Letters to Christ I ~ All Things Bright & Beautiful

Dear Lord,

These letters have been many years in the writing, pieced together from old journals and half-hearted scribbles on the backs of till receipts and napkins; the last 16 years have been one long trial by fire; white-hot iron placed in the hands. Or a witch’s dunking, sink or swim, guilty either way.

I was going to become a priest, once. I wonder if that makes you laugh, the thought of me in the pulpit, wielding broken bottles in a spiritual war zone. Given the Revs and Fathers I grew up watching it’s clear near-terminal alcoholism isn’t actually an impediment to serving you in this way, but perhaps it’s just as well I passed on the opportunity. We still talk, you and I, and I still try to place my light in a candlestick so that it may shine rather than smother it under a bushel, but it’s not as your devoted cleric in a robe of crow-black lifting chalices to Heaven, it’s as a girl, just a girl, just a girl…

Back then, I was a willowy wraith haunting an empty chapel, I would spend hours sitting on the hard, polished pews talking to you, reading the lives of the saints, the poetry of the great mystics, listening with my headphones jammed over my ears to Hildegard Von Bingen’s Canticles of Ecstasy. Perfectly still and content like a slice of eccentric ivory in that cool, dusty vault. I spent so many hours in there, listening to the blackbirds warbling through stained glass, that I got to know all the ancient dead under their marble slabs by name. Sometimes I still dream of that church.

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Perhaps I’ve been scared to write these letters because the things I see don’t slip neatly into a collection box. They are profoundly shocking even to me sometimes, I am overwhelmed with a Love that is like an ocean with no floor; I could not use you as an excuse to judge or hate anybody, how can anyone? Whatever the supposed fulfillment of the laws of Moses, you taught nothing but Love; Love unbound from the mooring of our egos; Love unfettered by society’s judgement: who is worthy, who is better, which sinner deserves redemption, who is and is not allowed to sit at life’s long table. The Old Book is blood and vengeance and fire, but where you walk the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and white lilies like the Magdalene’s hands spring up from your footprints in the dust.

How ludicrous it is that two thousand years after your death loving your neighbour as you love yourself is still so radical, so subversive, so likely to bring down the wrath of today’s Pharisees. But then, how painfully ironic that condemnation and cries of heresy so often follow acts and teachings of pure, transcendent Love. Do you recall the Amalricians? Burned as heretics in the 13th century for preaching that ‘all things are One, because whatever is, is God’? When does a critic separate the artist’s work from the artist themselves? When blood and sweat and insomniac hours and that fierce, burning need to birth some new creation, focused and loosed like an arrow, have directed every brush stroke? Perhaps I too am just another pantheistic heretic, seeing God in all things bright and beautiful.

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But since those days breaking like troubled storm clouds over my younger self, I’ve not lost faith in you, even when I have abandoned myself; when I have been gutter-drunk or full of futile rage or twisted, weeping, in the bedsheets like someone hanging in chains. When I am crushed up like slaughterhouse bonemeal at 4 am after 4 am after 4 am and wondering why me. There has always been that still pool in the eye of those storms, where we talk. Where the words of another great mystic of another desert faith come back to me:

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Until next time, I suppose. For all that I have and all that I am, as always, grazie mille Lord, a thousand thank yous.

~ Amice

 

 

A Room Somewhere

The walls are white, not the soft magnolia of new homes but the stark, sun-bleached white of Spanish monasteries or Provençal cottage kitchens. An iron cross made out of old horseshoes hangs on one wall, beneath it there are always fresh flowers. The sweet, earthy scent of myrrh unfurls through the room, the windows are open to cars and radios and kicked cans and starlings.

I lie on the soft cream bedlinen, mind untethered; I can while whole seasons away like this, the same bittersweet songs playing, the same food every day. In these contemplative pockets I finally find respite from the addict inside who craves novelty and flees from boredom. In these times I cultivate boredom like a beautiful orchid, I drift through the warmer days like a courtesan immersed in long, languid baths. I reflect on everything from the perfume poured on Christ’s feet to the scribbles in my old notebooks to the changing texture of my own skin as it enters a new, dimpled decade. The hours feel drugged, the clock becomes my lover and I can spend all day with him, watching the sun pray over that plain, white paint.

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When I come to, half the summer has gone, usually. Faded like the knees of my jeans as the days melt into each other like butter. I used to sip at pink wine in the bed like a bee regaining strength from sugar water, I wonder what it will be like now, sipping orange juice and green smoothies. A sour slice of yellow lemon in still or sparkling. I dare to hope I’ll write more, free from the shackles of liquor’s apathy which turned my blood to morphine.

I keep those quiet hours close to my heart, precious things pressed between scrapbook pages, mornings of easy solitude like wonderful seashells kept until the end of the holiday; afternoons like petals pulled from the pollen-heavy core of a flower, he loves me, he loves me…a little, madly, passionately, not at all. I become a dusky pink rose, sensual and drowsy with the weight of my own limbs. I hover above myself like pale steam, like incense. They are sacred, those hours, when all I want is a room, somewhere.

 

Racing With the Rising Tide to my Father’s Door

In my dream, because odd, mystical little pockets of my subconscious are the one consistent thing in my life, I’m up to my waist in the sway of the sea. I can feel my legs fighting the sweep to and fro as the waves race each other to break their hearts on the shore; it reminds me again how powerful, how full of nature’s raw force, is something as clear and soft and submissive as water.

Christ wades in, the ocean moving like silk around him. I smile even in sleep because I remember how this man is no stranger to the sea and wonder why he doesn’t simply stand upon the surface as it whispers and shushes around us, then I think of baptism and purifying baths from time and temples immemorial and remember that in some ways we must be like children to enter the kingdom of Heaven, and I imagine he enjoys playing in the sea as much as the next wayward kid. He is wearing a plain robe that must have once been white, some kind of flax or rough linen, now rusty with red dust. We both look at the horizon, a long line of indigo melting into a strangely coloured sky that isn’t day or night.

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A silence that is not silence blooms; that feeling you get when you are with a dear friend and there’s no need to communicate with something as clumsy as words when a smile, a raised brow, the click of the kettle’s switch will do. Christ and I rarely talk in these strange little visions of mine, but that doesn’t mean nothing is said. The keening, echoing cry of the gulls comes, arcing across the water like dry ice.

He tells me in the silence that I will have to be brave, that I cannot be afraid of emptiness, and I feel rage bubbling up like lava in my gullet because I am done being brave, I have spent years in the exile of emptiness, I have wasted my life treading water in this lonely ocean and I will not crawl any further on bleeding knees, I will not come to you with wounds weeping vinegar, I will not be broken I will not I will not Thou shalt not…

He says nothing, merely watches the water, but I think he understands.

The tide turns. Now the pull is back to the sea and I feel my legs protest against being dragged out into that roiling void where monsters propel themselves through the black canyons at crushing depth. I stand firm with the rough tongue of the the sand against my soles and turn to look at the man beside me but Christ has gone, as quietly and unobtrusively as a feather falling to earth. The water whispers its ceaseless, primordial lullaby, the sky has darkened to the violet glaze of perpetual sunset.

Above my head, the gulls laugh.

If I Live, If I Die

    Lord if you hear me, I’m falling down

Day one. I’m on my way to rehab. We’re tearing down the motorway in the spitting rain and everything is grey, even the grass banks seem to be flowing away up to the horizon like watercolour. I can feel the sympathetic green of my eyes leaking too, melting out into the white canvas of watery optic around them, getting right into the fine cracks. Emerald-shot.

‘You’re sure you want to do this?’ My stepfather is smoking a cigarette out of the window. ‘We’re all behind you…It’s just…’

It’s just that I’m thirty years old and these wheels are hissing through the puddles on the road and I’m jumping off into empty space like a guy about to beat the hangman to the drop. It’s just that the the first half of my life has dwindled like a dollar store candle, guttering into A&E visits and psych hospitals and what’s left of the flame stutters now with the slightest shift in the air. It’s just that my heart is floating somewhere above the earth, one trembling thread tied to a blade of grass, just a cobweb kissing the ground and only visible to those blessed people who take the time to stop and watch the wind change. I can feel myself straining at the confines of my own skeleton with every glass of hot amber like someone swimming in the wild at night, waiting to be sucked under by a stray current like the bad end of a Victorian romance; white leaden limbs catching in the feral green hair of the river.

In front of us, a lone black Lexus weaves across the lane. My stepfather snorts.

‘What do they think they’re doing? The dozy motherfucker.’

I shrug, my shoulder blades feel dislocated, my brain is rattling on its stem like a dice box trying to throw a six. ’They’re probably daydreaming about what it’s like to not be driving a Lexus.’

He laughs and we race in silence past storage units and roadside diners and trees still thick with summer green. I am leaving my past life behind me as easily as the glowing embers of that smouldering paper cigarette-end as it bounces on the road. I almost say: I had a dream last night that I was looking through one of those spyholes you get on apartment doors, and I knew there was someone on the other side waiting for me to answer but I couldn’t make nothing out but a pair of dark eyes. I think it might have been the Devil knocking. What do you think of that.

 My faith is weary, my soul is too
Lord if you hear me, I need some proof

He hauls my bag out of the trunk and I stand there as the rain stops falling. Everything about this place is horrifyingly new and strange and I stand there by the cricket ground, hollow as a chapel as the car roars off, my fingers aching and the thick, swampy beat of this song I’ve had rolling around my skull for weeks – about the last-chance, bleeding-out ache of a soul on the rocks – coming back to me, watching my breath hang in the air like I could stop time or make a wish or God would answer my prayers if I can just faithfully count every droplet of water taking flight from my lungs. I think:

Fuck me, my life is a church that burned down.

I wonder how my legs are moving when my spine is an anchor ripping through deep water, when the seconds are sixty air bubbles a minute in lungs crushing under all that oceanic pressure. Then the door opens and fluorescent light pours out into the chill and misty air and suddenly my hands are empty, and I step through the door staring down at the dead white lines across my fingers, where the blood has stopped flowing. I remember signing the contract for treatment because I walked through the doors sober. I remember carrying my light bag – 28 days worth of hastily gathered t-shirts and jeans, a toothbrush, a dusky pink snake of adventurine prayer beads – up the echoing stairs to an attic room, opening the skylight and watching the beech leaves dance in the wind. Looking at my own face in the mirror, bleached and blank and bare, like the walls.

Red or Blue

In my dream, Christ is painting his nails again.

We’re sitting on a park bench placed incongruously in desert sands, behind us, a vast stone has been rolled away from a tomb carved into solid rock, revealing nothing but cool darkness. One of his hand sports arterial crimson, the other a shimmering blue-green that reminds me of the ocean. He holds them up, waggles his fingers.

‘Which one, d’you think?’

I point wordlessly at the kingfisher blue. He nods thoughtfully, hair catching the sun in glints of electric jet. The rattle of palm leaves sounds above us, when I look up they’re like blades of jade against the pale sky.

‘Very interesting, you know that says a lot about you as a person.’

‘Don’t try and psych 101 me, Jesus.’ I say. He laughs, a burst of something loud and joyful and carefree…Whenever he appears in my dreams Christ laughs more often than, to my knowledge, he is ever given credit for.

We sit kicking our heels under the trees for a while. At some point, Christopher Walken joins us. He picks the crimson red nail polish, Jesus and I exchange a significant look.

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When I wake, it’s to the sound of the buses beginning their endless circuit of this town. I get up, make breakfast, swallow new pills designed to keep my Picasso brain in check again. I spend a lot of my days drifting in and out of consciousness at the moment because of the side effects, I’m told they won’t last too long. I am six months sober and clinging on to awareness like someone in a plane crash wondering if clouds could break their fall; it reminds me horribly of taking opiates, that struggling to surface like a fish with scales of iron.

Later at a meeting someone who heard my first main share last week, and oh boy was it as depressing as I told you it probably would be…

‘I drank because I am alive, but I didn’t want life; not adulthood with its loss and responsibilities and exit wounds…I still don’t know if I do…’

…Comes up and gives me a hug. They know I went into hospital the morning after that share because I wanted to kill myself; I’ve only just taken the plastic band of A&E baggage reclaim off my wrist. I get a mouthful of well-meaning angora jumper drenched in Chanel and her fingernails catch the light like swarming ladybirds, they are streaked the same bright poppy red of Christ’s right hand.

I think, Fuck you, Christopher Walken.

Scarlet

‘What happened to you?’

I remember the old Spanish woman in the corner of the ward. I woke to see her bending over my bed, rosary beads slipping rhythmically between her brown spindle fingers. When she saw my eyes crack open, she stopped her prayers to ask, ‘Was it an acid attack? Were you in a fire?’

The fire is in my body. I have had an allergic reaction to some new medication that is burning my skin off from within. Wisps of thinnest tissue are weeping clear fluid, I am shedding myself; a serpent thrown into boiling mercury. I am 23. They tell me I might be about to die.

My face is so deformed by the swelling that I am unrecognisable. I wake in the night, the heat from my dying skin has dried my tears in my sleep. I was always terrified of fire as a child, of burning alive, trapped in a building. Now it is finally happening, inside my own windowless, bony house.

In the chapel, there is a prayer board.

For Sandy, For Colin. For Mum. For my little boy. Please, God. Thank you, God. Please.

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I scrape through the days. They pump pints of water into my drying husk at night along with pink steroids. A vase of white roses appears by my bed, ghosts going brown around the edges.

Later, they take pictures of me for their textbooks; my feet planted a hips-width apart, my arms outstretched; so that young doctors can examine in detail my raw Vitruvian form; the skinned snake with a fearful heart exposed.

When it is certain I am going to live, I go home. I cannot lie on the bedsheets. I speak in shocked monosyllables. I eat slowly through the scarlet mess of my lips. The fire dies to a mere smouldering ash in my lucky bones. I remember the clicking of those white beads in the dark, again and again.

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Please, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.

Vampire Hunting in Paris

There are places in this world which split you open, in awe, joy or sorrow; gardens, ruins, stone circles. There are cities that cleave you like a ripe fig; alive and all millipede feet and heavy breathing. They are aware.

Paris is such a city for me. A great leopard with filthy paws. Paris unpacks my loneliness with my shirts and shakes it out.

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I couldn’t tell you why. It might be the long streets tapping with the ghosts of a million famous footsteps, making me long for the past, a trick of nostalgic light. It might be the solitude, having no one to share the breath of this city. It might be the swarming crowds; each citizen an arrowhead, focused, determined. I merely wander cluelessly from my moorings.

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The romantic in me can’t have it both ways; I love the solitude, the melancholy. Watching the moon rise over the Seine, I know the glimmering perfection of the moment would be lessened for me if someone were to run up, laughing, and clasp my hand (Really? Are you lying?). My most profound and bittersweet moments are only experienced alone. The city winks back at me from silver-plated water. She understands. She embraces suffering like a martyr, a mistress of mansions and garrets.

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I am fortunate enough to catch Vespers in Notre Dame, the call and answer of prayerful melody; a vast aviary of devoted birds. There is one woman close to the altar, decked in blue and white like the Virgin. She raises her hands in ecstasy when she sings, she is transported beyond her body, her hands full of stained glass light.

I wonder at her life when the music stops. I wonder if carrying such a faith, she is ever lonely, too.

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I walk slowly through the streets back to the hotel. My train leaves for the South in the morning, there’s no point ghost-hunting my heart in this place with one turn of the clock left. I need more time! Paris lets me know she will be here when I need her, she sends a gentle rain to freckle the long avenues. The smell of the wet pavement rises, mingles with frankincense still tangled in my hair; they say when a holy scent follows a prayer, then that prayer is heard.