Month: May 2014

I Am Now

CVanden-8723 copy

My earliest memories of Camp Arnes are vague and poignant. I remember my father running out of our cabin into a cloud of mosquitoes to light fireworks with a man who, many years later, taught me to use a chainsaw and who once saved me from drowning in a pool. I remember the way that the carpet next to the vending machine pulled at my socks like Velcro, and the surprise I felt when I pressed the button for root beer and heard the sound of it clanging and rolling and eventually dropping into the cavity below. I remember my father’s friend, a man named Roman, who served our meals in the dining hall. I remember the wide-open field leading down to the lake.

In the evening, the adults sat down at the beach and I played in the sand and the rocks along the shore. I made a game of collecting pebbles in a yellow ice-cream pail and tossing them into the water where their scattered ripples spread out and eventually disappeared. The water was otherwise still and the sun was sinking and I was four years old and not very good at my game. The moment came when the handle of the pail slipped from my small fingers and landed with a dull slap against the water two feet from the shore. My heart sank and I immediately turned to my father for help. He smiled, evidently not sharing my experience of devastation, and remained in his folded-out lawn chair from where he encouraged me to reach out and grab the pail, which remained very near to the shore, and to me. But I was ceased by a fear of the water, or, more likely, a fear of embarrassing myself while under the attention of so many amused adults, and so I did nothing. The pail slowly receded from me and I watched it drift away. Again, my father encouraged me to retrieve it. Again I tried to overcome my fear and again I remained paralyzed, staring at the pail with a sinking heart. Again I did nothing. The distance grew and so did my regret, and we watched the yellow pail become smaller and smaller, drifting out to the place where the sun would soon touch the water. They met, and simultaneously disappeared, and I could not understand the feeling of melancholy that overwhelmed me.

I remember the yellow pail. And I remember the feeling of regret, and the feeling of melancholy. What I do not remember is if that was the same weekend that I sank ineptly to the bottom of the pool. I do not remember my sisters, though they must have been there. I do not know why the mosquitoes were a thick black cloud when my father ran out to light the fireworks but why I do not remember them at all down by the lake. I do not actually remember the fireworks. I do not remember if the water was cold, or if it was spring or summer or autumn. I remember the sunset, but I know that my memory of the sunset is not real. We were on the wrong side of the lake for that. I do not remember any of it perfectly. Part fabrication, part recollection, and part information learned in later years, my memory is as much fiction as it is truth, yet it hangs in my mind as a defining moment I have never forgotten, but rather developed further, adapting it to better reflect my understanding of myself and my limitations.

The past is the past. I can no more easily change what happened twenty-five seconds ago than I can change what happened twenty-five years ago. My perceptions, on the other hand, shift as easily as the wind. And my perceptions are really all I have of the past. I imagine myself to be defined by the things I have done or not done, the things I have experienced, the things I have seen, the people I have known, or the places I have been, but memories are not so authoritative as that, nor as indelible. They’re wholly imagined things, based on real experiences but altered to varying degrees of credibility.

All that I have, all that any of us have, is now. This is freedom, that in this moment we can act, and experience, and be completely unbound from our perceptions of the past or of the future. Our memories are stories we have heard, which we continually retell in the hope that they will clarify our identity. They are based on experiences that we have had, but they are not the experiences themselves. What we remember of the past is circumspect and our perception of any event is biased, narrow, and incomplete. Our memories are stories we have heard, and they can be of tremendous value, but they can also haunt us interminably. It is only when we recognize the power of our perceptions that we can look back with compassion and redeem our regrets and begin to see our regrettable moments as the stories that have taught us, or can still teach us, the lessons we are most in need of learning.

The leaves unfold from their broken capsules. They spill out in trembling frailty to mark the air with their delicate bodies. They draw breath, dance in the sun, and are caressed by the wind. They are born, and in their present form they abandon all recollection of winter. Forgetting the coarseness of the air and the scarcity of the sun, they relinquish themselves of the past and emerge. They become free.

When we are haunted by a memory, we are choosing to perceive our past through the lens of fear. We are wielding a past event as a weapon against our present selves, and thus suffering imaginary wounds again and again. By our own delusions we dwell in the belief that we still exist in that moment, and that it can still touch us, and that it does, and that we are still suffering because of it. But this drama of pain is a game of make-believe. We cannot reach back and undo what has been done, or unsay what has been said, and nor can we reach back and experience what has been said or done. When we return to the past, we do so only by our imaginations. We cannot change it, and we cannot experience it, we can only imagine it.

I remember being a young boy, standing at the edge of a lake. Behind me there is safety and familiarity. In front of me is the water. It is still and I am looking out across it at a yellow pail that is floating away. It is precious to me but I am afraid. If I step into the water I will be alone. I will stand apart from the ones I believe know me best. If I step into the water I don’t know what will happen. I watch it float away and feel sickened with regret, resenting every moment as another in which I have failed. I watch it until it disappears and the feeling of failure that overcomes me is one that I never forget. I take it from the water and I put it on like a mask. It becomes the part of my self-perception that I return to every time I approach an edge that I am afraid to go beyond. It becomes the story that I retell, chapter after chapter, in ever-spiraling circles, until the feeling of inescapability overwhelms me and conceals my power to choose something different.

Our choice to be haunted rarely feels like a choice. At best it feels like a default position that we are struggling to overcome. Our perceptions have become so masterfully assimilated by years of repetition that little remains of their plasticity. We repeat our stories again and again, believing that we are hapless protagonists destined to re-experience our dramas without reprieve when in reality our stories are of our own making. We sit at our desks and, with ardent devotion, approach the point of crisis we have so often endured. Just at the moment when we could transform the story with a deeply meaningful ending, one that challenges us to grow and be redeemed and become the hero that we have so often wished we could be, we repeat the last chapter. We return to our tragedy, or our mediocrity. We write ourselves into the same corners and our perceptions are further solidified and our identities further trapped. We fail to acknowledge the authority of the pen we hold in our hands.

The leaves unfold their bodies to the nearness of the sun and without regret they discard the memory of winter. Though it happened, it no longer exists. The lake is not frozen and the ground is not covered in snow. My skin does not freeze in the wind and my toes do not grow numb where I walk. I can imagine it, but I cannot experience it. Instead, I sit on the rocks and feel the sun on my shoulders. I listen to the birds skim the surface of the lake. I dip my toes into the water. I look at the sky and watch the shape-shifting clouds that, in every passing moment, release themselves from what was. I know only this: I am here. I am now.

– C


Blessed Wounds


The night passes slowly across the lake, spreading its weight over the water and climbing the shoreline to meet the trees, and in the wakening leaves, and in the rising grasses, there is the crawling movement of life reaching back – back from languorous roots and hidden burrows, back from the frozen months of winter, back from antiquated dreams now rebirthing, back from the aged memory of beginnings. Beside me my beloved lies, breathing her calm, quiet breaths, which become to me the mantra I cannot ignore. They become to me my own rising chest, my own sense of calm. I begin to fall asleep and the sensation of nostalgia passes over me, as if I were returning to something forgotten but to which my heart belongs, as if I lingered in the space between heaven and make-believe. We conspire, which is to say, we breathe together. Her breath becomes mine, and mine becomes hers, and the room fills with our recollected dreams as I begin to fall away. I fall asleep. I fall into an awareness of something just out of reach, a vague memory that is both prehistoric and nearer to me than any feeling I’ve ever known. I am falling, and in falling I experience a moment I cannot describe.


I have dreamed all my life of knowing God. I have listened to the falling rain in hope of gleaning a discernible whisper. I have watched the woods in hope of seeing some movement between the trees. I have looked to the minds and the hearts of men to be my teachers. I have waited. When I was young I knew a prophet who heard the voice of God. He taught me repentance and the necessary pain of redemption, and I offered him my mind with the faith that upon its malleability would be impressed the knowledge that I sought. He became to me a conduit of divine love and I turned to him in supplication, listening with earnest hope to the words I felt to be so true. And then the voice of God told the man to leave. And I was alone and in silence. And I did not know God. A second man appeared, and I became his disciple, and my want of knowledge was no less insistent, but my mind was far less pliant and this man’s words did not reach my heart as the prophet’s had. The thought of God became far from me. And I left the second man and again I felt alone.


I begin a list on my hand of all the men who have failed me, and on the other are the women who have caused me pain. My life becomes a slow account of all the people who have fallen short of giving me the perfect love I have always wanted. Their names form a line down the lengths of my arms. They cover my body with their indecencies and I approach the mirror to see, with deep conviction, the ledger, made red against me. I see the proof that I am unworthy of love.


I am falling, and in falling I feel no fear. For a moment I recognize the deepest truth. Between wakefulness and sleep I grow nostalgic for God. I am falling, and the place to which I am falling receives me with an open palm. Held there, in love, I see the truth I have always known, the one I’ve been trying so hard to return to. Held in love, I see that all of them have been my teachers, and every imagined wound was a lesson not yet learned. Held there, I begin to understand that though I imagine myself to have suffered by the words and actions of those around me, the truth is that my suffering was chosen, and that every time I chose it, I was failing to see an opportunity to relinquish some aspect of my ego, and instead accept a necessary truth, the only truth, the truth of love.


We looked to our fathers and our mothers as the men and women responsible for our wellbeing. Later, we looked to our friends, and our lovers, and our children. We may have never believed them to be saints, but we were disappointed when they acted in any other way. They disappointed us by withholding affection, or criticizing us, or abandoning us, or being too forceful, or being too weak. We experienced the pain of their disapproval, or their disregard, or their disdain. They were not perfect, and though some seemed close, we still emerged from our experiences of them with a list of wounds to be carried with us through the years that followed. We may not have blamed them, but we looked at their actions or their inactions as explanations for our wounds. We justified our feelings of inadequacy by our analyses of the ways they loved us or did not, of whether they did so too much or too little. We lived our lives believing that the actions of those around us could be understood only as either blessings or wounds. We disregarded the possibility that even the wounds could be blessings. We disbelieved that we were safe.


I look to my beloved, that my eyes upon her would be a light, which, with patience and intent, would seek to pierce the hidden shadows of her soul where fear conceals love. I offer myself to her, to also be seen, to conceal nothing, to know the blessed pain of her light upon me, to know the gift of a wounded ego, to know that beneath every fear is hidden love, to know that I am safe. There is nothing more terrifying than this holy love. To allow it upon us, to allow ourselves to fall into it, to move into the scorching flames where our egos cry out in pain and all that can remain is our truest, purest selves, is the gift of life we have always been wanting. It is the gift of life to which we have been longing to return.


If my essential self is love, and if that love is divine and perfect and unchanging, and if everything else is merely ego, than the only wounds I can bear, the only wounds I can really experience, will be wounds inflicted upon my ego alone. My truest self remains safe. When someone teaches me that I am unlovable, expressing disapproval, or disdain, or disregard, I have a choice, as I always do, to respond in love or to respond in fear. My ego cries out in agony and resorts to resentment or despair. But my essential self understands that the wound, if it is felt as a wound, is trying to teach me something.


If I am told that I am ugly, then I hold in my hands a potential lesson, which I can either learn or discard. To discard this lesson is to do one of two things. Either I dwell in the belief that I am ugly and therefor unlovable, or I react with defiance and hold more strongly to the belief that I am beautiful, and that it is because I am beautiful that I am worthy of love. Either way, I am reacting at an ego level and ignoring my essential self. Being told I am ugly can only wound my belief that my value is in any way affected by being physically beautiful. To feel wounded, is to learn that this belief still exists within me. The lesson then is not to succumb to the accusation of ugliness, nor to defy it with claims of beauty, but to recognize that it is ultimately meaningless. To discard this lesson, on the other hand, is to further thicken the layers of ego built up around my truer self. To discard this lesson is to invite it to return, and not with malice but with genuine concern, that I would again have the opportunity to shed my ego, and open myself to love.


The names of men and women pass through my mind. I see their faces one by one, and I become aware of the imaginary walls risen up between us, walls born of the pain that I have felt, or the pain that I have caused. There are few for whom I feel resentment, but there are others from whom I would keep my distance. Their names pass through my mind and for a moment I glimpse the love hiding quietly behind our collective fear. We wait, and in silence we tend to our walls with covered whispers and unseen glances, with worried minds and cautionary hearts, becoming ever more deluded by the belief that we are separate, and unsafe, and that anything but love exists between us. Time passes and we grow tired and forgetful. Enemies are born. Grudges lay root. Pain sets in. And love continues to implore us, calmly asking us to look into our open palms and see them filled not with grievances, but with lessons waiting to be learned. They are our blessed wounds, given to us that the walls so carefully tended to by our fear, would dissolve, revealing something true, and invulnerable.


I lay awake imagining the slow breath of trees. Beside me, my beloved lies. Her own breath rises and subsides, and by the calm weight of her presence I begin to fall. The walls of our bedroom disappear and all around us I hear the restless birds shifting in their branches, and the rain making circles on the lake, and the cool wind touching every blade of nascent grass. I give in. I let go. And there, on the periphery of my falling mind I remember something ancient and unimaginable. A wave of nostalgia moves through my mind, dissolving my body and hers, dissolving the bedroom, and the night, and the blankets of rain, until I remember, in the faint moment before falling asleep, the synonymity of being in love, and knowing God.




I was eight years old when I learned that I could run. Having recently changed schools I was not keeping up in class and had only a few friends. I spent many recesses inside staring in bewilderment at the incomplete homework on my desk, not knowing what I was supposed to do and wondering why all the other kids were so much better at it than I was. It seemed unfair. I nearly failed grade three and I wonder if the only reason I passed was so that my teacher could put an end to her own bewilderment. I felt isolated and unsatisfactory; a word that littered the pages of my report cards, and perpetuated my feelings of inferiority. I wondered why I wasn’t better.


Michael, one of my only friends, joined the running club that spring, and I didn’t want to be left out, so I also joined. He quit after the first week, but I soon discovered an aptitude for endurance that set me apart in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and in the following years I continued to run, becoming stronger and faster, until, by the time I was in high school, I was training with the best runners in the province. I became known by my peers for my ability to run, and to run better than anyone in our school, and better than most in the city. But after competing provincially, and later nationally, it became increasingly clear that mere potential was not enough. If I wanted to continue being better I would need to be more focused, more disciplined and more driven. I tried for a while, developing a strict regimen of training and diet, racing whenever I could, and devoting most of my attention to my development as a runner, until eventually, intimidated by my own expectations, and placated by a genuine understanding of the meaninglessness of these feats, I quit. I continued to run but abandoned any notions of athletic accomplishment as a path to personal betterment. I admitted to myself my deeper concerns and regarded the ways I felt more truly deficient. I began to question how I could become better not as an athlete, but as a person.


I met a friend this week and sat with him for a while. We talked of his life and mine, of the things that rest and move in our minds, and I was struck by the remembrance that there are better men than me. I do not know his faults to the extent that I know mine, but I see evidence of his virtue and am filled with admiration. He is a good man, and it breaks my heart at times to know how I have failed to be more like him and the other men I’ve come to admire. Already at the age of 29 I am often arrested by the fear that I should have been more genuine, more honorable, more aware, more considerate, and more upright. Already, I feel I have failed at so much. Already I believe I should have been better.


The sky reaches down to touch the shifting lake with innumerable kisses. Their ephemeral marks expand and collide and meld and disappear while all around them the fragile sheets of lingering ice begin to shatter. The crows call out in bleak regard and the lake patiently listens. I am blessed to watch the rain and to feel in its continual descent a secret and holy intention. With indiscriminate grace it falls to the water and, upon landing, unites ancient lovers with a delicate and repeated expression of belonging. The ripples cascade, and fade out. And the lake remembers herself.


We were loved as children for our innocence and our purity, and yet soon were taught by the world and those who loved us that innocence does not last. Our deficiencies were then revealed and we began the endless task of trying to be better. We sought better grades, more recognition, more achievements, and better friends. We silently compared our paper-bag lunches and our hand-me-down clothes. We looked in the mirror and discovered what we lacked. We learned we were too slow, or too weak, too stupid or too sad. And so we tried to be better. We grew up pursuing the better lover, the better job, the better worldview, the better body, the better home, the better life. We wanted to be better and we wanted do better and we wanted to have better, desperately hoping that accomplishing these things would render us no longer deficient. We played the ego’s game of worse and worst, best and better, and no matter how well we performed we never won, because we were only ever competing against ourselves.


We came into this world beautiful and innocent, untainted by our inevitable failures, and our undiscovered flaws. We looked around and saw our mothers and our fathers, our sisters and our brothers. We saw our own hands, and the wicker of our cribs. We felt the textures of our blankets, and our toys. Everyone and everything appeared before us as extensions of ourselves. Nothing existed beyond our scope. We believed ourselves to be the universe. We believed ourselves to be whole and sufficient. We believed these things with a deep and unconscious knowing that was unobstructed by fear. And then, we began to learn. We began to understand that there are others, and that we are not the universe, and that we are not sufficient, and that we do fail to satisfy. We began to understand our need to be better, and not just better than ourselves, but better than the people around us. Because love, we learned, is a finite resource, and only the most deserving will find it.


What is the better I have been hoping to find? I look beyond myself and see only the illusion of better. I reach to it and it turns to dust in my hands and though it crumbles I still endeavor to cover myself with it in ever thickening layers, so deluded am I to think it will ever make me better. Again and again, I repeat this gesture. Again and again, I succeed only in further concealing my truer self. What is better if not a fantasy by which to escape our reality? When we enter a relationship believing that it will make us better, we enter a delusion and a fantasy that quickly fails. We discover that that person does not make us better, and in fact often only illuminates our failures. We might begin to resent them for failing us. We might begin to wonder if there was someone better, someone capable of making us better. We leave one relationship for another. We leave one job for another. We leave our entire lives for a fantasy of what another life could be. And to this new life, to this fantasy, we carry our same deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and plant them again in new soil, and are surprised and discouraged when they once again rise up to disappoint us.


Our lives are real, but the fantasies we create for our imagined betterment will never be. Our frail attempts at escape lead us only into newer and more blinding delusions, while the reality of our lives, and our beauty, and our inherent value become more and more concealed, but no less intact. Beneath every frail attempt at becoming better, no matter how many attempts we make, and no matter how many layers of dust we apply to ourselves, there will always remain the calm, though often forgotten, awareness that there is no such thing as better, that as we began, so are we now, and so will we always be; sufficient in our existence and entirely free of the hollow risk of becoming less than perfect. When we remember the moments in our lives when better was a meaningless word – moments of genuine love and acceptance, moments when we felt the true connectedness lying latent between us all – we remember our original state. We remember our universality. It’s only when we are conscious of this original state that we can come to understand our dreams, which, unlike our fantasies, do not separate us from reality, but return us to our truest reality, one defined by love and one free of the fear that has so often compelled us to make our vain attempts at becoming better than those around us. When we come to understand that love is not a finite resource to be competed for, but an endless truth from which any separation is mere delusion, we can then rest in our original state, knowing that we never left.  


I ran through the woods, between the aspen and the oak. I felt the wind around my body, heard the leaves dance, and watched the dappled light shift in quickening withdrawal as it escaped the repeated fall of my feet. I was alone and better than none, and no better than I had ever been before. A deer came beside me and time slowed. I could have reached out and placed my hand upon her back. For fewer than three strides we ran together, neither of us better, neither of us different even. We had returned to something, for a moment at least, suspended in our deeper recognition of one another before we could even realize what was happening. And then she became aware, or I became aware, and she, sensing my awareness, became startled and veered, and disappeared, as I kept running.


– C

In Tremulous Wonder



Nahr el Bared, Palestinian Refugee Camp, North Lebanon.

His gesture was reluctant, as if he was practicing it for the first time and was unsure that it could belong to him. By it he beckoned me to him, and I approached the window where he stood looking out at me. He had things to tell me, he said. He wanted to talk, he said. I came the following day as I had promised and he led me into his home, which was nothing more than a series of brick walls arranged neatly by the seashore. He stooped in the corner over a small fire and boiled the coffee he had been steeping for days. He sat me down in an old car seat, quite low to the ground – one of only two chairs that constituted his entire furniture collection. I waited. Above me, in the absence of a roof, was the open sky. It was grey and damp, framed by the tops of the empty walls and suddenly obstructed by the loom of the man, a mere silhouette handing me a cup of thick, gritty coffee as his voice lowered to a twitching whisper and he began divulging his scattered and dubious stories.


His name was Ahmed. I listened to his words in the place where his home once stood and his family once lived. He told me of the war and of his family’s departure, how they live now in another camp and he remains amidst the rubble, slowly rebuilding what was lost. He told me of the violent devices he had built and the conspiracies he had schemed, of the training he had received from unnamed factions in far-off places. His eyes shifted constantly, and his tongue darted from his mouth between each expulsion of the secrets I could not discern to be truth. I listened to the words of a frightened man and I remained distinctly aware of my disadvantage, sitting as I was beneath him, and I was also afraid.


Fear is familiar to us all. We fear abandonment, failure, each other. We fear our dreams and our potential. We fear illness and violence. We fear death. For those who have brushed up against it the fear of death can be constant. Even for those who have never experienced it directly, those for whom it remains an abstraction, the fear of death can be a steady presence. It follows us each time we walk out the door, get into a car, or look into our own aging eyes. The inevitability of death is a quiet thought in the backs of many of our minds, and for some a blatant fact less easily ignored. But for all of us, it is real.


I remember my grandmother’s accounts of the nightmares she endured before dying. I remember the grimace that came over her face and the cool dampness of her forehead where I pressed my lips in the moments following her last breath. I remember holding my father’s sobbing frame moments later. I remember his grief. I remember the weight of the coffin, which I shared with my cousins. I remember crying after we let her into the hearse.


I have only been afraid for my own life on a few occasions, but I have never been so close to dying that I can claim to have felt its touch. Of physical death, I have only a distant perspective, but of spiritual, emotional, and relational deaths, I am more familiar, and in all of these, I discover my fear. The death of a relationship reveals my fear that I am unworthy of love. The death of faith reveals my fear that I am alone. And the death of my dreams reveals my fear that my life is without purpose. In all of these things, I discover that my fear of death is not a fear of the unknown but of separation; separation from my body and my mind, separation from the people I have cared about, separation from my beliefs about God and myself, separation from life, and ultimately from love. I fear death because I am afraid to lose that which is most valuable to me. I am afraid to exist in the absence of love.


With each moment, in every circumstance, we are asked to choose between love and fear. Despite our feelings of despair, or hatred, or helplessness, we are never so limited in our circumstances that fear is our only option. The choice to love might not always deliver us from suffering, it might not result in euphoria, but it will elevate us, if only enough to endure the next moment. It will lead us closer to becoming who it is that we really are. I have not experienced what others have experienced. I have never been diagnosed with a terminal illness, nor lived through a war, nor grown up in an abusive home. I cannot claim that I would have the strength to choose love in the midst of such hardships, but I do know that there are those who have, and my belief in them becomes a belief in myself, and in all of us.


I remember a hateful thought. I look at it now and turn it over in my mind. It is unattractive and shameful and it happened within me. When I consider it for what it is, I can see that it was born of fear. I can see how afraid I was in that moment to look at the hate I bore for myself, which would have then led me to look at the thing that I hated within myself, which would have, I worried, led me to confirm my deepest fear: that I am undeserving of love. I made the unconscious choice in that moment to be afraid, and thus allowed a hateful thought to rest in my mind where love could have penetrated every layer of fear, to the very beginning of fear, and assured me of my value. I feel remorse for this thought, and regret. I see its complete lack of truth. And now, knowing that such hate existed within me in that moment, I am asked again to choose between love and fear.


When we experience an absence of love within ourselves, we might find clarity by questioning what it is that we are afraid of. Similarly, when we experience the absence of love in another, we would do well to look at them with compassion and see them not as hateful but as frightened. We can then attempt to show them the love that exists within ourselves in the hope that they will be reminded of the love that exists within themselves, the love that is fully capable of guiding them out of their fear and into their truth.


In every state of brokenness there is some fear preventing us from healing. For every wrong action that haunts us, there is some fear preventing us from experiencing redemption. And for every failed dream there is some fear that prevents us from returning to our purpose. We stand poised in tremulous wonder, either moved by love toward life or deceived by the fear that holds us in death. So many times, we have forgotten. So many times we have allowed fear to dissemble our true selves and have then resigned ourselves to despair, and the deaths of our spirits. But despair is merely a symptom of amnesia, and when we remember who we really are, we can then behave more truthfully. We can see fear for the shadow that it is and watch it vanish by even the faintest light.


In the weeks before her death, my grandmother’s fear surprised me. My memories of her had been of her constant warmth, and her joy, and her care. I remember her hugs and her kiss on my cheek. I remember the love she had for her family and for my grandfather. The confusion we witnessed in her last days was disheartening, as were her accounts of the dreams she had where some devil pursued her and she fled and did not know if she would escape. She was afraid of death. She neared it trembling. But her fear did nothing to separate her from love. It was mere amnesia. In her last moments, we surrounded her bed. Her breath became sparse and hollow and we counted the weighted seconds between them, until they did not return. My grandfather, with solemnity and grace, stated that she was gone and someone there began to sing. I was not afraid. My grandmother had returned to love and we, in a single voice, echoed her remembrance.


I met Ahmed in Lebanon, in the ruins of a Palestinian refugee camp called Nahr el Bared. In the two months that I spent wandering its muddied streets, I learned only a small part of what had happened there. I talked with the men and women who had been expelled from the camp in 2007, and returned several months later to find the frail remnants of what had once been their homes. For four months the Lebanese army had shelled the camp, eventually destroying virtually every shop and house belonging to its 45,000 residents, all with the claimed intent of capturing a group of 400 out-lawed men. Ahmed had little to say of them. He sat in the chair above me, smoking cigarettes and refilling my coffee. We had become a little more comfortable with each other but his vaunted claims continued to unnerve me. I could see his fear. I could feel its hatred. And I have to believe that even for a man like Ahmed, who has allegedly done terrible things, and has evidently had terrible things done to him, the choice to love remains constantly available.

– C

To read more about my experience in Nahr el Bared from 2008, visit my website:

Sons of Ash


The sky is dim with variations of silver and blue and the lake appears like mottled flesh, its fragile skin slowly abating though still intact, save for the small, rippling pools scattered across its surface. The wind shifts unexpectedly and I feel it press against my body where I stand near the lake. It tosses the gulls across the sky, and the gulls acquiesce, tilting their wings like the arms of tightrope walkers compelled from their ropes. They pitch and level to remain upright, but eventually abandon their course, drifting first out across the lake, and then back to the shore, and then to the North and then to the South. Their vertiginous sway is an unexpected dance, uncalculated, imprecise, and hypnotic. I stand on the rocks and imagine the pendulum within my own body, calibrating to compensate for the influence of the wind. It shifts my weight with slight flickers of tension across and around my center, and down through my legs. It keeps me upright. And so I stand, seemingly still, and the wind presses against me, while within, my body is moving with the intention required to maintain my stance.


The strength of men can be a precarious thing, vacillating to weakness when a stronger wind presses against it, becoming undone by haunting doubts, and collapsing under overwhelming pressure. We strain to define ourselves by it in its various forms but so often find ourselves caught in a cycle of fearful attempts and defeating failures. Depicted clearly in legends of men who could tear a lion apart with their bare hands, defeat mythical beasts, and destroy a giant with a single stone, masculine strength has been consistently clear in its quality of imposing power and raw physicality. And so it feels masculine to tackle another man down in sport. It feels masculine to push a weighted steel bar away from my chest. It feels masculine to imagine overpowering an enemy with brute strength. It feels masculine to be strong, but what does it mean to be strong?


My body is finite. The muscles that wrap and strain and pull and flex around my bones are no more permanent than a decaying leaf. If I lay still they will atrophy. If I demand too much of them they will twist and break. If I do not eat, my body will turn to them for sustenance until they are gone. My body is a frail shell. I strengthen it by small degrees and still it is a frail shell. I expand muscle tissue by a careful regime and still it is a frail shell. It diminishes as my attention turns to other things and still it is a frail shell. It is not difficult to recognize the lessening importance of physical strength in a society that is no longer dependent on it. The strongest men I know live in small rural villages in countries where physical strength is often a prerequisite for survival and where vanity is a faraway thought. Here in Western society, physical strength rarely serves an actual purpose beyond showmanship. We say, “Look, I am strong. Look, I am a man.” We go to special buildings to pay money to spend energy that goes nowhere. We run ten miles without moving. We lift one hundred pounds and put it back exactly where we found it. We exercise our masculine strength in the hope that it will define our value as men, but we have so little use for the strength we attain. I’m not advocating for a life of inactivity. I’m not even advocating against physical strength. I’m only questioning our motives and wondering if what we really desire is a quality of strength that is not so easily undone, and one that serves something beyond our ego.


I’ve spent most of my life feeling as familiar with weakness as I have with strength. Following an exertion of strength I have often felt condemned by the weakness evidenced by my failure to achieve my dreams, or to be the man I have wanted to be. I’ve lost faith at times in the belief that I have any strength at all, and then despaired, returning cyclically throughout my life to a feeling of defeat that has suffused my sense of identity, and limited me from moving forward. Experiences of weakness have been tantamount to identifying as weak.


I recently burned all my journals. I tore the pages calmly from each leather binding and filled my face with the heat of their flames until my skin reddened and the boxes were empty. I wanted to mark the end of a cycle that I have felt subject to most of my life, in which I have aspired to be virtuous and strong, have eventually failed, and consequently plummeted into the belief that I must not be worthy of the love I was desperately tying to enact, return to, or even feel. Having attempted so many times to be strong and invariably discovering that I was not, I eventually arrived at a point of acceptance of this cycle. I wrote often of “the mire” I felt I was in. It became a necessary phase in my attempts at virtue, and as I delved deeper and deeper into its sadness, I became more familiar with it, until I began to believe that I belonged as much to the darkness as to the light. Like a phoenix, continually returning to the earth in a heap of ash, I have failed again and again, and in my weakness felt at times a tinge of relief to have failed, to resign to the affirmed belief that I do not deserve my dreams nor the love I have so earnestly sought, that my true place is there in the soot, sullied, weak, and defeated.


I watch the gulls being thrown back and forth above the lake and am in wonder at their clumsy grace. Their bodies move willingly but even at a distance I can see the nervous flickers of their tail feathers and their wings, which flinch readily to keep them from being flipped over and thrown down into the ice. They submit without resistance to a strength that is greater than their own, knowing that they also possess the strength to surrender. It is an active surrender, one still requiring attention and strength, but a strength that responds to the guidance of something outside of itself, something known to be yielded to.


I want to reimagine my understanding of masculine strength, which I’ve been taught should be defined by assertion and power, and which, influenced by the fear of separation, would respond to strength outside of itself as a threat to be defeated or escaped. I want to know the strength of surrendering to the strength that exists beyond myself, in those around me, in the earth, and in the divine. I want to let the wind carry me when my strength wanes; still engaged, still experiencing the realization of my dreams and the eternal depth of love to which I belong, but no longer straining against the very thing that offers me a needed reprieve, or reprimand, or redirection. I want to know the strength of allowing myself to be held, and led by the many embodiments of strength that exist outside of myself.


We’ve been told with gentleness that we should allow ourselves to be weak, that it is okay to fall. I wouldn’t deny this. I would, however, hope that weakness would no longer be seen as a necessary counterpart to strength, and therefore something to resign ourselves to. We’ve become so accustomed to the cycles of strength and weakness in our lives that we assume that strength cannot exist without weakness, that defeat is inevitable and failure is to be embraced as an old, familiar friend. If we could instead recognize that strength’s necessary counterpart is not weakness at all but submission to a greater strength, we need not continually return to the sense of defeat that threatens to name us. We need not resume our addiction to the cycles of death and rebirth that hold us back from a lasting rebirth, that we would recognize for once the eternal quality of our birth, and no longer resign ourselves in fear to the denial of our strength, and our love, and our deep value.


Above the flashing, flickering bodies of the gulls, the eagles continue to soar at such heights that little can be seen of them. Their strength is implicit in their inspiring ascension but it is not solely by their own strength that they achieve this feat. It is only in the marriage of the eagle’s strength with the strength of the wind that he reaches the heights that he does. The eagle delights in the wind as his ally, and the wind delights in the eagle as his beloved. Together they soar.