Halfway Out of the Dark: Candles, Christmas, And the Winter Solstice

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[Trigger / Content warning: A deadly shooting, and a scene involving child abuse]

It was 32 degrees that morning as I stood at my regular bus stop next to 7-Eleven. I’ve never done well with cold temperatures, so I pulled out all my winter gear: down vest, black water-proof jacket (a wardrobe staple in the Seattle region), thick socks, winter hat, and gloves.

Right below the bus stop sign there were glass candle holders with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The weather hadn’t been great that week—lots of wind and rain (it’s Washington, so mostly rain). But the four candles were burning.

There was a balloon on a stick stuck into the ground reading, “I love you.” Another read, “Thinking of you.” There were flowers strewn on the ground. The artificial ones were still standing up smartly, still holding their color. But the bouquets of real flowers hadn’t survived all the rain and had turned into a soggy mess of petals, stems, and tissue paper on the concrete.

I’d brought flowers, too. I’d written a card. I’d made a sign reading that the regular riders of our bus route remembered. That I remembered. But now it was all gone, just a part of the water-logged mess.

But the candles burned on.

I hadn’t known the victims—a seventeen-year-old boy and his father. They’d been sitting at the bus stop around five in the afternoon, right at peak when they charge you an extra 25 cents. They’d just been sitting there at their regular stop. At my regular stop. And someone drove by and shot them right there.

The younger brother was there too, but news report said he wasn’t hit. But that’s not true, not really. He wasn’t hit; he was shattered. His world ended at five o’clock in the afternoon as the rush hour traffic was just beginning to form.

Lives were taken. Lives were shattered. Evil left its mark. Darkness entered our bus stop and our neighborhood.

But the candles burned on.

Candles like that don’t keep burning forever. They have to be lit, and relit. It was morning. It was cold. But someone had already been there to light them. Someone made sure that they burned on. There were puddles of wax around the candles. They had obviously tipped over, spilling hot wax onto the cement. But someone had righted them. Someone had relit them.

The candles burned on during the longest nights of the year.

As a small child I didn’t even know when the Winter Solstice was but I’d been warned against it. I imagined pagans dancing around bonfires, casting spells, and playing with tarot cards as The Satanic Bible peeked out of their back pockets. The Winter Solstice was spiritually scandalous. It was the time when all the dark things crept out from under that dusty, cluttered spot under your bed; all the mischief and mayhem that lurked in the shadows, afraid of the light, beckoned to one another to come out and play.

But now, as an adult, I’m beginning to find a tremendous amount of comfort in the Winter Solstice. It’s a time of darkness but not dark doings. It’s a time for light to shine. It’s a time for the candles to burn on when we need them most.

Every time I stand at my bus stop I’m reminded that somewhere, very nearby, a family is mourning. For them this festive time of year is undoubtedly a time of anguish. Their hearts are grieving, hurting. If the Wise Men showed up at their home, they’d bring myrrh.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

I have two friends whose fathers passed away recently. They’re living in the shadow of death as Jingle Bells pays on the radio; living in the isolated valley of grief and loss.

There were four warm, friendly white-haired women who sat in front of the husband and me at the little church we sometimes visit—I think of them as our Lutheran grandmothers. Despite my religious trauma, these adorable older women have helped their church feel safe. And I found out this Sunday that one of them passed away. Her funeral service will be three days before Christmas, on the longest night of the year.

I had to call 911 last week because of a domestic disturbance across the street. I looked out the window when I heard scared children screaming, “No, Dad! No!” to see an angry man waving a large kitchen knife aggressively as his children jumped into a car that quickly pulled out of the parking lot, driving them to safety. I feel like I haven’t even recovered from the scene, so I know the children haven’t.

So much darkness. So much hurt. And that’s only looking at the small sliver of humanity  I have access to. When I turn on the news or read articles online I’m greeted with more darkness, more bleakness. So much violence. So much pain. So much sorrow. So many people in need of shelter and safety. So many people who are afraid, and rightfully so.

I don’t know how to handle it, this darkness. So much death and grief and brokenness, so much pain. The darkness is so thick that sometimes it makes me feel like I’m chocking. And December, despite all of the holiday lights and super sales, has a way of making that worse.

December is a time of year that can bring with it great joy and also great sadness. It’s like the Great Multiplier. Whatever feelings you’ve been experiencing already are multiplied, accentuated, and accelerated. When you’re already feeling an ache in your chest, tears are already threatening you at gun point, it makes it even worse. So much worse.

One of the most comforting moments in this month for me is on Christmas Eve. Even though I no longer identify with the religious tradition of my childhood, midnight Christmas Eve services still bring comfort and hope. I hold my red pew hymnal and my candle while singing Joy to the World. And in that moment, there’s light.

The candle burns on.

I have a thing about candles. They can be symbolic or spiritual or sentimental or sensual or scented (and I’m sure all sorts of other alliterations I can’t currently think of). They’re a little bit of light in the dark.

This little bit of light doesn’t fix everything. Or anything, for that matter. It doesn’t mean death hasn’t touched our lives; it doesn’t mean that existential crises have come to a close; it doesn’t mean healing has finally been achieved; it doesn’t that we’re feeling all sappy and sentimental every time we hear Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Last Christmas playing over the noise of people shopping. It doesn’t mean things are fixed. It doesn’t even mean things are okay. It doesn’t mean we like the holidays, or any of this.

Candles don’t fix things. They don’t heal things. But they provide just a little bit of light.

To me the light—symbolic and literal—this week of the Winter Solstice and Christmas reminds me that I did it. It reminds me of a line from my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special, a sci-fi retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.’ Back on Earth we call this Christmas or the Winter Solstice.”

The holidays can be an extremely hard time of year for a lot of people. And if you’re feeling that way, may the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, remind you that you’re halfway out of the dark.

In a few days the holidays will be over. In a few days we’ll be changing out the calendars. In a few days you take down the holiday wreath, burn the tree, and never be forced to say merry fucking Christmas for an entire year. In a few days the sun will begin to resurface. In just a few days.

Well done. Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.


I’m tired of being a Christian

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I’m tired. I’m tired of being a Christian. People say it’s only a term, only a word but that word feels like the lead apron at the dentist’s office. It’s pushing down on me from all sides, clipped tightly around my neck. It carries the weight of the hearts that have been wounded and the spirits that have been broken in the name of Christianity.

It carries the weight of teenagers who have been kicked out of their homes — gay teens and unwed mothers. It carries the weight of women who have been told to submit to their abusive husbands. It carries the weight of women who question their value, their worth, because they were raped or had sex with someone they loved before they were married. It carries the weight of so many tears that have been shed after someone was verbally accosted by a Christian. It carries the weight of scars and wounds that run so deeply they’ve latched onto people’s identities and sense of self-worth.

And I’m tired. I’m tired of being a Christian. This isn’t irritation or angst; it’s exhaustion.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means I have to believe that I have a monopoly on ethical living or spiritual truths. If my personal creed needs to be forced on or applied to anyone other than myself, than this isn’t for me. I’m tired of the policing in the name of righteousness, which really just starts sounding a lot like I’m-more-right-than-you-ness. If enforced, unasked for “accountability” is the rule, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means I have to be certain. I want to be comfortable with “I don’t know.” I want to relax into it. To deeply breathe it in and out like the fresh, salty, restorative ocean air. I want to welcome my doubts, to open the door when they knock, rather than trying to hide them out of sight. If I have to know for sure or debate every little theological point until I can present a list of tenets worth defending until death (be it mine or my opponent’s), then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means spouting theological bumper stickers when life is crumbling, cracking all around like a house under demolition. If saying “Life is really shitty now” would be inappropriate for a Christian or somehow unfaithful or if it’d be expected that I add in a trite little “But God will work it all together for good!” at the end to ease the discomfort of my listeners and to showcase my faith in redemption, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means that it would not only bring dishonor to the name of God but that it would also be a sin if I were to stand in front of a crowd on Sunday morning and proclaim my love of God. My teaching would bring shame. My praises would be sin. If being a woman is so shameful that my words of homage would bring scandal and humiliation, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means that referring to God as Mother is heresy. A God who mothers; a God who kicks down the door to the Theological Boys’ Locker Room; a God who understands and welcomes me. If insinuating that maybe the Creator of the Universe is a little like me, a woman, is sacrilege, then you can let me off at the next stop. I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means damning love to Hell. I want the outgrowth of my faith to be love not protesting someone else’s family. I want to encourage, support, and defend romantic and familiar love. If I’m expected to picket and condemn loving, happy families, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means spiritual practices are strict and ridged. If writing instead of going to church doesn’t count; if reading poetry or coloring in the morning instead of reading the bible isn’t good enough; if praying with color, scissors and glue, and quiet, overwhelming feelings when there are no words doesn’t count as real prayer; if the fact that watching a sunset fills me with more peace and awe than reciting liturgy isn’t religious enough, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means saying that every fiber of my being is wretched, tainted, depraved. At the beginning of the world God looked at her creation and declared it good. And I’m part of that creation. There’s fire and magic in my personhood; there’s a holy hellion in my heart; there’s a wild mystic in my soul. If believing there are sparks of the divine in me and every person I come in contact with is heretical, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means silencing those who have been hurt by the church. If we’re just expected to read the bible every day despite the panic attacks; if we’re just expected to go to church every Sunday despite the scars; if we’re just expected to keep our mouths closed because our church experiences were traumatic and less-than-stellar, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

It might only be a word but it carries the weight of so much pain and sorrow. But somehow, despite it all, I still find myself clinging to Christ. As a child sitting in children’s Sunday school he seemed to say: “It’s okay, you’re welcome here. Come sit down right here next to me.” And now God calls again, she calls, Mother calls, welcoming me to sit down next to her. And I do. But I’m worn out. I’m exhausted. I’m tired.


A Sunflower for Gilbert (Or, that Time I went to Hungary)

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Honestly, I’m not sure we were supposed to be up there in the first place. Or even out of bed for that matter because the school, in order aid in the celibacy of the students, had a strict curfew. But there was something about quietly sneaking through a dark castle with towering ceilings and great windows that felt, to use an Anne word, romantic.

We weren’t kindred spirits to begin with. It’s not that we ever fought, but common ground seemed to be in scarce supply.

I’d only graduated from high school a matter of weeks before. Only spoke English. And was living and traveling on my own for the very first time.

Hermina, on the other hand, had grown up in Serbia, but after attending a university in Hungary had decided to call it home. She was very well traveled and spoke multiple languages fluently.

And we were roommates.

My ex-denomination had a bible college in a tiny rural town in Hungary. During the summer the old Hungarian castle — yes, it was a castle — served as a conference center for pastors and missionaries throughout Europe. And in 2005 Hermina and I found ourselves living together for three and a half months as we volunteered during conference season doing dishes, making beds, working in the coffee shop, and enjoying our one day a week off work.

As an “on fire” Evangelical youth I’d gone to Hungary with the goal of aiding those who were sharing the Gospel. However, what I actually ended up doing was converting someone to the Gospel of Saint Anne of Green Gables, patron saint of romantics and misfits everywhere.

One of the American staff members at the college owned all of the Anne films on VHS and Hermina, to my horror, had never even heard of Anne. So we located an old TV in a finished section of the attic that was used during the day as a classroom for the teachers’ children.

We didn’t have a lot of time for movie watching, so it took us a while to get through the films. But every night that we could, after the Hungarian castle was asleep and the lights were off, we’d tiptoe through lonely rooms that in their previous lives may have held grand balls but now, only a few hours before, hand been bustling with conference guests.

We’d climb several flights of spiral staircases with wrought iron handrails. And then, when we got to the top floor, would open a small door that looked like a closet but was  another set of stairs leading to the attic. Once there, we’d sit on the rug in front of the TV since the furniture in the children’s classroom was all on the small side. Hermina would lay on her stomach, taking in every moment, as I sat there feeling proud of my new convert.

The Canadian films were very foreign to Hermina. And some aspects about the historical context and word usage required a little translating.

“Why does Anne have such a strange last name?” She asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Of Green Gables — What kind of last name is that?”

“‘Of Green Gables’ is more of a title,” I explained. “It’d be like if I called you ‘Hermina of Serbia.'”

But one thing translated just fine: Gilbert Blythe. We may have been different when it came to age, education, and the section of the globe we called home but we both couldn’t help falling in love just a little with that steadfast Canadian. We fell in love with the idea of a romantic someone encouragings us in the pursuit of our dreams rather than standing in the way. The idea of being loved for both our mind and our daydreams. And the idea of being loved because of, not just in spite of, our quirks and faults and even the beauty we couldn’t see (like carrot red hair).

He wasn’t some rugged bad boy tamed by the love of a woman. Or a two-dimensional Prince Charming. Gilbert was the character, the man, who showed us what it meant to be cherished.

I loved watching Hermina react to the story that was by this time very familiar to me. It made it feel new again. She was annoyed with Gilbert when he had the nerve to call Anne carrots and pull her braid (and appropriately shocked and proud when Anne responded by cracking a school slate on his head). And then when Gilbert started to grow up and his admiration and love for Anne became increasingly obvious and endearing, she lamented Anne’s long-held grudge. She’d routinely ask, “Is she ever going to like him?” And I’d just laugh but wouldn’t say a word.

Hungary will always remind me of Anne and Gilbert, not just because I had the chance to share their story with Hermina but because Hungary would’ve suited them so well.

Anne would’ve loved spending a summer in that castle; she would’ve imagined the love affairs that had transpired there, and the ghosts that couldn’t bear to leave. She would’ve loved strolling through the little town past a small Catholic church with an overgrown, forgotten cemetery; the petite cottages that lined the street and were practically overrun with flower gardens; and the bright orange sunsets.

She would’ve loved the summer storms that seemed to roll in out of nowhere, and how the lightning would be so close that during the night it’d light up the entire castle like something out of an old horror film and how the windows with their old locks would sometimes blow open during an especially hard gust. She would’ve loved Budapest: the architecture, the vastness of the city, and the romantic but not-so-blue Danube.

Anne would’ve loved my favorite part of Hungary, too. She would’ve loved the fields of yellow as far as the eye could see, so bright it hurt my eyes. When Hermina and I’d drive in to Budapest I’d point out the window like a little kid who’d just spotted the gates to Disneyland for the first time. Look at that! It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. “Kelsey, they’re just sunflower fields,” Hermina would laugh. But there will never be such a thing as just sunflower fields. And Anne would’ve understood that.

And Gilbert would’ve loved how happy Hungary and the sunflowers made his Anne girl.

Like so many fans of the books and movies I’m heartbroken about Jonathan Crombie’s death (the actor who played Gilbert). But he will always live on in the movies and my memory as the one and only Gilbert Blythe. I’d leave a sunflower at his grave if I could. My memories of sunflowers and Hungary and late nights spent watching Anne finally, slowly, fall for Gilbert are all so closely tied together that no other flower would seem appropriate. But this will have to do, instead.

Wishing you fields of sunflowers, Gilbert.


An open letter to my Mr. Man

Punk'n huntin' with the Mr. Man.

Punpk’n huntin’ with the Mr. Man.

I’m not very good at expressing how much I care about someone — always afraid it’ll sound trite or just really annoyingly mushy — but since we’re getting married in exactly 9 days, I thought I’d try my hand at an I-like-you-so-gosh-darn-much letter.

To My Love:

New lovers talk about how the world now feels brand new, as if bright, shining rainbows shoot out of all the formerly dark nooks and crannies of their lives and the entire world has been drenched in rose peddles and glitter. They make declarations of love based on the feeling that they can’t live or breathe or think or even put on their deodorant without their love by their side. Declarations that sound like symptoms of a bizarre medical condition: butterflies in the stomach, inability to eat, sleeplessness, and a newfound urge to compose torch songs.

Sure, infatuation is a pretty enjoyable high. I remember how after we started dating we stayed up texting until 2am comparing notes on our awkward “Does she/he like me too?” dance. Like the time you were getting together with a girl from school and I was jealous — really jealous — but wasn’t willing to admit it, not even to myself, so I tried to casually ask how your “hot date” had gone. You responded that if you were to go on a date with anyone, it’d be me.

Then, when I didn’t respond to your text message for half an hour, you thought it meant I wasn’t interested or that the idea of us dating made me uncomfortable. But, in reality, I’d burst into tears because I thought we were incompatible due to ideological differences, that it wasn’t going to work or maybe even shouldn’t work, and it’d taken thirty long minutes before I could take another stab at pretending to be calm and collected again.

Putting in Some Work 

You know, it really is amazing that we managed to work things out despite a decent amount of social awkwardness on both sides. Not to mention a decent amount of ideological differences that we spent literally months discussing on a weekly basis — we read books and watched lectures, had disagreements and discussions, and finally decided that we were compatible — prior to me being willing to finally decide that, yes, we could date.  People thought we were being slow or in denial about making it official, but we were wading our way through some pretty sticky stuff. And we really weren’t sure how it was going to turn out.

Sorting through all of that was enjoyable — you’re so thoughtful and brought a fresh prospective to ideas and beliefs that I hold dear — but also terrifying because I didn’t know if we’d be able to figure it out.  I remember crying in the car that Christmas Eve as I told my mom how I thought that if we could figure out that ideological stuff, I wanted to marry you.  But I was scared we might not be able to and that maybe it’d be a deal breaker, after all.

Just a few days later we finally worked it out. Everything wasn’t completely starched and ironed but we’d decided we were compatible on the major issues and were willing to be gracious on the minor ones. It’d been a year since we’d met, six months since you’d first made noises about wanting to date, and we were finally there. I cared about you so much that I even gave you my first kiss — something that was extremely precious to me — and told you that I loved you.  Once you got home, you texted me and said you felt like you were walking on air.  And so did I.

Then, Love Grows Up 

It was fun texting until way after midnight, setting all those messy stories straight and being grateful we’d actually managed to figure things out enough to begin a relationship. Infatuation is fun. But there’s something almost childlike, perhaps even a little self-absorbed, about new lovers. “I love you because you make me happy” or “I love you because we’re completely perfect together and everything comes so easily, naturally” seem to be the main gist of the declarations. And I know we did it, too. I honestly thought we already had the whole communication thing down pat by the time I finally started introducing you as my boyfriend that December—but we had oh so much left to learn! In fact, here we are, going on three years later, we’ve even started reading books together about communication and relationships, and we’re still slowly but surely figuring it out.

For a little while, I felt like maybe we needed to get everything all neat and polished before finally tying the long anticipated nuptial knot. I felt like we should’ve read more marriage books by this point and had who would handle what chore all ironed out. But I realized that’s what’s so wonderful about marriage: it’s a commitment to see this complex relationship business through, to keep on learning, growing, and messing up together.

‘Til Death Do Us Part 

That’s what you were saying that sunny spring day in Seattle as we strolled through the cemetery on the hill. As I nerded out about the evolution of death-related practices in America and admired the urban view, you looked at a gravestone of a married couple—his and her headstones—and said that’d be us someday. The level of commitment in the comment caught me up short. You weren’t being morbid or sad. You were saying that you wanted it to be only me. Forever. Until death do us part. You were saying that you loved me enough to give your entire life to me alone.

When I think about the future, I can echo your hope of being together until the grave.  In fact, what scares me most when I think about the future is the harsh reality that some couples aren’t given the luxury of growing old together due to frail bodies and a beautiful, frightful thing called mortality. And I hope and pray — like most, if not all, almost-married couples do — that we are lucky in that regard because I could spend every day of the rest of my life with you.  And even then, I feel like it still wouldn’t be enough.

When Broken People Say “I Do” 

Things won’t be easy once we’re finally pronounced husband and wife; they already haven’t been easy, you know that.  You’ve held me as I’ve cried as if my heart was going to die when the grief and loss from yet another Father’s Day slammed into my chest like a supersonic jet. You know how broken and scary I am. You know when I’m wearing my brave face in order to just get through the day. You know my insecurities—like hidden landmines, you’ve accidentally stepped on a few—and you try to make them better.  And very slowly, with lots time, it helps.

You see me as braver, smarter, more beautiful, stronger, and kinder than I see myself. But you know I’m not perfect either and that I’m no fairy princess offering to grant you a life of ease. You know how well I can choose exactly the right word that’ll hurt and shock like jamming your finger in an electric socket when I’m feeling angry and especially when I’m hurt. You know my deepest heartaches that leave me shaking like a lost, scared little girl. You know there are scars on my heart of hearts—you’ve touched them, kissed them, cried over them. Even when I’ve felt like maybe you’ll give up on me now, maybe I’m too screwed up or too broken, you’re there. Steadfast. Loving. Unmoving. As you’e told me before, you’re not going anywhere.

When I was afraid the I-miss-my-daddy-so-gosh-darn-much-it-hurts feeling was going to intrude on the wedding day, you told me that you wanted me to be able to be open, honest about how I was feeling, especially with you. And that you were glad that soon we’d finally be married, so you could be there for me even better by holding me, if necessary, while I balled my eyes out on our wedding night. Sexy? Not in the least. Romantic? Absolutely, because it showed how much you care for me.

And I want to show you, m’dear, how I see you, too. Help the insecurities to fade a little — even though I can’t ever erase them just like you can’t erase mine — and be there to ease the worry lines. I want to act like your mirror by showing you what I see: you’re intelligent, compassionate, and loving. And I’m lucky to have met you.  And even luckier to call you mine.

It’s Going to Take Work and Guts 

I know that sharing a life together isn’t going to be easy, m’dear.  Some horrible day in the future, one or maybe even both of us might even want out and we’ll have to hang on for dear life to each other. I know we’re both hardheaded and opinionated, so we’ll have our share of arguments (the silly and the not-so-silly kind). I know we both have hurts that are hidden so far inside of us that most people never even know they’re there, so sometimes we’ll accidentally hurt each other. We both have insecurities, so sometimes we’ll need reassuring. And, sometimes, we won’t be gentle or kind and we’ll need to forgive and learn to handle each other with more care.

We’re not airbrushed Hollywood actors staring in an epic romance—we’re real, we’re broken, we’re committed, and we’re in love. It’s not perfect but it’s beautiful in all its complex messiness. And we’re willing to put in the work. Lots of work. And that doesn’t mean that our love is less romantic than the new lovers. Sure, there’s still some glitter left over from the puppy stage but love — real love — a love that’s willing to work and willing to sacrifice has replaced the infatuation.

Marriage is the biggest adventure I’ve ever embarked on and it’s exciting and overwhelming all at the same time. But there’s no one else, m’dear, whom I’d rather share it with.

I only have one life to live, and it’s yours.

All my love,

Kelsey