Thursday, July 30, 2020

Untangling Yarn...

This piece was supposed to be published in a magazine and then Covid happened before my contract was signed so, in the end, it is still mine. I decided to put it on my site. The irony here is that I actually have a hernia that I developed after writing this. It sat in my files for a long time before I finally decided to clean it up for sale. I think in the end, it is still valuable because it really is a strong metaphor for life. We live in the open spaces of our lives. At a time when things are so chaotic and people are so vitriolic, we can remind ourselves to look for those open spaces.

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Last night, as I lay in my bed trying to fall asleep, I moved and my fingers grazed across one of my many abdominal scars. It reminds me of how sometimes I will be happily knitting and I will pull on my carefully wound balls and out will come a length of tangled yarn. Like life, yarn is like that. I carefully wind balls and they look beautiful and perfect but inside is a terrifying tangle of fear and doubt that will pull out exactly when I need to draw on my resources. I cannot go any further until I untangle it.

Touching scars is my way of feeling out and understanding the realities of what is and what was. After my critical illness, all I know is to run my fingers across the surgical scars like trying to untangle yarn. There isn’t a protocol or method or algorithm. I random pull at strings and see what moves and what can be pulled apart to make a space that is not bound up in the knot. I have to learn to move around some knots and undo others until more and more of the yarn falls into my lap, sometimes a little worse for the wear but still untangled. I live in these undone lengths and open spaces.

Years ago, I had already been through many surgeries when I started to have severe abdominal pain. It was caused by a hernia that bulged out of the place where two different months old surgical incisions intersected. We scheduled surgery and I left the doctor’s office in tears, embarrassed but unable to stop myself.

Three days before surgery, I was out with my husband when I felt a pop. My intestines had slipped into the hole. I went to the ladies room to see a lemon sized bulge in my belly. I hid in the accessible stall and cried and bit my lip and held my breath and pushed but could not get it to go back. I began to panic. I locked the door and laid down in front of the sinks and tried again but still couldn’t. Laying on the bathroom floor, I stared up on the ceiling and felt myself sinking into yet another crisis. My insides were literally knotted and I was unable to untangle them. I forced myself to stand and walk out and get my husband. He practically flew to the hospital and by the time we were there, I was in agony and vomiting violently.

When I was opened, I was riddled with hernias and the surgeons ran out of blue mesh to close them so one hernia would be a tension repair. That hernia was smaller, only 5 centimeters long. He tried to go into this site laparoscopically, like the other two sites that day. Unfortunately, my body resisted, too full of scar tissue from the previous surgeries. They moved their tools for another angle and tried again, then again one last time. Three times they tried and three times they failed.

Finally, he resorted to a full open tension repair. I woke to five sets of laparoscopic incisions and a full open where a total of seven hernias were closed over three sites. My body was a minefield with fifteen small holes, each closed with a single stitch, and two short incisions with only a few and then a longer incision with twelve. My body was neatly held together with bits of string, sewn up like a garment knitted in pieces. While the larger scar that lives where the lemon-sized hernia once was is heavy enough, it is not the one I go to in moments of weakness. It is the open-hernia-repair, the one that carries with it the weight of so many failures. My body resisted healing, perhaps I do not know how to be healed?

“Does this feel worse?” I whisper as I take my husband’s hand and place it over a dimpled scar. I pick up my head off the bed so that if there is a new hernia, he will feel the pressure of my insides trying to force their way out again, death spilling out of the place where life should be, like tangles of yarn falling from my ball of wound yarn.

“No. You are better now.”

I consider this for a moment but then shake my head, “Feel it again.”

He does and then repeats himself, “You are better now. It has been years since your last surgery, more than five. You are better.”

I rest my head against his warm shoulder and take my hand off my belly to place it on his chest. His skin is warm and his breathing is steady but I want to touch the scar again, feel its edges and see what it has to tell me. There is likely nothing it has to say to me anymore but I am afraid of finding otherwise. I slowly pull back my hand but he gently grasps it. He places my hand over his heart where he holds it, and me, steady. He knows. He knows the way that my hands cannot leave these knots, even though it has been five years.

I suddenly realize that this is an open space. As I sat here, grappling with the tangle that I perceived fell out of the center of my ball, I realize that it was an illusion. I can pick up these loops and see that they are perfectly fine. I may have pulled out more than I intended to but there is no harm done. I can return to knitting the fabric of my life, punctuated by the steady breathing of my husband and his hands that hold mine steady.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Home...

I am a big fan of John Green’s podcast, Anthropocene Reviewed. I keep his episode about Indianapolis downloaded on my phone and I listen to it repeatedly to remind me that home is before and I live in the after but that home is also something I am building, particularly for my youngest children who are very much products of this place. This is their home of fond nostalgic longing. This is their before.

I think memories of home are what we carry in our hearts and take with us as we go out into the world. We bond with others by taking out those pieces of our homes and sharing them. When we find someone who has similar aspects to their own bits of home and instantly we find our hearts warming and loneliness abated. It does not matter when or where I live, I carry that conceptualized idea of home with me.

This is especially important to me when I consider my faith. Our little mission has but few parishioners and I feel their loss greatly in this time of quarantine. I already grieve my broader family, some days more than others. The ways that I interact with others like myself fall into the usual categories of Facebook and Instagram and phone dates and thousands of texts riding cell signals to faraway Colorado. The particulars of my situation are distinct but the overall message is not. I think most of us live lives searching for connection in a world that has eschewed roots and friendships and God.

This makes the ministry of Ancient Faith so important. I produce content for them; I write and speak on the radio and at conferences. What I say sounds really self-serving and I know that but I am serious. When I sold my first book, I conducted my interactions over the internet and mail through emails and contracts and reviews of PDF proofs. It was sterile and efficient, or so I thought, until the first time I went to a conference and Tonya Maddox wrapped me in a hug. She treated me like a relative at a reunion and not just another author publishing her first book under the guiding eye of her husband, John Maddox. I have watched as others within the organization have done the same for me and for others. There is a lot of love here and it is all because they love Christ first and their home is in Him.

The way people who work with Ancient Faith interact with others is real. I have a friend who was going through a profoundly dark time in her life and listened to Chrissi Hart read children’s books for hours and hours on end. Her gentle and lilting voice soothing when nothing else was. The way that readers and listeners interact with us is just as real. When Chrissi’s husband was valiantly fighting cancer, this same friend prayed for hours and hours for the woman who had sat with her in her own darkest hour. This is real, very real. We have this because Ancient Faith is a new agora, a place where we meet to and share our Christian lives and in turn love each other as Christ loved us.

The quarantine has been hard in so many ways. We have been out of our churches. We have been shut away from our friends and family. We have turned our worlds inward. As we come out of quarantine, how will the landscape look? What will remain of the world that we left behind? Unless people donate to Ancient Faith, which is a non-profit, that landscape will have a gaping void in it. The agora that we built, you and I built together, where we come together to press the like sides of our little homes together, will no longer exist. No new books. No new conferences. It also means no more of the free materials like the radio or the podcasts or the videos. We will all have lost something real.

I have been paid for my books but not the emails or the phone calls or the hugs given in hallways. I pray for you. I keep a list of running prayer requests and I take this seriously. I don’t do this for money. I do this because I can see Christ in your heart and you can see Him in mine. No one who produces content for Ancient Faith is in it for the money. They are in it because that is where we find you and you are worth finding.

I hope that no matter what, you will pray for everyone involved at Ancient Faith. I hope that you will pray that this new agora will last. I hope that if you are able to give, you will. I hope to see you after this quarantine and when I do, I will show you my heart and you will show me yours and we will see our homes in both the before and the after.

You can click HERE to donate. I am on team HMS Swimmy with some of my favorite folks from Ancient Faith. You can pray at any time and anywhere and I hope you will. I am thinking of you. I hope you can feel it in your heart.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Waiting...


I woke up this morning to sun and birds and though it was barely above freezing, I could tell that today would be warm. Well, warm by the relative standards of spring in the Keweenaw. Today is Bright Saturday and I was looking forward to Liturgy and a procession with the artos that I baked a week ago for just this moment. We were lucky to avoid the snow during the procession on Pascha although by the time we left the church, it was chillingly cold and windy with several inches on the ground. Today was clear and sunny with an expected high in the low fifties which is pretty good for late April. Today’s procession in the warmth and sunshine would be glorious. It was to be my consolation.

My husband is the priest and I am the chanter and one of our five sons serves so it is a family affair. Today, I brought four of the six daughters so we could have a small procession. We have been keeping things small, smaller than this at times, and live streaming services over Facebook to anyone who misses church and craves a few minutes of opportunity to live vicariously.

We are clumsy. It is hard to have so few people. There are never enough people to hold books or doors or move the camera for Holy Communion. We all try to fill multiple roles at the same time, moving like circus performers spinning plates on poles. Sometimes we move gracefully and glide past and around each other with those plates spinning smoothly over our heads. Often we fumble and lose track of one plate while attending another. We drop many, many plates and step on each other’s lines and are slow to respond but we are there. I never watch the live stream and I simply hope for the best and pray that the others watching at home are gentle in their judgments.

Today would be that last of the Pascha services, the last of the sung Pascha hours, the last of the Pascha canon, the last of the feast of feasts and it would culminate with a procession of small girls carrying an icon of the Resurrection and the Artos while their father and brother and the lone monk of this isolated community processed around the church. I walked behind them singing, as loudly as I was able, the Paschal canon for the last Bright Week service of 2020. It certainly felt bright and Bright. I felt bright. 2020 hasn’t felt so warm and hopeful for such a long time. It felt like waking up from a bad dream to find the morning dawning clear and full of light.

After we sliced the artos and saved some for the children at home, after some coffee and juice, after a hasty lunch on paper plates, the real world dripped back in like water through the weak seam of a rowboat. There is still a quarantine. State law now mandates that a quick run to the grocery store requires a mask and a queue and to be counted as I enter and exit. Finding toilet paper is a triumph and I am still hoarding bread flour so I can bake the bread that my husband will consecrate during Liturgy. I had been holding my breath, waiting for Pascha, and for what would happen on the other side. Now I am here and I find that I don’t know what I was waiting for but only that I was waiting.

We see the incredibly stark division between life now and life two months ago but are also profoundly conscious of the slow passage of hours and days as we wait to be released from homes to go out and find what the lay of the land looks like these days. There are just shy of three more weeks of quarantine here and it is a day marked out on people’s calendars. That is the day that life begins, it is when we come out of the dark and into the light. I know better, or I should know better. I have seen the Light of Lights and it has come down to dwell among men.

Quarantine was easier while it was winter, while it snowed, while the wind battered our farmhouse out on the peninsula. It was easier to shelter in place as we sheltered from winter. The seasons are shifting and the weather is turning and the earth becoming exposed. Our woods call to the children and teens and they take daily walks down to the creek and wander the ravines that their father and his father and his father before him walked. With the warm weather and the hope of hearing the peeper frogs in the evening comes a disorienting sense that I can’t see what it is we are escaping.

I have a sense that I am standing before a closed door and wondering who is on the other side. Once the door is opened, I cannot go back, I can only go forward. Knowing this, I will take a piece of Pascha with me. I will knock and know that the door will open and when it does, it will let in the King of Glory and where He goes, so I will follow.

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. Psalm 24:7-10

Monday, January 27, 2020

Golden Whispers and the New Martyrs of Russia

We are in the thick of winter, the midpoint when the old Finns say “the bear turns over to the other side”. This is the time of the year when we find the feast of the New Martyrs of Russia approaching. We will take down the icons of the feast from their places on the walls of the temple and set them down lower and look at them. I will watch my children all approach them to venerate and each one will pause to look for the appropriate person to kiss and in that moment they will reflect on who each one is and in what gruesome way they died. This day is one of many days in which the altar is draped in red, a stark visual reminder of the blood of those who gave everything up in the name of the God I love.

My husband is ethnically Finnish but a Russian Orthodox priest. Most of the people we serve at this tiny, far-flung community in this rugged wilderness are also ethnically Finnish but not all. Some are from Russia, some arriving a long time ago and some more recently. Some American melting pot families mix into the parish for good measure. The one thing that we all have in common is that the communal memory of the weight of the Bolshevik yoke looms large. Particularly for the more recent Russians, this shapes their way of approaching the mysteries of the Church. Their customs tinged with layers of discreet gestures passed down by babas who worshipped in secret in the days of Soviet bread lines.

I have to find ways of talking about these martyrs with my children and the children of the mission community of the monastery. When children see icons from these days, there are terrible scenes of nuns being thrown into mine shafts and priests falling before the guns of soldiers. A dear friend’s great-great-grandfather was a priest-martyr in those days and when my children recall this, I want them to have a deep familiarity with these truths and to still be filled with awe and hope and even comfort.

I have the new book The Sleepy Bear and the Golden Whispers by T. Anne Mancuso from St. Innocent Press. It is the story of how a bear woke in the deep of winter and sheltered Metropolitan Peter Krutitsy with its own body. She manages to tell readers of how the elderly hierarch was thrown from the boxcar of a train traveling at full speed, and even illustrate it, in a way that is not frightening for children.

One of the strengths of this book is that it avoids being silly and trite, it avoids the fluff but still manages to be tender and gentle. Her words and her art are as soft as the titular bear but also as strong and honest. I cannot abide patronizing and vapid religious literature for children. I want my children to have a faith that can endure, one that is not the silly toys of childhood. This requires stories that can become their framework and give them strength for the world that is out there. That world is broken and is dark at times, it is a place where elderly monks are thrown like garbage from a speeding train. It is a world that needs golden words and not caricatures of faith.

Dear Matushka uses the Jesus Prayer as an element of her story, the words leaving the saint’s mouth as golden breath. This element is carried forward to the gold foil words on the cover of the book. The idea that our prayers are golden is evocative and points to the richness that is our faith.

I am planning on bringing this book to the monastery on the Feast of the New Martyrs. We will look at this icon and read this story and make our own Golden Words and our own bears. We will remember the solace and comfort that God gave to his servant in a very dark time. God is present even in our darkness, He is the light and sweetness that exists there, like golden words and the body of a warm, resting bear.

When the Bolsheviks and the Soviets who followed them martyred all these great and holy people, they lashed out like desperate children throwing weak fists in a temper tantrum. Death was destroyed long ago, it has no power over us. They cannot actually kill us, they can only try. It brings to mind the poem “Prometheus” by Lord Byron.

“Titan! to thee the strife was given
Between the suffering and the will
Which torture where they cannot kill…”

Not included within this book is how Vladyka Peter was finally martyred. On a cold October day, he was shot to death after enduring much torture where they could not kill. He served hard labor in desperate prison conditions that led to partial paralysis. It would be easy to find ourselves questioning God. Would a merciful God allow such a holy and pious man, one who refused to apostatize, to suffer so greatly? The answer is that he was always protected, that God preserved him from before he was born, that real death has long since been destroyed. The bear is a reminder of this. It is the consolation that God sent to remind not just Vladyka but all of us that He knows how we suffer and that He is with us. I want my children to remember that, especially when they look on the icon written by Fr. Cyprian of Jordanville, another figure whose presence sifts into our consciousness like incense in the church.

One of my great privileges is to sing the Canon pieces at Vigil and one that never fails to move me is the Irmos to the Fifth Ode in the Seventh Resurrectional Tone.

“Night is bereft of light for those without faith, O Christ, but for the faithful, there is enlightenment in the sweetness of Thy words; wherefore I rise early unto Thee and sing of Thy Divinity.”
God sends to us moments of consolation and light like Vladyka Peter finding the bear in the dark woods. Early in the morning, he rose and found himself in the light of the sun and living in gratitude. When my children look on the icons of the church, and their eyes rest on those stark images of nuns and priests, I want them to also see Vladyka resting with the bear in the snowy woods. I want them to remember that always. When they walk through the snowy woods that surround our farm, I want the memory of bear to fill their imaginations so that they can almost see a bear sleeping, wrapped around a very courageous saint. I want them to pray the Jesus Prayer and practically see the glint of their golden whispers. I want them to see and know and remember.

Vladyka Peter of Krutitsy, pray for us!

As a side note: It is worth mentioning that our own Vladyka, Archbishop Peter of Chicago and Mid-America, is named for this great saint which makes him especially important to the people of our diocese.