An all-night rain on already saturated ground means the earth has drunk its fill and then some. Sometimes the landscape resonates with one’s heart, and on this day I know there is no way out of a Sunday afternoon grief, but there is through, one moment at a time, as mindfully as possible. We tuck pants into boots, pull rain shells over fleece, and walk slowly, holding hands, down into the soggy bottomland through which the creek runs. It is a relief from the thought of the plane ride, just hours away now, to think only of this step, and then the next, into gray and brown curls of leaves and the spongy sludge under the litter.
This, too, is church.
We step off the trail almost immediately, heading for the broken-down fence line we know is ahead. Head-high, pencil-thick trunks surround us; these will completely occlude the view when they leaf out, come spring. But for now we are threading through a Giacometti landscape, each stalk’s winter-withered crown of browned berry husks pecked clean and now dangling a clear pearl of rainwater at eye-level, held a-tremble by surface tension.
The pearls fall into ankle-drowning puddles, each bootfall a soft splish into water, and then a softer squish back out again. I am thinking of Thich Naht Hanh’s walking meditation; it is easy in this wet terrain, where footing calls for mindfulness, and everywhere the eye falls, a detail offers itself to my awareness: the twisting trunk of a tree swirled by the power of a vine; the airy bromeliads like sea creatures sprouting from bare branches; the fungal fans encircling the pointed perfection of a beaver-chewed tree stump.
My heart is wide open, which means I am on the verge of tears and smiles.
I reach out to a tree, fingering the spongy green moss climbing the trunk, letting the rough wetness pull my attention back to this moment, back from the heartbreak in Haiti, back from the dying parent miles away, back from the brink of another parting from my lover.
The creek is in sight; hours of rain have swollen it to the banks, and the mocha brown water swirls and rushes by, carrying tree branches and twigs from this eddy to that. We walk along the creekbank, bared by winter to an accessibility undreamed of in summer. Another beaver-gnawed trunk, this one far larger in diameter, has fallen away from the creek. One wonders how much frustration a beaver can feel. Or if it simply follows an impulse to the next tree. Tooth-wide grooves carve in and around, the shape of a dream that fell into place, though not according to plan.
We walk on toward the bend in the creek. Submerged branches bob up and down, snagged underwater and seemingly reaching for air. At the bend, a fallen tree trunk is floating atop the creek, piling up leaves and scummy foam; this is the same trunk we saw yesterday, sitting athwart the creek, a footbridge from bank to bank. The water must have been even higher overnight to float the log into the widening creek. The near end of the trunk is caught on a small tree jutting up from the water; the far end is embedded in the mud of the bend’s elbowed bank. We muse about the possibility of freeing the log so that it might turn the corner and settle against the creek bank on the other side, maybe even helping to deflect the erosion there at the water’s carving turn.
I find a sturdy branch on the ground, and push the log away from the little tree standing two feet out in the water. The trunk is heavy, waterlogged, but bobs just loose from the little tree. The far end is still stuck in the mud; how stuck I don’t know. We search for bigger branches and throw them into the water for an impromptu pier; I walk out on the water and push the log again. It floats free at the other end, but there is not enough flow in the creek here to move it any further. Having done what we could – or meddled as much as we are willing to – we walk on.
We take slightly different paths around the meander; I look up to see M standing, gazing somewhere over the water. She is never more beautiful than when in her element. I try to just see her, to not feel the frantic urge to make a picture in my mind. Olive green knit cap with earflaps turned up; black fleece unzipped to cool off from our recent adventure, insulated overalls baggy with warmth, rendering her sturdy in her motionless attention. She is scanning, her eyes squinted a bit to focus, her hands hooked in her pockets. A rare stillness. I feel the tug of love, of goodbye, of the now well-worn hope that we will outlive the years of working apart.
Coming around the bend, we reach our log bench, a felled tree propped parallel to the creek, a place to sit and listen, wait and pray. We sit. A raptor cries, and cries again: irritated by a pesky aerial neighbor? thwarted by its prey’s effective dodge? We can’t see well enough to know.
We listen on.
After a few minutes, I tell M the odd thought that came to me by yesterday’s fire. “Maybe we have faith in God until we get faith in ourselves.” I don’t know what the thought means. I might not even agree with it. Still, it came, perhaps for a reason.
The night before I had sat in a room full of people gathered by local dismantling racism organizers, Michelle, Tema and Vivette. We shared a potluck dinner, and stories spun out of the theme of “what I know for sure ….” After finding these DR organizers on the web, I had contacted them and met Michelle, who invited me to speak at this gathering. I wanted to come to the gathering, and I didn’t want to speak, yet. But the topic was about identity and spirituality, and well, yeah, spirit has a little something to do with my identity, and there is also more than a little connection between identity, spirit and dismantling racism … so I said yes.
The stories people told were alive, raw, some with edges torn and some sharply honed. My story felt old in my mouth … although – as always seems to be the case – speaking of things that matter deeply brought a tear-filled lump into my throat.
I spoke of the childhood dislocations – the pastor who told me a good Christian didn’t ask questions like that, the father who told me I couldn’t play with my Mexican neighbors anymore, the brother whose physical and sexual violence nearly ended my childhood. I spoke of the relocations – how I had found churches where asking questions was valid discipleship, where the word anti-racism offered hope and possibility if not restoration and redemption, where acceptance and welcome extended to my newly-realized gay self. I spoke of realizing the connection between my being a child of God, and my being anti-racist, that listening, waiting and trusting were key to both. I spoke of the practices that arose from listening, waiting and trusting – speaking, acting and followership. I spoke of knowing very little for sure, but that I did know I wanted to love the way I have been loved: with a love that does justice.
Others spoke of their understandings of love, and of wholeness. Of the world-expanding nature of being a parent. One young woman spoke of her anger at religion, and of wanting to get past it to something she felt more at peace with. Another spoke of how her life expands and how she feels stronger when she remembers all the grace that surrounds her. One young man said that he knew two things for sure: “I know my mother loves me. And I know I’m going to die.”
In a flash I thought, “I know there have been times my mother loved me. And I know there were times when I was a ball and chain around her leg … placed there by my fearful father, clinging to her through me.” Such pain. There is nowhere for it to go … and so I am the one who must go … through … moment by moment. Remembering the grace that transpired a few years ago, in my coming out, that enabled us to meet briefly in a place of being at peace with one another. That will have to be enough. And it is.
In this room full of people, mostly younger than me, mostly in non-Christian or post-Christian lives, I wonder what to do with the wisdom I have gained. What good it will do. What shape it might take, how it might leave my heart and mouth in order to do someone, somewhere some good. I feel how irrelevant the words of Christianity become, when it is the Love at the heart of it all that has work to do, and needs hands to do it. Maybe this is one of the lessons of the gluten-fog that envelops me at all the wrong times: that I will be made perfect – for the next work – through this weakness.
I wonder some of these things out loud to M; she squeezes my hand tighter. I pray for the strength to let go of her again. We stand, and walk on, slowly.
And then the water sound changes. We hear the heart-filling sound of water falling, ahead. We know this stretch of creek the best, we think. It is the oldest part of our trail. But the night of rain has wreaked a surprise for us; we move through the muddy leaves and small trees to the bank once more, to see a jumble of tree trunks constraining the water to a three or four foot-wide waterfall over a two foot drop; the creek below the waterfall is flowing much more smoothly and swiftly. This near-dam was not here yesterday. We try to imagine how the trunks fell and tangled and filled in so quickly. Water-logged banks letting roots give way? Where did each trunk come from? The only broken stump we see is clear across the creek, where a side rivulet coming from our neighbor’s property is itself swollen to stream status.
The world is a place where destruction and death are part of creation and life, often on a scale we cannot understand or accept. But the world also is a place where we exist in order to love each other through destruction and creation, death and life. When the way turns wild around us, will we reach out a hand in time, and for long enough?
It remains to be seen.
Love takes time to do.