There and Back Again: A writer’s tale

Given that I slipped deeper into depression yesterday while unpacking events from my last year of college, driving around town today listening to songs from the unhappiest decade of my life was arguably unwise.

A couple of weeks ago, we bought a new Prius V! I feel more affection for this vehicle than any inanimate object properly deserves, but I am not alone in this: just this past weekend, after a couple of hours of Christmas shopping, my daughter actually hugged the Prius, and with genuine affection in her voice said, “I love you, car!”

Since we buy new cars only every 10 years or so, relatively standard features are a revelation to us. This one comes with satellite radio capabilities. Hoping to rope us into a paid subscription, the car comes with a free 3 month trial subscription to Sirius. Today I discovered a station called “First Wave – Classic Alternative Rock” which could just as easily be titled “The nostalgia channel for aging Gen X pre-hipsters.” It is the first time in years that I have heard Echo and the Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, The Buzzcocks, Berlin, The Pretenders, Alphaville, The Clash, REM, and Midnight Oil all on the same day. Delivering my daughter’s forgotten backpack to school, it took a great deal of effort to turn off the car just as “London Calling” was getting underway.

Exhausted after a bit of exercise this afternoon, I reluctantly headed off to an appointment, only to discover that it was cancelled! And located right next door: frozen yogurt! With mochi and strawberries! And best of all, after eating said frozen yogurt while reading the latest mystery novel in my rotation, I got into the car just in time to catch the beginning of The Cure’s “Close to Me.”

It was the same remixed version that I had listened to on my way to pick up a high school friend for our first date. The music and lyrics both seem designed to intensify anxiety, and I remembered that long drive (he lived an hour away – these sorts of drives are common when you attend a magnet school which drew its student body from 3 adjacent counties, as ours did), and the strange mix of fear and optimism that always preceded a first date for me.

Poor guy – he was sweet and naïve in a way that I had not anticipated from someone with long dark hair, leather boots, a black trench coat, and genuine artistic ability. Most damningly, he refused to accept my carefully cultivated badass veneer. As a friend from my first year of college recently told me, “Even in that dark time, I could see the light of God’s love shining through you.” Which is great and all, since I really did love everybody. But that was dangerous, and the only way I knew how to protect my overly vulnerable heart was to be under constant attack. Young Mr. Trenchcoat was far too chivalrous. I kept my internal demons at bay by externalizing them – he didn’t have so much as a snarky bone in his body. And so it was that what began with the anxious anticipation of danger became instead the long anxious avoidance of breaking the heart of a truly decent person.

Last night, in the midst of a difficult conversation about the dark years governed by my depression, by my experiments in how much damage I could do to myself and allow others to do to me before I was utterly broken, my husband asked, “Are those your only two choices, for that time to matter so much that it breaks you, or for it to not matter at all?”
“Yes!” I answered, “Yes. If I think about it, I am paralyzed. So all I can do is not think about it. To remember that that time is past, that the present is good, that I am happy now. To cut the past loose and forget it.”

But then I remembered something that my daughter has said about her anxieties, her memories, her scary thoughts. “Mommy – every word I have in me is written on a piece of paper in my mind, and I can’t erase it or throw it away! It is there forever!”
Yep. There they are. As made most evident by my mood yesterday, brought on by a simple allusion to the five months I spent as a cabdriver in Richmond, Virginia. That seemingly innocuous footnote opened up into a wormhole that I sped through screaming, like Bill & Ted in the phone booth, only to land in a past time that I had no real interest in reliving. “Execute them!” “Bogus.” Bogus indeeed.

Writing yesterday afternoon about my past made me feel temporarily worse. But I have reason to believe that by naming my demons I might slowly begin to exorcise them at last.

I have some experience with this. September and October proved to be a time when I was given the opportunity to explore my divorce at age 22 through a couple of writing assignments. It was a miserable process at first, this going down into Sheol. But as I edited one piece in particular, stripping away layers of analysis until I was left with dialogue and sensory experience; as I cut away paragraphs of events inessential to the story to find the core, the center – Sting’s “still point of destruction” –  I found healing. I remembered the preciousness of my pain, and how it has honed my empathy to a clean edge that can cut away at sentiment or pierce the protective carapace of long suffering, a blade with which I may draw those few drops of blood that will remind one who has come to loathe herself that still she has a heart that beats within her. And as I wrote and remembered, Jesus broke the gates of Sheol and grasped my hands and pulled me back into my place amongst the living.

And so I shall peer into the abyss again, with a reasonable hope that should I fall headfirst over the precipice, I will not be forgotten there, nor left behind.

Refuge

Next Sunday, Bishop Gregg (assistant to the Bishop of North Carolina) is coming to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham in order to lay his hands on those who are wishing to be confirmed and received into the Episcopalian church. After some consideration, I am not going to be one of those taking vows before the congregation.

When I was in high school, I first learned the difference between immigrants and refugees. An immigrant is someone who arrives in one country from another, intending to settle in the new place. A refugee leaves their home country only because conditions there have become intolerable for one reason or another, but they continue to consider themselves part of their old land – and they often harbor a longing to return.

Even as I long for my home, I do not know when or whether I will return. It may be that, over time, I will consider that I have immigrated to the Episcopal church. But for the time being, I am a refugee – I am grateful to the Episcopalians for offering me safe harbor, and I am even comfortable among them – more or less. However, I cannot help but notice that I am Methodist.

I am Methodist when singing a Charles Wesley hymn in worship makes me giddy. I am Methodist when I get worked up about the proposed Cokesbury closures. I am Methodist when I get excited about the content from the latest issue of Circuit Rider (a publication for United Methodist pastors, published by the United Methodist Publishing House.) I am Methodist when I sing from my United Methodist hymnal for nightly family devotions. And I am Methodist when I feel closer kinship with someone who was raised Wesleyan (Another outsider! From a Holiness tradition!) than with a lifelong Episcopalian.

I sort of wish I felt more Episcopalian. I like the kneeling, and Eucharist every Sunday with wine instead of grape juice. I like that the Episcopalians *don’t* have guaranteed appointments, which makes them more comfortable ordaining people who feel bi-vocational — the Episcopalians are not caught up in the worldly worry of “what am I going to do when this person decides they want a parish after all, and I am obliged to find one for them?”  And of course there is the thing I like that sent me to the Episcopalian church in the first place – I like that my gay friends can get ordained or married in an Episcopalian church.

But no matter how much I like about Episcopalians, it is not enough to make me an Episcopalian myself. For now, I can only claim St. Luke’s as my refuge from an intolerable situation in the country of my birth. And some nights, I lay awake and wonder what it will mean to raise my daughter in a foreign land.

Showing up for dinner

Last year, I had the privilege of preaching at the Thanksgiving eve service at Trinity UMC in Durham, NC.  Today, as so many of us in the United States are preparing once again to join with friends and family around the table, I wanted to share these words with you.

This sermon is rooted in scriptures from Ecclesiastes, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, and Paul’s “jars of clay text” from 2 Corinthians.

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During my last year as a Divinity school student, a friend of mine who was in her first year in her first church called me after returning home from a hospital visit. It was late December. One of her parishioners had become very ill. She was near to death, and the family had been told that this might be their last chance to visit. So a carload of family and near friends got onto the highway to make their way to their hometown to stand vigil, and somewhere on the road they had been in an accident. Now there were two more family members near death, at a hospital more than an hour from their hoped for destination. This friend of mine grieved for the family in this hour, and she lamented: “How can I preach a Christmas Eve service? I don’t feel very Christmassy right now, and neither do many people in my congregation.”

The tricky thing about holidays is that their season is not always our season. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is one of the biggest festival days in our culture – it is a time for us to celebrate friends and family and good food, to give thanks for happy memories and for all of our present blessings – it is a way to mark time with a series of smiling snapshots – a time to make happy memories!

Which is great for those of us for whom this November is significantly better than last November, and not such great news for those of us for whom this past year has been lousy. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving as a newly married couple, while for others, this will be the first since the loss of a marriage through death or divorce. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving in a new home, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving since losing their home. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving with a new baby, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving after having lost a child. This may have been one of your best years, or one of your worst – and let’s not oversimplify things: this may have been a year where your best gifts have come with their own burdens: a return home from deployment overseas may come with a reminder of friends who didn’t make it back. A new baby may come with a loss of time with your spouse. A new job or new town is, for both good and ill, not like the last one. It can be hard to be full of thanks if it feels like you are running on empty.

Nothing in this life is permanent, instead, as the writer of Ecclesiastes begins his book, “all is vanity” – life is fragile and fleeting – it cannot be grasped and mastered. Or as Jesus reminds us in Luke, neither poverty nor wealth, neither grief nor joy, neither famine nor feast, neither disdain nor praise are permanent conditions! Grief gives way to laughter, as surely as laughter gives way to grief.

So what shall we do? Insofar as you can, enjoy what you can for as long as you can, the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests. Remember that you carry Christ in you, Paul admonishes. Love – love everyone! Jesus tells us. None of them seems to be saying, “Smile, and no one will notice you are having a lousy time.”

If we are going to share a table with one another, we had better show up! Being real about who we are and what season we are in is a real ministry to our friends and family. We have this treasure in clay jars. Our fragile vessels are filled to the brim with God’s grace! God has poured love into us – into our fragile, fleeting, hopeful and frightened, confused happy sad selves – we are loved exuberantly and extravagantly. Not because we are perfect hosts and hostesses, not because we have never burned a pie, not because we flawlessly executed one of the menus suggested in this year’s November issue of Gourmet magazine. And not because we manage to go through the entire meal without once mentioning any feeling of loss or sadness. No – God loves us as we really and truly are without our having to prove anything to anyone.

Our dog can eat the turkey, our toupee can slip down over our eyebrows, toilet paper can stick to our shoe and trail for yards behind us, and yet we are loved. And it may make us a laughingstock. Or it may come as a sincere relief to our companions who have been trying too hard to live up to some impossible Thanksgiving ideal. And the same goes for our grief, our hunger, and our poverty. When we are honest with one another about our needs, about what we lack and what we miss and how we are hanging on by a thread, not only are our needs more likely to get met – but our neighbors are more likely to have the courage to be more fully present as well – to acknowledge where they themselves are standing in the need of prayer. It can be a great mercy to not play at being perfect.

We are coming to the thanksgiving table tonight as a family – because eucharist means thanksgiving, and God through Christ has made us all kin to one another – we are coming to the table not because we are perfect, but because we are loved. God invites us to share in this thanksgiving meal with one another because God loves us. At this table, we do not have to hide who we are, or pretend that we are more together than we really are. And having shared together at this table, we do not need to pretend with one another, either – being who we really are is a ministry to one another, and to all the world. Because it is only when we acknowledge that we are not perfect that we can stop demanding perfection from one another – it is only when we know that we are mere clay that we can love our enemies – we begin to see with God’s eyes of mercy.

This is good practice for tomorrow! My hope for each one of you would be that you would be sitting down at the table with people who love you, who are true kindred in Christ, people for whom you do not have to be perfect, but with whom you need only to be yourself. But for the many who are not so blessed to be in that situation, instead let us all pray that though you might be afflicted, you would not be crushed; though you might be perplexed, you would not be driven to despair, and though you may be persecuted, you might remember that you are not forsaken, but instead that you are a most beloved child of God. May you find pleasure simply in the preparation of the meal and the eating of the food. And in your every interaction tomorrow, may you find the strength to be merciful even as your Heavenly Father is merciful – to yourself as well as to those you celebrate with.