Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On pain, cartoon Jesus, and redemption

I listened to an old Johnny Cash song this evening at church. I sat in the room where four and five year olds usually congregate, surrounded by cartoons of Jesus and celebrations of spring, listening to a deep voice recant self-inflicted pain and the need to feel—something, anything.

It is a morbid song, with a haunting rhythm, that felt appallingly out of place in a basement classroom in chairs that sit a foot off the ground. A woman shared this song with me because she felt it described her own experience, her own “hurt”. We both sat in silence as the song played out, faces lit by a darkening overcast sky, sound punctuated by laughing children and conversing adults gathering upstairs.

I have never physically cut or hurt myself intentionally, but I have definitely had my moments of hurt. Moments where crying doesn’t express the pain enough, where words cannot express the pain enough, where nothing seems to capture how deep the wounds truly travel. And in those moments, I didn’t hurt myself; I just quit trying to express it. And moments turned into weeks, and months and years. And crying became a thing of the past.

When the song was finished I wanted to stay in the room and talk, discuss how she came to connect with this song, what she wishes people understood about her hurt, and how she deals with her pain now. Because her pain has continued and even worsened, depending on whom you ask. Her life has been simplified into pain treatments by the week, needed to manage the pressure on fluid on her brain. Her prayer requests are surprisingly few, but the distraction in her eyes cannot be missed. She hurts, a lot, all the time, yet she is warm with everyone to whom she speaks. She bemoans the distraction the pain—and pain medication—inflicts on her life, and yet seems more focused that I am because she is not concerned and preoccupied with a million different things. The pain has made her life so simple, has created such focus, and yet is still...hurt.

Interesting silver lining.

I’m pretty sure this woman, whose pain has spanned nearly her entire life, would never choose the mess of health and family issues she has had to endure. I’m sure most of us wouldn’t choose our saddest moments for all their silver lining. But listening to that song, full of despair, reminded me that to forget redemption is to be surrounded by darkness.

“I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real...everyone I know goes away in the end, and you could have it all, my empire of dirt.”

Or, as my friend said as we left the world of preschool Sunday school, “my empire of shit.”

I am so thankful for redemption, at some moments more than others. Surrounded by the plastic smell of her pain treated skin, grey from the cloudy evening sky, I was very thankful for grace in moments I don’t expect, and the immeasurable promise of heaven.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The attraction of honeysuckles...

There was a honeysuckle bush that grew over the back fence of the soccer field at my elementary school. The blossoms that bloomed within reach every spring would be picked over within days by elementary students abounding with energy and eager for a snack. The elder students would teach the younger how to remove the stem and the outer blossom for a small drop of sweet goodness to quickly devour.

There was a sense of secrecy about the sacred bush, after all, there weren't enough blossoms to go around--even at a small school of less than 100 students. Another time there were several hay bales brought to our school for some special event. In the midst of the hay we discovered seeds that we could gather out of the sheaves and snack on as we lined up for morning prayer. I remember one morning offering the seeds to my third grade teacher, Miss Ortiz. She shook her head claiming she'd already had breakfast that morning. It was at that moment I realized I was acting a little ridiculous. Gathering seeds from hay bales was immature, just like gathering drops from honeysuckles. Even at the age of nine, I'm not sure why this mattered.

I loved Miss Ortiz. She was fresh out of college, and came into my third grade classroom halfway through the year when my original teacher had a baby. She was young, had braces and curly hair, wore cute (rather than "teacher") clothes, and would double dutch with us on the playground when she helped with recess duty. She was enthusiastic, creative, and made us feel important--even though we were nine. Perhaps that is why her scorn for seeds from old decaying hay bales mattered so much--her expectations were different from my previous teachers. She didn't feel the need to separate herself from our fun to make sure we remembered she was in charge, so when she did separate herself, we took notice...well, I did.

I passed a blooming bunch of honeysuckles as I ran this afternoon. The sun was hot, the humidity high, my legs tired. It's been a long week at work, and a long year in general, and the weariness is hard to fend off as the days push to a close. The bush was on a route I have run literally hundreds of times, blooming and growing out into the sidewalk, arching over travelers of the road. The glimpse of all the fresh blossoms brought me back to the soccer field, and for a fleeting moment a part of me cried out to devour them--I was back in the corner, consuming all blossoms within reach as fast as I could, afraid that they would be gone the next time I ventured by.

Part of me wonders when I got to be this old. Instead of student, I am teacher. And while the memory of consuming the honeysuckles brought an instantaneous rush of joy, I would never dream of stopping. There was dinner to make...things to evening to consume. And besides all that, I was tired. Stopping the run wasn't going to make it go by any faster.

I am well aware of my obsession with efficiency. Productivity is ever a goal. But I think I might benefit from stopping to drink up a few honeysuckles now and then, ever careful to take part in the fun of the students I am teaching, rather than just watching or passing it by.