Face Collector

Tilt.

Raw.

Prick.

Plague.

Writhe.

Desolate.

I don’t keep things. I clear them.  But I fill up my body, like a pitcher to the brim, with words and faces and whispers and eyes.  Memories of people I’ve touched with my fingertips and in arm-length embraced, and I’ve looked into their soulness and listened to the words roll from their creased lips like water as they burn into my shoulder blades.  Do you know this, that people can burn into you, even your kidneys, your blood?  Pennies and keys and lint from their pockets, the way each person’s nailbeds are unique unto themselves and their teeth form in curves, the sound of their walking stride…they seep.

Contact.

Gentle.

Oscillate.

Carry.

Predilection.

Surge.

My Jesus, he healed by touch, by knowing acutely and seeing.  The woman who grasped his cloak, he turned to her.  

He turned to her.  This catches me in my lungs.

Then I sift. Words are shifting and ground down under my fingernails, and some of them I backspace or right-click cut and delete and begin again pouring, pouring words.

Well no, I pour faces.  And I always have since childhood. I inhale faces and then write words.

Words that harbor colors, and faces, and emotion with their accented tone and vibration, a resonant stroke.  One tiny word, a blip, that holds hundreds of attachments. So I select them, clip them like singular lavender stalks, and hold their delicate buds in the folds of my upturned skirt grasped in my small palms against my knees, inhaling their speech and poetry. Words sing to me.

Jesus went to every town and village and spoke of His Father’s kingdom, healing their sickness. 

I know your face, I have words for it–

I know your hands, your voice, and your eyes.  I have words for those, too–

When I was young, teenage, I sifted through words in my journal scribbled fat in pencil lead.  Intrepidly, in hushed tones and shy eyes, I whispered to those who were near me those delicate years, long ago back then. Were you there? Because you built me.  And now I grow, folding outward toward sun-speak, noisily and distinct in testimony, this floating boat that sails through wind and storm to stand robust, in banner for the kingdom she was ransomed to in birth. My dear soul-sister teacher once told me to write, and write, and write furiously and with distinction, crystallizing and exact, to name the people who’ve touched me in every recessive pore, and to not be afraid.  I’ve never looked backward for a second.

Thank you, Myrna Jean.

I told my students this week that it is mystery, wonderful, beautiful that God speaks in language to us.  This dialect, this vernacular tongue, that sifts my muscle fiber like a  charge. When I say this to them I use my hands in erupted gesture the way my husband has taught to me, and I whisper the word mystery as I smile, and they sit so quietly hanging on to the next narrative I exhale, this breath from God blown out.  Inhale these paragraphs of gospel mixed with crunchy leaves, recorded history with starry beams of light across vaulted sky.

Even more, I see faces of colleagues who teach me….life in speckled inhalation of Gods image and breath breathed out and I gulp their experience and story and am blessed.  Why am I so profoundly sanctified and resurrected by their testimony of our Savior? Because we breach the barrier and connect, even when we want to hide.  Well, that’s why.

Run through that river, child. 

At the gas pump a still, small voice tells me to go, so I grasp hands with a man who introduces himself as Wesley.  They say they are just passing through and have run out of gas, squatting near their van, and I choose to believe them because giving or holding on is more about my character than theirs.  I look into Wesley’s face and there are deep wrinkles, his hair is long, his smile is kind, and I am thankful for the verse that reminds me of entertaining angels.  What if they are?  I have words for him—leathered, coarse and unwashed, eyes like pools and courteous.  He holds my palms and dips his head in genuflection before meeting my face. Another image of my own God that walks this Shadowland of darkness pierced with heaven-light.  His skin feels rough with creases, a story that touches my own fingertips, as I look at him and wish him well.

Jesus touched the blind man’s eyelids with his own hands. 

These faces like journal pages that I flip through, connected to truth substantial and unfeigned, and if I’ve known you ever or only even recently, you are there, too.  I keep them, these loose-leaf, rolling through my mind’s eye, praying for faces that explode into dreams late at night and when music or scent pull me back to memories, or phrases and stories bring me to recollect.  Do  you know an old dear friend sent me a video of speech memories and you parents, you grandparents, you cousins and family, you friends of my dear youth and also of my age, you teachers of mine, you colleagues…well.  We are the collect of those who have come before us and against us and weave their lives into us side by side.

To pray- beseech, appeal on behalf of, invoke, petition, supplicate…..cry for.   Yes, I cry for you, dear friends.

God spoke and created in His image and then came down in flesh and touched his disciples’ bare feet and then He whisper-asked me to follow Him, my Lord who prayed to the Father, hallowed be His name. 

And so I, the prodigal, am forgiven and redeemed without reason or of my own accord, to be set down low and implore in my humility, lying prostrate to the concrete.  A friend tells me, “I believe God raises up and lays low” and how I resonate, my life surrounded by push and pull, lesson and mercy, depth of despair and rise of joy.  My tears come quickly these days, those eruptions that tell me I feel.  When I was young my face would redden to scarlet when another felt embarrassment or humiliation, embodying, mirroring their emotion before I even knew what it was.  When another tells me of their grief, tears slip over my freckled face without pause.  Your face is collected and I pray, your emotion is felt, dear.

They came, imploring, touching his cloak, and he healed them with with words and a touch, compassion. 

I am merely an impoverished woman with everything starting in my skin, with everything woven through my muscle that tenses and spasms, with all these thoughts of faces and my Christ sitting in my throat.  And the Devil screams at me that I am reckless and I come on too strong, that I destroy, but then my God comes with his words living in me, silently, Kingly, enveloping these lonely places and livening them to full and complete.

He healed and then sent them on a mission to touch others and give words to those who needed hope.

“And it feels like the church isn’t anything more
Than the second coming of the Pharisees
Scrubbing each other ’til their tombs are white
They chisel epitaphs of piety

Oh, there’s a burning down inside of me
‘Cause the battle seems so lost
And it’s raging on so silently
We forget it’s being fought

So, Amen
Come, Lord Jesus
Amen
Oh, Amen
Come, Lord Jesus
Amen”

-Andrew Petersen

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Brother

I am 35 years old and so is my husband, with three children and a dog, living in our four bedrooms and two point five baths in a wooded, hilly neighborhood in the Piedmont valley when my brother comes to visit.  He has driven down from DC, arriving late in the night, and now he locks himself in the hall bath to shave clean and clip his hair close.  I knock on the door, “Are you done yet?”, because some things never change.  Even when we were teenagers his hygiene ritual was impeccable and precise.  Always order. Always.

His voice has sounded like our dad’s on the phone for the last ten years.  He steps out with his skin smelling of aftershave and his lower scalp smooth.   I just want to hold him in close embrace, and I do. In the morning his Charlie uniform will be pressed and pristine, all hardware and notions in place without error, the tie clipped to his breast, the collar starched, carrying his clean cover in his hand as he waves and closes the door.

The night prior we were landing lines back and forth from the random movies we grew up with: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in The Great Race (go watch NOW, by the way) and Jerry Lewis. The theatrical production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin.  It is our mother’s fault we are so oddly familiar with 60’s film.  Hello Dolly, My Fair Lady. It is something she still loves to witness–the quick banter that streams back and forth as if we are back in time twenty, no, thiry years.

When he was in boot camp, 2002, he stood east at attention toward the Atlantic coast and sang happy birthday to me, his older sister he admired, and then wrote me a letter telling me he did so.  He bought me diamonds at Christmas.

That man is a GEM.

I learned when we were teenagers that I could no longer pin him, straddled, and hold him down–tickling his ribs with one hand and holding his hands with my knees until he screamed, and then spitting in his open mouth.  Older sisters are cruel until they stand in the shadow of younger brothers who grow taller, that’s for sure.  But as we solidified our friendship in high school he still loved Star Wars, Die Hard, Rocky, and all the others; always jumping and skate boarding and wrestling and joking and running.  For my 16th birthday he gifted me the Rocky soundtrack–one of the best I’ve ever received.  The kid knows me.

Now, 15 years after signing the contract, he is in formation at Quantico with his wife looking on in pride, his children reaching out their tiny, eager fingers to him to be picked up, and he is honored for all of his youthful adulthood that has been dedicated.  He holds his wife close and tenderly kisses his son with the same care he cleans and loads his weapon.  And his voice is singular and sure, just as it should be after all these years, directing troops under his guidance.  He has lost comrades in combat, he has lost his mentor after returning State-side.  My dad cries proud to see his son.  My eyes choke.  I always see my brother as sixteen and silly in high school, and yet here he is a man, and I am more proud of the boy that I grew up with than I can ever even say.

On November 8th of each year he goes off grid and meets the others, the Semper Fi palpable as they toast those brothers they lost in the desert a decade before who cannot be forgotten.

They cannot be forgotten.

Firework explosions and sounds in the night are different after sleeping near the enemy, and dodging bullets meant for your flesh, and living when your friend is sent home draped in a body bag–these are only able to be recovered in time.  And maybe even time doesn’t erase entirely. To honor them he folds flags and presents them to weeping families year after year, saluting at attention, every shot damning him to remember service and protection.  But he keeps his mouth shut in public about politics and bureaucracy, struggling with a nation’s ignorance, even though he fought for their right to own it.

I am so proud of my brother my body aches.  He is a hero.

I feel safe when he is in our home visiting.  In the dark of night, with the doors locked and madness on the television, a Marine sleeps at attention.

This is the man who, as a young teen, used to ask me if his shirt matched his pants every morning before school, as he stepped out of the half bath plastered in brushstroke 90’s wallpaper.  Erin, is my  hair okay?  I’m not sure why he asked me…I rolled out of bed with the confidence of kings, running a toothbrush over my teeth with sleep in my eyes, and slipping on rumpled, baggy, Ambercrombie and Fitch charcoal khakis, my long blonde hair in tousled, sleepy waves like Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You.

No, literally.  I was Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You.  

Then I would yell at him to get in the car for school…his morning ritual was precise…legendary, if you will.  I’m not sure where I gained this over-confidence and complete lack of the typical older child, Type- A personality.  We were the sweet Baptist kids who wore matching clothes for church directory photographs before eating at hot, sweltering summer potlucks in blazers and pantyhose.  He looked up to me while acting as a protective older brother…the best and most loyal friend of my childhood.

The thing about friendship is that when it is pure and simple, you see each and every flaw, you fight terribly, and love fiercely.  He would ride in my grey hatchback, or I would jaunt with him in the old Taurus with the automatic seatbelts, and we would belt out Five Iron Frenzy or Yellowcard, dreaming of Cali…the place I’ve still never lived to see, but he has been numerous times to report for duty.  Every time I would take in the recognition of a boy in high school, his insides would go rigid. When I married, he was sick, just sick, with nostalgia….Why do things have to change?  Why must we leave at all?

Because we have people to grow into and become and do good in this world.

For a window of time I felt like I had a life I was destined to live, simultaneously leaving him behind to figure out life on his own, as if it was a betrayal. We both moved to opposite sides of the country within two weeks of each other…I to Virginia with my new husband, he to California for boot camp.  We were still kids at 19 and 20 years old.

Today, when we get together, David and I repeat movie lines. Rocky, Paulie, Ernest, Joe Fusco.  Push the button Max. As if we’ve lost no time at all.

These Marines, these vets, are such normal, real people.  But they are also the fiercest, and most loyal, ready to protect and stand in defense in an instant.  My brother never talked about being a Marine while we were growing up.  I cannot remember one time at all that he alluded to it.  Unless you take 007 on Nintendo 64, Sonic the hedgehog, and skateboarding as indication.

A year after 9-11 he signed his name at the recruitment office.  I had sat plastered to the television late on an early, September evening into the dawn after witnessing the plane crash live, eating breakfast.  I remember the people jumping…jumping from the twin towers to death as flames hurled above them and seeing the TIMES cover plastered with their last moments.  The collapse of the towers is burned into my memory because I witnessed it in real time.

And my brother said, I will go.

The Marines, they call themselves brothers.  But my brother, he is mine, over and above all. We grew together through disparate years of burgeoning lives…and I am proud, so proud of this man.

He is my brother.

Colorado

When I was 15 I went to Colorado.

We drove for over two full days in two (or more?  my memory is sketchy) 15 passenger vans across the Midwest.  It was unbearably hot and sweltering.  There were a handful of twenty-something chaperones and a myriad of high-schoolers gunning for the wilderness.  It was glorious.  Open Road is actually a fictional recount drawn from our insane drive across the United States and the emotions that matched it.  In fact, there is more from where that came from.  Wink.

It was June, summer. We recouped at base camp before spending three days hiking the Rockies with only what we carried on our packs.  We rock propelled off the mountain surface, white water rafted the treacherous rapids, and dealt with the elements for several days. Then we sat at base camp in tepees, rolling our t shirts and shorts in tight compression before setting out into the utter unknown. I remember after miles of hiking my legs were aching, thousands of calories burned,  and sitting at the campfire with orange Tanga in our hot mugs, which was just everything.  Everything.  We thought it was just comfort food, but our guides knew it was sustenance   We also ate ration soup.

Our two wilderness guides taught us how to keep warm at night.  The trick counters what would think, but you wear just your underwear and then stuff your cocoon sleeping bag with your remaining clothes around you. You don’t wear them, but stuff them to the outer edges of the bag.  Somehow they conduct heat.  Every morning I would wake with the cocoon bag wrapped around my body, cinched over my face with the frost outside, toasty warm within my triangle tent barrier from the elements on the edge of the Colorado Rockies.  One morning there was snow and we woke in amazement that the packing clothes in our bags actually worked!  We were warm and it was pleasant in our bags.  The mental struggle was to come to the fire in camp set by our  two guides.  We drank hot Tanga again for breakfast and applied corn adhesive to our ankles before packing camp.  I remember one our of our guides’ names was Mara: bitterness.

There was one day that was incredibly damp.  I was heavy with moisture in my wool boot socks and thin, cotton shorts as I trudged the muddy, rock-strewn trail.  My 80 pound pack dug into my shoulders.   I pictured Sylvester Stallone as I set my face to the task, a favorite inspiration for my brother and I.

But despite these internal, mental struggles, the path was breathtaking.  When I felt trod down I would tell myself, at fifteen, to look up.  To look at each water droplet that slid and sunk from the electric green leaf to the beauteous, grey-brown rocks below.  It was like an orchestra, the falling rain to the mountain we ascended.  Soul-catching.

I was envisioning Rocky (my favorite movie character)  and my boyfriend at the time who told me I could do it, and to persevere. I had been tasked with carrying the stove and propane which made me carry quite a heavy load for a 100 pound girl.  I was carrying almost twice my weight up a state park mountain.  I put my head down and got to work.  This was my playground.

We pitched our tents near a mountain stream, filling our water bottles.  We dropped iodine tablets into them.  A trip to the bathroom included a shovel and pine cones.  I was in the beginning of my month and could leave nothing behind.  Our tents were mere tarps over the muddy mountainside, a triangle canvas hovering on a slope.  It down poured for over 12 hours.  I remember sitting in the tent for hours with Deborah.  I had flashcards in my pack, the writer that I am I always had something to write on, even at 15.  I wrote down songs that we streamed out, laying on our backs on the hard ground, laughing our way through the evening of damp, wet, cold, mountain tenting.

In the morning we ascended the peak and the wind whipped harder than anything that I have ever felt.  It was like life ripping through me. The feeling…it was like I was standing on a photograph: the cuts, rivets, and valleys of the Rocky mountains alive with snow and evergreen, and I was on top of it all.  My size 7 booted feet upon the Rockies that Lewis and Clark marked and mapped two hundred years before.  My breath was caught within me.

And in the end, we gathered around the broad river, the night fire blazing among us as we gathered.  It is in these glorious moments we are pulled back to the glory of the Creator, as well as the searing of souls together.  For that, dear Lord, I am thankful.  That creation breaches nature and draws in my neighbor.  I praise Thee.

The River

We float down the James on tubes for hours in the late, Virginian summer as it is dying out gracefully.  It reminds me of lukewarm lake days in Michigan when I was young– warm, protracted, endless, dusky evenings–riotous with fireflies as we jumped off the slippery, mossy dock.  I like to think I’m still young, because I can recall those memories and emotions flooding back so easily with the sight, or smell, or music in my ear of something familiar.  That cool, tingling, summer rain on my bare skin that brought steam and heat out from the pavement as we twirled our faces upward in a washing.  They are like a film reel in fast motion–this life of past tense but still sententious.  The truth is I am to turn 37 this year.  I know I will recall and see myself young when I remember my 37th year, but today I feel age as my daughters near high school so swiftly.  It was not so long ago that they were swaddled in our arms and I inhaled their skin scent.

The water is tepid and trickles softly.  The sun shovels into our flesh and reddens the surface, beckoning my amber freckles out in thousands. As always happens with sun on water it plunges, bottomless, into our layers without feeling.   Elongated tree roots dredge the riverbank, intertwining hook and peg within one another.  They look like gnarled fingers, knuckles holding steadfastly to one another like lovers in old age.  I take a profound breath inward and hold it… these tree roots make me pause in my conversation with my dear friend. Dead stop.  I close my eyes taut and forthwith hold my palm over my face; I melt those tree roots into my soul with purpose.  I actually see them lengthen, intertwine, and hear them tighten down like rope stretching tight and screw down into my brain’s sulci folds where I hope they can never leave me, stapled to my soul.

I begin to envision how to write, to paragraph this majesty.  Trees and buried roots into earth are like a grounding for me.  As John Steinbeck and Wendell Berry write of the bowels of earth, I grasp them in my very marrow and life blood.  I dip and bob along the river with words pinging and cascading over me like a piano gliding through scales to retrieve from my mind’s eye.  I descend to the water and drink deeply.  Cryptic persuasion.  Mystery.

The hot breeze pulls the postponed summer and green leaves from the branches; they swirl over the talking, ripple water that skids the mossy rocks, poking their arches above the aqueous surface.  My warm tube lulls and rocks on shallow, mineral-gold boulders just under the surface.  And the sound of water splashes and plays like our laughter and shrieks as we twirl and balance and crash, drifting under the concrete bridge and the blue sky full of cloud.  We float for hours, laying back with our eyes closed beneath our sunshades.  I get so hot I remove my shirt and float in my underclothes, the sun and vitamin D enlivening dewy skin.   In between silence we talk and splash and kick our legs in the river, aurulent and dark, like late summer dying but dying joyfully.   The deep roots dig into its water life blood for survival and the trees shade the banks surrounded by dusty, red dirt.  The sunlight flickers and illuminates in waves and I squint to see.

Dear sun and water and tree and earth, you wake me, jolt me severely, and my heart violently ricochets into my throat…I sit up onto my elbows in my tube and pay attention as if I am in high church looking at stained glass, signing the cross, bowing my head, and hearing doxology.  Jesus baptized and the spirit dove descends and I am here alive, but what He did then matters now.  He walked on the water and calmed the storm.  It calls to me loudly, yells at me…and I remember alive after years of rest, and sleep, and healing in the safety of my bedclothes, and fire hearth as water now plunges over me in the historic James River of the Virginia Piedmont.

I remember back to that summer spent riding  four-wheelers on the edges of the golden cornfields late into the evening, the buzz of crickets as the sun sunk below the horizon. Please, please, give me more than I was living; in tears and working long hours I pleaded.  How are these innocent things like worry and doubt forgiven when they were worked out in distraction?  Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, I pray before the Eucharist.

The next summer we were driving north on 9th street up to W. Main and he suddenly turned left at the traffic light toward the Lake.  It has been twenty years and I cannot recall what we talked about on the drive, but the freshwater waves were cool to the touch of our ankles.  We pulled an old, unzipped sleeping bag out of the car and laid it on the hard sand after the tide had gone out, and he pulled my face close and asked me if I would marry him.  This man, whom I had fallen in love with a year before, was asking me to be his forever and I never even hesitated for a second.  We had written to one another  over months, he leaving me long letters after late nights at the restaurant and third shifts at the hotel that he stuffed under my windshield wiper.  And I would sneak responses to his Grand Prix, two writers invoking faith and love and hope to awaken, a language only deciphered by one another.  He told me once after we were married that we were soul persons.

In a world of self-love and expression, it is absurd to say out loud on this page and to the critical world that I am not my whole self without my husband, that we are two fragmented versions of one.

Who am I to say such things?  How do I always know that I am intertwined with this person forever until death, when I am not even in my middle ages?  But it is so.  Cryptic persuasion.  Mystery. 

These sacred things whisper to me each night, their melody in my ear like an orchestra from God, this legacy we live.  It haunts me to excitement.

Each time that I felt dirt under my fingernails,

the rush of salt water as I plunged the board under the waves paddling out to surf,

standing on summit of the Rockies feeling the wind whip through my thin tshirt, cascading my body,

the spray of Colorado whitewater and the grip of the oar,

smelled vanilla pipe tobacco as it curled around his face,

drove across country, stopping to refuel, smelling the hot pavement and wiping the smudge from tired eyes,

stepped across slippery mountain rocks grasping hands and shouldering packs,

puffed hot breath into my frozen fingers after brushing snow from the windshield,

gulped my breath in prayer at the plane’s takeoff and forced myself to look out the window,

sat translucent in the sunset on the ridge in the dark,

hiked to pitch tent and camp, and hot ration soup over the fire,

heard the rustle of bears and the howl of wolves in the middle of the night,

pulled into gas stops while sleeping on bench seats and leaning on shoulders for comfort,

drew stick figures while others scrawled notes in the empty space of our math books,

chalk dust and pencils, the boys wearing ties for game day,

tipping that supple, new ball just over the net for side out,

sand showering a halo as the buggie skids and swerves and we scream,

driving further and further, talking with my dad the way we always did,

dressing up for boys and holding hands tight,

my mother’s hands over folds of fabric, sewing my wedding gown,

playing street hockey with taped sticks, blasting pucks against concrete,

riding rollercoasters in the hot summer- hours long lines before squeezing eyes shut and feeling the drop in the stomach,

listening to the lisp of speech in my daughter that melts me, those little girls who stole me with their play pretend and singing,

standing with my husband and holding his hand and feeling grateful and strong as we read psalms at the microphone at Grandpa’s funeral,

speeding through cornfields on fourwheelers, hanging on tight around waist and laughing,

all those letters—letters that poured love to me and our future that were wedged under door handles and wiper blades awaiting me after work,

Preparing the fishing lines for slippery, descaled, gutted, and grilled fish over charcoal with my dear father in law,

Tasting cinnamon almonds mixed with the smell of burnt rubber and cigarettes at the race track,

Working out sadness through words scribbled furiously,

Soaking in the Florida sunshine on bicycles over the boardwalk,

Sparkle and patent leather everything in ninth grade,

Ice cream in bed and PS4 videogames in our college apartment, then working late into the night on term papers,

Wrapped in the Tennesse Smokies and heartache photobooths downtown, stores full of oddities and interests,

Riding subways and clutching pennies and the railing as we ascended the Statue in New York,

Walking through floods of Bears’ gear in Chicago, the World Series at Wrigley, hailing uber cabs late into the night,

Sliding my palms across wet walls, chilled by cold cavern breezes in Kentucky,

Rhythmically rocking on my sick grandma’s lap–she is pat, pat, patting my back,

Sleeping in the hot, sticky Impala with melted crayon on the dash, dad plunges a coathanger for keys down the elevator shaft after sunburns and sunwashed hair,

starfish and lobster in Maine before gravel ripped my knee open,

chips and cards and chinking at the casino tables,

sprinting from home to first base after contacting ball to bat, my arms vibrating and legs swift,

a family parade and fireworks on the freshwater bay and bikerides through the woodland trails and singing with the uncles, cheese curds and the yearly fish boil,

driving to the tiny library with Ingrid Michaelson singing in my ears and cows braying in my sight and sun hot in July,

crystal ice trees and a light snowfall, and mittens for warm, the defroster cranked high to melt the ice,

driving the girls to the barn, observing them brush, and feed, and care for horses,

sitting in the grassy outfield behind the house, watching game after game each summer, just beyond my backyard,

locker combos, and shaving cream fights in grassy lawns on the last day of middle school,

dropping eggs from the roof with our science teacher and marching out Civil War battles around West,

sitting in a whitewashed chapel filled with bare, wooden pews, surrounded by gravestones and singing Holy, Holy, Holy in unison,

oboe reed dipped in water to soften while scrubbing white shoes clean for performance, hooking arms with my best, dear friend of those years who did not forsake me,

words and verses pouring in by memory, reciting over and over and over, branding my soul when I wore ponytails and friendship bracelets,

boat tubing bumpily over rivulets along the following propeller, sipping drinks seated on the hot vinyl seats and sunglasses,

the sway of the boat below deck in the night, the daytime sails pulling us out to the dolphins,

rubbing my hands over old, vintage, wooden drawers with Grandma, sanding off ages of stain,

smelling the books, always smelling the words and the pages,

black and white photographs of young, and pure, and free,

winding through the wooded road with my best friend smelling of coconut suntan oil and lipgloss singing country with the radio,

my son searching for me at night, holding me tight and curling into my lap,

pouring warm rain in Virginia spring sprinting into air-conditioned theaters with popcorn and soda,

and there is more.

More of these moments that come in waves- moments happening in present time, but are extensions of what has come before and what will be.

Much more of this life that leads me.  Music, and language, and art that burrows so deep it aches into the soul.  This charging river flows continually through me, changing and articulating and teaching.  And it brought me to my marriage and to my children and then taught me gratefulness in my heritage.  This covenant and Baptism, they never escape me, but rather resurrect me.

Does marriage resurrect?  Ah, now that is a marvelous beauty to behold.

My Dear Mr. Blum

My dear Mr. Blum,

Junior year of 98-99 is very vivid in my mind for many reasons, your Bible class being one of them.  Juniors and seniors gathered into room one of the first modular of Cooper campus, a jaunt down the road from Gil’s and the old Cooper café.  Our shoes crunched over pea gravel and scraped the concrete before we crammed into the middle schoolers’ desks. I can pull from the cluttered shelves of my mind so many images: the brown carpeting, dusty chalkboard, teenagers scribbling notes, boys with bleached hair flinging rubber bands and launching paper airplanes, girls fixing their ponytails in the narrow bathroom and painting their finger nails.  But when your booming voice signaled like a bell for us to take our seats, all attention was drawn to your mesmerizing way of relating Biblical history to a motley crew of doubtful disciples. We sat silent like young children enthralled with daring tales, legends, and heroes of King Arthur’s court or Troy’s ancient war battles. This was all True and was Big, plunging more depths than we could have dared to hope.  

We all came from various backgrounds and homes.  Yet we were still young men and women who had grown up in churches and had various Christian influence which had drawn us all together into a disjointed, disproportionate body of brothers and sisters forced to grow up together and empathize, love, trust, and forgive to prepare us for higher things still.  (God is so kind to us to give us these glimpses of heaven.) We knew Sunday school stories and had doggedly memorized verses, but then you asked us ethical questions. You brought up moral dilemma. When we thought we knew the right answers about sin and death and suffering and eternal life, you told us to ‘hang on a minute’ as you held your hand up in the air to pause the class and asked us another question right back.  You challenged our preconceptions and assumptions, taught us not to gloss over words like ‘therefore’ or ‘in order that’ within Paul’s letter to the Roman church, and I will never forget your historical explanation of the Roman guard outside of Christ’s tomb. For a band of malleable seventeen year-olds, it was like frantically sucking ragged breath into lungs that have been underwater for far too long.

There are people who can sing ancient things to life with their passion and faith, and you, Mr. Blum, did that every day for your students.  Heritage has this achingly dear place within my soul, and it is precisely because we went to school in dilapidated old trailers where humble teachers rolled their worn sleeves and went to work on what was truly good and beautiful in life, instead of worrying about outward appearances or perfection.  It was so palpable to me my senior year that I dreaded leaving that sacred space. I can never, ever repay that ministry and sacrifice except to do the same in my own classroom of students. I believe that we are the collection, the living legacy of those that go before us, who teach us, who pour into us.  So thank you for that before I was wise enough to know to ask for it, and for seeing the image of God within each student when they often don’t recognize it themselves.

Most affectionately,

Erin (Daam) Uminn – Class of 2000

May, 2018

The History of Home: The Neder Lands

The Dutch rise to wealth and prestige growing out of colonial expansion, Rembrandt, Reformation, and global trade of the 16th and 17th centuries was fading out when Napoleon came to power and the French period began.  While much could be said about the transition that flooded through the country as a whole, the Groningen province villages were incredibly unique.  This province birthed a massive exodus to the United States.

The village province of Groningen is similar to American counties.  While there was and still is an urban city of Groningen close by, several rural villages freckle the agricultural countryside that date back centuries: Zandeweer, Uithuizen, Uithuizermeeden, Rottum, Usquert, among several others. The days are often overcast, cool, and temperate. These villages are several miles apart but close enough that families would relocate over their lifetimes or send their children to find work in the nearby villages.  The landscape is flat, with ancient, powerful windmills rising against the gray horizon.  Located on the most northeast point of the country, the province sinks to meet with the Waal Sea to the north and Germany and Denmark to the east. These lowland villages were heavily written about by Paping.  In his research, he refers to the region as the Groningen clay province.

The agricultural farmland of the Netherlands can be split into three main areas by soil type: sand, peat, and clay.  After centuries of building up the soggy, stagnant acreage with peat digging, water-lifting mills, and dikes, the land was fit for greater settlement.  The Groningen province villages and borgs (farm castles) were built and settled on the rich clay soil; some still stand from as early as the 14th century.  The borgs were constructed  in the Middle Ages to store and house their wealth in crops and create strong fortification against invaders and thieves.  They were profitable and successful during the Dutch golden years into the 18th century.  Even early industrialization did not immediately impoverish the farm villages that were tucked away in their own isolated domain.  In fact, they were so secluded that they remained stable for a relative while.  It was the urban centers of the Netherlands that were first impacted by the industrialization of the world in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Tjarks Hindriks Kremer was named after both his mother and his father.  Tjarks was his mother’s maiden name, Hindriks was his father’s first name.  Tjarks was born and baptized in the midst of the French period in the small village of Zandeweer, 1808. He was one of nine recorded children, all of whom (brothers and sisters) carried their father’s name as their middle name, a Dutch tradition which also indicated legitimacy.  In fact, some of his sisters even had similar first names: Lisobeth, Lizabeth, and Elisabeth.  Were they close friends?

Surnames of the peasant class were recorded with more regularity in the region due to the French influence.  The old traditions and ties of the past were crumbling and hastily rebuilt during the French Revolution, spilling over into the Netherlands at the turn of the new century.  Church and state were beginning to untangle, which had both positive and negative effects on individual and family life.  After the late Middle Ages churches were no longer the sole recorders of family line and history, but civil records were required under the new government, making birth, marriage, resident, and death records more widely available.  While the French period was one of decline from the previous Dutch glory, there were benefits.  Civil records were one of them.

Tjark married Jantje Kornelis van der Til; she was born in 1813 in the Groningen province village of Rottum.  Their parents were of the older, pre-Revolution generation of Dutch farmhands and live-in servants. Both Tjark and Jantje, just five years apart, had relocated to Uithuizermeeden with their families for work and met there.  As unskilled workers they scoured for employment on a day by day basis: tilling the ground, pulling weeds, and bailing hay.  In love at 19 and 24 years of age, they married on November 9, 1832.  The modern mind often assumes teenage marriages were common in all cultures of previous ages, however, the Dutch are known for being a practical and frugal people and the 19th century was no exception but rather facilitated this trait.  It was actually becoming more and more common for individuals to put off marriage until financial stability of some kind materialized.  And yet, Tjarks married his bride when they were incredibly young, even for the era.

Live-in servants in the villages were contracted on a yearly basis, from May to May.  Oftentimes, peasant marriages occurred in May or June, directly after contracts were completed.  However, the fact that Tjarks and Jantje married in November may tell us that Jantje did not have a contracted position for the year, which is consistent with the life of day laborers.  Day laborers were different than farmhands; farmhands were contracted for lengths of time, creating more stability.  As their title indicates, day laborers were lower than farmhands and only given work on a daily basis–work could dry up spontaneously and they could find work only seasonally at best.  It may have been that Tjarks and Jantje had more regular work in their earlier years, but it is doubtful, and after their marriage evidence does not seem to support this.

Another bit of data also signals the reason why Tjark and Jantje married in November versus waiting until spring: Jantje gave birth to their first child, a son, on April 7, 1833 after being married five months.  Dutch marriage records of the time show statistically that it was quite common for couples to rush to marry after finding themselves with child.  If a female day laborer or servant was found pregnant they often lost their employment or were not considered hireable, which likely happened in Jantje’s case either before or shortly after she and TJark were married, tightening their purse strings even further.

Upon little Hindriks birth they quickly added several more children in the 1830s and 40s: Kornelis, Martje, Aafke, and Tamme.  As the industrial period continued to shift the Dutch economy, the Kremers were living and working with a family of five young children–and then the fierce agricultural crisis hit the Groningen province villages, known as the “hungry 40s”.  Crop failure due to crop disease caused widespread hunger, extreme poverty, and sickness.  Day laborers before the crop failure were suffering from poverty-stricken circumstances as it was, because food prices were soaring while their wages remained sluggish and static.  There was a growing demand for agricultural produce across the globe, and the Dutch farm owners subsequently became very wealthy.  In addition, industrial goods were cheap, so the products and tools that farmers procured were inexpensive while their profits rose.  Increasingly, the farm community began to fracture as the farmers rose in status and ceased to work with and among their servants and laborers.  Borgs were once built on a close-knit community structure; in house servants would live among, take their meals with, and learn from the farmer family almost like an adopted member.  Tjarks and Jante’s own parents would have understood this structure first hand. But by the mid 1800’s, the barrier between the classes grew and this was no longer the case.  Live-in servants became less and less popular with farmers as they distanced their families from the low-class employees under their care.  Understandably, this had sacramental repercussions as individuals and families of differing stations were isolated from one another’s lives and ceased to understand each other.

Day laborers were spending approximately 80% of their earnings on food alone.  Many could only afford to rent cramped, sparse homes rather than own them.  They had small plot gardens in which they grew their own basic staples: peas, potatoes, and other root vegetables, along with the possibility of raising a couple of sheep or a cow for added resource.  These were destitute people who relied heavily on potatoes as the bulk of their diet until the famine struck, which drew them into dire straits.  They wore the same clothes day to day, including klompen, the traditional, rough hewn wooden clogs of the period and region, which withstood the mud and muck of farm work and harsh winters. Without support or shock absorption klompen were punishing to the feet, but the Dutch stuffed them with straw for added warmth and barrier.

When crop failure hit, those who were the poorest were struck with starvation, disease, and in some instances, suicide. Tjark Hindriks Kremer was just 37 years old when he passed away in 1846, during the height of the potato famine of  1845-1847.  How and why did this occur?  He died in June, proving  he did not die from lack of fuel and heat in the winter, but may have been suffering from starvation or illness such as tuberculosis or malaria, which were common during this time.  Perhaps there was an accident; possibly he was in despair. In any case, Jantje was a single mother at the age of 32 and her children ranged from 13 to 2 years old during the most vulnerable period of the region and country’s recorded history.  Previously, farmers and even the poorest donated regularly to local welfare relief with the understanding that as they helped their neighbors around them, they would also benefit from such charity if they themselves were ever in need.  Yet, as the effects of the shortage spread, families were reduced to beggarly conditions and there was simply not enough relief to go around.  Ninety-one percent of the province are recorded as Calvinist, and Reformation churches attempted to relieve the destitute, though members were helped first and then aid often ran out.  To cope, it is certain that Jantje had to send Hindrik and his brother Kornelis, ages 13 and 11, to work on farms to keep the family alive.

Their daughter, Aafke, had been born in Usquert, another small village.  This continues to indicate that the Kremers split up or traveled several miles by cart or foot, spreading to adjoining farms just to make ends meet.  After her father’s tragic death, it is likely young Aafke worked as a live in servant cleaning and mending, a job that would have given a small but steady income as well as food and shelter that her mother could not easily provide.  However, if she was a day laborer only she would have weeded farm fields in the spring and found steady harvest work during the later months.  Aafke’s mother remarried after her father’s early death, so she may have been expected to forge her own way, especially because she remained single throughout her twenties.  However, Jantje passed away in 1870 at the age of 57, a normal life expectancy of the Dutch during the nineteenth century, leaving Aafke and her siblings without parents.

Nearby, Thomas Pieters Dam was born in Farmsum in 1815, and Jantje Sebes Neijenhuis was born in Bierum in 1819, contemporaries of the Kremers.  They married in Jante’s home village of Bierum in January of 1839, but many of their children were born in Uithuizermeeden.  The farming villiage of Uithuizermeeden was known during the difficult crop failure to be one of the only villages of security where the farmers hired day laborers most of the year, ensuring that workers would stay in the area when they needed them through the planting, maintenance, and harvesting seasons.  This could be why Thomas and Jantje moved to Uithuizermeeden: to find stability in a volatile economy of shrinking resource.

Then, in 1871, Aafke Kremer found herself pregnant.  She was unmarried, and the knowledge of who fathered her child has been buried as a secret with her.  Was he a soldier who came to the area and left?  Was he in love with Aafke but his family disapproved of her low status?  Was her child the product of a rape?  Was Aafke fooled into thinking that she would be married soon, and her lover left her or denied being the father?  County records never give up these hidden mysteries, though questions linger 150 years later.

Without her mother or a family unit to take her in, Aafke relied on neighbors and friends, and the birth certificate of her son gives clues.  Jantje Sebes Neijenjhuis Dam presided as Aafke’s midwife.  Aafke subsequently named her newborn infant Thomas.  Usually, first names were passed forward from the biological father or grandfather, but the baby’s naming appears to be indication of thanks or intent of recognizing Thomas Pieters Dam, her midwife’s husband.  Less than a year after Thomas Kremer’s birth, Thomas and Jantje’s son Nanning married Aafke and adopted the young Thomas as his own.  Questions rise up like a tide.  Did Aafke know that she would soon marry Nanning, therefore naming her son after her future father in law?  Was it a marriage of love or utility only?  Aafke was 31 years old at the time of her marriage to Nanning, who was just 23.  As previously stated, it was often a bare necessity that individuals wait for marriage until a proper income was established to raise a family, which could indicate why Aafke had waited.  Was Nanning confident of his ability to provide at this time?  Did he see a woman and child in need and fill it?  We may assume that Nanning was secretly the father, but Dutch customs do not support this.  Thomas is listed without a middle name on his birth certificate, a custom for illegitimate children in the Netherlands.  If he had been Nanning’s biological son they would have quickly married as Tjarks and Jante had, and Thomas would have been given Nanning’s name.  Additionally, Thomas’ physical birth certificate  on file in Uithuizermeeden had haunting documentation that  was hand-written in Dutch in the margin from 1874, pulling the observer back to that fateful moment: Nanning was taking Thomas on as his son and adopting him and giving him his last name, though he was not the biological father.  Nanning took Aafke as his wife that year of the noted change on the certificate, when Thomas was not quite two years old.  A year after their marriage they welcomed a daughter together that they appropriately named Jantje, recognizing both of their mothers.

Meanwhile, Willem Jans Allersma was also born in Uithuizermeeden, 1835.  Menna Smit was born in the same village two years later.  As children of the crop failure, their lives would have been one of poverty, difficulty, and hunger.  One of the reasons for this was the population boom that went along with the rise in food costs, disease, and lack of food.  Willem and Menna married in 1861, having a total of nine children over their marriage.  Two of their daughters died in infancy, which was quite common as a result of poverty and disease, but it was also due to the fact that working families did not always breastfeed their children.  Needing to care for multiple children and working jobs to gain a source of income, many women bottle fed their infants, leaving them with the infants’ young siblings for a time.  Oftentimes, the bottles were made with little more than water, and the water was often unsanitary.  Of course, sickness in a peasant family also meant that medical care was scarce.

Willem and Menna’s daughter Martje, nicknamed ‘Mattie’, was born in May of 1873, about a year after Thomas was born in the same village.  The village population was small, in the few hundreds, and it is certain that the Dams and the Allersmas knew each other as they worked and lived close to one another.  During Martje’s childhood her uncle made the trek to the United States to escape the eroding remnants of the old country, sending letters back to the family about the possibilities, opportunity, idealism, and American dream that awaited.  Understandably, many in the Netherlands were practical and skeptic.  To a people used to harsh conditions, work, and early death, it all sounded to good to be true.

Uithuizermeeden village witnessed a young marriage in May 1893, the usual month for marriages after the contract season of day laborers ended.  Thomas Dam, at the age of 21, married 19 year old Mattie.  He was trying to rise above his low station to better their young lives: he is registered as a shoemaker in the village, an artisan craftsman.  One can imagine the kind of shoes he constructed: wooden farm clogs and leather work boots.

After only a couple weeks into their young, spontaneous marriage Thomas and Martje left the only village they knew and traveled 170 miles by train to Rotterdam, Netherlands to board as steerage passengers on a steam ship for New York.  The rail station in Uithuizermeeden was being built at the time of their departure, so they would have taken a cart to the nearest station to journey to the dynamic and energetic city.  Rotterdam’s population was over 200,000 in comparison to Uitheizermeeden’s hundreds. It was a huge metropolis; there were horse car trams, a bustling railway, a fish market, waterworks, and an art gallery.  Thomas and Martje had probably heard about Rotterdam, but were still overwhelmed at the unimaginable commotion of the city. Everywhere they looked would have flashed signs of progress, industry, and innovation.  Dressed in simple cotton and wool farm clothes from a remote hamlet, they looked out of place, though determination to partake in the benefits of this new world pushed them forward.

Martje’s uncle had settled in the middle west of the United States, writing about fortune and the big break they were seeking, if they were willing to work hard.  Thomas, stifled and tired of stagnation in the small village of  his birth due to his status, lack of education, and wealth, he signed a work contract with Kalamazoo Paper Company, Michigan to pay passage for his and Martje’s sail to the United States in June, 1893.  It would be a momentous, life-altering journey of over four thousand miles including horse cart, railroad, and ship. They never saw their families again, each taking two meager bags for their excursion over the Atlantic in third class steerage, though they were optimistic for their future opportunity in a land that promised everything: steady work, food, housing, and a thick network of Dutch community in an up and coming American city.  Their immigration would change the trajectory of their future children in ways unimaginable.

Drukker, J.W. & Tassenaar, V. (1997). “Paradoxes of Modernization and Material Well-Being in the Netherlands during the Nineteenth Century”. Health and Welfare during Industrialization. Richard H. Steckel and Roderick Floud, Eds. University of Chicago Press, 1997. 331-378. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.602.5243&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Hoitink, Y. (2008, September 25). From Winterswijk to Wisconsin: Emigration from the Achterhoek to the United States in the nineteenth century.  Retrieved from https://www.dutchgenealogy.nl/wpcontent/uploads/2011/06/FromWinterswijkToWisconsin.pdf

Paping, RFJ. (2012, November 22-23). Occupations and economic labor activities of nineteenth century Dutch women: limits and possibilities.  Presented in Utrecht. Retrieved from https://www.rug.nl/staff/r.f.j.paping/utrechtnov2012paping.pdf

Paping, R.F.J. (2013, August). Rural poor relief in the coastal Netherlands: from a ‘collective insurance’ to a ‘supplement-system’ (Groningen 1770-1860).  Presented at Rural History Congress, Bern.   Retrieved from http://www.ruralhistory2013.org/papers/1.3.1._Paping.pdf

Paping R.F.J. (2015).  Dutch live-in farmhands and maids in the long 19th century: the decline and near disappearance of the lifecycle servant system for the rural lower class.  Paper presented at 3rd Rural History Conference, Girona, Spain.  Retrieved from https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/26660181/servantspaper.pdf

Swierenga, R.P. (1998, November 17). Place Mattered: The Social Geography of Dutch-American Immigration in the Nineteenth Century.  Lecture sponsored by Calvin College Geography Department.  Retrieved from http://www.swierenga.com/Calvin_lec.html

http://www.ancestry.com personal family tree

 

 

Liturgy

~

Measures tiptoe softly and crescendo, throb and drum, pulsating endemic through my veins and flare.  Disturbing my lazy insides, rousing the listless dust from my stiffened soul.  Stretching like vital, opening like clutter spilling out, these vibrations are ordered even though I am not, organizing my mess for mere moments.  Music is that beauty that worms through me like emotion, transported to my senses and I can hear.  I can smell it. I can feel.  I can taste it.  I can see.  I hum the notes softly.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost…

At birth my feet are stamped in ink and pressed.

Covered in an abundant robe, Grandpa holds my hand as I step next to him and profess.  He holds me in his arms under the warm bath and pulls me up, a resurrection–then whispers in my ears as my eyelashes drip and take a breath.  He records it on parchment in ink.

So each time I enter a classroom, step to a podium, rest in relationship, sit in solitude, there is liturgy.  In all this life the liturgy plays out in millions of microscopic and magnified ways: Prayer, and questions, and warm-ups, and drill, and books that are smelled, and paint that is brushed, and heads bowed in reverence, and hands that hold tight, and secrets whispered in the dark, and tears that splash onto fingers .

They twist my hair back, pin it with pearls, and cover it in white before I embrace a new name and become one with another.  A ritual, forever vow.

Water flows over the children as they are named and marked holy.

We sit to listen, kneel to pray, stand to sing.  Reciting the historic Creed with millions of voices.

Gather– around roasted meats, buttered potatoes, yeasty flaked rolls and herbed cubes of baked stuffing, wines and champagnes, cranberry sweetness and golden, peppered gravy.

Gather– to light candles and hang evergreen and kindle fires in December; we cross with ash, grow new life,  and wave branches in Hallelujah come spring. And then we live life aloud through the warm months, sharing freely and passing wine and bread around tables with laughter and prayer, summertime green and blue and sun.

And in the in between there are keys that turn into locks on thresholds, and the birthing of infants screaming into their world and swaddled in cotton, food and game and drink together with dear ones, singing Our Father to tender ears and eyes and hands,

My heart is cold and covered callous, until I recall all these things: a snapshot of my thirty five years, flashing before my eyes when I lie awake in my bed, unable to rest. All of these liturgies, all of this life, that plays itself out in motion and visibility, that is real and can be touched, that seeps deep into me and changes me and I look upward.  Falling onto my knees in warm embrace.

And do this as a remembrance, break and eat, drink this cup

Love suffers long, and is kind,

present these selves as living sacrifice, transformed in mind,

I thank God for all of you, Beloved I have you in my heart,

may our love abound more to the end,

behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us,

 Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, I AM,

as we do all these things through Him who strengthens us,

blessed are those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are pure in heart, for they shall see God,

faith is the substance of things hoped for and of things unseen,

He gives grace to the humble,

Rise up and walk.

Grace and Peace.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world with out end. Amen.