Brittany Sky Stanley – Coffee and Holy Sites

Tenx9 first-timer Brittany Sky Stanley tells of her first trip to Israel and the West Bank with her grad program, and how coffee helped her not miss the day, but unfortunately, didn’t keep her from missing an important site. 

Ehjhjsdhfajkbflkax. It cannot be time to wake up. What time is it? 6am. That makes it, what? I don’t know, like 2am at home? Ughhhhhhhhhhhh. I have never experienced jet lag before, but this has to be it.

“Good morning, Roomie!” she says. She’s already showered, and is already smiling. I try to smile back and try really hard not to tell her to leave me alone.

I walk into our tiny bathroom. I look in the mirror. I am in Bethlehem. I look all right enough for that. I need coffee.

I put on pants and my hiking boots, throw my hair into a knot on the top of my head, and climb the stairs to the dining room. Where is the coffee? All I see is hot water. This day cannot happen without coffee. This trip will be ruined if I don’t find the coffee!

I watch as another tourist walks up to the hot water pot. He pours the water into his cup and spoons in these grainy brown looking things. Oh no. It’s instant. I know that I can feel melodramatic in the mornings, but this cannot be happening. I pour in the instant “coffee” and add a lot of cream and sugar.

I walk over to the table where the other students from my seminary are sitting. I know no one. I try to absorb all the energy I can from my cup of “coffee.” It’s already a struggle to force myself to make new friends but at 2am, I mean 6, it’s harder.

“What’s good? The eggs?” I ask the girl to my right. She has yogurt and bell peppers and a chocolate croissant on her plate. I could go for a chocolate croissant. This is the first day of vacation after all.

I grab a croissant and sit down at the other end of the table. I pull out my itinerary. I already know that I am going to the Church of the Nativity, Masada, and the Dead Sea today. I have had this itinerary memorized for weeks, but it makes me feel less alone to read.

I have been waiting my whole life to be here in this land deemed holy. I have had a great pull in the pit of my stomach for as long as I can remember to walk in the places that Jesus walked. I want to know why this place was the birth place of so much—of God, of community, of peace. I want to see what Jesus saw that inspired him to teach others to love each other. I want to find some strength to keep going.

Dr. Yeo, the New Testament professor from my school, walks into the dining room. He smiles at me and tells our group it is time to get on the bus. I grab my backpack and walk outside. It is beautiful here. It smells differently than home does. The sun even seems to shine differently. I walk up the steps of the bus and find a seat close to the front.

We drive to a parking lot that is five minutes from our hotel. We unload and make our way to the church. It is only fitting that we are in Bethlehem today. It’s Christmastide. Of all the places I have looked forward to, this was certainly one of them. This is the historic site of Jesus’s birth. This is the church built on top of the cave that housed the animals that provided the manger for Mary to lay her baby in. This is the place where so much began.

We walk up to the door of the church. The door is only as tall as my legs. Everyone bends way down to walk inside. I smash my head into the top of the doorframe. Awesome. All of these people are certainly going to want to be friends with me these next two weeks. I should have had more coffee.

I get inside.

Whoa.

I notice first the giant pillars. Everything is made of stone! This place is incredible. The craftsmanship! Dr. Yeo waves me over. The floor is opened up to another floor below. The floor below is the original church floor. Augustine’s mother, Helena, had this church built here to preserve this holy site. The original floor is impressive. It’s made of the tiniest mosaic tiles. Who had the patience to lay a whole floor like this?

I wander around the church. We have been told to be quiet. The third mass service of the day is going on in the holy cave below. When they are finished, we will be invited to line up. That line will lead us right to the holy manger.

There are gold and silver incense burners hanging up everywhere. There are beautiful icons everywhere. I wonder how many people have prayed to these holy images. I wonder how much money could be made off of them and used to feed the poor outside of the church.

I find an icon of the holy mother Mary up high in a corner. I assume the role of Patrick Swayze and I say the obligatory Dirty Dancing line, “Nobody puts baby in the corner,” and walk toward the prayer candles.

Dr. Yeo waves all of the students toward him. I walk to the group, even though I am not quite finished praying.

“We are going to go down into Jerome’s Cave for a mass service lead by our own Father Kermit!” he enthusiastically tell us. I suppose that’s neat. The three Catholics who joined our group will surely be glad to celebrate mass, but the other 16 of us are United Methodists. It will be cool to go to the traditional site of Jerome’s Cave–the place where the bible was originally translated into Latin. That’s a pretty important place too, I guess.

We walk the steps down into Jerome’s cave. There is a beautiful altar. The Catholics set out their wine and bread and proceed to lead us through a service. 45 minute later the priest blesses the elements, drinks the whole glass of wine, and shares bread with the three Catholics who chose the right denomination to be affiliated with. I am getting restless. And sleepy, and I really want another cup of coffee, even if it has to be instant.

They wrap up the service and we walk back up to the main level of the church. I make a beeline to the back of the now incredibly long line to baby Jesus’s manger. Dr. Yeo waves us all back toward him. I hope this means he has special connections and we will get to fast track to the front of the line.

The look on his face tells me this is not going to be good news. “We have to go,” he tells us. “The mass service took a little longer than we were originally planning, and we have too many other things to do today. It’s not a big deal. You can find pictures of the cave online…”

He keeps talking. I refuse to listen. Are you serious? This is the holy land! This is Jesus’s birthplace! This is the manger! This is the beginning! If I am not careful my anger is going to spill out in the form of tears. I take a deep breath and look at my teacher.

“Dr. Yeo,” I say cautiously, “That’s not very fair. I may never get to come back to the Holy Land.”

He looks at me with sadness in his eyes. I know I am going to miss it. I follow the rest of the group out to the bus. It is time to go to Masada.

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What I Missed: The Understory

Nashville, here’s what we missed.

We miss travel and the sights and experiences…and the suspense, and drama, and frustrations, and disappointments—no, actually we don’t miss it. But it can make a story to tell.

We miss Grandma. We miss the house, the giggles, “shooting rabbits.” Sometimes we have nothing to say, but we learn that you never forget the rain. Mostly we miss being there.

We miss our soulmate, and the life-changing relationship. We miss reading books and learning something new, and our link to the outside world. And we miss saying goodbye…and that voice saying “I love you.”

We miss our childhood and the sibling rivalry—the cruel, vengeful sibling rivalry. We miss digging for explosives, playing with weapons, and begging for our lives. But we are grateful that the past is the past, forgiven and forgotten—right Mom?

We miss smiling roommates in the morning, and real coffee, and the land of our faith. We miss spiritual experiences, even as outsiders. And sometimes we miss the very thing we wanted most to see.

We miss family drama, and going home, and echoes of small town in the big city. We miss taking care of personal needs, and stories of Mammy’s filter—or lack thereof. We miss awkward calls from the past, and conversations with Dad. And we miss funerals, and sharing precious life.

We miss years of freedom and intimacy, imprisoned by fear of the inspectors, looking for safety, normality, and survival. And we hope to find fellowship, and love…and ourselves.

We miss what we missed because of how we looked.  If only we weren’t what we see in the mirror, life would be different, better…or would it? Now we want “if only” not to be the last word.

We don’t really miss isolated summers on the farm, the hard work, awkward goat encounters, acres of wire and posts and landfills and bonfires. But we do miss stories of deep pain, and opportunities to be a part of a moment of healing.

Nashville, this is our story.

Drac Payne – My Soulmate

Returning Tenx9 storyteller Drac Payne shares of missing his soulmate Lorrain, and of missing her death while he was incarcerated for 34 years. 

Over the last 34 years I have been incarcerated, I was just released this past January 15th, so I could have come up with several pages of what I have missed over the last 34 years. Instead I want to tell you who I miss and more specifically a death I missed.

Her name is Lorrain and she was my soul mate for the last 27 years of my incarceration.

She made sure that I learned something new each and every day.  She taught me how to pay it forward because she really believe that if people would take the time to help each other then the world would be a better place.

If I mention about someone in the prison unit that I lived in being unable to buy shoes or clothes during package month, then she would have me to find out their sizes and she would get them what they needed.  During the Christmas month, she would buy two individuals Christmas packages each year.  You should have seen the guys faces when their names were called saying that they had Christmas packages.

Lorrain had M.S. and was bed ridden the last three years of her life, but that never stopped her from teaching me. She would order us the same books and we would read them and then talk about them for days on the phone.  We would talk to each other three or four times a day. She always wanted to hear how my day went and what was going on in the unit that I lived.

During the last 6 months of her life, it was very hard on both of us, because we knew that she would not be around to see me get out. During this time her body was shutting down limb by limb. Her hands would not work right and that made her mad, because her mind was sharp as ever. The nurses at the Nursing home notice this and would start taking their breaks around the time that I would call so that they could help her with our phone calls.

When her time was getting close she would talk to me about moving on in life without her.  We both knew that she would not be around to see me get out of prison and that in truth hurt us both.  She made sure that emotionally I was prepared for life without her and that I could handle what ever society threw at me.  She is the biggest reason that I am who I am today.

Then the day came that I really didn’t want.  I tried to call her in the morning like I always did but could not reach her.  The nurses were not even answering the phone like they normally did.  I knew something was not right, so I started to worry about her.  I went to my counselor and explained that I needed an emergency phone call because I knew something was wrong.  His response was “If she is gone someone will call”.

I was finally able to make a call to the nursing home around three that afternoon in the chaplains’ office.  I talked to one of the nurses that always helped Lorrain.  She told me “Sorry honey, she passed away at 6:15 this morning” The nurse informed me that she called the prison three times to have the message relayed to me.  She also told me that Hospice called three times with the same message.  The officers who took the call did not tell anyone.  They did not tell the Chaplains office or their shift supervisor.  I did not find out until some six hours after she had passed away. I sat in the chaplains office and cried.  I felt like my world had ended, and in a way it had.  She was all I had on the outside.

I knew that I would not be allowed to attend her funeral and say goodbye because the Tennessee Department of Corrections does not allow this. I was not allowed to say goodbye. That afternoon while sitting in my cell, I had every intentions of taking my own life, because I could not see a world without her in it. After count time I went back over to the chaplains office and talked to her, and some insiders who I now consider my brothers and more importantly family.  They sat and talked and helped me get thru my grieve.

I thought about all the things that I missed with Lorrain.  The books we read together and talked about, the conversations about our life with or without each other, but above everything that I missed about her, the one thing that I miss the most, is her voice saying I love you.

Wendy Hibbard – Gramma

For June 2015’s theme “What I Missed,” returning storyteller Wendy Hibbard shares of her treasured relationship with her grandmother. We could hear sniffles in the crowd. 

My dearest Gramma was about to begin the biggest transition of her life, and needed help. Everyone else was busy, but I happened to be off work, in that sweet spot between moving from one job to the next. It was a no brainer. Still, I felt woefully inadequate for the job.

She had always been my saving grace, the one who rose to my defense time and time again all throughout my childhood. “So she touches things.” She’d say. “She never breaks anything, she’s just curious.” I thought of her often as an adult when those same absent-minded habits got me into trouble, like with the touch police at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I always thought they might be amused when I’d tell them, smiling, “my Gramma says I never break anything, I’m just curious.” They never were.

Now here I was, solely entrusted with escorting this precious gem of a woman away from the home she’d single-handedly preserved for many decades. She wasn’t widowed or divorced, just married to a man who never found the way – or the want – to break free from his first love, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Maybe that was the reason my Gramma always looked like a fighter to me. Not a lace-up-your-boots, knock-down, drag-out kind of fighter. I mean, come on – this is Gramma we’re talking about here. No. It was in her eyes. There was a steely determination in those eyes that had learned how to size up whatever life would put in front of them, and deliver the perfect knockout punch through an uncommon common sense, and sheer force of will.

And then there was her giggle. It was as if she was a schoolgirl again: eyes shining with pure joy and mischief as she coquettishly covered her mouth, while her head and shoulders shook. Ah, she was a cutie.  And a force to be reckoned with.

But as we moved down the concrete steps for the last time, her, clinging to the ties of her thin plastic bonnet, and me, doing my best to support her as she stepped, her eyes did not shine. She had recently, suddenly, lost most of her vision. After a nightmarish series of events, it was decided that she needed to move to someplace safer, where she could be receive supervised care. The “Fort Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center” sounded clinical, and lacked the dreamy imaginings of others, like “Golden Meadows”, or “Whispering Pines”, but she liked that it didn’t sound like an old peoples’ home.

She quickly shorthanded the name to simply, “The Care Center”, and I had to admit, I liked the sound of that too. “The Care Center”. This fragile treasure was going to get the special care she so deserved. I consoled myself in that thought as she talked about her soon-to-be new home.

She paused, looking back at what could only have appeared as a dark, hazy outline of her home, for the last time. Not one for self sympathy, she took it all in with a quick, deep breath, turned, and looked up at the dreary grey sky to raindrops that splashed down her face and into her eyes.

There seemed such a sad indignance to it all. This majestic, salt-of-the-earth heroine was crossing the threshold from a full, active life of meaning, into her final chapter. And I was the only one there to witness it. To appreciate it. To pay homage to the unwavering commitment of love and sacrifice she’d sown into us all. She had always been the hub that held our family together. Now, even the weather was adding insult to the occasion.

I sifted through my thoughts, searching for something meaningful to say. Something that would erase the grey from the memory of this day. Nothing. I had nothing. Really? Me, who was never at a loss for words? Nope. Still nothing.

A small wave of anguish began to sweep over me as we continued walking. Surely I could summon up even the smallest bit of inspiration to wash away the sadness with a profound, maybe even poetic statement. Nope. Still nothing.

And then she spoke.

“You know, it was raining the day we moved in to this house. It was raining the day we brought your father home. It’s no surprise that it’s raining today. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that you don’t forget the rain.”

As her words filled my ears, the anguish evaporated. She spoke with a dignified wisdom that had grown accustomed to accepting the things she couldn’t change, knowing she would more than make up for it with the things she could.

In that moment, I was reminded so powerfully of all the reasons I loved that woman, that I had to hold my breath not to cry. She wasn’t leaving without her dignity, and I was not about to allow my tears to suggest otherwise.

I tucked her into the passenger seat, fastened the belt, and climbed behind the wheel. (Exhale) Muttering silently to myself, “You can do this”, I looked over at her, just to make sure she was ok. To my surprise, there was the little schoolgirl, with the bright, shining eyes, bearing a radiance that shone through the dull film of cataracts. Giggling at something silly she’d just said.

I’d heard her talking, now that I thought about it, but I’d been too distracted by the gravity of my heart, to listen. Quickly pasting on my best smile, I joined in, playfully teasing her, and hoping I could pull it off.

I had to take one final look. There was the garage where my grandfather had hung out a shingle to repair neighborhood lawnmowers. The interior walls had been covered with turtle shells, from the unfortunate creatures he’d captured as they slowly made their way from the lake across the street, and into his beloved Turtleneck Soup. There was the outhouse adjacent to the garage, long ago retired from its original purpose. It had been repurposed as the recycling center for Grampa’s empty aluminum PBR cans way back in the 70s. Next were my Gramma’s flower beds, with the gladiolas she would grow and sell every year in the little homemade roadside stand in the front yard, along with all the harvest from the huge garden behind the house, and the pear and apple orchard lining it.

I mentally said goodbye to my favorite climbing trees, and eventually, forced myself to take one more look at the tiny little house. It had held such an important place in my life. Once inside, my body would immediately begin to relax, comforted by the familiar aroma of her gritty, freshly brewed coffee. But it didn’t matter anymore, because she was no longer behind that door. It was time to go.

As I drove she chattered away, marveling at all the new sights she was discovering. She had seldom left the house in recent years, so most everywhere she looked she found something new. There was so much to talk about. But I found myself too mesmerized by the words she had spoken earlier to fully pay attention. They echoed in the space all around me, like the ripples of a skipping stone upon a lake. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that you don’t forget the rain.”  

She deserved my full attention. But this was weighing heavily on my spirit. As I did my best to camouflage my distraction, I determined that she would have that attention, once we arrived at her new home. And for a while, she did. I would visit her regularly. I got to see that little schoolgirl more, and more, and more. I began recording the story of her life, asking question after question that would summon up glorious accounts of the days before we met, sending her back to a time when she was young, and wild, and free.

She spoke with giddy excitement as we dared to track down the unrequited love of her youth. Her eyes took on a new “saucy” sparkle when the “stud” of the whole Care Center, a handsome, younger German man everyone called “Shatzi”, took a shine to her over all the other ladies competing for his attention. When a new medication caused uncontrollable, explosive gas as we walked through the corridors, she shocked me, proclaiming, “there I go, shooting rabbits again!” covering her mouth and giggling like a naughty, gleeful child. And when I accidentally rammed her wheelchair into a pothole on the sidewalk, sending her hurtling into the street, and me into a panic (trying to figure out how I was going to tell my family that I broke Gramma), she exploded into squeals of delight, saying it was the most fun she’d had in years.

But then, something happened. I got “busy”. I allowed myself to get distracted, and then chose distraction, adopting the inarguable explanation, at least according to my family’s values, that I was “working a lot”. And then she started making that excuse for me, apologizing in advance if she wanted to see me, and explaining to other residents and staff there. It was really something to be proud of. “She works so hard….” But then her voice would trail off, and the sadness would give her away. We both knew it was a lie.

It’s not that I wasn’t working, at least not some or even most of the time that I used that excuse. It was that I now used an excuse. I’d allowed my priorities to shift. Tragically. And now, my sweet, spunky, precious Gramma, who had meant so much to me all of my life, was no longer a priority. She was an obligation I made excuses to avoid.

You see, Gramma had a roommate who was all alone, and suffering from severe depression. We  tried to be kind and inclusive with her, but she just wanted her suffering to end. She wanted to die. The facility fought her, but ultimately, she chose to starve herself to death.

It was a very dark time. The period during which she refused food and meds lasted for several months. It compounded with other health problems to cause a deep stench to set in as her body literally began to rot away. It smelled like death, and hung heavily in my Grandmother’s room for well over a month. We tried to have my Grandmother moved, but to no avail. We were told the facility was short on beds, and they believed she was the only one there strong enough to be able to handle the situation.

But I wasn’t. Eventually, I came to visit Gramma, and her roommate’s bed was empty. I didn’t realize it at the time, but subconsciously, I’d shifted into a paralysis over the realization that now seemed impossible to ignore: eventually, I would lose Gramma too. Looking back at what I missed in those priceless last months of her life is hard. Most of all, I hate that by choice, I missed being there for her, the way she needed me to be. The way she’d always been there for me.

In the very end, the doctors gave her only a few hours to live. She was no longer responsive, but I was able to kneel beside her, and whisper the confessions weighing so heavily on my heart into her ear. My parents and I had been distant, not speaking for nearly 9 months after a deep disagreement. As I spoke to her, I could see she was troubled, she was wrestling with something. The night passed, and so did the next day. And the next day. And, really? Gramma was still holding on. Still troubled. It was clearly written on her face. I decided to try to understand, to talk with her about it.

By sheer force of will, she pressed her lips together and began to form words. She was trying to tell me that she wasn’t going anywhere until our family was back together again. I talked with my brother and her doctors. Was it possible, in her weakened state, that she was refusing to let go until the family was restored? It was clearly her body’s time to go. Watching her hang on was agonizing for us. Still, the question: was it possible?

The doctor said physically, there was no reason to explain how she’d held on this long. However, he had seen it before. There is something about an indomitable spirit. Realistically thinking, it made more sense than anything. After all, she’d spent her entire life committed to sacrificing for her family. Why on earth would now be any different?

I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my brother, and drove to meet my parents. I couldn’t do it for me. I wouldn’t do it for them. But I could do anything for Gramma. So we talked. My brother helped me explain what I thought was happening. And we reconciled.

One full week after the doctor told us she would be leaving us within a couple hours, I crouched down again next to Gramma’s side. I told her what had just occurred. I told her that she didn’t have to hang on for us anymore, that we’d be ok. Leaning over the bed, I kissed her forehead as I took her hands and told her I loved her, but I wanted her to go. I needed her to be free.

One final time, through sheer force of will, she pressed her lips together. Audibly, she whispered twice through their quivering that she loved me too. My brother and parents joined us, everyone sharing their I-love-yous and encouragement as Gramma’s face began to soften and glow. Her joy at the knowledge of her family’s restoration faded into a sweet beautiful peace as she released her grip on this world to step into the next. I so look forward to seeing her there one day, when I’ll no longer be saddened by the grief and regret of the time that I missed.