Hush

There is a small tree growing out of the drainpipe on the old guildhall. Just beginning to brush the red brick with baby leaf hands, reaching up towards the cracked and peeling window frame. All around me the people hive-hum across the cobbles, a spilled yolk of morning sun pouring through cracks in ancient stones.

Some people stop, stare at me, point me out to their giggling girl gaggles, look me up and down pausing for breath on their mobiles phones; all because I am still and staring upward with a smile on my face at this gentle hand of spring relaxing into unobtrusive space. Tender green ears twitching to the city.

This happens. It happens when I stare too long at the dirt ingrained in the creases of commuter’s palms; overwhelmed with sweetness for the microscopic labyrinths of our bodies that breathe in ash and grease and motor oil. Happily drowning in our shared humanity; lashes streaked with cosmetic paint, the yellow crumbs of last night’s crying, filtering soot and dust from the mild surface of our eyes. Palms that weigh rice, coins, newborns; fingertips that test the quality of silk and writing paper and the texture of flower petals. Shoulders bearing water buckets, raffia baskets, coffins.

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I love everything. I love the eyes looking upwards to the sunlight sinking through leaves. I love whoever is marvelling at the exquisite pink of the new cherry blossoms right now. I love the girl, the boy, weighing themselves and wondering. I love the fingers fumbling with buttons and the toes rediscovering sand. I love everyone curled like living shells into dirty sheets: the sunlight touching old gravestones; holes in hand-me-down trousers, ragged hems brushing the pavement; the sweat clinging to people I will never meet in olive groves and orchards and corn fields.

I become these things, sometimes. My veins rise like ecstatic kraken and burst with thick ribbons of red and blue and yellow paint. I am the iridescent back of a long-legged beetle. I am every dissenter’s neck and every axe. I am hands cupping daily milk dishes. I am the shame that follows just one more drink. I am every nose passing a hot dog stand or candyfloss or stale urine at the bus stop. I am inappropriate laughter in church.

And people say, hands over ears, over eyes; Hush.

Why can’t you just be

A little

Less.

Ordinary Pain

Grief is a glass jar.

I said this to a strange woman in church once, as we sat and stared at the colours bleeding through a window as the sun went down. Green stems snaking around an angel in robes of red and blue. I looked at the detail in the golden feathers of the angel who was standing under what I think was a lemon tree – although I have never seen a lemon tree so perhaps it wasn’t – holding an open book. Nothing legible was written there.

I can’t remember the kind of day I’d had, but I know that church well enough to know that I don’t go there when I’m in a good place. I go there to wrap the silence around me, to breathe in the dusty skin of all the compassionate stones who remember some of the worst days of my life. They swallow my footsteps the same way the gentle earth outside has swallowed the footsteps of almost everyone in this parish and washed them down with more stone.

‘Grief is a glass jar in your head, full of a terrible rotting black liquid, and the aim of the game in our society is to walk around without spilling any because if you do, it will seep down through your brain and onto your tongue and everything you think and say after that will be stained with it.’

The woman was silent, just shifted on the pew as the thick muffled thump of the clock hands boomed above us.

‘Your breath becomes foul with it, and once it’s on your skin it never washes off. Everyone you used to know avoids you in the end. What happened to processing this stuff? What happened to wearing black for a year and eating bread and salt and wearing a necklace out of their hair?’

The quiet stretched out ahead of us both like a road. Then the woman reached over a took my hand. Hers was wrinkled and spotted brown like a hen’s egg and her hair was a brittle cloud tinged with the blue-violet of an oncoming storm. Her son’s name was in the book of rememberance on the far wall and she had been eating bread and salt for years, and she knew the weight of the glass jar and the taste of that rotting fluid very well. We said we’d get a coffee sometime, but addiction ate me the same year and I never did.

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Years later I’m sitting in a semi-circle of addicts in DBT, the faux leather chairs are wipe-down for those moments when someone’s detox overtakes them and they vomit up the jacket potatoes that are part of the wallpaper of days in the clinic. The booklet held in front of me says that immersing your face in cold water can be a calming physical coping strategy for dealing with ordinary pain.

I spent the rest of the day wondering about those words. I guess ordinary pain is not getting the job, or realising your ex has moved on, or breaking up on your birthday, or realising you shelved your dreams to have the children you weren’t sure you wanted but felt you should have, or watching an old friendship become distant and awkward, or falling in love with someone you can’t have, or your house burning down.

When I got out of treatment I sat in a meeting where a man’s mother had died only a few hours before. He said he could have been in the pub but he preferred to be with us. He could have talked all night and that circle of people would still have been there, like the petrified, ritualistic mummies sometimes found in ancient caves. A circle of frozen addicts, in awe of the sacred.

His face had the same stain as the woman who’d lost her son, as so many faces I’ve seen across the years. Etched like battery acid by that foul corpse fluid of grief, embalming us while still alive, draining us into premature age with the effort it takes a heart to pump stagnant water. I thought about that booklet then, watching him collapse. In my mind’s eye I saw him putting his face into a sink of icy water. I thought of all the counsellors who would tell him there was no out-of-order death, we expect our parents to go before us, so what he was experiencing was just ordinary pain.

I’m sure that booklet has many valuable things to say, I’m sure it can help many people reconcile conflicting thought patterns and find better coping mechanisms for their individual problems.

I tore it up when I got home.

Letters to Christ I ~ All Things Bright & Beautiful

Dear Lord,

These letters have been many years in the writing, pieced together from old journals and half-hearted scribbles on the backs of till receipts and napkins; the last 16 years have been one long trial by fire; white-hot iron placed in the hands. Or a witch’s dunking, sink or swim, guilty either way.

I was going to become a priest, once. I wonder if that makes you laugh, the thought of me in the pulpit, wielding broken bottles in a spiritual war zone. Given the Revs and Fathers I grew up watching it’s clear near-terminal alcoholism isn’t actually an impediment to serving you in this way, but perhaps it’s just as well I passed on the opportunity. We still talk, you and I, and I still try to place my light in a candlestick so that it may shine rather than smother it under a bushel, but it’s not as your devoted cleric in a robe of crow-black lifting chalices to Heaven, it’s as a girl, just a girl, just a girl…

Back then, I was a willowy wraith haunting an empty chapel, I would spend hours sitting on the hard, polished pews talking to you, reading the lives of the saints, the poetry of the great mystics, listening with my headphones jammed over my ears to Hildegard Von Bingen’s Canticles of Ecstasy. Perfectly still and content like a slice of eccentric ivory in that cool, dusty vault. I spent so many hours in there, listening to the blackbirds warbling through stained glass, that I got to know all the ancient dead under their marble slabs by name. Sometimes I still dream of that church.

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Perhaps I’ve been scared to write these letters because the things I see don’t slip neatly into a collection box. They are profoundly shocking even to me sometimes, I am overwhelmed with a Love that is like an ocean with no floor; I could not use you as an excuse to judge or hate anybody, how can anyone? Whatever the supposed fulfillment of the laws of Moses, you taught nothing but Love; Love unbound from the mooring of our egos; Love unfettered by society’s judgement: who is worthy, who is better, which sinner deserves redemption, who is and is not allowed to sit at life’s long table. The Old Book is blood and vengeance and fire, but where you walk the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and white lilies like the Magdalene’s hands spring up from your footprints in the dust.

How ludicrous it is that two thousand years after your death loving your neighbour as you love yourself is still so radical, so subversive, so likely to bring down the wrath of today’s Pharisees. But then, how painfully ironic that condemnation and cries of heresy so often follow acts and teachings of pure, transcendent Love. Do you recall the Amalricians? Burned as heretics in the 13th century for preaching that ‘all things are One, because whatever is, is God’? When does a critic separate the artist’s work from the artist themselves? When blood and sweat and insomniac hours and that fierce, burning need to birth some new creation, focused and loosed like an arrow, have directed every brush stroke? Perhaps I too am just another pantheistic heretic, seeing God in all things bright and beautiful.

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But since those days breaking like troubled storm clouds over my younger self, I’ve not lost faith in you, even when I have abandoned myself; when I have been gutter-drunk or full of futile rage or twisted, weeping, in the bedsheets like someone hanging in chains. When I am crushed up like slaughterhouse bonemeal at 4 am after 4 am after 4 am and wondering why me. There has always been that still pool in the eye of those storms, where we talk. Where the words of another great mystic of another desert faith come back to me:

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Until next time, I suppose. For all that I have and all that I am, as always, grazie mille Lord, a thousand thank yous.

~ Amice