October 15, 2016 § 7 Comments
In my family, we have a tradition.
It began a year before I was born, back when my parents were newlyweds, and like almost every other family tradition out there, it’s somewhat peculiar.
My mother wanted a cat. She’d grown up in rural Montana surrounded by animals of all different kinds – frogs, wild geese, a beloved Boston Bull Terrier – and when the church’s pastor announced at the end of Sunday service that there was a box of kittens waiting to be adopted in the reception room, she looked over at my father with pleading eyes.
To which he emphatically replied, “No.”
The way my mother tells it, they were just going to take a look. Scratch a pink nose, tug a triangular ear, rub a furry belly. I have my doubts about this. I am fairly certain that my mother never planned to leave that church without a kitten.
In any case, they had just entered the gymnasium, the cardboard box on the other side of the room, when one of the kittens boldly climbed the box’s side, sauntered over to where my mother stood, wrapped its claws around her ankle, and sunk its teeth in.
For anyone else, this would have been reason to shriek out in pain or, perhaps, kick the cat across the room. But not for my mother. Instead, she looked down at that fuzzy fur ball and cooed.
The kitten was small and black, with bright yellow eyes.
“No,” said my father. “No. No. No.”
But the kitten was already in my mother’s arms, batting at her chin with its tiny clawed paws. And so, my parents left that church, a tiny black kitten snuggled in my mother’s coat.
And because the cat was black, as black as those cats in horror movies who howl and run out of dark alleyway shadows, and because my parents have a wry sense of humor, they named the kitten Diablo – Devil in Spanish.
Thus the tradition began. Any cat my parents owned had to be black and had to be named, in some language or another, after the devil.
Though I am technically the elder in our family of four, my mother always called Diablo her “first baby.” By the time I was born a year later, Diablo had lodged himself firmly in her heart. And though he was a cat, he certainly lived up to all of the stereotypes of oldest siblings.
For one thing, he was extremely protective. My mother loves to tell the story of how I used to crawl around the house until I found Diablo lying sprawled asleep in a patch of late afternoon sun and promptly flop myself directly onto his exposed belly. Or how I used to grab onto his bewitching tail, stick it in my mouth, and chomp down. All this torment Diablo took with a kind of Stoic patience, as though he understood that I was merely a baby who did not know any better and that no matter what I did to him, there was no situation in which he would be allowed to retaliate in turn.
Then, there were the German Shepherds, another story my mother loves to regale. We lived in a townhouse at the time, and because my mother felt bad for any cat cooped up inside, but didn’t want to let Diablo out for fear he’d be killed by a negligent driver, she took to walking him around the block – on a leash, like a dog.
For other cats, this may not have gone over so well. But Diablo was a special cat, and he took to his afternoon walks like it was second nature.
A number of our neighbors also had pets, including two older ladies who owned two German Shepherds. Now my mother, who had a bad experience with a German Shepherd as a child, was deathly afraid of these dogs. Whenever they came around the corner, she would stop stalk still, holding Diablo’s leash as if it were a lifeline. Diablo, on the other hand, was not the least bit afraid. In fact, as though he could sense my mother’s fear, he would raise his shackles and pierce those muzzled German Shepherds with a fierce glare. The way my mother tells it, those German Shepherds took one look at Diablo, turned around, and took off running, the only sound their expandable leashes whirling in their shocked owners’ hands.
Diablo was a gentlemanly cat. In the mornings, he would leap gracefully into my mother’s porcelain tub and wait for her to fill it with an inch of lukewarm water in which he would give himself a thorough bath. He disliked milk and catnip, treats that were far beneath him, but loved my mother’s gourmet cooking, licking up such expensive dinners as roast beef, steak on the grill, and honey glazed ham.
If his manners were graceful, his stature was even more so. His black fur was slick and shone in the sun. He walked slowly, plodding along as though he had nowhere in particular to go, and yet every step he took was deliberate. Once, my brother and I told one of our neighborhood friends that Diablo was actually an African panther, and he believed us. Nevertheless, I still denigrated his genteel nature, nicknaming him such epithets as “Bubba” and “Bobbles” and, the only one my mother ever used, “Dobs.”
No one, least of all my father, expected Diablo to live as long as he did. Which is why we adopted our second black cat when he was still alive, my father naively assuming that old Dobs wouldn’t be around for much longer.
But cats always have one more life than you think. Diablo, it turned out, would live for eighteen years, until the night he disappeared suddenly, without a trace.
My mother walked around the house crying for days. My father used it as an opportunity to teach my brother and me about the mysterious, yet absolute reality of death. Meanwhile, I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking Diablo was there, sitting stately at the edge of my bed like he had ever since I was born, but he was gone.
Given my family’s patriotism and penchant for free market economics, it’s always struck me as ironic that our second cat was a bona fide Canadian. We were vacationing in Prince Edward Island off the coast of Nova Scotia when the manager of the B&B told my parents about the litter of kittens living in her barn.
Of course, we had to see them. My mother, brother, and I spent a glorious morning playing with those energetic fur balls. I was partial to a white one with a little brown spot beneath her chin. My brother loved a fluffy gray one we nicknamed Grayball. My mother, a black one with a partially bald eye. We carried them around beneath our arms. I plucked daisies and stuck them behind the ears of the ones I thought were girls. The little black kitten: definitely a girl. She got extra daisies to cover up her bald spot.
All of us were sad when my father emerged to tell us it was time to leave. That night, we had reservations at an Anne of Green Gables-themed B&B.
But on our last day of vacation, my father woke us with a surprise.
“We’re going to visit the kittens,” he said.
“Really?” said my mother.
“Just for fun,” he said. “It’s on our way.”
My brother and I were ecstatic. No one, not even my mother, expected what my father had up his sleeve. For as the three of us happily snuggled with the kittens in the barn, my father diligently packed an old cardboard box with crumpled-up newspaper, a plastic baggy filled with cat food, and a red plastic bowl so that we might take home a small, black, bald-spotted kitten.
My father named him Teufel – pronounced Toy-full – which was Devil in German, and it wasn’t until after we took him to the vet that we found out he wasn’t a girl.
If Diablo was a stately gentleman, Teufel was a fiendish rogue.
He was first and foremost, a barn cat, which meant he was skilled at catching and devouring all manner of small creatures. Rats, mice, snakes, birds – you name it, he would kill it and eat it, leaving only a small pile of bones. Once, when I was seventeen, I drove all the way to high school, parked in the coveted senior parking lot, and slammed the car door, only to find the remains of a large rat stuck to the trunk of my car. I refused to clean it, instead letting its long pink tail, scruffy grey skin, and bloated purple intestines dry to a crisp in the hot Texas sun.
Teufel was unabashedly audacious. He stood down a wild fox, winding my mother into hysterics as she listened to their wild snarls. He roamed at night through the tall Texas grass, braving coyotes, rattlesnakes, and cougars.
Of the four of us, he liked my brother best.
Every morning, he would plod into my brother’s room, leap onto his bed, and settle himself directly onto my brother’s solid, warm back. My brother would wake to Teufel’s purring — a sound that did not necessarily mean the cat wasn’t about to lash out at you with razor sharp claws — the feeling of those claws lightly digging his skin.
I suppose Teufel liked my brother because he didn’t treat him special in any way. Whereas my mother doted on him, offering him nibbles from the dinner table, and my father had, on several occasions, slapped him off that very table, my brother ignored him completely. And as a rogue cat – my brother and I often called him the pirate – this was exactly what he wanted.
Me, on the other hand, Teufel didn’t seem to like very much.
I suppose it was because I once thought he was a girl and put daisies behind his ear. Teufel was the kind of cat to hold a grudge.
After I moved away for college, Teufel became very sick. Cancer, said the vet, all over his mouth.
I wasn’t around for that last year of his life, but my mother tells me that Teufel knew he was sick, the way animals often do. He became very dependent on her, and so much was her love for him that in the final days of his life, when the cancer was causing pieces of his pink tongue to fall out of his mouth, she fed him warm water and watered-down cat food with a plastic syringe.
On his last day, Teufel, who hadn’t been outside for days, walked the perimeter of our Texas home, my mother watching him through the kitchen window. He smelled the sweet grass and watched the sun fling brilliant rays of light across the mesquite trees along the horizon. Then, she took him to the vet.
She called me several days later with the news. Although by then I felt rather detached from Teufel, a cat I’d never felt that close with and remembered more for the times he’d slashed me in anger than cuddled me in love, I was still sad I didn’t get to say goodbye.
As I write this, my family’s third black cat, a corpulent female with a white tuft of fur just beneath her chin, lies sprawled across my desk, sleeping contently.
I was never supposed to end up with this cat. My mother rescued her as a kitten and so technically, the cat should live with her. But my mother and father now live in a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C., while I live in a suburban house in Dallas, a living arrangement that’s landed me with the cat who’s currently shedding clumps of fur all over my room. Incidentally, fur is somewhat like glitter: just when you think you’ve gotten rid of it all, more appears, matted to your bedspread, perhaps, or stuck to the legs of your yoga pants.
My father named our third black cat Lucifer, a name that was promptly shortened to Luci when the vet told us she was a girl.
Luci, as I said, was a rescue cat. My mother found her in the dead of winter, hiding in an empty home that was under-construction. She was near freezing and living on bugs when my mother used a can of tuna to coax her out of a hole in the home’s cement foundation.
My mother paid dearly for rescuing Luci. The terrified kitten was so excited at the prospect of eating real food for the first time in her life, she gobbled up all of the tuna and then tried to eat my mother’s fingers too. Lest any kitten fool you with its adorable eyes and miniature paws, let me remind you that these animals are relatives of the mighty lions. Their teeth cut through skin and bone. My mother walked around for a week with a giant bandage wrapped around her throbbing index finger. But she is a saint to all lost kittens, and despite the pain, Luci was allowed to come home.
Like all creatures, the early months of a cat’s life are its formative years. Before her rescue, Luci’s life was marked by starvation and fear. All alone in the frigid cold, she survived by catching and eating anything smaller than she – mainly, bugs – and hiding in her hole from anything larger – mainly, the coyotes who roamed the Texas hills. To this day, Luci is marked by these habits of survival.
She gobbles up bowls of Meow Mix as though it’s the only food she’s ever had and may ever see again. Then, she gobbles up what’s left of the dog’s food. And then, she winds herself around my ankles, tail curling up my leg in the hopes that I’ll drop her a tasty morsel of my own meal (which, of course, I always do).
When she was younger, Luci jumped at the slightest noise. She hid under the bed when any stranger entered our home. She hated to be outside. Now, she is a calmer, older cat who spends her days immersed in her two favorite things: sleeping in the sunlight that illuminates my room and eating like a deranged wolf.
She is a sweet cat who’s never once lashed out at me, and I love her companionship very much. In many ways, she is the perfect pet. She loves it when I scratch the top of her head and will snuggle against me for hours while I rub her nose, yet she is also perfectly content to lie around the house by herself, requiring nothing more than to be left alone.
Growing up, people sometimes told my mother, “I would never own a black cat.” I saw shock on the faces of these same people when my mother told them our cats’ names. “You mean you named your cat after the Devil?” Why yes, yes we did.
What is it about black cats that engender so much fear among us? In many cultures, they are considered signs of evil. The association of black cats with Satanic forces goes back to the Medieval Age. If one crosses your path, it means suffering and death lie in your future. If you pet a black cat, you may also find yourself in the company of the Devil himself. If you let one aboard your ship, on its next journey, the ship will sink. The list of bad omens goes on and on.
Yet if we are going to take up superstitions, I’d rather be like the Scots, who believe a black cat in the home brings prosperity. Or the English, who believe if a fisherman’s wife owns a black cat, it will keep her husband safe at sea. Or the Celts, who believe a woman who dwells with a black cat will attract many suitors.
In case I didn’t mention it above, I am, in fact, a single woman living with a black cat. A black cat named Lucifer, perhaps, but after all, the Devil’s only in the name.
September 29, 2016 § 4 Comments
A friend of mine recently introduced me to The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, a trilogy of prayer manuals that are a modern reworking of fixed-hour prayer. With roots in Judaism and early Christianity, fixed-hour prayer is one of the oldest Christian spiritual practices. While it has evolved over the centuries, it is essentially the practice of praying (often by chanting) certain predetermined prayers at certain predetermined times of the day.
Since learning about The Divine Hours, I’ve realized I’m a bit late to the game. Now, I come across the books everywhere: on friends’ bookshelves, tossed around in various conversations, and even in the occasional artsy Instagram post.
Isn’t that how it often is? Something can be right in front of your face, and you don’t notice it until you need it.
On a late summer morning, my friend and I settled ourselves beneath a blanket, mugs of steaming coffee in our hands, and chanted together the prayers and passages allotted for the day. It was an unusual thing to do in her modern apartment, our monotone voices joining a legacy of petitioners extending far into the past. While at first, the chanting felt strange on my lips, uncomfortable even, in its sincerity and unconventionality, soon, I settled into the mantra, our low voices soothing to my soul, the simple act of singing words of thanks, of request, of remembrance, of praise good in and of themselves.
The prayers set me firm in my body for the day, but more than that, I liked what Tickle wrote in her introduction: “The Divine Hours are prayers of praise offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and faith to God…The fact that the creature grows strong and his or her faith more sinewy and efficacious as a result of keeping the hours is a by-product (albeit a desirable one) of that practice and not its purpose.”
In a world in which there is so much pressure for everything from the work we do to the prayers we pray to have immediate material efficacy, it was a relief to simply enter into a practice with no other goal than to see and acknowledge what is good.
A passage that continuously appears throughout The Divine Hours, and one that draws my eye again and again, is this verse from Psalm 55: In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice. My friend pointed it out to me on that first day, and each time it reappears, I think: yes, that passage is for me.
Because isn’t that what I do all day long, complain and lament, both to others and to God? And isn’t that a picture of grace, that these complaints and laments do not fall on deaf ears, that however big or small my daily trials, they are always heard, they are always acknowledged.
This, I think, is why I’m coming to love The Divine Hours. This continuous, all day, everyday, looking for God. This turning every complaint and lament, every hope and exultation, every thought, small and large, up to the sky in habit-forming rhythm. This basic movement of the lips and of the heart.
August 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
A few days before my 25th birthday, several of my older friends admitted that on their 25th birthdays, they’d woken up feeling rather like someone had punched them in the face. They were no longer in their early twenties. They were 25 now. They needed to get their lives together. They needed to grow up.
These were honest, innocent admissions, not meant to bother me, the one nearing this momentous occasion in her life, but they gave me pause.
At 24, I’d already experienced my fair share of difficulty: rough moves, disappointing jobs, and unexpected grief. I did not need the additional hardship of simply turning one age to another. Yet, as much as I tried not to give in to this myth of the quarter life crisis, I found myself waking up on my 25th birthday with the stark realization that where I was in life was not at all where I wanted to be.
I wanted so much more.
Not that my life lacked for good things. Quite the contrary. I have traveled some, taking to heart the advice I once read that when you are young, you should travel cheap and far and wide. I am full to the brim with deep, lasting friendships, for which I am ever more grateful day by day. I am perfectly healthy (well, except for that recent bacterial infection from a manicure — a first world problem if there ever was one).
And yet, I am not satisfied.
I want. So much. More.
What is this urge, this deep desire within me?
I wake with it in the morning. It ceases momentarily while I sit at my computer to write (this is, I’ve come to believe, one of the reasons I love writing). Then it is back as I drive across the city, as I work in coffee shops, as I walk my dog in the evening, as I fall asleep at night.
It is an urge to get up and go, a sense that if I sit here, alone, for too long, the whole world will pass me by. It is a sharp desire to rise and flee. It is a vague longing within the center of my chest. As I told a friend lately, I feel like a deep cavern of need.
I could write down a list of all of the particular things I want at this moment. Actually, being the overly-organized person I am, I already have. This list includes normal things any 20-something-year-old wants, both within reason (money for monthly yoga classes so I can stay in-shape) and without (an upscale flat in Paris where I can live with several obscure, but exceedingly rich and brilliant artists).
But I’m not convinced that any of these things will actually fulfill my cavern of need. I think my cavern of need is like an ever-growing pit: the more you fill it in, the larger it grows.
Half of me thinks I should cultivate contentment: don’t let your greediness for more taint the good things you already have!
But another part of me thinks I should press into this neediness: the world is full of so many lovely things, and we ought to be greedy for all of them.
I guess this life is full of contradictions. I guess both things can be true at once. This is the beginning of something I’m learning in my 25th year.
July 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
It’s summer in Texas, and that means life these days involves traveling north as often as possible, eating Blue Bell ice cream on the back porch in the sun, and befriending anyone you can think of who might have a pool. It also means staying inside your room where you can type away at your computer while the friendly air conditioner hums.
Here are a few things I’ve written inside my air conditioned room this summer.
I recently began writing for several nonprofits in Dallas. One is The Well Community, a small but stellar organization that serves those who struggle with mental illness in Oak Cliff, a borough of Dallas.
I’ve written about their weekly event Thursday Night Life, where Well members — those who deal with mental illnesses — are invited to fellowship with one another and volunteers and staff; a short profile of one of the Well members who battles schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that has features of both schizophrenia and a mood irregularity like major depression or bipolar disorder; a peek into life at the boarding house where several Well members live; and a look at how The Well Community has become a family for the marginalized among us.
This nonprofit is wonderful, and I highly recommend it to anyone in Dallas or elsewhere wanting to help those in need.
In May, I traveled to Iceland, a country which is becoming increasingly popular among tourists these days (for good reason, as you can see below!).
If you’re interested in why it’s become so popular, as well as some of the best sites along the Ring Road, I wrote two travel stories for The Dallas Morning News based on my experience:
These days, I write for a number of nonprofits, startups, and other organizations. If you’re looking for a writer to help you on a project, big or small, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note! I would love to hear from you!
July 6, 2016 § 4 Comments
Every so often, usually in the late afternoon when I’m a bit tired and would rather like a latte or a nap, a small voice in my head wakes up and this is what it says: “You, Elizabeth Hamilton, you are a failure. You have tried, and you have failed. You don’t have what it’s got.”
When this happens, I usually try my best to ignore the voice, and when that doesn’t work, I usually try my best to reason with it. “No, no,” I say, “I’m not a failure. Look at all I’ve accomplished! Look at all of the good things in my life! Why would you say such a thing about me!?”
Yet, despite my best efforts, the voice in my head usually wins. Oh, occasionally I manage to pile enough of my accomplishments and a litany of good things in my life on top of the voice to muffle its insults, but the effort always leaves me emotionally drained and wondering if that voice might be correct after all. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I don’t have what it’s got.
I know I’m not the only one out there with this voice in her head, and that’s got me thinking: why, exactly, do we think we’re failing? And why is failure such a bad thing?
And here is what I’m learning, here is what I’m glimpsing through the fog: failure isn’t such a bad thing, and though we’ve all failed in some ways at some things and succeeded in some ways at others, we ourselves are not failures, at least, not in the way the small voice thinks.
When we fail at something, it hurts, yes, but it is within that space of disappointment and even despair that, if we’re willing, we can begin to understand greater truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.
I have failed and succeeded at a number of things in my short life. Yet while each failure rocked me to the core, split me open, broke me down, I found myself opening up.
I found myself learning through failure what it was that I truly wanted, which turned out to be quite different than what I thought. I found myself developing empathy for others in similarly shattered situations, and out of this empathy came the greatest gift of all: love. Not love in a wishy-washy, I love M&M’s sort of way, but a deep, abiding love that sees the humanity in others and wills their good.
And so, the voice in my head is wrong to call me a failure. Because what is failure without a definition of success? The two are wrapped together, opposing concepts known only as one.
To the voice in my head, success is immediate, and usually involves a vague notion of prestige and money and power. But with a little consideration, I’m seeing a new vision for success, one that finds fulfillment even in the center of disappointment, one that lets setbacks split me open so that a never-ending flow of warmth and light spills forth, one that realizes how you and I and everyone else are at our best when we are softened, and that softening comes most generously through the bump of a fall.
*Photos from my recent trip to Iceland.
June 13, 2016 § 3 Comments
Over the past few weeks, since returning from a long-anticipated trip to Iceland, many of my friends and family have asked how it was and what was my favorite part. To which I usually reply by sharing the story of the glacier.
Funny enough, when I think about the most enjoyable parts of the trip, my encounter with the glacier isn’t one. Most of the trip was just plain fun. Get three good friends together in a car driving around an island chalk full of stunning vistas and waterfalls and weird volcanic rocks, and of course it’s going to be fun. In fact, barring the usual annoyance of long layovers in crowded airports and jet lag, the trip was seven days of bliss — except, for me at least, the encounter with the glacier.
It was the near the end of the second day of the trip, and as we drove along the Ring Road, the nearly-deserted route which circles the island, we began to see white tendrils of glacier slipping out between the surrounding black-green mountains. They were part of the Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland and one of the largest in Europe. On a whim, we meandered down a gravel road, crossed a rickety wooden bridge, and wound our way toward it. Incidentally, this is how we discovered many incredible sites in Iceland: by following the curve of a gravel road to see where it led.
This road happened to end at the edge of the glacier.
We got out of the car. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was freezing and silent expect for a faint crackling: the sound of the glacier melting.
A narrow, rocky path ran adjacent to the glacier, overlooking the striated walls of ice jutting high into the overcast sky, brown pools of frigid water below. We walked along the climbing path for some time, until the height made me dizzy. I let my friends go on, content to stop where I was, leaning against the cold stone wall, staring out at the massive glacier. Soon, I was completely alone.
In trying to describe the way it felt to sit there by myself in the silent cold, overlooking what appeared to be a massive block of ice, but was really only the tiniest finger of a glacier that expanded far beyond my sight, I always fall short.
I say that it made me feel small. I say that it astonished me to contemplate how old that glacier must be. I say that because it was so old, it made me realize my life is just a tiny blip in comparison, inconsequential really, and certainly not the center of anything. I say that it made me feel vulnerable, and helpless, and fragile, and needy. I say that because the glacier was so cold and so big, colder and bigger than anything I’d ever seen before, it felt otherworldly, and because it felt otherworldly, it made me afraid.
It made me think about god, not as a squishy, found-in-a-Hallmark-card god who answers prayers and is always there, but as something far more expansive and mysterious than anything I had ever thought of or experienced before. It made me think of the fear of god, the fear of the wildness, the otherness.
Later, at the evening’s hostel, I would write these observations about what the glacier made me feel in my travel journal: danger, mystery, that cold wind off the glacier, darkness, where is god?, ancient, left out of the equation, alone, what it evoked based on its inner being, the birth of the world, didn’t make me feel good.
A few days later, when talking about our experience at the glacier, one of my friends would observe that it’s no wonder the Nordic gods are depicted the way they are, so fierce and foreboding — their myths reflect the lands which surround us.
I suppose we all have moments like the one I had at the glacier. In fact, if I’m honest, I’ve definitely experienced something like this before. These are moments when a thing outside of ourselves reaches through us and wrenches us open to the reality of an existence other than, an existence which lies beyond.
It is not necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it is a powerful one. It is one that sticks with you long after a return flight home.
May 5, 2016 § 2 Comments
When you are shrouded, how does one go? Who am I, that which beget me? Love which holds the universe fastened together,
where do I pass and are you mindful? Why, if you are?
That such intricacies exist which we do not know: a caterpillar chewing a green leaf, a frog dying in a pond alone, baby chicks hatching in a needled nest, me by myself drinking coffee. Such personalities! Such extravagance, and I’m more interested in what’s for dinner.
Expand our hearts so that we might see — the universe within us, and without. Show us your radiance in it all, in an early morning sunbeam and the minuscule growth of a fingernail.
These images, pasted together, amount to a glimpse, but still you remain hidden behind layers and layers of starry black cloth. It doesn’t end here. There is more to be given, and received. Fold us into your shadowy veil.
*Photos from my recent trip to Texas Hill Country.
April 26, 2016 § 3 Comments
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
I suppose it’s a personality quirk, this tendency of mine toward melancholy. In fact, all of the personality tests I’ve ever taken (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, all of those free tests on BuzzFeed) tell me so.
If some people see the world through rose colored glasses, I see the world through lenses of gray.
Where others might find hope, I see a shattered world. Where others might find abundance, I see only what could have been.
Sometimes, this melancholy is warranted. Certainly, there are times when it’s appropriate to grieve, to feel downcast, to be sorrowful. But other times, this grayness can get the best of me.
Other times, I need to remind myself that while, yes, there is much to lament over, there is much to rejoice over too. There is so much goodness in this world. There is so much to give thanks for.
Which is why I’m reminding myself today: If a sacrament is a sign of God’s love in the world, then this life is flush with them.
It is eating bowlfuls of my grandmother’s tortilla soup, simmered to spicy perfection. It is long walks in a green-canopied neighborhood that smells overwhelmingly like sugar-sweet wisteria. It is planning trips to a ranch in West Texas and a gravel road in Iceland and a lake town in Northern Michigan for a dearest of friend’s wedding. It is being asked to be maid of honor by another close friend.
It is creamy lattes and bright green matcha tea and sour popsicles in the heat. It is morning sunlight illuminating my room like a sunbeam. It is hot black coffee and the friendly fern growing beside the windowpane. It is warm, shorts-wearing weather. It is looking above a concrete apartment complex to see a sky streaked in lavenders and blues.
It is Blue Bell ice cream eaten in the starlit sun room of an old yellow-painted house. It is green-sprouting vines growing along red brick walls and making friends with a local barista. It is fresh mint in Earl Grey tea and evenings of hot yoga.
It is this, all of it. It is a sign.
And it is good.
April 25, 2016 § Leave a comment
I shared this essay on all of the usual social media sites when it was published several weeks ago, but in case you missed it (and if you’re interested!), my essay After the Storm appeared in the fifth issue of the lovely Cordella Magazine, an online literary magazine that features the work of women artists and writers across the world.
The piece is a somber reflection on the aftermath of the tornadoes that hit North Texas over Christmas.
It started with some meditations I jotted down after helping some friends who’d survived the tornadoes clean up their house, and through the editorial advice of a friend, became the essay it is.
We say a prayer of thanksgiving for safety, and I am glad to whisper it. I have known safety in moments of danger, and it is something to be thankful for.
For any interested readers, you can find the essay here.
April 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
A year ago today, I posted an essay about a car accident that I should not have walked away from. I try not to talk about the accident too much because I don’t want to be that girl who’s always talking about her near-death experience. But the truth is, I think about it fairly often.
I think about what one of my wise friends told me afterwards: that I can think of every day since the accident as extended time, time that, really, I should not have.
And so, I’m reposting this essay today as a reminder of the wonderful gift that life is, the wonderful grace of existence. It was also adapted as a Sunday essay in The Dallas Morning News, and you can read it there as well.
Once, I had a car named John Russell.
An odd name for a car, you might say, and many people did. But if you’re going to name a car, you might as well name him something special, and John Russell deserved a special name.
He was a college graduation gift from my parents, a dusty gold Ford Escape, used, but complete with everything a 20-something-year-old could want: sunroof, CD player, and cargo trunk, ready for road trips, ready for adventures.
And we had some adventures.
We drove halfway across the country and back. We drove up and down the West coast. We drove in the mountains. We drove in the desert. We drove in the snow. And we drove in the rain.
I gave John Russell his name on our inaugural adventure.
I’d just graduated from college and was driving from Texas to California for my first job as a post-graduate. And because it was my first job, and because it was my first time driving halfway across the country, and because they love me, my parents came along.
Which meant: I got to spend a good deal of the trip reading in the backseat (a reason to let the parents tag along, in my opinion).
Before we left, I visited the local used bookstore to find the perfect novel to accompany me on my adventure West. The great Elmore Leonard had died that summer, so I sauntered over to the Westerns in search of his name. A thin yellow paperback caught my eye.
Within seconds, I knew this was the book.
In Hombre, Leonard tells the story of John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches. John Russell is taking a stagecoach ride with a bunch of other white folk who, because of his association with the Apaches, don’t like him much. In fact, they dislike him so much they force him to sit up top with the driver rather than inside with them.
Of course, their attitude changes when outlaws attack.
Suddenly, John Russell, with his wily Apache ways, is the only one who can save them.
And he does.
But in the process (spoiler alert), he dies.
I read Hombre while driving west. While the dry Texas plains and the hot New Mexico desert and the rain-streaked Arizona rocks zipped past, I read how John Russell gave his life for some people he didn’t know, some people who thought he was less than the clotted mud on the bottom of his moccasins.
And because Hombre was the first novel I read in my car, and because I loved the character so much, I named my car after him – a Christ-like figure in a cowboy hat.
Now, as you can imagine, explaining the origin of John Russell’s name was always a bit of an ordeal. In fact, the explanation was so tedious it usually left me wishing I’d chosen something simpler or, better yet, nothing at all.
And so, only a handful of people knew his name, but those who did used it affectionately.
When his transmission broke, they said, “John Russell has a stomach ache.”
When I took him to the car wash, they said, “John Russell’s taking a bath.”
But in the days after the crash, we never once called him John Russell. Instead, we referred to him only as “the car.”
I was driving on the highway from Dallas to Austin, and it was raining. John Russell and I had been in the rain before, and though I doubt he liked it much, I certainly did. I’ve always loved the rain, especially the rain in Texas.
I was listening to the radio. At first, NPR. Then later, Johann Pachelbel’s Magnificat in D, Mary’s song of praise when she finds out she’s pregnant. And still later, some obnoxious new country song.
I hit a patch of water, which caused me to hydroplane and lose control. I slid right and John Russell’s nose went left. The steering wheel jumped away. I was drifting fast, trying to brake, not sure if I should brake, headed toward a semi truck on my right, sure my tires would hit a strip of dry road and the car would flip and the semi would barrel through me.
I thought I was going to die. I cried out to God.
When we hit the concrete median, John Russell crumpled like an empty soda can, the hood buckled, the glass shattered. I bit my tongue hard and my head snapped side to side.
I should have died. I should have cracked my skull or fissured my spine or broken my arm, but I didn’t. All the energy that should have shattered my bones, John Russell absorbed instead.
Afterward, I rode in an ambulance to the emergency room and never saw him again.
The way I see it, there are two ways to interpret our lives: either the things that happen are meaningless, or they’re not. And if they’re not, then we can look at our lives and read them like a story to discover the purpose underneath.
Reading my life like a story sounds nice when it’s day-to-day, but when it’s something as profound as a near-death experience, every interpretation sounds hollow in comparison to the real thing, as though it’s too extraordinary to understand through human eyes.
What’s more, I will forget details of the event and botch the story.
I will forget that earlier that day I was filled with a surge of hope for the future, but that I was frustrated when I left Dallas.
I will forget that in the ambulance I repeated over and over to myself the Jesus prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, because even though I was safe, I was still afraid that my luck would run out and God would let me die right there on the gurney from some unknown internal wound.
I will forget that on the drive home from the hospital, my body wracking with sobs, my father calmed me by telling stories of his own near-death experiences.
I will forget all these details and pull together others to make a story that makes sense to me in the hope that it is the right story, or at least one true story out of many possible ones.
But what else can I do? Meaninglessness isn’t an option.
My interpretation goes like this:
Before the accident, I was scared, mostly about the kinds of things I imagine most 20-something-year-olds are scared about: the scant number of dollars in our bank accounts, the pressure to find a job that both pays extremely well and fulfills our unattainable desire to absolutely love our work, the unfounded belief that with each friend’s wedding we move closer to spinsterhood, and other things as well.
After the accident, I was no longer scared.
Though my whole body ached, though bruises began to appear in black splotches on my arms and legs, though a red mark emerged where the seat belt had dug into my collar, I’d never felt better. I was keenly aware of having survived something I should not have survived, that my very existence was a gift, that I was a living testament of grace.
Survival brought with it a kind of freedom. I was grateful to be alive. What else mattered?
God had been there, a hand of protection when I swerved all over the watery road and slammed into the concrete, so near to me in that moment when my heart was a hand that reached out and grabbed him, when I yelled “Help!”
And yet, where was he, really? I didn’t see him. Not on the road or in the ambulance or in the hot shower that night when I scrubbed the sticky tape leftover from where the medic had stuck an IV in my arm, or when I curled, shaking, under the comforter and tried to sleep.
And why me? I know others have not been as fortunate. Nor am I now untouchable by evil, by pain, by death, though I’m as likely as anyone to naively believe in her own immortality.
To have an encounter with death like that, to know God’s protection in a moment of complete lack of control, and then to find afterward that God is still too huge to comprehend, too different to even find to approach, too vast to experience fully – it is disquieting.
This is what moments of closeness to the other world do to a person. They awaken in us acknowledgement of God, acknowledgement of grace.
What am I saying?
I’m merely saying that this life is grace, that both the accident and surviving the accident were gifts. I’m merely saying that this moment of survival, along with the thousands of breaths we take per day, are given to us and could just as easily be taken away. I’m merely saying that I experienced a holy being who loves me, who undergirds my existence, who in doing so is nearer to me than I am to myself, and in being able to do so is farther from me than the farthest star from the Earth, a being who would crumple and bleed to keep me safe, just like John Russell.
I miss John Russell, of course.
I miss the memories we made with my bare feet sticking out his back window. I miss reading on his sunlit seat. I miss finding sand scattered on his floor after a day at the beach. I even miss checking his oil and filling his tank with gasoline – or, as I used to say, “taking him out for a drink.”
As I write this, my old friend’s in an impound lot in West, Texas, a blip on the map just north of Waco, sides scraped, bumper hanging loose, frame twisted, and windows smashed. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my front porch in Dallas on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, sunlight dappling the grass and a light breeze rustling the leafy branches of an old oak tree.
John Russell saved me.
But in the process, he died.
A tall calling for a used car, but John Russell had a tall name. I’d say he lived up to it.