Coming to life

I used to think that death extinguished life.
I thought it was a weed,
creeping over the breathing things,
crippling the moving things.
I thought it dragged us into the desert,
slowly –
slowly for a long time,
until it sped,
until it tore and ripped us.
I thought dying was a savage thing –
overpowering.
I used to think that death was a taker
and that it took what was dear
and hid it in the thorns and underbrush.

And then I watched it at work.
And it was a weed,
and it crept over what I loved
what we loved
loved
And it crippled what once sprang and shuffled.
Death was not slow,
though I imagine it had been slower for 67 years
(we just didn’t notice then).
But in it’s speed and unforgiveness,
despite the taking –
I saw no savagery.
And though I was lost,
I was not lost alone.

So then I began to think that maybe there was more life in death than I thought.
There was laughter
defying the dimness and the silence
of sickness.
Tears and smiles and sighs of relief
from nestled-together family.
Whispered prayer.
A Healer who long ago cast out the fear.

We are found people
He found us in our grief
and mourning.
He found us tearing our clothes
and rolling in ash
and He
lifted us up
and draped us in white
and fed us clean water
and returned us our joy.

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Let me tell you about my Grandpa.

When I was very young, he had a heart attack.  I remember: we still lived at our old house in town, and I was standing at the top of the steps coming up from the bottom level.  Mom answered the phone in the kitchen and I stood there, watching her face contort into something I was too young to understand fully – except that it was wrong, faces weren’t supposed to look like that.  After that I remember her crying, and talking to me, but nothing else is as vivid.  My grandpa had double bypass surgery and he stopped working after that.  It was wonderful – from then on, he had time for my sister and I.  He did everything a grandparent is supposed to do.

My dad’s parents are young.  They’ve always been young, as grandparents go.  In their fifties and sixties my whole life.  My grandma was thirteen when she started dating my grandpa.  The other day, at the Hospice House, a woman – she must have been a nun? – came in to bless Grandpa, and she asked Grandma what it was that first attracted her to him.

“He looked like Fonzi,” my grandma replied, smiling.

Apparently, Grandpa was pretty hardcore in his day.  He had a motorcycle.  He took part in street races.  He smoked.  He grew up in Cleveland and he went to Catholic school until high school.  He had great Catholic school stories, but even better Cleveland public high school stories.

One day, my grandpa and his gang of greasers (I’m assuming they looked like greasers) tied some kid to a stake outside of the high school and lit a fire underneath him.  The principle got on the loudspeaker and said “If you look out the window, you’ll see why this school has such a bad reputation!”  Grandpa always laughed and said the kid was fine, and they never actually set him on fire – just the area around him.

That is my favorite of his stories.  The grandpa I knew had never hurt anyone or anything.  He was one of the gentlest people I knew.  I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t like him.  He was funny – so funny – and happy and kind.  He was simple, and liked simple things: there wasn’t anything fancy about him.  When he and my grandma could, they moved their family out of the city to where we all live now, in the beautiful middle of nowhere.  He and my grandma built a really great life for themselves – and I know it was hard.  It was probably harder than I can imagine.  They spent years fixing up the house they’ve always lived in, a small, two-story farmhouse built over half a century ago.  They added gardens and a workshop and a garage.  Grandpa built things – swings, birdhouses, benches.  He landscaped and bought antiques with which to pepper the yard.  There’s a big old tree and a massive rhododendron bush between the garage and the house.  My sister and I used to have a swing tied to that tree, and when we were older we climbed it.  When we got a little older still, we stopped climbing.  I think we need to start again.

I’ve been lucky to grow up fifteen minutes from my grandparents.  Really, fifteen minutes from all of my family, on both sides.  On my dad’s side, my sister and I were the only grandkids until just three years ago, when Lucy was born.  The two of us were so spoiled – still are.  I’m the oldest, and Hannah is three years younger, and we both loved spending time with our grandparents.  They were always active, always going someplace.  When we were in elementary school, Grandpa would come get us every now and again and take us to McDonald’s – just me, Hannah, and him.  The three of us would squeeze into the seat of his truck and we would sing songs all the way there.  Some of them were real songs, and others were ones Grandpa had made up somewhere along the way.  He was famous for making up words (he always said they were real words from a real Eastern European language – Polish, or Ukrainian, or Romanian.  Maybe they were, in some way.  All I know is that everyone knew what the words meant when Grandpa said them, even if we couldn’t explain how or why we knew).  When we got to McDonald’s, we’d eat quickly because Grandpa always let us play in the play area.  Our mom never let us do that, and even Grandma would’ve been hesitant – people catch colds from those things – but Grandpa always let us.  He would sit and watch from the table as Hannah and I played.  I’m sure he must’ve called us back to him at some point, so he could take us home, but I don’t remember it.  In my memory, Grandpa let us play all night long, forever, and never stopped us.

My sister and I spent one full summer going to our grandparents’ house every day while our parents worked.  Since Grandma worked too sometimes, often it was just Grandpa watching us.  It was one of the best summers.  Their house doesn’t have air conditioning, so in the afternoons, when Grandpa was outside or in the barn working, Hannah and I would collapse onto the couch in the cool darkness and watch ABC Family’s entire summer afternoon line-up.  Family Matters, Full House, Mary-Kate and Ashley, Step by Step.  We ate chewy Chips Ahoy and sometimes fell asleep.  Grandpa didn’t say we were lazy or silly.  Sometimes they took us to Pamida on senior citizen discount day (“old geezer day,” Grandpa called it), or we’d go to the drug store for ice cream sandwiches.  You know the feeling of walking out of the hot, humid summer air into chilly air conditioning?  That summer made it one of the best feelings in the world.

We found two kittens that summer, too.  They just showed up at my grandparents’ house: a black and white one and a calico.  They let us put out milk and cheese for them, so they never left.  I chose the black and white one as my own and called it Friday.  Hannah picked the calico.  “They’re names are just Kitty Kitty,” Grandpa would say, pointing to each cat.  “That’s Kitty, and that’s the other Kitty.  I just call ‘Kitty Kitty!’ in the mornings and they come running.”  After we went back to school, the cats stuck around for a few weeks, then they disappeared.  Grandpa had bought food for them and everything.  My sister and I were sad that they’d gone, but I think Grandpa was a little sadder.  He liked them.  I think it was easy for him to love anything.

Summer wasn’t the only time we spent with my grandparents.  Since Grandpa was always free, he had us for snow days, too.  Once, he plowed the snow into a little mound at the bottom of the big hill my grandparents lived on.  Hannah and I would sled down that hill on saucers, and when we hit the pile of snow Grandpa had made us, we flew high into the air, crashing back to earth moments later.  We had to bail before we got to the road.  I don’t remember how long we sledded that day, but I do know that we kept demolishing our bump every few trips down the hill.

He kept rebuilding it.  Every time.  I don’t remember him telling us to come inside then, either.

I’ve been home on break from school for the past week.  I’m blessed, because I could be here for the end.  I’m blessed, because I got to be with my family, see them love each other with a fierce kind of love.  I’m blessed, because I was here to hear stories and see tears and laugh with them all.  I got to be with Grandpa.  I got to tell him I loved him.

I know I had one of the best grandpas anyone could have.  He picked me up from band camp every day for two years.  He took me to doctor appointments while my parents were at work.  He came to my shows and my concerts.  He told me once that I was going to be a movie star – it didn’t matter that I was only talented enough for my little rural high school, because to him, I could make it anywhere in the world.  When I acted pretentious, he listened like I was the most intelligent person he’d ever met.  Even when I wasn’t pretentious about it, he listened.  I didn’t doubt that he actually listened.  He thought I was the most of everything.  My sister and I – we were always the smartest, the funniest, the most talented, the most beautiful.  And when Lucy came along, so was she.  I never doubted his love.  I never had a reason to doubt.

A few days ago, a woman – maybe a nun again? – came to my grandpa’s room to give him communion.  He was able to take it then, and the lady held his hand and asked him to say The Lord’s Prayer with her.  He said it faster than she did.  I didn’t even know Grandpa knew The Lord’s Prayer, though it makes sense – I imagine Catholic school ingrains those types of things into a person. My Grandpa wasn’t really a church man.  But last Saturday, I realized that he knew the Lord.  I can’t tell you how I understood – I just did.  I felt peace for him.  I had always known whose hands he was in, but I had finally realized that Grandpa knew, too.

I wish you could’ve known him.  I wish you could’ve been loved by him, too.  I’ll miss him – I already do.  I don’t know how a person can be fine, and then gone – in just a couple months.  But can you believe this: I got to spend almost 21 years being the granddaughter of perhaps the funniest, kindest man in the world.  I got to hear his ridiculous stories, sing with him on the way to McDonald’s, and love him back.  I could tell you about him for hours and hours.  I love him so much, and I’m so happy that I got to grow up with him in my life.  I want to celebrate that.

Joe Raymond: August 20, 1945-December 19, 2013

Almost three years ago, Grandpa and I before my senior prom.

Almost three years ago, Grandpa and I before my senior prom.

Times

I’ve been trying to write a blog for a few days now.  Nothing is working.  So I’m posting an old piece.  I wrote this in December 2012, just a day after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings.  This is my response.  It’s my heart, at that particular time, looking at the world, cringing, melting, unable to understand it.  I live in Ohio, and I was completely unaffected by anything in Connecticut.  But my head and my heart were searching, right after that, for some explanation.  Didn’t make sense.

Last week, a lot of stuff didn’t make sense.  Lots of crazy happened.  Illnesses and surgery in my family, a family death among my friends, school stresses, extra-curricular stresses… And then there was so much joy.  Real, genuine joy.  How to reconcile the joy and the pain?  How does it both exist so fully and so truly?  Am I really that intricate of a person that I can weep and sing and laugh and sigh and yell all in the same breath?  Are we all that way?

I’m adapting this piece into a scene for my theatre class.  That’s why I revisited it.  But after reading it, I know these are my missing words.  The ones I searched for this week.  It doesn’t match up completely.  But God, once again, has used Past Courtney to speak to Present Courtney.  Weird.  Awesome.

This very well may be one of my favorite pieces I have ever written.  It’s so unlike anything I usually write.  It is very intentional.  But it is also very real.

So, here it is.  Times.

____________________________________________________________

“I don’t get it!” she screamed at him.  She was standing in the middle of the dock, and the small rowboat was to her left, bobbing in the water.  The mountains were behind her and they silhouetted her.

He was standing on the concrete shore, the parking lot they passed for a beach.  He looked at her, and the rowboat, and the mountains.  The rain was coming.  Of course it was coming.  It always came at times like this.  “I don’t get it.”  She whispered now, because the quickening wind was drowning out her voice and her thoughts, and she liked that.  “I don’t get why there is death inside some people.  I don’t get why it eats them, turns them into black ash, makes them crumble to reveal a heartless chest cavity.”

She whispered, but he heard her.  Maybe the wind was blowing the words to him.  He glanced at the rowboat and the mountains, and then at her once more.  He only stood.

 The rain started.  Right on cue, because rain always comes at times like this.

“Say something!”  She was screaming again.  “Give me an answer, give me something!”  She sucked in a ragged, cold, mountain-air breath, and whispered.  “I know it’s bigger than this confusion inside me.  But you’ve got to answer me, or I’m gone.”  She pointed down at the little rowboat when she said this.  Raindrops soaked her hair into strings, and she had cried moments before so her nose and eyes were red.  To look at her was to look at a thing tortured too long by too many thoughts, her stubborn optimism marred by overwhelming fear.  It wasn’t beautiful, even though it should have been, with the mountains towering behind her and the rain and the water and the expanse between them.

He blinked slowly, head down for a long instant, before looking back at her.  He took one step closer and she edged one inch closer to the boat.

 “Where would you go?” he said finally.

 She sighed.  The rain was heavy but when she yelled her answer, it was calmer.  A desperate, defeated calm.

 “I don’t know.  Maybe there’s a place to hide.  Someplace where people don’t die before they die.  Someplace decent.”

 “Maybe,” he replied.  The rain, as is common in times like these, died down a bit.  Drizzle.  He scuffed his boot against the concrete as he thought for a moment.  “Yeah, maybe there is someplace like that.  But I don’t think you believe you’ll find it.”

She only stared at him.  They stared at each other a lot.  They had been best friends a long time, after all.  Staring is usually more important than most words at times like these.  She gave him time to tell her what they both knew she knew.

 “You said you don’t understand why there is death inside some people.  Why it eats them and turns them into something not alive.  But what if it’s inside all of us?  What if it’s not just some people?”

The rain had let up.  There was steam rising from the water in the bay, rolling down from the mountains standing, imposing, behind her.  Because she didn’t want to be near another person, but because she also didn’t want to leave him, she sat down in the middle of the dock.  He sat down too, ten or so feet away from her. He went on, because she let him.

“I think maybe some people do evil things because everyone has it in them.  I think people kill other people because every day, in my own head, I think deathly thoughts, but they’re only ever thoughts.  I think there is a creeping sort of plant in everyone’s chest cavity, one that grows slowly, and can be killed itself by most people, or at least kept at bay, at least can be pruned back often.  But some people can’t handle it.  Some people let the plant’s twisty vines squeeze the life out of their insides because there is nothing in them that tells them to control it.  I think stuff is really screwed up.  And I don’t think anyone gets it.”

She let his words travel between the expanse and into her, to the place words are kept.  Then she spoke, and in her voice resonated all the pain in the world.  Of course, the pain was her’s and her’s alone, and it belonged to no one else.  But the thing that must be understood is that when someone says “all the anything in the world,” it is because their own world is heavy enough to suffice for the universe at large.  Our own life is big enough to feel too big most of the time.

So, she spoke: “Why not me?”

He knew her best, so when she said this, he understood that she was not talking about what everyone else might have thought she would have been talking about.  She wasn’t asking why she was never a victim.  She was asking why the plant in her heart never overcame her, but overcame others.

The rain was going to come back.  At times like this, the rainless moments are only a short reprieve.  Eventually, it will be moderately sunny again, but when a storm comes, it rains for days.

“Why not any of us?” he said in a low, gravelly voice.  “We’re all broken vessels, love.  But some of us get patched, I guess.  There’s no explaining it.  There’s only living with it.”  He paused, smiling halfheartedly.  “I think we should be happy about it.”

“Feels like everyone is scared and angry.  Like everyone’s got it in their heads that now is the time for their own vendetta to start,” she said.  “I don’t think anyone cares much about dealing with life.  They’re just pissed at it all going to hell.”

 Quickly, he said, “It’s not going to hell any quicker than it has been for the last couple thousand years.  It’s just easier to see it these days.”

The rain was starting again, but this time the wind didn’t return.  Everything was softer.  The fog swirled around, the water in the bay wasn’t as choppy, the rowboat didn’t bash into the dock.

 “Maybe everyone is pissed because they all feel it too,” he mused.  “The creeping plant, the broken places.  Maybe the vendettas aren’t about this thing at all.  Maybe the vendettas are just a safeguard against themselves.”  He laughed suddenly.  “You probably should leave then.  There are far too many people in this world all full of hate.”

She smiled, pushing her tangled, stringy hair from her eyes.  She reached out her foot and nudged the boat in the water, raising her eyebrows at him, like an invitation.

 “Wanna come?  We could float away from the confusion.”

 “Nah,” he said.  “Confusion’s always gonna be here.  It’s a screwy place, under these mountains, on this shore.  But I think, since we’re some of the ones who’ve been patched up, it’s probably sort of a duty for us to stay here.  Keep showing people there’s hope, you know?”

She stood up very slowly and walked to him through the rain, leaving the boat and the mountains behind. She was smiling and so was he, which felt, for one fleeting instant, like a very wrong thing to be happening.  But it’s only possible to be angry and upset and full of pain for a certain amount of time before it’s ridiculous not to go on with being normal.  She knew this, and so did he, so they let it feel wrong for a second, then they let it be what it was.

 “You think?” she said when she came to him.  They began walking back toward town.  “Hope?  It’s our job?”

 “It’s our part,” he said with a shrug.  “I don’t think most of it is up to us.”  He stared at her as they walked.  They had both gotten good at staring and walking, since, as we now know, staring usually means more than speaking.

 “You don’t patch broken things unless you intend to use them,” she wondered aloud.  She stopped walking abruptly.  He was one or two steps ahead of her before he stopped too, looking back at her.  He just waited for her to work out the words that were already in her.  “We have to go on without answers, don’t we?”

 He nodded. “Yeah.  I think.”

 She nodded once, curtly, resolutely, resigned but freely resigned.  “Okay.”

 The rain, as it usually does at times like this, kept on.  But they also kept walking.

(This is my face, and my face is smiling in a big way)

I have to tell you how good our God is.  I have to tell you how much He has blessed us.  I have to tell you how magnificent He is.  But I do not have the words to do it right.  There is nothing in me that could adequately describe how perfect and amazing He is.  How beyond He is.  He is everything.  He keeps showing me how everything He is.

Sometimes, I wonder if I will explode from the weight of His grace and glory.

This is the best I can do: it is like He has created billions of little gemstones; billions of beautiful little crystals, so divinely crafted and so incredibly loved by the Creator.  And each gemstone has facets – so many facets, each delicately, purposefully carved.  God, in His unfathomable wisdom, whispered an adventure to each little gemstone.  A story, full of big things and little things and hard things and amazing things.  Always full of blessing.  He promised each and every tiny stone that it would be blessed past any earthly sort of understanding.

Our Papa would have been completely within His rights to tuck His billions of gems into a treasure chest and keep them.  The gems would be for His glory, to display His artistry and craftsmanship and beauty.  Those jewels would be His, only His.

But our Papa did not hide the gems away.  He dumped His treasure chest out, showering the universe with billions of bright, complex, staggeringly beautiful little raindrops.  His creations – His gemstones.  And He wrapped each fragile stone in a beating heart, and the heart He enveloped with a strong body, a transient home for His precious masterpieces.

Are you getting excited?  Because every time I get to this part, I get even more excited.  This is where it gets amazing.  This is where I see His grace and love.  I am smiling.  You can’t see me, but I assure you – I am beaming.

God is opening my eyes to see the gems in the hearts of His people.  These past few weeks, I have been blessed with the opportunity to pray with people, to eat meals with my friends, to share in joy and in heartache, to praise together and sit together and laugh together… God has given me people to love.  He has given me small pieces of Himself – these gems – to hold and smile at and tell stories with and love.  Me!  I get to love people!  Why would He trust me with His creations?  I barely trust people with my books, and God has given me people to love.  In all the ways.  I can’t contain my joy.  I am not a jump-from-my-seat, hands-in-the-air girl.  When I am floored by the Lord, I stand and smile.  I sit and stare.  I close my eyes and wring my hands together and sputter nonsense and whisper what feels like the most inadequate thank You.

How do I do this?  How do I praise Him the way I must?  How is anything I give enough for everything He has done?  I have tried to explain it to people.  I have tried to tell people what is going on inside me.  All I can do is smile.  I am busy, so busy.  And overwhelmed with school, and rushing from one job to the next, and it is hot out, and I don’t have enough time.  But there is something in my heart that I do not want to disappear.  Peace.  Joy.  Love.  All those Christian buzzwords… those words mean something.  Everything – they mean everything.

He has given me people.  He has let me into lives.  He has let me jump into the adventure of another person, another gem.  You know, though, what thrills me even more?  The fact that this isn’t all He has to give me.  These blessings, which have always been here, are only pieces of whatever He has yet to give me.  In this life or in the one I will one day get to spend with Him.  We get MORE LOVE.

(This is the part where, if we were together, we would just sit and smile at one another for a really long time.  And it probably wouldn’t even get awkward.)

And so this is it – this is what has been running through my head: He is so perfect in His grace and so stunning in His love and so oh-my-goodness-this-God-is-mine-and-I-am-His-His-His.  The twelve thousand thoughts that jumble my brain every day are still there – oh, are they ever – but it is like the weather in my head is a constant sunshower, and the rain that is falling is Grace.  Love falling on the quick, racing, filled-up landscape of my mind.

I am in love with this God.