On Keeping Broken Things

cumberland river - Copy

Winter, 2015

I am standing at the edge of another year. I am standing at the edge of another year and find myself drawn back to the woods, back to the hidden spot on the river where I can be alone. As I walk to the water, my feet trace the familiar path and quiet surrounds me. Seagulls and herons glide low, cutting through wind, bathing in light. River rocks, broken glass, the rusted bones and bolts of old machines, and dried clam and bullet shells encircle me. I know in the months to come, this same sun, with its warmth pushing through the chill of wind, will raise winter’s dead, calling us all out of our tombs.

As I sit by the river, everything around me slows, and again, I find my breath. I breathe in the cold, damp air, feel the wind pushing against my body, and remember who I am.

I am the descendant of coal miners and educators, farmers and physicians. I grew up in the foothills of South Carolina and spent my childhood making forts, turning over river rocks, and swimming in lakes. I came to know the darkness of addiction, depression, and dysfunction early on. Our family covered and carried that darkness like a festering wound and we learned to push forward and even to step out of its shadow and play. Gradually, as the generations roll on, those of us who survived are learning how to let the light in, to heal. We’re remembering why we have hope in the midst of such brokenness.

coldJust across the river from here, there is a catacomb-like cave where a man named Ken has lived for three years. He digs through trash cans for food and half-empty beer bottles and then scoots down the steep bank to his home. His skin is blackened with dirt, his hair caked in a strange dust. He barely talks, but we found him when the cold hit and he came into the emergency shelter at Green Street Church. It was his first time to sleep inside in years. Gradually, he began to warm up to us. He smiled when we remembered his name, let us tend his weary, blackened feet, and let us find him better shoes. Then, he began to open up. “It all started when the kids were killed,” he said. He muttered shattered fragments of stories and said he was some kind of sniper years ago. And his tangled trauma bled through his words.

I have no interest in “fixing” or domesticating Ken. He has survived alone for who knows how long and at least now, he knows he’s not alone, he knows that if he’s ever ready to talk about healing or resources, we’ll be here. And lately, even on Wednesday nights when it’s not as cold, I’ve seen him come to Green Street’s service and stay for the meal afterward. He has come out of his cave, emerged from the tomb, still wrapped and reeking. From here, his journey will move forward on his own terms.

So I look back and I look forward with open hands, letting go of my urge to fix and save, letting go of all expectations and concerns. “I will keep broken things,” writes Alice Walker. “Their beauty is they need not ever be ‘fixed.’” Yes, I will keep the covered, shadowy things, wounded and caked in dust. And I’ll hold the cracked and ruined pieces in my open hands toward the light.

 …

country5 - Copy (2)This last year has been a whirlwind with highs and lows that left me reeling. Nearly 100 of the men, women, and children we journeyed alongside are off the streets. The barriers we pushed through to help them get into housing were significant and, at times, nearly insurmountable. And while obtaining housing is a huge victory, they’re all still swimming in varying forms of brokenness. Aren’t we all? There is no silver bullet for the human condition, for struggle, for trauma, for grief. Leonard Cohen sings that light comes in through the cracks, through the crevices, through the brokenness, and I hope with all my heart that he’s right.

Even as we celebrate the people who are now off the streets, we also mourn the people we’ve lost and we continue to walk “with those beyond help,” as Dorothee Söelle says. Dave, the seizing man, is now in another state (or in jail) and I wonder if he’s still unraveled, I wonder if he’s still haunted by the damaged memories of things that never happened. Several months ago, as we were passing time in the emergency room, I asked him about the tattoos on his arms. In the middle of a myriad of ink and symbols and flames, I noticed ravens on each of his wrists. “Ravens have always followed me,” Dave said, gripped. “One time, in East Tennessee, three ravens landed on the hood of my car, hopping up and down and flapping their wings. They wouldn’t let me leave.” So he had them inscribed on his body, a reminder of the darkness that follows him.

On the shaded, maze-like trails that snake through the Kentucky hillside surrounding Gethsemani, I once found the dark, sleek feather of a raven. I took it with me, cleaned it, and made it into an earring that I wear on days when I need to connect to my own brokenness and darkness. Just weeks before I found the feather, I was walking on a wooded footpath in Shelby Park when I heard the sharp cry of a wounded raven. I looked in time to see his dark eyes catch mine as he lifted into a nearby tree. Did he want me to see his pain? I watched him for some time, entranced by the confidence and beauty shining through his wounds. He took his time smoothing his wings with his beak as his sleek feathers reflected the light.

elijah and the raven 2It is written that ravens are birds of myth, legend, and prophecy, carrying life and death in their wings. They are brothers of the crow, friends of gods and warriors, protectors of saints and cities. Ravens make sense of the signs and carry nations on their backs. So what of this wounded raven, perched in the tree, his darkness calling to me like song? Lost in thought, I lowered my gaze and when I glanced back, he was taking off. I can still hear his labored flight echo through the trees and I can’t shake the thought of him. So I wear the feather as a reminder of darkness, of brokenness, of mystery. Yes, I will keep dark and broken things, sleek and splintered, seizing and frayed, and I will hold the past, present, and future, with open hands so they, too, can fly away, wounded or whole or somewhere in between.

The other month, I spent an entire day with Phillip from the riverside camp. We were successful in defending his camp from closure by the police, but the time had come to move on, to clean the camp up and to shut it down. The guys were all transitioning from the streets to housing and this was the next step. We had held the camp for as long as we could and winter was just around the corner. Phillip was the last man standing and was beside himself with grief. This chapter of his life was coming to a close and he was stepping into uncharted territory—detox, rehab, and being reunited with his mother and daughters up North.

IMAG1564All of Phillip’s belongings that weren’t going with him were tossed into a towering bonfire that gave off a thick black smoke. Into the fire went the posts and plywood walls that held up his make-shift home, the cushions of the old red chair, the expired food and all his clothes and keepsakes that were beyond repair. He stared through the flames and smoke as we pulled apart the remaining shell of his home. He said the flames were like the flames of hell, and as we worked, an unexpected anger came over me. Yes, this is the kind of hellish society in which we live—where Phillip is forced to disassemble and burn his own home because the land he has cultivated and turned into a sanctuary is the property of a private corporation in another state.

I left that day with the scent of campfire smoke in my hair and the fierce recollection of what should burn and what shouldn’t. I went forward holding the memory of that bonfire lifting its smoke to the heavens like a warning or a prayer, lingering in our lungs, our clothes, our hearts, raining a fine dust of ashes all around.

The prophet Isaiah, well acquainted with brokenness, darkness, and fire, says that the Spirit of the Lord will give those who mourn “beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of despair, garments of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness,” he continues, and “will raise up the former devastations and repair the ruined cities.” But for now, we are caked in dust and ashes. When will the ruined cities, camps, and caves be raised?

About a month before the final bonfire, Jeff, another one of the men from the riverside camp, went into detox at a psychiatric hospital. His first couple days of withdraw were horrible, his body wracked by shaking, sweating, fevers, and chills. When I went to visit him a few days later, however, the meds had kicked in and he was in better spirits. “I have something for you!” he said as his face lit up and he handed me a gift. It was a dream catcher he made from the rounded edges of styrofoam plates threaded together with shredded sky-blue hospital clothes. Hanging from the center were pigeon feathers found in the small courtyard outside. “Jeff, this is incredible!” I said. He had made one for Samuel, too, and had a third hanging above his bed. “It’s for the nightmares,” he said. “It helps.” Yes, Jeff, I will keep broken and mended things, woven from hope and hospital clothes.

“The present form of this world is passing away,” says Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. And in second Peter, the apostle writes that on the day of the Lord, “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire.” And I wonder what elements will burn. Will we perish or carry that smoke in our lungs, our hair? Peter continues, “and we wait for new heavens and a new earth where justice is at home.”

So I am standing at the edge of another year, sitting on the riverbank with stories and hope, with darkness and fire, surrounded, holding, and held by broken things. I’m trying to imagine a new heaven and new earth where justice is at home, where the ruins are repaired. Central American poet Martín Espada writes, “If the abolition of slave-manacles began as a vision of hands without manacles, then this is the year; if the shutdown of extermination camps began as imagination of a land without barbed wire or the crematorium, then this is the year; if every rebellion begins with the idea that conquerors on horseback are not many-legged gods, that they too drown if plunged in the river, then this is the year.”

tinfoil roses So I am imagining new heavens and a new earth and I’m praying that this will be the year. Yes, let this be the year when cavemen come out of their tombs, when no one freezes to death on church steps, when bulldozers tear down prisons walls instead of homes, when we see beauty in brokenness and ashes, and when we burn systems that perpetuate poverty, mass incarceration, and death to the ground. “We can take back our world if we want to,” writes Marge Piercy. So for now, I will keep broken things and hold hope in my hands, praying that we will find the courage to take back our world, to raise up devastations, and to rebuild the ruins as we heal.

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