Angels Welcome at our Table

I was savoring salmon and salad at the table, looking over a wind-ruffled lake. The light was hinting at bronze and the air had the scent of fall on its tail. It was good to spend time with four family members. My oldest sister had just had a pacemaker successfully implanted and was smiling again. My brother-in-law had recovered from a debilitating illness he contracted when travelling in southwest Asia.  My other sister  and Marc, my spouse, and I had come to the Seattle area to visit for the week-end.

It had been a satisfying day spent at a botanical garden and the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit. Winding down, we talked about a little of everything with a comforting rapport, despite our varying views. It struck me that I had had a lifetime or a few decades hanging out with my family, yet they are still enigmatic. We each carry our particular experience in complex ways that no one can entirely comprehend or embrace. Spoken or written language carries us closer to understanding and touch speaks intensely. But there are frequent occasions of partial understanding with fewer moments of thorough comprehension of who we truly are and what we mean to offer.

Brother-in-law, R., laughed easily as he joked, then was silent a few moments as he dug into his seafood dish. Shortly, he sat back and said, “If there is one thing I do know, it’s that there are angels. You know I was a pilot in the Navy, landing fighter  planes on decks that are not nearly as big as you might think, not when you’re flying. Everything has to be precise. I was so exhausted a couple of times, I knew I was going to miss. Twice I would have died, it was a sure thing,” he jabbed the table hard with a forefinger, “but twice I was saved. I can’t tell you exactly what happened but I landed when I knew I could not. That plane landed safely each time and it was not my skill, anymore. I am certain angels were watching over me. I was being kept from death, allowed to live.”

R.’s voice was resonant with the vivid recollection, and his blue eyes sparked with the wonder of it. He leaned forward, elbows on the table. I studied him. R. is a strong-minded, debate-driven, somewhat crusty sort of guy. Having commanded small and large planes most of his life, he is not an emotion-based person, but he cares deeply. In his seventies now, he is fascinated by life as well as intrigued by what others have to say. So now he waited for us to respond.

We chimed in with appreciation that this had occurred. One story led to another, each of us telling a tale or two. Marc, for example,  spoke of diving off a fifteen foot cliff as a kid and somehow landing safely in the water below with no injuries. Afterward, it frightened him to think he had been so foolish. He felt he was protected by angels. I was impressed; I had never heard of it.

This is not such an unusual topic in my family. We chat as easily about religion, the physics of mysticism and God’s work in our lives as music, books, and choice facts or fiction about our family tree.

Finally it was my turn. My husband glanced at me. He knew what was coming. He thinks I walk a bit on the wild side of the spirititual life, and he just accepts it.

But my sisters know a great deal more about me. They were around much of the time I grew up, after all, although my oldest sister is thirteen years ahead of me and our middle sister is five years older than I.  We visit on the phone. We have been there for each other. We have yearly sister week-ends when we take off for somewhere fun, and at end of each day can talk into the wee hours. There was one year when we swapped stories of having seen or spoken with our mother after she’d passed on, and the motel room had fairly vibrated with our love and her essence. That was a powerful night.

But some things I have not easily shared in a more public, casual manner, and not for the reasons one might think. I find it difficult to locate precise enough language to share what I have experienced not once or twice, but countless times in my life regarding angelic beings/celestial energy or simply God’s presence. For one thing, they may sound like rather dramatic events. (They seem familiar, natural to me.) For another, they often reflect times in my life that have been taxing. (I have fewer of those but they are often accompanied by extra-ordinary experiences.) And how does one explain what occurs largely beyond the confines of human language? How do I say: “These things–this and this and that–just do happen” and not have someone discount them or look away in embarrassment? Or ask a lot of questions I can’t answer? So I generally keep things to myself. It is enough for me that I get to live this life. It is what it is.

But this was my family. It was a pretty day, an afternoon of good food and lazy talk. So, I shared what I thought everyone knew by now, anyway.

“Well, I was lying in the back yard when I was a kid, maybe seven or eight, and looked up at the summer sky and there they were. I guess you would call them angels. I knew they were like my friends, but with brilliant clothing on, blinding, really, all sorts of colors, yet it seemed more like light than fabric. They were very large,  blotted out the sky. Sort of hard to see their features–they were just too bright, but they seemed like human beings, too. They stayed above me, up in the air. I could hear something like music but not anything we have likely heard here. It was like a chorus of millions singing, spine-tingling music. And they said, ‘Do not worry, you are not ever alone. We will be with you all your life.’ I didn’t hear them out loud. I just knew their words. Like a message. I felt so peaceful. It was a great comfort. I had been having very bad times then, so it was good to have them visit. I wanted them to stay but as quickly as they had come, they rose up and were gone. It was just a summer sky again. I lay in the grass awhile, then went inside. I told mom. She acted like it was not surprising but, then, you know mom was close to the thin places, to God.” I paused. “I have always known I was not truly alone, good times or bad. I have never forgotten they are with me.”

There were murmurs of assent. I felt the old emotions coming up, a mixture of joy and sadness; this often accompanies the telling.

I shifted in my seat, took a drink of water, then turned to my husband. “Another time you might recall was when I had that second stent implant in my artery. I was apparently asleep but not doing so well. I was drifting somewhere outside my body and looked down at a mighty, rushing river. Everything was sepia-toned, from where I was, but the other side was brilliantly-hued. I was excited; I could see crowds on the other side and they were waving to me. I was filled with relief when I saw mom and dad smiling at me, waving. Then, all of a sudden, mom said, ‘Why are you here now? Go back!” and then they disappeared and I came back to my body. I didn’t want to open my eyes yet. I wanted to go back to that river. I was irritated; Marc was shaking me. I awakened and he said, ‘You were so still, like you weren’t breathing! Are you okay? Stay awake now!’ But all I could think about was that river and everyone welcoming me. Once more, as I had often been over sixty years, I was terribly homesick for that other place.

I offered two more events that anyone sitting nearby might have thought were scenes from a fantasy or sci fi story. I looked down, felt this was enough telling. Everyone was quiet.

“There are a lot more than this, but…I don’t like to talk about it that much. Not everyone understands or cares to hear. It gets to sounding foolish to others, I suspect. So I keep it  close.” I looked into the distance at the tidy white-sailed boats. I thought, I have said too much.

But R. was leaning across the table and said, “You have to write about all this. You could help someone, your experiences could make a difference to others, inspire them, comfort them. You have to write it down and share it.”

I  smiled at him. “Well, really, I don’t think so. I mean, lots of people write about things like this, anymore. Times have sure changed…and I don’t know quite what I would say. This is only a very small part of what I have experienced. I have had a strange life. Hard at times. A few detours, as you know.”

“You’ve done some dumb things. But look what you have gotten to experience, anyway!”

“Yes. There has always been this constant, powerful awareness that God is with us every step, that we are here for so short a time. That heaven is close, so close. ”

R.’s eyes glimmered with tears. “But you need to share this with people. You need to write about it. It could make such a difference in people’s lives.”

His face shone with the intensity of his certainty, his feelings. He started to turn away a little, not accustomed to letting his tears fall before others. And in that moment I was allowed to see him, the man he is, his soul filled with compassion and courage, the complicated beauty of his life. The sacrifices he has made. The burdens carried and released. His devotion to his many friends and his family. His unerring and inordinate love of life.

“Thank you for saying that,” I said softly. “I’ll think about it.”

So here I am writing about things I have never planned on sharing with people other than my family. I may not ever do so again. I would have to tell the whole messy story, the most painful bits, in order to get to the miracles  known and witnessed, the treasures excavated. More likely I will continue to fictionalize some of it, slip in another God story here and there so you barely see it coming.

But the very best experience that autumn afternoon spent with my family was this: everything fell away from R., his heart was bared and his soul, oh, it shone–how, truly,  each and every one of them shone.

(The crew gathered during my oldest sister’s 75th birthday March 2012)

Everything in This Life Can Be Lost, Broken and Freed

I took a sip of water after brushing my teeth and was surprised when my lip was grazed by a rough spot. I held the ceramic glass close and examined it. There was a minute crack less than a quarter-inch long; it lay along the edge, marring the smooth, shiny glaze. Now it threatened to crumble under the force of my gaze. As I examined the lush blues and greens that graced the form and vibrant golden circles that marked one side, disappointment rose up. My fingers touched the crack where the loosened chip was and it fell to the floor. Thoughts of repairing it were silenced by thoughts ranging from: “I can find another pretty one at the ceramics art fair this spring” to “It’s just a ceramic glass, not an heirloom–it isn’t that important” to “Why does everything I love break?”

This has become a common refrain. It seems as though many possessions have met fates I had not foreseen.

Less than a month before another handmade glass had cracked. It was a pale water-green—celadon– porcelain beauty that I had found at another art fair. It had been one of a matched set; my husband was given the other one and still sat upon the bathroom vanity, unscathed and appreciated. I wondered about the longevity of the latest ceramic vessel that was on my bedside table. Imprinted on the white and blue side is one word in pale red: cup. I treasure it; my artist daughter gave it to me.

I could list a couple dozen other items that have cracked, ripped, crumbled and unraveled. There have been several earrings that have disassembled when I wasn’t looking and just disappeared. A prized blue topaz ring I enjoyed for years was only a band with an empty mount when I got out of my car one day. It had been intact when I got in, or so I believed; the stone was never recovered. A crystal bell once belonging to my mother smashed after falling for no discernible reason. And a favorite hand-blown glass candle holder snapped in half when grandchildren strayed too close in their exuberant play. There was my cello, which was crushed almost beyond recognition when a moving company failed to secure it well. Then there were the dozen paintings. The canvasses had been removed from their stretchers and rolled up for safe keeping, then stored in the lower level of a carriage house in which I lived. A massive thunderstorm swept in during the night, the room flooded and the paintings were ruined. They were my paintings; each one was a kind of awakening and no longer preserved.

The earliest objects lost or broken always brought me to tears. They were lean years when, as a young mother of five, the few beautiful objects I had were either gifts or treasures passed on by family, like gold filigree earrings (one lost) from Spain that my parents gave me after their trip. Each loss felt like a small blow as I surveyed the humble life I lived; I felt a little shame as I longed for mere things. I had not been raised to lust after material things. My own parents’ home was modest but held lovely things imbued with memories. I understood even as a child that the most important things are those that were rich with meaning. Most often those were books, music, something handmade or unique, things that felt like blessings.

When the last ceramic glass broke and I groaned, “Why does everything I love get broken?”, my husband asked, “What do you think this is really about?” I didn’t like his response but I thought about it.

The first fact I considered is that much of what I like is breakable. I am drawn to pottery, objects made of glass, carefully crafted jewelry, fabrics that may be likely to fray, pull or stain easily when water dashes it. Hanging in the window is a delicate crystal bird. There are photos and lively cards from children that festoon the frame of a large mirror in one room; sometimes they fall out, get ripped or marred. But visual intrigue, that is a variety of color, texture and design, attracts me. And the few things I own, I have come to value. Either I should better protect them or accept they are perishable. Or purchase items that are guaranteed to not break, corrode, tear, shrink, or otherwise malfunction. Which is not my preference.

The second thought is simply that although I have gathered some possessions, the simple odds are that many of them will simply not make it until I am old enough to while away the days in an easy chair. Even when the lifespan of an object is long, it can have a proclivity for vanishing when you least expect it. But there aren’t many that are crucial to my happiness. In fact, although some might determine I have few possession of worth, I often feel there is a surfeit of things that clutter my life. Most of what I can see in my home can be done away with, and I have spells when I go on a rampage and clear out the clothes closets for donation, remove miscellaneous things from high shelves and trash them, load up bags of well-used or unsatisfactory books for resale. A surprising peace settles in the cleaner, emptier spaces. I feel light again. As things leave my home one way or another, I am ultimately not very distressed.

So I consider what I always have left. Books royally command this home and CDs and the stereo enjoy up a prominent space. And many areas are devoted to photographs of up to five generations of our families. Which reminds me, my camera is one of my prized possessions. I keep it close at hand and take care with it. My cello, with me since age twelve, sleeps in its hard black case in a corner. It was rescued by my father’s gifted hands after the devastation. The turquoise afghan my mother made long ago graces a chair. My husband’s resonant guitars await his touch. Pictures my grandchildren have made are kept a long while. There are the recordings of one daughter singing and works of art my son and another daughter have made. Cards from all five kids over the years are secreted away in the middle drawer of my ponderous desk. And my own writing is organized in files and boxes; current works are in haphazard stacks near the desk. I would rather not see any of these disposed of any time soon. Yet if all was swept away, I think I would be alright with it in the end. Having had little many years and then finally a bit more, it is evident to me that things don’t have a high place on my list of priorities. I can let those go, have even left them behind as I have moved place to place over the years. Needs would get met again.

It occurs to me that it’s my life I don’t want lost or broken anymore, yet as soon as the words land on this page I know the frail hope of such a desire. I know what has come before this day; the future will bring challenges again. For I have experienced cracks and chips and brokeness in every way over the years. I have endured health problems that have brought me to a grinding halt. I have experienced near death more than once and lived to tell the tales. There have been marriages and friendships that have failed due to faulty expectations, mistaken identities, poor timing, excess baggage, waning interest. Failure of faith has visited me more than I imagined, although since childhood I have lived and breathed a core-deep belief in God. Fear has nevertheless rendered me helpless to my profound consternation. Despair has at times whittled away self-worth, and in its place came the long, lonely descent into the bitter heart of self-abnegation. The price for staying alive has seemed very high at times when I had not yet learned how to hold on to what matters most and let go of what matters least. Before I learned to live free of whatever was keeping me from peace.

If I know what damage is, I know also the power of reprieve and renewal. It can happen when least expected, a phone call from a dear friend, the sight of a trillium blooming in the muck, a sweet song from years ago coming forward and escaping from my lips. Freedom for me is discovering that loss is temporary despite tenacious pain, woundedness can fully heal, and familiar people will leave while new people with their stories will arrive. What is resisted is often the lesson most needed. It is about forgiveness. It is about joy despite the grief we hate to feel but which can become holy. I have many times lost my liberty to people, to circumstance, to forgetfulness of Spirit. But the way back has been lit with beacons held out by many hands, some unseen or unknown at the time.

The truth is, whatever I can hold close, whatever I care about may become broken. It can be lost. But it may also lead to freedom and discovery despite mad random events or my expectations. Even love of surprising incarnations.

All this gratitude came from a broken cup. Do you see what I mean?

The Heart Chronicles #7: Walking the Line

{Warning: you are about to travel through a twilight place I have been. If a believer in only the five senses or simply a born scoffer, turn back before it is too late!}

I am the sort of person who wants to know what is around the next corner, even if it is poorly illuminated and leads to destinations unknown. Curiosity has driven me forward all my life, come what may. So when heart disease encroached on my journey,  I was willing to have a lesson clarified once more: we walk a thin line between living and not living in this world.

Most of the time we aren’t so certain of that. Sometimes we even believe we are so firmly ensconced in this life that nothing could cause a serious or even fatal detour. There have been a few peculiar side trips for me so the life and death issue was not a new one. But it has been both troublesome and surprising. 

This is where I freely admit I have believed in God/Divine Love all my life, and have felt that this vehicle of flesh and bones is carrying us around for a purpose, at times unclear. I have thought often since my youth that we are eventually going back from whence we came and that, in the meantime, we are charged with living with mercy and fortitude, passion and hope– lofty stuff. But cultivating good humor greatly helps, as well as taking myself far less seriously as the years pass.  These are guiding forces in my life, and make travelling through this world go much better. 

So back to that cantankerous nuisance, heart disease. I went in for the second stent implant eighteen months after the first one due to a sudden return of symptoms. All went well in the OR as far as I knew–I was under anesthesia’s effects. Besides, I was busy with other experiences while others were engaged in theirs.

I recall I watched from the far side of a deep and rolling river. The opposite banks were packed with throngs of people who were waving, their mouths moving, faces bright enough to blind. They all spoke or sang–I couldn’t quite tell which it was from the distance–but I knew they  were tryng to communicate something to me, so I moved closer to the edge of voluminous water.  Although the river was mighty, it was the current seemed gentle, and I had the feeling that I could lean forward enough to just fall in and thus be carried over somehow.  No boats, no rafts awaited me so I stood an observed. The air was opalescent, but it felt like something more, an energized swath of translucence between myself and the others. I raised my hand in response at last. I knew where I was. It felt like home.

I now saw my parents step forward. Both of them were joyous–until my mother’s eyes caught mine across the distance. Her face came into clearer focus and I was filled with happiness.

A frown creased her smooth, radiant skin as she spoke clearly. “What are you doing here now?”

I took a small step, then paused. It wasn’t what I thought she would say. The river, the people, the silvery light faded.

“Cynthia! Don’t slip away! Sit up now!”

I struggled a second, then opened my eyes. My husband was jiggling me and I pulled away, closing my eyes again, seeking the faces of my parents and so many others who seemed familiar.  But it was too late.  I looked around the white and grey hospital room.

“I thought I was losing you there,” Marc said.

I pulled away and opened my eyes, irritated, wishing to see again who was on that riverbank.

“I’m okay. I was just watching…I was going to go…but mom didn’t think it was time.”

Marc took my hand firmly,  as though by holding it he could keep me in the room, in that body, in this most human life. And maybe he did, despite my deep longing to cross the border into that other place. I kept my eyes open to this world and sat up straight and got ready to heal again. Visons intermeshed with the drive of practicality had been the norm for my life.

But I know, you might be thinking: the river, the masses singing/speaking, her parents welcoming her? It must seem a bit much to some or sound too Sunday-school-lesson. But there it was. And for me, it was one more experience given for remembrance of the endless breadth of Spirit, and how we exist far beyond our great, heroically beating hearts, mended and or not.

There are small moments that remind me of the thin line. It might be the way the light flushes the sky with a tender beauty; the dense thundering of my heartbeat when I hear perfect music;  chance eye contact with a woman on the street who is weeping or a child who reaches with a smile in passing. It may be a sudden intuition, or the certainty of love in the midst of the often careless and mad century we live in. But I am taken out of myself. I forget my whims and desires. And then I think: I might have just stopped breathing in the snap of two fingers and not have had any more of this. 

 As I see it, I was given a bridge that day and I step upon it carefully, never forgetting. It is a thin line between this world and the next but for now, I have this life and it has me. There will be a time for more later.