What comes first?

What came first – being a member of The Wander Society or paying closer attention to things? Many of us in order to be part of this funny little club had to read Keri Smith’s book first. Then we had to be curious about the clues in the book. We had to go outside of the book to find out more.

We had to figure out that there was a request to make a stack of stones, take a photo of them, and email them to a special email address mentioned in the book. It is kind of like coming across a treasure hunt without planning to. Just reading the book was the start. But then you have to engage the message in the book to get anywhere.

Being curious, not taking things at face value, and being willing to think outside the box (not even seeing the box!) are all traits that we brought with us into this group. Perhaps the best part of being in this group is that we are now validated for our curiosity. We are in a like-minded society (albeit a virtual one) of other people who wonder and wander. When we see pictures posted by other members of beautiful mountain scenes we want to lace up our hiking boots and go. When we see macro photography from other members of tiny little things that we otherwise would not have noticed, we think “Hey, I wonder what else I am missing and I should pay closer attention to?”

So perhaps they both reinforce each other – being curious and being a Wanderer creates Wanderers who are even more curious. Perhaps it is not simply “Solved by walking”. Perhaps it is all about wandering.

Perhaps instead of being inoculated against the world, Wanderer’s hearts are even more open. Perhaps The Wander Society serves as inspiration to share our hearts – our tender beautiful tiny huge hearts – with other people who share the view that the world is an amazing and tender and wonderful place.

The strangers.

The door was at the end of a long cobblestone alleyway. There were other doorways along this narrow path, and other windows above. Each door, ornately decorated with carvings and inlay, had no peephole. It was seen as a distraction from the aesthetic of the whole, and was in line with the beliefs of the culture.

Most of the citizens lived on the second floor, so when caller rang the tiny bell by the door, they would peer out at who was below. If they were interested in company, they would saunter downstairs and admit the visitor. Strangers were rarely allowed inside, so there were no solicitors in this town. The faithful had to find other ways to lure people to their gatherings.

This town had been rebuilt of stone after the second flood a century ago. Sure, the members of the fledgling town could have read the signs and chosen to relocate, but they had come to love the easy access to water for their entertainment and cuisine. There was nothing like a day by the shore and a grilled halibut to make a life complete. They weren’t willing to give this life up, in spite of the risk that came with a town so close to water. Plus they enjoyed being able to travel on a “road” they didn’t have to build to see other cities and other cultures.

For you see, they were perfectly happy visiting strange exotic people who lived a few leagues away, but weren’t interested in having anyone strange come visit them. Strangers weren’t seen as dangerous, or even odd – just simply not like them. And that kind of person might cause more trouble than it was worth.

The townsfolk were too polite to explain the rules to strangers, and in many cases they might not even fully understand them. Rules and customs had the force of law here, and like laws they sometimes made no sense but people followed them anyway.

It served no purpose to explain their particular rules to strangers – they had no desire to allow them into their lives. Strangers were shunned to the extent that they weren’t even allowed to become members of the community by any means. You could not marry into the town, or seek to transfer citizenship, or even own property if you were a stranger.

But then there were others, people who were not born in the town, people who visited, who were welcome with open doors and open arms. What was the difference? Somehow they knew the rules. They were seen as part of the community simply because of how they acted. You either got it or you didn’t, and if you were in you were in for life without question.

Butterfly

Michelle knew today was the day for the big reveal. Her family and friends had suspected something was up for a while. They could see how hard it was for her to continue to pretend. This would be no surprise to them. But for her workplace, a busy advertising office with many prominent clients, this would come as a shock, if not a joke. It would be difficult for them to accept this new reality because there had been no signs. She had played her role well.

You see, Michelle knew down in her bones that she had been born into the wrong body. Now, it wasn’t a case of gender. She was sure she was a woman, whatever that meant. The roles and rules had shifted over the years in women’s favor and she could make do and make a life within these constraints.

Michelle‘s difference was that she was African, not Caucasian. She had always been drawn to the African culture and stories. She’d dated guys from Kenya and Egypt and Mali, despite concerns from her mother that it wasn’t safe. Her mother had said that others they would encounter when they were out together might cause trouble. Michelle was unfazed – her mother’s life was full of fear and imagined danger, and she was sure that fear would kill her mother before any stranger would harm herself. Michelle was determined to not adopt her viewpoint.

It wasn’t out of spite that she dismissed her mother’s concerns. She knew, deep down, that her mother’s version of reality was not her truth. Soon she started examining everything else in her life to see if it was valid. She didn’t want to live her life – her one, precious, beautiful life, – following someone else’s pattern. So everything she had been told and taught got questioned and challenged. Her parents and friends thought she was going through a rebellious phase but she knew better. The unexamined life was indeed not worth living.

So that Tuesday she called a meeting and told everyone that she had to speak her truth. She was, despite appearances to the contrary, African, and from henceforth she expected all of them to call her by the name Kipepeo, which was Swahili for “butterfly”. She would not answer to anything else. HR was consulted. The legal team was notified. She had no plans of going before a judge and legally changing her name. She cited men who were named Robert who insisted on being called Bob. She cited Native Americans who had gone on a vision quest and come back with a new name. And then she stopped explaining.

Kipepeo insisted that her employer print out new business cards for her, the same as if she had gotten married and changed her name. Except she hadn’t. She insisted that the nameplate on her office door be changed< as well as what was printed on her checks. She accused anyone who did not call her by her new name of creating a hostile work environment. She called it her true name.

At that, her employer started to look for ways to get her to leave. If anybody was creating a hostile work environment, it was her. They had gone along with her claim that she was actually African. It wasn’t something that affected the workplace. But his name thing was going too far.

Epiphany

Only once a year was this door opened, and that day was today. Many people loved the pomp and pageantry of Christmas, but for Elaine, it was Epiphany that took the cake. She celebrated all the usual observances her little village church offered, and a few extra. Opening this door was one of them, and this honor was now entrusted to her.

Elaine‘s family had been the keepers of the key since time and memory began – and perhaps longer. Every generation it was passed on to the second oldest daughter in a modest but meaningful ceremony upon her entering into cronehood. Of course they never used such words outside of the family, never even said menopause. It wasn’t anyone’s business how and when the key changed hands. If questions were asked, they were deftly and efficiently turned aside in such a way that the asker felt that his query had been satisfied and yet was none the wiser.

The door was a deep turquoise blue, the color of the domes of Santorini sanctuaries, of endless pools in long-abandoned quarries. There was an ornate metal scrollwork seemingly festooned with clusters of ripe grapes upon it. This was no mere feet of artistry – there were two purposes to these ornate bands. The first was obvious: it gave the wood a structure, like a skeleton, to ensure the door’s persistence. It would not do to have this door, of all doors, decay before it’s time. The second was hidden: never spoken aloud, never even hinted that. The guardian of the key invariably realized it soon after she was entrusted with her noble task. It was of no matter if she didn’t, however – early, late, or never, the truth was still there. It had no need to be passed down like an heirloom or a password. It was too precious to need to rely upon something as fallible and frail as human memory. The truth could go many generations before being realized again. It could wait.

So why Epiphany? That was a little murkier. All Elaine’s family tradition would comment was that the one year it wasn’t done, the cows ran away, the children were more difficult than usual, and the tractors wouldn’t start. And not just any Epiphany, but the one on January 19, the one of the Julian calendar. This made the tradition a little less obvious to the village, which wasn’t cosmopolitan enough to know that there were two different dates for the same event, just like with Christmas and Easter.

Not like it really mattered what day it was celebrated, because lightning never strikes twice in the same spot with the same day, but it was the principle of the thing, and a tradition was a tradition.

Elaine opened the door at sunrise as she has been taught. The door would remain open all day, letting the chapel inside soak up the sunlight from the sacred day. Then at sunset, the door would be locked again, sealed for another year. Perhaps the chapel was some sort of holy battery, solar powered, long-lived, and needed the light on just this day to keep the village running smoothly.

Just in case that was true, they kept the population of the village under 100 people to ensure the special energy would not be used up too soon.

Time to leave

Jane knew it was time to leave when she saw this. It was her car, sure, but he had paid for it. That was what he told her when she complained. It wasn’t hers.

Nothing was hers. She had no reason to complain. She should be grateful he even accepted her, even allowed her to stay with him as long as he had. And that was part of why she stayed. He’d convinced her she couldn’t survive without him, had no worth outside of his company.

She spent so much of her adult life with him that she had almost forgotten what it was like to not be with him. Now that she thought about it, she remembered asking him if she could get a tattoo, or even color her hair. He grudgingly agreed to both, but with restrictions. How many other expressions of her self had she suppressed?

When she mentioned to her friends that she was thinking of leaving, they said “But you should be grateful you’re in a relationship” or “Think of those people who have it worse and they stay” – like any of that mattered. It did, for a while. For a while she was fooled into agreeing with them. For a while she thought she was wrong, or crazy, or ungrateful.

But then the day came when she could no longer ignore the messages her body was telling her, but she tried. Back and neck so tight she had to get massages twice a month. Nightmares where she was trapped, waking up punching or kicking. Heart palpitations. She realized she was taking three different anti-anxiety medications just to get through the day. And still it wasn’t enough. But she ignored it, pretended she was fine. Everyone else she knew just seemed to accept it as normal. She even ended up in the hospital thinking she was having a heart attack but it was just anxiety. Even then he didn’t believe her, made her bring letters from the doctor, notarized, before he would be grudgingly accept her back.

She became suicidal in September, the life drained out of her. His response was to say she wasn’t the girl he had picked, had graced with his attention. He said she better pick herself back up and be cheery again or he’d kick her out. Never did he imagine that he was the reason for her despondency. That if only he had treated her with kindness and trust she would’ve blossomed instead of withered.

Maybe she should’ve left then, but she didn’t. Maybe she felt she couldn’t afford to live without him. Maybe she had gotten so used to feeling second rate and third class that she even agreed with him that there wasn’t any point to complaining. Maybe everybody in her position felt the same way and she should just accept it and not hope for better.

But then it happened. The day she never had even dared to hope for – that awful beautiful day when everything became crystal clear and her path lay before her. Stay, or die. He had made the decision for her with this message. She knew if she returned to him her life would be forfeit. It was no longer merely uncomfortable or difficult to be there, but deadly. A few phone calls and she was gone. She never looked back.

Ministry at the thin places

I’m called to the thin places, the holes, the edges.  I’m called to those moments where people are at the edges of life and don’t even know it.  They are at risk of death, due to overdose, or suicide, or both.  They’ve wandered too close to the limit.  One more step and they are gone. 

It took me a while to see this pattern.  I kept meeting people at these edges. 

I went walking in downtown Chattanooga with friends many years back at night, and saw a young man, thin, dark hair, alone at a water fountain that had been turned off for the winter.  I left my friends and walked up to this stranger and began to talk with him.  It was a month later that he admitted to me that he was going to kill himself that night.  It was the fact that I started talking to him that distracted him, that turned him away from the edge. 

I’ve had several boyfriends who drank too much, not trying to kill themselves but trying to enjoy life more, in their opinion.  I was there to keep them alive in those moments when the body starts to react badly to that abuse. 

I’ve dated two people who had attempted suicide before I met them.

My father tried to commit suicide when I was two.  My great-grandfather, his grandfather, did commit suicide.  They say that someone was “successful” at suicide, but is it really a success? 

I feel suicide and addiction and overdosing are all related.  We walk too far into territory that we don’t know, and it pulls us in with its own gravity, its own magnetism.  Before we know it, we are sucked in much further than we meant.  We didn’t know where that dark alley led to.  We didn’t know – or we thought we were strong enough to walk away.  These forces are older than us, and hungrier.  They will have what they will have and there is no arguing with them.  The only real way to survive is to never get too close. 

And that is where I come in.  I show up.  I happen to be there.  I’m called to it.  This isn’t something you can schedule.  There isn’t an app for this. 

I stand in the way, with death behind me, so they can’t see that doorway. 

This isn’t something you train for, not really. This isn’t something that people even talk about.  We don’t talk about death.  We certainly don’t talk about suicide. 

(Written 11/8/2015, updated 5/14/20)

Beggar

I think I’ve figured it out.

I should quit my job

with its low pay

and become an artist

and have five children

and have no health insurance.

I should spend everything I make

as soon as I make it,

saving nothing.

No pension plan

nothing to prepare for

the future

whether the future

is a month

or 20 years from now.

Then when anything happens,

when, not if,

I’ll go up to strangers

and beg for money.

But I won’t do it like people used to do it

standing on the street corner

like a beggar

or a prostitute,

I’ll do it the new way.

I’ll set up a “Go fund me” account

or a Kickstarter

and do it all digitally.

I’ll ask friends

and their friends

to pay for

my gallbladder operation

or my child’s new baseball uniform

or my pet’s funeral.

Meanwhile I’ll make art talking about

how awesome it is

to be free

from all the constraints

of a 9-to-5 job,

while conveniently forgetting

that my friends

in those 9 to 5 jobs

are paying for my bills.

Or maybe I have too much

 self-respect

and respect for others

to beg at all.

(Written 10/30/2015)

Illness

What are you afraid of?

What are you trying to control?

What are you holding onto,

 that you can’t let go?

Sometimes when people have an illness it is just the end result of a wrestling match that they are having. They are struggling with something in their life and they’re having a hard time releasing it.

It would help if they can slow down and listen to what their illness is trying to get them to pay attention to. There is some imbalance in their life, some incomplete business.

It reminds me of one of the mantras of AA, about fixing what you can, letting go of what you can’t fix, and knowing the difference. If you are fighting an illness, ask yourself who is in charge? Who is going to do the healing – you or God? If you are fighting it to the point that you cannot allow yourself to rest and you’re in a great deal of pain then perhaps it means that you are not trusting in God to heal you, but you think that you were going to heal you.

Healing doesn’t always mean a physical healing. Sometimes healing simply means that you’ve learned a lesson you were supposed to learn or what was supposed to happen has finally happened. One of the biggest things that holds people up is needing to know an outcome. Sometimes letting go of that need is the most powerful thing you can do.

(started 9/21/15, updated 5/14/20)

Story-time church

So many church leaders wonder why folks are leaving the church – they think it is because they haven’t heard the Gospel.  Little do they realize they have heard the Gospel, and they aren’t seeing it lived out in the Church.  

Church should be more like Second Harvest or the Red Cross, rather than a sing-a-long and storytime.  Church has been infantilized. Church is more like preschool than preparation for work. 

Let’s look at how church is done currently with new eyes.  Currently, this is what happens –

You sing hymns.  The choir has practiced and leads the way, and you fumble along.  You’ve all got the words in the book in front of you, or up on a screen if you are in a modern church.  The songs are designed to cheer you up, but also to wake you up.  You have to stand to sing them in many churches.  So you are getting a little stretching in too. 

They read stories to you from the Bible, telling you about all the things that happened way back when to everyone else.  You’ve never told how to be in those stories – how to make them come alive for you, or to recognize them happening to you right now. Over a thousand years ago, you’d not even be allowed to read the Word for yourself – you’d be expected to just listen.  Also – you probably couldn’t even understand it – it was in Latin, which nobody spoke.  The stories weren’t meant for you to hear and understand.  Somehow the words were supposed to have some sort of magic power, just the syllables were enough.  Even though the words are in the local language now, you still aren’t taught how to live them out. 

You aren’t allowed to discuss the stories.  Your participation is not required – and in many cases it is not allowed.  It certainly isn’t encouraged. You can read them for yourself on your own time if you want, but sharing your own interpretation is not OK.  You aren’t ordained.  You haven’t been to graduate school to get a degree in ministry – so you aren’t worthy of an opinion.  The interpretation of God’s message is for the minister – not the people in the pews.  This is just like pre-school – the teacher runs the class, not the students. 

You get to play dress up – you wear your best clothes, and if you go to a liturgical church, the choir, altar party, and minister put on robes.  You wear clothes you don’t wear any other time or in any other place. You can’t dress like you normally do.  This furthers the idea that what happens in church stays in church, and that God doesn’t show up at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday while you are at work. 

It is like God is a special toy.  God is pulled out to play with once a week, and not even for a full day.  Then God is put back into the box, to be forgotten for another week. 

You get a snack too – communion. It isn’t a meal – just a sip of wine (or grape juice) and a wafer or a cracker.  It isn’t a meal by any stretch of the imagination.  It is just a little tiny thing, a symbol.

What is evil?

How interesting that the Hebrew word for demon

שד

Is related to the word for fallow land

שדה בור

And battlefield, and minefield

And related to looted, robbed

שדדו

Evil is not using resources properly,

potential fruitfulness wasted,

through human means.  It isn’t an accident.

It is

intentional or unintentional

mis-use of a gift from God.

Unintentionally

wasting your life

has the same result

as intentionally wasting it.

Not choosing

to be mindful,

to be a good steward

is to choose evil,

to allow it in.