Wednesday, May 6, 2009

summertime

A sundress, a tank top....throwing sunscreen on my shoulders before I run out the door...that's when I see the scars. The thin raised lines left by a razorblade or exacto knife, they're mostly on my left shoulder. Sometimes, on waking, I mistake one of the lines on my forearm for a crease left by a folded sheet. The sudden shock that it's a permanent mark I've given myself makes my stomach turn, no matter how many times it happens.

Is it possible to explain? The remnants of some of the very worst days are etched on my body. I'm not sure which bit of the latticework belongs to the day S. died...even though I didn't know at the time, it's there, written in my skin.

It's funny. The handful of people who happen onto this bit of knowledge shudder in horror and quote Bible verses. Or shrug, depending on where they've come from. It's an almost commonplace reality for some of of my generation. What drives this? The answers aren't the same for everyone. Perhaps because of a lack of appropriate outlets to express pain...perhaps that physical pain is an endurable transmutation of emotional anguish. A fascination with pain, wounds, broken things...it can be about control, or just numbness and the need for a reminder that there is blood, that one actually is alive,a disconnection between one's self and one's body. On top of whatever else- the sight of blood provides an endorphin rush that reinforces behavior. The reasons for the scars are as diverse as the people who carry them...and the stories and explanations are bumbling and awkward, because if words had been enough, blades wouldn't have been necessary.

In contrast, there are no bounds to the creativity and articulation for cover stories- the attack of the spiral notebook,the boyfriend's cat,an unfortunate incident with car keys, tripping and falling in a gravel driveway. It's somehow strange that we daily live surrounded by so many objects with the potential for ripping through our skin. It's somehow amazing that people only see what they want to see and are capable of understanding...and deliberate self-destruction is not part of the world of the majority.

And yet for this minority...it is a very real part of life. Contrary to popular belief- we're not just angsty teenagers, much as the behavior has been glamorized by the "goth" crowd. It's yet another thing I have in common with an especially dear friend-sister - yes, in addition to being bright,capable, diligent graduate students in education-related fields. For us - and I can only speak for us, because this is so individual- this isn't a "battle" "struggle" or whatever Christianese term you want to throw into the ring. It's a reality, at times frightening, closer than we realize and further away than we fear. It's the more extreme version of a stiff drink (or two or three) when the world is insane.

Our eyes are open to the scars of others, and we know when you've seen our wounds, open or healed, even if you don't notice. We keep them well hidden, most of the time. If you know...well, either we're drilling ourselves on the importance of honesty and openness, or we trust you. And your reaction is important.

There was the time when she was in high school. One of her friends had fallen madly for a young woman who avoided her emotions, taking refuge in humor and achievement. My friend-sister was conversing with him about the situation, and explained "It's like how I deal with my emotions. Only her way is better." He looked at my friend and said "No. Your way [cutting] is better." Within a few hours she was on the phone with me, expressing righteous anger and betrayal.

A few years later....I was running late for a church thing, and threw on a shirt with sleeves slightly shorter than I'd realized. En route a family member asked what happened, and my immediate response was that I had gotten attacked by a twig when mowing the lawn around a tree in the back yard (the tree was of a height that this was feasible, and I am rather clumsy,and quite often attacked by inanimate objects so no further questions were asked). A bit later that night, my then-boyfriend asked about the scratch...then said "oh, yeah, I heard you say what happened, never mind." At the time, I was either considering or planning to marry this guy, so for the sake of transparency, I gave him the true story. Followed by a bumbling expression of regret, to the effect of "I don't get this, and I know it's not the best way to respond and..." Well, the look of shock and disgust on his face wasn't exactly what I'd hoped for. And the "Do you hear me judging you? I'm not saying anything" response was nothing short of moronic.

Is there a point to this post? I'm not sure there is a point, beyond pointing out that self-harm is a real, complex issue, not easily solved or explained. Some things don't go away regardless of how much we want them to. When you notice the fairly fresh patterned etchings on the wrists of your waitress, be kind and tip well. And if you're noticing/wondering about scratches or scars on a friend....she's probably already freaked out over the possibility that you may have seen them and what to tell you-give her an opportunity to not have to lie.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Epiphany

I'm the girl in with dangley earrings and a tattoo in the back pew. The one who looks like a pretty heathen unless you happen look long enough to notice that she knows when to genuflect,she thumbs through the Book of Common Prayer with ease, her favorite hymns are translations of the writings of Thomas Aquinas and she has to restrain herself from running up to the altar at Communion. In many ways,I and those like me are the new face of the Anglican/Roman Catholic/Orthodox triune. Serious, thoughtful,devout....who may not agree with every jot and tittle of church tradition but who love it, who have experienced traditional Protestantism and are painfully aware of its failings. Mother Kirk is accustomed to Cradle Catholics and is uncertain of how to embrace us seeker mystics. This hesitancy and confusion is what currently has me bouncing between two Anglican churches in town with very different strengths and weaknesses.

The church I was at this morning is a lovely Anglo-Catholic "procathedral". The building is stunning, simple with clean lines and a marble altar, reminding me vaguely of St. Thomas's Basilica in Chennai. The rector and his sermons frustrate me to no end. When people ask about this, usually accompanied with "what did he preach on?" I usually have no idea how to answer, and that's much of the frustration.
Today I sat listening attentively, trying to figure it out.

Psalm 113 was the psalm appointed for today, the other readings were from I Samuel 2,(beginning with verse 1), I Peter 2 (beginning with verse 11) and John 16, (beginning with verse 16).

The priest began his sermon with some commentary on the third Sunday after Easter traditionally being "the invention of the Cross", now referred to as "the finding of the Cross." He progressed to a short discussion on the joy of birth, the gift of life,and the evils of abortion, specifically sex-selective abortion. He talked about his recent pilgrimage to Walsingham and the awe of worshiping in a place where people have worshiped for a few hundred years ("as opposed to the twenty or so years we've worshiped here"-I really thought this church was closer to 40 years old, but I'm a random visitor)and the remarkable fact that the pews are "varnished with tears". This progressed to a discussion of the Holy Land in Israel and Satan's special venom against the places Christians have celebrated the mass for 2,000 years. He then rattled off the upcoming feasts of the week- the feast of the birth of St. Monica, the feast of the birth of St. Augustine of Hippo, the feast of the conversion of St.Augustine. He commended the prayers of St. Monica, lamented St. Augustine's involvement in Gnosticism, commented on Gnosticism's continued presence today in the New Age Movement and lamented the attacks St. Augustine and St. Paul made against the church. The rector continued- celebrating the conversions of St. Austine and St. Paul and their later work on behalf of the Church, which more than compensated for their attacks against Her. This led to some self-reflection-he admitted to being the sort of person who believed that if you give people enough books, scripture and reasons to believe they will ultimately convert (apparently other priests have confronted him about this). There was some talk of the reluctant conversion of C.S.Lewis, and then the statement "I think St. Augustine would say we're making this too complicated. The point is that Jesus meets you wherever you are." Somewhere in here he said "It's like reading a book that you've never heard of and loving it and thinking 'why didn't someone tell me about this?' But the truth is, someone mentioned the book,play, musical ten, twenty years ago and that stayed with you even though you didn't realize it, and led you to pick it up and find that this book, play, musical is a little piece of heaven". I'm really not sure what the "It" at the start of the sentence was, I'm sure it's something important. He wrapped up by telling the congregation that if they knew people who were looking for something it was to be found in Mother Church...that, at least in the Catholic churches, there was a banquet waiting, and he didn't understand why people would subsist on stale cornflakes when they had the option of pot roast, filet mignon, cabernet sauvingon and oysters on the half shell."We are Evangelical in the pulpit and Catholic at the altar, and therein is the fullness of the Christian faith. And if we want to continue to worship here for fifty or a hundred years....."

I didn't hear the last few words of the sermon. In that last phrase the priest had given himself away, and I understood the pomp and circumstance, the rants, the meandering sermons for what they were - signs of desperation and despair. Suddenly I saw the congregation through his eyes- a few dozen people scattered about a sanctuary that can seat a hundred and fifty, most of them grey-haired and arthritic. The contributions of one elderly widow sustain the church financially. He's a man of principle- committed to opposing abortion and homosexuality, to Catholic thought and worship, a crusader against immorality, irreverence. Right now, he feels betrayed and abandoned. He approaches the Eucharist as a chore,not with awe and wonder. The congregation has dwindled, drifted away...in his eyes because of their lack of faith and the lure of the world. So he's left trying to rouse a bewildered battered church into a fervor of evangelism. And because of the strength of his convictions, he can't see that perhaps he is sabotaging his own efforts.

Rather than making me want to rip my hair out and beat my head against a wall as most of his sermons do, this one made me want to cry.