dog days of summer 2019
Words are the only bread we can
When I say ‘we,’ I mean every one of
us, everybody, all of you,
each Border Patrol agent and every
trembling Mexican peering through
Every Klansman and each NAACP
Each confused mother and every
For I am nobody’s son. But I am
So come here to me. Walk me home.
Luis Alberto Urrea, Nobody’s Son
Sometimes the whole world seems hell-bent on telling its story. It’s as if even the fallen leaves insist on bearing witness and adding their two cents. I feel that one night I went to bed as I always did with an understanding that things were just things. But in the middle of the night, all of the breathless relics of my life convened, and by dawn decided that they too had meaning. I believe the copper kettle that sits on my stove collecting dust, always needing to be cared for, was the ring leader. It knew that I resented having to keep it clean and shiny. Suddenly, it insisted that it had some dignity and was worthy of my time and respect, “You asked for me. You asked for me Christmas after Christmas, birthday after birthday. Now that you have me, you don’t want me?”
This is the way it always goes when we stand at the edge of suffering great loss. Things become. They speak. They scream.
When my mother was dying I bought her gorgeous home decor and design books. I didn’t buy them casually thinking, “Maybe Mommie would like these.” I bought them as if they were the only thing that mattered. I picked them like I was picking the one cure that would heal her. As I packed them for shipping, wrapping them individually like eggs, each of them turned their spines on me and mumbled, “You’re too late.”
These days, I feel like the world is ending. Every day feels like another helping of suffering, another massive knot of loss that cannot be untangled. My heart speaks, “It’s all over.” Though I know it’s not. Living has taught me that suffering does not stop life. It will go on just as it did the day before, only more skinned and raw.
Since the very beginning, The Great Divine said, “It was very very good.” Everything—the sea monsters, the darkness, the serpent, the creatures that crawl— belonged, even the abysmal abyss into which God speaks, “Let there be light.” Terrence Malik beautifully displays this truth in his movie The Tree of Life which is about a family caught in the light and the darkness of everyday existence. Each frame is a play on light and darkness, chiaroscuro filtered throughout each scene. In one of the movie’s most heart wrenching scenes a young boy prays kneeling in a pool of light, “Father, make me good. Brave.” It’s what we all want to be, especially when it feels that all that we know about ourselves, each other and life in general, is ending. “God, make me good. Brave.”
Father Richard Rohr wrote a whole book about this everything-ness that we modern-day believers have such a hard time grasping, just as the ancient followers of Jesus did. In his book Everything Belongs, Rohr writes:
In God’s reign ‘everything belongs,’ even the broken and poor parts. Until we have admitted this in our own soul, we will usually perpetuate expelling systems in the outer world of politics and class. Dualistic thinking begins in the soul and moves to the mind and eventually moves to the streets. True prayer, however, nips the lie in the bud. It is usually experienced as tears, surrender, or forgiveness.
In pain and in joy, the mundane tends to represent the whole. Everything belongs, and evidence of everything that is true of everything comes pouring out. In the depth of our feelings, we begin to notice. It’s the story God has been telling since the beginning: Adam and Eve tend to both the garden and the serpent. Moses experiences self-imposed desolation and the eternal I AM blazing of the Burning Bush. The Israelites wade through the wilderness and through manna. Joseph was confined to prison and to his dreams. Chiaroscuro seems to be the central theme, always—the virgin who gives birth, the fishermen who drop their nets, the poor, rejected Savior king.
In my kitchen, I’m weighing all the symbolic relics of myself—the copper tea kettle, the clutter of cookbooks, the granite countertops, the stainless steel appliances, and the pitcher filled with wooden spoons. I’m thinking about how my mother would have loved this room, this space and how all the pieces come together to warm and comfort. Everything belongs here, even the tarnish creeping around the kettle’s belly, the water stain that’s made a home in the granite, the trail of finger prints all over every surface of stainless steel, evidence of a life being lived. My mother would have loved this kitchen. She would have enjoyed pointing out the crumbs and corners that my never-to-her-standard-of-cleaning missed. She would have visited with her blend of compliment and criticism. I would have dreaded her arrival and grumbled and counted the days to her leaving beneath my breath. And yet, oh! Isn’t this the pain and the joy? I miss being annoyed by mother’s breathing that was always escorted by a puff of cigarette smoke.
This summer the whole world is telling its story. It is a cacophony of war tanks and cages, nuclear missiles and treaties, tariffs and protests, earthquakes and genocide. There are children, men and women suffering by our hands at our border. But, there are poets like Mr. Urrea who help explain this to our hearts, the mundane wonder of everything awful and blessed co-existing.
You will hear of wars nearby and revolutions on every side, with more rumors of wars to come. Don’t panic or give into your fears, for the breaking apart of the world’s systems is destined to happen. But it won’t yet be the end; it will still be unfolding. (Matthew 24:6)
I am heartbroken these days most of the time. Yes, that is true. But I’ve also found more delight in ordinary things. For instance, I’ve noticed that there are different hues of sunlight with varying degrees of intensity and brightness. Each one shines with pure luminosity. Every ray of sun matters making everything within its reach belong, and everything breathes in and out, a magnanimous sigh of lament and relief.
Something That Kept Me Hopeful:
Ava DuVernay’s interview on the podcast Here to Slay
A Practice That Reminds Me That There Is Still Joy and Beauty in the Simple Act of Naming and Showing Gratitude:
Going through all my books and reading their dedications. Here are some of my favorites from my shelves:
For Ann Christian Deignan—beautiful epiphany of Earth’s poetry and healing
For Vin Giuliani whose soul speaks the language of silence
Thomas Merton, When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature
To Ella and Samantha. I hope you both always love reading fairy tales.
Madeline Simpkins, Rose
(This young author was a schoolmate of my daughter. She self-published her first book when she was a senior and dedicated it to her sisters)
For Joan Ramon Planas, who deserves better
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind
For the librarians
Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book
To Travis, the man who is my constant;
to Eliot and Isaiah,
the boys who ask me to tell stories
and who give me stories to tell;
and to that two-bedroom apartment
where these stories were born—
I have met glory in each of you.
Kaitlin B. Curtice, Glory Happening
To My Beloved Daughters OLIVE and ANNE
and to the future of their generation
in whom the struggles of the
past will find fulfillment
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited
How may I touch you across the chasm
Of flown things?
Li-Young Lee, The Winged Seed
This book is for my family—past, present and future.
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
For the Farmer,
who tended and grew my soul
Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Where You Are
To all the people who have helped me become:
the folks who raised me—Fraser, Marian, Craig,
and my vast extended family,
my circle of strong women, who always lift me up,
my loyal and dedicated staff, who continue to make me proud.
To the loves of my life:
Malia and Sasha, my two most precious peas,
who are my reason for being,
and finally, Barak, who always promised me an interesting journey.
Michelle Obama, Becoming
For the dead,
and for those who rescue
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story
To the brave and brokenhearted
who have taught us how to rise after a fall.
Your courage is contagious
Brené Brown, Rising Strong
For Alice Waters, who gave me the kitchen,
and for Maman, who gave me the world
Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat
I dedicate this book to my beloved fifteen-year-old black Lab, Venus,
whom I had to release to God while beginning to write this book.
Without any apology, lightweight theology, or fear of heresy, I can
Appropriately say that Venus was also Christ for me.
Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe
To Every Black Girl
Who Creates Her Own Power
In Her Own Way
Jerrelle Guy, Black Girl Baking: Wholesome Recipes Inspired by a Soulful Upbringing