Thursday, September 30, 2004

Under the Starry Night

"The night is beautiful,
so are the faces of my people".
Langston Hughes

Aziza is asleep next to me, and I'm listening to the rhythm of her breath spinning a song as soft and sweet as cotton candy into the night. Sleep well, my little ZZ. May the Lord give you a peaceful night, and a perfect end.

Ken is in the living room. He is talking to himself, and the television is too loud, saying over and over in Jerry Springer's voice, "you *are* the father". He's ignoring it, playing Lumumba's electric guitar, even though he doesn't know how. He uses beats he made on his groove box to accompany him. He wants to be a musician. I am charmed by his diligence and awful playing. Play on, my love, but don't stay up too late. May the Lord give you a peaceful night, and a perfect end.

I can hear the hum of our electric appliances, and I am grateful, especially since the electricity was supposed to be shut off two weeks ago. I don't know how God is doing this for me, but He is. Mercy keeps showing up, confusing reality. Hum on, electric things. May the Lord give you, inanimate though you may be, a peaceful night and a perfect end.

Abeje and Nia Grace, cuddled on their futon. Lumumba and Kamau, wrestling allergies for sleep, offering up their nasally thunder snores to the blackened sky through their open window. May the angels kiss you on your stuffy noses, and the Lord give you a peaceful night, and a perfect end.

The patchwork prayers of true friends cover me like a quilt, and while the full moon flirts on the other side of the roof, I will stretch myself out, and finally sleep in a Van Gogh vision. Under the starry night, the sky lights still awake, blurry in the dark, with swirly, pearly, starry, starbright stars, laughing and winking in my dreams.

A peaceful night. A perfect end.
Amen.


Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Stories Raga Tells

My Sissy (sister)Paula asked me a question tonight:

What is the story of your heart?

And honestly, I couldn't say. I don't think I have one big, yummy story, though that would make life simple. I'd write it, using beautiful penmanship, with one of those markers that smell like grape kool-aid. I'd sign it with a flourish when I get to "the end", only I can't seem to get there at all. Sometimes I wonder if my big story has even began, of if it exists at all.

Certainly I see how my own fascinations show up in my work again, and again. When I write ragamuffin diva, there is often a theme of something being lost, then found. This doesn't surprise me, as that was my first wound. I was a lost soul, separated from God. I have that God-shaped vacuum, like we all do, only mine is one of those heavy duty Oreck vacuums that can pick up a bowling ball. I was also separated from my mother as a baby. I always missed her. I remember the grief weighing on my toddler shoulders, rounding their tiny parameters with a burden no child should have to bear. To this day, I am still hunched, a battle scar that speaks of my longing. I still long for my Mama, even though she is only a phone call away. Maybe I long for what we missed.

Biracial people always appear in my work, no doubt revealing some dichotomy I experience within. I am not biracial, but I my skin is the color of Brach's caramel squares, and I come from an incredibly color struck family. My great grandfather demanded that we not darken his family blood line, which all the women of my family, myself included, promptly ignored, marrying the most luscious cocoa brown colored men we could find, but maybe grandpa's voice whispers his own torment to me, and I keep writing people who are black *and* white, and wondering how much of both and all, we all are.

Even if He is quiet, there is always Jesus, often showing up in an astounding Love. When skies are clear in my soul, I write Him straight, a laughing Savior, a loving Daddy, a Friend that sees--really sees me, or a Friend that rebukes, leaving the hand He spanked, adorned with a tiny gold ring (Proverbs 25:11;12 the Message). Either way, it's good to write God as Friend.

When skies are gray within, Jesus is often in the gentle talk of a lover in my fiction. He leads me to Himself via wild desire, a fire blazing, drawing me to my perfect Other. He is soft brown eyes that consume me. He is the tender touch that *does* honor me, and always, at long last. He is the Hero Beloved, come to rescue me, and to Him, I am altogether lovely. I see this again and again, and I'm tempted to think that here is my story. But it's not that simple.

Eugene Peterson, in Living the Message, says "The gift of words is for communion. We need to learn the nature of communion. This requires the risk of revelation--letting a piece of myself be exposed, this mystery of who I am. If I stand here mute, you have no idea what is going on with me. You can look at me, measure me, weigh me, test me, but until I start to talk you do not know what is going on inside, who I really am. If you listen, and I am telling the truth, something marvelous takes place--a new event. Something comes into being that was not there before. God does this for us. We learn to do it because God does it. New things happen then. Salvation comes into being; love comes into being. Communion".

Amen Eugene. So when I tell stories, maybe I am just doing what God is teaching me. Maybe it is just about handing you the Bread and the Wine, and asking you to partake with me. And as I told Paula, maybe it isn't my story, or the story of my heart at all. Maybe it is all His story, and here we are, writer and reader supping together, and then reader becomes writer on the comments page, and we all share in the communion which is His body and His blood, broken for us. Salvation and love come into being, and we are nourished, and made bigger than we were before. It's a marvelous God thing.

God does this for us.

I'll meet you at the table, gentle reader, when I get to savor the vintage wine from your cup, again, and taste the sweet bread of fellowship you offer, melting in my mouth, mingling like jazz and slow dances, with the sweet juice of the fruit of the vine. I offer this, and all of these blog entries to you: the stories raga tells, my communion, and I hope and pray you find them good.

I love you. You can't possibly know how much.
God's raga





Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Stumbling Toward Faith Interview

Here's what you'll find on the back cover of stumbling toward faith, the new book by author renee altson:

raped by her "christian" father, rejected by church leaders, abandoned by her addicted mother, author renee altson's story is difficult but essential reading.

this disturbing, beautiful narrative will unsettle your understanding and assumptions of what it means to live as a believer in christ. altson's heart wrenching reflections and insightful prose and poetry ask questions we rarely get to the bottom of:

why does god allow evil to exist?
where is justice?
where is healing?
what is the point of faith? of belief?

stumbling toward faith, my longing to heal from the evil that god allowed, is a remarkable glimpse into the heart of a person healed, and healing. Renee was kind enough to give us a little "innerview" about the book, the writing, and that little thing that we call love.

First of all I have to tell you that stumbling toward faith is a stunning book. It's not just the beauty of your craftsmanship that astounds me, but the book, and your story, is knock you down on your face, with your butt in the air on the altar good. Tell me what it was like to write it.
there were times when it was so difficult i didn't think i could doit. a couple of different times i was so triggered by the writing,that i finally asked a dear friend of mine to just "be there" when iwrote. i would write in the building, in one office, and he would be in another office, and we spent hours like that. it wasn't that i wanted the company, i just wanted the reassurance that if i fell down the abyss, somebody would be there to help get me back out. and i did fall -- a lot. sometimes i could only write a paragraph at a time.
when it was finished, i felt exhausted; like i had wrung myself out. some of the imagery that i had when i was writing was that i was a washcloth and my words were droplets falling from the twisting of thelife that was me. i also felt amazingly accomplished. my husband and i have 'celebrated'so much during this journey... every milestone was huge.
I saw my own story in your story, and no doubt countless others will also. Who is the reader you saw when you wrote?
me. i saw myself at different ages, depending on the part of the story. i never thought it was anyone else. and it wasn't really until westarted making my story more global that i saw it as something otherscould benefit from.
There are so many crushing blows from other Christians. What's your take on this whole idea of Christian love? How do we miss it? How do we get it right? If you could have chosen how to be loved when you were hurting most, what would you have chosen?
i think that a lot of what other christians (and my father) took awayfrom me was permission. i never felt like i was allowed to just Be. and i know that sounds really intangible, but it's almost the easiest thing in the world. no cliches, no pat answers, just acceptance. i am becoming more and more convinced that the best thing we can dofor people is simply to be present with them. i think of moses and howaaron and hur just held up his arms for him, and it brings me tears athow beautiful that is. they just held up his arms. i think that a lot of other religions really get 'christian love.' ithink part of it is the whole 'salvation by works' thing thatmotivates them -- but let me tell you, that's a massive incentive for somebody-- they treat other people really well. i have never felt as loved as when i was in the mormon church. inthose last days of escaping from my father, i ended up in apsychiatric ward because i had been suicidal. the doctors said that iwouldn't be released unless i found someplace else to live.
they wouldn't let me go back to my fathers. i didn't know what to do, or who to go to. i called the local mormons,and even though i hadn't ever met any of them, they set me up with anapartment, they filled my cupboards with groceries, they paid thedeposit and the first 2 months rent, they picked me up from thehospital and they gave me a place to go.i think that sometimes christians are so worried about being saved bygrace, we forget all about good works. i love that verse "stimulate one another to love and good deeds" -- i think we've lost that.i think we do it pretty well to non-christians. we have our methods of"lifestyle evangelism" -- but how do we love each other? how do weshow, through the little things, our love?
There are very painful things in stumbling toward faith. Having lived through all that you did, what is the best thing you know about God? What's the scariest?
the best thing i know about god is that god will wait with me. i don'thave a timetable to figure things out by.the scariest is that god will wait with me. i can't outlast god.
On page 150, there is a poem, o rauch elohim. It is a cry to the feminine Spirit of God. Girl, a whole lotta folks don't think there's any such thing. As for me, there was a dark time in my life when I *needed* a feminine God, and this was hidden from me in Evangelical Chrisitianity. How did you discover Mother God? What has She revealed about Herself to you?
the ruach elohim poem came out of my first realization of god as woman... i couldn't believe that hadn't been told to me in decades ofchurch-going.they'd done the "holy spirit is more personal/heartfelt" spiel butthey'd never said "feminine spirit of god" -- that just changedeverything for me!i actually found out about it through a comment in my blog. and istudied it and it was true -- almost too good to be, but it was!i think the image i have of mother god is one who strokes my hair.when i was being abused, i would curl into a ball, my primary thoughtswere 'protect the head, protect the head, protect the head'. i crave gentle touch on my head, stroking of my hair, and it takes a lot totrust someone enough to allow them to do that.so the idea that god is a woman that can stroke my hair, and take careof my head -- wow, that's just revolutionary. and very safe.
Phyllis Tickle, bless that woman for the Divine Hours, wrote your foreword, and gave Christians a major spanking on those few pages. I love it. How have other reacted, so far, to your honesty?
so far, it's been pretty good... there have been occasionally annoying comments on some folks' blogs, and i got one particularly clueless letter, but it's been very positive.(i'm actually rather shocked at how well-received its been.)
Where are you now, in this epic story that is your life?
if life was a spiral, i'd be circling back through the story again.(and again, and again)i think i am a much stronger person than when i started the book. i think i have made some peace with myself and my past. i think i'm healthier, and more able to share who i am with others. i'm still very guarded and suspicious, i still cry too easily, and i still carry the imprint of what happened to me. i think i always will,but i think i'm finally finding myself okay with that.
You wrote near the end of Stumbling Toward Faith: isn't it something that these stories matter? that my story and his story and your story intertwine and meet, and that god makes something lovely and beautiful and meaningful out of our wretched, halting words? That's the story of my life. Last question: How is the sharing of stories? I mean, by now, people must be writing, sharing their story with you. And here you are, in my little story world, sharing with me, this little communion of God tales. What's it like to be renee altson, in renee's story, which is also Ragamuffin Diva's story, and ultimately, the Creator of Stories Story? What's it like right at this moment?
sometimes it is mind-boogling, that i have this amazing opportunity,and this gift of hearing other people's stories, and i feel so inadequate, but so amazed at community, at connection, at grace, andsometimes i wake up in the middle of the night and think, "o! i have abook!" and sometimes i cry over letters of how much other people hurt, and sometimes i am so angry at how horrible people are to one anotheri can't swallow. i am honoured to have been the one to carry thesestories -- mine, yours, ours -- and terrified and encouraged.
How can readers contact you, or find out where to purchase your book?
you can write me at renee@stumblingtowardfaith.comyou can buy the book at the ys online store athttp://www.youthspecialties.com/store/stumbling/ -- ys is doing thiscool thing where they're donating a buck per purchase to becky'shouse, a local (san diego) home for victims of domestic violence andtheir children.
Thanks, renee. It's been a grace. Don't let this be your last book, for the sake of all of us, who love words, and stories.:)
confidentially, among your readers, i've already started the next one. :) :) it's a hard habit to break! thanks, my friend. love and peace to you.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Interview with Renee Altson

On September 21st, I'll be opening this blog to an amazing writer. I'm handing over the keys, so to speak, because no doubt, I'll be intoxicated by the words of Renee Altson.

Her weblog is located at http://www.ianua.org/weblog.php and her book's website is at www.stumblingtowardfaith.com. Be sure to check her out, and read an excerpt from her book. Stumbling Toward Faith is a terrifying work of beauty. It points the way to the ultimate terrifying work of beauty--the cross.

So join this ragamuffin, in welcoming Renee, and supporting her telling the truth in such an exceptional way.

Most of all, buy the book! It's published by Zondervan.

See you at the table with Renee on tomorrow,
I'll be drunk on the New Wine.

God's raga

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Like Wine Pouring Off the Mountains

(Amos 9:11-15, The Message)

I tear the room apart looking for my prayer book. I need that prayer book like I need chocolate and a good man. The bed is a mountain of papers I should have thrown away a year ago, a refuse heap of junk mail, papers, and books I should have already read. I’m getting a migraine. Again. All this for a prayer book, but I need it.

My own prayers rush out of my mouth, reduced to a hyperventilated ‘ohgodhelpmeplease’. I think of this, and it accelerates my desperation. I search for the book as if The Divine Hours will save my soul. A part of me hopes that it will. I can’t find it, and so I push out a path amid the pile on my bed, and I lie down, utterly defeated.

I close my eyes, and try not to think about the boxes I don’t have, to pack the stuff I need to throw away, to move into the house I don’t have the money to move into. I try to empty my head of everything, except for the steady pulse of the migraine. I steal breaths from my lungs, and force back the scream coiling like a serpent in my throat.

I want to go home. I don’t know where home is, but it’s not here in this place of empty purses purchased at the dollar store. It’s not this place of food stamp cards, and no health insurance. It’s not this broken down, dirty house, with dead lilies in the yard, and an eviction notice on the door. This is not my home.

Where are you God? Where the hell is your Kingdom?

I fumble for my copy of the Message, which I hadn’t seen for days. Or weeks? I don’t know what to read. One of Ken’s Star Wars calendar pages, dated July 22, 2004, bookmark a passage. I don’t remember if that’s the last date I picked up this Bible that I love so, and the thought of that twirls around my belly in a mourning dance.

Luke Skywalker has led me to the book of Amos, the last chapter. I like last chapters of the prophets. They are comfort after judgment, promise, and a prayer for those who didn’t have one, not too long before.

“But also on that Judgment Day I will Restore David’s house that has fallen to pieces. I’ll repair holes in the roof, replace the broken windows, fix it up like new. David’s people will be strong again, and seize what’s left of the enemy Edom, plus everyone else under my sovereign judgement.” God’s Decree. He will do this.” (9:11-12)

The passage begins to seep through my pores. I imagine God a handyman, dressed in His coveralls, covering all. Covering me. I smell His leather tool belt, the oil, and the sharp metal of his instruments. I watch him, patch me up, unraveling the duct tape that I’ve used while I awaited healing.

He will do this.

“Things are going to happen so fast your head will swim, one thing, fast on the heels of the other. You won’t be able to keep up. Everything will be happening at once—everywhere you look, blessings! Blessings like wine pouring off the mountains and hills. I’ll make everything right again for my people Israel.” (9:13-15)

I know this promise is for Israel, but I can’t help but feel that there is some of this for me. I keep reading, and the Word strokes the screaming madwoman banging on the door of my consciousness. I hear her quiet as I read:


“They’ll rebuild their ruined cities.
They’ll plant vineyards and drink good wine.
They’ll work their gardens and eat fresh vegetables.
And I’ll plant them, plant them on their own land.
They’ll never again be uprooted from the land I’ve given them.” (9:15)

God, your God, says so.

My God. He will do this.

I watch as He changes in my vision from Handyman to my soul, to the Gardner. He is rooting me amid mountain and hill. Watering me with the red wine pouring off the mountains. It is thick as blood and sweet as love, staining my lips crimson, while He greens me in His tender hands.

I get up from my bed, moving paper and books blocking my way, stepping on discarded clothing littering my path, stumbling toward the Kingdom. I see the bright light of blessings, bursting through the walls.

I smell grapes. I feel the pinch of blessings biting at my heels. The memory of wine, still lingers on my tongue.

My daughter meets me at my bedroom door. She is holding my prayer book in her hands.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Diva Does 4O

"Now, Aretha may grow up to be a lovely woman. She may bloom in the glow of her first love. She may blossom with the birth of her children and wear her later years with full confidence in her glory, but I'll tell you this: she will never be more beautiful than she was when I picked up that mirror an held it for her. She gasped. Joyce applauded.

"Is it okay?" I said.

Aretha never took her eyes from the mirror.

"It looks like me," she said softly.

"It is you," Joyce said, but I knew what Aretha meant.

Sometimes you meet yourself on the road before you have a chance to learn the appropriate greeting. Faced with your own possibilities, the hard part is knowing a speech in not required. All you have to say is yes."

(From "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day" by Pearl Cleage)

I turned 40 today, and I wanted a haircut. I wanted to shed my old head, and find the soft cap of new birthed curls that lay beneath the old ideas and false images needing to be shorn. I wanted freedom on my head.

I went to Walmart. I'd let Eric know that I was coming, and he received me, fussed over me, and loved on this middle-aged woman.

"What do you want, birthday girl?" he asked.

"Cut it off, as much as you can, and give me a fierce lining."

He took my face in his gentle brown hands. "You have the face for that. Not every woman can wear her hair like that. "

I hoped he was right.

I sat there, listening to his quiet voice, listening to the schwip, schwip of the scissors, and watching my hair fall in wooly mounds into my lap, and to the floor. It is grayer all over than I realized. I closed my eyes, and I let the years that were gone fall and tumble away from me like my hair. This haircut, like morning, was a brand new mercy, the precursor to the rest of my life.

He handed me a mirror. "Take it down more," I say.

He continued, and the motions of his hands became my meditation. Soon I would see myself in the mirror again, and there would be little hair to distract me. I'd meet myself on the road, like Cleage's Aretha, and like her, see the face of my own possibilities.

Eric finished, and handed the mirror back to me. I just smiled.

It looked like me.

Lovely and graying, with deep smile lines, and tiny lines around my eyes. But the best part is that finally, I'm old enough to know the appropriate greeting. I'd tell you, but some things a woman has to keep for herself.

I got up from his chair, and he asked me if I wanted something to carry my hair in.

"I won't be taking it with me," I replied. And I got up, lighter for the journey, free from within, and with the good grace of God in each and every step, even the times that I stumble. Especially those.

When I stepped outside in the sun, I noticed it was as hot at that moment, as it was cool earlier that morning. Isn't that just like September 1st? It's too cool to be real summer, and too hot to be real Autumn. Isn't that just like turning 40. I look at the trees. This year my birthday reminds me of leaves.

I am a leaf, about to be ablaze with color, trembling to hold on to the strength of strong, brown branches.

I am a leaf, just being my beautiful self, awaiting the wind to carry me, in a whisper of God to the ground.

and later, rustling under the bodies of rolling, laughing children,

then crunching under lovers feet,

keeping my face lifted for my next change of seasons, waiting

for the white comfort of being shrouded in snow.

In love and grace,
God's raga