Rivers and roads.

“Will you come back next year?”

At this point, I already sensed that I would be unable to stay away from this haven of love and simplicity for long. But I tried not to make unstable promises.

“I hope so. I’ll try hard.”

He shook his head emphatically.

“No. Not try. Must you will come back.”

(Heart pain, ii.)

About a month ago, I met an Indian woman who was preparing to make a trip back to her home country to see friends from thirty years ago. She had no more family to return to, and all that remained was pilgrimage for the sake of pilgrimage.

“It is painful to be in your homeland as a tourist,” she told me.

Is there anyone who cannot relate to that longing for home, for your true country, whether your place of birth or your place of rebirth? Her words faintly echoed a line from the song that played as my first flight to Mumbai left the runway: “If you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born/ Then it’s time to go.”

That time has come. The next flight to India leaves tomorrow evening. Pavi was right: must I will come back.

At last.

 

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Les trésors no. 1

It would have been elegant to slide all the pearls onto a string
and clasp the string with a word like redemption or ordination or resolution
and wear the stories on the wrist, not very close to the heart
but surely very good stories, and very vogue, as pearls are

Instead, the shore led south. With a bucket of oysters
and little recollection of plans buried somewhere up north,
my vision cleared, pulse steadied at last in the arteries
of a bayou song in a Texas river in the Arabian sea.

And I might have racked it up to seasons, tides, and constellations
but found I couldn’t map the heavens, let alone the dust
Wasted ink, threw words adrift, because I thought at least
I could write my own tale, but it was shallow and long against short and deep

A bucket of oysters; little, grey. Grey like the corrugated sleeve
around a steaming cup of chai on a fresh cotton summer morning
Sugar and cream, a hammock, a porch, one fine day
a jaunt up the road, a few dollars, little oysters, but only oysters, I thought

Until one day the phone rang and it was true; you called
and I drove and we drove and we ironed it out over an hour of road
and a mile of sunset. We don’t drive this far merely for sugared coldness
but I’d drive this far for pearls in oysters, and something as sweet as you

A bucket of oysters, closed tight. Tight like a window seat inbound from Houston
from which I finally asked, over Sprite Zero, whether you were from there or here
and it didn’t matter because you were an instrument, divinely appointed
to hold a lantern to these bloodshot eyes and point to the road

(And as capital lights gleamed beneath the aircraft, you prayed
and staggering light broke into the vessel. Should anyone ever inquire
whether I believe in coincidences, it would be a resounding no
but I do believe, and how, in what is ordained, what is written)

A bucket of oysters, thrown together. Thrown together as we were
for a moment or twenty-two, fragments of something different than we thought,
But good. Unquestionably good. If not a pearl, a pearlescent casualty of timing
Brevity was never my strength, but some say it’s a virtue

I count days that never pass, but when I stop counting there are so few left
and I find myself boxing up everything from camera batteries to treasured ragged edges
of places I’ve been and places I am. Some destined for the 213, others destined
for the southern tip of broken paradise, like I am in the morning

All these pearls, all these oysters. Night falls and I see that a pearl is not a pearl
in spite of the oyster, but because of it. Tomorrow, I will still be the latter, plain,
attempting to cultivate the former, glorious. The precious ordinary houses the precious unseen
and this bucket of oysters is heavy with the weight of pearls, the weight of grace.

Seams.

Love thy friends and thy enemies. I often forget there’s more in the margin of Love thy neighbor.

Such as, love thy former friends. And thy future ones. Love thy past enemies. Love the burying of thine hatchets.

Love the least; the destitute, downtrodden, and discouraged. Should you be predisposed to love the least the most, learn to love the ones whose beauty, wit, and intelligence surpass your own. Learn to love common ground. Learn to find where your gifts fill gaps.

Love thy local demographics. Love thy immigrant, thy hipster, thy young professional, thy retiree. Love thy librarian, thy security guard, thy intern, thy barista, thy cop. Love thy readers of Dostoyevsky and thy readers of Twilight. Love thy historians of Bonhoeffer and thy historians of Bieber.

Love thy professors, accommodating and stringent alike. Love thy academic community and contribute prudently. Love thy roommate and love those who are not thy roommate but frequently inhabit thy room. Be hospitable to them. Love thy freshmen and thy alumni.

Love those who do not understand you, and those you fail to understand. Love those who think they know but have no idea. Love those you think you know all about. Love the fragile and the resilient alike. Love the untrustworthy, the inarticulate, the obstinate, the abrasive, and the overdramatic, and thank heaven for those who love you as such.

Love thy church, but love thy Church more. Love thy pastor and love thy congregation. Love those who leave thy church, and love when you leave thy church. Love those who love laws. Love those who understand life together and those who do not. Love thy cynics and thy visionaries. Love thy saint and thy sinner.

Love thy authority, love thy subordinate. Love those who can’t take the hint. Love those who won’t take your advice. Love those who preach to you and those who preach at you. Love those you call out and those who call you out. Love those who obey and those who rebel. Love those you fight for and those you oppose. Love those who forget years and miles and roots, even when you long to remind them. Love those who break your heart and those whose hearts you break. Love those who hold it against you. Love those who forgive your faults and those who do not.

Keep no score, but love those who do.

Eleos.

I use the word mercy many times over, and he asks what mercy looks like. It’s a harder question than I anticipate. Formless virtue is simple; to give it life and ligaments is more difficult.

The answer is greater than my two hands and difficult to wrap up neatly. I call it extreme empathy, an inability to look away. A driving desire to fill gaps. Total investment in the belief that I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you. A lifestyle, not an isolated action. Still, so many words don’t unite structure with substance, and it lingers on my mind.

What is mercy?, I ask myself daily, and feel like a distant admirer: I know about you, but I don’t know who you are. Longing to plumb the depths, but still studying the surface. Perhaps the only way to truly understand the scope of any calling is to spend your life answering it. A journey best traveled not by map-making, but by road-walking.

Mercy visits the destitute in their distress and does not look down, but kneels down and looks eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul. Mercy speaks for the silent, comforts the weary, feeds the hungry, names the nameless, welcomes the searching. Mercy says, Even when you are lost to the world and beyond my reach to rescue, you are not lost to me and I will not look away without speaking on your behalf. Even when there is no reason or resolution for suffering, mercy is relentlessly, recklessly compassionate. If we are a body, then mercy is the muscle that opens the hand, a muscle through which exercise becomes habit, habit becomes reflex, and reflex becomes religion.

We may not comprehend the mysteries, but we can accomplish the ministry, for mercy is simply a call and response.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
to visit orphans and widows in their affliction,
and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
James 1:27

Golden.

The pickup lurches to a stop and we clamber from the truck bed to the river.

There’s only a moment to take in the panhandle panorama until someone’s chasing me through the sandy shallows. I shriek and run, but she is faster and I emerge laughing, dripping. Then it’s a mud fight until we all collapse waist-deep, grinning.

The late-afternoon sun settles on the surface, and the warm wind carries a dozen sighs of contentment. Hands buried in sand, hair dripping with river water, worries left on some other coast. The laziness gives way to another bout of wet-sand warfare. We dry out in the sunshine, tie our hair up, and prop our sunglasses on sun-touched noses.

It’s time to leave the bright current, but before I can make it back to the truck, I hear splashing steps from behind and try to escape, but my yelp drowns in the river one more time. We pile into the truck bed barefoot and ride home through the white dust.

Our collarbones are burnt red and my salt-soaked, windblown hair might never be the same, but it’s a beautiful kind of mess and we savor the joy. The Arabian horses canter across the ground to our left.  Texas sunshine pumps through our veins and the disarming warmth creates space for something beyond water and sunlight to stream across my soul.

Redemption calls.

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are.

– Sara Groves, “Add To The Beauty”

Alterations.

A sink full of dishes becomes, at times, a sanctuary for epiphanies.

While rinsing plates, I muse over a brother’s interesting habit of occasionally cutting the sleeves off of long-sleeved athletic shirts. Having grown up in a sea of athletic and tactical apparel catalogs, I know full well what Under Armour costs and cringe at the thought of chopping up high-quality gear. Ryan sees it differently. He feels that his alterations add value to the item by making it better suited to his intended use.

He has a point.

I do not deal well with alterations, I realize as the dish disposal rattles on eggshells and grapefruit seeds.

It perplexes me to see a perfectly good thing altered; anyone’s perfectly good shirt, perfectly good plan, perfectly good love, perfectly good dream. Wholeness is elegant. Fragmentation is not. Gaps should be remedied, never created.

But rarely, it seems, is the kingdom of heaven furthered by perfectly good things. Rather, it was commissioned to sinners, thieves, and prostitutes. Failures redeemed. The poor in spirit. How else can we enter the kingdom besides being altered, emptied, made new?

And yet, too often I protest Christ’s alteration of my plans and purposes as I do the shearing of sleeves from a fine piece of athletic apparel. I cling to my “perfectly good things” until my short supply of stamina runs dry, then grieve the remnants. It was a good thing. A perfectly good thing. Past tense.

Despite my unbelief, He continues to reform my “perfectly good” (which is to say comfortable, attainable, untested) into fitness for service. Letting go of what you cherish is never easy and rarely uncomplicated, but sanctification exchanges good enough for glorious. Divine alterations are always value added.

The dishes are done and a grain of sight restored.


The flames and smoke climbed out of every window
And disappeared with everything that you held dear
But you shed not a single tear
For the things that you didn’t need
‘Cause you knew you were finally free.

Death Cab for Cutie, “Your Heart Is an Empty Room”

Dust.

can the soul
lean into dissonance?
when two elements
converge,
each pure
in its own right
but discordant
in ashen unity,
can it concede goodness?

can it be that
it matters little
whether the heart
and the head
are tethered
or truthless
for at the height of conflict
neither
is master?

and as the thought-thinker
absently ascends stairs,
wrought-iron, underhand
rakes open an arched line
as if to remind that
iron
is a very good teacher.

Avenues.

We interrupt this broadcast
(These days and nights and weeks and seasons
spent fighting and faltering and failing and falling into the dust)
to remind you of grace.

Only grace. No revelations, epiphanies,
nothing you have not heard a thousand times before,
but what you have a thousand times forgotten
and lately ceased to perceive.

Today, as you walk a tree-lined path
and encounter an exquisite onslaught of fresh-fallen petals
(each fragile, unsteady, but magnificent in vaporous unity),
reflect upon how utterly unnecessary this aesthetic wonder is

and how deliberate nonetheless.  

And as you drive into a setting sun,
(light tumbling off each strand, each distinct eyelash)
let the simplicity, the warmth, the unwritten beauty
alight upon more than your eyes

and forget not how to exult.

Steel grey.

You wake up clinging to a cold ground that you pray doesn’t cave in under the weight of your heart. Weary lungs find oxygen, bloodshot eyes find sky. Infinite, steel-grey sky. Blistered hands open slowly and reach blindly for a weapon that’s gone missing.

Pulling your shoulders from the earth, you survey the field and struggle to absorb the disarray. Boots have come unlaced, and you wonder whether you fought or ran before the smoke cleared. Maybe both.

Whose work was this? No signs of death or carnage, but you remember the onslaught. No evidence of victory or defeat, but you remember a faltering, aching courage.  Did you even hear it coming? Where were the hoofbeats, the levers, the sounding charge? All you recall is the aftermath; the echo of your own solitary why. 

Is this an ending? A failure? An impasse? It is if you call it such. But what story ends before its hero has fought well?

Perhaps this battle of uncertain ends is a moment to find out what you’re made of; to face the necessary pain squarely and run straight through without questioning whether or not you could have averted it, whether or not you deserve it, or whether or not you’ll make it out unbroken.

Go, find out. The only defeat is to turn away. Collect your courage and run with resolve. You will be armed.

ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ