Permit me Love

Image

In the corner of a crowded bar I sat down with a friend I hadn’t seen in several months. It wasn’t the first time we had met there and as usual we shook hands upon meeting and then gripped the tall glasses of dark beer that stood between us. The weather was cold that night. The winter had barely begun and the beer immediately chilled me. At first, our dialogue closely mirrored the conversations we had had the year before, and the year before that. We revisited past events – contemporizing our understandings – and introduced one another to the details of our new relationships, jobs, and homes. It was a good dialogue, and it interested us both, but there came a point when I broke away from our usual anthology of themes. There came a point when I chose to deviate from what I knew to be safe and introduce our friendship to a new level of vulnerability.

We did not know each other very well. Our meetings were infrequent and though our experiences of life had often been eerily similar we had experienced them quite separately. There was a sense of innate understanding, but it had only been communicated at an exterior level. We sat across from one another, gripping our tall beers, and I chose to share with him the happenings, and the thoughts, and the questions of my interior life. I chose to be markedly more vulnerable with him than I had been before and in doing so I not only allowed him to see me more clearly but I gave him permission to respond to my vulnerability with his own. By my own decision to be vulnerable I introduced the possibility of vulnerability to our relationship and permitted him to participate in it.

Last week, I sat beside a stretch of rapids along the Bird River and absent-mindedly lifted a piece of deadwood from the water’s edge. At first I saw the chrysalis, which was perfectly intact so that it appeared to be its own fragile creature. A few centimeters away the dragonfly clung to the upheaved wood and slowly unfurled his wings, which were then barely visible, pinched and gathered as they were against his shoulders. He had no choice but to remain where he was, patient in the light of his own becoming. And I – fascinated and apart from him – watched in wonder until it was time to move on and I returned him to his place by the water. I continued to paddle along the river, and all along its edge; on the rocks and the limbs of fallen trees, I saw them in tremulous repose, waiting for their wings to unfold, and I wondered what bell had rung to signal this chorus of revolution. Who had permitted them to change?

In the early spring I watched the crows arrive and then the gulls. Later the leaves emerged and the grass turned green. The mosquitoes came in what seemed a single wave and the dragonflies followed. Last night our windows swarmed with a breed of flies I had never seen before. They seemed to come all at once, but in each case there must have been a first. Even if only by the slightest of moments, one blade of grass began to turn before all the rest. One mosquito hatched before any other. We are listening, all of us, all the time, for the moment when we are allowed to begin. We are listening for permission to act, to speak, and to think. We are listening for permission to live the life that we want to live and be the people we want to be. We are listening even when we do not know it.

I stood across from a man who I perceived to be my enemy. I stood in silence at a distance and I saw him do the same. At his approach, I built a wall to defend myself and the presence of that wall permitted him to build his own. When I raised my voice against him I permitted him to shout back. When I reached forward to strike him I initiated the possibility of violence and gave him permission to strike me in return. The more harm I did to him, the more harm I permitted him to do to me. My attacks carried intrinsically with them the words “you may now attack me.” And after years of hatred, and distance, and fear, I finally fell, exhausted and defeated. I let the walls around my heart fall. I unfurled my fists, forgot my hateful words and chose instead to be utterly vulnerable in front of him, without fear. In that moment, I gave him permission to do the same. I introduced the possibility that we are not enemies at all, but dear friends. I opened my arms, and he opened his. We embraced. We were redeemed.

When we are gracious, we permit those around us to be gracious. When we are malicious, we permit others to be malicious. When we smile, we permit others to smile. When we cry, we permit others to cry. When we curse, we permit others to curse. When we hate, we permit others to hate. When we fear we permit others to fear. When we attack, we permit others to attack. When we are vulnerable, we permit others to be vulnerable. When we forgive, we permit others to forgive. When we love, we permit others to love.

I awoke in the dead of winter, when the lake was a frozen plain and my heart was laid bare on its bed of ice. I listened, through the din of voices permitting my escape, for the single whisper offering me something more. I listened for the voice that gave me permission to exist not in fear, but in love. I listen even now, and though against this love my ego offers its continual consent to escape reality and enter the delusion of self-hatred and the fear of inadequacy, my true essence, my divine nature, continually permits me to live the life that I deserve. Fear says, “I permit you to escape, to abandon love, to disregard truth, to hide, to despair, and to slowly die.” Love says, “I permit you to embrace your life, to love freely and generously, to speak your truth, to follow your dreams, and to experience the fullness of life.” In everything we do, we have the choice to be the voice of love in the lives of others, or the voice of fear. By our words we can grant others the permission to experience life, or to experience death.

We live amidst a myriad voices, each with its tone, its volume, and its frequency. There are those whose permissions we seek and obey with unwavering readiness, and there are those whose permissions we consistently resist. There are the people to whom we are closest. There are those on the periphery of our lives. There are the strangers with whom many of us spend much of our time. We sit and we stare and we listen to the steady stream of permissions embedded in the movies and television we watch. We permit one another to do so by the normalcy of our indulgence in it. We are given permission to be materialistic, to strip sex of meaning, to do violence to one another, to abandon our purpose in life, to destroy our bodies, and to mock truth. We are given permission to waste the hours of our lives as if we had nothing better to do with them.

I want to stand beside the people in my life and speak truth, that they would also be permitted to speak truth. I want to abandon fear in my relationships, that my companions would also abandon their fear. I want to love and permit those around me to love. I want to be vulnerable, that I would permit others to also be vulnerable. And when I am permitted to hate, I want to respond not with willingness, nor merely with silent passivity, but with reactive conviction.

I know that it can be easy to remain in patterns that do not serve me. It is easier still when I enable those around me to do so, or when they enable me. We permit one another to live out our patterns of fear. However, we are permitted by love to abandon all patterns that do not serve us. We are permitted to learn new patterns. In moments, I must have the courage to defy the permissions of my egos and my fears and choose instead to permit love. In moments, a radical voice must cry out within our own hearts that we would have the courage to be the first, that as we act in love, in defiance of fear, we would grant permission to others to do the same. Life is brief, and it is eternal. We exist as mere children in the midst of children, forever listening to the voices that surround us, forever waiting for permission to be the love that exists in all of us. We need only listen, and in turn speak its voice.

-C

Nothing is Lost

06.12.14

I withdrew from my father when I was young, long before I was aware of what I was doing, long before I was conscious of fear. I do not remember the moment it began. I do not remember if it was because of something that happened, or something that I imagined. I do know that it continued by degrees intermittently through every year that followed and that every degree perpetuated the next. Some moments are memorable and others are forgotten. Most of them happened quietly within my own perceptions. I believe that all of them left my father feeling partly confused and saddened. I believe that it was my silence that created the most distance. I became less available and maybe he did too. My father is a deeply loving man. I always admired him and was always grateful to have a father that was both consistently present and consistently kind. My withdrawal from him was not warranted, and I do not fully understand it. But I can say with confidence that we have continually loved one another unconditionally despite our varying degrees of separation. At the heart of our feelings for one another I know there is perfect love. And yet, there is this quiet distance, as if we remain unsure of one another.

 

When I was young I loved being in the woods. I had dreams of living in the country where I could take myself on adventures through wild fields and across shallow creeks to encounter creatures in the trees and climb up to meet them. I had dreams of breathing life into my own natural spirit, which felt cloistered and out of place in the city. I had dreams of a feeling of freedom I so rarely encountered amidst the bungalows and the hum of streetlights, the cars driving by and the pavement beneath them. The closest I came to experiencing my vision of idyllic boyhood was along the length of an old railroad line at the outskirts of my neighbourhood. In the summertime my father would wake me early Saturday mornings, while my sisters still slept, to ride our bikes down the trails between the trees, through the cool air and the shadows cast by the dancing leaves that consumed my vision. These were quiet moments. These were the moments when my father and I were closest to being one, the moments when our presences were most intertwined.

 

I cannot say that my father has failed me without admitting that I have also failed him. In our twenty-nine years there have been times when I felt disappointed and even hurt. There have been times when he was not the father that I wanted him to be. But there were also times when he felt disappointed and hurt by me – long before I knew I even had the power to disappoint or hurt him. There have been times when I was not the son he wanted me to be. I can say that he failed to be a perfect father and that I failed to be a perfect son, but that would be to accept the perspective that we are both inherently flawed. More truthfully we, who – stripped of all our egos and our fears and our false perceptions – are inherently perfect, share a relationship that has not always reflected our deepest truth. He and I are, most truly, perfect. And our true desire, and our true nature, is to express perfect love to one another without reserve, without anything getting in the way. I try to remember this.

 

When I was sixteen, I spent a day with my father in London. He had invited me to travel with him to Bulgaria where he had been asked to sing with a group of musicians. He invited me with an expectation and a hope that this shared experience would bring us closer together and restore us to the father-son relationship we had both so often wished for. He envisioned companionship and closeness. I imagine he prayed for these things. I had my own selfish vision, born of my growing sense of seclusion. After a day of walking through London, jet-lagged and desiring solitude, independence, and freedom, I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder and heard his saddened voice asking me to stop. I had been walking ahead of him all day and when I turned to meet his eyes I could see his disappointment and his hurt. I felt tears rising in my own throat, but more than the compassion that was then welling up within me, I felt afraid. I was tired and in a strange and busy place. I have never liked crowds and Trafalgar Square is far from sparse. I was overwhelmed and I knew that he was too, but in that moment, when my own exposed vulnerability could have been an opportunity for love to unfold, I chose to harden myself again, despite my tears, and withdraw even further. We walked the rest of the evening side by side, but I was apart from him. We were no longer standing within one another’s presences.

 

I love my father. I am blessed to have grown up with a man that has been present and available, caring and thoughtful, and ultimately loving. I have seen his weaknesses and his strengths and know that I can still embrace him. When I reflect on our relationship I am aware of all the times when our relationship has suffered from delusions of separation. I see the times when I have needlessly withdrawn from him. I remember the disappointments that I have felt, of which there are many that are completely unfair. Maybe all of them are ultimately unfair. I remember the way I looked up to him as a child. I think of the ways I have not become the man I imagine he wanted me to be.

 

A father is a powerful thing and we must have all, in some deep-rooted way, in our earliest years and maybe even now, expected something divine from them. Whether they are in our lives or not, the idea of a father carries an archetypal weight that promises strength, authority, love, kindness, wisdom, integrity, and steady goodness. We want a man in our lives that models divinity, one that will teach us perfect truth, guide us away from every danger, and love us without fail. We want a man we can look up to, a man we can aspire to be, and a man who fills us with awe. We want a god. Some part of us expects it, or did once. But what we have is inconsistent. We have felt their love, and seen something god-like in many of their actions. We have heard the deepest truths in their words and we have admired them in moments. But we have also felt disappointed in the moments when they have not been god-like. They have not always understood us. At times, they have not truly seen us. As much as we have held them hostage to some idyllic version of what it means to be a father, we have sensed the times when they have tried to impress upon us their own idyllic version of what they imagine it means to be a son, or a daughter. We feel disappointed, and we believe they are disappointed in us, and we push one another away sadly, angrily at times, failing to realize that our disappointments are born not of failure but of expectation.

 

My father and I spent two weeks together in Bulgaria. It was memorable and impacting and I will never forget it. But although I walked beside my father down the same streets, although I saw the same things he did, and although we smelled the same unfamiliar smells and heard the same unfamiliar language, I remained silently insistent on having my own experience apart from him. I was taught, subversively and without accountability, to believe that it was natural for me as a young man, coming of age, to intentionally set out on my own, to become a man independent of my father and begin to develop an understanding of my own identity apart from him. I was taught to believe that at a certain age, boys become men and everything must change, that distance must be maintained, and vulnerabilities protected, that other men represent the threat of disappointment, and pain, and competition, and that to be a man, I must stand alone, firmly, defiantly at times, without wavering. What I have learned now, is that on that day, looking into my father’s eyes, standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square, seeing his pain and knowing that my years of distance had caused it, I should have let down every guard, released every fear and false perception, and yielded to the love of a man who wanted nothing more than to be in the presence of his son. I should have wept in his arms and known his closeness.

 

Nothing is lost. Moments pass and are swept back beyond my reach. Trafalgar Square is far from me and it is unlikely I will ever stand there again with my father, seeing in his eyes the pain of separation and knowing the same pain in my own heart. It was a missed opportunity, and when I think of it now I feel saddened by my failure to respond in love. I imagine what could have been. I imagine how every moment since then could have been different. But nothing is lost. Every missed opportunity remains in safekeeping. Circumstances change and opportunities take new forms, but whatever it is that could have been; the love that we failed to reveal; the closeness we failed to return to, remains held for us within gentle and willing hands, waiting for the moment when we finally discard our fear and embrace the love we truly believe in.

- C

Our Kin

Image

I planted a garden in my yard by the lake. I tore up the earth, shook the soil and the worms from the roots of the grass, ran my fingers through the dirt until it was clean, and then deposited rows of vegetable seeds across the back of it. In the front of the garden I planted broccoli plants, tomato plants, and onion plants. I took water from the lake and soaked the soil until it was dark and muddy and when the mosquitoes became unbearable I went inside. The following morning I went out and discovered that all the broccoli plants had been eaten and half of the tomato plants were torn out of the ground. I was a little disappointed, but mostly amused. Half a dozen animals ran through my mind as I tried to determine the culprit. A chipmunk scurried out from beneath the steps leading down to the boathouse. I decided he was too small. I recalled the skunk that had passed through the yard a few days before. I sniffed the air. Nothing. I went back inside. The Internet told me it was slugs. I was doubtful. Later that day my partner alerted me to the presence of a deer standing contemplatively over the remaining onion plants. I ran out the door to chase it away, not mean-heartedly, and I watched it run into the neighbor’s yard where it stood, dumbfounded and innocent.

I live a privileged life. When I fail at gardening I can laugh at it, knowing that I am not at all dependent on success. I have access to nutritious food, clean water, and safe shelter. I have this every day and I never question it. In fact, I have access to such an abundance of food that I can regularly consume more calories than I even need. I can choose food that is taxing on my body and on the environment, and I can consume it in excess. I can let food spoil and then discard it. My home is large enough to shelter at least eighteen people. I live there alone with my partner. I have so much clean, drinkable water that I can fill my toilet with enough of it to keep a person alive for three to four days. I urinate in it, and then flush it away. I have so much clean water I can do this several times a day. In a week, I can use enough clean, drinkable water, just by flushing my toilet, to keep a six-year old child alive for eight months. This makes me privileged. Even before counting all the extras of luxury, pleasure, and comfort, I live a life that only a small percentage of the world will ever be able to experience.

I traveled to Malawi in November of 2013. It was not my first time in Africa. It was not my first time witnessing poverty or living within an impoverished context. I spent only three weeks in the country, during which time I traveled to several hospitals, rural villages, and urban homes to photograph, discuss, and hear stories about the effects of poverty. Malawi is ranked 170 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. Their GNI per capita is $320, meaning the average income is $0.88 per day. This is the average. Many live on far less and some have no income at all, surviving only on the maize that they can grow for themselves. For the 85% of Malawians living in rural areas, and for many Malawians living in urban areas, their crops keep them alive. When the rainy season is delayed or when drought replaces the rainy season all together, many Malawians do not survive. By the time the rainy season does come, the food supply is low and the hospitals fill with malnourished and starving children.

I grew up watching World Vision commercials with a sick feeling in my gut. When I turned nineteen I went to Ghana for six months where I lived in a small, rural village and did my best to experience the life of a poor man. I had a simple life and I loved it. And then I had the luxury of returning to the complications of excess wealth and living again in its familiar and comfortable context. I went back to Ghana twice in my early twenties, first to initiate a small, community development project in the village where I had lived, and later to document several stories in other parts of the country. The community development project had partly succeeded and partly failed by the time I returned in 2009. I sat in an honored place under the neem trees with everyone that had been involved and they nervously confessed their failures and expressed their fear of my return. I felt heartbroken. They feared that I would come back and see the vacant poultry farm we had built, that I would react with anger at their failure, and that I would demand the return of the money I had given them. They were relieved to know that I was not angry, that I was disappointed, but not with them. They were relieved, and my heart sunk recognizing the power they had given me, which I did not want. They owed me nothing and I owed them far more.

I have not been back to Ghana since then. I have wanted to, but have often been paralyzed by the confusion that fills my mind when I consider the word “help”. I always remember Dickens’ claim that charity serves only to further degrade the impoverished. My mind fills with all the reasons why helping others is an impossible task: handouts create dependency; NGOs are untrustworthy; money corrupts; my desire to help is actually selfish; it is arrogant to think that I can improve their lives; they are better off without our interference. These thoughts offer valid and cynical perspectives, and they fail to excuse my idleness.

I sat down at a small wooden table in a rural village in Malawi. Acts, the son of my host, sat with me. “Dear God,” he prayed, with a tone of sincerity that immediately arrested me, “We thank you for this food. We know that it comes from you and we are grateful”. His words were simple, but the depth of them went far beyond any feeling of gratitude I have ever felt. For the next three days we ate together and before every meal his prayer, and the tone with which he prayed it, was the same. Whether it was tea and bread or a roasted cob of maize, this young man prayed with an understanding of hunger that I will likely never know. His gratitude expressed an awareness of the necessity and the unparalleled value of food, which our privileged society has completely forgotten. I ate with him quietly and did my best to understand the meaning behind every bite we took, to experience it as precious life and not a means for pleasure and personal satisfaction. I tried to understand what food could mean to someone who had grown up in its scarcity.

Many of us have grown tired of poverty. The child starving in Africa has become a cliché for which we have amassed dozens of dismissive and cynical responses, which let us off the hook. We have become so involved in the dramas of our own lives and in the spiritual poverty that keeps us there, that we fail to see beyond ourselves. We fail to remember that although the poor may always be among us, the suffering of others is not something to resign to. Poverty exists and we, the privileged, exist to respond to it. The child starving in Africa is a cliché. But the actual, individual children, who are starving in Africa, are not clichés. They are real people in need of help. And our lives are inextricably connected to theirs.

I know that the clean, drinkable water in my toilet means nothing to a child dying of cholera halfway around the world. I cannot viably bottle it and send it on a plane to save her life. There is too much imagined separation, too much complication, and too much uncertainty to feel fully confident in my response to poverty. I have wondered, even in the moments when I am walking through their villages, even when I am looking at the frail body of a starving child through my camera lens, who am I to interfere? Who am I to think that I have a place here? I walk between their mud homes. I pass the night on their mud floor. I eat the food grown in their muddied fields. And I wonder what it means to help, and if that is even my place. I philosophize and theorize, plaguing myself with paralyzing doubts. I fear that I will leave an unsavory mark, or that I will make a mistake in my desire to help that is ultimately more destructive than healing, and while I remain idle and in fear their children are going hungry, or are severely malnourished, and many of them are dying.

The idea that my life is separate from the lives of Malawians, or Ghanaians, or any of the 54,000 children living below the poverty line in my own province, is a convenient and powerful illusion. It excuses me from action and responsibility. It permits me to indulge in abundance while others go without. It enables me to live my life in ignorance of the rippling effect that my life-choices are having on those around me and in far-off places. I flush my toilet here, or I do not, and still a child in Malawi is without clean water. But the fact that I have a seemingly endless source of clean water and he has none at all is a call to action that we would be careless to ignore.

Our separation is a convenient illusion. We have planted it in our minds like a hedge around our privileged lives believing that it will keep us from experiencing the poverty we have witnessed in the lives of others. But our imagined separation does not exist. We are as connected to the impoverished as we are to our own children, to our own mothers, to our own partners. Every child is our child. Every woman is our sister, and our mother, and our grandmother. Every man is our kin. So long as we continue to live under the illusion that we are responsible only for ourselves, our world will never heal. And if our world never heals, how can we expect to find peace in our own lives?

I have felt the sensation of hunger, but I have never felt afraid that it will result in my death. I have seen mothers holding their dying children, but I have not known their pain. Real hunger is something I have only ever witnessed. Real hunger is an idea that I can only imagine. When I get lost in the idea of hunger I do nothing. I become paralyzed or confused by the politics, or the potential of failure, or my own misguiding cynicism. I become paralyzed by possibilities of my own imaginings while the reality remains the same. I do not know the answer to this reality, but I do believe that it is more than idle disregard. I do believe that a real response is needed and not just by a few, but by everyone.

- C

 

I Am Now

CVanden-8723 copy

My earliest memories of Camp Arnes are vague and poignant. I remember my father running out of our cabin into a cloud of mosquitoes to light fireworks with a man who, many years later, taught me to use a chainsaw and who once saved me from drowning in a pool. I remember the way that the carpet next to the vending machine pulled at my socks like Velcro, and the surprise I felt when I pressed the button for root beer and heard the sound of it clanging and rolling and eventually dropping into the cavity below. I remember my father’s friend, a man named Roman, who served our meals in the dining hall. I remember the wide-open field leading down to the lake.

In the evening, the adults sat down at the beach and I played in the sand and the rocks along the shore. I made a game of collecting pebbles in a yellow ice-cream pail and tossing them into the water where their scattered ripples spread out and eventually disappeared. The water was otherwise still and the sun was sinking and I was four years old and not very good at my game. The moment came when the handle of the pail slipped from my small fingers and landed with a dull slap against the water two feet from the shore. My heart sank and I immediately turned to my father for help. He smiled, evidently not sharing my experience of devastation, and remained in his folded-out lawn chair from where he encouraged me to reach out and grab the pail, which remained very near to the shore, and to me. But I was ceased by a fear of the water, or, more likely, a fear of embarrassing myself while under the attention of so many amused adults, and so I did nothing. The pail slowly receded from me and I watched it drift away. Again, my father encouraged me to retrieve it. Again I tried to overcome my fear and again I remained paralyzed, staring at the pail with a sinking heart. Again I did nothing. The distance grew and so did my regret, and we watched the yellow pail become smaller and smaller, drifting out to the place where the sun would soon touch the water. They met, and simultaneously disappeared, and I could not understand the feeling of melancholy that overwhelmed me.

I remember the yellow pail. And I remember the feeling of regret, and the feeling of melancholy. What I do not remember is if that was the same weekend that I sank ineptly to the bottom of the pool. I do not remember my sisters, though they must have been there. I do not know why the mosquitoes were a thick black cloud when my father ran out to light the fireworks but why I do not remember them at all down by the lake. I do not actually remember the fireworks. I do not remember if the water was cold, or if it was spring or summer or autumn. I remember the sunset, but I know that my memory of the sunset is not real. We were on the wrong side of the lake for that. I do not remember any of it perfectly. Part fabrication, part recollection, and part information learned in later years, my memory is as much fiction as it is truth, yet it hangs in my mind as a defining moment I have never forgotten, but rather developed further, adapting it to better reflect my understanding of myself and my limitations.

The past is the past. I can no more easily change what happened twenty-five seconds ago than I can change what happened twenty-five years ago. My perceptions, on the other hand, shift as easily as the wind. And my perceptions are really all I have of the past. I imagine myself to be defined by the things I have done or not done, the things I have experienced, the things I have seen, the people I have known, or the places I have been, but memories are not so authoritative as that, nor as indelible. They’re wholly imagined things, based on real experiences but altered to varying degrees of credibility.

All that I have, all that any of us have, is now. This is freedom, that in this moment we can act, and experience, and be completely unbound from our perceptions of the past or of the future. Our memories are stories we have heard, which we continually retell in the hope that they will clarify our identity. They are based on experiences that we have had, but they are not the experiences themselves. What we remember of the past is circumspect and our perception of any event is biased, narrow, and incomplete. Our memories are stories we have heard, and they can be of tremendous value, but they can also haunt us interminably. It is only when we recognize the power of our perceptions that we can look back with compassion and redeem our regrets and begin to see our regrettable moments as the stories that have taught us, or can still teach us, the lessons we are most in need of learning.

The leaves unfold from their broken capsules. They spill out in trembling frailty to mark the air with their delicate bodies. They draw breath, dance in the sun, and are caressed by the wind. They are born, and in their present form they abandon all recollection of winter. Forgetting the coarseness of the air and the scarcity of the sun, they relinquish themselves of the past and emerge. They become free.

When we are haunted by a memory, we are choosing to perceive our past through the lens of fear. We are wielding a past event as a weapon against our present selves, and thus suffering imaginary wounds again and again. By our own delusions we dwell in the belief that we still exist in that moment, and that it can still touch us, and that it does, and that we are still suffering because of it. But this drama of pain is a game of make-believe. We cannot reach back and undo what has been done, or unsay what has been said, and nor can we reach back and experience what has been said or done. When we return to the past, we do so only by our imaginations. We cannot change it, and we cannot experience it, we can only imagine it.

I remember being a young boy, standing at the edge of a lake. Behind me there is safety and familiarity. In front of me is the water. It is still and I am looking out across it at a yellow pail that is floating away. It is precious to me but I am afraid. If I step into the water I will be alone. I will stand apart from the ones I believe know me best. If I step into the water I don’t know what will happen. I watch it float away and feel sickened with regret, resenting every moment as another in which I have failed. I watch it until it disappears and the feeling of failure that overcomes me is one that I never forget. I take it from the water and I put it on like a mask. It becomes the part of my self-perception that I return to every time I approach an edge that I am afraid to go beyond. It becomes the story that I retell, chapter after chapter, in ever-spiraling circles, until the feeling of inescapability overwhelms me and conceals my power to choose something different.

Our choice to be haunted rarely feels like a choice. At best it feels like a default position that we are struggling to overcome. Our perceptions have become so masterfully assimilated by years of repetition that little remains of their plasticity. We repeat our stories again and again, believing that we are hapless protagonists destined to re-experience our dramas without reprieve when in reality our stories are of our own making. We sit at our desks and, with ardent devotion, approach the point of crisis we have so often endured. Just at the moment when we could transform the story with a deeply meaningful ending, one that challenges us to grow and be redeemed and become the hero that we have so often wished we could be, we repeat the last chapter. We return to our tragedy, or our mediocrity. We write ourselves into the same corners and our perceptions are further solidified and our identities further trapped. We fail to acknowledge the authority of the pen we hold in our hands.

The leaves unfold their bodies to the nearness of the sun and without regret they discard the memory of winter. Though it happened, it no longer exists. The lake is not frozen and the ground is not covered in snow. My skin does not freeze in the wind and my toes do not grow numb where I walk. I can imagine it, but I cannot experience it. Instead, I sit on the rocks and feel the sun on my shoulders. I listen to the birds skim the surface of the lake. I dip my toes into the water. I look at the sky and watch the shape-shifting clouds that, in every passing moment, release themselves from what was. I know only this: I am here. I am now.

- C

Blessed Wounds

Image

The night passes slowly across the lake, spreading its weight over the water and climbing the shoreline to meet the trees, and in the wakening leaves, and in the rising grasses, there is the crawling movement of life reaching back – back from languorous roots and hidden burrows, back from the frozen months of winter, back from antiquated dreams now rebirthing, back from the aged memory of beginnings. Beside me my beloved lies, breathing her calm, quiet breaths, which become to me the mantra I cannot ignore. They become to me my own rising chest, my own sense of calm. I begin to fall asleep and the sensation of nostalgia passes over me, as if I were returning to something forgotten but to which my heart belongs, as if I lingered in the space between heaven and make-believe. We conspire, which is to say, we breathe together. Her breath becomes mine, and mine becomes hers, and the room fills with our recollected dreams as I begin to fall away. I fall asleep. I fall into an awareness of something just out of reach, a vague memory that is both prehistoric and nearer to me than any feeling I’ve ever known. I am falling, and in falling I experience a moment I cannot describe.

 

I have dreamed all my life of knowing God. I have listened to the falling rain in hope of gleaning a discernible whisper. I have watched the woods in hope of seeing some movement between the trees. I have looked to the minds and the hearts of men to be my teachers. I have waited. When I was young I knew a prophet who heard the voice of God. He taught me repentance and the necessary pain of redemption, and I offered him my mind with the faith that upon its malleability would be impressed the knowledge that I sought. He became to me a conduit of divine love and I turned to him in supplication, listening with earnest hope to the words I felt to be so true. And then the voice of God told the man to leave. And I was alone and in silence. And I did not know God. A second man appeared, and I became his disciple, and my want of knowledge was no less insistent, but my mind was far less pliant and this man’s words did not reach my heart as the prophet’s had. The thought of God became far from me. And I left the second man and again I felt alone.

 

I begin a list on my hand of all the men who have failed me, and on the other are the women who have caused me pain. My life becomes a slow account of all the people who have fallen short of giving me the perfect love I have always wanted. Their names form a line down the lengths of my arms. They cover my body with their indecencies and I approach the mirror to see, with deep conviction, the ledger, made red against me. I see the proof that I am unworthy of love.

 

I am falling, and in falling I feel no fear. For a moment I recognize the deepest truth. Between wakefulness and sleep I grow nostalgic for God. I am falling, and the place to which I am falling receives me with an open palm. Held there, in love, I see the truth I have always known, the one I’ve been trying so hard to return to. Held in love, I see that all of them have been my teachers, and every imagined wound was a lesson not yet learned. Held there, I begin to understand that though I imagine myself to have suffered by the words and actions of those around me, the truth is that my suffering was chosen, and that every time I chose it, I was failing to see an opportunity to relinquish some aspect of my ego, and instead accept a necessary truth, the only truth, the truth of love.

 

We looked to our fathers and our mothers as the men and women responsible for our wellbeing. Later, we looked to our friends, and our lovers, and our children. We may have never believed them to be saints, but we were disappointed when they acted in any other way. They disappointed us by withholding affection, or criticizing us, or abandoning us, or being too forceful, or being too weak. We experienced the pain of their disapproval, or their disregard, or their disdain. They were not perfect, and though some seemed close, we still emerged from our experiences of them with a list of wounds to be carried with us through the years that followed. We may not have blamed them, but we looked at their actions or their inactions as explanations for our wounds. We justified our feelings of inadequacy by our analyses of the ways they loved us or did not, of whether they did so too much or too little. We lived our lives believing that the actions of those around us could be understood only as either blessings or wounds. We disregarded the possibility that even the wounds could be blessings. We disbelieved that we were safe.

 

I look to my beloved, that my eyes upon her would be a light, which, with patience and intent, would seek to pierce the hidden shadows of her soul where fear conceals love. I offer myself to her, to also be seen, to conceal nothing, to know the blessed pain of her light upon me, to know the gift of a wounded ego, to know that beneath every fear is hidden love, to know that I am safe. There is nothing more terrifying than this holy love. To allow it upon us, to allow ourselves to fall into it, to move into the scorching flames where our egos cry out in pain and all that can remain is our truest, purest selves, is the gift of life we have always been wanting. It is the gift of life to which we have been longing to return.

 

If my essential self is love, and if that love is divine and perfect and unchanging, and if everything else is merely ego, than the only wounds I can bear, the only wounds I can really experience, will be wounds inflicted upon my ego alone. My truest self remains safe. When someone teaches me that I am unlovable, expressing disapproval, or disdain, or disregard, I have a choice, as I always do, to respond in love or to respond in fear. My ego cries out in agony and resorts to resentment or despair. But my essential self understands that the wound, if it is felt as a wound, is trying to teach me something.

 

If I am told that I am ugly, then I hold in my hands a potential lesson, which I can either learn or discard. To discard this lesson is to do one of two things. Either I dwell in the belief that I am ugly and therefor unlovable, or I react with defiance and hold more strongly to the belief that I am beautiful, and that it is because I am beautiful that I am worthy of love. Either way, I am reacting at an ego level and ignoring my essential self. Being told I am ugly can only wound my belief that my value is in any way affected by being physically beautiful. To feel wounded, is to learn that this belief still exists within me. The lesson then is not to succumb to the accusation of ugliness, nor to defy it with claims of beauty, but to recognize that it is ultimately meaningless. To discard this lesson, on the other hand, is to further thicken the layers of ego built up around my truer self. To discard this lesson is to invite it to return, and not with malice but with genuine concern, that I would again have the opportunity to shed my ego, and open myself to love.

 

The names of men and women pass through my mind. I see their faces one by one, and I become aware of the imaginary walls risen up between us, walls born of the pain that I have felt, or the pain that I have caused. There are few for whom I feel resentment, but there are others from whom I would keep my distance. Their names pass through my mind and for a moment I glimpse the love hiding quietly behind our collective fear. We wait, and in silence we tend to our walls with covered whispers and unseen glances, with worried minds and cautionary hearts, becoming ever more deluded by the belief that we are separate, and unsafe, and that anything but love exists between us. Time passes and we grow tired and forgetful. Enemies are born. Grudges lay root. Pain sets in. And love continues to implore us, calmly asking us to look into our open palms and see them filled not with grievances, but with lessons waiting to be learned. They are our blessed wounds, given to us that the walls so carefully tended to by our fear, would dissolve, revealing something true, and invulnerable.

 

I lay awake imagining the slow breath of trees. Beside me, my beloved lies. Her own breath rises and subsides, and by the calm weight of her presence I begin to fall. The walls of our bedroom disappear and all around us I hear the restless birds shifting in their branches, and the rain making circles on the lake, and the cool wind touching every blade of nascent grass. I give in. I let go. And there, on the periphery of my falling mind I remember something ancient and unimaginable. A wave of nostalgia moves through my mind, dissolving my body and hers, dissolving the bedroom, and the night, and the blankets of rain, until I remember, in the faint moment before falling asleep, the synonymity of being in love, and knowing God.

-C

Better

Image

I was eight years old when I learned that I could run. Having recently changed schools I was not keeping up in class and had only a few friends. I spent many recesses inside staring in bewilderment at the incomplete homework on my desk, not knowing what I was supposed to do and wondering why all the other kids were so much better at it than I was. It seemed unfair. I nearly failed grade three and I wonder if the only reason I passed was so that my teacher could put an end to her own bewilderment. I felt isolated and unsatisfactory; a word that littered the pages of my report cards, and perpetuated my feelings of inferiority. I wondered why I wasn’t better.

 

Michael, one of my only friends, joined the running club that spring, and I didn’t want to be left out, so I also joined. He quit after the first week, but I soon discovered an aptitude for endurance that set me apart in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and in the following years I continued to run, becoming stronger and faster, until, by the time I was in high school, I was training with the best runners in the province. I became known by my peers for my ability to run, and to run better than anyone in our school, and better than most in the city. But after competing provincially, and later nationally, it became increasingly clear that mere potential was not enough. If I wanted to continue being better I would need to be more focused, more disciplined and more driven. I tried for a while, developing a strict regimen of training and diet, racing whenever I could, and devoting most of my attention to my development as a runner, until eventually, intimidated by my own expectations, and placated by a genuine understanding of the meaninglessness of these feats, I quit. I continued to run but abandoned any notions of athletic accomplishment as a path to personal betterment. I admitted to myself my deeper concerns and regarded the ways I felt more truly deficient. I began to question how I could become better not as an athlete, but as a person.

 

I met a friend this week and sat with him for a while. We talked of his life and mine, of the things that rest and move in our minds, and I was struck by the remembrance that there are better men than me. I do not know his faults to the extent that I know mine, but I see evidence of his virtue and am filled with admiration. He is a good man, and it breaks my heart at times to know how I have failed to be more like him and the other men I’ve come to admire. Already at the age of 29 I am often arrested by the fear that I should have been more genuine, more honorable, more aware, more considerate, and more upright. Already, I feel I have failed at so much. Already I believe I should have been better.

 

The sky reaches down to touch the shifting lake with innumerable kisses. Their ephemeral marks expand and collide and meld and disappear while all around them the fragile sheets of lingering ice begin to shatter. The crows call out in bleak regard and the lake patiently listens. I am blessed to watch the rain and to feel in its continual descent a secret and holy intention. With indiscriminate grace it falls to the water and, upon landing, unites ancient lovers with a delicate and repeated expression of belonging. The ripples cascade, and fade out. And the lake remembers herself.

 

We were loved as children for our innocence and our purity, and yet soon were taught by the world and those who loved us that innocence does not last. Our deficiencies were then revealed and we began the endless task of trying to be better. We sought better grades, more recognition, more achievements, and better friends. We silently compared our paper-bag lunches and our hand-me-down clothes. We looked in the mirror and discovered what we lacked. We learned we were too slow, or too weak, too stupid or too sad. And so we tried to be better. We grew up pursuing the better lover, the better job, the better worldview, the better body, the better home, the better life. We wanted to be better and we wanted do better and we wanted to have better, desperately hoping that accomplishing these things would render us no longer deficient. We played the ego’s game of worse and worst, best and better, and no matter how well we performed we never won, because we were only ever competing against ourselves.

 

We came into this world beautiful and innocent, untainted by our inevitable failures, and our undiscovered flaws. We looked around and saw our mothers and our fathers, our sisters and our brothers. We saw our own hands, and the wicker of our cribs. We felt the textures of our blankets, and our toys. Everyone and everything appeared before us as extensions of ourselves. Nothing existed beyond our scope. We believed ourselves to be the universe. We believed ourselves to be whole and sufficient. We believed these things with a deep and unconscious knowing that was unobstructed by fear. And then, we began to learn. We began to understand that there are others, and that we are not the universe, and that we are not sufficient, and that we do fail to satisfy. We began to understand our need to be better, and not just better than ourselves, but better than the people around us. Because love, we learned, is a finite resource, and only the most deserving will find it.

 

What is the better I have been hoping to find? I look beyond myself and see only the illusion of better. I reach to it and it turns to dust in my hands and though it crumbles I still endeavor to cover myself with it in ever thickening layers, so deluded am I to think it will ever make me better. Again and again, I repeat this gesture. Again and again, I succeed only in further concealing my truer self. What is better if not a fantasy by which to escape our reality? When we enter a relationship believing that it will make us better, we enter a delusion and a fantasy that quickly fails. We discover that that person does not make us better, and in fact often only illuminates our failures. We might begin to resent them for failing us. We might begin to wonder if there was someone better, someone capable of making us better. We leave one relationship for another. We leave one job for another. We leave our entire lives for a fantasy of what another life could be. And to this new life, to this fantasy, we carry our same deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and plant them again in new soil, and are surprised and discouraged when they once again rise up to disappoint us.

 

Our lives are real, but the fantasies we create for our imagined betterment will never be. Our frail attempts at escape lead us only into newer and more blinding delusions, while the reality of our lives, and our beauty, and our inherent value become more and more concealed, but no less intact. Beneath every frail attempt at becoming better, no matter how many attempts we make, and no matter how many layers of dust we apply to ourselves, there will always remain the calm, though often forgotten, awareness that there is no such thing as better, that as we began, so are we now, and so will we always be; sufficient in our existence and entirely free of the hollow risk of becoming less than perfect. When we remember the moments in our lives when better was a meaningless word – moments of genuine love and acceptance, moments when we felt the true connectedness lying latent between us all – we remember our original state. We remember our universality. It’s only when we are conscious of this original state that we can come to understand our dreams, which, unlike our fantasies, do not separate us from reality, but return us to our truest reality, one defined by love and one free of the fear that has so often compelled us to make our vain attempts at becoming better than those around us. When we come to understand that love is not a finite resource to be competed for, but an endless truth from which any separation is mere delusion, we can then rest in our original state, knowing that we never left.  

 

I ran through the woods, between the aspen and the oak. I felt the wind around my body, heard the leaves dance, and watched the dappled light shift in quickening withdrawal as it escaped the repeated fall of my feet. I was alone and better than none, and no better than I had ever been before. A deer came beside me and time slowed. I could have reached out and placed my hand upon her back. For fewer than three strides we ran together, neither of us better, neither of us different even. We had returned to something, for a moment at least, suspended in our deeper recognition of one another before we could even realize what was happening. And then she became aware, or I became aware, and she, sensing my awareness, became startled and veered, and disappeared, as I kept running.

 

- C

In Tremulous Wonder

 

Image

Nahr el Bared, Palestinian Refugee Camp, North Lebanon. www.colinvandenberg.com

His gesture was reluctant, as if he was practicing it for the first time and was unsure that it could belong to him. By it he beckoned me to him, and I approached the window where he stood looking out at me. He had things to tell me, he said. He wanted to talk, he said. I came the following day as I had promised and he led me into his home, which was nothing more than a series of brick walls arranged neatly by the seashore. He stooped in the corner over a small fire and boiled the coffee he had been steeping for days. He sat me down in an old car seat, quite low to the ground – one of only two chairs that constituted his entire furniture collection. I waited. Above me, in the absence of a roof, was the open sky. It was grey and damp, framed by the tops of the empty walls and suddenly obstructed by the loom of the man, a mere silhouette handing me a cup of thick, gritty coffee as his voice lowered to a twitching whisper and he began divulging his scattered and dubious stories.

 

His name was Ahmed. I listened to his words in the place where his home once stood and his family once lived. He told me of the war and of his family’s departure, how they live now in another camp and he remains amidst the rubble, slowly rebuilding what was lost. He told me of the violent devices he had built and the conspiracies he had schemed, of the training he had received from unnamed factions in far-off places. His eyes shifted constantly, and his tongue darted from his mouth between each expulsion of the secrets I could not discern to be truth. I listened to the words of a frightened man and I remained distinctly aware of my disadvantage, sitting as I was beneath him, and I was also afraid.

 

Fear is familiar to us all. We fear abandonment, failure, each other. We fear our dreams and our potential. We fear illness and violence. We fear death. For those who have brushed up against it the fear of death can be constant. Even for those who have never experienced it directly, those for whom it remains an abstraction, the fear of death can be a steady presence. It follows us each time we walk out the door, get into a car, or look into our own aging eyes. The inevitability of death is a quiet thought in the backs of many of our minds, and for some a blatant fact less easily ignored. But for all of us, it is real.

 

I remember my grandmother’s accounts of the nightmares she endured before dying. I remember the grimace that came over her face and the cool dampness of her forehead where I pressed my lips in the moments following her last breath. I remember holding my father’s sobbing frame moments later. I remember his grief. I remember the weight of the coffin, which I shared with my cousins. I remember crying after we let her into the hearse.

 

I have only been afraid for my own life on a few occasions, but I have never been so close to dying that I can claim to have felt its touch. Of physical death, I have only a distant perspective, but of spiritual, emotional, and relational deaths, I am more familiar, and in all of these, I discover my fear. The death of a relationship reveals my fear that I am unworthy of love. The death of faith reveals my fear that I am alone. And the death of my dreams reveals my fear that my life is without purpose. In all of these things, I discover that my fear of death is not a fear of the unknown but of separation; separation from my body and my mind, separation from the people I have cared about, separation from my beliefs about God and myself, separation from life, and ultimately from love. I fear death because I am afraid to lose that which is most valuable to me. I am afraid to exist in the absence of love.

 

With each moment, in every circumstance, we are asked to choose between love and fear. Despite our feelings of despair, or hatred, or helplessness, we are never so limited in our circumstances that fear is our only option. The choice to love might not always deliver us from suffering, it might not result in euphoria, but it will elevate us, if only enough to endure the next moment. It will lead us closer to becoming who it is that we really are. I have not experienced what others have experienced. I have never been diagnosed with a terminal illness, nor lived through a war, nor grown up in an abusive home. I cannot claim that I would have the strength to choose love in the midst of such hardships, but I do know that there are those who have, and my belief in them becomes a belief in myself, and in all of us.

 

I remember a hateful thought. I look at it now and turn it over in my mind. It is unattractive and shameful and it happened within me. When I consider it for what it is, I can see that it was born of fear. I can see how afraid I was in that moment to look at the hate I bore for myself, which would have then led me to look at the thing that I hated within myself, which would have, I worried, led me to confirm my deepest fear: that I am undeserving of love. I made the unconscious choice in that moment to be afraid, and thus allowed a hateful thought to rest in my mind where love could have penetrated every layer of fear, to the very beginning of fear, and assured me of my value. I feel remorse for this thought, and regret. I see its complete lack of truth. And now, knowing that such hate existed within me in that moment, I am asked again to choose between love and fear.

 

When we experience an absence of love within ourselves, we might find clarity by questioning what it is that we are afraid of. Similarly, when we experience the absence of love in another, we would do well to look at them with compassion and see them not as hateful but as frightened. We can then attempt to show them the love that exists within ourselves in the hope that they will be reminded of the love that exists within themselves, the love that is fully capable of guiding them out of their fear and into their truth.

 

In every state of brokenness there is some fear preventing us from healing. For every wrong action that haunts us, there is some fear preventing us from experiencing redemption. And for every failed dream there is some fear that prevents us from returning to our purpose. We stand poised in tremulous wonder, either moved by love toward life or deceived by the fear that holds us in death. So many times, we have forgotten. So many times we have allowed fear to dissemble our true selves and have then resigned ourselves to despair, and the deaths of our spirits. But despair is merely a symptom of amnesia, and when we remember who we really are, we can then behave more truthfully. We can see fear for the shadow that it is and watch it vanish by even the faintest light.

 

In the weeks before her death, my grandmother’s fear surprised me. My memories of her had been of her constant warmth, and her joy, and her care. I remember her hugs and her kiss on my cheek. I remember the love she had for her family and for my grandfather. The confusion we witnessed in her last days was disheartening, as were her accounts of the dreams she had where some devil pursued her and she fled and did not know if she would escape. She was afraid of death. She neared it trembling. But her fear did nothing to separate her from love. It was mere amnesia. In her last moments, we surrounded her bed. Her breath became sparse and hollow and we counted the weighted seconds between them, until they did not return. My grandfather, with solemnity and grace, stated that she was gone and someone there began to sing. I was not afraid. My grandmother had returned to love and we, in a single voice, echoed her remembrance.

 

I met Ahmed in Lebanon, in the ruins of a Palestinian refugee camp called Nahr el Bared. In the two months that I spent wandering its muddied streets, I learned only a small part of what had happened there. I talked with the men and women who had been expelled from the camp in 2007, and returned several months later to find the frail remnants of what had once been their homes. For four months the Lebanese army had shelled the camp, eventually destroying virtually every shop and house belonging to its 45,000 residents, all with the claimed intent of capturing a group of 400 out-lawed men. Ahmed had little to say of them. He sat in the chair above me, smoking cigarettes and refilling my coffee. We had become a little more comfortable with each other but his vaunted claims continued to unnerve me. I could see his fear. I could feel its hatred. And I have to believe that even for a man like Ahmed, who has allegedly done terrible things, and has evidently had terrible things done to him, the choice to love remains constantly available.

- C

To read more about my experience in Nahr el Bared from 2008, visit my website: www.colinvandenberg.com

Sons of Ash

Image

The sky is dim with variations of silver and blue and the lake appears like mottled flesh, its fragile skin slowly abating though still intact, save for the small, rippling pools scattered across its surface. The wind shifts unexpectedly and I feel it press against my body where I stand near the lake. It tosses the gulls across the sky, and the gulls acquiesce, tilting their wings like the arms of tightrope walkers compelled from their ropes. They pitch and level to remain upright, but eventually abandon their course, drifting first out across the lake, and then back to the shore, and then to the North and then to the South. Their vertiginous sway is an unexpected dance, uncalculated, imprecise, and hypnotic. I stand on the rocks and imagine the pendulum within my own body, calibrating to compensate for the influence of the wind. It shifts my weight with slight flickers of tension across and around my center, and down through my legs. It keeps me upright. And so I stand, seemingly still, and the wind presses against me, while within, my body is moving with the intention required to maintain my stance.

 

The strength of men can be a precarious thing, vacillating to weakness when a stronger wind presses against it, becoming undone by haunting doubts, and collapsing under overwhelming pressure. We strain to define ourselves by it in its various forms but so often find ourselves caught in a cycle of fearful attempts and defeating failures. Depicted clearly in legends of men who could tear a lion apart with their bare hands, defeat mythical beasts, and destroy a giant with a single stone, masculine strength has been consistently clear in its quality of imposing power and raw physicality. And so it feels masculine to tackle another man down in sport. It feels masculine to push a weighted steel bar away from my chest. It feels masculine to imagine overpowering an enemy with brute strength. It feels masculine to be strong, but what does it mean to be strong?

 

My body is finite. The muscles that wrap and strain and pull and flex around my bones are no more permanent than a decaying leaf. If I lay still they will atrophy. If I demand too much of them they will twist and break. If I do not eat, my body will turn to them for sustenance until they are gone. My body is a frail shell. I strengthen it by small degrees and still it is a frail shell. I expand muscle tissue by a careful regime and still it is a frail shell. It diminishes as my attention turns to other things and still it is a frail shell. It is not difficult to recognize the lessening importance of physical strength in a society that is no longer dependent on it. The strongest men I know live in small rural villages in countries where physical strength is often a prerequisite for survival and where vanity is a faraway thought. Here in Western society, physical strength rarely serves an actual purpose beyond showmanship. We say, “Look, I am strong. Look, I am a man.” We go to special buildings to pay money to spend energy that goes nowhere. We run ten miles without moving. We lift one hundred pounds and put it back exactly where we found it. We exercise our masculine strength in the hope that it will define our value as men, but we have so little use for the strength we attain. I’m not advocating for a life of inactivity. I’m not even advocating against physical strength. I’m only questioning our motives and wondering if what we really desire is a quality of strength that is not so easily undone, and one that serves something beyond our ego.

 

I’ve spent most of my life feeling as familiar with weakness as I have with strength. Following an exertion of strength I have often felt condemned by the weakness evidenced by my failure to achieve my dreams, or to be the man I have wanted to be. I’ve lost faith at times in the belief that I have any strength at all, and then despaired, returning cyclically throughout my life to a feeling of defeat that has suffused my sense of identity, and limited me from moving forward. Experiences of weakness have been tantamount to identifying as weak.

 

I recently burned all my journals. I tore the pages calmly from each leather binding and filled my face with the heat of their flames until my skin reddened and the boxes were empty. I wanted to mark the end of a cycle that I have felt subject to most of my life, in which I have aspired to be virtuous and strong, have eventually failed, and consequently plummeted into the belief that I must not be worthy of the love I was desperately tying to enact, return to, or even feel. Having attempted so many times to be strong and invariably discovering that I was not, I eventually arrived at a point of acceptance of this cycle. I wrote often of “the mire” I felt I was in. It became a necessary phase in my attempts at virtue, and as I delved deeper and deeper into its sadness, I became more familiar with it, until I began to believe that I belonged as much to the darkness as to the light. Like a phoenix, continually returning to the earth in a heap of ash, I have failed again and again, and in my weakness felt at times a tinge of relief to have failed, to resign to the affirmed belief that I do not deserve my dreams nor the love I have so earnestly sought, that my true place is there in the soot, sullied, weak, and defeated.

 

I watch the gulls being thrown back and forth above the lake and am in wonder at their clumsy grace. Their bodies move willingly but even at a distance I can see the nervous flickers of their tail feathers and their wings, which flinch readily to keep them from being flipped over and thrown down into the ice. They submit without resistance to a strength that is greater than their own, knowing that they also possess the strength to surrender. It is an active surrender, one still requiring attention and strength, but a strength that responds to the guidance of something outside of itself, something known to be yielded to.

 

I want to reimagine my understanding of masculine strength, which I’ve been taught should be defined by assertion and power, and which, influenced by the fear of separation, would respond to strength outside of itself as a threat to be defeated or escaped. I want to know the strength of surrendering to the strength that exists beyond myself, in those around me, in the earth, and in the divine. I want to let the wind carry me when my strength wanes; still engaged, still experiencing the realization of my dreams and the eternal depth of love to which I belong, but no longer straining against the very thing that offers me a needed reprieve, or reprimand, or redirection. I want to know the strength of allowing myself to be held, and led by the many embodiments of strength that exist outside of myself.

 

We’ve been told with gentleness that we should allow ourselves to be weak, that it is okay to fall. I wouldn’t deny this. I would, however, hope that weakness would no longer be seen as a necessary counterpart to strength, and therefore something to resign ourselves to. We’ve become so accustomed to the cycles of strength and weakness in our lives that we assume that strength cannot exist without weakness, that defeat is inevitable and failure is to be embraced as an old, familiar friend. If we could instead recognize that strength’s necessary counterpart is not weakness at all but submission to a greater strength, we need not continually return to the sense of defeat that threatens to name us. We need not resume our addiction to the cycles of death and rebirth that hold us back from a lasting rebirth, that we would recognize for once the eternal quality of our birth, and no longer resign ourselves in fear to the denial of our strength, and our love, and our deep value.

 

Above the flashing, flickering bodies of the gulls, the eagles continue to soar at such heights that little can be seen of them. Their strength is implicit in their inspiring ascension but it is not solely by their own strength that they achieve this feat. It is only in the marriage of the eagle’s strength with the strength of the wind that he reaches the heights that he does. The eagle delights in the wind as his ally, and the wind delights in the eagle as his beloved. Together they soar.

-C

The Feminity that Bore Us

Image

He hired me to clear half an acre of his land where he wanted to later build a greenhouse for his wife. It was May and it rained most days. The earth was wet and the thin stalks of dogwood glistened at the bases of the trees. He led me to his garage, pulled down a chainsaw, and promptly began to instruct me on its use, first directing me to the alternating blades, which he taught me to sharpen one by one with a round file, then showing me how to properly oil and fuel the motor. He lent me a pair of steel-toed boots, a pair of Kevlar chaps, a helmet with a visor, and a pair of earmuffs. He took me to the woods and taught me the proper angles and the depths and the heights at which to press the roaring blade into the trees. He named the largest, one by one, distinguishing those he would harvest for firewood from those he would have me discard in a brush pile one hundred meters away. He taught me to see where the tree wanted to fall, and how to then manipulate its path to my liking. He taught me how to anticipate a pinched blade or a kickback, and how to avoid both. He taught me what he thought I needed to know and then he left me to my work.

 

I’ve always admired trees. I’m fond of them. It’s not unusual for me to press my hand against them as I pass by, or to climb into one and find a comfortable branch where I can sit for awhile. They become instantly familiar and by them I recall many I have known before, those I used to often climb, like the mango tree on the side of a thickly forested hill whose branches were the highways of leaf-cutter ants that would charge me angrily but assert no real threat, or the maple in the front yard when I was still a child whose tears tasted so sweet that I would scrape my tongue on its branches, believing I had discovered something magical. I’ve sat in the presence of trees that have known a thousand years or more, their bodies ascending from valley floors, reaching above waterfalls, dwarfed only by mountains. I’ve tried to imagine the passage of time from their singular perspective. I’ve tried to imagine how many of their kin have fallen around them, by our father’s hands, their bodies given for our survival, or taken for our comfort, or our pleasure, or our power.

 

That May, I spent a week plotting and executing the slow descent of a small forest, systematically disassembling its delicate composition, and hauling its corpses away to an unmarked grave. Trees far older than me, and far larger and stronger, fell at my will. I partitioned their bodies into manageable lengths and placed them on alternate shoulders. I felt the weight of them upon me. I felt masculine. It rained most days and my body ached, and this too felt masculine. I worked until I was exhausted, until the weight of fallen limbs bore down upon my strength, and this too felt masculine. I cut them down, young and old, until all that remained were the stumps, standing still, like gravestones to be later removed, and this too felt masculine. In the night, I dreamed the trees were angry with me. And in the morning, as I continued to cut them down, I felt both powerful and sad.

 

I’ve been compelled by nature all my life. Its beauty pulls at my heart. A deer passes beneath the apple tree. I see its grace and am drawn to place my hand on its shoulder. I see the hawks, still as sentries, perched in the trees and I’m drawn to know the softness of their feathers. Even the trees draw me to them, and I wonder, as I have always wondered, how to respond. For the times in my life when such compulsions felt too pastoral to entertain, I have looked cynically upon myself with the thought that although its beauty calls to me, my attraction to nature is not qualified by a sense of belonging. Beauty dwells in every unborn leaf. It emanates from the melting ice upon the lake. It moves with the deer’s every step. It is in the slow breath of trees and in the soil awakening beneath me. And I, a man, remain apart.

 

I was once a boy, tearing a branch needlessly from a tree. I saw its flesh, smelled the freshness of its fluids, felt at once a sense of wonder and a tinge of remorse knowing I had wounded something beautiful and innocent. And on the sidewalk, with a piece of convex glass, I held the sun against an insect in a focused beam, watched its body swell, smelt its skin burn, and felt a tyrant and a thief. And in summer’s evening light, I watched a plague of frogs rush across the gravel of a church parking lot, their tender bellies thick with coarse, dusty grit, their legs splaying with every wild leap, as they desperately fled the onslaught of emerging believers. I felt my own guilt swell as their eyes bulged and their voices burst beneath the laughter of another boy’s stomping feet – with whom I shared at least one thing in common, though the sickness in my stomach compelled me to believe that, in some ways at least, I was not like him.

 

The supposed nature of boys is one of aggression, dominance, and assertion. We are taught the value of competition, of skill, and of power, while tenderness and sensitivity are deemed negations from our true nature. Repressing and starving these parts of ourselves, we suffer an inability to respond with gentleness even when beauty pulls tenderly at us. And so, to the wonder of tiny creatures we respond with tyranny, and to the simple beauty of a tree we respond with destruction. But behind every display of cruelty, there must have been some confused desire to connect, to receive rather than destroy, to admire rather than take, to love rather than kill. Beneath the desire to prove our masculinity, there must have existed, within each of us, the fading memory of the femininity that bore us.

 

Compelled by the beauty of a tree, or by the wonder of the intricate lives of tiny creatures, we experience an innate desire to respond. And we are told that this response, even as young boys, should be inarguably masculine. But what is the masculine response to beauty? I watch the deer cross my yard and it compels me. As a man, I am taught that if something compels me, I must act, I must dominate, I must possess. Perhaps, as a man, I should pull a rifle down from above the mantel, and with one clean shot, bring the the deer to his knees, where, in his grace and his beauty, his body can bleed out, and his bowels can empty, and I can know, with certainty, that amidst all this beauty, I have a role, that I am not separate from it. Beauty calls, and I want to answer, but what do I say?

 

Born of a deep misunderstanding of beauty, our insecurity as men compels us to dominance, assertion, and a will to possess. Afraid that we do not belong to beauty, or that belonging to it would negate our masculinity, we take control, and in doing so invert beauty’s role in our lives. But beauty does not exist as a thing to be taken and possessed, and yet held distinctly separate from us. The masculine response to beauty is not to dominate, but to submit, to be held, to know that our own connection to beauty, which we have known since birth, is not a thing to be buried, or abandoned, or even diminished, but something to be embraced, with familiarity and without fear.

 

On the sixth day, when nearly all the trees had fallen and the sky was vacant and grey, and my body was tired and warm from exertion, I cut down the last of the birch. I sighted its descent carefully, started the motor of the chainsaw and removed the initial notch from the North side of the tree then came to the other side to make the final cut. The blades moved cleanly through its base and when it began to fall I calmly moved away. I felt the air move and the ground pulse as its body lay down amongst the scattered stumps. I regarded its tremendous form, no less impressive now supine than when it had stood above me. When I turned to examine the cuts I had made my heart immediately sank even as my curiosity peaked. In its stump I saw the trembling womb of an entire colony of hibernating ants. And they were beautiful, and they were doomed, and I felt masculine, and conflicted, and sad.

- C