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FIREWORKS - Missy Harris

FIREWORKS - Missy Harris

Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing,

there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense. - Rumi

When I went to Comer, Georgia in 1997 to live at Jubilee Partners, an intentional Christian service community, my grandmother thought it was scandalous. It wasn’t their sharing property and resources in common or their primary work of offering hospitality and resettling refugees from war torn regions around the world that concerned her. What was unfathomable to her was the fact that they only had dessert twice a week and didn’t serve Coke with every meal.

It was a bit of a fluke that I ended up at Jubilee in the first place. After a visit to another community in Atlanta the previous fall, I was convinced that the place I needed to be was back in Atlanta to work with people who were experiencing homelessness.  

The committee that interviewed me thought otherwise and offered me a position in a place that couldn’t have been any more different than what I had imagined I would’ve been doing if I had gone to Atlanta. It was rural. It involved farming and gardening. It involved teaching English as a Second Language classes, which I had never done. It involved childcare, which didn’t make it anywhere near the top ten list of things I was remotely interested in doing at the time. One perk was that since they only had dessert twice a week, life at Jubilee involved regular deliveries of cookies via snail mail from my grandmother—lest I die of sugar depravation.

I accepted the position at Jubilee because I had a strong feeling that I was not going to be placed in Atlanta. So there I was in late May, winding my way across the rural northeast Georgia roads, just me in my gold Dodge Dynasty, my atlas beside me on the bench seat, making my way to this tiny town that would soon open the world to me in ways far bigger than I could have ever imagined.

I settled easily into life in this community. The rhythm of each day involved plenty of hard work, prayer, and a good amount of play. It suited me. I gardened. I cleaned out chicken coops. I ridded at least two acres of pasture of pesky, thorny thistle weeds. I taught English as a Second Language classes to adults, who were my parents and grandparents’ age. I played soccer and volleyball and endless games of UNO and Dutch Blitz—a highly addictive Mennonite game where multiple people play solitaire all at the same time.  

*

One evening in the summer, the Partners in the community decided to take everyone into Athens to a festival where members of the community and the refugee families could have some time to relax with each other.  The packed-beyond-capacity bus ride to Athens was great. Kids ran up and down the aisle, practicing their new English skills and squealing in excitement. The adults talked and gestured. Laughter echoed in every direction.  

We arrived at the festival grounds, spread out our blankets, played cards, sang songs, enjoyed the food we had packed and waited as the light faded and the evening began to grow dark.

I found myself sitting between two women, Fatima and Bianca. Both were from Bosnia and were probably in their mid 50’s. They were in my English class, so we practiced the words we shared in common, made lots of gestures, made lots of mistakes (my Bosnian was much worse than their English), and we laughed a whole lot. They loved bringing up the time I’d used an English word that was a euphemism in Bosnian for a particular body part. It took me a while, with their eventual willingness to explain through gestures, for me to understand why on earth prepositions were so hilarious to them.  

As we sat in the grass that evening, in the distance an orchestra began to play. The music of John Phillip Sousa and Woody Guthrie surrounded us as we played games and visited with each other. As I had dutifully done all my life up to that point, I, along with the people around me stood up when the Star Spangled Banner began to play.  As soon as the song concluded, repeated explosions of color began to light up the night-sky.  The obligatory “oooh’s” and “ahhh’s” erupted in every direction from the crowd around us.  

But on either side of me, terror began to take root.  Before I could process what was happening, Bianca and Fatima grabbed my arms and pulled me to the ground between the two of them. They buried their faces into my shoulders and sobbed—the kind of soul-deep sobbing that takes over your entire body.  That fifteen minutes of fireworks was agonizing.  

*

There was nowhere to go to shield them from the colorful, fiery blasts that instantaneously took them back to the horrors of real bombs that had burst through the air around their homes in Bosnia. Even if we had tried to make it back to the bus together, we would not have escaped the relentless explosions and flashes of light that reminded them of all that had been and all that they had lost. Given the language barrier, there was not a single comforting word I could say to indicate that the horror above their heads would soon come to an end, that this was temporary, that it was meant to be celebratory.

All that I could do was sit there and hold them as tightly as possible, in the middle of that field surrounded by hundreds of other people who were laughing and cheering, totally oblivious to the anguish happening on the ground, just below their skyward gazes.

At only nineteen years old, I was in way over my head.  After we returned to Jubilee Partners, I couldn’t get this experience and the image of Bianca and Fatima out of my mind. For several weeks after that I would wake up startled, in a cold sweat, from dreams of being in an open field, unable to get my friends to a safe and quiet place.  

But it was in the context of this community that I began sorting it out, naming what had happened, figuring out how to continue being present with Bianca and Fatima when we shared no common words to be able to talk about what had happened.  

*

I have no idea how they sorted it all out within themselves, but I do know that every time I went to visit them in their homes at the Welcome Center after July 4th of that summer, they prepared me a tiny cup of very strong coffee, filled it with a lot of milk and several squares of sugar. They set before me endless plates of Bosnian bread and burek (a kind of pastry filled with meat, which I ate without hesitation and with the deepest gratitude, even though I was a vegetarian). I shared the endless boxes of sugar-filled cookies that my grandmother mailed with them.

While we shared coffee and these simple meals, they took out the few pictures they’d been able to bring with them from Bosnia, presented them to me, with their hands over their hearts and tears welling up in their eyes—the exact same way you would even if you share a common language to name your feelings. Sometimes, they would just take my hand in their hands and pat it. Or, they would put their hands on my face and softly nod their heads and smile, usually ending by sticking their fingers in my dimples and laughing uncontrollably.  

While the booming and exploding fireworks around us on that 4th of July evening twenty years ago felt like anything but grace, freedom, or beauty, it was the simple practice of sitting on their porches with them for the remainder of that summer that led me to experience a profound rhythm of grace, freedom, and beauty that I still crave deep in my bones to this day.  We were with each other, and not one of us had to be alone.

Today, when I am in a place where the Star Spangled Banner is played, I still stand—but with my head bowed, praying that someday we will know a world where bombs bursting in air will no longer elicit cheers and celebrations.  

At the same time, I can’t help laughing when I see prepositional phrases used with a certain English word. And I thank God for that laughter.

Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing,

there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.

 

Read more in Issue#4 of The Porch, available here to subscribers.

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