A continuation of reflections in the season of Advent.
Though I am often afraid to face it in the first place, I always want to believe that the danger is outside; that the threat to my heart, health, and happiness is something to be beaten off or barricaded against.
I believe that man has hurt me. I accept that I am the overlooked, unwanted victim. I concede that the hunt is on and I am the prey. Victim is a role that I know very well, one that I play without giving a second thought.
This is what I find more difficult to accept—that often I am the greatest threat to my own happiness. I am the master of my schedule, commander of my connections, dictator of my self-worth. I am the one who says, “never enough” and “don’t even try.” I bring up the memories of failures gone by. Rehash all my mistakes. I hunt myself daily.
But, how do you ward off a personal predator? How do you learn to make peace with self-condemnation? I think, there must be a mediator, a voice who stands between me and myself, defending the beloved against the one who serves judgement.
I long for his voice. I long for his patience. I long for his peace to speak comfort to my soul. If only there were a voice to speak in opposition. To assure me that I am not the final authority, that my two selves can exist and that the true self will go free.
Wednesday evening I was out to dinner with my housemate when I received a text from a grad school colleague:
“I was wondering if you heard about Wesley today?”
Wesley is a professor of writing at Saint Mary’s College and the man who directed my thesis last spring. I hadn’t heard a thing about him or the program, so I closed out my texting and opened my e-mail. I don’t typically commit so many social faux pas in a single evening, but something, including the man sitting across from me, told me this time it was okay.
I scrolled through my inbox, looking for a message that had come from Saint Mary’s.
“Oh, shit,” I said, eyes glued to my screen.
“Wow,” said my housemate. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you swear before. What is it?”
The subject of the e-mail was shockingly clear: Professor Wesley Gibson, R.I.P.
Was it a metaphor? I wondered. A book title? A Jan term class? Was it anything other than literal truth?
In the days to follow, memories of Wesley began popping up in my Facebook feed. Friends, colleagues, writers, and students shared highlights of a human whose compassion and care clung thick as cigarette smoke. Wesley was a someone—perhaps more than he realized—a someone who showed others that they were someone as well.
What gift is as precious as the gift of belief? Of saying in words and showing in action that the story of another is a story worth telling? A story worth sharing? A story worth living?
To be “someone” is not to possess celebrity or overcome adversity. It is not to amass wealth or achieve status.
The worth of a human is not determined by her beauty or assets, though time and again we are told this is the case.
Maybe this is the reason that salvation did not come with fanfare and favor, but through a homeless refugee infant who was ill-suited to do anything other than breathe the breath of life. Maybe we still need the reminder that anyone can be someone, that “the least of these” is as human as the face looking back in the mirror.
“Exalted and Lowly”
Yesterday afternoon I spent two and a half hours in Saint Mary’s Museum of Art, immersed in an exhibit called “The American Soldier,” a series of imposing and emotive photos depicting the role of the U.S. solider from the Civil War to Iraq.
I hadn’t wanted to see it.
Though I interviewed the curator earlier this fall and made plans to pass through during a Veteran’s Day reception, I hadn’t gone. I’m admittedly uncomfortable with casualties.
As I passed from frame to frame, taking in tears and trauma, I was struck by the meanness of the position. What is more lowly than fingers frozen stiff, scarcely able to scrape beans from a can? What is more lowly than a ram-shackled surgery? More lowly than living in camps of leaking tents?
Then I was reminded of those who live with even less—not by choice—and I wondered which is worse, or if it’s even worth making a comparison.
We live in praise of power, the very thing that leaves the lowly where they are. We choose to exalt what seems worthy and strong, profitable and beautiful. Why?
Why do we find it so difficult to lift the lowly? Is there really a way for one man to be both?
I exit the train, hoist my umbrella, and start down the path with the rest of the group. Eyes to the ground, I study the colors of the rain-soaked mulch as we pass beneath a single stretch of olive trees. I am averting my gaze from the vineyard on the left and fountain straight ahead, trying to keep from catching sight of the iconic white tower, a feat which is all but impossible.
I have been here before and every inch of me knows it. I can feel it in my fingers, feel it in my gut. I didn’t mean to come back—I had been trying to avoid it—but work and opportunity have brought me to the only vineyard in California that physically hurts me to visit.
We pass through the courtyard and begin our education. As the guide starts in with the winery’s fifty-year history, my mind narrates one of its own, much more recent and yet a lifetime removed. Back then it was summer, sunny, warm. I wore jeans and a tank top, short hair and a smile. Today it is winter, rainy, cold. I wear jeans and a sweater, I don’t cry, but I want to.
God, I was happy, I think to myself, polishing the memory and watching it glisten. I’d forgotten I could be so contented.
The tour guide moves on to the history of the To Kalon Vineyard, where sixty-year vines have been cultivated to grow four times their first yield of grapes. You wouldn’t know it by looking at them. They are naked. Dormant. They are sleeping through the winter in a period of silence.
I wonder if they dream in the cold wet darkness, if they remember the days when they used to bear fruit. Do they wonder if summer will come back again? Do they recall what it feels like to flourish?