Death and the Woman

Once there was a woman who was good friends with God. They spent time together and talked daily. But Death came for the woman’s firstborn and after that God didn’t come around anymore. And really, who could blame God for staying away while Death was there? The woman didn’t much feel like talking to anyone, anyway.

But soon Death went away, and the woman was alone in her grief. Every now and then, the woman would say God’s name quietly, just to see if she would get an answer. But there was none.

Time passed and soon the woman was pregnant again. She thought surely her old friend would come to visit when the new baby came, so she prepared herself. She thought of what she would say to God, what stories she would tell, and all the other things she’d saved up.

So the days passed and the woman gave birth to a baby girl. And God didn’t come. Not even a phone call or card. The woman was hurt. Angry, even.

“God, where are you?” she called out. “I thought you would be here.”

The woman listened expectantly, rocking her daughter gently in the rocking chair, but she got no answer. She looked out the window and saw Death coming down the road. Bolting out of the chair, her new baby clutched to her chest, she barred the door and locked the windows.

“Get away from here!” she yelled out at Death. “Don’t you come again to this house!”

The woman counted a hundred rapid heartbeats, then, hearing nothing, she peeked back through the window. Death had gone.

A few months went by and the woman delighted in her motherhood, but sometimes things were hard and she felt very lonely. One sleepless night, she called out to God again, irritated, “It sure would be nice to have some help from you!”

A little while later in the early dawn, there was a knock on the door. The woman put down the sleeping baby and peered through the peephole. And there was Death on the porch.

Terrified, the woman threw herself against the door to barricade it. “Go away!” she yelled. “You already took my firstborn. Leave us alone!”

She counted a hundred heartbeats before she slowly put her eye back to the peephole. Death had gone.

By and by, the woman had grown used to God’s absence and didn’t think much about her old friend. But one day she got to missing God again, and she called out, “God, come and visit me! Let’s talk. It’s been so long.”

The woman looked out the window and again she saw Death coming down the road. She ran and barred the door and locked all the windows. “Why do you keep coming by here?” she yelled out as Death came up on the porch. “I already told you, you’re not wanted here!”

This time Death spoke, sounding a little annoyed. “You keep calling me.”

“I didn’t call you,” the woman said. “I was calling for my friend God.”

“Well, here I am!” Death said.

“No,” the woman said firmly. “You’re Death.”

“Ahh,” Death said then. “Open the door. We need to talk.” Death tapped on the door.

“No way,” the woman said, glancing nervously over her shoulder at her baby playing quietly with her toys.

But Death was persistent, and said she had something to explain that could only be understood by showing the woman. Death’s voice was so gentle, there was something almost familiar about it. So, hesitantly, the woman relented and lifted the latch on the door, and opened it.

Death stepped over the threshold and held out her hands, as if to say, “See? I’m not going to hurt you.” Then she waved one hand slowly in front of her face, and suddenly, instead of the old, hollow face of Death, there was the radiant and loving face of God.

“Oh, God, it’s you!’ the woman said, stepping forward to embrace her friend. But the hand dropped and once again the face of Death peered out at the woman from under the dark hood.

“I… I don’t understand,” said the woman, falling back a step.

“I have many faces,” Death said. “And many names.”

The woman still didn’t understand, so Death lifted one hand up and pulled back the hood.

The woman gasped. On Death’s head were three faces, looking in different directions so the other two had been hidden by the hood. One was the face of Death, and one was the face of God. The third she had only a vague recollection of, as if from a long-ago dream. As understanding settled in, she began to feel a bit ill and closed her eyes. Death pulled the hood back up.

“But if you are also my friend God,” the woman asked, “why do I only see you as Death?”

“Once you have seen the face of Death, it’s very hard to forget,” Death said sadly.

“Will it always be this way?” the woman asked. She met Death’s eyes.

“Some have learned to see my other faces again, with time,” Death said.

The woman looked away and down at the floor. “I think I need some time,” she said softly.

Death sighed. “I understand.”

At that moment, the woman’s daughter looked up as if noticing for the first time they had a visitor. She smiled broadly at Death and reached her hand up to give a pudgy wave. Death smiled back, and for a moment, the woman could almost make out the features of the third face.

“Well, I should be going,” Death said, heading towards the door.

“Yes, yes,” the woman mumbled, and went to show Death out.

Death hesitated on the doorstep a moment. “I hope you will call again.”

“I hope so, too,” the woman said.

Death turned to go, and the woman pushed the door gently but firmly shut.

 

I wrote this parable almost a year ago. Some days I think I still need more time. Other days I’m perfectly happy to keep that door shut tight.

© Burning Eye

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Advent

A. turns to me in bed and asks, “How do you explain nostalgia to a child?” I wait to see where she’s going with this. “Like, how are we going to explain to our children why we have so many crèche scenes? Neither of us is exactly religious.”

I wonder in the darkness if I should quibble with her characterization of me. Am I religious now? I certainly used to be. I decide not to derail the conversation and turn it towards my idle curiosity about my own faith since Joseph died.

We have just put up our Christmas tree, strung lights, unwrapped some of our ornaments—there are two new ones this year for Joseph—and found places for the four manger scenes around the living room. The beautiful pop-up crèche advent calendar that A’s dad gave us this year already sits on the coffee table.

A reminds me every year or two that her mother used to put their Wise Men figurines far away from the stable, and move them closer every day. They had several crèche scenes, as did my family. We each bring different childhood traditions to our Christmases together, but this is one thing we have in common.

My parents had a little crèche from Latin America when I was little. Its doors opened and closed on paper hinges. A lover of all things miniature, I was drawn to the ornament and played with it each year, opening and closing the stable doors on the colorful little family.

We also had a larger crèche of hard wax figurines that got unpacked out of a rickety wooden stable year after year. They were old, my grandmother’s, and some of the detailed coloring was scratched off. One of the shepherds was continually losing its head, which I tried multiple times to melt back on. The one angel that ultimately remained was missing her feet and wouldn’t stand. But still, I loved it. I played with it like a dollhouse, arranging and rearranging, strewing dried pine needles across the stable floor for authenticity.

“Well,” I say to A. I don’t really have to think about it, but I am surprised I already know the answer. “It’s about family. A new mother and father, a baby born. Christmas is about family. ”

 

I have always loved the Christmas story. Though from year to year, my relationship to it has changed—I cycle through folktale, pagan origins, Biblical scholarship, fervent religious belief in the birth of a great Light in our world, which I’ve sometimes called Christ. I am drawn to Mary, a young mother pregnant for the first time, afraid, tired, unsure of this burden God has given her. I feel tenderness toward Joseph, the man who has taken Mary and all her controversy into his house to care for her and protect her and be a father to this prophetic child. I admire the incredible faith they both had.

When I found out I was pregnant with our son, I dug out the journal I had been saving for this occasion since I was 18 and turned to the inside flap where I wrote out the Magnificat. My soul magnifies the Lord. I felt blessed. I was so happy. My journal from those months, when I wrote, was full of God. I was full of God, full of love, full of faith. Being pregnant felt like the star on top of the tree, the final piece of my life’s dreams falling into place.

I was pregnant through Advent. Like Mary, expecting a baby. Christmas was exciting. We bought our first real Christmas tree, and dreamed about how this would be our last Christmas without children. Maybe next year we wouldn’t travel, we’d make our family come to us. After all, having a little baby entitles you to certain privileges.

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When we decorated gingerbread cookies with my dad, I did myself as Mary, in her typical blue robe and blue veil. I added a little icing baby floating in my belly. (Decorating elaborate cookies is one of my favorite family tradition.)

 

How different I feel this December, pregnant again a year later. I am tentative, protective of the little sparks of hope I sometimes feel. Nowhere in my journal or my letters to this new baby do I talk about God.

It is painful to think of Christmas as the birth of anything good in the world. My first baby died on Christmas day. It is hard to think about Mary, her joyful song to God, awaiting the birth of her own baby, year after year throughout history. And yet, I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. Remembering that she, too, lost her son. The baby she carried and birthed and raised. Something in this knowledge softens me towards her. Something in this tragedy makes Christmas a little more sorrowful.

 

This year, we buy another real Christmas tree, hang a wreath and stockings. I listen to Christmas music all day. I play my flute for the first time in months, drawn to Advent songs in the Methodist hymnal I grew up with. This nostalgia for the Christmas season is powerful. We are both surprised by how these parts of Christmas come so naturally, so easily.

Beyond that, I’m not sure how to think of Christmas right now. I am afraid of it. I am afraid it will pass like any other Christmas, that I will unintentionally shut down emotionally just so I can hold it together. I am afraid I will be an emotional wreck, that nothing we do to honor Joseph will feel right, that I’ll get angry, I’ll be inconsolable. I am afraid to feel relief when this first stillbirthday passes. I am afraid to remember, afraid I will forget.

 

And in the midst of all this, I wonder what this Christmas means for this new baby who thumps and rolls in my belly. I dare to hope that this time will be different. That the earth will turn again and Light will be reborn in our lives.

© Burning Eye

Dear God,

We had the assignment in our support group to write a letter. I wrote my letter to God. I read it last night. Not sure how they took it. It was a very emotional meeting, listening to all their letters. Some to their babies, some to relatives. Lots of tears.

 

Hey, God.

This is the way a friend used to start her prayers. Her gentle voice emerging from our silent circle when we closed our Sunday evening gatherings. Hey, God. So familiar, so personal.

This is the way I used to feel about you.

Now I feel more like Margaret in that Judy Blume book, asking, “Are you there, God?”

Where are you, God?

I used to be able to feel you when I needed you. I used to be able to close my eyes and lean back into your arms. Now I close my eyes and I search for you behind me; I begin to settle back, testing… But I stop, pull up short. It’s like those trust falls. I don’t trust you’re there to catch me.

 

Hey, God!

Fuck you.

I am Jacob, ready to wrestle my angel.

C’mon, I’ve got my boxing gloves on, I’m dancing on my toes, back and forth, back and forth. Ready to tear into you. I’ve worked myself up to this, trained for the anger, fed this fire in me and I’m just waiting to sink my fists into you, let my feet fly, yell and scream with all the fury I can summon.

I know you can take it. I know I can rail and rage against you and you won’t feel a thing. That’s why I need you, God. You can contain me. You can fill me when all else drains away.

What the hell, God? Where are you?

 

Hey,

I am trying to find the right metaphor:

Are we still playing Blind Man’s Bluff? I hear you, I sense you out there, dashing just out of reach. I flail my arms out, casting about for you. I’m getting tired. I’m frustrated. I’m ready to take off the blindfold and let someone else be It.

Are you the horse I have fallen off of? Do I just have to pick myself up and get back on? Wait, why did I fall in the first place? Usually one falls off a horse because the horse throws the rider. It hasn’t been long enough that my broken bones and bruises have healed. I haven’t forgotten how much that fall hurt. I haven’t forgiven you yet.

Are you the ocean, and I am a drop of water? Are you everywhere, within me and without?

Are you the waterfall? Has your torrent slowed to a trickle? Or have I been sitting under you so long my shoulders are numb and my lips are blue and I’ve forgotten I’m soaking wet?

Do you come disguised as a visitor, a friend, a listening ear, a few gentle words that arrive by email?

Are you love?

Are you Light?

 

God,

I don’t know what to pray anymore.

I used to pray to you for protection. I used to ask you favors. I used to pray that you would help everything turn out alright.

Now I’m at a loss for words. They feel futile, anyway. The only prayer I can pray since Joseph died is come holy spirit. And I speak it, and I sing it, and I chant, and I wait in silence, and you don’t come to me. You don’t come.

I contemplate atheism. I take comfort in science, in the laws of nature, the cycle of life and death. Yet I still believe in you. I still know you’re out there, creator, sustainer, redeemer.

But I need you to meet me halfway. Or more than halfway. I used to sing your praises, worship you, give all to you. But for now, I am the least of these. I need you to feed me, to give me drink, to clothe me. I need you to invite me in.

 

I am so weary of all this waiting.

 

© Burning Eye

Waiting, me desespero

me desespero—I despair

I spend hours on the internet, tugging at my lifelines. I check my email, waiting for the latest letter from one of the babylost mamas I have been writing with. I check the babylost blogs, waiting for a new post. I read the forums, trying to recognize myself in the aches and pains and hopes and joys of these other parents.

My heart breaks over and over for their stories and my own. I wait for the time when each break hurts a little less.

* * *

The waiting started six months ago. A bed, a tan wall, a spider in the corner by the ceiling. Waiting to feel our baby move.

Moments stretched long and gaping in my heart:

Waiting for a heartbeat.

Waiting for the world to just come and crush me and finish it.

Waiting for dawn.

Waiting for labor.

Waiting for the burn and ache of birth.

Waiting to see him. Waiting for them to take him away.

Waiting to be discharged from the hospital.

Waiting for my milk to come in. Waiting, waiting, waiting for it to dry up.

Waiting for my belly to deflate, the bleeding to stop, my muscles to tighten, my body to heal.

Waiting for my period. Reciting the names of my hormones in every possible order, trying to guess which one is surging: estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing, prolactin, follicle-stimulating.

Waiting for this migraine to go away.

Waiting as anxiety to creeps in and slowly tightens its claw around my throat.

* * *

I am waiting to feel God.

I used to be able summon God’s presence and lean back into the arms of God whenever I needed to. My sister says she admires me for my close relationship to God, and I feel like a phony. I am not close to God. God does not feel nearby.

I try to find God in other people. In the sympathy cards and emails. In the kindness of my coworkers. In the incredible unconditional love I feel from A. I sit on my stool and try to pray and the whole time our cat Isabel is bumping into my knees and my open palms, purring and rubbing herself all over me. Maybe our cats are God, A and I joke.

A wise friend tells me that whenever we think we have comprehended God, something happens to show us that we haven’t, and we have to widen our concept of God. We get stuck in thinking God is this or God is that, when God is so much more than we can conceive of.

God and I are playing Blind Man’s Bluff. I am the Blind Man, and I’m standing very still. I’m waiting for God to come closer, to feel the passing stir of air before I reach out and grab hold and cry out in triumph.

* * *

I wait, too, for the words to seep into my veins and creep down to my fingertips. I wait for the dusty charcoal lines and figures and shadows to order themselves behind my eyes. Sometimes, now, the images are in color.

Hope is a color.

* * *

I paint another stormy Frida sky.

I am sitting and writing in my journal, writing about this waiting, when I see the sky of my limbo, dark clouds blowing swiftly across a vast, empty plain. Dark above, dark below. I lie at the left side of the painting, on the horizon, resting my head on my outstretched arm. But I am not resting. My eyes are open. My fingers clawed into the hard, black ground. I press the weight of my legs into my toes, which are tucked under, as if ready to spring up and take off running.

This is what I would like to do. Run blindly into the flat and infinite right side of the canvas. See what is there just out of the frame. My body itches. A deep throb settles into my calves. Sitting still too long, my hips and my forearms and my fingers fall asleep, numb and needling until I shift position.

But there is nowhere to go. The future does not exist yet, no matter how hard I will it here more quickly.

I am a failure at one-day-at-a-time. All I want is for this day to end, and the next, and the next, until there is magically, miraculously, a baby growing in my womb again. And then, once I know it is there, fast forward through the terror of pregnancy until that baby is born safe and alive in my arms.

The thought of being able to try again gives me hope and makes me tremble with fear. My soul splits and half is giddy and half is knocked low, weighing me down. My attention darts back and forth between them until I am exhausted and confused.

The waiting has a purpose now, but purpose doesn’t come with control. I am at the whim of the thermometer and cervical mucus and pink lines and FedEx and plane travel.

There is absolutely nothing else I can do except wait.

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© Burning Eye

Mother of Sorrows

 

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Ten years ago when I was in Assisi, Italy, I went into one of the many churches and encountered a statue of the Virgin Mary I had never seen before. She was made of painted wood, probably, and tall—tall, at least, in my memory—dressed in the traditional blue robes, arms outstretched, face tilting upwards in entreaty. What was so striking about this statue, though, was not Mary herself but the bright silver swords that pierced her breast. A gleaming, metallic cluster extending out into the air around her. Hundreds of them, my memory tells me, though I know this must be exaggeration. Photos I have found of similar statues show only six swords.

I stood beneath the statue, transfixed. This, I thought, was surely the most accurate representation of the loss of a child I had ever seen. Not the sad, demure face Mary usually wears. Not the single tear at the corner of her eye, or running down her cheek. But this: pure, violent agony.

When Joseph died, I thought of this Mary. María de los Dolores, I remember her being called. Mary of Sorrows. Not a passive, pious Mary calmly facing the death of her son, but a raw, grieving mother, mouth open, crying out to God in pain.

I made this Mother of Sorrows icon only a week after Joseph’s death and birth, and still I feel the heavy weight of the swords in my heart. Eight of them, one for every month of his life in my womb. This pain is like a broken rib, a bright piercing when I inhale. Sometimes, if I lie very still, the pain disappears, and I can fool myself into thinking these wounds are healed.

© Burning Eye

Accidents

I don’t believe in fate.

 

I don’t believe in omens, or signs, or that our night dreams come true, or that if I pick up a penny showing tails I’ll have bad luck. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. Not everything is “meant to be” and a coincidence is just a coincidence.

 

Accidents happen.

 

This is what I have to tell myself in order to make sense of life and death. Of my life and our baby’s death. Mother Nature’s laws dictate that everything dies, and sometimes accidents happen that bring that death sooner than expected.

I first learned this truth when my friend Hans died three years ago. He fell off a roof while installing solar panels. God did not take Hans for any reason—Hans was one of the most gentle, caring souls I have ever met. His smile made thousands of friends. Hans died in a tragic accident. Accidents happen. End of story.

I tucked that story away in my heart and didn’t let myself search for further meaning. I severed those neural pathways in my brain so that each question dead-ended in that one word: accident.

It’s one half of our baby’s cause of death, too. Cord accident.

 

But I’m still trying to read the events of my life as some sort of sign. When I get sick and have to cancel my trip to Asheville one weekend, I wonder reflexively if this is the universe’s way of telling me I wasn’t ready to go back there. That maybe I wasn’t ready to face sitting on my sister’s couch, where I last felt our baby move. Maybe I wasn’t ready to walk into my parents’ guest room where we waited an agonizing hour to count his kicks that never came. You’re sick, the universe must be saying, to spare yourself the pain of physical place triggering memory.

            I’m still looking for reasons.

 

            And how can I not believe in omens?

Two nights before our baby died, my father had a dream that Death was knocking at his window. He woke himself up with a roar and a violent shove as he lunged up in bed to try to keep Death from coming in.

How can I not believe that sometimes dreams are prophetic?

 

I catch myself still in this old way of thinking. Reaching out to touch A’s face, to squeeze her shoulder, search for her smile, a hug. She is my light in this darkness. Surely we were meant to be. Surely every moment of our lives led up to our joining, finally, when the time was right.

I want to look back and see meaning. I want to be able to follow one thread in the tapestry woven by the Fates and see how it all fits together. I want to find the reasons and see what was meant to be.

But I want to pick and choose. If A and I were meant to be, then our baby was meant to die, and I cannot accept that. I cannot exist in a world with such logic.

 

We talk of Schrodinger’s cat, of this alternate reality we have been thrust into. In some other world, maybe, we brought our baby home from the hospital and are living the happy life we’d planned. But we cannot exist consciously in both places at once. That other life is gone, and here we are with empty arms and broken hearts and so many questions that have no satisfactory answers.

Accidents happen.

This is not satisfactory, either.

There is little comfort in it. There is a world of comfort there, too.

 

“How are you doing spiritually?” the grief counselor asks.

My whole sense of the world is turned upside down, shaken up like a snow globe. In the swirl and clouds, I can’t see yet where things settle out. I can’t see what is still fixed firmly to the base and what has come loose or where it will land.

I used to believe in a God who acts in our lives. Not a capricious puppet master who moves us around on life’s stage for entertainment or revenge, but one who does move us sometimes, who can intervene through the power of prayer. A force for good who will come if you call.

I’m not sure what to pray for anymore. I’m not sure if I should keep wishing on eyelashes, railroad tracks, shooting stars. None of them did any good while I was pregnant. None of them saved my baby’s life. There’s not even any point in worry—and I was raised to believe there is moral virtue in worrying. Anxiety is futile. Accidents can still happen.

Knowing that doesn’t make life any less terrifying.

 

I don’t see this as a crisis of faith. I still have faith—what else is there left for me to possess? I still believe in God.

I believe in a God who weeps.

I believe in a God who loves.

I still pray veni sancte spiritus and God be with us, even when I don’t feel God’s presence.

But it feels more like momentum, this belief I have. A giant wave that I’ve been riding since Joseph’s death. Its roots are in the deep ocean of my past, when I could summon a Living God’s presence whenever I needed. The wave is still rolling because that’s what waves do, the time and place of their breaking determined by the physics of ocean depth and current and the geographic position of the shore. The water gets more and more shallow, an echo of the way I feel God.

 

“Two or three things I know for sure,” Dorothy Allison writes in her book of the same name, “and one of them is…”

I know that all living things die.

Babies sometimes die.

And there are accidents.

Beyond that, I cannot say.

© Burning Eye

Storm Comin’

When that storm comes, don’t run for cover

When that storm comes, don’t run for cover

When that storm comes, don’t run for cover

Don’t run from the comin’ storm ‘cause there ain’t no use in runnin’.

 

When that rain falls, let it wash away

When that rain falls, let it wash away

When that rain falls, let it wash away

Let it wash away, that fallin’ rain, the tears and the troubles.

 

When those lights flash, hear that thunder roll

When those lights flash, hear that thunder roll

When those lights flash, hear that thunder roll

When you listen to that thunder roar, let your spirit soar.

 

When that love comes, open up the door

When that love comes, open up the door

When that love comes, open up the door

You gotta stand on up and let it in, let love through your door.

 

When that storm comes, don’t run for cover

When that storm comes, don’t run for cover

When that storm comes, don’t run for cover

Don’t run from the comin’ storm ‘cause you can’t keep a storm from comin’,

No you can’t keep a storm from comin’

No you can’t keep a storm from comin’.

 

“Storm Comin’” by the Wailin’ Jennys

 

The day before Christmas Eve, I was wailing along with the Wailin’ Jennys as our car climbed the last mountain pass on I-40 on the way to Black Mountain. I was thinking about our baby, one hand on my belly as I sang. What a storm our baby would be in our life! What love! Our life was about to change forever—not in that head-shaking regretful way people were saying to us, but in a good way, the best way. We were ready for our baby.

Let that storm come. I’m gonna open up the door.

Two days later, our baby was dead.

For a few weeks after Joseph died, I couldn’t listen to the Wailin’ Jennys at all. I couldn’t do much of anything, except, oddly, make lists of things that needed to get done. Daycares to be called to cancel our spot on the waitlist. Replace the thermostat. Write lesson plans, and, oh yeah, don’t forget to tell the sub about the roaches. And give her the combination to the lock on the closet. And tell her where to find the math books.

But the song has been creeping back in. Seven weeks after I gave birth to Joseph, I can’t get it out of my head. What a different storm that has unleashed its fury over our heads. I can see its clouds for miles out still, rolling towards me, black and low. Helplessness my lightning, anger its thundering echo. Emptiness and sorrow my rain.

I can’t keep the storm from coming.

But what of love?

Now, I drive home from school on the highway, belting out this song at the top of my lungs, crying and dabbing at my tears underneath sunglasses, thinking of love. How much I loved Joseph every day he grew inside me. How much love I had been saving up for him once he was born. How much I still love him and how fucking unfair it is that he’s not here to receive all this love I have to give him.

I am trying to figure out what it means to open my door to the love I still have for our sweet little boy. How do I love him when he’s not here? Early on, I read some advice that I should still use all that nurturing energy I had stored up to nurture him, my absent baby. I didn’t understand what was meant by that. Was I supposed to carry around a substitute, hug a blanket or stuffed animal? Later someone else put it to me in terms of honoring Joseph’s place in our lives. Talking about him, remembering him, loving him. I think about it every day—this nurturing, this honoring. But I still haven’t figured it out. I haven’t figured much out at all.

But I do leave that door open. And I have come to expect that when someone else’s love comes in, it is a flash and a roar and a washing away that brings me to my knees in tears. I do know that love flows both ways, and when I let others in, I swell with their love and it magnifies my own.

Maybe that’s God, A said, of the signs of love we have received—the cards, flowers, emails, phone calls, prayers, the arms of light that reach around us and over us and under us.

It is a powerful god. I want to think of it this way, when I am wondering who and what and where the God is I used to think I knew. I want to think of God as this love, reaching through others to help hold me up when I’m not strong enough to stand on my own.

© Burning Eye