Guts and Poop and Gray Hair…Oh My!

Every day I pick up the kids from school, I pass a massive carcass decomposing along the side of the road. Maybe a cow or a bear? I’m not sure. But the thing I find fascinating—and oh-so- delightful—is that it has remained on the side of the road long enough to rot. No well-intentioned citizen has called the Division of Wildlife to demand the unsightly skeleton be removed. Everyone here seems content enough to let the poor beast rot in peace.


Within the two short months we’ve lived here, I’ve grown quite accustomed to seeing “guts” and bones. Piles of intestines have frequently appeared on our porch, dirt driveway, and grassy, unkempt fields. By mid-morning, they’re swarming with an assortment of flies and flesh-eating bees (why did I never learn about Vulture Bees in school?? SOOOO interesting!!), and by early evening, all traces of the shiny, coiled intestines have been efficiently consumed.


Speaking of guts and carcasses, I’ve started the strange habit of collecting bones as we walk about our property, and have amassed a small mound on the ledge of my back porch. While this ossuary of sorts might seem grotesque to many, it constantly reminds me of death’s ever- potential nearness. I find myself increasingly grateful for every glorious breath I’m allowed.


~


Back in Windsor, I used to audibly groan whenever so my phone would vibrate up with a “Next-Door Neighbor” alert. Even so, I read them all the same.


There was once a guy ranting over the “dog poop” that covered the golf course, only to be duly chastised by the manager that the green logs were, in fact, goose turds, and not much could be done to control the wild geese. (I’m sure there were quite a few people who might have favored shooting the birds rather than permit their precious golf course to be littered with poop).


Sneakily snapped photographs often popped up on the neighborhood app, intended to shame the lazy dog-walkers who didn’t utilize the free doggie bags provided along the way. The captions always read something like, “PICK UP YOUR PET’S POOP!!! WE’RE WATCHING YOU!!!” in all capital letters, with no less than three exclamation marks.


I get it—no one wants to step in a pile of poop while out on their morning jog, and it’s certainly in poor taste not to clean up after your pet, especially in public places. I just always found people’s extreme rage amusing, along with the looong thread of comments that ensued, and I constantly questioned how people had so much time and energy to expend on a few pieces of poop.


I laughingly wonder how they would have responded to guts?


All this to say, my favorite, favorite, favorite thing about now living in the mountains is the imperfections.

Down in town, very few cars are ever squeaky clean because it rains—a lot—and almost everyone seems to live off of one dirt road or another. Sometimes, a lone dog wanders around the main street because, well, who knows why, and occasionally, they even poop! But I’ve yet to witness someone snap a photo to shame their neighbor. No one shakes their head or clucks their tongue over the poor, impoverished animal whose owner clearly doesn’t deserve their furry friend. Perhaps due to the generous population of deer and elk that roam the valley, people here understand that, once in a while, animals poop.

Suggested reading for my golf-course friends 😂


Additionally, scattered across the face of every mountain, dead trees lie crisscrossed wherever they’ve fallen. Even so, no HOA committee seems to be sending out notifications requiring the owners to clean up their yard. Weeds—even noxious ones—sprout up abundantly amidst the vibrant wildflowers. But to my knowledge, no board is being formed to address this earth-shattering problem, and I feel free to cherish the beauty of even the weeds.


Our new house has woodpecker holes in the cedar siding, and while not idyllic, we’ve accepted it for the time being as our reality. Additionally, our house has no gutters, so the afternoon rains careen down the metal roof without impediment and free fall to the soft, dark earth, resulting in slightly grooved trenches.


“Maybe we will add gutters,” Arin muses, then quietly rescinds, “or maybe we won’t.”


Here, there is an observed synergy between nature and people that is so easy to forget in more populated, “civilized” areas: Animal poop fertilizes the earth. Rodents run rampant, but their flesh provides food for larger animals, and their innards nourish the smaller ones. Trees fall, dirt makes things dirty, and none of these things, although acknowledged and addressed, seem gripe-worthy on “Next-Door Neighbor.”


Ironically, the things that are, perhaps, fit to be posted on social media are calmly accepted with a simplicity that I find both foreign and fascinating.


Our neighbor across the way informed us that a woman was found chopped up approximately a mile-and-a-half up the road a few years ago. He sees bears and mountain lions all the time. These events, he shares matter-of-factly, as it were somehow less of a crisis than golf-course dog poop, and something about his calmness simultaneously amazes me and sits just right in my soul.


When we first moved here, Arin used to grow flustered by the uncontrollable afternoon rains that interfered with his outdoor work plans. Now, he just looks to the darkening sky as his signal to rest, and rather than shaking his fist at the gathering clouds, he comes in for our afternoon cup of coffee, and we head for the porch to watch the storm.


As dramatic or cliché as it may sound, it feels acceptable to just BE for the first time in my life. This place, this air, gives me the courage to be me, to neither despise nor celebrate my imperfections, but to simply permit them to exist. It’s emboldened me to aggressively tackle the issues that I wish to conquer (like my fears) while exposing the “dog poops” I wasted so much energy fretting over (like the gray hairs that keep sprouting from my head faster than the purple musk thistle on our mountain).


As seemingly trite as hair is, it’s consumed many of my thoughts lately. I’ve religiously colored my grays for as long as I can remember. But somehow, up here, it doesn’t seem so unthinkable that a woman under the age of sixty might (gasp) “let her roots show.” I been thinking on a quote I recently read by an older woman concerning her graying hair. “It’s not so much about letting yourself go, as it is about letting yourself be.”


I contemplate the way I’ve promised myself to age gracefully, how I’ve preached it to my girls, admired the trait in my husband—and recognize my potential hypocrisy. Turning my thoughts to our property, I then consider my reticence to use commercial weed killer on land so pristine, and concurrently ponder my willingness to marinate my own scalp in such harsh chemicals month after month.


What if I gave myself the permission to JUST BE?


A smattering of wiry, gray hairs seems to be surfacing some fairly big questions.


In Wayne Muller’s excellent book, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, he talks about a geological term called Isostasis, which refers to the idea that when something in nature is removed, another is free to grow in its place.


What if I removed my expectations of what I should do, of who I should be? What would be free to grow in its place? What if I learned to just accept instead of always trying to manage and control? What if, instead of fighting against nature, I became a calm, willing, and thankful participant?


These thoughts ramble around in my head, and I feel free to let them percolate—unresolved— and with every passing day, my gray hairs grow longer and more noticeable.


What if I look old? Ugly? What if my husband no longer finds me attractive
?


My thoughts bombard me like an internal HOA board, “Clean up your yard! You must be manicured and pristine, or we will fine you!”
But then I lift my eyes to the surrounding mountains, I open my ears to the chattering locusts and swarming flies, and there is something about the wilderness around me that makes my own chaotic wildness feel slightly more acceptable.

I’ve always been a rule follower and a people pleaser…to a certain point. But there’s also been a latent wildness that I’ve fiercely protected and allowed to remain subdued, partially out of self-preservation, and partly due to my fears and insecurities.


However, there’s something about riding a magnificent horse outdoors, where mountains erupt from the earth on all sides, that makes it slightly harder to suppress everything I feel, to tamp down the woman I’m becoming; besides, I’m running out of reasons not to be fully me. I’m so in love with the life we’re creating that I find I want to be fully present in my own skin instead of escaping my one, wild ride of a life.


Arin and I were talking yesterday about the idea that when you live in nature, surrounded by God’s handiwork versus man’s concrete jungle, something begins working on you from the outside in. Your efforts become multiplied almost magically by something beyond yourself, and for us, something about this whole moving process feels like we are no longer fighting against the goads but being lifted up and carried along a current higher and greater than ourselves.


I fall asleep every night, insanely proud that we’ve fought through so many fears and hurdles to be here and so thankful to be living our best life. Certainly, it’s not been without trial and tribulation, but rather, because of them that we are where we are, and this, I suppose, is a bit like my gray hairs. They are a part of me, whether I acknowledge them or not.


Perhaps it has come time to just let them be.

❓❓❓😵‍💫👵🏼🤷‍♀️❓❓❓

~


To my small handful of readers:

Most likely, this will be my last blog of the summer. The kids are back in school, and it is time to return to a love that has only recently surfaced, a part of myself never knew existed.


As some of you know, I’m working on writing my memoirs, which in the long run, I am hoping to publish. Pray for my endeavors and potential success.


Thank you for journeying with me through these brief summer months and our move to the mountains.


Blessings to you all!

Heaven Stooped Low

“We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”

Abraham Herschel-

August 15, 2022

I took the kids to eat at a fast food restaurant yesterday after church. The Cracker Barrel had waiting lines out the door, the air conditioning was down at Noodles & Co., and so we ended up–first-world famished–at a run-down Burger King in Pueblo.

The entrance was partially demolished and blocked off with yellow caution tape, almost as if a car had crashed through the front door, and a hand-written sign suggested using the side door as an alternative.

But the alternative entrance looked like a grocery store parking lot lined with shopping buggies filled with sleeping bags and any other tattered possessions their homeless owner had accumulated along the way.

Sufficiently deterred, I pulled out of my parking space around to the drive-through window, which–to my dismay–was only accepting cash. The lobby register was equipped to take credit cards, the staticky voice politely informed.

Grayson growing edgier by the minute, I resigned myself to a dine-in Whopper, and circled back to my original parking spot, where Grayson, Reagan, and I filed out of the car toward the buggy-lined door.

A waif-like man beat us there and was holding the door for us while fixedly staring at the ground. His hair looked like it hadn’t seen a dollop of shampoo for weeks, but when he hesitantly lifted his pale blue eyes to meet mine, I noted they were kind, albeit heavy-laden; and their watery softness stood out in stark contrast to his deeply etched and weathered skin.

Inside, a homeless man was curled up in a chair, loudly snoring away with his filthy shoes propped on the table. My kids exchanged nervous glances but followed me toward the register, regardless, where we arrived just in time to overhear the recently door-holding man barely whisper, “Just a hamburger please,” before plunking down a pile of change–mostly pennies–on the counter. He was visibly nervous as he slid and counted the coins one at a time, and grew further exacerbated when a man toward the back of the line loudly muttered, “Jesus, how long is this going to take?” before irritatedly slapping a dollar bill on the mound of coins.

Now fully flustered, the door-man forgot what number he was on, and had to start counting all over. The young girl behind the cashier smiled apologetically at the approaching manager, who had, in the meantime, wandered over to assess the hold-up and the ever-increasing line.

His head was bare as an eight-ball, and every last square inch of his revealed skin was covered in tattoos. Strands of looping earlobes swung back and forth as he walked, further highlighting the two gaping holes that lacked the structure of their customary gauges. He looked the part of a fast-food manager, I wryly (and critically) mused to myself.

Stepping forward, I offered to add the door-man’s hamburger to my order, but the manager brushed me aside with a wave of his arm. “No worries, I got it,” he said, sweeping the change off the counter into his free hand. I asked the door-man whether I could buy him anything else, and he quietly added from beneath lowered eyes, that, yes, a drink might be nice.

After thanking me, he shuffled meekly to the end of the counter as if he wished to disappear, and I leaned over to asked whether he might like some fries or onion rings too.

Suddenly, the manager’s swift movements caught my attention, and I caught him quickly sneaking an oversized box of fries into the man’s paper bag. Our eyes met, and he winked as he stuffed an extra burger into the bag.

At once, the scales fell from my eyes and the manager’s heavily-inked skin was revealed as the canvassed dwelling tent of God. Joy trickled from the corner of his winking eye, and his face was awash in white light.

There, in line at Burger King, I stood exposed and naked in my threadbare garment of judgment, while the tattooed manager was regally robed in his charitable works, and the door-man vested in a simple, yet splendid robe of humility.

Even so, the nearness of the Divine, was sufficient to cover me–even me.

Truly, there are angels among us.

~

It’s early morning, and the sun has yet to show it’s face over northeastern mountain peaks. A loud thump to my left alerts me to the fact that–yet another–bird has flown into our living room window.

I look over to behold the tiniest, most pitiful of creatures laying in an all-wrong position on a board of composite decking–its wings intermittently twitching and flapping. Assuming it to be a near-death flutter, I pull my chair closer to observe the strange transition between life and death.

I note the bird’s faint yellow underbelly and the white markings around its eye, and assess it–perhaps incorrectly–to be a Warbling Vireo. Much to my husband’s amusement, I’ve taken on the self-appointed role of “Family Ornithologist,” thanks to my new Merlin Bird ID app.

As I’m voyeuristically observing the bird’s sacred transition, Cadence, our German Shepherd, lets herself out the front door, and automatically walks up to the ailing bird and rudely nudges it with her nose.

With what seems like its last dying strength, the bird hurls itself over and its head flops back in an unnatural position. Certain that the light is now surely passing from its eyes, I return to my reading, mentally committing the task of discarding the dead bird to my daughter.

Half-an-hour later, Nala, our dingbat of a Golden-doodle, comes sauntering out the front door to lay her head in my lap, completely failing to observe the little bird I believe to be deceased.

After a round of morning scratches and pets, both dogs notice and re-notice the bird. They sniff, circle, and then to my chagrin, begin poking it with their noses. Surely, they won’t eat a dead bird, I wonder to myself, cringing.

Suddenly, Cadence flips the bird upright with her nose, and I observe that its eyes are now wide-open and glossy black. It’s hops across one, then two and three planks, then leaps off our porch and flies effortlessly to a nearby tree.

I sit, stunned, as I take in the complexity of such a simple moment, and ponder on the quote I’d just read, “We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”

Self-admittedly, I lack the ability to extend my concept of the Divine “far enough,” for it is here that I find my words and mental capacity simultaneously reaching their end.

Perhaps this is the holy ground where has God has drawn a line in the sand, thus demarcating the end of language’s capacity and the early frontier of contemplative “unknowing.”

Regardless, it is in this micro-moment that I sense the meaning of “close enough.” It is here, that I sense God’s “smallness” and the way He condescends to fill the fragments–the slivers of time–to bring life and light to motionless birds, tattooed skin, and defeated, pale-blue eyes.

~

As I found my way to a table and began doling out burgers, the soft-spoken door-man began unwrapping his at a nearby table. I stood to introduce myself and invited the man named “Adolfo” to eat with us. Re-wrapping his burger, he let me me know that people made him nervous, as he was more accustomed to being alone. I told him I understood as he turned to shuffle out the door, the feel of his leathery hand still fresh in mine.

But it had been “close enough.”

The Divine had come “close enough.”

The Sinewy Connection Between Life and Longing, Death and Doubt

July 5, 2022

I am mid-stride in the kitchen when the darkness hits. Without warning, it rolls in as quickly as the afternoon thunderstorms, although my darkness feels much more smothering and muggy. Siphoning my breath and dousing my previous exuberance, the darkness accosts me, demanding an immediate account for my actions: What have you done?

In the sudden eruption of thought, I cannot discern whether it’s originating from within myself or without. You realize you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life. You’ve uprooted your children, your AUTISTIC SON nonetheless, and you KNOW how he hates change! You’ve forsaken your aging parents, abandoned your friends…and for what? A longing? A far-fetched dream?! You know that in time, you’ll make a mess of all this too—just like everything else you touch. You’re an inverted Midas; everything you lay hands on turns to shit!

My stomach twists in knots as I identify the franticness as Fear, and the spiteful accusations as Self Hatred. I banished the latter years ago; still, it loves to rear its ugly head from time to time to test whether my resolve has weakened. It tries to sneak in the back door, piggy-backed on my deep-rooted fear of failure. Both voices blend as one until Self Hatred grows overly animated and—hopping on its soapbox—starts portraying my longings as potential landmines, my dreams as catastrophes-in-waiting. 

Having exposed itself, I gently but firmly escort Self Hatred back out the door, reminding it that it is no longer welcome in my life. Turning my attention to my quivering Fear, I attempt to compassionately acknowledge it as real rather than feverishly ignoring it as I have for many years past.

The heaviness subsides slightly but leaves me shaky and unsettled, certain to the core that nothing in my world will ever feel right or normal again.

Shortly after, I take a walk to dislodge any residual heaviness. My eyes can recognize the surrounding beauty, but Fear prevents them from perceiving it as such. Rather than an ancient, towering Ponderosa Pine, my wildly scanning eyes inform me that I am beholding a mountain lion’s perch, from where it will inevitably pounce and tear me limb from limb. Every rock is a crouching bear, and every snapping twig confirms my impending doom.

But as the incline rapidly increases, I am forced to focus on just sucking in enough oxygen to maintain my leisurely pace (altitude is no joke!). In time, the deep, rhythmic breathing begins unfurling my knotted guts.

Up ahead, the dogs have zeroed in on something of interest, and although I call to them, they willfully ignore me. As I round the bend, I see a full rack of curving ribs, rising like spires from the weedy earth, and the hairs on my arms stand on end. The ribs are still attached to the backbone, forming more than half of a skeleton, with clumpy bits of fur and meat still clinging to the bone.

Although my boys and husband hunt, I’ve only personally experienced the post-hunt plastic-wrapped meat, the cleaned-up pelt-turned-rug. I’ve never killed anything, never even been close to such unmanaged, wild death. Something about it simultaneously intrigues and repels me (like many sacred things do), and I inherently understand that this push-pull will be my new steady companion while adjusting to life in these mountains.

Truthfully, the longing and curiosity have always been intertwined with my fears and doubts (more on that later), and like a rubber band ball, I have never been able to tug on one strand without the whole mass tagging and bouncing along behind. In reality, it’s all one bundled package anyway—life and death, desire and fear, light and dark. They cycle back and forth, round and round, in and out, and our wide-eyed attentive presence to all the opposing forces is what shapes us into more well-rounded humans—empathetic, sensing, and wholly present.

This unexpected encounter with death somehow makes me feel more acutely alive, and as I walk up the remainder of our winding dirt road, I notice my previous darkness had, at some point, dissipated along with my Fear, leaving behind only a deep-rooted satisfaction.

One day, I will be ribs and backbone and clinging morsels of flesh.

I have one life.

How will I choose to live it?

Integrity is often a willingness to hold the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere. Frankly, it is just another name for faith.

-Eager to Love by Richard Rohr-

“To tread the sharp edge of a sword, to run on smooth-frozen ice, one needs no footsteps to follow. Walk over the cliffs with hands free.”

-Buddha-

Death at a Gas Station

Like scattered toys, the firetrucks and ambulances were parked willy-nilly as if dropped from the hand of a careless child. We maneuvered our car in and out between them. All I wanted was a candy bar.

As I paid the yawning attendant with glazed-over eyes, I politely tried to sneak a peek at the scene unfolding out in the parking lot. Only the white pickup truck towing a trailer of lawnmowers was appropriately parked. That was the only vehicle that actually looked like someone had intended to park it that way, long and parallel to the curb. Maybe the landscapers had stopped to load up on snacks after a long day’s work. Or was a crew member already feeling poorly, and the gas station their intended point to connect with an ambulance?

Candy bar in hand, we exited the lot. There, on the sidewalk, a mound of brown flesh rose sharply from the earth — glistening and practically steaming in the heat of the setting sun. The man’s skin was pulled taut over his round belly like a too-small canvas stretched across a too-large frame. The circle of paramedics, uniformly dressed in navy, was frozen, disproportionately still — the only movement originating from a petite woman with shoulder-length, chestnut hair. Up, down, up, down. She thrust emphatically, her actions mirroring those of the surrounding pump jacks bobbing for oil. Both dipped and rose to an unheard beat. Both plunged with fervor — hoping, needing to extract.

To the right, a skinny Mexican interlaced fingers behind his head. As his arms lifted, so did his shirt, revealing a stick-thin torso — a stark juxtaposition to his rotund, motionless friend. When he turned from the scene, his eyes scanned the sky. Was he seeking a higher help or simply a much-needed distraction? Perhaps he was fighting off hot, shameful tears. I imagined his slow exhale. It seemed a fitting reaction — a young man’s feeble attempt to send despair whirling.

It had just been a typical day…until it wasn’t.

The circle of paramedics leaned farther back on their haunches, and even in our car, I sensed their deflated energy. An I.V. dangled limply from the fingertips of a lone extended arm. They had all been there a while. Long enough to insert an I.V., long enough to administer CPR. There had never even been a moment non-crucial enough to load the afflicted man on a gurney.

Still, the small woman dove with all the force she could muster — elbows locked, fingers entwined — again, and again, and again. Her efforts were admirable but futile, I suspected.

As our car pulled away, I broke off a piece of my KitKat bar and and chomped down through the flaky wafers. It was all I had really wanted.

Instantly, the sacredness of the moment collided with my profane. I closed my eyes and envisioned the man’s exposed belly. I felt in my body the resounding thud of palms pounding breaking ribs. I heard in my ears the crunch of a candy bar.

A soul had passed — departing our world like the waving heat of a mirage.

And all I could think to do was eat a candy bar.

Unless a Grain of Wheat…

“My dad told me this once.  For a wheat seed to come fully into its own, it must become wholly undone.  The shell must break open, its insides must come out, and everything must change.  If you didn’t understand what life looks like, you might mistake it for complete destruction.”

-The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp-

 

I haven’t written lately because I haven’t had much to say.  And because some thoughts take longer to gestate than others.  Sometimes life has a way of washing over you like the ocean wave you didn’t see coming and suddenly,  you’re not thinking in words, you’re just trying to figure out which way is up and how to find your breath again.  Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like the older I get, the more I have to fight to hang on to hope and not give in to cynicism.  I have to work harder to see the glass half full instead of half empty.  I worry more than I ever have.  With the way the world is and a house full of present and upcoming teenagers, I recognize how much I stand to lose and how little control I possess.  And I just don’t have enough…enough patience, enough energy, enough love.  Many days feel like a battle, a monotonous drudgery at best.  And I become frustrated with myself that I can’t be more upbeat, less of a Debbie Downer, more like someone else, anyone else…

However, what I am being reminded of, is that there is no one who escapes life without struggle.  It is a part of the cycle of life.  Even if we lived in a utopian world, we would war within ourselves. But like a forgotten memory I am starting to recall a time when I knew better…a time when I was able to hold suffering in greater esteem.  Like birth pain, the struggle is more intense when you fight it, when you try to eradicate it.  I have forgotten that the best way to deal with pain is to breathe and lean into it, remembering that pain can give birth to breathtaking beauty.

I guess the last few months have left me feeling a bit like a wheat seed…like my outer layer has been has been smashed open, my insides spewed carelessly about.  And it kind of feels like complete destruction.  But perhaps, if I can learn to accept all of life with grace, humility and gratitude, this “destruction” can be the springboard into new life.  The Orthodox church has a saying, “Out of death springs life.”  They serve boiled wheat at funerals and memorial services to physically remind people that death is not the end.  It is a good reminder that sometimes we need to be “undone” before we can become “done.”  And like the smallest sprout, I feel hope start to grow again.  Although pain is not something I feel the need to seek out, I also can feel the frantic need to escape it seeping away.  As wind and water can erode granite, so can pain shape and wear away my rough edges.  Sometimes it feels like life cracks us wide open to pain.  But perhaps, it is cracking us open to healing, breaking us so that we can live life fully.  I hope and pray that my soul will settle in, lean in, and learn to graciously accept all that comes to me with peace of soul and the firm conviction that all is sent to me for my benefit.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies…”

IMG_20170315_162343222

Photo credit to my youngest daughter, Reagan

Speaking the Unspoken Truth

**Spoiler alert – contains spoilers regarding the movie “A Monster Calls.” **

images

Over Christmas break, I took my kids to the movie, “A Monster Calls,” based on the New York Times Bestselling book.  I had no expectations or understanding of what it was even about.  That being said, I managed to cry my way through the last half of the movie.  It is very rare that a movie grips my mind and thoughts long after the credits are through rolling.  But this movie was so poignant and in my opinion, touched on the very struggle of what it means to be human.

The story is told of a young boy whose mother is facing cancer.  He has a recurring nightmare in which he is holding onto his mother who is about to slip into an abyss and he cannot hold her any longer.  The boy repetitively wakes up just as he loses grip and she begins to plummet.  The long and short of the plot is that an ancient tree awakens and shares three stories and tells young Conor that after the third story, he will tell his story (nightmare) and will tell the truth of it.  The following is an excerpt from the book.  Forgive me for a lengthy quote but I cannot summarize in any way that would do it justice…

From A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

“Because, yes, Conor knew.  He had always known. The truth. The real truth from the nightmare…  ‘Please don’t make me,’ Conor said.  ‘Please don’t make me say it.’  You let her go, the monster said.  Conor closed his eyes tightly but then he nodded.  You must speak the truth and you must speak it now, Conor O’Malley.  Say it.  You must.  ‘It’ll kill me if I do,’ he gasped.  It will kill you if you do not, the monster said.  You must say it.  You let her go.  Why?  And then he spoke the words.  He spoke the truth.  He told the rest of the fourth tale.  ‘I can’t stand it anymore!’ he cried out as the fire raged around him.  ‘I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go!  I just wanted it to be over! I wanted it to be finished!’  And then the fire ate the world, wiping away everything, wiping him away with it.  He welcomed it with relief, because it was at last the punishment he deserved.

‘It’s my fault,’ Conor said.  ‘I let her go.’  It’s not your fault, the monster said, its voice floating in the air around him like a breeze.  You were merely wishing for the end of pain, your own pain, and how it isolated you.  It is the most human wish of all.  ‘I didn’t mean it’ said Conor.  You did, the monster said, but you also did not.  Conor sniffed and looked up to its face which was as big as a wall in front of him.  ‘How can both be true?’  Because humans are complicated beasts, the monster said.  How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch?  How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour?  How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking?  How can a person be wrong-thinking but good-hearted?  How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?   ‘I don’t know,’ Conor shrugged, ‘Your stories never made any sense to me.’  The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day.  You wanted her to go at the same time you wanted me to save her.  Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both.  ‘But how do you fight it?’ Conor asked, his voice rough.  ‘How do you fight all the different stuff inside?   By speaking the truth, the monster said.   As you spoke it just now.  Conor thought again of his mother’s hands, of the grip as he let go ~ Stop this, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, gently.  This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.  You must listen.  You do not write your life with words, you write it with actions.”

The bare naked truth of the matter is that we all have secrets.  Perhaps we have never actively done anything horrifically wicked, but we have all had thoughts that would mortify us if spoken out loud.  I will be embarrassingly transparent regarding a personal example.  One day, my son threw a fit and ran away and was threatening to run into a busy road.  His fits are not uncommon, as a child with special needs, and it had been a particularly bad week.  As he ran toward the street, the thought flashed through my mind that if I let him run and there was a fatal accident, my life would be so much easier.  Of course I stopped him from running, yet I felt crushed under the weight of my hideous thought and punished myself internally for days.  This is one of many reasons why the above scene absolutely pierced my heart.  Anyone who has suffered or experienced grief also understands the desire for an end to pain, for an end to the isolation of it, for an end to the weariness of it.  After that incident, I did some intense soul searching and demanded of myself to know how any decent mother could ever even allow the faintest of such thoughts to be entertained.  I felt like a blasphemous cartoon character deserving of the proverbial lightning strike from the sky.

And so, many of us carry this needless guilt and shame.  We begin to identify with these fleeting thoughts.  We even may hate ourselves at times for thoughts we have, ways we have hurt others, and the supposed truth over who we are.  But herein lies the problem.  We are not the summation of our thoughts.  We are complicated beasts, as the monster so aptly points out.  It is possible to be wrong-thinking but good-hearted.  Life does not seem to have the same problem with dualistic truths as we humans do.  But we must learn to speak the truth.  We must own our morbid thoughts.  We must open up our dark, cobwebbed closets and let even the smallest aperture of light in.

Ultimately we must understand that the majority of our terrible thoughts do not stem from some deep-rooted wickedness within, but rather a wound that needs to be healed (“This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.”).  Our ugly thoughts, our rage, our embarrassing failures all serve as an indicator to show us where we are broken, where we are suffering, where we need mending.  What good would it do to suture up an infected laceration?  It would only fester and rot and cause further damage.  This being the case, we still hide in shame rather than risk being exposed.   And so, we suffer while smiling and silently endure our infected wounds.  We would rather die than expose the truth.

However,  if we will be brave enough to speak that which is unspoken, we will find peace and freedom.  We will find that our thoughts, once uttered, become powerless over us.  The shackles of guilt and self-chastisement will fall away and we will realize that our thoughts are simply…thoughts.  They do not define us.  They cannot control us.  And then, we will reclaim the power to write our lives with our actions, instead of being tormented by our thoughts.

“Conor let out a long, long breath, still thick.  But he wasn’t choking.  The nightmare wasn’t filling him up, squeezing his chest, dragging him down.  In fact, he no longer felt the nightmare at all…” 

The Nakedness of Suffering

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The Prodigal by Emile Salome

Our little town prematurely lost a teenager to suicide yesterday.  Everyone is feeling the weight of something like this happening so close to home.   And the fact of the matter is that there are no words to offer, nothing to be said that can alleviate or comfort anyone who is truly suffering.  Suffering is pure blackness.  It is a deep, dark pit with room for only one.  Meals can be made, words of consolation spoken, but at the end of the day, no one can help carry the pain.  No one can make time pass more quickly.  The only way through suffering is right down the middle…there is no bypass.

However for those standing on the outside looking in, tragedy and suffering act like a flash forest fire.  In an instant, everything superfluous gets burned away like dross.  We are stripped of all pretenses and become aware of our mortality, the shortness of life and what we are living for that truly matters. We become painstakingly aware of how our priorities have gotten off-kilter, how busyness is running our life, and how unappreciative we have become.  We see with clarity (if only temporarily) what is important in life.

In other countries where monasteries still play a major part in daily life, the first thing that a monk often does is to dig the grave that he will one day be buried in.  This is not due to a morbid fascination with death, but rather as a reminder to live well so as to be prepared for death. What would life look like if we could preserve the somberness, the softness and the vulnerability of suffering?  What if we could more consistently expose our weaknesses, our pain and our naked self without fear of condemnation?  What if we all dared to live a more authentic life?

There is nothing that will lighten the load of the tragedy that has taken place.  Nothing will comfort a grieving mother struggling to survive her first day without her son.  But perhaps through our response, we can redeem what has been lost and live longer in this gift that suffering has to offer.  Love and prayers for anyone who is suffering today…