Beautiful Day

It’s a beautiful day. The sky is periwinkle blue. Across a cornfield lie the brown hills of the coastal range, the ridgeline so clear I could cut it from the sky with a scalpel. It’s hard to imagine just two weeks ago, the sky was so orange with smoke that people were recreating scenes from Blade Runner in downtown San Francisco.

This year has been set up to mean so many things. In January, it was a year of promise, a phenomenon this world won’t witness again for a thousand and one years. “Will you do something for me this year, God?” That’s what I prayed. Take some action, move my life forward. I tried not to be specific, but there were things I’d been waiting for: a house, a career, a book, a car, a man. I had put in my time. I felt like I had been faithful and patient. And slowly, like steady drops in an empty bucket, I had begun to see results.

In the beginning of 2020, I felt I had grown to be more trusting. More loving toward who God made me. More beautiful, more at peace. I won a scholarship to attend a writing conference and I was having dreams.

And then, March.

I actually don’t remember the week all hell broke loose in our country. When skyscrapers were collapsing all around me, coming down like the Twin Towers. One then the other. Things I had been hoping for, praying for, suddenly gone. And voices in authority telling me it was all for my own good.

So I rebelled. I fought against the taking of things: freedom. Common sense. Community. I found myself surrounded suddenly by tape marks on the pavement, masks, and shuttered windows. Nauseating mantras were slung around: “we’re all in this together,” “stay safe.” For a week, I hid, too. Then when my adrenaline expired, I was left standing alone in the ashes of a changed world.

But has it changed?

I walk into a forest. The trees stand mighty in the wind. The river flows steady by my feet. Out here in farm country, the melons and the pumpkins are growing. The almonds have been harvested–it’s a strong crop this year. Outside on my new back porch, my morning glories are blossoming, moon-discs of purple among the heart leaves. The plants haven’t heard of the Coronavirus.

Neither, it seems, has God. In July, He gave me a house. In August, He gave me a car. Fourteen years of waiting, and in the midst of fires and riots, He gave me blessings. So I asked Him about it. Why now, God? Why 2020?

He answered.

“This year is what I say it is.”

Not politicians. Not doctors. The narrative we’re living is still God’s story, and while we scurry around like ants on a hill that’s been flooded, He still holds the pen. And he’s always writing.

Now it’s September. There are still three months left in the year.

I can’t wait.

Living History

Circa 2013, Winner of the Nonfiction Award in CCU’s literature anthology, “Paragon”

The bridge over the dammed pond climbed north, but I leaned west over the railing at the highest point of the arch. On either side of me, the short walls of a ravine widened like legs opening towards the ocean beyond. Stamped through a ground cover of seaside daises, a trail led down to the beach, past a stagnant pool. It’s rotting, tongue-coating smell puffed upstream: a combination of freshwater runoff from the pond and saltwater from high tide. Beyond, waves thrust themselves on the shore, and sharp black birds picked through the kelp carcasses on the sand.

Below my position on the bridge, fat koi circled beneath the pond’s gray-green surface. Orange, gold, and white, some floated in the shallows, translucent fins waving lazily. I watched as one by one they poked up their sun-starved lips and gulped in a breath of air. The ripples spread like concentric sound waves, interrupting each other. I was waiting.

***

In third grade, my homeschool group took a field trip to Riley’s Farm. My mother, siblings, and I drove in our blue minivan two hours from the chaos of Southern California, far enough into the hills of Oak Glen to feel like country. The instant we parked, I scrambled from the van and my tennis shoes touched down on loose gravel. The air wasn’t cold, yet it still carried the baiting mystery of autumn.

The nineteenth-century-costumed interpreters guided our tour around the seven-hundred acre farm. We were turned loose in their infamous apple orchard, whose trees broke from the ground like gnarled skeleton hands, clustered with fluttering yellow leaves. My brother, sister and I picked their fruit with long-handled harvesting poles. We brought the apples to a cider press: a bearded man helped us turn the iron crank and crush them. The frothy juice dribbled from the chute, clear as liquid sap, and collected in a wooden tub. Into this we dipped sticky tin cups. It was good.

Above the reconstructed general store, up a steep hill at the edge of a field stood a tiny cabin. Inside, I was offered a pioneer girl’s dress to wear—complete with matching peach sunbonnet and white apron. When I emerged grinning from within, my mother gasped.

“You’re so beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Let me take your picture.”

I posed on the cabin’s porch, hands caressing the railing’s wood posts, grained with age. My calico sleeves puffed above my shoulders and my bell-like skirt ruffled in the wind; I breathed in the valley stretched below, the deep earth. I felt beautiful and firm, planted by my leather-bound feet, through the worn floorboards into the brown soil. I straightened my spine, standing tall in my prairie dress, thick and happy with the weight of dreams brought to life.

These people—the buckskin-clad frontiersmen who lived in the forest, the reenactors teaching me to dip candles, the smiling man with the apple press—these were my people. An anchoring came to me then as I stood on the porch, dense as an iron lance driven into the earth.

***

Beauty is a target for destruction. That’s why fish hide in algae-infested ponds—why I rarely see them leap from the water. I watched from the bridge for an hour. Maybe once, and only then out of the corner of my eye, did I catch the quicksilver flash of scales and the slap of a body against the water. It’s cold and dry above the surface. If they stay out too long, they won’t die from lack of oxygen—they die because the enormous weight of gravity slowly crushes their organs.

***

One summer, I visited a water park with some of my closest friends. They wore bikinis, I a navy one-piece from my swim team. They giggled behind their hands at the shirtless teenage boys, I hid behind them and prayed no one would notice my flat chest.

During lunch on the particle-sand beach, they spoke to me between delicate bites of five-dollar hamburger. 

“There’s this new ride called the ‘Fearsome Threesome.’ We really want to go on it, but it like, has a super long line and we don’t want to like, leave our stuff here that long.”

I swallowed my egg salad sandwich. “No problem. I can wait here.”

“Really?” Their awkwardness smoothed into relief, like they’d been running across burning concrete and I’d given them cool sand to leap to. “That would be like, so cool. Thanks.” They gathered up the remains of their meal and pranced away.

I waited, finished my sack lunch. I sucked dry my CapriSun juice pouch with the abstract surfer printed beneath the flavor: ‘Fruit Blast.’ Lounging on my beach towel in the shade of an umbrella, I watched the people in the aqua-blue wave pool bob up and down. Their bodies hung through the center of their floaty donut-tube holes like shark bait, their legs a kaleidoscope of shadow beneath the crinkled surface. After an hour, I joined them. I appropriated one of the yellow rings floating in the deep end and let the water bear me as it would. My eyes flickered between the families in the pool, hoping they wouldn’t notice a twelve-year-old alone in the adult section, but my gaze always returned to the abandoned umbrella and beneath it, our towels. I waited, fingers and toes pruning, arms burning, stretched across the hot rubber. Frustrated, I dragged my body out and air-dried in the sun. I asked an employee where the ‘Fearsome Threesome’ ride was.

“We don’t have a ride called ‘The Fearsome Threesome.”

I thanked him and left the beach, into the shadows of the eucalyptus trees.

***

I learned to exist then, to float beneath the surface. The sunlit shallows, where the territorial battles were fought among the most worthy, no longer permitted me. Instead, I circled above the black depths of the pond’s center. Weeks became months, became years. With time, the maddening redundancy of life as a merry-go-round severed any remaining nostalgias I kept for the surface. I explored the canyons and trenches of the deep ocean—the last frontier, that sun-starved no-man’s land. Super-heated vents scalded my face as I passed. Crimson tube worms fanned me with their ribbon-like tendrils. Overhead, twinkling lights became my own personal stars—other fish who, like me, had forsaken the disillusionment above and embraced blind darkness.

But, water pressure crushes as irrevocably as gravity. Feelings have an odd way of bobbing to the surface, despite how desperately I held them under. For me, they erupted in panic attacks and anxiety disorder; my toxic pit of refuge struck violent and hard. When nothing remained, I ventured to the surface and sniffed the changing air—it tasted of salt, of freedom. So I left.

The concrete slab damming the pond received drops of water from my tailfin as I leapt over it. I wiggled downstream: the trickling current pushed me onward. At the end, a sandy puddle received me.

***

My family moved three hundred miles north during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. We came to the country: to “aa’mond” and peach orchards, dairy farms and oak trees. In March, a neighboring town hosted their annual Civil War Reenactment at a covered bridge. The Stanislaus river ran below short, steep hills. Across it was built the historic bridge—a warm, long tunnel planted in gray rock.

Seated in the grass on the north hill, I watched the battle begin below me. From across the river, a prelude of artillery thunder pounded into my chest, accompanied by orange fire snorted from the cannons. From my right, onto the battlefield marched a row of comically fierce Yankee soldiers in baggy red pants and white turbans. Gold tassels swung behind their heads, attempting to keep up with their march. Their commander formed them into a skirmish line and they dropped into the grass. From my left, a column of gray Rebels marched down the dirt road towards them. The sharp crack of rifle fire popped in my ears, and my eyes stung with sulfuric gunpowder. A larger column of blue soldiers emerged from the bridge’s tunnel, coming to reinforce the red men. The skirmishers counted their loses—three out of seven dead—and rejoined their battalion’s ranks.

After the battle, my mother sought out the soldiers in red: we found their tents in the Union encampment. They were Zouaves, esteemed for their berserker-like ferocity.

“You might say the Zouave style, at the time of the Civil War, was very dashing and suave,” one of the soldiers joked. “You look like an able young body. How would you like to join the ranks? We’re always in need of more fresh meat—I mean defenders of freedom.” He winked.  

When I came home that night I sought out my father.

“Guess what, Dad? Your daughter joined the army.” I was on the battlefield the next day.

***

 I didn’t know I was waiting for the tide until it found me. In the stagnant tributary pond a salty concentration infused my gills. There was something familiar in its sting—something I didn’t remember I’d forgotten. The seawater rushed, fluid, around my face—I surrendered and let it carry me out to sea.

***

One reenactment was along the coastline north of San Francisco, near Duncan’s Mills. We set up our three camps on opposite sides of an L-shaped clearing: Union, Confederate, and Sutlers—traveling merchants who serviced the armies. Beyond the oaks hovering along the tree line, the forest leaned towards the clearing. Pungent eucalyptus and silent redwoods watched and waited for the briefest moment of inattentiveness to creep forward, return to their land.

In preparation for battle, my unit marched with the rest of the battalion into the shadow of the trees. The redwoods which outside had seemed stern as living stone became vibrant columns. Gathered cities of broad, green ferns huddled like chicks beneath the redwoods’ branches, encouraged into lush vulnerability. I breathed deep, and it infused my blood with sweet pine and dense, rotting bark. 

The forest’s intoxication remained in me still when, after a late-night dance, I made my way alone across the moonless battlefield. The Union encampment contentedly climbed an uphill section of the clearing. Authentic to the nineteenth-century, only candles and kerosene lanterns lit the camp. They’d been hooked on any convenient projection—dog tent poles, curved stakes—or sat happily on boxes and tables.   

Crossing the field, my leather brogans whispered silently on the cropped brown grass. The camp’s lantern lights appeared as golden stars. The hill was dotted with them—warm beacons among the white tents—tiny against the blackness of the trees. Suddenly, for a lightning-brief second, my vision narrowed like a hawks’ and I felt every detail: the scratch of woolen blankets against my grimy cheek, the rusted metallic taste of hot water from my canteen, the deep peace in the night before the chaos of war. I was there, marching across the rising field to the brothers I would die beside tomorrow, to the world—my world—of 1864.

It was beautiful.

***

In the eyes of a single fish, the ocean is small. A fish knows only her crevice in rock, the best place to feed, where the predators are. Even the migratory fish keep to the trail. Breaking from tradition earns rejection: the banished morph from fish into sea anemones and anchor their malleable bodies onto rock, withdrawing their delicate tentacles into themselves. They wait, they starve. Some die. Their eyes grow weary with searching until, somehow, they find another.

The miracle is in the finding. Sea anemones do move—they creep over coral and sand slowly, slowly. That two such creatures would simultaneously pass is exceedingly rare; that they would extend one or two feelers and acknowledge the other is astounding. When they do, if the shock doesn’t exile them back into hiding, just meeting another of their kind becomes enough. They aren’t alone. Buoyed on encouragement, they rise together to the surface. Perhaps, even, they scratch at their anemone skins—peel them away—and, pink and raw, rise from the surf into the sunlight.

March 2020

Right now, looking out the window you see chaos. Empty shelves, long lines. Locked doors and six-foot isolation zones. It feels like the world’s being torn apart, but I see people coming together.

At Rite Aid, I see a family holding up the checkout line with a cart full of Coke and a notebook of coupons. Six of them, arguing in Spanish with the cashier, but arguing together. Friends are riding their bikes along the quiet neighborhood streets. I see a family of five walking together on a spring afternoon, the brother and sister holding hands.

People are talking now. Strangers in line. Isn’t this crazy? I’ve never seen anything like it. And they laugh. The girl behind the print counter at Staples (Asian) laughing with a customer (black) about how to make hand sanitizer with vodka and aloe vera, and them both glancing at me in line (white) to see that I’m laughing, too. The cashier at Target asks me how I’m surviving the end of the world and I say she has cute glasses. Because they are cute, but maybe before, I would have swiped my credit card and she would have called “next,” and our stars would have touched shoulders for a moment, then drifted on.

It’s spring. It’s a beautiful spring. The cherry trees are blooming, the tulips are unfolding. I saw a mother hen with eleven yellow chicks in the grass on the side of the road. In the driveway in a neighborhood, two men were home from work, sitting in lawn chairs and talking in the sun.

It’s a blessing. Time. Days to be still. Hours to sit on the porch and read, to pick up the paintbrush, to call your cousin in Texas and ask how are things over there, are you okay? I just wanted to hear you’re okay.

It makes me think of World War II. I wasn’t alive then, but was it a little like today? All of a sudden people fighting the same enemy, caught in the rapids of things they can’t change. Weddings, flights, birthdays, conferences, home groups cancelled, everything bound up and reigned in with a jolting halt. Because we’re all in this together. Our enemy is the same, and it isn’t each other.

In the end, the fear will mist away. The sun will rise, the dream will end, and we’ll sweep up the shattered glass and the broken chairs. We’ll scrub the smoke stains from the walls, button on the suit, and go back to work. But maybe we’ll take something with us. A memory of three weeks of stillness when the Corona virus came to town and we survived and got the t-shirt. Do you remember March 2020? They sent me home from school, I played video games for a month and my mom almost killed me. Those were some good days.

Worthy

This is for anyone who doesn’t know what is going on. You’ve done everything right. You’ve checked all the boxes. You went to college and made the honors list. You buy organic groceries using your own bags. You give coffee to the homeless guy standing on the island in the center of the street. You’ve gone to church since you were in your mother’s womb. And God doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo.

You know he doesn’t work like that. He’s not a tame lion. But you were hoping. It seemed to work for other people. There was a woman in my church who prayed for her student loans and she received a check in the mail for $30,000, and she brought it to church and held it up, crying, saying God answers prayers. But my student loan account is still full, and I’ve been on income driven repayment since graduation. At this rate, I won’t pay it off until I die.

Does it feel selfish? Asking for a miracle? Asking God, I’ve been the other son. The non-prodigal. The one who stayed at home and tended his father’s flocks while his brother ran off to Vegas, and you haven’t given me a lamb to celebrate with my friends. Why do other people get married, have kids, have boyfriends, and here I am in the corner, a shadow on the wall. I’ve never kissed a guy. No one’s ever asked.

Then here it comes, the guilt. Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow. Oh, praise the one who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead. Oh, praise the one who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead. Jesus.

It slaps you across the face. Who am I? Who am I to demand a little respect, a little golden sprinkle down from heaven once in a while? What has all this been for, all these years, dragging myself to church, writing the ten percent checks, raising my hands in worship, trusting God will make all things work together for my good? That he has a plan for me, and his plan is good, and I have a hope and a future. Where is the hope? Where is the future he promised?

Is it right now? Am I living in the future now, is all this part of his plan, or was it right, what that man told me who said God loved Jacob because Jacob put in the sweat and he put in the time. God honored Jacob for asking seeking knocking searching striving after God, shaking the pillars of heaven until letters rained down from God’s desk, secret notes that slipped from the surface and dropped through the clouds. Blueprints no one had seen, not even the angels, because they were still just sketches in God’s mind. But Jacob shook and he asked and he wrestled with God, because that’s what God really wants, someone who can throw a punch. Not some whining crying little girl in the closet with a pile of snotty tissues, begging God please please please listen to me. Hear me. I want to know you. I don’t care what you do for me or don’t do for me. I just want to know you. Be close to you. Why aren’t you here?

I know it doesn’t matter. The little things I see each day, reminders that I’m still on Earth. But I am still on Earth. This is where I live, because this is where God began my story. And I’m here, with the dust and the smog and the blossoming almond trees and the Corona virus, and the orange and purple sunset smeared across the watercolor sky. And on Earth, it matters when you gain twenty pounds. After you signed up for the gym and pushed through the pain went on that boring diet and what do you know, it worked! You lost twenty pounds. And then two years later, you have too much birthday cake and gain it all back. But every time I look in the mirror, I see that cake pudging out from my belly and the fear crawls over me like a spider, saying now you’ve gone and done it. And it grins a wicked smile.

That’s not God. I don’t know what he’s doing up there in the yonder. But it’s not him, the voice that’s sneaking over my shoulder saying you’re not good enough, you’ll never be good enough, did you think he was paying attention? He’s too busy for you. He’s got wars and starving orphans in Africa and the untouchables in India and the underground churches in China. He’s got the whole damn world in his hands. What are you? Little miss disappointed American.

But God sees me. I know it. Because last weekend I sprained my ankle in the parking lot outside of In-n-Out, just walking off a curb. And while my brother was driving me home, when I still couldn’t think because my ankle was throbbing and how am I going to pay for this and I’m not going to get to go backpacking this summer, I heard a little voice. A nudge in my chest, like God’s hands reaching down through the filaments of heaven and encircling my heart, saying he’s here.

That’s all.

He’s here.

And sometimes, I think that’s all he needs to say.

Mercy Snows

Denver is a curious place. Here, the saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” It’s winter in Denver: earlier this week, it was sunny and sixty outside. I went hiking. The next day, it was snowing. I like to think there’s a magician who lives up in the mountains, practicing his weather control. He gets away with it, you see, because people attribute the weather to the mountain range messing with air currents. I digress.

A few days ago, I was sitting quietly in the morning watching the snow fall–fat, white, conglomerate flakes drifting down from thin clouds. I’ve been feeling lately that I’m in a sort of winter. I’m in a quiet time of my life, waiting for the seeds I’ve planted to take root, watching the world exist and move around me. But me, I’m here–waiting like a solitary, bare tree in a field. From what I can see, very little seems to be happening to move me forward into the next active phase. And I’m not sure I want to move there.

The interesting thing about the winter, though, is its stillness. It’s in the winter that snow falls, accumulates. This snow builds up a store of water which nourishes the world for the rest of the year to come. In the west, most of our water supply comes from snow melt. In years with a dry winter, the west goes into a drought–again. 

Winter is beautiful. It is rest, quiet. I don’t have to do so many things. Because of the cold, I am drawn inside to the intimacy of fellowship with God and with other people. Each snow flake is a unique raindrop of His mercy, frozen in a delicate shape just for fun, packaged in ice for the long haul. They fall in the coldness of grief, or pain, or weariness. Yet there is a shelter from the cold: Christ, and houses with heaters and cozy blankets. And even while God is sheltering me, He’s building up a snow pack within my heart: truths learned in the quietness, moments of simply resting in Him and enjoying His presence.  Long conversations with good friends. Standing by the window watching the snow fall, allowing myself to watch the world with the eyes He gave me. God is a fantastic multi-tasker.

I saw all this in the flakes falling outside my window: individual miracles, and so many thousands of them. My toothbrush. Light particles. Fingernails. When I go brush off my car, I’m scooping blankets of mercy onto the ground. 

Thank you, Lord, for your mercy snows. For stillness, and for my toothbrush. 

 

  

The Beginning

And so it begins: a single letter becomes a word, a word joins a sentence, sentences compile into paragraphs, and somehow you’ve written entire pages, and you have a blog. Blog…that’s an interesting word. I believe it’s short for “web log,” but I haven’t researched it. If you know the background of that word/term, please feel free to enlighten me. Do you ever wonder about words? Where did it come from, why do we use it instead of another combination of syllables and sounds: a rose by any other name, right? Does that work with names, too? If I were named Angelica instead of Charlene, would my life be any different? My parents considered naming me Angelica. I don’t mind that name, but I’m glad they picked the one they did. I don’t feel like an “Angelica,” if stereotypes are allowed.

Hello, welcome to my blog! I have this crazy idea that someday I’d like to be a writer. But then I learned that “someday” won’t come unless I get out and start working to make it come. That’s why I’m in college at Colorado Christian University near Denver working on my BA in English, with an emphasis in creative writing. I’ve hoped to be a writer and novelist since elementary school, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I had the brilliant idea to work harder at improving my writing, and college was a good place to do that! Funny how those obvious things don’t really hit you until you’ve rolled through the sandpaper of life and sit up, blinking and rubbing your skinned knees, realizing Mommy can’t kiss and make this one better. You have to push yourself up. It’s tough and cold, but I think those times make the warm ones sweeter, gives them more substance.

And so I acknowledge my own audacity to hope. I work, play a bit, and work some more. But always there’s this songbird of hope, like in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Sometimes I shoo the bird and fume when it insists on staying. Hope is so unreasonable. Maybe that’s why we hold onto it so tightly, because it insists on belief in the miraculous. What do you think?