Teresa and the Loo

SummitCreekouthouse

Teresa of Avila once had the devil appear to her while she was sitting on the loo. Her pants were around her ankles, her face a mixture of piety and carnal instinct. For at that particular moment Teresa happened to have a prayer book in one hand and a cinnamon roll in the other. The devil- as Eugene Peterson tells the story -began berating her sanctimoniously. To which Teresa responded: “The sweet roll is for me, the prayers are for God, and the rest is for you.”

I’m in the process of teaching my little sister to drive. She is apt and appropriately confident. She grips the wheel with both hands while I sit on mine and give pointers (“turn signal, please”; “you can go a little faster”; “No, not right ‘right’- ‘right’ as in go left!”; “dear heavens!”; “well it’s a good thing poor Mr. McGregor is still spry on his toes, now isn’t it?” ). My backseat input is always the kind a student tolerates but a wife- I learned recently- doesn’t exactly appreciate.

On these drives, I have to look twice at my sister to remind myself that the child I knew is now a young, beautifully capable woman. She’s nearing the point of taking the wheel in a new car, stealing a forlorn glance at that faithful clunker called “childhood” which we all trade in, then leave behind.

Mine was a youth of sunsets and tree forts; a stuffed whale named Humphrey, backyard hamster graves, worn paperbacks, a Jeep with it’s windows down, that awkward first kiss, precociously highlighted Bibles, a thrice broken heart and the ominous feeling associated with too much cheap vodka. It easy- tempting even- to divide my memories into the “goods” and “bads.” The latter category is blessedly sparse (though that may account for my shortcomings as a writer). But there’s something inevitable about the transition from ‘child’ to ‘grown-up,’ something that’s burdened with more nostalgia than having to now clean up your own mess. It’s a bit like I’m driving for the first time; but the devil is in the passenger seat berating me because I don’t have both hands on the wheel. And I haven’t a clue where I’m going.

Annie Dillard once shared a story from heaven’s throne. It was a day of great rejoicing. For God had just parted the Red Sea then closed it on the Egyptian army; Israel was free and the angels celebrated. They danced, they sang, they praised the Lord for his victory. But God was nowhere to be found. Eventually they asked the archangel where he’d gone.

He’s off crying, Michael replied.

Why?

Because hundreds of his children just drowned in the Red Sea.

Life is an awful lot like St. Teresa and the loo. It’s a prayer book and a donut, which both feel like indigestion. We want to draw lines down the middle, to separate the taboo from the glorious, lost from the found. But every ant that drowns is a thorn in the crown. And- try though we may- it’s not possible to separate the good memories from the bad. Because they intersect at the meeting of heaven and earth where they together form a cross; you can’t have one without the other. And if the cross was anything, it was Jesus showing us how to take our hands off the wheel and give Satan the finger before driving off a cliff. I don’t mean to be crass. But the pursuit of sainthood can be poignantly reckless.

Driving lessons have become a way- for me- of telling the devil to take all my memories and then watch as he refuses. It’s a way for standing up in the loo, wiping my butt and leaving with my love for God in one hand and love for all things good in the other. Watching my baby sister drive has become a way, not of reckoning with the past, but indulging in it. Realizing that ours is a God who turns shit into daisies. And it’s so fun to see the devil perturbed.

You look like a fool, he tells me.

Indeed I must and perhaps I do. But grace is a fool’s game; even Paul said so.

And so is childhood, so is driving, so are so many things. But it’s a game I’m willing to play and a road I’m willing to drive, sitting on my hands, watching another’s childhood begin fading in the mirror. For God said it was good, and it is good, and it will be good. We can take our hands off the wheel. And, sitting upon the loo, we’ll watch the devil lose his own game.

Nonetheless, all things considered, it is a good thing that Mr. McGregor is so spry.

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A Letter To My Child, Concerning The Tire Swing

My Child,

It would behoove me to explain the nature of a letter written to you so casually, one penned so long before you even exist. Plato, a man you will someday learn not to confuse with your childhood pastime, once said that when we began writing we began forgetting. I am cursed with the gift of forgetting.

But there are things I’ve remembered, snapshots of time that I have tucked away and hope someday to pass along to you. Some of them are stories, leather-bound tales I’ve tucked away into my heart, invaluable to only a few on this world. One day I will dust them off and hand them over to you, probably again and again and again, to the extent that you will roll your eyes and sigh with your then teenage friends. And I’ll laugh because that is the way of things. But I hope you still hold them close to your heart, somewhere beneath the pubescent mannerisms and other facades of the age.

Others are just moments. Moments that I’ve seen and wish to live a million times more, moments of subtle brilliance and quiet redemption that shine like a thousand sunrises all around me. These are the most difficult to pass along and begs the occasion of this letter. For the sake of moments, I must try.

Because I was out walking earlier this morning when a sight caught my eye. It was a tire swing, hanging from a giant oak tree swaying slowly in the February breeze. It floated silently above the snow trodden by the feet of a thousand adventurers below it. Likewise the swing too ventured then returned, all within the confines of the rope by which it hung. It circled back again. It lifted. It dropped.

And that was all.

I thought of how I recently heard another newly married gentleman list “learning to apologize” as one of his favorite hobbies. I felt stupid; I’d said skiing. Make no mistake: your mother is the type of person that is worth apologizing too. She’s the type of woman you go back to again and again to say: “I’m sorry” no matter how minuscule, trite or misplaced the offense.

Which is to say that when I saw the tire swing it reminded me of myself, in a way that only grace can.  I wish I could tell you I am brave and humble or that I ever was. I wish I could tell you that for some moment in my life I have faced the world anew with something like courage or that saying sorry came easy. But if there is anything left to say of me it is that I am like that swing: I am fun when twisted the right way but firm enough to make an apology a difficult ordeal. I’m flexible when pressed, though not enough to hold to something with any sense of conviction. But I am tied down, held in place, by a rope that took hold of me before I was aware of myself enough to notice or resist.

And so there is grace for me in this moment and in all of them. Despite my other shortcomings I do not fall to the snow beneath, the snow which is itself a testimony to the purpose I have served, the purpose of underdogs and merry-go-rounds. Instead I remain and I explore. I go on.

I hope you don’t turn out like me in many ways. I hope you don’t learn from me an ability to swear, argumentative temper or how to find people’s buttons and then push them as a hobby (though it is one hell of a sport). I hope you don’t take my stubbornness, my moodiness and my wanderlust of the heart. I’m sorry if you do.

But I do hope, somewhere along the way, you take from me this moment. And when you begin to doubt yourself, be that in the form of pride or a worn-down spirit, I hope you inherit from your father the ability to find a tree. Find a tree with an overhanging branch, one that sits at least twenty feet off the ground and has a tire swing attached to it. And when you find that tree, sit off in the distance, far enough from it that you can see the whole thing.

Then, my child, wait for the wind. Wait and see what the wind does to the tree and to the swing. Watch as it slowly lifts and falls, lifts and falls. And if you remember nothing else, remember what I told you and the grace of that moment.

If you remember nothing else, remember the tree and the swing and what I told you about grace. Take that moment and keep it.

I hope you don’t need it but know you will.

Yours,

Ceaselessly Into The Past

I spent this last week visiting my parents in my home state. They’re on the verge of moving and asked me to go through my remaining possessions to see what could be discarded. A couple mornings into my stay, I found my way to a corner room in the basement where several boxes eagerly awaited my judgment. I opened one box. Inside were stacks of folders, notebooks and texts from my undergraduate classes. At the bottom were numerous manuscripts. Short stories, poems, and newspaper articles all accumulated from my collegiate musings. I even stumbled upon the pages of the novel I’d crafted during that time, a good find considering winter is around the corner and I’ve plum run out of kindling. I grabbed these and a few other texts then set the rest aside as trash.

The next box was from my younger years. It had my first photo album with baby pictures and snapshots of me as a kid, in-between my sister and brother, both of whom are now married. Another box contained peewee football trophies, Bible camp badges and model airplanes often missing a wing or two. Yet another held high school yearbooks, concert tickets, notes from friends and past relationships, an array of nostalgic items closing in on the current version of me.

I looked up. In my perusal of memories, I’d closed myself in to a niche of boxes. I glanced at my watch and realized that nearly two hours had passed since I’d entered the room and several boxes still awaited my verdict. A simple tasked suddenly seemed overwhelming; the room felt suffocating. I scurried my way out then changed clothes and took a run around the neighborhood. I needed to clear my head.

Tom Stoppard said that we shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms. It scares me that I can say “remember when…” and have multiple tales attached. It scares me that, young as I am, I don’t know how to handle the memories I’ve got. It’s not bad memories that hurt; rather, these are the ones that I shed without a thought of carrying them further. Pictures of lost loves, letters that were never delivered or disposed, the program for the memorial service of a friend, these I put in a small pile to tuck away quietly,  splinters on my cross; with happy icons it’s not so easy.

Because the prayer “thy kingdom come” doesn’t account for the feeling of heaven sliding under me like a treadmill. It doesn’t account for the first drive with my license, stadium lights on a Friday night, the first look into her eyes, Christmas snow falling outside the window, the sunsets, poetry and all quaint memories of this world. I should be thankful for all these things, and I try. But mostly they stack up inside of me, a constant temptress for visitation while what I want, what I need, is a prayer of gratitude, a thanksgiving of good riddance and the weight to be gone.

Returning from my run, I slowed to a trot before walking up my parent’s driveway. Their house was built in the 1920’s and by the looks of things the driveway wasn’t much younger. Glancing it over, I couldn’t help but admire the numerous well-defined cracks it contained from end to end. Curious, I sat down for a closer look. Viewed up close, each crack told it’s own story. Rarely is a crack the result of a negative outside force like earthquakes or sledgehammers. A good hot summer with low humidity can lead to water evaporating too quickly from the surface of a driveway, causing it to dry faster than the bottom and thus pulling the two sections apart. While everyone else is basking in the glory of perfect weather, driveways are bearing the marks of blessing.

Kurt Vonnegurt proposed that time is like a mountain range viewed from afar; one moment of eternity exists at any other moment, just in different locations. Perhaps my time is something like a driveway. It paves the way to somewhere and the beginning is just as much a part of me as the end. With just a glance, one could see that my driveway is littered with the cracks of wonderful. It’s scarred with the memories of days when the sun shined so fully upon my face that underneath I couldn’t keep up and part of me had to break off in the wake of grace.

I stood up and dusted myself off before heading inside to return to my boxes, stepping over several cracks on my way. I still wasn’t sure what to make of it all, but at least I had a prayer, clarification, something close to thanksgiving: Thy kingdom come, running out from under me, cracks in the pavement from end to end.