Holiday lights and haunted houses

A month ago the light was touched with the colors of the season. We counted pumpkins on doorsteps, noting the special ones, unusual colors or sizes, and brought great quantities of candy into our home. The quietly spectacular transformation of green into stains of orange, red and yellow took place before I could appreciate it properly.

One by one, thousands of fallen leaves evaporated into the earth, leaving us with a memory of when they were lush and unseasoned.

Like so many birds, I flew south for a few days last month. During my absence winter came crawling, beckoning at the door. When I got home I dug out gloves and hats in preparation for stinging weather. A rainbow teased itself across the blue only to leave no trace of its existence when I blinked, and suddenly I was gazing upon a dull grey sky.

I blink sometimes, and she is gone again.

When I talk about her with someone who really knew her, it makes it feel real again.

It makes me miss her more, and yet makes me feel like I’m not the only one, and so I am sad and grateful at the same time.

Most of the time these days I’m hardly thinking of my dead sister, though, and the enormous void that was left in our family when she died, and really, for a long time now, my grief  has remained silent. I am happy, and yet my heart is haunted, you see.

So then.

Then something happens, and I am struck, no, torn, torn into a thousand pieces of misunderstanding and hurt and terror mixed with ambivalence and blame and fear, and I fear for my children, for the world in which they are being raised. How on Earth can we protect them?

Yet when I was a child, we lived without sun protection and seat belts. Secondhand smoke was, well, everywhere. I remember tipping full ashtrays into the trash, with no immediate effects. We were routinely allowed to get hurt (or okay, at least put in harm’s way with limited observation especially in the summer time).

My sisters and I made it to adulthood with a few scratches and scars, but nothing serious. Certainly we arrived as newborn adults prepared to live, and live freely and confidently.

This is part of the reason why it’s been so very, very difficult to accept my sister’s death (nine years ago and counting). She was so very much alive.

That, and also that our national and international news is so terrible of late.

I know my sister would be fighting to arbitrate such news today. In her core she was a stubborn negotiator, a protector of human integrity, and a woman who sought to collaborate, agree with or attempt to understand someone despite of or due to their differences.

She was a person who fought back, typically with words but once with a well-placed and most deserved punch to the face. She listened to stories from men and women who were disabled but not downtrodden – she recognized those who needed a hand from time to time were not unworthy of their humanity.

She would fight with me, with us, help me to understand what I can do better.

There’s a lot on my list to do better.

(At least seat belts, smoking and sun protection don’t make the list).

I’ve been doing some yoga lately. I’m not one with the mat or anything, but it makes me feel better.

Yoga makes my wrists hurt, my sister said with a shake of her head, a long time ago.

Some nights I cannot sleep.

There are haunted houses in my dreams, darkened windows, broken glass. The wind scatters leaves across my path; a cat cries before I wake up.

Haunted hearts, empty, shadowed by sadness. Full of memories that can not always be trusted.

I lose you again and again and again.

You move and breathe and smile in our minds, but just like those moving portraits that hang on the walls of Hogwarts, you aren’t really there.

Those whom we we have lost in recent days are real. As usual, I send a silent appeal to my angel sister so that she may greet them in turn, a reflective reception for Michael Brown among them… always, I think, those whose deaths were unexpected deserve a kind and compassionate welcome.

Lights sparkle in our living room tonight, illuminating a tiny Nativity scene organized on the coffee table by our youngest son. He is very taken with the miniature wooden figures, especially the Three Kings and the Baby Jesus. We have been listening to a lot of holiday pop music lately, and not especially focused on theology, but I thought I’d been pretty clear about the meaning of the holiday until he asked me about Michael Jackson’s role in Bethlehem at Christmas.

Perplexed, I asked a few questions, and it turned out that he had confused the Baby Jesus with the renowned rock star.

My explanation of Christmas was puzzling at best, dubious at worst. I attempted to set him straight, and he marched back into the family room to dance to little Michael’s rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

My sister would have celebrated another turn around the sun tomorrow. Surely she’s dancing, wherever she is, and crying, too, at the loss that we invoke while here on Earth, at the sudden force of grief and mourning that we create when another young life is taken senselessly and forever.

In my heart I remember you as you were, Liz, 28 years old, a smile upon your lips to greet a loved one or a stranger, a frown as you observed injustice around you. I am grateful for you, and saddened by your absence. Always, I remain your sister and your friend.

love

 

 

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Converting the converted

I attended a book reading a few days ago with my father at a local bookstore. The author is a professor at a Portland university and I hadn’t heard of him until my dad read about him in a free paper the other day. The book he discussed is a guide on how to convert people of faith to atheism. It wasn’t really a book reading; it turned out to be more of a lecture.

The guy was arrogant. He made a few excellent points about the lack of historical (or other) evidence many different religions fail to recognize, but he came across as rather brusque and know-it-all. He claimed that those seeking to convert believers into non-believers should always be respectful and kind in their approach, but his demeanor suggested otherwise. At the conclusion of his talk, he asked if there was anyone of faith in the audience.

Perhaps fifty people were listening. Silently, a single young woman raised her hand.

After asking her permission, the professor proceeded to bring her up in front of the group. Although visibly nervous, the girl was steady in her responses, often pausing before she answered his questions about why it is she believes what she does. Eventually, he got her to admit that she may not believe “100%” in her particular brand of religion if she were to be presented with evidence stating that it was not right, true or accurate.

Everyone clapped and smiled at the brave young girl as she left the podium.

Having explored some spaces and questions of faith in my past, I would have liked to have gotten to know her a little better. One cannot realize completely from where one comes in knowing their view of faith in ten minutes, although the professor had attempted to do so. It seemed that she had been born into a household of a particular religion and pretty much identified with it as the “true” religion. This initiation into one’s church or place of faith is typical with what takes place in most of the world. It isn’t unusual not to question the views and values that one’s parents or other influential people teach and model. What is unusual was the professor’s desire to “unmake” those views and values, regardless of whether they bring comfort to the believer and cause no harm.

Then again, I suspect he is of the belief that all religious views and values do cause harm. I do not practice the religion in which I was raised, but I do not think it is wrong. I identify culturally as Catholic, and I agree with many of its teachings as well as admire some of its less conservative leaders. In September I found comfort in attending Mass with my family. It may sound hypocritical, but I think one can be of and of not faith at the same time. I think this can even happen in the very same day!

Were it not for the circumstances of our birth, where would each of us be today? Is it not completely arbitrary that I was born a female in America to middle income Roman Catholic parents who loved and raised me to hold education, health, kindness and respect for all humans paramount?

Had I been born in places I have known… say… a Carribean island located a mere ninety miles south of Miami, or in its impoverished neighbor to the east, how might I be different? Had I been born a Haitian child raised with minimal opportunities for learning, surrounded by intense religious and spiritual teachings, would I not believe differently? And most likely believe that my religion was the “right” one?

We are all converts, one way or another. Converts to our elders’ way of thinking or converts to a new way – be that another brand of God or a way of living that is whole and human but not God-believing or perhaps we fall in somewhere in between.

I once spent time in a beautiful Mexican church where pine needles, fresh eggs, burning candles and bottles of Coca Cola decorated the floor. Petite men and women in indigenous dress tended these tiny altars. Glowing with candle light and surrounded by mumbled prayer, the altars were bizarre and magnificent. I was a stranger to both the practice and the prayer. Out of respect and humility, I left quietly after a very brief stay in their sacred space.

If I had only been born to a woman of the village of this particular church, would I not believe as they did? Do as they do?

Although I agreed with much of the “reason” behind the professor’s speech, I also believe that believers do and say and believe as they do as much due to their life beginnings and experience as anything else.

We trust the people who convert us to a particular way of thinking. This goes beyond religion. Beyond faith. Evidence or no evidence, our place in the world is shaped by a myriad of people, practices and images that continually evolve and turn around the sun.

Unless they are doing and/or saying something that is hurtful to another and they do so based on their brand of religion – which may or may not be different from their faith – I don’t have a problem with them. Organized religion is one thing. One’s personal faith is quite another.

Who are we to judge? said our new Pope. I say “our” because as we belong to the world, the leaders among us also belong to us, regardless of where along the faith spectrum we fall. I only wish that we could belong to each other as well – to help, and not hinder, one’s journey toward bringing out our best selves and in the practice of self care and care for others. Our differences set up apart, but our humanity can bring us together.

SanJuanChamula_DarijAndAna

On Faith

Scintilla prompt: Talk about an experience with faith, your own or someone else’s.

Let me begin by saying that I am so not crazy about responding to this prompt, because the word Faith makes me think of Religion, and Religion and I are no longer friends.

The novelist and born again Christian Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers. I think Anne is a Christian with a little c and not a big C, because she’s not crazy or mean or anti-woman, and she actually believes in “all that is noble, and good, and Christ-like”.  By Christ-like, I mean like the guy who, by all accounts, was a story teller. Jesus told stories that had lessons embedded within them invoking goodness and morality.

By all accounts, Jesus was a teacher, a healer, and a lover. By some accounts, he made miracles (and I believe this was what got him into trouble). In his short lifetime, he spoke of love, peace, compassion, tolerance, patience, and kindness. And this is why I’ll tell the Christmas story to my children with a little c approach, because I cannot believe in Big C Christianity — more and more Big C seems to go against all of the virtues about which Jesus told stories.

Especially tolerance.

Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) said “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” That’s hardly news, but I think of his words when I contemplate Faith.

The thing about Faith is that I really want some.

But my son would say, “Mama, you’re just not sure of the directions” (we’ve gotten lost in the car a time or two).

He is correct. I do long for Faith, and I don’t know the directions. I admire those who hold a gentle, sincere belief in something greater than a weary humanity on this troubled planet, and proceed to live their lives in a humble, gracious and community-serving way.

I’ll give you an example of how Faith eludes me. One day I specifically sought my sister’s spirit on a riverbed. I prayed, and I convinced myself that due to the special relationship we had when she was alive, she would reveal her spirit to me and we would continue our dialog. It didn’t happen and it was very disappointing. It’s not to say that I didn’t, or don’t, receive signs of her presence in my world. I do (actually, I have received a total of two, but they were both incredible experiences).

However, the idea of just believing, just “having faith” that she’s out there and there’s a better place for all of us in the end isn’t easy for me to get behind… it’s not that I don’t want to. But it’s not like finding a pearl in an oyster. Or is it?

I once contacted a woman who practices soul retrieval. Soul retrieval is the process by which one reclaims his or her soul, which has been lost due to a traumatic event. It was an unfamiliar and rather bizarre practice, but I was up for anything that would make me feel better at the time. To make a long story short, when the woman explained that I had to first pay her one thousand dollars for retrieval of my (supposedly lost) soul, I ceased contact.

When I described the experience to a good friend (a woman of amazing goodness, a beautiful and loving spirit who practices Reiki and meditation), she assured me that my soul had never been, and could never be, lost, and I felt immediate relief.

You cannot put a price on one’s soul. Then again, this is how the woman in the business of soul retrieval makes a living. She’s got a website, clients… what a strange world we live in.

You see how the directions to Faith are complicated? I know some of you are shaking your heads, thinking it doesn’t require such thought. Just believe.

How did I go from honoring the story-telling healer from Bethlehem to soul retrieval quackery?

Just believe.

Like the kid on the Polar Express, I want to hear the ringing of the bells year after year, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. In the meantime I’ll remain a searcher, and a seeker of knowledge, both worldly and spiritual. Thanks for reading.

Found the Marbles