poetry reminds me that even when the narrative is unclear, the moment remains sacred. Reminds me that as long as there is breath in my lungs, I stand on the holy ground of existence. Reminds me that “acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” does not require a story arc I recognize; nor does prayer, worship, or the act of loving my neighbor, all of which only require that I commit to holistic presence in this moment. And this one.

Poetry demonstrates that when we commit to paying attention — to truly seeing the world that surrounds us — we become alchemists, capable of transforming lead into gold and the mundane into miracle.

We learn to call forth — to recognize — the beauty inherent in each moment.  A beauty that exists, not because the moment has a role to play in some grand narrative (though perhaps it does), but simply because the moment is. And in that moment — in that existence — the I AM is present.

In the beginning God created, and it was good. A theologian friend of mine spent much of last year impressing upon me the significance of the goodness of creation. That the very existence of that which is bears (no matter how distorted) the sacred holiness of being.


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

-Mary Oliver

I have spent much of recent months lamenting what is not. Grieving the losses of my nomadic, transient life. And while that has had its place — has been healthy and necessary — it is time, I think, to remember what is.  Time to see, not the negative space of all that has been taken (the Israelites in the desert, calling out for a return to Egypt), but the shape of all that remains, all that has been given.  All that was. Even if it is no more.

In her poem “Burning the Old Year,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes,”So much of any year is flammable . . . so little is a stone.” She’s right of course, but it’s hard for me to understand how she can celebrate that fact: “Where there was something and suddenly isn’t, / an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space. / I begin again with the smallest numbers.”

Unlike Nye, I do not want to burn the old year, do not want to leave a vacancy where once there was a fullness. Do not want to let go of the old so the new may have space to grow. Rather, I want to create stones out of my fragile, flammable minutes. Want to transform the transitory into the permanent. Want to build a temple of my life: for how else will I know the presence of the living God? But I am reminded that the God of Moses was a God who tabernacled in the midst of his people, a God who dwelt with them in a tent — a God who traveled. And Jesus declares in Luke, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

I am reminded that too many stones weigh down a life, and that one needs both stone and flame if one is to offer a burnt offering to the living God.

And so, in the spirit of celebrating what is and what was, here are my “few words,” un-elaborate and patched together, not from 2016 (as I originally planned), but from the last 29 years of life — my “doorway / into thanks.” I do not know which of my moments will prove to be stone, and which flame — which will build themselves into the story of my life, and which are, even now, sparking upward as a glorious moment in time, beautiful and brief — but I do know that this life I am living is sacred, because it is. This is the place I am — the place God has met me, the place God will meet me, the place where stone and fire meet on the altar of worship.

I have lived in the Lake District and in Oxford, in Kenya and in Cairo. I’ve seen the pyramids and the Pietà, Petra and Big Ben. I’ve called three continents home. I’ve danced, I’ve acted, I’ve even sung. I’ve studied art, I’ve read classics, I’ve directed, I’ve taught Shakespeare. I’ve ridden camels and elephants, kissed giraffes, owned dogs and a few cats. I’ve gone on a cruise and a few safaris — I’ve scuba dived and snorkeled and climbed mountains. I am a cousin and a sister, a sister-in-law and a daughter. I’ve been in love and I’ve been kissed and I’ve had friends who’ve shaped and molded who I am — friends who’ve walked important sections of this journey with me. And I may be single, but I have never been alone, not truly. And I have been saturated with beauty — the Sahara, the Mediterranean, the fells, the African sky. I have dreamed the dream of dreaming spires and northern lakes, and seen those dreams come true. I have written words, and read words, and watched the hours slip by in silence and wonder and awe.

What a blessed life I have lived. What an existence I have known. 

In part inspired by an AP Lang prompt on the role and significance of poetry.