A letter to the One in Charge

To the One in Charge,

I’ve started this letter four times already and nothing seems quite right. It should be easy–I pray to you everyday–but it’s not. It’s hard. Maybe because my reason for writing isn’t easy either. Of course, if you are who you say you are, you know exactly why I’m writing which makes this a seemingly pointless exercise, but then, if you are who you say you are, things like this, like me writing on a scrap of paper to ask you for something, can change things.

So here I go.

We need you here.

I don’t mean that in a rhetorical sense. I mean we need you here. Right here. In this town, in early November, in a very real way. I mean I have a dear friend who is facing something so unexpected, so ugly and scary, that I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. Except that I do. I wish it was happening to someone else so she and I could talk about it together in passing, while trading kids or over lunch, and shake our heads while reminding ourselves that life is fragile. Then we’d move on to the weather and our plans for the weekend and forget.

I’d like to forget about this but I can’t, and I know my friend never will. Even though denial seems like the best option now, while my brain stumbles around the information and my head pounds in rebellion, I know this is not something we can wake up from, that will disappear, or even be made right. Unless, of course, you step in. Because although I’m not sure what I believe right now, I don’t see any other option besides some holy intervention.

So what exactly do I want you to do?

I want you to show up.

To show up like you did for Elijah. Surely you remember the time you sent flames to lick the wet wood your prophet had doused with water? Did his heart tremble when he called on you to do the impossible; to light a fire when there was not even a spark, only a trench full of water around a dripping altar? And what did the others think–those who had spent hours calling on other deities, dancing and even slashing themselves in the frenzy, without an answer? As they looked on, watching Elijah put you to the test, did he whisper, quivering with doubt, or shout his demands? “Answer me, O Lord, answer me so that these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

If you can cause fire to fall from the sky and a frantic crowd to fall in worship, surely you can do something here. Something that would reverse, undo, and transform. Like a healing. I’m whispering and shouting at the same time now. Whispering because it seems impossible; shouting because I mean it. I’m pleading for action. A miracle to mystify physicians and family is what I really want, but if you’re not going to renew sinew and bone then pour out your power just the same and do a mighty work with soul and spirit. Redeem something from this ugly mess of multiplying cells. Because if sunsets and babies’ breath are the only signs of you then this prayer isn’t worth anything. If we can only feel you in the lovely why should anyone turn to you in the ugly?

But you seem to be in the business of showing up in the middle of ugliness, like the filth of a stable and a violent execution. I can’t know this for sure though, that you birthed yourself into a real, live infant and bled on a cross, because I wasn’t around two thousand years ago. It’s only what I’ve read and what I’ve been taught. And believe me, it’s easy enough to doubt all of it. But when I start at square one and evaluate the alternatives I come back empty-handed and humbled. What are the chances any of us ended up here to question you in the first place? How else could we shake our fists at you, ignore you, or yearn for you on this freckle of earth in the face of the exploding universe if you didn’t put us here? In other words, you started all this so you better finish it. You started something when you created us from nothing. You started something when you took your first breath through the lungs of a newborn. You started something when you died. And you started something when you knit together the one for whom I’m praying. So I’ll wait for you. I will wait for the big finish. Knowing, hoping, doubting, and believing all at the same time, you’ve showed up.

Tricia

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What’s So Great About This Friday

“The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking
It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.”

Dion is on his knees and cries out with the lash of the whip. He inches forward, willing every muscle to keep moving, despite the brutal kicks and blows raining down on him. Soon he collapses, unable to crawl but still straining, as if even his finger tips pull him closer. Closer to the cross. I watch from my seat in the theatre and couldn’t care less about the people sitting next to me, or the mascara bleeding down my cheeks. Because, suddenly, the crucifixion makes sense.

Some things about Christianity turn me on, but other parts leave a bad taste in my mouth. There are the obvious detractors: violent episodes staining the church’s history (continuing as I type), politicians with swollen egos who manipulate religion to their advantage, and weird aspects of Christian sub-culture that surely make Jesus cringe. Even central tenets of the faith, like the crucifixion, cause me to wonder. I’ve often thought it would be much easier if we could all just celebrate the stories that resonate with Tricia and forget about the rest. This Tricia-ism would revel in Jesus as a light-bringing, bad-ass liberator and distribute propaganda depicting the God-man tracing his fingers through dust to save a woman caught in an affair or filling vats of wine at a party. Stories like these, and most others in the Gospels, would make the cut without a problem.

The cross, though, would throw a wrench into the cult strategic planning. We’d have to stop and think carefully if it fit our Tricia-sensiblities. But reading through the Biblical account a few times could get depressing and, at the very worst, convince us Hitler isn’t the only one who had a problem. Unfortunately, talk of needing a rescuer to save us from ourselves would cast a somber mood on the whole event so I’d probably suggesting skipping it for awhile and going back to the party scene instead. Parties are more palateable than ancient sacrificial rites, or our own neediness, anyway.

Besides the social awkwardness of the cross, the fact Jesus had to die a brutal death has never made sense to me. Sure, his people were used to slaughtering animals to make up for their mistakes, but couldn’t God have stepped out of the box a little here, knowing modern-day people like me might not appreciate the cultural context? And even though I get that part, how did all the barbaric substitution start in the first place? Why does something have to die to make a wrong a right? And, how does one guy suffering on a tree save anybody else?

Watching our actor friend, Dion, play Jesus in a musical production doesn’t systematically address these questions but it changes something for me. While he doggedly slithers forward towards the cross I tingle with gratitude and relief. My visceral response, watching this cosmic sacrifice, is more a weary “Finally!” than theological debate. Finally God has woken up. Finally He gets a taste of how bad it can get down here. Finally He comes to the rescue. Finally… He dies.

This might seems like a broody reaction.

“What about the beauty all around us?” you might interrupt. “It’s not so bad here. Why focus on the negative? Why so melancholy?”

Now, I’m a cup-half-full kind of person; looking for the upside is instinctual for me and comes without much effort. But when I read about military rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, how fathers and sons are forced to watch while soldiers crush wives and mothers, I come undone. When I imagine how it might have been for the Newtown teachers, picturing my own first grade students leaving dead friends behind, beauty escapes me.

If the Force of the Universe pressed all of its Godliness into a human body, lived our reality, and then came down with the sniffles, it wouldn’t be enough. Not for me. Not for my one-year-old niece in chemo. Not for the Jews in death camps, or the child dreading nightly incest. Taking on our suffering, bearing it for us, wouldn’t produce a bad case of the chills for this Force; it would kill it. And that’s what happened.

After the musical, I drop Belén’s buddy off at her front door with some awkward concern. “You might want to debrief with her,” I tell her dad. “I asked the girls what they thought about the play but I think you should ask her again.” Her dad closes the door and I walk back to my car, still soaked with the story we’d just witnessed onstage. Now, a month later, I realize she wasn’t the only one who needed debriefing. In fact, I’m still coming to terms with what we’re going to celebrate on Good Friday. I’m sure, though, that we need it. I need Good Friday.

I doubt Stanley Kunitz, the poet who penned the lines at the beginning of this post, was thinking of the crucifixion when he wrote his poem but upon reading it, I did. I thought of Dion reaching for the cross, limp but desperate, and I realized why the story is so important. Because of Good Friday, because God’s heart breaks and breaks, I live. Because Jesus went through dark and deeper dark and didn’t turn, I can stand it here.

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-Tricia

PS. If you came to my blog looking for another sourdough recipe you must be confused and perhaps feeling bombarded. The truth is, this blog is unpredictable and inconsistent. Thanks for reading anyhow.

A Startling Empathy

When I was a little girl I learned to be careful when my mom had migraine headaches. If I thought too much about her pounding head I would soon have a headache of my own, so I trained myself to pretend to listen whenever I was informed she had a migraine and would ask her how she felt while purposefully ignoring her answer. I had an empathy problem and it wasn’t that I needed to cultivate more. Rather, I had too much and couldn’t manage it.

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Belén and Susanna preparing a winter solstice breakfast.

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The “sunny” menu: egg yolks, pinapple, mandarin oranges, and yellow yoghurt

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Even now, when I think about Ruth or Lucy my psyche starts to reel under a weight I cannot bear. Ruth, a beautiful new bride, is expecting her first child. She also has an untreatable brain tumor and is undergoing radiation to buy her enough time so she can deliver her baby… and see the face of the child that will most likely never know her mother. Sometimes, when I picture my sister-in-law, Anne, holding Lucy’s fevered body and and wiping her kissable cheeks after she throws up, I want to curl up into a ball–as if rolling into the fetal position will dismiss the reality of chemotherapy and pain.

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A special solstice treat: candles in the snow fort. Can you see their frosty hair? It was a chilly evening at -26 but they stayed outside for about an hour and a half

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A few years ago I visited a friend who was admitted to the psychiatric ward of our hospital, known as the Pine Unit to locals. Hospitals freak me out at the best of times (one reason I opted for a home-birth) but this visit really threw me for a loop. I held tightly to Susanna as we wound our way through halls reverberating with moans and incoherent shouts. By the time we got to Carol’s* room I felt nauseated and busied myself by taping Susanna’s artwork to her wall. When I sat down beside Carol’s bed and grabbed her hand it was as much for my comfort as it was hers. Carol tried to carry on a conversation but her words came out in gibberish and we soon lapsed into silence while I stroked her arm and tried to make some up-beat comments for Susanna’s sake.

Now I wish I’d never gone to the Pine Unit at all. Since then I’ve had a few run-ins with my own mental fragility and despite realizing anxiety is as a prevalent as the common cold, in my more pessimistic moments I’m sure I’m destined for long-term psychiatric care. As you might guess, picturing myself mute and vegetal in the Pine Unit doesn’t do much for my sense of well-being. Like I said, the psychiatric ward is definitely off-limits; I’m not willing to sacrifice my health to offer my company to it’s occupants no matter how sympathetic I feel.

And this is where God and I part ways. Because while I set boundaries to protect myself from unwieldy compassion; God is pouring herself into someone else’s darkest hour. Though I sputter and nearly drown in my own empathy; God burrowed himself into the womb of a teenage girl 2000 years ago so he could drink our pain with us. And whether you think the whole Christmas story is legend or historical fact, the narrative is startling. That the fearsome life-force of creation chose to marinate in amniotic fluid, feel disappointment, get dirty feet, and bleed, is crazy…and it also befits his name, “Emmanuel” or God with us.

The phrase God with us sounds a lot like God is for us and reminds me of a battle cry to rally the troops. But given the circumstances of Jesus’ birth…. the hay, the manure, his unprepared parents; and life… rooting for the underdog, his unexpected agenda of dying instead of taking political power; any jubilant military associations are misplaced. I don’t think the phrase is meant to imply victory but to speak to those who suffer in some way. And though I stumble awkwardly with my own empathy, the Christmas story climaxes with God not only feeling for us, but actually becoming one of us. Unlike me, He commits to and embodies his empathy, as deliberate as a uterine contraction, and as real as a mother’s urge to push.

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How can that be anything but startling? Especially for someone like me, who, if I can help it, won’t be going back to the Pine Unit…

Thankful for Christmas,

Tricia

*name changed

Lucy

There’s nothing quite like leaving your baby for the first time. The day after Susanna was born I went for a walk, by myself. As cars passed and pedestrians crossed my path, I wondered if everyone knew what had just happened. Did they know why I was shuffling along slower than usual? Could they sense I’d given birth, just hours ago, on my own bed only a block, or two, away? My tender abdomen and swollen breasts reminded me of my recent labour and on one hand, it seemed ridiculous my feat wasn’t obvious to passersby. On the other hand, it was my own precious secret.

As people went on with their ho-hum lives, answering phone calls and filling up their cars with gas, I had brought a new human being to this world. When Susanna gulped her first molecules of oxygen, and I lay shaking with exhaustion and wet with sweat, my neighbour was probably feeding her cats or sweeping the floor. While the rest of world went on as normal, Susanna had inched her way out of me and with every contraction I, too, felt myself inching towards a strange place. A borderland, where the newness of life seems awfully close to death, and where a bellow of pain, in one slippery second, can turn into a gasp of relief accompanied by a baby’s first cry.

In the same way that panting through childbirth made me feel privy to a different reality, so did living in Bolivia. Of course, during the years we lived there I wasn’t in a constant state of enlightenment, but after we returned to Canada, I’d get flashes of perspective when I remembered where we’d been. This was especially helpful as a substitute teacher facing high schoolers I didn’t know—half of whom were bigger than me, most were apathetic, and a few were angry and offensive. To keep from being intimidated by the latter, I’d think of Bolivia. Of clambering onto a truckload of corn and sliding around the muddy curves of the Inca Wasi, where graves dot the side of the road instead of guardrails. I’d think of my friend, Lucia, who told me she cried at night when she was worried about what she’d feed her family the next morning.

And so, when some fifteen-year-old would tell me to “F— off”, I’d reflect (in a 3-second-sweaty-armpit way) that if I could learn a tonal language, survive parasites and wash my clothes in a river, I didn’t have to be scared of an adolescent tantrum. Secondly, I reminded myself of the world outside the classroom; even though the kid in front of me was making a fuss, millions of other people were foraging for food and fighting for their survival at the very same moment.

Thinking about where I’d been at times like these, was like tapping into a confidential file. Not that my personal experiences made me better than everyone else, but they reminded me more is happening on our planet than the daily circumstances in front of me. The secret feeling I had after having a baby, or returning from an indigenous community in South America, came from getting a peek at the edge of life and my own mortality. These experiences illuminate the tight-rope we’re all walking on, when most of the time we barrel forward distractedly, not even aware we’re dancing on a 2-inch thick cable.

It happened again when Stan called me, while I was on the road, to tell me about Lucy. Before he even started, I knew something was wrong by his voice. It was soft, sad and sorry at the same time.

“They think she’s got cancer,” he told me, and then said it again when I responded in disbelief.

How could I believe my eighth-month-old niece has cancer, when a few weeks before she was standing in my lap, pumping her legs and grinning with one slobbery fist in her mouth? (The details of this position may not be completely accurate since my sweet, baby-snatching daughter, Susanna, whisked her away every time I’d get her.) How could I imagine what Philip and Anne, Stan’s brother and his wife, were going through when we’d just spent days lazing around a pool together, playing tennis, and challenging each other to foot races? (Philip is the fastest sprinter of the four of us, by the way.)

Over the next several hours, on my drive home, I had that same secret feeling. Only this time it was awful, and instead of making me braver or wiser, it left a taste in my mouth of something gone desperately wrong. When I stopped for food, I numbly paid for my meal while customers around me laughed at dumb jokes and poured cream into their coffees, not knowing how the world had changed. Not knowing that nothing will ever be the same—no matter what happens–for Lucy, Philip, Anne, and the rest of us who care, again.

As Lucy undergoes chemotherapy and her little, but fierce, body fights to survive, I am praying every day. In fact, I know people that don’t even pray, who are praying. We are praying she won’t suffer the side effects of the treatment, that she can still breastfeed, that she sleeps peacefully, that she doesn’t remember any of this when it’s over, that Philip and Anne don’t lose their minds–or their patience and love for each other, that Lucy’s big brother is protected from the pain around him, and that Lucy lives.

But I’m also praying for something else. I’m praying that if there are others like me who are pushed just a little closer to the edge, out of the blinding normalcy of work and every-day routines, because of Lucy they find something else besides a dark chasm. And that when they cry for Help, whether cynical, apathetic, or angry, swinging their arms wildly to maintain balance on the wire, Jesus meets them right where they are.

If you are able, please pray for Lucy. If you aren’t up for prayer, start a conversation with someone about the moments you’ve experienced “the edge” in your life and how it affected you. Either way, I wish you peace, wisdom and strength for the length of tight-rope you’re walking today,

Tricia

Aunty Anne finally gets a chance to hold her own baby!

Lucy and her beautiful mama, Anne (photo taken in April)