This is Summer: Season Six {Episode 6}

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Always after church

they race along pews, jump stairs

it’s better outside.

~Natalia

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The Pulse of Community

There’s a miniature binder that we pass at church, every week. They give titles, special names to all such things, and ours is called the Community Binder, in which are recorded names of attendees; names, addresses, and contact information for visitors.

They’ve had our contact information for years, decades.

But every week, between the music and the preaching, the praising and the learning, we take a moment and we pass those little black binders. It used to be my job, when my own feet barely reached the floor, and bike-fall scabbed knees stuck out under my Sunday dresses. Now, the little sisters take turns, gripping that black pen and writing our last name in the space provided.

Recording our presence, our participation, week in, week out.

Today, we were just two, there in the pew at the front of the balcony, and I wrote 1/3 of the family after our last name, because it’s true: only El Papa and I were there.

The two adults attending church should probably get up! Tam called at 9:05 this morning, standing in the space between bathroom and bedrooms to serve as human alarm clock. And while the sisters moved about, cough, cough, coughing, and blowing their way through a second tissue box in as many days, we prepared for our morning, for our day.

Barely an hour later, I stand in the kitchen, haphazardly spreading chunks of butter on a toasted mini-bagel. I’m watching the butter melt, watching it seep into the craggy pores of crusty white dough, when I slowly become aware of the sounds behind me.

In El Papa’s office, tucked between dining room and kitchen, someone’s turned on the live stream of this morning’s church service. The first service is ending, and I am vaguely aware of the benediction being spoken as I wrestle more cold butter shavings onto my still-dry bagel. Besides me, El Papa pours his coffee. In the front room, the pair of littler ones cough, play, read; their voices punctuating and shaping the morning.

And then suddenly, a new sound catches my ear, holds me frozen where I am. On screen, in the office, the service has officially ended, the mingling has begun. Music, a worship song sung by a familiar voice, plays in the far background, chords and tune still recognizable.

But that’s not what’s caught me, what’s pulled me in.

Rather, it’s the sound running over the music, the sound moving and boiling, mixing and covering, that I’m listening to, standing in the kitchen while butter melts in yellow puddles on my cooling bagel.

It’s voices.

I can hear the community. I can’t make out words, of course, but I’m captivated by the rhythm, the rise and fall, of a hundred people talking, sharing, laughing, speaking. It sounds so unified, so whole, all those people making all that noise. As each indistinguishable voice folds together with all the others, all I can imagine is the names on those Community Binders, all those individual recordings, notes, scrawled titles, mixing and mingling, swirling into the unity called the Church and the Body and Fellowship.

And it’s repeated over and over again; before each service, after it once more, in smaller groups, throughout the week. Because community like that is living, breathing, noisy, and that heartbeat of fellowship, it just keeps pulsing, like the swirl of conversation I can hear, right there in the Sunday morning kitchen.

~Natalia

Sunday Afternoon Ice

We’re going to Naf Naf, I tell her, my voice hushed. We’re sitting side by side, in a pew far closer to the front of the church that we originally intended. I suppose that’s what happens when you arrive at 10:28am for a service that begins at 10:30am.

She nods in enthusiastic agreement, offers a response, as all around us, the morning’s worship set fills the high-ceilinged room, and outside, the first snowfall of 2015 settles slowly into grass, street, and car.

Of course, we’re still there two hours later, as the last of the lingerers shrugs coats onto shoulders, tightens scarfs around winter-pale necks. We’re still in the stone-tiled lobby of the building, our voices echoing across the wide space, and outside, the snow is still drifting down, blowing across the street in gusts whose strength we can barely assess from our insulated standpoint.

Slowly, in stuttering stops and starts that have one of us ready and seven others meandering each in their own direction- slowly, we get ready to leave. Four of us leave, pushing through the automatic side door out into the white-sky brightness of a winter day of white clouds and white snow and white, swirling wind. Another has already left- he’ll meet us there. Two others, a third then, are nowhere to be seen, but coming soon, no doubt.

It’s always a process, leaving this Sunday morning building.

But then, we’re six, there on the steps, and that’s enough for a party- and two more coming later- and we begin the walk to lunch, to that Chipotle-style promise land of Mediterranean food and the most unique french fries I’ve ever eaten. It’s a two-block journey; to the corner, past Subway, Pot-Belly’s, Jamba Juice. Across a plaza and a street and another plaza. Past Fountain Square and a towering office building or two, and even the black steel building that used to be Borders. You know, back when Borders existed.

We’ve made it around the corner, are nearly to Jamba Juice, when the wind hits. Blowing across the plaza in huge, snow-colored gusts, the cold whips at our ears, pulling hair every which way, and shoving tiny bits of ice down the necks of our coats, into our sleeves, down our boots. Heads down, we shriek, the wind carrying our voices away just as soon as the syllables leave our lips.

The father far ahead of us now, a little girl clasping each hand, we fall behind, fighting against the scorching, searing, freezing winter wind. My tights quickly turn from black to white, as the wind plasters bits of snow to the thick knit. My eyes turned down to shield them from the stinging flakes, I turn sideways, almost discombobulated, thrown for a loop, by the ferocious wind, and our need to move through it.

Shrieking still, fighting, and yet laughing at the fierce absurdity of it all, we cross the street, pass the (long empty) fountain, and finally, finally, step- or collapse- through the restaurant doors.

Shaking shoulders, brushing our arms, stamping our feet, we will the cold away from us. Inside moments longer, we pull coats off, slip scarves into pockets, stuff them down sleeves. Catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror, I laugh to see my head covered in ice; snow that had melted ever so slightly, frozen again atop my head.

We unwind and unwrap and settle in, moving erratically around the little restaurant as our group slowly arrives. Coats in a pile, purses scattered across seats, we occupy twice as much space as necessary, but the little girls have opinions, have a plan, and when the food is ordered, arrives, they direct. You there, you’re sitting here, you can go on that side.

And we sit, eight there in the warmth, with the food before us and the ice melting off our boots, into puddles below us. And the biting chill outside rivals the glow of contentment inside, and we linger long there, over out pita, our fries, our falafel. And when we go outside once more, stomachs full, hair now thoroughly melted, the wind is not quite so bad, and the cold is not quite so bitter, and the friendship is all the richer.

~Natalia

Filled

Bright sanctuary.

The warm, muted, soft kind of bright,

the kind that slides nearly unnoticed through the frosted glass above,

settling over the pews below,

filling the space between pew and carpet,

window and sill,

floor and ceiling.

There are spaces, there on the pews.

It’s a holiday weekend and I count missing faces

in the time between stand and sit,

between greetings and prayer

between coming and going.

But it’s not an empty place,

here in the pale yellow glow.

On the stage, pacing slightly, moving one way, then another,

he recites.

Four chapters by memory, added to the dozens of others

that he’s already committed to memory.

Before he began to recite, he stood and he spoke;

words about depression and suicide

and thoughts you just can’t seem to shake.

And I hear the tears in his voice

and in that sun-above light, his eyes shine

and he says cling to the Word

because this we will always have.

And then he begins.

I’m so excited, I whisper to the father, who sits besides me,

and I hear my voice squeak, every so slightly,

extra excitement squeezing out of my tight chest.

And then, up on stage, he begins to speak,

and the words and the verses,

the pauses and the inflections,

the living sound of the Word of God,

fills that sanctuary,

rising gently,

definitively,

up to the wide ceiling,

filling that sun-lit sanctuary.

~Natalia

Trust and Grace of a Child

There’s a picture on my wall, above my bed. In fact, there are several pictures, 4×6 snapshots lining the space between pillows and desk, at the foot of my bed.

Ellie Rose took this picture, sometime in the spring of my freshman year. Late one Sunday night, the last rays of the weekend disappearing through the lounge window, Mary Pop drew a mustache, goatee, on her fingers, and her and Ellie did Dave Barnes voices. And the Christmas tree turned Valentine’s tree stood there in the corner and I watched, laughing, from the old couch- the one they got rid of last year- and then, in a moment, Mary bounced onto the couch next to me, Ellie snapped the picture.

Later, that May, Mary donned cap and gown, walked the aisle in The Moody Church, received her diploma. I cried, there in the church lobby, hugging good bye, congratulations, but I laughed, danced, celebrated, a month later, in a barn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when she said “I do” and Cory did, too.

Friendship is a funny thing, but it can be a strong, resilient thing, too, and it’s been months, more than a year, since I saw Mary, but there have been texts, occasional Skype messages, in the time between. And Mary has a daughter now, whose sweet face was the background image on my phone for months after she was born. The baby’s five months of wonderful now, blue eyes shining between soft cheeks, thin tufts of hair that might be red, or maybe brown, tucked under the flower headband that wraps her tiny head.

Tuesday evening, sitting in The Moody Church balcony once more, I’ve my phone in my hand, waiting. Mary, her mother, and that beautiful baby are in town, on their way. Then my phone glows, I swipe across the message bubble, read that they’re here, they’re in the lobby. And I’m stepping down the steps, scanning a crowd to find those familiar faces. Hugs, of course, and we’re back upstairs, then, and I’ve been so busy, distracted, focused on so many other things, that I only realize now how very excited I am to see Mary there, next to me in those hard wooden balcony seats.

I’m so happy you’re here, I say, over and again.

And the baby is even more sweet, more gentle, happier, in person than in pictures, and I hold her, 18 pounds of sweet-smelling bundle bouncing in my arms.

Tuesday night, Wednesday too, babies are babies and Mary leaves, child in her arms, as the preacher speaks. The baby’s not screaming, not upset, but little ones get tired, get loud, get vocal, and then it’s bedtime, they bundle, step down the cement stairs.

Tonight, like all the other nights, it’s worship first, all of us standing there in that church with the ceiling seeming a mile high. And the three of them arrive after I do, but before we sing, and I turn, grin, welcome them. Then the baby’s in my arms and there’s something about a little one there, swinging her arms, sighing, mumbling her baby gurglings against my chest, that grips my heart, pinches me with joy.

And we all stand and I’m singing, too, and I truly worship and I’m truly invested, but I’m also thinking about, watching, marveling at, the little one in my arms. We’ve sung four songs, and her little body is nestled against me now, she’s gazing intently behind us, up at her grandmother. But then her miniature hand finds my scarf, and I look down, watch her grab onto the soft fabric, tuck her tiny thumb into her mouth, rest her sweet wispy head on my shoulder.

It’s cute, of course, but it’s more than that; it’s the gentle, untainted trust of a child. My heart feels tight and I swallow a grin, singing still, yet glancing down at the child in my arms with every other word that I sing.

Minutes later, the music over, we sit again, and I hold the tiny girl in my lap, and she bounces, pajama-ed feet kicking against my lap. And behind me, Mary leans forward, a hand on my shoulder. She never lets anyone do that, she says of the snuggling baby, and I look away fast, blinking hot tears, my heart reeling with the beauty of the trust and grace and gentleness of a tiny baby girl.

~Natalia

Dear B

That’s not even your name, of course. There’s not a single letter “B” in your first, middle, or last name. But my mother- Aunty, you call her- picked you up downtown that July day and two days later, I was calling you B.

You were so quiet when you first arrived. Tiny braids wrapped around your three-year-old head, you mostly watched, those early days. Eating, drinking weren’t your favorite, then. You did sleep though, and sleep long. We smiled at night, in the shadows of the yellow hallway light, because you hugged your pillow when you slept- arms and legs wrapped, monkey-style around that flattened pillow, your pink nightgown ruffled under your tight grip.

I went to Guatemala shortly after you arrived, and you were asleep the night I returned. So were Glendy and Larissa, your playmates, buddies, companions. You all woke up before I did the next morning, and I heard your voice loud, strong, articulate, amongst theirs. I laid there in my top bunk for a little while that morning, listening to Aunty make pancakes in the kitchen, to Papa shuffle around his little office there between the dining room and the kitchen. But mostly, I listened to hear your voice. The voice you had found during my time away.

You left two weeks later, riding home in the pink flower carseat that Jaiden rides in, too. Aunty drove you back downtown, back to the arms of a mother, father, sisters, baby brother, who all love you dearly. But those weeks, between Guatemala and your going home, we had fun together; you and I and Glendy and Larissa.

You went to Vacation Bible School with the girls, although each of you in your own class. You fought the early morning hard on Monday, riding in your carseat barefoot, in your pajamas, Aunty helping you into a dress (Larissa’s? Glendy’s? You all shared, you know) in the church bathroom. Five days later, you jumped out of bed when you heard the girls moving, clambering in that little voice of your about your class at school.

One night, Aunty and Papa out, I got you ready for bed. You took a bath swirling gleefully in the lukewarm water, then stood patiently while I tried to comb out your tight curls (Aunty is better at that). I carried you to the kitchen, you making silly faces, giggling at yourself, all the while. I have a picture of you that night, hair a legitimate afro, energetically spooning vanilla yogurt into your mouth. Later, you told me that yogurt was just ugly milk, and I sent that quote, along with your silly yogurt face picture to Aunty. We both laughed. You made us laugh, brought us joy, Miss B.

One of your last nights with us was an outside day. I had you three again, relishing those sunlit summer evenings in that hometown that I’ve so come to adore. You colored with chalk outside, three girls together, yet playing apart, while I stood between you all and watched your creativity grow. We walked to the ice cream shop after that, I bought you ice cream cones with the money Aunty left. We sat in the park eating those cones, me alternately helping each of you clean the drips from the cold treat, licking around the softening cone. Ice cream gone, you played tag, rolled down the hill, until it was time to go home.

There are many things that marked this past summer, B. Many things that I look back on and cherish, hold onto. There are a lot of things that I want to remember, to write down, about the past four months. And in many of those memories, you are there, B. You weren’t with us long, but you made your mark with that dimple smile and your sweet voice, astounding me every day with your long sentences and beyond-preschool logic. You fit into our family, brought us joy, made us laugh, B. And now, where you are with your Mommy and Daddy, B, I hope you’re still smiling, still laughing, still talking. Still bringing people joy- You have that gift, kiddo.

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~Natalia

Fight For

I’ve created, in the four weeks since school started, a mindset wherein I live for the weekends. I suppose this is a fairly common trait, since “weekend” tends to be synonymous with such ideals as “free time,” “no work,” “relaxing,” and “fun,” and the weekdays generally symbolize such thrilling adventures as school, work, responsibility, and a going, going, going routine.

It might be normal, this straining, longing, waiting for the weekend, but it’s new to me. Throughout last semester, I dreaded Sundays. Monday through Friday, I could ignore it, pretend that such a day did not exist on the calendar. Saturday morning, afternoon, evening, brought a steadily increasing sense of fear and general discontent, culminating in waking up and dragging myself (usually and blessedly accompanied by The Jen) to whichever downtown congregation we had elected for that Sunday.

I knew I was supposed to go to church. Yet I had nowhere I felt at home, a part, able to be involved, and was plagued by guilt at the fact that church was not a joy for me, but a dark spot on my otherwise buoyant life and demeanor. As an added bonus to my Sundays, the unfounded and irrational fear that lurked in the back of my mind made itself especially known on Sundays, further marring my perception of that sacred day.

Monday through Friday- school days- meant classes and routine and projects and movement and distraction from things, ideas, worries. I relished and relied on the activities of the week to provide the forward motion of my days, weeks, months, and found weekends to be discouraging and terrifying at worst, and a chance to catch my breath and wind up for anything gloriously fast-paced week at best. But few and far between were the weekends that I looked forward to, counted down to, could not wait until.

Not so this semester.

This semester I wake up for my 8am class on Monday morning, already thinking, moving, looking, towards the weekend. This semester, I’m diving into, relishing, Sunday mornings in a sun-lit sanctuary that I know so well, Sunday evenings in the church gym, laughing with, growing with, being with those high school students, friends. This semester, these past four weeks, weekends have meant home: hugs and stories- always stories- from the little sisters, sitting late on the kitchen floor, talking with the mother, the father, friends and visits and nights out and football games.

This semester, weekends have been so very good.

And then I come back to school, drop backpack onto my blue bedspread, and the weight of the week settles onto me heavy, dull; counting the hours, the minutes, the classes and assignments and stresses until the next weekend.

I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish I could have weekend joy and movement all week long. I wish there was Sunday spring in my step on Monday morning, on Tuesday afternoon, on Thursday night.

Pastor this morning, while I sat there in the sun, taking notes, church bulletin spread across my lap, said fight for joy. I looked up, then, from my notes, thought about that, about the fight. He was preaching about thoughts and attitudes and emotions and challenges in the hard times, and there was hope laced throughout his message. Hope of peace, comfort, a future in Heaven. Hope of joy.

Hope of joy in a Monday morning class. Joy in an afternoon commute to work, back again. Joy in the little hours of homework, stacked together, lined up to shape a life of study. Joy in the friends, family, women that I live with. Joy in studying, not for the grade I do so want, but for the joy of studying, of learning, of growing my mind and my heart. There is hope for that kind of joy, and not just on Saturday, Sunday, but all week long.

And that’s something worth fighting for.

~Natalia

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