Eyes in the Alley – Beauty from Ashes

dark_alley_bigShe fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud wring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes.

Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare. She’d seen it before. Often. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.

She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call she wished she hadn’t “Your test results are in, ma’am. Can you meet with the doctor tomorrow?”

Ashes.

He fell backwards against the brick wall, his guts, freshly emptied of the remains of fish-dinner-a-la-dumpster. His head, swimming in too much shit wine, conspired with his stomach against all lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. These days, only shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…well, promise.

Was it only yesterday that he’d felt the warm body of a wife sleeping next to him? She had stayed with him through the final merger, the one he’d promised would bring them financial freedom. She muscled through his two affairs and the drinking that bridged them both. Now, two years, a foreclosure, divorce, and bankruptcy later, he thought he smelled her hair, the fragrance of mint intermingled in aching reminiscence. But it was only the smell of loss mixed with dog shit on his one remaining shoe. He’d lost the other earlier that day foraging for what was left of his meal, now part of his concrete pillow. And, as it began to snow, he blacked out.

Ashes.

new life from ashes II

She was desperate. It had been too long between hits and her most regular but equally violent trick had just buzzed to be let in. She frantically ravaged through her regular places searching for her small bag of white, powdered courage. If she could get high enough quick enough, perhaps he would get enough soon enough and leave her just enough to start the whole process again.

He pounded on the buzzer. Now, he wasn’t just horny but pissed off and, most likely, more violent as a result. Her lust to forget competed with his to be remembered and a battle ensued as to whose needs would be met first. She gave up. This time, a paying customer in person overruled her quest to be absent. After safely shoeing her daughter away in a back room, yelling for her to lock the door, with quivering hand she buzzed him in.

He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs. It was a distance not her friend when it came to her chances of getting through this unscathed. Her door flew open, along with his zipper and a stream of obscenities. Everything aligned in a perfect storm, conspiring against her and sealing her fate. She lucked out this time and suffered only one punch before he got down to business. Through a left eye, now starting to swell, she toughed it out through one more indignity.

Ashes.

Ash Wednesday. Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. Any fuel that had provided light or heat no longer exists. It is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak picture of what many of us feel about our lives. Sometimes, life offers little more than the used up fodder of someone else’s fire.

In the Gospel however ashes become something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus reveals to us how the ashes of death are turned to the fertilizer of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.

An anxiety-ridden woman receives the call; a washed up businessman is now one with the streets; a hooker walks a tightrope of addiction and fear to survive the only lifestyle she knows

All of us are only a hair’s breadth away from ruin or reward, disaster or dream, life or lies. We’re in this together. And wherever our lives may be in ruins, God can bring about beauty from our ashes.

May it be so.

Pictures from here and here

Glimpses, part III – thin places

Two people stand on either side of a white bed sheet suspended from a clothesline. As it billows and blows this way and that, you are given a passing glimpse of someone standing on the other side. The image never stays long enough for you to determine its shape or identity. Your curiosity is piqued enough however to move closer to the sheet. The breeze stops momentarily and you place a tentative hand upon the sheet, now still and waiting. Your hand feels cool fabric, thin and light to the touch.

To your surprise at first and then to your delight, a hand presses against yours from the other side, the side that hinted at an image impossible to confirm with your eyes, untrained for such visions. Two hands touch, finger to finger, palm to palm and there is recognition. It is the realization that something holy is transpiring. The sacredness of it hangs in the air like a heavy mist. You stand, breathless, waiting, uncertain – yet somehow…sure.

That is what the Celts have called, a thin place.

Peering out my hotel window onto the suburban Portland landscapes, a collaboration of grey sky with green horizon conspires against my equally somber mood and confirms that this overstatement of beauty is underrated. It is a melancholy scene uniquely designed for creatives and mystics like myself. It doesn’t parade itself, shouting in one’s face like the endless, overly peppy summer days my fellow Yakimanians insist upon.

No, this multilayered beauty lets me seek for it. There is the obvious beauty one sees immediately with the eyes. But there exists an indirectness, hinting at something still deeper, under the skin, as if to say, “if you think this is beautiful, just keep looking…” Here it is that Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things”, for me, makes the most sense. One feels that to plumb the depths of one level of this spongy flora is merely an epidermis covering the heart of the matter many floors down where every living thing converges, colliding to become itself all over again.

See the following poetic inspiration from this same journey from Yakima to Portland.

The green of Oregon. A thin place.

I always say in such heavily wooded areas, as I do near the ocean, that the air has a finished quality to it. It lacks for nothing. As a family, we loved to spend a great deal of time on the beach when we lived in Oregon. Along with our two boys, our dog and a Frisbee, it was not uncommon for us to take lawn chairs and a host of reading materials, planting ourselves confidently on our tiny plot of sand. From there the wind, waves, body surfers, gulls, joggers and beachcombers would teach us of the God who makes sense of the small and great, loud and quiet, still and quick. One of those many times garnered the following poetic triptych posted elsewhere.

Thoughts from the beach…

To commemorate a beach walk with my wife.

1

Beauty.  Random squalor in effortless

wave deposits her treasure.

In our efforts to build that which

hand could never grasp we trade

Quintessential.  Queer.  Quiet for

Quantifiable.  Quick.  Casual.

Oh, such grand wordless words-

wonder, world-watched prayers

waiting…waiting.

That which is unseen – now

I see.

2

Wind-soaked beach-stained

dark; darker still where waves

kiss the sand of my imagination.

Flat boards float on round earth

playing with my finitude and finer still,

fill my earthen breath with

deeper wind.

3

Dare she flit on so light a wing,

fading into vastness, blue-

the sky and water, one;

where one defines what much cannot

in so many syllables contain-

the vast smallness of it all.

May 12, 2003

The ocean. A thin place.