Monday, August 22, 2016


When I was a teenager I would walk up and down the streets of the neighborhood a few down from mine and smoke cigarettes. These walks were typically accompanied by conversations on the phone, or listening to music, or just watching the clouds pass slowly in the sky. I would usually leave the house within an hour or two of getting home from school and stay out until the sun started to set itself low across the trees. I soaked up the silence and the smell of a sort-of rural-suburbia, letting the sharp incense of a day too long flow slowly down my throat, burning. As I walked, the sky would change from a bright blue scattered with white fluff to a grim orange and purple, and sweat would roll down my neck as gently as I strolled along the pavement in my holey Chuck Taylors with loose, checkered laces. Click-click, inhale, hold, sigh. Repeat.

These walks were leisurely, if only for the fact that they were away. I didn't always get along with my parents, but even when I thought I hated them, I felt within me a deep eagerness to never disappoint them. And still, I disappointed them often, I think. I didn't care for school and I slept til 4PM in the summer and stayed up until 5 (AM, that is). I wore jeans with tears that revealed my sometimes-shaved legs to accompany the eyeliner that revealed nothing of my eyelids. I cussed. I didn't like church. I hung out with people who did drugs. My room was always a mess.

For everything my parents knew and disliked, I couldn't stand for them to know that I smoked cigarettes. There was a stigma against cigarettes in my home -- my grandfather had died of smoking-induced sickness and my father had to quit when his life was nearly threatened by his own body, too. It was a silent pact they knew nothing about -- I would smoke to relieve my stress, and they wouldn't know, to spare them anymore stress.

And so, there I found myself, every afternoon. Up and down the streets of a little lake community where everybody knew everybody. I was hidden, but hidden in plain sight. I somehow didn't mind this, though. I would pass by and wave an older couple with a dogwood tree in their front yard nearly every day. One little boy rode his bike back and forth along one of the streets I walked most frequently. Vehicles would come in and go out according to the same rhythm every day. No one ever said anything. Even if they had, I wouldn't have cared. They weren't my parents.

I lay on my bed tonight staring up at an image of the Sacred Heart that hangs above my pillow, remembering those scattered ashes in the wind that carried my cares behind me and away, until finally nothing remained of my antidote but the spongey filter at the end. I would toss them on the ground and watch them burn, with my hands in my pockets. After a few moments, if they didn't die out on their own, I'd twist my foot over them, checking again to make sure the delicious orange glow had stifled into a black, ashy scuff. Sooner than later, cigarettes burn out, and then the next one, and then the next four, and then the whole pack. And you have to go home and hope no one passes by too closely as you make your way to the bathroom to spray on way too much perfume, your palms nervous with sweat and your forehead burning.

The image of the Sacred Heart which hangs above my bed now hung in my room at my parents' house during those times that I would leave and come back hours later faking innocence. It belonged to my grandpa, and for years before it was my own it overlooked my cousins and me as we made a mess of the playroom at Grandma's. His face is serious, but soft; his eyes are piercing, but not threatening. He holds up two fingers on one hand while the other points to his heart, which is burning.

He watches me now as he watched me then -- and I'm afraid my imagination hasn't gone too far away. I still play pretend before his very eyes -- I still fake innocence and act dumb as I pass him by, day and night. I lay my head to rest under his watchful care, all the while pressing away the thought of how much he sees and how much he knows.

I can't cover the scent of my sins and I can't stomp out the blazing ashes I heap on my own head when I inhale the empty yet deadly promises of the world. There is no walking away from the Almighty -- but, praise God, he also never walks away from me.

So maybe I'll keep up this pattern, or maybe I won't. I pray for the grace to be alert and vigilant, and to stand back and let God fight off the temptations I struggle with. But I can't guarantee that the next chance I get, I won't find myself mindlessly wandering away, to burn up some of my soul in exchange for a few moments of feeling alright. I can try. But I can't know.

I can only hope that when I return home, and try to make my way to the shelter of my Savior, that the Light will still be burning.