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Thirty-Nine

I couldn’t sleep last night. Nathan and I are getting ready to release a new full-length album, one we’ve been working on for, oh, five years or so, and the title we chose for it is Thirty-Nine. The songs are records and reflections from my personal journey through faith and doubt, and our working title was “FaithedOut” or “Faith-Doubt” or – well, we couldn’t figure out how to spell it to make it work without being spoken, mute on an album cover. Faith and doubt, but also faithed out, as in worn out, churched out.

I’m turning thirty-nine this year, this month actually, and we decided, when the guy we hired to master the album asked us for the title last week, to call it Thirty-Nine, partly because of my age, partly because 1939 was a dark time in history (the Great Depression in the United States, Germany invades Poland and begins the second world war), and mainly because of the not-quite-fortiness of it, the almost-there-but-still-slogging feeling of thirty-nine, no milestone, just faded-ness. 

That was all rolling around in my head last night, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I wrote something and put it to rest. Below is what I wrote. Most of my thirty-nine years have not felt like this, of course, but a considerable portion of my recent years have come closer to a “dark night of the soul.” I share this mostly to introduce some of the sentiment behind our new album title. Yeah, it’s really my wordy and hype-aversive way of starting a “launch” for the new album – coming to you (for free through Noisetrade!) on October 26th.

Thirty-nine is an unholy number. Noah waited forty days and forty nights in the ark while it rained and everything outside drowned. Moses spent forty years in the desert, and only then began his long journey leading Israel to the promised land. Jesus fasted forty days in the wilderness before he started his three years of work that changed the world.

On the thirty-ninth day, in the thirty-ninth year, nothing happened. In the wilderness, in the womb-like tomb-like ark, it was only one more of a long string of the same – wandering, hungry, lonely, in the land of unknowing, a heart forsaking and forsaken.

It’s the second-to-last year, or day, of the long dark nothing. I’ve been keeping count, and I know it, but another year, another wasteland of a day, awaits me after this one. Even as hope begins to germinate. Forty is the pattern I know from my thirty-nine-year history reading Bible stories. I know that after forty has passed, something new begins.

So in the dark, on yet another impenetrable night in year thirty-nine, I feel tiny cracks in my heart. Something new pushing inside. An olive branch and a rainbow, a burning bush, food, water and comforting angels might be in store, on the path up ahead.

The dark still whispers fears in my ears, still tries to dress me down, show me wrinkles and withering and death to all things. But I’m nearly thirty-nine now. I’ve nearly made my peace with the dark, count her among my acquaintances now, need not run.

This next year will be bittersweet. And then, who knows? Who knows?

There now, dark. There, I’ve written it, or something like it, or something anyway. Now may I sleep?

The Last Day of the Month

On the last day of the month

I cook my stash of vegetable peelings and potato water

Into broth for next month’s soups and stews and gravies

Bake the heels and crusts of bread

For crumbs for next month’s casseroles

Gather the nearest-to-perishing perishable food

Refrigerated leftovers

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Search the pantry and the freezer

For whatever can fill out this day of meals

Made of remnants

Nothing is wasted

Yet this feels like abundance

These meals like generous gifts

As we linger after dinner

Filled to satisfaction in body and soul.

White American Life

White tears are decorative

White grief is distant

White guilt is optional

White promises are broken

White passion is fickle

White skin is thick insulation

And a most effective cushion

To smother a human soul.

Child-Woman

I closed out another journal this morning. Here’s an entry from earlier this year, written after a particularly painful evening of parenting.

Oh ten-year-old girl with the rages and rolling eyes, the cry and play of a child, the body and mind leaning towards adulthood. You are loved, and lovely. You are unpredictable, awkward, unkind, collapsible. Headstrong, indecisive, brilliant and naive.

I, young one, am your mother. I am wise and baffled. Patient and irritated. I love you. I do not always like you. I am not old and wise enough to never feel pain at your unkindnesses. (No, that’s not where wisdom would be found. Love feels the pain. Wisdom – and love again – can reach beyond it, to embrace you, to envision you in truth, a child-woman writhing in growing pains.)

Sleep tonight, my small darling. Sleep and be refreshed. You are not in-between two realities. You are fully functioning, smack-dab in the center of one reality, this one, the reality of your living self at age ten-and-one-half. And I am honored to know you here and now.

I was looking for something to publish on my blog this past week, sifting through years of my own unpublished essays and blog post drafts. But so much of that stuff is just . . . stuffy. It sounds suspiciously like my 16-year-old self’s idea of a wise old college professor. It uses big words and tosses around hefty ideas.

That’s okay. But I’m just not so interested in that right now.

I’m interested in the sugar snap peas growing in my mother’s garden, and the ensuing stir-fry I plan to cook for her tonight, while the kids and I are here visiting for a couple weeks. I’m interested in good beer, and good stories. In easygoing conversation, lively music, and running errands by bicycle. In relaxing with a good book, also in my mother’s garden. In the moments I spent last week with my aging Grammy, when I sang to her and she told us stories of her youth, and I saw tears in my aunt’s eyes, and the fireflies lit up the woods behind the house as we said goodnight, and I felt the strange strength and beauty of that fragile moment supporting all of us who were present there together.

I mean to say, I’m interested in things that don’t accommodate big words and hefty ideas very well. I’m interested in the everyday things that are happening now, while they’re happening. In the people who are living now, while they’re living.

In the actual stuff of life, at the very heart of all the stuffy things I have to say about it.

There will come a day

When you view the grocery store circular with anticipation

Its expected suspenseful arrival each week

What will the free item be?

How much will avocados cost?

And isn’t there something you’ve been needing but couldn’t quite name

Imploring your attention from these glossy pages?

In those days

You will find yourself

Sitting across the table from your lover of accumulated years

In the Chinese buffet or the Mexican restaurant

With little to say

That you haven’t said already

In one way or another

And, past the days of longing glances,

You will choose handheld devices

And plans for the next week

To fill the mundane gap between you.

 

When that day comes

Take up running.

You will surprise yourself

With the power and endurance

You’ve already built up.

You’ll go to bed eager for the morning

You’ll wake

Bound out into the dawn

Pound the pavement

Breathe and sweat and move

Everything.

Don’t ask yourself

Whether you are running away

Or running to catch up

Or running towards some forgotten hope.

Just run.

Trust me on this.

The kids wanted a fire after dinner. My habitual “no” rose to my throat and then fell before making any noise. I would have said no, I don’t make good fires, no, you need to get ready for bed, no, we don’t have time, no, I don’t want to deal with the mess, no, no, a thousand times no.

But a lifetime only has room for so many yeses, and I had been filling my opportunities for yes with way too many nos, and what did I have to lose anyway?

Yes, I told them. Luthien got the s’mores ingredients. I hauled out the lighter and newspaper, and built a sorry little leaning firewood tepee in the firepit. Wadded the newspaper, lit it, threw in some tiny sticks. Repeated several times, then several more. Tiny blazes flamed up and died down, but nothing really took for good. Still, we roasted our ‘shmallows and made our s’mores with the heat we did manage to produce. And my anticipated failure surprised me with its adequacy.

Bedtime came. The firepit seemed barely hot, a little smoke puffing here and there. I decided not to throw any water on it because we might want to have a fire the next night, and I didn’t want to soak the unburned wood. My firewood tepee stood unharmed, sheltering the fluttery newspaper ash below it.

Pajamas, toothbrushing, potty, prayers. Kitchen cleanup, dishes. An hour later I opened the back door to toss something in the recycling bin, and a blaze of orange caught my eye.

My “fire” was crackling away, blazing and burning and looking, smelling, sounding for all the world like an actual backyard fire might do if an actual person who knew something about making fires had started one.

The wind had picked up in that hour, and it had done what wind does in combination with fuel and heat. It had breathed on my little backyard offering and transformed it into something larger than my adequacy.

I wonder, what might happen with your heat and fuel if the next time you were asked to start a fire, you said yes instead of no, if you did your best and then let whatever it became sit out in the open air on a starry night? What if the wind picked up? You just never know.

 

*Of course you should never leave a fire unattended, however pathetic a fire you think it is. I would have put the cover on my fire pit (it’s one of those metal containers with a grate that fits over top), but the tepee was sticking up too high for it to fit. I’d like to say I would have peeked at it again before going to bed, and thankfully that’s what I did. 

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