Some people have wine journals. Liz James told me about beer journals. Mine will double as a travel journal. When I travel, I drink beer. Not haute beer. Not craft beer. Not hip beer. Everyman beer. Beer I can order in any restaurant, or snatch at a corner store after a long day of activity. And these stories are not about the most amazing places I’ve seen. They are about times I had a beer, and the people who shared them.
This is Nile Special. It’s Ugandan.
The first time I had a Nile was at a restaurant called Ethiopian Village in the Kabalagala neighborhood of Kampala. It was 2006. I was with my dear friend Mauryne, and we were just hanging out, letting the evening hang out with us. I had spent the last two weeks in a frenzy learning about development, microinvestment, public health, environmental efforts. We had seen the sights: the B’hai Temple, the markets, the lake. We rafted the Nile (the actual river…not an idiom for drinking too much).
But this was the best part, just hanging out with Mauryne in the neighborhood. That’s when I felt most keen on Uganda. We repeated the experience in 2007, when I came to do research for my Master’s thesis. I find beer when I’m looking to get out of my head. Even if I only have one, it’s the act of “having a beer” that does it. That says “just be here.”
In 2008, I brought another important friend to drink Nile beer with me at Ethiopian Village, Liz Ward. Here we are having yet another Nile at the Ndere Center, a cultural show where we made Mauryne be a tourist with us:
On our list of adventures to have with our buddy Colin, perhaps one of the geekier ones involved a visit to the Gault Site, one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. That’s right…the world. I’m not just spouting superlatives. Apparently people come from around the world to study and work on this failed farm outside of Florence, Texas that contained a treasure trove of early human debris.
Our adventure began at 6:50 am, when our 9-person caravan set out for Florence, a two-hour journey. Ironically, Colin could not make it (he was having a totally different adventure that he will write about himself), but his sporting girlfriend, Jenna, rustled up a replacement.
The tour through the Gault Site, an unassuming ranch gate nestled between quarries on the scrubby Edward’s escarpment, starts slowly. We saw a railroad boxcar which told the history of Florence in it’s ramshackle remains. A cotton boom-town, destroyed by synthetics and boll weevles.
We watched an atlatl demonstration and discussed the importance of maclura pomifera (Bodark trees) before heading into the creek bed where the Gault riches have been found.
Gault has yielded, according to our knowledgeable and entertaining guide, three huge surprises.
1) A Columbian Mammoth jawbone with tools nearby. Indicating that the megafauna was hunted and butchered on the site.
2) 2.4 million artifacts (a motherlode by any standard, considering that a successful dig rarely delivers more than 20,000 points, tools, and other artifacts).
3) The footprint of the oldest known house in North America.
What’s more, while it is the largest Clovis (13,000-9,000 years ago) site on record, perhaps a more significant contribution is evidence of human life before Clovis. It flies in the face of the theory that human being arrived in the Americas by way of an ice bridge connecting Russia and Alaska. It implies coastal arrival, which would require far more sophistication than the walking theory.
The grand finale of the tour was the tent. Archaeologists are excavating down to the bedrock, where springs flow like exposed veins. The meticulous nature of science is on full display as volunteers scrape away each centimeter-deep layer with a bamboo scrapper and a plastic trowel the size of a toothbrush. Since 2007 they have been scraping away at the earth, cataloging every single artifact and separating rocks and clay out into extensively labeled buckets.
It’s always been tempting for me to scoff a little when researchers get going on the habits of prehistorical man and beast. I mean…when I consider how easy it is for me to wrongly interpret evidence of what my own two dogs have been up to…dogs I interact with every day…evidence that is abundant and fresh…and still they mystify me.
But after watching the scientific process, hearing the explanations, the forensic technology, and the sheer volume of the data, I was ready to believe them when they told me that these people lived in tiny bands of 10-12, did not inbreed, and hunted alone or in pairs. That the identical looking chert tools were in fact used for entirely different things, one a hide scraper and the other a steak knife.
What intrigued me most was our guides assertion that people are people, and have been since pre-history. They take the easy way out, they leave messes, they seek shelter, they innovate. Thinking of our ancient ancestors (well, these were not my ancestors, mine were doing who-knows-what and trying not to freeze up in the tundra) as people with similar instincts and motivations was profound. We haven’t changed that much, and one day, that fact might save our lives.
I continued to think about Liz’s wedding, making plans for bridals showers, bachelorette events…and started feeling a little nostalgia for the beginning of things. A longing for something new.
It’s ironic because Liz and Jason have been together for almost twice as long as Lewis and I have, so I really can’t look at her relationship and think, “Ah…I remember being where they are…”
It’s more ironic, because I’m actually not a fan of beginnings. I’m a fan of grooving middles and bittersweet endings. So the nostalgia surprised me. The little itch in my heart for something gone by. Something I saw in movies. Or in a friend’s smile when she changed her Facebook profile picture to include her new boyfriend. Finally I figured it out, what was giving me the itchy heart.
I’ll never fall in love again.
Sure, sure, I fall in love with Lewis every day all over again. That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m going to be really frank here, because I think it’s important. Because for a lot of people, that nostalgia for falling in love sneaks up and steals a lot of joy.
Falling in love is that nauseating, unsure, tears of excitement/relief/fear soup of suspended reality. The kind that would wreck your health if you experienced it too often. That’s what I can’t get from Lewis anymore. I also can’t get herpes, which is nice.
I dated a guy once who was fond of saying, “I’ve always wanted to do that…” after he made some sort of romantic gesture. It was sweet and lots of fun. Very rom-com. When I was later single again, I would look back on his gestures cynically and think, “That had nothing to do with me. He was just fulfilling his own dreams. I could have been anyone.”
But now…I’m so thankful for his moments of cinematic grandeur. And the other fellas who wrote notes, or showed up in the rain, or sang to me in the supermarket. It didn’t need to be about me. It was about a time in life.
[Side note: There are also some destructive, unhappy dating moments that I never want to revisit. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those giddy moments of “He likes me!” that only happen once per relationship. And they are going to happen whether you are dating, courting, hanging out, or whatever. People connect, however you define it.]
In my opinion, once married, it’s okay to look back on “He/She likes me!” fondly, even if the “he/she” involved wasn’t your spouse. Because it was a happy time. There’s a pressure to look back on all of it with disdain, but I don’t think that’s honest. Getting married doesn’t dissolve every human connection and every happy memory.
On the other end, I think it would be misplaced to go trying to constantly recreate “falling in love” in marriage. Rather than looking back and saying, “Awww…” a lot of people seem to take the melancholy itch as a sign that something is missing in their marriage…when it’s not at all. You can only fall in love with someone you’re not already in love with. So if I want to fall in love with Lewis again, I’d have to fall out of love with him first. And I don’t want to.
It’s also unfortunate when people try to speak that feeling back into existence, as though it is the incantation that will protect their marriage from harm. When people say that their spouse is “new to them everyday” or something like that, it terrifies me. We’ve got way to much invested in this thing to wake up and say, “Who are you?”
Falling in love is a fun and finite thing. Loving, sharing life, is only as good as it’s staying power. Falling in love is about potential. Marriage is about actual. And we should all know that something can be potentially wonderful, and actually horrible. And vice versa. Like movies adapted from young adult fiction.
The fact that you didn’t marry some of the people you fell in love with is still a very happy ending! I’ll take roses from any old clown, but my gosh I dodged some bullets on getting married (and I was also the bullet myself sometimes). Yes there were tears…the way there were tears when my mom wouldn’t let me drink the whole bottle of Dimatap Cough Syrup.
When I feel nostalgia for butterflies and nausea, I’m not thinking about Lewis. I’m thinking about a feeling I had and liked. It’s a feeling I can’t get from Lewis anymore, because he’s closer than my skin. We’re one. He can be romantic, generous and sweet (which he is, almost always). He just can’t be unfamiliar and new anymore.
But that’s the best part of a sweet, sweet irony…the more I get to know him, the more I like him. I wouldn’t trade him for all the nausea in the world.
Prologue: Right before I got married, a lot of people started telling me about how difficult marriage would be. So many, so frequently, that I had a panic attack on the floor of my fiance’s kitchen, two weeks before our wedding.
Part I: People Say Marriage is Difficult
My friend Liz recently got engaged to her main squeeze of five years, Jason. I am beyond happy for them, and ecstatic to be part of their wedding. I’ve been thinking about how I will toast them.
It got me thinking about marriage, about falling in love, and about that panic attack.
People really like to tell you what marriage is like. Rarely do they realize that they are universalizing the most personal, intimate, unique experience of a person’s life. But we humans love nothing more than to make manuals for doing things right, except maybe selling those manuals.
Don’t buy anyone’s manual for marriage. Unless you are their clone and you are married to their spouse. (If that’s the case, then you need more help than a manual can give).
“Marriage” the institution has some set rules, sanctioned by God, etc. No cheating. Love them. Serve them. You only get one spouse at a time, preferably for life.
“Marriage” the experience…that’s different for all of us. Manual-makers really want to codify it. Marriage is magic, or marriage is mundane. Romance is necessary, so work to maintain it. Romance completely insubstantial, so don’t worry if its lacking. Things will be difficult, but that there’s a universal prescription for making them wonderful. For each and every one of you. You can’t all wear the same size pants…but one size fits all when it comes to the complex intertwining of adult human lives, histories, families, jobs, and dreams.
Contrary to the manuals, best I can tell, every marriage is very different. We make the same commitments. We have the same responsibilities…but that’s about the end of the sameness.
People have great advice. Great insight into situations. Heed wisdom, seek counsel, by all means. Be teachable and curious. But if anyone starts telling you how marriage is going to go, and what to do about it, slam the manual shut. They just don’t know. After 50 golden years of their own marriage, they still don’t know yours.
Your marriage is unique, because your life is unique.
The experience of marriage is all about the two people involved and how they relate to one another. It’s a different kind of wonderful for every happy couple (and a different kind of miserable for others). For me, it’s laughing at puns, and dropping off cookies at Lewis’s office. It’s having someone to cry to who thinks that every injury against me is completely unjust (and then helping me see how maybe I’m making things a bigger deal than they really are…). It’s having someone to go home with on the best nights and the worst nights.
We also have our own peculiar difficulties. For instance, I am intense, and he is sensitive. He is persnickety, and I too am sensitive. Going to IKEA is a guaranteed standoff in the “basic white pendant lamp” department. We are people, sharing a life. And an interior design scheme.
Life-sharing is difficult when life is difficult. I said once, at the outset of a dating relationship, “I know I want to date this guy. But I don’t know who I want to lose a child with. Who to go with me to put my parents in a nursing home. Who to go bankrupt with.”
Life is 100% full of people, who do people-ish things and make human messes. Life has tragedy and stress. But if I summarized my life for you every day by saying, “Life is difficult,” and never spiced it up by saying “Life is rewarding,” what would you call me? A pessimist, you would call me a pessimist.
Life is way to big to be summed up in one word, and so is life-sharing. In an ordinary (the kind you have to stay in; there are other kinds) marriage you will always have ample choice of adjectives. Don’t be afraid to be thankful.
And that’s the closest thing I can think of to a universal antidote for the difficult parts of marriage: be thankful. I would be more doubtful about it, if the Bible hadn’t said it first.
The turning point in most of Lewis’s and my conflict is when we consider the alternative: What if I didn’t have you? While making the decision about whether or not to spend money on upholstery might be simpler without him/me…who would snuggle with him/me on the reupholstered couch?
Marriage, the experience, can be the symphonic masterpiece with big bold moments of trust and honesty. Of vulnerability and devastation. But you have to continually maintain that thankfulness that you are on the stage, in the music. Because if you don’t– if you look at the sheet and freak out because you might mess up, or long for that bubbly Top 40 hit–then, yes, you will probably have the kind of marriage that gave me a panic attack.
Dr. Henri Krabandaum, a wise and radical man, once said to me, “I tell every young person, if you love someone so much that you would marry them, your first impulse should be to tell them never to marry you. Because you know the grief you will cause them.”
At four in the morning I storm out of bed, because I’m sleeplessly worried about a client issue, and I snap at Lewis, “Just go back to sleep!” while I slam drawers and doors looking for my bathrobe. On that morning, Dr. K is talking directly to me. I hear his voice booming in my subconscious.
And then, sometime later when I’m feeling ashamed, Lewis tells me, “Life is better now that I have you.” He says “now that I have you” like we met last month, instead of 3 years ago.
So yeah, marriage is hard. The way sports or music performance is hard. But we’re still the rookies who are just so thankful to be on the stage that we wear every drop of sweat like a diamond. And that is what I want to maintain, the thankfulness.
Our dear friend, Colin, is leaving us in August. He’s going to Boulder, CO (of course).
Lewis is sad to loose a kindred spirit. I am sad to lose one of our only friends who doesn’t think that all of my adventure ideas sound ominously fallible. In fact, Colin trumps me in great ideas that are more…grand… than anticipated.
So, in honor of his departure, we’ve begun to execute what I will here dub the Last-Call Adventures.
May 18 was Canyon Lake Gorge
Walking along the Canyon Lake spillway feels like a trek into a wasteland. Concrete severs the limestone in an attempt to solve a different man made problem (erosion of the man-made dam, which was built to make the lake), this scenario tends to proliferate when left unattended. Canyon Lake itself was born for flood and drought control, because German settlers insisted on inhabiting an area that is more flood-prone than anywhere else in the country. Barry Commoner might have had some thoughts on what we were setting ourselves up for here.
Case in point: A massive flood event in 2002 that crashed over the Canyon Lake spillway flooded homes, washed out roads, and moved enough earth to cover a football field under 30 stories of rock, soil, and flora. The flood carried such force ( 7 feet deep over the spillway at 67,000 cubic feet per second) that it ripped a giant gash in the land, exposing millenia’s worth of fossils, footprints, and geological features.
The laceration is now known as the Canyon Lake Gorge. The only way to gain access is by paying a for a tour from the Gorge Preservation Society (GPS). So that’s what we did.
Our guide was clearly a geology/archaeology enthusiast, and thus we spent the bulk of our time looking at fossils and dinosaur prints. There was also a rather excited 8 year old in our group, so fossils and dinosaurs were winning topics. However, since Colin is an environmental reporter who writes mostly about water and water issues, and Lewis is a spring fanatic, we took issue with our guide’s overall dismissal of the hydrological significance of the area. But we did learn a lot about fault lines and local dinosaurs, so the day was a most definitely a significant net gain, educationally.
The first layer of limestone to tear away under the flood waters revealed several dinosaur tracks. Personally, I buy about 70% of what any given paleontologist says on the matter because in grad school I became sort of a slave to sample sizes. However, these are undeniably footprints in the limestone, put there by the controlled fall of a bipedal creature long before several feet of limestone formed on top of it. Given the rate of limestone production in nature, the size of the print and the length of the stride…I’m convinced, and awed.
From the mega to the mini, our guide called our attention to the crunching beneath our feet and asked us to find fossils. Lo and behold the very tiny things crunching beneath our feet were, in fact, orbitolina texana. Tiny tiny fossilized forminifera (a one-celled creature with a nucleus and hole in its body).
We proceeded deeper through the strata into the gorge. Each limestone shelf gave way to another stunning feature, more forensic evidence for times past and the general behavior of the earth’s crust.
Limestone is porous, and so for the Edwards Aquifer dependents in the group, witnessing both the porosity and the solubility of the stone was a telling look into how we get our own water. The water in the gorge leaks out of the lake, though the porous ground, as well as underground canals carved out by persistent rivulets over time. Lots and lots of time. A similar process created the Edwards Aquifer.
Our guide lost me a little bit when he snubbed the Edwards Aquifer Authority for placing water restrictions on San Antonio to save the fountain darter, tampering with right of captures laws (I think that differentiating between surface and ground water is absurd as well, but while I’d like to see ground water protected like surface water, he’d seemed to be advocating for the reverse). He also assured us that fracking would not hurt our drinking water and that the aquifer was far deeper than we would ever need it to be. Oh the confidence of those who don’t have to drink other people’s “rights.” Except that he did spend a few minutes ranting about an ex-business partner who poured motor oil into a hole in the ground near enough to effect his private well.
We progressed to an examination of the Hidden Valley fault. The dramatic effects on the rocks as they press and jar against each other is magnificent. It looks like wreckage, and yet its presence makes rivers possible, and fills our aquifer. We also learned the term slickenside, referring to the scrape marks caused by the hanging wall (moving plate) moving against the footwall (stationary plate). I think it sounds like something you’d find at Schlitterbahn.
Under the careful explanations and occasional soap-boxing of our guide, our three hour tour matured into 4.5 hours, but even the 8 year old weathered it well. It’s an amazing place, though I am a little leery of industry building around it, even something as noble as the GPS. It just seems like when a human ties their livlihood to the whims of nature, the battlelines are drawn. Already there are power washers involved.
I highly recommend the trip, if you are heat/sun tolerant, and fond of a good hike. Take a note from Gilligan, and don’t build your plans around a three hour tour. We lost Colin to a work commitment about 3.5 hours in. On the way out I heard the 8-year-old say, “I feel so bad for that man. He had to leave right before we got to all the fossils!” Darling, but untrue. We’d seen 3.5 hours worth of fossils. But I admire his enthusiasm for the final sites.
Canyon Lake Gorge, as it is now, is the museum that nature made. Her response to Canyon Lake. Her moment to show off what she’s been up to for so long before we were looking.
After six years, I gave up my booth at Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA). This has got to be a record for shortest tenure, seeing as how the woman from whom I inherited the booth had it for something over 30 years.
And actually, I’d been trying to quit for about three years, but kept getting talked out of it. But this year, as I slid into April with my hair on fire, I knew it was the magic year. The year where I finally learned to say: “No.”
Okay…maybe “learned to say no” is a bit of a stretch. But when I do finally scream “nooooo!!!!” in desperation, or cut someone off in traffic accidentally, or put my foot in my mouth I have learned to say: Eh…they’ll get over it.
So I quit NIOSA, a massive fundraiser for a cause that I affirm, the San Antonio Conservation Society. While I believe in their end goal, the event wasn’t something I could throw my whole self into anymore. For more on that, see my article in the Rivard Report.
I have stared out of that booth for 133 hours. Five and one half days. In all of that time, these were the highlights:
1) In the beginning, I was very…VERY into the whole thing. This photo was taken my first year in the booth, when I was 24 and kept company with primarily college students and single people. Back when stumbling home exhausted and sticky and smelling of beer was super cool. Back when I had a job that started at noon.
2) Nothing delighted me more than the men who would come by the booth in the drunking hour… not to see me. Dress a man up in a frilly blouse and a corona and you’ll have a line out the door.
3) I had many faithful helpers over the years. Becky Meyers, Justin Clement, the Behams, a whole host of Trinity Students who worked a shift every single year they were in school. But by far, the Volunteer of the Years(s) award goes to these two. I inherited them with the booth. They were the only thing that made it possible the last two years (when I had a job that didn’t observe “NIOSA week” as a holiday).
4) I have a whole philosophy on Big Red, thanks to NIOSA’s contract with the RC Company and their refusal to sell Coca Cola or Pepsi Products. Here were some of the greatest quotes to come out of Cold Drinks #2.
THE “You didn’t do so well on multiple choice tests, did you?” CONVERSATION
Customer: You don’t have Coke?
Me: No. We only have RC products.
Me: No. We only have RC Products.
Customer: Dr. Pepper?
Customer: Diet Coke?
Customer: Okay, I’ll take a Big Red.
THE “What the hell is your 7 year old doing here on a school night?” CONVERSATION
Customer at 9:30pm: Do you have anything without caffiene?
Customer’s Kid: I hate 7-UP!
Customer: Okay, he’ll take a Big Red.
THE “This is why America is obese” CONVERSATION
Customer: Do you have water?
Customer: Okay, I’ll take a Big Red.
Me: *blank stare*
I was beginning to believe that people only ordered Big Red as a last resort (which would mean that the four other drinks we served were beyond hope). But then there was this conversation, the year we decided to use the booth as a public health research venue.
Customer: I’ll take a Big Red.
Lewis: Here you go sir. And if you don’t mind my asking, how often would you say you drink Big Red?
Customer: Most of the time.
Lewis: *blank stare*
5) I am pretty sure that NIOSA is the single most significant thing I have ever done (six times) to/for my immune system.
6) Lewis coming along was a major change for my relationship with the booth. It was the beginning of a new time…a time when being irrationally tired had relational consequences.
I think the Conservation Society secretly knew this, and thus employed their prerogative as the arbiters of preservation. My maiden name (and the endless volunteer energy that went with it) is apparently one of the many monuments worth saving. 2013, when this picture was taken, was my 3rd NIOSA with the last name “McNeel.”
7) Whether it was the very earnest cloggers, or the wildly inappropriate “flasher” character that roved the dancefloor, the booth was never lacking in spectacle to observe. Of course, the perennial favorite of drunk festival-goers across the Anglo-German world is the Chicken Dance.
8) The whole event has this sort of mom-n-pop feel to it. No one bothers with new-fangled conveniences like computers or health codes. So you can’t help but wonder how much money it could possibly make.
Millions, or more appropriately, tons. One trip to the ticket weighing station underneath the booth at Sauerkraut Bend, and you see that these moms and pops are nobody’s fools.
9) Odd as it is, perhaps the thing I’ll miss the most is walk out, after it’s all over. There is no moodier light than the fading of a heat lamp. No more melancholy sound than the last of the revelry 100 feet ahead of you. No more atmospheric icon than the trash and debris of the party covered in confetti. It would have been easy for my last walk out of NIOSA to be a nostalgic, bittersweet moment…but then someone spilled beer on my shoe and nearly poked me in the eye with their sausage skewer…
Among the many cool CPS Energy programs, the tree giveaway is my favorite. It’s hard to get super jazzed about Energy Star Appliance rebates, and Enegy Saver Home Management, even though we appreciate them. But free trees? Hoo-RAY!
As the sole utilities provider for San Antonio, it’s good to see them give back. I heard someone make an argument for benevolent dictatorships once, and that sort of how I feel about CPS. In theory, I’m a fan of choice. In reality, I like CPS, and would probably choose them anyway. If being a monopoly allows them to give away trees, I’m not so terribly opposed.
I even found myself standing in Woodlawn Lake Park’s Earth Day celebration handing out free CPS trees to Westside residents. At the beginning of the day they could choose between such drought tolerant and attractive Texas natives as Eve’s Necklace, Mexican Buckeye, Redbuds, Possumhaw Holly, and more. As the day wore on, the choices narrowed considerably, until all that was left were Possumhaws and an entire grove of Montezuma Cypress.
Throughout the morning, two master naturalists carried an ongoing discussion as to whether or not Montezuma Cypress trees, which typically grow along rivers banks, were actually drought tolerant. If indeed they are not, then the middle of the bone-dry Westside in the middle of the 3rd worst drought in the city’s history might not bode well for the survival of the Montezumas.
(According to Wikipedia…they are both drought tolerant and usually found in riparian areas.)
At any rate, their audible debate did not bode well for marketing the Montezumas. So at the end of the day, I eyed the remaining saplings, looking like little Charlie Brown Christmas trees, and thought, “Well, kids, one of you has got to survive.”
I happen to have access to a creek on my husband’s family ranch. Gallagher Ranch is a fine specimen of the Edwards recharge zone, and this has just the sort of springs and soils in which cypress trees thrive. Whether or not Montezumas can actually flourish in any Westside back yard may be up for debate, but on the banks of San Geronimo Creek they seem to do quite well.
So on a Friday night Lewis and I headed out to the ranch with out friend Liz and her pack of dogs. We walked the creek bed until we found the perfect place.
Lewis dug the hole.
We set the tree in.
I covered his roots. (I’m posing here…this is not the posture of someone actually shoveling.)
Now we will hopefully watch him grow.
If you’ve never planted a tree, I highly recommend it. I could wax on about the poetry of the experience, but I think that would only muck up it’s utility and grace. There are times where the poetry is in the doing, not the reflecting. Planting trees is one of those things.
I will only say this. Trees are so much simpler than people and politics. They take nutrients and they grow. They give back in predictable ways. They do what they do because of what they are, not how they feel or what they think. I know that it’s our magnificent minds and souls that separate us from the rest of the natural world…but trees have got something going for them. They live by the immortal creed: “It’s not how you look when you’re doin’ what you’re doin’. It’s what you’re doin’ when you’re doin’ what you look like you’re doin’.”
It started in London at a St. Paul’s Ash Wednesday Service. There was something sobering and meaningful about feeling the ashes smeared across my forehead. That was actually the first time I paid attention to the tangibles of the faith.
After that I paid more attention to communion as well. The taste of wine and feel of bread. The cold pewter of the common cup against my lower lip. Faith often doesn’t feel real. We need something, even a small and symbolic something, to touch.
Another famous English church experience was responsible for my awakening to a love of liturgical worship. Evensong at Cambridge Cathedral was a profound moment of worship not based on warm feelings or sentimentality. It was my first real experience of a sacred moment that had very little to do with my personal feelings, and much more to do with the sights, sounds, and air in the space.
Lent is when I feel my faith the most. Not “feel” emotionally, but “feel” in the Pat the Bunny sense. With my fingers. Christians aren’t supposed to need that. We’re supposed to be all about the “evidence of things not seen.”
But I need something I can touch. I can touch the earth.
Evolution is the ape in the room when faith and nature meet for lunch. When we force the choice between literal 6-day Creationism and Neo-Darwinian materialism, we must either close our eyes or deny our souls.
So many Christians opt to keep their eyes closed, or to fight data with dogma. We allowed the twentieth century to galvanize our faith into this cumbersome, rigid, behemoth must be authoritative on any matter, or it will shatter into a million pieces. So suddenly the Bible bears the burden of being a science text book.
Or we take the Don Draper (and now Peggy Olson) approach. “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” We can’t make nature jive with the Bible, so we just turn our attention elsewhere. We make the earth a lesser thing.
But I see things. I hear things. I feel things with my nerve endings, not just my emotions. I see things with my eyes, not just my reason. I want a faith that fearlessly affirms discovery and understanding of the things we can touch, as much as the things we cannot.
So it was especially appropriate this year that I ended up in the Galápagos, “evolution’s workshop” for Easter…or Pasqua, as it became.
I had ignored Lent this year, coincidentally. For the first time since my British awakening, I did not give anything up. I did not seek out Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday. My intangible emotions were in full revolt against all things sacred.
Then, in a twist of divine brilliance, work sent me to the Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island for the holiday. My hotel was down the street from the Darwin Research Station. Darwin’s finches shared my Easter lunch.
And I was forced to answer the question: can I simultaneously believe in what is happening here and what happened 2,000 years ago? Here they are observing evolution in the beaks of finches. Can this possibly jive with a risen Jesus and a spiritual world?
Watching the magnificent frigate bird with his red ballon gular sac, and the Galápagos Prickly Pear Cactus Tree with its uncanny structure, I considered the Easter story.Why was it so important that Jesus rose physically? Why not just send the Holy Spirit from the cross and skip straight to Pentacost?
Because our physical selves matter. The physical world where we see flowers, hear birdsongs, and taste ceviche. Someone else understood that too.
“Give me something I can touch.”
Thomas. Had Jesus not been there with physical wounds, Thomas would have been lost. Thomas’s needs are more familiar to me now than ever. In a sense he was saying, “I’m going to need something more than their words. I’m going to need something more real than the physical realities of death. Give me something I can’t deny.”
Jesus has not been as obliging with me as he was with Thomas. Instead he gave me Galápagos Easter. If every time I touch the earth I do not have to go to war in my soul, then I can live without touching Christ’s wounds.
The moment I was set free to the natural world I can’t deny and the faith I cannot bear to lose, it was as though the earth burst forth in song. Sun glinting through the prickly pear tree looked like the Cambridge Cathedral. Leaves and dirt and water felt like the ashes on my forehead.
I, for one, want a faith that goes to the Galápagos without fear of being dismantled. Rather than a porcelain mastodon that must stay safe and polished, I want a dynamic sapling that stretches and grows toward the light as it soaks up nourishment from the earth. I want to celebrate Easter and Earth Day – when we celebrate the things we can touch.
Someone wise recently told me that I was in a time of transition. The end of one calling, a complete reconsideration of my gifts/strengths/interests/opportunities.
Another wise person – to whom I happen to be married – recently told me that I am over-committed. He told me this as I stumbled to bed at midnight, still checking email on my phone. Even though I did roll my eyes and explain that I’ve been that way since he married me– I’ve been that way since high school, in fact– he has a point. I’ve got fingers in a lot of pies, eyes on the horizon, ear to the ground, toes in the water, nose to the grind stone…and still unsure of where me heart is. I see this as a symptom of being in transition.
Do we all imagine that our late 20’s will be the time when our roots are spreading and we’re finally gaining momentum and focus in the dream life we have achieved? Or was that just me?
Late twenties transition is different than that initial real-world jolt. When we were 23 and 24 we were all freaking out together. We were all poor and disillusioned (because it was 2008, so really everyone was poor and disillusioned but the 23-24-year-olds could still pull off the look). No one really had much.
Now we’ve got stuff, to varying degrees. I have friends who are nearing their 5 year anniversaries at the same firm, 7 years of marriage to the same person, and they have kids who are older than my own marriage and job. But then again…I do have a husband and a good job. And a mortgage. So, it’s not really like being 23.
It’s like being 29 and in transition.
In some ways it’s inevitable, because a woman’s late 20’s are prime time for babies, promotions, distance running PRs, and establishing oneself as a political entity. Those all get in the way of each other as is. Add in “re-starting half your life” and, well…yeah.
I’m not naive enough to think I can have it all or do it all. But while the music swells and the temperature rises…I’m not ready to plant my flag on the shore and say, “This is who I am…now…for real this time…never mind last time.”
Whether we call it transition or chronic over-commitment, here’s the lay of the land in this strange new world…
Evidence of Life Transition in One’s Late 20s
(Millennial Generation Edition)
1) Another woman cleans your house…and her car is nicer than yours.
2) Public parks, check-out lines, and bars are places to answer emails. But NOT movie theaters. Some things are still sacred.
3) You have a growing closet of Patagonia clothing because it’s versatile enough to merit the price tag. By versatile I mean that it looks ready-to-go without looking already-been.
4) You have five email addresses and use them all frequently. Sometimes you use the wrong ones, and people begin referring to you by your college nickname in professional settings.
5) Your less attentive family members have no idea what you do for fun vs. what you do for work. You’re like Chandler Bing on Friends, crossed with Sydney Bristow from Alias (and because you are in your late 20’s you get those references).
6) You look at maps and if you can’t bike or walk there, you are very resistant to the idea of going at all. Why? Because it’s probably the only exercise you are going to get…and your car has no air-conditioning, bumper, or driver-side door handle. It looks hip to pull up sweaty on a bike. Not so much when your brakes alert everyone to your arrival.
7) Your phone accompanies you to dinner. But you still hear your mother’s sarcastic chiding, “Wow, you must be important. Expecting a call from the President?”
And you respond…”Actually, Mom-in-my-head, the fact that my phone is at the table tells you precisely how unimportant I am. Important people don’t have to take calls at dinner.”
A friend once made a similar observation about how many keys are on one’s keyring. As you climb the ladder of life you gain keys as you gain access to more and more responsibilities. Then one day, you trade all those in for one master key. And at the top level you simply expect doors to be unlocked in anticipation of your arrival.
8) You have dogs. Plural. And a yard. And if it weren’t for your spouse/partner/roommate they would all be dead. I, for one, currently have four more living things to care for than I ever anticipated. The one that does not whine gets neglected. Sorry, yard.
Also, I said dogs intentionally. Cats do not count. Anyone can care for a cat. College students can care for cats, and they can barely care for themselves. Cats will survive the apocalypse, and they can survive owners under 25.
9) You start spending more money on skin care, which you justify by spending less money on iTunes.
10) Your husband asks, “Do we have anything going this weekend?” And you say “No! It should be totally relaxing.” Then he’s totally baffled when the alarm goes off at 6 am on Saturday, and your parting words are, “I’ll be back in time to change for the symphony. Don’t forget to drop by community garden workday and the dry cleaners.”
In all seriousness, transition is a weird time. The wise man who identified my own transition also gave me the advice that I’m trying really hard to follow: don’t cut it short.
When we were young we frequented the swimming holes of the Edward’s Plateau. Limestone caves were everywhere, and many times the entrances were underwater. You had to hold your breath and swim into the darkness trusting that the person who told you about it was right in that it was only a 15 second swim before you reached an air pocket or cavern on the other side.
Pop up too early and you bashed your head and sucked in water when you gasped. But if you could hold your breath until you sensed that you were through the mouth of the cave, the caverns on the other side were magical.