Storytelling

sunflower crowns

Are you telling the stories I gave to you?
It is a haunting and ever-present question,
buried deep in my heart and pounding the air around my ears –

Are you telling the stories I gave to you?

Does your heart open up,
do you bleed the words and the feelings and the
emptiness,
are you sure that this life is not lived
in silence?

And the fear comes here:
I have become so much and so little of myself in the past two months.
I am ten thousand miles into a journey
that is ten billion miles long,
my life a plain stretched wide across the canvas of
some great celestial painter.

I have lived so much life in the span of two
silent
months –
new job, new house, new life, new people, new ideas, new experiences, new
depths delved deep within.

My heart, harried and tired and raw like new skin,
beating a hundred different rhythms as it once again finds its own,
is bursting with stories that have only unfurled their
delicate
story
wings
before a few.

And that same question,
filled with the guilt and the grace of every god who has offered either:
Are you telling the stories I gave to you?

Because that’s the thing you don’t know about me,
that’s the kicker,
the punch,
the twist in the plot and the slash through the canvas –

There are too many gods asking me for my stories.

They beg of me:
Tell the world the story of the girl who lives to work, who dedicates herself to the job
that she is still making sense of.
Tell the world the story of the student who graduated from the place that taught her all at once
that faith can never be simple or difficult again.
Tell the world the story of the daughter who is struggling to make
her own home.
Tell the world the story of the girlfriend who so desperately longs for
he who makes her more herself.

Tell the world of the anxieties, the fear, the hope, the peace, the racing heart, the fumbling fingers,
the mind
always ten steps ahead
and ten leagues deeper than it should be.

And those gods,
who demand all my energy and my time,
self-created and inundating
my brain and my heart –
The gods who heave
blame and shovel
shame and take back all the

grace that is offered to me –

Those are the gods I deny my stories.

And now,
I will tell the one story that reaches,
words like spindly fingers
and words like sunflower crowns –

Reaches into the sky like bravery made solid:

Give me the breath again, my God who breathes,
to tell the story
that oxygenates all of me.

I am more
than I think I am.

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The reconciliation of a wolf girl.

dark wolf

Today, one of my best friends called me and told me the thing I needed to hear:

It sucks that you didn’t get that job. You should have. It is okay to be upset about it.

My boyfriend texted me the thing I needed to hear:

It sucks that you didn’t get that job. I know you really wanted it. Don’t give up.

I am glad I have people like that in my life. Because it sucks. And I want to be upset. And I don’t want to give up.

I started searching for jobs in September. I was proactive: I met with career services, I started paying attention to my LinkedIn profile, I made dozens of copies of my resume, I wrote cover letters until my eyes crossed. I was light years ahead of my classmates. And that made me proud.

So when people ask me, two weeks before graduation, what are your plans? I tell them, I’ve had countless interviews, three rejections, and no offers. And then I stare at them, waiting for the words they’ll say next, the words that come from well-intentioned hearts, the words that everyone says, the words that I know, at my core, are probably true:

Oh, don’t worry. It’ll happen. You’re so amazing. It’s all in God’s hands. Trust God’s timing. God has something great planned.

And I think, yeah. That makes sense. That’s pretty easy to say. Because you’re employed. You have a place to live. You’ve done your time trusting.

As soon as I think it, I want to cringe. Because it sounds awful. It sounds faithless, angry, and envious. It sounds like someone who doesn’t deserve a job, or a plan, or a God who gives good things. It doesn’t sound like me.

But it’s what I feel sometimes. And I’m not sure how to reconcile it all – the things I feel with the things I know.

So I tell myself stories. I remind myself of the times I fell apart, the times I felt like dust. I tell the stories of the times God found me, when I was crouched crying on the floor of my bedroom, or driving too fast away from what made me angry, or lying in a field veiled in darkness, staring at stars and praying for time to stop.

The stories remind me that I am sometimes a faction warring against myself:

Look at all those times God plucked you from the ashes. Look how much of God’s time you’ve already used up. You deserve to wait and worry.

It is hard to silence a voice you’ve allowed to shout for so long.

When I was at camp, I used to hear this old story from a Native American tribe. A boy told his wise grandfather that sometimes he feels as though there are two wolves battling within him: a light wolf and a dark wolf. He asked his grandfather which wolf would win the battle.

The one you feed, said the grandfather.

I always thought the story was too simple. Surely life was not that easy – food is just one factor in a wolf’s strength. There were genetics, training, size – maybe it was inevitable that the light wolf lost. Maybe it was just too tired to keep fighting. Maybe the dark wolf was just too strong.

I do not want to let the dark wolf win my heart and strength away.

I am still learning how to believe in the simplicity of feeding the light wolf and trusting that it will win.

Perhaps the still learning is reconciliation enough, for now. I believe we have a God who allows us to lean into the still learning. So that’s what I’ll do, if I find it hard to say that I’m trusting, I’ll say that I’m leaning.

Leaning into the still learning. The still, quiet learning. The still, outstretched hand of a girl, holding food beneath the muzzle of a wolf who hasn’t truly eaten in a long time.

That will be my reconciliation, for now.

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.

Stories.

There is a reason everyone loves a good story.
We will sit for two hours in a darkened theatre
as the lovers dance across the stage,
promising the world to one another even
as the world decays beyond the fourth wall.
We will throw our pocket money at the sullen box office boy,
with his long shaggy hair and freckly nose,
and he will push a ticket toward us.
enjoy the show
monotone through the speaker.
What he really means is
enjoy the intrigue,
the romance and the drama,
watch as the hometown hero with a dark secret
woos the mysterious girl hiding behind her books and her sarcasm.

But reality has caught up with the sullen box office boy
so he forgets his speech.
See, he knows.
He sees us go in and out,
wandering people clamoring to be whispered to.
The lovers on the stage see us too.
They stick their heads out their dressing room windows
and watch us file in from the
deafening streets.
From their vantage point, we are the glittering stars
and they are the ones hoping to understand.

We need the stories because life
is not like
the stories.
The sword comes slashing down and the hero parries.
The violins swell as the camera cuts close for the kiss.
She turns to go and for once,
he does not let her.
And for once,
she hears him out.
The magical world lies behind a curtain.
The phone rings and a life changes.
The lovers dance.

But it doesn’t work like that.
People don’t show up on doorsteps
and no one says the things you rehearsed in your head.
Life doesn’t happen like stories do
but we keep going back to the stories
hoping one day something will change.
Hoping one day
the tables will turn.