Tag Archives: religion

The Christmas Story

24 Dec

In one of my previous posts, I wrote, “God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time).”

I am now going to tell that story.  It is a story about how Jesus gave me a bitch slap and a black eye for Christmas.

I left Richmond for my first semester at the University of Virginia last August with a carful of carefully-chosen room decor, my very own Swiffer, and a selection of cutout dresses that I would be too lazy to wear to parties.  I promised myself to do something that scared me every day.  I told myself I would join every club that vaguely interested me and find all the best hole-in-the-wall cafés.  When December rolled around, I was involved, all right, and stretched too thin.  The skin under my eyes had turned a permanent shade of purple.  I had a malingering illness that left me unable to eat much more than a few slices of bread and some fruit each day.  Although I faithfully responded to every email I received each night, by morning my inbox would be bursting with notifications from professors, announcements from the extracurriculars I’d joined, and minutes from the student government council meetings I attended.  I had lost weight.  My attitude was more depressing than Eeyore’s.

When I returned for Christmas break, I felt like a stranger in my own household.  Had I never noticed the stench of dog pee emanating from the living room carpet?  What was so bad about eating Chunky Monkey straight from the container at 2:00 A.M.?  When we dressed ourselves in our finest to go see The Nutcracker, a family tradition, I realized that my younger sister had been wearing my favorite pair of black pumps.  Her feet, a size bigger than mine, had stretched the faux leather beyond redemption.  I trailed behind them as we walked from the parking lot to the theater, hissing threats at her and hobbling down Grace Street like a drunken mountain goat trying to scale the Alps.

In addition to the usual prelude duties I had at the late night Christmas service, my choir director had asked me to accompany the children’s choir on flute for the pageant.  A less-than-perfectly-melodic bunch at the best of times, the choir kids were less than pleased to be asked to harmonize with any instrument other than the triangle and the bongos.  Rehearsals made me want to bang my head against a wall.  On Christmas Eve, I threw on a dirty dress and slunk into church five minutes before the service began.

“Where were you?” said the choir director.  “Our last rehearsal was half an hour ago!”

“I was…baking gingerbread,” I muttered.  “Lost track of time.”

We stood in the sacristy among the bustle of acolytes tugging on white robes, clergy going over the service notes, and toddlers running around with shepherd’s crooks or angel wings, haloes askew.  One of the acolytes, a glasses-wearing boy of about twelve, ordered the younger kids around, boasting about how heavy the crucifix was.  “You gotta be strong to carry it.  Someone with muscle,” he said.  “Like me.  Lookit.” I cleaned my flute and glared at him.

“All right,” said Lyndon, one of our head priests.  “Are we all ready to -”

Suddenly, a blinding pain exploded in my right temple, and I staggered sideways.  One of the little angels screamed.  I blinked and realized that my vision had gone fuzzy.

“Oh, shit,” said someone.  “Sorry, I mean oh my God…I mean, wait, hold on…”

It was the acolyte.  I saw him, as if from far away, holding the heavy, brass cross like it had come to life and begun to dance the two-step.

“Did you just…” I began.  Pain lanced into my cheekbone and behind my eye.

“I swear it was an accident!  I was just lifting it and -”

My mother, a soprano in the adult choir, appeared from nowhere and grabbed my wrist.  “Let’s go to the bathroom, okay?”

“Mom,” I said, a few minutes later, looking at my blurry reflection.  “I think I might be concussed.”

“No, you idiot,” she said, fondly patting my arm.  “He knocked you so hard both your contacts fell out.  I found them on the floor.”  And she offered the two withered discs to me.  I slid them onto my irises, wincing.  “Do you know how close he came to taking out your right eye?  Half a centimeter lower, and…”

An enormous bump had begun to form under my eyebrow.  “Don’t I have to go play now?” I asked.

“The choir director says you don’t have to.  You know, considering the circumstances.”

“No,” I said.  “I have to.  I have to.”

I adjusted my wrinkled dress, grabbed my flute, and proceeded to give the worst performance of my life as my black eye started to grow dark and fat.  And that was, somehow, cathartic.  I looked like shit and I played like shit on a night when all of Christiandom was supposed to offer up their talents for the Christ Child (or something like that, anyway).  Between services, I nibbled on bread and clamped a frozen steak from the church pantry to my face.

At St. Thomas, the 10:00 service is always meditative, filled with candles and the delicate melodies of quieter Christmas hymns.  My friend Darren and I had rehearsed Dave Matthew’s “The Christmas Song” as the prelude.  It was a tradition from the place we’d met, an Episcopalian summer camp where I attended and he worked during the summer.  The wood cabins clung to the foot of a mountain on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.  On the kind of July nights where the air was saturated with cricket songs, one of the musically-talented counselors would pull out his guitar and treat us to a rendition of “The Christmas Song.”  That’s where a song like that is most appropriate: the quiet places, the ones with clasped heads and pensive thoughts.

As Darren’s fingers danced over the guitar fret, I sang the first verse and glanced around the shadowy nave.  Maybe, I thought, this was what I’d needed all along: an actual blow to the head to make me sit down and recognize the beauty of everyday things.  And maybe it was Jesus and maybe it wasn’t, but whatever his or her name was probably didn’t form the most important part of the picture.

By the time we’d finished the song, my temple had begun to pound less.  Darren and I returned to the pews and joined the congregation in “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  It was cold in the church, and all the churchgoers had chosen seats close to the warmth of the chancel.  Perfect strangers smiled at me as we progressed through the hymn.  If this was how the Ghost of Christmas Whatever wanted to get my attention, I mused, I was perfectly fine with that.

It’s exactly a year later now, and although I’m hoping this Christmas Eve won’t be quite as physically painful, I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to sing something so true in the quiet of a church in the nighttime.  Christmas is a hectic time – especially for those of us who, like me, are just arriving home from studying or working abroad – and it can do a lot more good than you’d think to take a moment to sit down.  Listen to some music.  Drink a cup of tea.

Because my personal opinion is that it is better to realize this yourself, before some metaphysical being bludgeons you with fifteen pounds of metal.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all those who stumble upon this essay!

Serendipity

22 Sep

A story about getting luckier than I deserved.

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) at night

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) at night

 

Last week, I began rereading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, trying to rekindle that love of travel that I thought she and I shared.  When I first read the book years ago, I envisioned her strolling through the streets of Rome with hazelnut gelato in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, the Mediterranean sun glinting in hair that was as golden as mine.  That, I thought, was what my experience was going to be like.  Gilbert makes it sound so easy.  Don’t speak the language?  No problem!  No friends in this country?  Don’t sweat it!  Eat some pizza, visit some fountains, and everything will turn out fine.  Right?

The truth, I’ve discovered, is that it’s anything but.  But I kept going back to the passage she wrote in which she collapsed, sobbing, on the floor of her bathroom.  God, she says, spoke to her then.  He said, Go back to bed, Liz.  I always found that part the hardest to swallow.  Why would god take the time to talk to someone who’s never bothered to speak with him before?  Why that moment?

And yet, as I lay in my lumpy bed last week, listened to the traffic roaring by on the Gran Vía, and cried (as usual), I couldn’t stop thinking of it.  God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time), so he probably had better things to do than talk to me, anyway.  But I couldn’t help whispering through my tears, “I can’t do this alone.  I thought I could, but I can’t.  Please help me.”

For days, I didn’t think he was going to answer me.  Sunday morning, I ran out of tears and just sat in my bed, thinking about what to do.  My host mother had been gone for most of the weekend, leaving me alone.  I hadn’t slept in three days and hadn’t eaten anything substantial in two.  I had left messages in Spanglish on the phones of my Spanish psychologist and the program director, telling them I had run out of options.  I was going home.

However, I was incredibly lucky to have been blessed with good friends as soon as I got here.  Stephanie and Sally, two other UVA students living nearby, answered a desperate Facebook message I sent.  They dropped what they were doing, showed up in my host mother’s apartment, and made me a cup of tea.  Then they carved up a melon and fed it to me.  “Look,” said Sally, “why don’t you come over and have dinner at my place tonight?  I hope you don’t mind, but I told my host mom about you.  She wants to meet you.  Maybe talk things over with you, if you’d like that.”

Image

Sally and I pose in front of a Spanish McDonald’s (classy, right?)

Blanca, her host mother, lived in an old building with laundry flapping from clotheslines in the inner courtyard and a smooth, beveled staircase that rose nine floors into the Valencian skyline.  When we arrived at her apartment door, she had just gotten back from the beach with her son and daughter.  Her skin was still warm from the sand of the Malvarrosa.  Half Swedish, half Spanish, she had blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and pale skin spotted brown from forty years in the Spanish sun.  “Come here, Elizabeth,” she said, smiling.  I (surprise!) burst into tears.  She enfolded me in her arms and let me sob into the shoulder of her housedress.  Then she handed me a set of keys.  “I want you to know,” she told me, “that you are a friend, and you can always stay here.  Always.”  She sat me down on the couch, made me a cup of chamomile tea, and massaged my hands.  “I am going to feed you dinner, you are going to take a long, hot shower, and then you are going to sleep in my extra bedroom.  But first my children are going to take you to a movie.”

Blanquita and Manu, Blanca’s thirty-something children, kissed me on both cheeks, gave me a glass of orchata (a sweet, creamy Spanish drink made of almonds and sugar), and whisked Sally and me off to the movies.  They chose Asalto al poder (White House Down in English), a very silly movie in which Channing Tatum shoots a lot of people, blows things up, and drives cars through windows.  Manu paid for our tickets.  When I protested, Blanquita winked and said, “When a Spanish man offers to pay for your ticket, you don’t say no.  It doesn’t happen often.”

For the first time, I felt like Valencia was somewhere I could be content.

Dinner, instead of the tongue-burning, salty vegetable mix I had grown accustomed to, was a variety of foods I recognized and wanted to eat.  (Tomatoes with goat cheese!  Ripe peaches!  Whole-wheat bread with olive oil!  Flan!)  “I think dinners should always have music in them somehow,” Blanca told me as we served ourselves.  She slipped a CD into her CD player, and the strains of the Appalachian-tinged song “Ashokan Farewell” filled the room.  “Now, Sally tells me you can sing.  Yes?  Would you like to join a choir?”

I blinked.  “Um.  Yes, please.”

“We can do that!  And do you play any instruments?  Piano?  Guitar?”

“I play the flute,” I told her.  “But I didn’t bring it with me.”

“Ah!  Well, then we’re going to rent you a flute to make you happy.  You are a sensitive girl, yes?  An artist.  And artists need their art.”

I could only stare at all of them as they ate: the way Manu gesticulated with his fork when he talked about the English classes he was taking, Blanca and Blanquita’s bright blue eyes, the crinkling of Sally’s brows when she laughed (which was often).  After dinner, as Blanquita and Manu washed dishes, Blanca made me more tea.  “Tell me,” she said, “do you believe in god?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, after a pause.

“But you recently asked god for help?”

I was floored.  “Yes.”

“God sent me to you,” she said matter-of-factly, stirring more sugar into my tea.  “I am an angel, but I am not special, because there have been and will be many angels in your life.  We are all lucky in that way.  Just remember, Elizabeth, that I will always be here in my house for you.  So will Sally.”

Yesterday, after a twenty-four-hour waiting period so that Sally, Blanca, and I could be sure of what we wanted, I moved into Blanca’s apartment.  “I feel like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts,” I told the program director as she helped me haul my luggage (bulging from the haphazard way I had re-packed it) into a taxi.

“It’s wonderful to have you here for good,” Blanca said when I got there.  She kissed the top of my head.

Every time I think I’ve had it in Valencia, life tosses something else – namely, someone else – my way.  I have had the honor of meeting an incredible group of people here, and I hope my luck doesn’t run out during this semester.  And I still can’t tell you whether I believe in god, but after having my own Elizabeth Gilbert moment, I can say that the bonds which connect us are much more curious and delightful than we are led to believe.

La Maddalena: Cantos III and IV

12 Oct

III.

 

in vain you have bent your body to the sun

for twenty years, knees growing rough

as ash bark,

your palms upturned, two blinded doves.

 

the gilt is gone from your skin

men no longer kneel at the fortress of your feet

or press their fingers to the stony walls of your body.

 

you look for meaning

in the shifting of sand dunes –

the slaughter of the fatted calf,

the brush of lips to cheek

in starless gardens –

but you will not find it there.

 

each sunset finds you unchanged

eyes shuttered, ribs stark and slotted

against the clothing of your feral hair,

mouth moving with the taste of a name

you do not recognize

nor have ever known.

 

IV.

 

we are not so different, you and I.

the wood-carved desert stretches before us.

 

we have come so far

and still we do not know where we are going.

 

Like this poem?  Then check out the others in the series:
La Maddalena: Canto 1

La Maddalena: Canto 2

I’m always interested to see how other people interpret the story of Mary Magdalene, so if your opinions differ from or even match mine, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

La Maddalena: Canto II

3 Oct

…you know when I said I’d get back to a regular posting schedule?  Well, that was a terrible, terrible lie.  However, from this point onwards, I’m hoping to post at least weekly.  But any of you who have been to college can probably attest that there’s just so much going on all the time.  And I am easily distracted.

But I am nattering on, and that’s not what you want to read about.  Here’s some poetry.

All rights to *MartaSyrko of www.deviantart.com

liberated,

you spent your time writing

sapphic odes to spiderwebs and salt air.

you slept on the streetcorners of jerusalem

and collected the tears of men

in lead-stoppered bottles.

 

you were

a king among women,

a red-lipped wild thing:

 

wise as solomon, smooth-faced as david.

when you cast your hands into the air

you caught fistfuls of moon hues and metaphor,

a net dredging fish from ocean silt

 

until the man with ground-glass skin

and baling-wire eyes shaded your doorway,

two rough-skinned figs in his hands, offerings

which you took without hesitation.

in the torpid warmth of june he cleansed you

of seven demons, unhurriedly

carefully

while a transistor radio played on the windowsill

and grape shot peppered the alleys with broken glass.

 

by day your lover preached to vicious-eyed masses

while you took pine pitch

and adorned your body with it,

a stroke for every parable:

the fleshly geography of bridegrooms and mustard seeds

 

here a coil of black lines around the arms

there a river delta of contours

in the hollows of the spine

(for this they would call you

a painted woman).

 

by evening you drank sparrow-colored wine

with twelve barefoot men

and scythed your hair off root-deep

to wash the feet of the thirteenth.

 

then the night of the skull:

broken bread and bones,

the clamor of pharisees.

at last the rifle shot.

the earth ruptured like so many

veins.

 

three days tautened, rope-tight,

to months

but there was no stone to roll away.

 

this time you spent weeping on the steps

of the grand cathedral

waiting for your hair to grow long again.

 

Like this poem?  Then check out the others in the series:
Canto I

Cantos III and IV

I’m always interested to see how other people interpret the story of Mary Magdalene, so if your opinions differ from or even match mine, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.