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.  

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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. 

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.

Our Real Work | Words of Wednesday

Our Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

–Wendell Berry


I’ve always been a little wary of that most favorite of Tolkien’s quotes: “Not all those who wander are lost.” I’ve never found it particularly comforting, because A. it implies that some wanderers still are lost and B. it doesn’t offer much hope for that lostness. I far prefer this alternative which I ran across recently through Anne Lamott, who quotes it in her book Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Formatting is thanks to Gratefulness.org.

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

Eucharist

Calvary Episcopal Church, Santa Cruz
Sunday, 28 October 2018

The priest wore red
today, as he held his hands
aloft over bread and wine.
The color of martyrs and
remembrance, Christ’s passion
leaking from instep and
palms, blinked rapidly
from stinging eyes (oh, God,
were there flies? I’ve never thought
about the flies — the agony
of a body so taut, it can’t
even twitch to drive away
the swarms which gather,
like clouds without rain, or
so much dust in the desert,
to feast upon the bleeding flesh
of the too-soon dead),

yet today was not meant
to be a day for red.

Eleven are dead,
yet they never asked
to be martyrs (do any ask
to be martyrs?), as they
gathered to worship, to
celebrate, to pray, “on a quiet
drizzly morning,” just another
Saturday. Just another
sunrise, just another breakfast,
just another day
until it wasn’t.

We kneel at the altar,
my unpierced palms open
to receive the dry and tasteless
wafer, the wine smooth and
sweet (no hint of vinegar or gall)
on chapped and broken lips. We say
the “Our Father,” the offered
bread still heavy on my tongue,
and ask deliverance
from evil

— but whether his
or mine is left unspoken
as the music swells and the cross
processes down the nave,
and through the open door into
the sunshine of an ordinary
street, an ordinary day.
Pater dimitte illis: dare we
follow in its wake?

Written following the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Thoughts While My Students Write

As September marches on, and I prepare myself for what I hope will be a year of words — while wrestling with the implications of having given up my classroom (and all that was both lost and gained with that choice) — here are some thoughts composed while my students worked.  

14 Jan. 2015

For Global Lit.

What is poetry?
It is the muscle and sinew
of words:
The leaping
and the dancing,
The burning and
the breaking,
The place where
truth and beauty meet
with no veil between —

no place to run and hide
from the blazing
brightening face of God.

17 Sept. 2015

For AP Lang.

The sun on this grass,
these leaves,
a thousand shades of
brightness — of dancing
gold. My students
in the world,
thinking, writing.
And I want to gift
them this — wholeness,
wonder. “Pictures that shimmer.”
The world grown deep
and clear,
mysterious and living.

If we chase this brightness
always, will we find that we
have long pursued
the very face
of God?

Can we drink this cup?
Dare we? And what if I —
if we — find ourselves
too frail a vessel
for this gift?

Then cover me —
cover us all —
in grace.

The Waterfall Pools

Ngare Ndare Forest, 18 Feb. 2018

The specks of color flutter
by us, as each step we take raises
a small cloud from the dry
earth, almost as if the dust
were breathing

and I wonder if it were
on such a day, in such a place,
that the hands of God first
formed us from the ground.

The water, when we reach
it, has gathered into
pools of cloudy blue,
and as I watch the shadows
uncertainly for snakes, I wonder
if the serpent ever swam
with the woman and her
mate.

Dust we may be,
and to dust we may return —
here like grass
today and gone upon the morrow —

but isn’t it a lovely thing
to be alive?

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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.