Last year, after remarkably discovering the BEST neighborhood for Trick-or-Treating (complete with full-size candy bars and good-natured homeowners who performed a jolly good ruse), along with Chipotle’s offer of $3 burritos if you wore a costume, plus getting to watch a parade of dogs dressed up, I pronounced to my family, and now to the world, that Halloween is my favorite holiday. I hesitate to announce this sentiment out loud when considering that I wasn’t even allowed to Trick-or-Treat when I was growing up. The church always provided “Harvest Festivals.” These parties, complete with games and prizes, were provided as an alternative to going door-to-door carrying gigantic pillowcases inviting strangers to fill them with more candy than a child could possibly eat in a year. These alternative festivals were provided perhaps as shelter from exposure to the ghosts and goblins roaming the streets, or possibly to prevent cavities. Of which reason, I’m not entirely sure. Nonetheless, Halloween was not a holiday that my family capitalized upon in my youth.
Maybe I stumbled upon the realization that Halloween is my favorite holiday specifically last year because the weather was so unpredictably wonderful! We didn’t even need to cover our costumes with umbrellas on an autumn night in Seattle. Or conceivably, the 90% off sale on Halloween costumes and décor that Target offered the day after the holiday added to my admiration. And, undeniably, having our entire family eat at Chipotle for less than $20 did indeed concretize my fondness for October 31st. However, it was actually all that was not present that evening that illuminated my newfound joy.
Unlike many other holidays, there was no labor. Costumes were purchased online. Candy was bought pre-packaged and ready to hand out. Instead of toiling in the kitchen for an entire day before sitting down to enjoy fellowship around the table, dinner was made for us and happily served at a discount (because let’s face it, watching five high-school football players walk in either wearing a skin suit or a dress makes one happy to give a discount). Later that night, we walked from house to house giggling at all the costumes we witnessed and admiring all the decorations we saw. And after every “Trick-or-Treat”, the kids would run back to Karl and I waiting hand-in-hand on the sidewalk exclaiming what exquisite delight was just dropped in their buckets. Their mouths watered in anticipation of eating bite-size Milky Ways or mini packages of Skittles, or savoring my favorite, Laffy Taffy.
House after house, each homeowner opened the door grinning from ear to ear to see babies dressed up like Elvis, or a Corgi puppy wearing a taco, or siblings going as Batman and Robin. And those that didn’t want to buy candy or bother staying up late to pass it out simply communicated so by keeping their porch lights off. How is Trick-or-Treating anything but a win-win for everyone? Neighbors gave by passing out candy and received by witnessing youth being playful and frankly, quite entertaining. Even as I write these words I have a smile on my face remembering how much fun we had last year.
I wish every special day was so much more about pleasure than obligation; the “want-tos” instead of the “shoulds” and “have-tos.” There seems to be so many expectations for every other major holiday.
What about Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or birthdays makes me tired and overwhelmed and stressed out just thinking about?
My answer has little to do with anything but expectations – either mine or someone else’s. So then, what expectations are there for Halloween? I’m sure if I thought really hard, I could play the devil’s advocate (pun intended) and figure out something to retort. But instead, I’m just going dressing up my little owl and my little midnight huntress, put a curly multi-colored clown wig and red nose on Karl and jump into my own blue skin suit and hope that tonight will be as great as it was last year.
Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here. ~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
I was recently afforded the privilege of spending the afternoon with an old friend who is in the midst of grieving and processing a miscarriage in her second trimester of pregnancy. As we sat on her couch in her cozy and charming little mountain house, warm drinks in hand, we opened up the storybooks of our lives to one another. The trauma and loss related to her miscarriage was still so fresh. I listened to how she was beginning to understand and make meaning out of her experience. I watched as she grappled with the bizarre nature of life moving forward even though death had found its way into her own womb. Such wanderings through the territory of loss led us naturally to the re-opening of my own archived story of miscarriage.
I was 11 weeks along when we discovered that what we thought would be our third child was not thriving as an embryo over a decade ago. I had not walked through that narrative in quite some time. I was often reminded of it throughout my entire pregnancy with Briella. The D&C procedure that the miscarriage necessitated was listed on all of my medical charts as it was seen as a possible contributor to my risk for placenta accreta. Most of my charts would indicate that Briella was my 5th pregnancy but my 4th child. So strange now to think of that part of my life story being reduced to a number on a chart, just a little blip on my medical record.
As I sat there in the midst of our mutual story-gifting and story-receiving, I realized that whenever we invite others into our stories we are asking them to become a memory-keeper on our behalf. We need each other to hold the fullness of our stories, to help us discover and attribute meaning so that our stories never become little blips across the pages of our lives. We need each other to remember that our stories continue to live on through us even though time travels right on by.
For as long as I can remember, my dad has taken every available opportunity to point out large birds of prey flying high in the sky or perched on telephone wires. We might be driving down I-25 from Littleton to Colorado Springs and see a number of falcons or hawks circling open fields looking for their evening dinner. Most people cruising down the six-lane highway would be oblivious to these remarkable creatures or mistake them for mere crows or vultures or even ospreys. But my father would rather easily be able to tell the difference between a red-tailed hawk and a peregrine falcon from a distance. Among other strange talents my dad has acquired in his lifetime, being a falconer is quite possibly one of his favorites. The story about how he trained to become a licensed falconer is one for another time. Suffice it to say that if we ever wanted to get my dad something for his birthday or Father’s Day, it would be some kind of bald eagle ornament or statue. He grew quite the collection of his favorite bird of prey.
This picture circa 1970s is of my dad with Omega, the official bird of the US Federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Because he so readily admired great birds of prey, their majesty and splendor, I too have taken to appreciating them as well. So, on our summer road trip, Karl and the kids often heard me shout that I saw some kind of hawk or falcon flying in the sky just out our window (though I didn’t know the difference unless I saw the fanciful tail feathers of the red-tailed hawk, I knew that one). We even saw one dive into the brush and come out with a snake dangling it its grip. It’s quite amazing what you can witness when you have particular eyes to see and know for what you’re looking.
Now, living in the Pacific Northwest, I find it both a privilege and an honor to see bald eagles regularly. In fact, there is one who frequents Green Lake, the neighborhood I live in. Perched high above the water in an amazingly ancient evergreen, you can see him from nearly halfway around the lake. Yet, even though I get to see these incredible birds far more often than I ever did in Colorado (in fact, some may never get a chance to see our national bird up close), the sighting never ceases to take my breath away, pull my car over and take a picture if I can, and just soak in the grandeur of the magnificent creature.
Unfortunately, it is illegal to pull my car over where I last saw a bald eagle.
The east side is to the city of Seattle what the Denver Tech Center is to downtown Denver. Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland are meccas for technological industries like Microsoft and Nintendo. Once a week at 4:00 PM, I drive from my home on the west side of town across Lake Washington to contract at a location other than my neighborhood office. That time of day is the worst time to be on I-5. Traffic is backed up even on the ramp to get onto the highway. Cars move at a ridiculously slow pace and one might find herself listening to the same CD over and over and over, just in one mind-numbing commute. And isn’t it odd when traffic is so slow, you imagine there must be an accident up ahead, only to find out there is zero reason for the painfully sluggish pace?
But once I hit the 520 going east, traffic speeds up and there is a sort of pleasant rhythm driving on the bridge passing over the concrete seams and whipping by the street lamps. I enjoy that part of my commute. There is something about watching the water that is soothing. When it is windy, you can literally see white caps on the waves to the south side of the bridge, and absolute calm to the north. Last week, I saw two people kite surfing on my left while the waves were aggressively chasing each other on my right. And up ahead, perched high above the road on top of a large streetlight, was the unmistakable white head of a bald eagle. I spotted it and gazed at it just long enough ahead of me before glancing in my rear-view mirror to see it one more time. The moment felt akin to seeing a shooting star. Maybe it was nostalgia. Or, perhaps it was relief coming off the stress of previous traffic. Maybe the feeling is what you get when you witness something that takes you by surprise. Whatever happened in that moment, seeing that wonderfully splendid bird felt like a gift – one that I strove to see as long as possible without veering off the road or causing an accident. I wonder how many other thousands of drivers were crossing the bridge at the same time and saw that glorious creature? Did they miss out on a moment of wonderful? Or are they just better drivers? I suppose both are possibilities.
But I conclude that I saw that bird because I wanted to see it. I look for birds of prey. I spot the differences between commonly found fowl and those that are rare and resplendent. How I learned to identify these creatures was just osmosis, something I picked up from my dad. But now, I see because I want to. My heart longs to witness the mysterious, surprising, unpredictable beauty that is all around but we so often fail to see. I desire to be captivated by the unusual, random acts of wonderful that are available for each of us to experience. But where are we looking? Down? Up? Ahead? Behind? Across? What are we looking for? Are we afraid to look because we will be so disappointed if we do not see?
Well, guess what? Later that night when I was returning to my home in Seattle, I was hoping, wishing and maybe even praying for a glimpse of that bald eagle once again. And wouldn’t you know it – I didn’t just see one, I saw two.
I have a confession to make. I haven’t picked up my bible in four years. And the three years before that, most of my engagement with the text was connected to my graduate studies. No, I wouldn’t say I’ve suffered from the burn out so many former ministry workers describe feeling when they’ve been overworked and underpaid and feel like the well of inspiration and passion dried up years before they finally found the courage to seek rest and recovery. Then why the resistance to engaging this sacred text? I am convinced that the answer is far more complex than a lack of discipline or a season of “falling-away” from the faith. I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite professors as he taught me how to hear children and adolescents (and really all humans) at a much deeper level, “What is the behavior trying to communicate?” Bear with me, as I allow that question to guide this post.
I can recall my first Bible. It had a blue hardcover and was a Student NIV bible that was gifted to me by my youth leaders a few days after I responded for the first time to an alter call. Yes, that was my initiation into the faith and I have all sorts of complicated and ambivalent thoughts around that subject matter as well, but regardless I still believe something supernatural happened that night and have only had a handful of equally as powerful spiritual experiences in the 18 years following. So perhaps I will revisit the alter call ambivalence at a later time. Or perhaps not. But that bible was a central component to the shift my relationship with the God of the universe was about to take in my late adolescent years. Prior to my so-called conversion experience, I would say I always entertained the notion that there was some sort of energy or divine force in the world, but the abundance of heartache and trauma that filled the pages of my early childhood narrative left me no real choice but to assume that force was poised in opposition to my very survival. My early journals were filled with poems about the divine hand I felt gripping my neck and holding me underwater. After being forced by my desperate-for-help mother to attend a youth program for several weeks, I wound up at a Christian concert where one of the band members had the audacity to suggest that this very God, whom I had presumed was opposed to my existence, actually loved me – not just a love that encompasses the whole of humanity, but a love that holds in it’s very being my particularity and unique beauty. And so I found the courage to suspend the belief structure I had held to be true long enough to entertain the idea of a complete paradigm shift. Days later, the team of youth leaders who were just as shocked as I was that something had shifted inside of me, handed me the book that was supposed to affirm and build upon the possiblity that I was the target of Divine Love as opposed to a divine wrath.
Thus my years of devouring that student bible began. I engaged it like my life depended upon it. It was never really something I read for “devotion” – a term I heard often and assumed had to do with a conscious choice or practice of creating space in one’s life for a ritualized relationship with the text. There was never an established ritual of reading the text in my life because in those early years it was something I read out of a ravenous need for understanding, for meaning, for purpose in a world that was being born out of the soil of chaos from my early years. This impassioned pursuit likely led to my premature transition from student of the text to teacher of the text. I was never one to cloak myself in the clothes of an expert, but instead stood as a questioner, a ponderer, and wonderer of the stories, the poems, the wisdom, the accounts of this man named Jesus. I wanted to invite others to explore alongside me in the journey. My wonderings aloud began with the youth of the church and eventually migrated through the terrain of the college ministry and ultimately occasionaly landed in the pulpit. It was in that season that I first discovered how my voice, my questions and explorations of the text unnerved a good number of people. For some it was simply that my voice was female. For others it was that my voice had not yet gone through the refinement of a seminary education. For many, I believe it was that my lack of church upbringing led me to confront the text with questions that those who had been spoonfed dogma for their entire lives weren’t yet free to ask. Or perhaps I was and am heretical in my questions. Whatever the reason, my voice became a point of contention in the church that had previously been the only “safe” place I had ever known. I came to understand just how quickly this book could lose its sacredness and become a weapon. I learned how distrusting many people actually were of the text they claimed was divine – they were frightened that it could be destroyed by the questions of skeptics, by those who wondered about the cultural influences, by those who acknowledged the complexity of swallowing the thing whole without question.
I knew something had to change. I knew I was loved by many in the church that had given birth to my faith, but I also instinctually knew I needed to individuate, to separate and find a way to follow the questions that captivated my very heart and soul. I eventually followed the questions all the way to The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. I felt a whole new world opening up in that space. It was a relatively safe place to ask the questions written on the pages of my story. I went there thinking I would wrestle my way through the questions and eventually find my way to solid ground. Instead, I experienced an even greater level of opening up, an expanding of the mind and heart. This funny thing happens when I follow the questions – instead of finding answers that make life feel safer or smaller, I discover life to be more beautifully mysterious than I ever could have initially imagined. This mystery is at times difficult to bear, but at other times it is the only thing that makes life worth living. It was in the season of my graduate education that I stopped using the sacred text as a means to force all of life to make sense and fit together in a way that my human mind can grasp.
So four years have gone by and I’ve been unsure of how to engage the text in this new chapter of my faith journey. My oldest daughter, who coincidentally is named Faith, came to me this past week asking for some help with a school assignment inviting her to explore the book of Genesis as literature and that’s when I felt something that I can only equate to the fluttering of my stomach. It’s that common human sensation that happens when we have first kisses, or receive an acceptance letter to graduate school, or buy a plane ticket to another country. It’s a sensation linked to desire. Unsure as I may still be as to how to engage this particular sacred text, I am aware of a new kind of beckoning. I believe it is asking me to come home. I don’t think this home is a return to what has been, it is an ever-expanding moving forward form of becoming. I am ready to opt back in to the conversation. Anyone care to join me?
A few steps across that turf covered balance beam and I felt confident. I knew in my head that I had made a commitment and no matter how, I would cross that fallen tree trunk and prove to Karl, the kids, and myself that victory is for those who face their fears. While it wasn’t a pretty site to see me slowly put one foot in front of the other, I managed to make headway over the ravine and without looking down at the brook beneath, knew that I was almost to the other side.
When I reached the last eighth of the way, the bark had, in what I imagine was adolescent angst, split off from its parent trunk and remained only loosely attached. When I put my right foot down in that particular spot, the sole of my tennis shoes slipped off the bark and caused me immediate panic and instability. I gingerly found a spot for my foot to rest more securely and paused long enough to calculate my next move. I only had a few feet left to traverse before I would be on solid ground, but the question was how would I get there? I could have probably run, slipped and nearly slid to the other side. But instead, I chose to hunker down and get on all fours, grip the trunk with feet, knees and hands in order to guarantee my safety. As if I was being hunted by a bear and couldn’t make the slightest motion or sound I slowly bent over, crouched down and dug my fingers into the soft green moss for a grip that would ensure my safety. Behind me I heard cackles and giggles from Lucy and Peter who were extremely amused to see their grown mother act as if she were being hunted by a bear, knowing full well that she was not. Later, they would mimic my overly cautious stance by bending over, and moving to the ground at the pace of a chameleon. Once I was on all fours and felt more secure, I shuffled the rest of the way, broke through a large spider web and found myself solidly on the other side, jumping up and down with exquisite self-amusement, proud of myself and full of that terrifyingly awesome feeling in my belly.
I ran down the other side of the ravine, crossed the water and hiked backed up to where Karl and the kids were waiting. Lucy and Peter were jazzed and ready to go themselves. And while I had just accomplished what I felt to be a grand fete, I wasn’t so sure I wanted them to do the same. I looked over and saw Karl’s cautious face and asked him to step aside and have a conversation with me. He and I went back and forth over what would be best for the kids. He pointed out just how scared I had been and the slow motion hunkering down that happened at the end proved that it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. I agreed, the task was hard for me, sure, but I still did it. I actually thought that maybe the kids should just try, get scared, return and thus elevate my status as a brave and daring mother goddess; one whom they should respect and listen to more often.
Karl and I were torn. Of course, we would never want any harm to come to our children. But I also don’t want to spare them some of the exhilaration and excitement that can come when you don’t let your fears silence, petrify and numb you like they have often done to me. So, we brainstormed some more (actually, argued quite a bit) until we stumbled on the idea that Karl is so tall that he could walk underneath the trunk and be there to catch them if they were to fall. While he didn’t want to get muddy and wet, he would rather be safe than sorry, so with that, he agreed to let them do it. Lucy and Peter heard the news and were thrilled, fighting over who got to go first.
And wouldn’t you know it, something that proved awkward and difficult for me, was like a game of hopscotch to them. They both took to the trunk and walked straight across never once stopping, looking down or back or cowering in their fear. They traversed that thing as if it were a grocery store parking lot curb. It was fascinating, humbling, exhilarating, and awesome to watch. Full commitment. Full success. And what was more…their sincerest pleasure was poking fun of me the rest of the day for making it look so difficult.