A Blue Dress, Pansies by Sarah Schwartz

Gram wears Grandpa's gold wedding band on a chain around her neck, along with the delicate silver heart he gave her for their anniversary—was is 25 or 40?—it's hard to remember, there being nearly 70 in all. In the center of the heart sit six small diamonds, bought with the labor of Grandpa's calloused hands—a stone for him and each of their babies.

I'm home for a wedding, held in the small Catholic parish where Grandpa's Dad grew up going to mass, in a town where his last name belongs to half the population. I don't think I've ever heard the story of how Grandpa's parents met, and so I ask Gram.

At 87 years old, she can recite most of our family history in impeccable detail, but this is a story where she can only offer a guess—probably church, after he moved across the river. Sitting down and recording Grandpa as he explained who we come from, and how we got here, was something I always meant to do, but never did. The dead don't just take their secrets.

With a trembling hand, Gram raises a glass of red wine to her lips, making the ice rattle noisily against the glass (don't tell the wine people, she says, but she's always thought red wine was best served cold).

She has just returned from a weekend trip to the dusty town of her childhood several hours south, where she laid fresh flowers on her mother's grave; her husband's recent departure a reminder that none of us have as much time as we'd like, and should go and do what we've been meaning to go and do.  Living in Grandpa's hometown meant that her history never received quite as much attention as his, but lately, stories of her tribe have begun to pour out of her, as if she doesn't want them to leave the earth when she does.

I remember the open casket, she says, recalling her mother's funeral, a woman not even 40, and Gram, only 9. She was in a blue dress, holding a bouquet of blue pansies.

I want these details to live inside of me forever, and so I repeat them, slowly, as if to etch them into the deepest recesses of my memorya blue dress, pansies.

***

I think of this as I wander Grandpa's shop, opening drawers of dusty pieces of furniture, hoping I'll stumble across some long forgotten treasure. A carpenter by trade, and a child of the Great Depression by circumstance, he could never be convinced to throw anything away. On the left side of the shop sits a shelf of empty peanut butter jars filled with screws, nuts, and bolts, above me hang no less than 35 kerosene lamps, and to my right, a set of unfinished kitchen chairs covered in sawdust.

In the final years of his life, Mom and Gram would get rid of things when Grandpa was in town for a doctor's visit, or at the Elks Club making brunch on Sunday mornings. Nine times out of ten, he never noticed that there was one less wooden barrel sitting out in the barn, or that his pocket knife collection was missing a Swiss Army.

We talked a lot about death growing up—maybe that's normal, when you share a home with the elderly, I don't know—but when he'd scold us for trying to throw away something he could "absolutely use", we'd tease him about how long it was going to take us to sort through his shop when he went. He'd just smile, and chuckle from somewhere deep inside his round belly.

Not all of it was peanut butter jars and rusted over carpentry tools—the treasure was out there, too. The cedar chest he built Gram for her high school graduation, just before he proposed. My quadruple Great Grandfather's medical degree from the Netherlands. The piano his mother grew up playing in the family farmhouse we have shared since I was a small child.

Maybe holding on to everything was his way of making sure certain things didn't leave us when he did.

***

Among the most sacred moments of my growing up life were the first few hours of Christmas morning each year, when the six of us—Mom, Dad, Gram, Grandpa, Kate, and myself—would gather to open presents before the extended family arrived for brunch.

As they grew older, I found myself watching them intently, so as not to miss anything about the way they looked on those mornings—Gram in her mint green bathrobe nestled in a maroon armchair, and Grandpa, suspenders holding up his Levi's paired with a white tee shirt in a wooden dining room chair beside her.  I wanted to memorize the lines in their faces and the sound of their chiding each other for buying gifts, when they had specifically agreed not to this year. (This was always the agreement, and it was never upheld.)

I wanted how Grandpa's scratchy cheek felt against my lips, and cadence of his gravely voice saying, "Thank you, sweetheart," (emphasis on the t at the end of sweet and heart) to take up residence in my bones so as to never leave me.

***

The reality I am grappling with now is this— no matter how hard I try to absorb every small detail, there will inevitably be things that slip through my grasp. There will always be some part of their magic that escapes me, stories I was never told, or will forget if I was, as well as pieces of them I will be unable to capture with words after they leave.

Bud has been gone a little over a year now, and some nights my chest contracts with the realization that my children will not know the sight of him perched in a green lawn chair, talking to the rows of corn behind the barn (it helps them grow, he'd say), or the smell of Jack Daniel's mixed with sweat that he'd carry after rewarding himself for a hard days work. They will only have my incomplete retellings, and it will not be the same.

But that will not keep me from telling them—the same way Gram tells me of blue dresses and pansies.

Life Comes Back by Sarah Schwartz

It rained something fierce during the wee hours of the morning—the sound of the steady drops woke me around 2:00am, where I spent a few sleepy moments confused as to where I was. Had I gone home to Oregon? No, no, this was my bed in Southern California, where it almost never rains, and yet, there it was—the sound of earth receiving much needed water, under the cover of darkness. I fell back to sleep.

A few hours later, my alarm went off. The rain had stopped, but the ground testified to the outpouring, shimmering in the sunlight.

I noticed the snow-capped mountains in the distance as I drove to work, only ever visible in the aftermath of winds strong enough to wipe away the smog that permeates Los Angeles County.

A handful of years and a remodel ago, what is now my office, was my friend Alicia's work space. A few years my senior, Alicia worked at the university where I was completing my degree, and had welcomed me to use the space as my own, should I need a moment of quiet, or a private place to shed tears—something, that at the time, I did only as often as I breathed.

I try not to dwell the sensations of that season, but if I close my eyes, I can quickly call to mind it's lead vest like heaviness, or the salt water waves of sorrow that threatened to drag me beneath the surface of the sea.

***

The door of Alicia's office now lists my name—Sarah Schwartz, Graduate Assistant—and earlier this week, I sat by it's floor to ceiling windows that overlook the campus' main walkway, and scribbled a note on the title page of a favorite book.

Dear ———,

This is the book I wish existed during my own shipwreck. I hope it finds you like a friend.

It's ok if you don't (or can't) believe me right now, but I promise, one day—life comes back.

-Sarah

***

Life does, in fact, come back.

Slowly, in fits and spurts, through the hard work of dragging your ass to therapy and taking your medication, and through the faithfulness of friends not so impressed by you as to not tell the truth. It comes through time and the worn edges of poetry books and the albums you listen to endlessly, convinced someone stole your journal and put it to song.

It comes through small miracles—bumping in to that person who said something they probably thought was insignificant, but set a piece of you free, or was a balm to a wound you previously thought would never stop smarting. It comes through yoga for your tight back and spontaneous drives to the ocean to catch the sunset, and through wine on the back porch with it's perfect view of the neighbor's lemon tree.

It comes through celebrating your people like you just got word that birthdays will soon be illegal, and not resisting when they celebrate you in like fashion. It comes not so much through making peace with your flesh and blood frame as much as it does falling in love with the curve of your own hips and the tips of your mile long eyelashes.

It comes through the full body exhale of forgiveness.

It comes through weekly family dinners with your six best friends, and the way your Grandmother says your name.

It comes through the first, and one thousandth time you say aloud, "I can't do this alone."

But life does, in fact, comes back.

***

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

-Derek Walcott

Rules (Stories From Exile) by Sarah Schwartz

If you haven't heard, Nish Weiseth is back in business with Stories From Exile, a writer's collaborative bringing you stories written by outsiders in Christianity, politics, and culture. This project has already been a balm to my soul during these trying times, and I can't wait to see where it goes. Head on over, and check out my latest piece, Rules.

Rules

Keep your legs shut, you are only as good

as the parts you keep covered up

only as pure as what hasn’t been

touched, won’t you tell me again

the rules for my body?

 

Tell me how I should

be treated with respect, unless

a Supreme Court Justice is on the table

until, you have to treat them like shit

won a primary,

before

just locker room talk became the

unrepentant prayer that covered

a multitude of sins.

(Catch the rest of the poem over at Stories From Exile!)

A Lament, A Love Letter by Sarah Schwartz

One of my favorite childhood pictures was taken on my first day of kindergarten, standing shoulder to shoulder with my younger sister—me, with an enormous smile, nearly bursting out of my daisy print dress with excitement, and my sister, arms folded, lower lip at full pout, fuming that she was not yet old enough to be headed to school herself.

It was my first encounter with evangelical Christianity.

When it came time to send me to school, my parents—who were religiously unaffiliated at the time—but aware of Something or Someone they wanted their children to have the chance to know, enrolled us in a local Christian elementary school.

It doesn't take much for me to conjure up vivid memories of Friday morning chapels in the carpeted basement of that creaky old building on Wynooksi Street, learning hand motions to songs about this God who was love, love, and more love. Or sitting criss-cross apple sauce on a carpet square with frayed edges, listening to women with round, kind faces read from leather bound Bibles laying open on the folds of their floor length skirts, telling us stories of a man named Jesus who was a friend of the unlikely and left out, whose message about his Kingdom, where the last were first and the poor were blessed, made the powerful shake in their boots.

In middle school and high school, my teachers would stress that truth not only existed, but mattered, and that character was more important than wealth or pride or appearances.

When the accuser came, they'd say, recounting the old gospel story, offering Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world and their splendor in exchange for his worship, he refused, citing the command to worship the Lord our God, and serve him only.

For what good would it be, to gain the whole world, but lose your soul?

***

It was my evangelical college that first taught me about justice—that God's very heartbeat was for the restoration and redemption of all things. Want to know about true religion? they'd quote from the book of James. True religion is to care for widows and orphans in their time of need.

They said the world would know us by our love, and as the Good Book stresses, we were supposed to love the immigrant and the refugee in particular—anyone whose color, creed or class made them vulnerable. After all, as the beloved disciple wrote, no one has ever seen God, but if we love each other, God's love comes alive in us, and is brought to full expression in us.

They told tales of Israel's prophets calling Kings to account for their mistreatment of the poor or their exploitation of women. God didn't care about ritual for ritual's sake—no, the true worship he desired was that we treat each other justly, love mercy, and walk humbly!

He gave justice and help to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. Isn't that what it means to know God? Or so said Scripture.

And Scripture? It was to be believed and obeyed, even when it was inconvenient or difficult, or came with personal or public cost. Moral relativism was dangerous, they said, a slippery slope. But happy was he who walked in the ways of the righteous, whose path was lit by the lamp of God's word.

One of their most loved soap boxes was the belief that every life was precious, and worth defending. The sanctity of life! they'd say with conviction. Human dignity! Each one made by God!

It wasn't until many of them started coming up with reasons why black boys deserved to die, that I wondered if it just applied to babies.

***

Over the past year, I've questioned every last bit of it.

Jesus? I still love him. I still think his is the most radical, inclusive, soul searing message I've ever heard. I still believe his heart beats for justice, and that his love is fierce enough to make everything broken in us beautiful again.

But I've wondered about this community, that was supposed to be his hands and feet, the ones who, for a time, would not be caught in public without their colorful fabric bracelets that asked what would Jesus do? Did they still believe all the things they once told me were true?

I've wept and screamed and lost sleep for local, national, and world events, but on a more personal level, for the tradition that birthed me, that so often finds reason to give up the very people we are called to protect for thirty pieces of silver. For truly, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me.

And in the ensuing quiet, I whisper, Father forgive me.

Forgive me for the self righteousness that so desperately wants to believe that none of what I protest, is alive and well in me.

For all of it is, in one form or another—prejudice, pride, greed. Fear of the other, & that which I do not understand. A belief in my own superiority to those who do not look or think or talk like me. A desire to be absolved of the ugliness in my own heart, without first making recompense to those I've caused pain.

I am not so different from what I grieve in the church that bore me.

***

Maybe this is the moment it all burns down, the great match that generates enough heat to melt our golden calves into the puddles of nothing they were all along. I've got a few things to throw onto the fire, and watch turn into embers swirling above the heap.

Maybe this is the decisive in-break of the Spirit, offering us a chance to break free of our allegiance to anything but Christ, and rise from the ashes as something more holy and true than we were before.

To be, as it were, born again.

2016. by Sarah Schwartz

At the beginning of 2016, I spent a sub zero weekend in Minnesota, because love is weird, and it demands that we give weight to our words with our hands and our feet and our presence.

I welcomed 25 with the confession that the first half of my twenties have been hard—but that the hard years have not been without provision, and the hard years will not last forever.

On Valentine's Day, my friends and I raised our glasses to those who have loved and lost us, wishing them well, wherever they were, hoping that they, too, were surrounded by friends that night.

I wrote of the long line of remarkable women from which I come, a reminder that I’m not fighting to be a beautiful and powerful and respectable human person; I already am. We already are.

My Grandparents sold the little house in the desert, graciously giving me several pieces of furniture that once adorned it's rooms, and I laughed at the poetry of taking pieces of that wild and terrible and wonderful summer with me into the future.

As a celebration of Women's History Month, the incredible Emily Joy captured the fear so many of us carry, of being simultaneously too much, and yet not enough. Too loud, too opinionated, too stubborn, too angry, too sad–not quiet enough, not submissive enough, not pliable enough.

I sobbed in my California kitchen and took shots of whiskey with my best friends at the news that my sweet Grandpa, with whom I shared a home for 18 years, and whose childhood bedroom I called mine 70 years after he called it his, was dying.

I revisited a piece I originally wrote as a celebration of Sarah Bessey's Jesus Feminist, on the radical nature of Jesus' Kingdom, where enemies become friends, God becomes man, the dead sit up and talk—the last are first, the poor are blessed, and the person who gives everything away gains it all in the end.

I had the honor of helping put together Biola University's Sexual Violence Prevention Week, featuring Eugene Hung of Feminist Asian Dad and activist Amy Buckley. (If you are a survivor of sexual assault in need of resources, please click here for confidential and swift support.)

I had the privilege of preaching at The Table Church in Washington DC, a community of "people who desire to look more like Jesus and join God in the renewal of all things."

In a, you-wouldn't-believe-it-if-I-told-you unfolding of events, I was offered the job of my right now dreams, and received word that my master's program is reducing it's number of required classes, moving graduation from something I thought would happen on the 12th of never, to something I can practically taste. (Seriously. Both of those things happened.)

I had coffee with an old friend, and I think I can tell you now how it feels when a wound turns into a scar.

I cried in the aisle seat of a Los Angeles bound plane for the flesh and blood image bearers who have repeatedly been disparaged and debased in the public square this year, and for the ways the gospel has been bastardized to support the injuring of the vulnerable.

My friend Ellie Hughes of Selflessy Styled shared the why behind her passion for ethical fashion. (This is my project for the new year---no more clothes made by slaves. Join me!)

The thing we were all pretty sure wouldn't happen, happened, and the grief nearly knocked me over. But it also inspired me to get to work, and I hope you will, too.

In 2016, I did my best to live a life of small faithfulness followed by small faithfulness, to love my people, to cause some trouble, and to be kind, even to myself. As always, thank you, dear reader, for being along for the ride.

Until next year, I'll leave you with the words of Chinaka Hodge, and her magnificent original poem, "What will you tell your daughters about 2016?

"When she asks you of this year, your daughter, whether your offspring or heir to your triumph, from her comforted side of history teetering towards woman, she will wonder and ask voraciously, though she cannot fathom your sacrifice, she will hold your estimation of it holy, curiously probing, 'Where were you? Did you fight? Were you fearful or fearsome? What colored the walls of your regret? What did you do for women in the year it was time? This path you made for me, which bones had to break?'"

 

 

Love,

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