dancing grief

Hair, deeply rooted, still changes.

Vivid brown roots transform to sparkling grey;

Your skin, still so elegant, keeps a smooth terrain, like soft plaster.

Green iris eyes hold a conglomerate of sights seen, loves lost, and hopes deferred.

The life you have lived oozes from your pores;

You, though aging, have really, wholly –

Lived.

We all age.

Our hair may hold no secrets but our hearts, pulled with depth and certainty into our chest are the keepers of our souls.

Here, you find the tender touches of your children, the dreams unlocked, and the forgotten pain that no one sees. Here you keep surprise birthdays, the taste of vanilla bean ice cream, and the pleasures of a walk outdoors after a long spring sun-shower.

Blossoming youth become sophisticated adults become seasoned senior citizens until we are “old” – 

And then –

Like a deadline, we ignore its looming until –

it arrives.

In death, we lose treasures:

stories told and untold;

loves revealed and unrevealed;

recipes cooked and uncooked.

A photograph does not contain your spirit.

A story, even with energy, grows old.

Herein lies grief.

Our powerlessness.

Our sadness.

Our nostalgia.

Grief upon grief dances together, lies together, tarnishing the vivid array of color we once held. We weep, we weep, and we are afraid it will never stop.

Never what we had will be again. And yet. We live on.

We carry you.

We remember you.

We give to our lives the way you gave,

knowing mysteriously and gracefully that it passes on.

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benedictions.

As I peruse my old journal reveries and recollections from the stacks of notebooks I have kept, I notice that, clearly, I’m a sucker for benedictions.

Page after page, it’s not unusual to find text I have written of well-wishes, inspiring quotes, and beautiful blessings spoken into my life – whether after a church service, a ceremony, the ending of a major life event, or from the mouth of a friend.

It makes sense, I suppose, to enjoy the intention, meaning, and tradition of benedictions. By its nature, a benediction is defined as, “a short invocation for divine help, blessing and guidance.” The words Latin roots are bene (well) + dicere (to speak)[1].

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I was spurred, along with other members of my Peace Corps cohort, with well-wishes, bravado, and yes, a benediction unto Rwandan communities across hills, valleys, and lakes as we began our service.

When I wrote about it later, I mused,

 “…I, too, had tears in my eyes, knowing that the journey is young, like I am on the cusp of a life I have eagerly wanted to make. I’m closing my eyes. I’m jumping in. And I know without reservation, God is with me all of that way. He has to be.” – December 16, 2011

Each of us would take our bags, leave Kigali, and go.

I etched the words of the benediction given to us in my journal, too, hoping the reverberation would be a reminder for when I would need it. It was spoken ever-so-eloquently by a Peace Corps Staff member, notable for providing the same benediction each and every year to graduates – it was that powerful.

As we received it, my life changed.

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

There are moments in life that physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually touch you. Your skin becomes prickly, your belly turns upward, like a whale catching its breath. You lose words and gasp at the idea of articulating what you are feeling. These moments are brief, but certainly, they do come.

The rawness of Whitman’s hopes for humanity left tear-stains on my cheek. Could – and would – my life play out like the kind of poem he says?

Instinctively, I knew my life would be different after that day.

Turns out, I was right.

*
Benedictions are powerful because they combine what is so wonderfully mystical about God – one, entering  humbly in a posture of receiving, and two, simultaneously (and boldly) proclaiming what you know to be true. In other words, benedictions encourage listeners to enter the world with eyes open and hands up. We recognize that we are not God. But, we are also not a doorknob, a sheet, or pomegranate lotion. The blessing, then, has potency. Active agent, if you will. Much like yeast in bread.

God may have all the love, grace, and peace for you – but you have to step forward to receive it.

This implies choice. This implies an intentional step-forward. We’re alive. My, how miraculous.

Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass has stuck with me for all these years because it outlines, I believe, what it means to be alive.  Not quite a manifesto (it’s a bit gentler than that), Whitman captures the human spirit at its best.

And, I’m glad I copied it in my journal.  That way, I can return to it – over and over again, recognizing my own need to be reminded of the soulful glaze it places upon my heart. Words soften me, reminding me that the gritty parts of our world don’t have to rule over all.

My hope for myself – and others – is that we seek often the benedictions life presents. Benedictions keep life fresh and relevant. The darker corners of life will tell us that “it’s all for nothing” or “we can’t change the way things are” or “it’s all to hell and hand-basket” or “there isn’t anything we can do.”

Those are lies.

I can say for myself, I did not reach 27 years of age unscathed. I believed some of these lies at times. I have believed worse ones as well.

Far more than a question of embracing an optimist or pessimist identity, I choose to see the world in a certain kind of way. It’s redemptive. Sure, it’s broken.

But I’m sorry, that’s not the end of the story. Benedictions exist to remind us that there is always more to the story.

Whether it’s gossip, fear, bills, stress, or anxiety that keeps you up at night, I sincerely hope your eyes will widen (with your hands placed upward) to receive the blessings present in the midst of all this…crap. Crap is injustice. Crap is hate. Crap is poverty. Crap is hunger. Crap is war.

Both are true: we’re alive, but sometimes, our lives are marred by the crap all around us.

Let’s redeem it together, even on the really, really hard days.

Laced between, I am sure, we can find soft whispers of benedictions all around us.

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[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=benediction

“the list”

Keepers of wisdom, knowledge, and experience have often given me the same piece of advice as I have journeyed along in life:

Know yourself enough to know what you desire in another human being.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming, thinking, and yearning for another person to share my life with. I know I’m not alone in this desire; however, saying this aloud is rather, well, new for me.

For a long time in my life, I thought that marriage was a farce. I suppose that’s being a bit harsh, however, divorce has surrounded my life and I never, never, never want to go through that again.

I am not embarrassed to admit that commitment has often freaked me out.

Eventually, though, my heart has softened towards the idea of a life-long partnership. I suppose falling in love helps the cause. Once you have a taste of what love looks, feels, and is like, it’s hard not to desire this as a forever-kind-of-thing. Moreover, I’ve tasted, literally so much beauty, adventure, and experiences in life – but have done so alone. Frankly, I want to keep exploring all that life has to offer; yet, what sweetness it would be to share this.

I don’t think relationships (or marriage) make us whole. Definitely not. I’ve lived long enough as a strong, single, independent woman to know that’s not true. I’m a Christian, too, which matters because I so happen to believe that my wholeness comes from a deeper purpose altogether. Still, I think God created community for a very particular reason.

Our lives are meant to be shared. Among friends, among families, and also between life partners.

I’ve halfheartedly tried dating websites. I have taken part in church groups, sports leagues, and young leaders’ networking groups in hopes of stumbling upon the right person at the right time.

Yet, I have had to return to the advice given to me by so many. I’ve had to do a lot of “inner work” so that I can actually have my eyes open to who I am, and in turn, what I want. Counseling has helped, but so has re-configuring my own goals, time, and priorities. Preparing oneself to adequately engage in any relationships takes a lot of work. I don’t think people talk about this very much – but I think it’s really, really important.

So, I recently made a list of qualities that I am looking for in another person.

That’s a fun exercise, if for nothing else to see what is important to you.If you have never done this, I encourage you to do so.

I included things like, “will challenge me” and “loves to travel” and also qualities such as, “hopeful” and “easy to talk to.” The list is yours. It’s about identifying the qualities, characteristics, and attitudes you desire in a partner. It’s not an inflexible check-list; I don’t expect that in order to spend my life with someone that they have to have every bullet point. But, it’s a good compass in a map of wonder, I think.

In addition to “the list”, I also wrote a poem. It’s about what I want in a person. What I hope for. What I pray for. In some weird tension of waiting and searching, I have my eyes open to whatever may come my way.

“What Is It That I Want”

Never ending maps as mere compasses illustrating our boundless exploration –

The freedom of the sunshine;

The liberation of the pen.

 

Stories are made and told;

Inspirations are defined as boldness is revealed.

You aren’t who I thought you were.

 

Creating of community sparks magic.

In wilderness, we go together and find treasured jewels.

Coffee lines our books and we ask,

“What are we all doing here?”

 

My dear, existential, lover, we share this.

Explore this, experience this, our eyes are

Open to the divine of it all.

 

Fear is quelled; kindness triumphs

And the possibility of a better society is

Allowed.

Envisioned.

Begun.

 

By our bootstraps, we pull up this kind of place –

We are the keepers, haven’t you heard?

Stewards in God’s delectable majesty.

Companions in the offerings of grace.

 

I dream for peace, for an unscalable love.

I imagine stories bursting forth from the rocks below –

 

Behold! A tapestry of hope.

Let us rejoice.

‘turning madness into flowers’

We have moments that become memories that become stories that sometimes play over again in our minds like a blobby-ish piles of silly puddy. You search for the words to develop the right form and structure of a recollection, but sometimes even the best storytellers lose the rhythm that real good stories often have (and need).

I kind of think that’s the magic ingredient of poetry. Poetry pulls the perfect words together, telling enough of a story, but still leaving so much to the imagination.

I was recently telling a legendary tale of one of my summer adventures to a friend. Each holding a copper mug of a cold, icy moscow mule, I explained that one of the things I learned this summer was how to skin a snake.

No, really, it happened. Look here:

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Kevin & I, in Nebraska, just skinning a snake to cook over fire. No big deal.

Rewind my life a couple years prior, when I found a 2-foot long snake in my room in my Rwandan village, and you would have thought you had met an entirely different person. I screamed like a baby when I had a snake near my bed in Rwanda. But, while doing The Experience last summer, I kind of was tired of being afraid of everything. Of snakes, certainly, but of all the muck and crap we carry around. Afraid of failure, afraid of what people think, afraid of being alone, afraid of my feelings, afraid of who I was.

You see, I just kind of got over it. I was also totally over being afraid of snakes. So, I thought, maybe I’ll just help Kevin skin it up and I’ll feel less afraid. I’m still not sure how effective this method was. Except for the fact that I did eat the snake’s heart afterwards. So, there’s that. Fear is only fear. We can let it be in the room, but it has no right to dictate, rule, or ruin our lives.

So, you see, I wanted to tell this friend of mine about this stupid snake, but really it was kind of a bigger story. I really could have used a poem in that moment.

I don’t write a lot of poetry really, but I think I would like to. I like the witty, deep, with a dash of sass-kind-of poetry. The kind that is contemplative but rooted in real-life experiences, with words and ideas that make you think, but in the same swoop will make you smile.

That’s why I like Alice Walker. She’s a bad-ass poet, writer, and activist.

I went to the library a couple of weeks ago, motivated to read some poetry. I told myself two things: 1) Being a fan of African-American literature, it’s necessary to stay on top of classic author’s works. 2) I could get ideas for my own attempts at poetry.

Those are both really cute justifications for my poetry binge, but I also believe I may have been lying to myself. Really, I think I was jones-ing for some poetry because powerful poetry has a way of maneuvering and leveraging human experiences – the bold, the painful, the real, the gritty – into tangible descriptions. You can read sentiment from paper and feel like, yes. This person knows what I am talking about. i’m not alone.

Who better than Alice Walker? She nails it in one of her recent publications, The World Wiill Follow Joy: Turning Madness Into Flowers, published in 2014. With a collection of over 60 poems, Walker brilliantly and intimately sheds particular light on relationships, memories, human oddities, and universal truths. For many of the pieces in this work, she dedicates the writing or includes the person in the work itself. So, the context is a bit more present than you might find in her other works.

I included a handful of my favorites below. They really spoke to me, moved me, and encouraged me to put pen back on paper and capture the strange, beautiful experience of being human.


When You See Water

When you see water in a stream

you say; oh, this is stream

Water;

when you see water in the river

you say: oh, this is water

of the river;

when you see ocean

Water

you say: this is the ocean’s

Water!

But actually water is always

only itself

and does not belong

to any of these containers

though it creates them.

And so it is with you.

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May It Be Said of Me

May it be said of me

that when I saw

your mud hut

I remembered

my shack.

That when I tasted your

pebble filled beans

I recalled

my salt pork.

That when I saw

your twisted Limbs

I embraced

my wounded Sight.

That when you

rose from your knees

and stood like women

and men

of this Earth –

as promised to us

as to anyone;

without regrets of any kind

I joined you – Singing.

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Desire

My desire

is always the same; wherever Life deposits me:

I want to stick to my toe & soon my whole body

into the water.

I want to shake out a fat broom

& sweep dried leaves

bruised blossoms

dead insects & dust.

I want to grow

Something.

It seems impossible that desire

can sometimes transform into devotion;

But this has happened.

and that is how I’ve survived;

how the hole

I carefully tended

in the garden of my heart

grew a heart

to fill it.

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From Paradise to Paradise

From Paradise To paradise I go

Sweeping;

Collecting Rocks & Views;

Owning Nothing

But what I feel.

Who taught Me this?

This thankfulness?

You did.

Maker of all

Paradises.

Without borders

Or cessation.

Bowing

As I kneel.

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where i am from

Where I am From

by Heather Newell

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I am from orange and blue skies roughly framed

By domineering pioneers and treacherous fourteeners

Oh Rocky Mountain High

From crumbles of granola falling on my bicycle rolling, shifting, and pushing outdoors at all costs.

I’m from front range crusin’ the Continental Divide revealing and navigating West, always

I’m from hey, beer, wine, with every meal, you live once they said, and we’ll hike it off tomorrow.

I’m from rays of sunshine splashing in hastily on Saturday mornings –

open windows, open days, open people

3rd, 4th generation like gold, Samsonite, avalanches, marijuana, and Boulder-ites.

Weird, quirky, always there.

Give me that green chili, grandpa would proclaim, coating his burritos’ edges perfectly so no spot went untouched

I’m from the same womb that has mayor blood; Brighton builldog leadership.

Family, strength, dedication seeps in my skin.

I’m from the hands of stained coffee and burnt grilled cheese

I came back too late to be a 303 girl so I’m stuck with a 720.

Seems a bit rude for a native.

Perched in the china cabinet adjacent to the door, a family heirloom passed down from mama,

Remnants of a Colorado flag carried along to far-off places sits quietly besides grungy Tanzanian bus tickets, woo pig sooie memorabilia, and colorful Rwandan woven baskets.

Photographs of families, everywhere, across races, nations and boundaries create the mirror’s reflecting edges. I’m from here and there.

A big world, home becomes scattered.

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march on, cowgirl

 

Pumps ain’t the knee high stilettos of

Cosmopolitan glamour,

Smack.

Click.                           

Slam.

They are boots not so much made for walkin’

But actually for talkin’, harpin’, and raisin’ hell.

A no-nonsense Kansas farm girl with an

Attitude to boot-

Literally.

The holy-

And I don’t mean Jesus-

Worn shoes were just that, though,

Hers.

The rawness was real,

The stubbornness like unchanging dusty leather

They offer protection, a force shield,

A firm blanket for the ideal of

Marchin’ around as she damn well would please.

Her body can’t wear those boots her legs don’t work she’s lost her mind

So I wear the boots instead

And with a

Smack.

Click.

Slam.

Her cowgirl spirit moves forward.

boots

*

This piece was inspired from a recent writer’s workshop at Lighthouse in Denver, Colorado. The method employed in this exercise is known as “Ekphrastic Writing” which pulls sensory, emotion, and description from a tangible piece of art – a photo, picture, painting, you name it. The photo above features a postcard of cowboy boots. Expecting to right a fictional piece about a Texan, I was guided instead, to channel energy from the cowboy boots I wore for almost 4 years that belonged to my late grandmother, Jenny. 

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the evil fire

smoke and haze are blinding but somehow you continue to see.

piercing, raging, you scream.

it stains and with time leaves beyond ragged scars, transforming open wounds to sickly reminders of what is pulling, sucking, and pushing you away.

unable to resist, power is bred. you are the primary target, the primary victim, the primary source of deceit.

pain is a side effect but the symptom is escape. you can leave at a moment’s notice but like oil catching to flames, when you return the fire is deeper, red, and rising into an unstoppable abyss.

shattered promises and dreams lie motionless like broken glass. memories develop burnt edges and corners while despair, fear, and desperation become the keys you use to move further along, opening and closing doors to a place no man has walked.

but look!

over there. a small, fragmented window is open.

framed with chipped paint and disjointed screens you glance only for a second. but a glance is enough. the shredded white curtains fall aimlessly over an obvious truth. there’s a way out.

take the window. climb out. save yourself from the evil fire.