Friday, May 13, 2016

Preparing for the Camino

On Monday, Daniel and I leave to hike across the northern part of Spain on a medieval pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago - the Way of St. James. God willing, we hope to walk a similar path that people have been traveling for over one thousand years.

The pilgrimage we have chosen to walk is 500 miles. At the start, I will be 16 weeks pregnant.

It feels like more than coincidence that we committed to our trip and bought our airfare just five days before we found out about the pregnancy, a completely unexpected and mixed-welcome life change. Personally, I have known and strived toward my own Camino since I learned about it in 2010. I had recently run to the contemplative wilds of Alaska in an attempt to more securely root myself in the sudden adulthood that I felt thrust upon me with the death of my uncle. Mortality and weakness were real and slowly afflicting those who had always encouraged, protected, and nurtured me. With my uncle gone, I felt the first icy chills of time blowing from an eternal winter through the void he left behind. A torch had been passed that I was not strong enough to protect, and so I ran to Alaska and learned about the Camino.

While there may be one route across Spain (actually, there are several), no two pilgrimages are the same. Every person on the pilgrimage is unique and walking through a portion of his or her own story. Even a return pilgrim approaches a different Camino, as they come during a different chapter of their life. The sentiment of the Camino is similar to a saying by Greek philosopher Heraclitus, "You could not step twice into the same river," in that both the flow of the Camino and the pilgrim are different. Some people view the Camino as a life challenge, others a spiritual quest, and others still as a tangible point of transition between life stages. Perhaps I was drawn to the Camino for all three reasons.

I returned to Seattle and waited. I focused my resources toward becoming myself and stepping into the adulthood from which I had previously run. I worked a stable job, I built healthy boundaries in my relationships, I created a place of safety in a garden studio in the beautiful Ravenna neighborhood. At the end of three years of stability and growth, I reached a natural transition point where I could pursue my Camino, a journey I hoped to be a celebration of my struggles. My Camino was rolled into a longer trip where I planned to visit four countries, Iceland, Spain, Nepal, and Thailand. My trip lasted three weeks in Iceland, before I returned to the United States for various reasons. Rather than complete the Camino, I moved to Maryland and got married instead. As a promise to myself and each other, Daniel and I vowed to return to walk to Camino together at the end of our time in Maryland.

That time is five days from now.

As I reflect on what we are about to do, I can't help but remember my Camino that wasn't. I planned for that Camino down to the mileage I would travel each day. Having spent the prior three months hiking and mountaineering, the question was not if I would finish the Camino but how long it would take me so I could move on to the next thing. I wanted that Camino to reflect a spiritual journey, but realize now that I was limiting what I could learn through my own assurances. Irony is the fact that I didn't even make it to the start of my journey before returning home.

That version of myself is contrasted with the me who is approaching this journey. While my bag is well planned and packed, my preparation for the physical strains of walking 500 miles has included a general sense of nausea, living off rice cakes and macaroni & cheese, and sleeping an average of 13 hours a night. The mirror reflects a body that I do not know, one that changes daily to grow and nurture the life inside. I expand, I ache, I fluctuate between periods of energy and fatigue. I cannot guess what the path ahead holds and if I will be physically strong enough to meet the challenges. I hang my Camino plans on the hook of "God willing" because this path feels outside of my control. I approach with humility.

Perhaps we do not choose our own Camino. I thought my first Camino was the perfect time to mark a point of transition in my life, a transition away from chaos. But now, standing on the precipice of one of life's greatest changes, my second Camino has already taken a depth that was not available in the first. What will the days ahead hold? How will I walk daily, carrying not only my backpack, but also the promise of a unique life? Am I strong enough for this task? For all the tasks laying ahead?

And so we prepare for our Camino, balancing excitement with panic and opening ourselves up to the unknown. God willing, we move on toward Santiago.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Appalachian Trail in the Fall

Beginning the trail, near Pennsylvania

We wandered south, starting in PA and finishing toward the end of the alphabet in WV. The entire weekend was 40 or so miles, all south of the Mason Dixon Line. Years before, the trunks of oak and hickory witnessed men in blue or grey, skulking, hiding, running, killing, as leaders played chess with lives. We carried backpacks instead of guns, vigilant toward views and fall colors. That rustle to the left or right, clearly caused by a bird or squirrel, whispered a story of autumnal industry rather than terror. We hiked peacefully while the woods echoed a violent past, producing a memorial or trench one second before you could get fully lost.

Was it worth it? The whole practice felt more like homelessness than adventure, missing the element of raw beauty that Washington hiking delivers. The wilderness we encountered were the wilds of a violent past rather than untamed expanses. Over battlefields, leaves stoically grow and fade, marking the passing of years through a kaleidoscope of greens, yellows, reds, and brown. We passed through woods, fields, and towns, never far from development striving to forget. It is easy to believe the only reality worth experiencing is our evolved now, the ultimate enlightenment from centuries of darkness. We walked the periphery of a cultivated present day, straddling the weeds of battlefields and third-growth forests alongside pastures, lawns, and neighborhood soccer fields. 

There are too many layers here, all leaving deep gouges in a land too smooth to hold our past. We have tamed these woods and cut a two-thousand mile garden path from head to toe, forming this land into what we want rather than what we have been given/taken. It's too easy to feel important here, to role play God as we cultivate a landscape that echoes back what we want to hear. I craved the hallowing silence of the mountains but was given the bark of neighborhood dogs and rush of traffic. Rather than forgetting myself, along the AT I'm forced to consider the permanent fingerprint of what we leave behind. 

End of our trail in West Virginia

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sketchbook Memories: Octavius' New Hobby

The late afternoon sun hit the postcard and illuminate the idyllic lake-and-tree picture of the upper peninsula. Marty sighed. On the last day of school, Marty and Will decided to penpal over the summer while he was away in Michigan. They promised to write each other every week, even if nothing exciting happened. So far, Marty had written seven postcards to receive nothing in return. Should he continue to send words that seemed to fall on the deaf ears of his friend?

Marty sighed again. A promise was a promise, even if his friend didn't write back. He placed the postcard in the mailbox, flipped up the flag, and turned to walk back down the gravel lane. Even if he was not Will's best friend, Will was Marty's closest friend in California.

The move had not been easy. Marty didn't care for his new step-father or the fact that he had to move from one side of the country to the other right before starting middle school. True, living next to the ocean was not a bad perk, but it was all so different. Marty felt lonely more often than not, and he missed being surrounded by his cousins. Meeting Will gave him a break from the nagging desire to hitch-hike across the country and leave behind his new life in California. Will taught him how to surf and skateboard, as well as where to find the best ice cream on the West Coast. If California didn't always feel like summer, Marty would miss spending lazy sunny days exploring with his new friend. But Michigan had cousins, sailboats, and biking through the woods until the sun set or the mosquitos sucked dry your last drop of blood.

Maybe it was silly to be angry or disappointed. Marty was having fun in Michigan, and he was glad to share his memories with his new friend. If he wrote enough enticing letters, maybe Will would even come visit for part of next summer.

Still, though. Seven letters. Marty knew the post office might lose one or two here and there, but seven consistently? That would be cause for rioting in the streets and an overhaul of the whole mail system. No... maybe Will just lost track of time in the land of sun and beaches. Every day starts to feel disorienting-ly the same, and seven weeks could feel like two days.

- - -

Nothing. Not a thing. 

Junk mail, sure. There was always junk mail and those credit card offers that fueled his parents' fire pit. But no letters. Not from Michigan, not from nowhere. 

At first, Will would check the mail with excitement. Now, it was just a ritual on his way to the beach. Will was sure that Marty would have been different than other want-to-be penpals. Shoot, they both read letter correspondences of famous dead people and joked about their own letters being published someday. 

Unfortunately, you can't publish nothing. And that was the extent of Will's correspondence with Marty. True, he wrote a couple of letters at the beginning. But it was difficult to keep it up with no returned discourse. You can't keep firing ideas out into the void like that. His last letter was four weeks ago. Four pages. Filled with J's in different script. If Marty wasn't reading his letters, at least he could practice his handwriting skills. Now, Will could state proudly, without refute, the ability to reproduce a perfect J in 237 different scripts. How about that for fame? 

Of course, he would forgive Marty of the many reasons or excuses given for not writing. Life happens. But after getting that all sorted out, he might torture his friend for a little while with script quizzes or another viewing of "Helvetica" before letting on that everything was okay. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sketchbook Memories: Fishy Drifters

Sigmond was at a complete loss at their surprise. He had been telling them of his plans for months. Even still, the Accounting Firm of Oceanic Investments' manager doubted Sigmond's bravado at leaving, not only his very secure job, but also his very safe home at the coral beds. Why in the world would he not settle down to raise a few hundred baby seahorses of his own? What could he find out there that wasn't offered by the Firm?

Still, the lure of the ocean pulled him like a mid-August current and he knew his path would be decidedly different than the thousands of extended family making up the Firm. Barely looking back, he trudged his suitcase to the far, far coral and waited. 7:03 his pocket watch told him. The taxi should be arriving soon.

Sigmond chuckled to himself as he remembered the puckered look of their faces. He, Sigmond Bartholomew XXIII of Investments Group 437, leaving in search of more fish and the sea. Who could have guessed it? Should his travels go well, perhaps he would consider making good on a friend's invitation to visit the surface. What would they think of him then?

He checked his watch again. Where was that blasted taxi? The watch read 7:03. Worthless thing, this pocket watch. With the salt water corroding the gears year after year, it was a surprise the watch held together at all. He kept it for the sentimentality. This pocket watch was a gift from his late father, and even though it never told the time, Sigmond liked having it near him. The round watch filled his pocket nicely and gave him something to do if he got one of his nervous spells.

Now, for instance. He practiced taking it out and putting it back into his pocket with the refined swish of his tail. Out, in, out. 7:03. In, out. There was comfort in knowing every important moment in his life happened at the same time, never a second too soon or too late.

A sound reverberated through the coral and Sigmond turned his head. Ah, the water taxi. Right on time. As the blurb, blurb of bubbles drew nearer, his heart quickened. This was it. Now was the start of his greatest adventure yet! With a flick of Sigmond's tail, the watch was back in his pocket and his luggage in tow. If only his father could see him now!

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Great Parade of Sins

It happens every Sunday morning since I was brought back into communion.

I wake up early to get ready for the new day and the liturgy. As I prepare to say my pre-communion prayers, a weight of doubt settles on my chest. In Orthodoxy, communion is not simply a matter of remembrance, but through the prayers and mysteries of the service, the bread and wine becomes the actual body and blood of Christ. Communion is not to be taken lightly, as that bread and wine is a piece of the Son of God, the essence of all life and goodness, swallowed and consumed for the healing and salvation of my very own body and soul. Preparation - prayer, fasting, confession - is necessary to receive communion, lest I drink and eat judgement and death upon myself. Have I done enough to prepare for communion?

The answer is always no, and thus starts a Sunday morning phenomenon that I have come to call my Great Parade of Sins.

First, I see all the non-Lenten foods I may have eaten on Wednesday or Friday (days that are set aside for prayer and fasting by the Orthodox church). Then, all the mornings I was in a rush, or I slept too long, and didn't complete my morning prayers. Next come my fits of impatience, my stubbornness, my frustrations, my unkindness and slander for the people around me. All the ugly characteristics I have embodied in just the last week are marching back and forth in front of me. Heaven forbid my thoughts dredge up anything from my past! Of course by this point, I decide that I have not adequately prepared for communion, I am not worthy to partake of the body and blood of Christ. In years past, this is the point where I give up, do not say pre-communion prayers, and remove myself from communion entirely, hoping to schedule a confession and do a better job next week.

This, of course, is never the correct answer. When I have made this decision in the past, I realize my error halfway through the service as everything in me yearns for participation at the communion table. I have removed myself, now standing sad and mute at the back of the church. Why am I even here? I sometimes wonder, in moments of dark despair.

As a protestant converted to Orthodoxy, I hold a tension inside my heart. In regards to the communion table (and my personal salvation), this tension is between works and grace. My protestant upbringing balks at the idea of preparing for communion. Divine grace, it yells into my ear. Forgiveness through belief alone and not works.  Throughout the Gospel and the apostle Paul's letters to the early Christian churches, there is a tension in understanding God's movement toward us and our movement toward him. In protestant beliefs, this tension has been interpreted as an opposing binary between faith or works. On one side, there is only grace activated by our faith. God moves toward us, but only after we invite him to do so. In many circles, this invitation comes through a simple prayer consisting of several sentences. Taken to the extreme, the belief that God only moves toward us has lead to controversial (and some would argue, heretical) doctrine such as predestination, Calvinism, and the total depravity of the individual. The responsibility of grace and love is entirely in the hands of the Divine toward us lowly humans. Sadly, in circles holding these beliefs, there is very little grace left over to extend love to those around us.

The other side of the protestant binary is work based faith, or participation in religions that focus on good works as a means to salvation. Through our actions, we move toward God and the promise of paradise. Catholicism and Orthodoxy are lumped in with this description, though since converting I realize this is a labeling of the "other" by protestant doctrine rather than a belief held in the Church. My preparation for communion - prayer, fasting, and confession - can be seen as works (they are actions that I do or do not perform). The binary of my protestant upbringing whispers that completing these actions makes me worthy to participate in communion, while failing removes me. The tension between works and grace remains in my heart as I watch my weekly sins like a Sunday morning soap opera of guilt and shame.

No, I am not worthy to participate in communion.

A wise woman once challenged me on this thinking. "Who gives us the right to determine if we are worthy or unworthy to partake in communion?" Her words stay with me now, years after she confronted me. Rather than remove myself for fear of my own sins, I begin my prayers of preparation. The words strike at the chords of my heart, drawn taught with the works/grace tension. Like the leprous man who approached you, so heal my leprous and sick soul. Like the woman who touched your garment and was healed, so hear my prayers and heal me, though I be sinful and unworthy. Reduced to the simpliest meaning, each line breaths a simple request: Lord, have mercy on me.

I think on my week, the sins now parading around the living room and the kitchen, and feel the request deep in my heart: Lord, have mercy on me. As I struggle with knowing if I should take communion or not - if I have adequately checked all my boxes (I never have) - I focus on and repeat the words of the prayers: Lord, have mercy on me. When the time finally comes to receive the body and blood of Christ, to uproot my feet and move toward the chalice, I walk in the faith of God's grace and goodness. My great sin parade marches in front of me, now frantic and waving every arm and banner, shouting my unworthiness at a deafening screech. Their concerns are well placed: I walk like dry grass to the fire, a cold fear emanating from the black base of my heart, judgment and condemnation await me, the sinful and unrepentant. Still I approach, fixating on and crying out with every movement of my breath: Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, have mercy on me. 

A portion of the divine, a fragment of Christ himself, is spooned into my mouth. I chew and swallow. As the prayers promise, I partake of the fire, though I am dry grass. O wonder! I am refreshed and not burned, as the bush of long ago, which was in flames but not consumed. Thankful to the depths of my soul and heart, my parade takes its leave and I sit in the light that is God's grace toward his creation. This grace is real to me. I am not burned or destroyed, though I am unworthy to have God dwell in me. I have not adequately prepared for communion - I have not fully repented my sins - and still God enters under the roof of my soul. If my faith is works based, I deserve damnation, judgment, and death for my sins. But, through faith in God's goodness I approach, trusting in real grace, real love, and real forgiveness. I have cried, Lord have mercy, and for one week more, God has answered my heart prayer and drawn me closer.

Week after week passes. My sin parade still visits me on Sunday mornings, and still my heart cries out its prayer of desperation. Again, I partake of God and am not consumed, but left in awe of the mystery that is God's love toward creation. The tension in my heart is loosening, the divide between works and grace blurring into a different understanding. I am beginning to experience terms that were always too abstract before: faith, forgiveness, and grace. The requirements and standards put forward by my church intensify my belief. The standard is there and I am here, far below, looking up at what I am meant to be. Every week, I fear condemnation. Every week, I breath repentance. Every week, I approach the chalice with faith. And every week, I experience God's forgiveness and grace. I turn to a new week with thanksgiving and conviction. Perhaps this week, I will do a little better - I can love better, be more disciplined, and more earnestly remember paradise in all that I do - by the grace of God who gives me breath to whisper: Lord have mercy.

Monday, April 28, 2014

When Math Wins

Today, I did the unmentionable and betrayed the indolent adolescent in us all.

This day, April 28th, 2014, will go down as a day of victory for high school math teachers everywhere.

Today, I applied SOC-CAH-TAO to a real life situation.

I know, I know. How did this happen?! you wonder, incredulously. See, there was this ladder... and a loft bed... and the legs on the loft needed to be cut, but the distance cut from the ladder was unknown.

Trial and error is a dangerous method to employ when cutting real life wood with a real life saw. The wisdom of that proverb "cut once, measure twice" hangs heavy when the object modified is a $300 bed frame and the consequence determines whether or not your new studio apartment will work for the next two years.

When first considering the problem, I felt the faded and lurking memory of the Pythagoras Theorem rise to the front of my memory like oil slicked across the water of my mind. Right-angle triangles floating on pages of old math books, taunting me with squared a's and b's equaling c's matching pencil drawn triangles. I quickly pushed the theorem away in search of a different solution.

I turned to Google. How do I cut an Ikea loft bed and ladder? 

While the internet offered many parent opinions on whether the bed should be modified, it lacked concrete measurements, ratios, or equations to correctly make the cuts. Even with technology jumping in to dominate every area of my life, it appears I would still have to do my own thinking for my modification. So, remembering 10th grade math class and the quirky Mrs. Anderson, I now Google searched a refresher to SOC-CAH-TOA and a pattern for a printable protractor.

With a tape measure, pencil sketches, and my incredibly sad printable protractor, I am determining the length cut from the ladder of my loft bed given the decreased length in each of bed legs, not so unlike a test problem I worked out 15 years ago.

And, because I have to measure twice and cut once, I even have a method in place to check my work that involves a weight on a string and a leveler.


Math, today you win.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MaddAddam Book Review

After finishing this book, I read both the good and bad reviews to help sort out my own thinking on Margaret Atwood's conclusion to the Oryx and Crake trilogy. There is truth in the bad reviews. If I was expecting the deep and complicated world of Oryx and Crake or the Year of the Flood to continue in this novel, I would be disappointed. If I wanted to continue getting to know the previous main characters (Jimmy, Ren, Amanda or Toby), I would be sad how one dimensional or not at all present the characters have suddenly become. In MaddAddam, Atwood does not give us the conclusion we have been wanting. 

She gives us something better.

In the previous two books, Atwood shows the destruction of a world through two different viewpoints. In Oryx and Crake, we see the world inside the corporate compounds and are drawn close to the master of the apocalypse, Glenn/Crake, through the narrative of his childhood friend, Jimmy. In the Year of the Flood, the world is further explored outside the compounds, in the black market free-for-all known as the Pleeblands through a resistant movement known as God's Gardeners. As the story concludes in The Year of the Flood, the characters in two seemingly unrelated stories turn out to be very intertwined through their pasts and are joined up again in the present, post-apocalyptic world. As it turns out, even the dystopic world is a little too small for comfort. 

For most readers, myself included, the anticipation leading up to the release of MaddAddam is the question as to how these characters will deal with their sudden re-acquaintance as well as to continue living in the pre-virus world of the past. This expectation toward drama and conclusion is precisely what Atwood refuses to deliver in the third book of her trilogy. After I get over my own frustration at not receiving what I wanted/expected, I realize that Atwood's approach moves the story much further forward, and offers a stronger and fuller message than if she were to stick with the approach present in the previous books. This is why: 

1. The world the previous characters have known has ended. As much as I want to go back, as a reader, and continue exploring the corruption, greed and violence that led to the present collapse, it is pointless. I have already been back in that world twice. If this book seems to lack the intricate plot and complex characters of the previous two, is it perhaps because the day ins and outs of survival can be boring? 

2. The questions the characters (and the readers) are struggling to understand are unanswerable. Why did Crake kill Oryx? What were the motivations and reasons behind Crake's destruction of humankind? What happened to all the other characters that didn't survive? Why did they have to die? Are they still out there somewhere? To be given conclusion to these questions would not be honest to the present world the characters are struggling through. Crake is dead and unfortunately, he didn't write his motivations into a journal. Families with a missing loved one rarely receive conclusive news that their husband/wife/child is in fact dead. This is one of the reasons this dystopia is so believable. Just like us in everydaylife, the characters in MaddAddam have to deal with the frustratingly unanswerable and choose what to do moving forward (if they do, in fact, chose to move forward).

3. Finally, and perhaps the most important reason why Atwood's approach with this book and reader expectations is incredibly well crafted: this is not a story about Jimmy, Toby, Ren, Amanda or any of the other previous characters we have know and may or may not have loved. Everything we need to understand these characters has been given in the previous two books. Their stories are about the ending of the world that they knew and their luck (or unluck) at ending up in the present time of post-apocalypse. MaddAddam is about the future, about life after the dust settles, about the building of mythology and culture, and the adaptability of humankind and the strength to move forward even in the midst of extinction and tragedy. 

The more I think about what Atwood is doing in this novel, the more I love it. There is beauty in the simplicity. The exchanges between the survivors and the Crakers is hilarious and endearing. Atwood captures the irritating frustration adults sometimes feel when faced with the insatiable 'why' of a child piecing together their world. Her skill in first building a complicated world falling apart and then speculating how to see that world through the new eyes of a different culture is brilliant.

As others have mentioned, this is not a stand-alone book. You will need to read the previous two books to gain the backstory on the characters and the plot. I enjoyed this book and highly recommend the whole trilogy to anyone who likes dystopia or speculative fiction.