Saturday, December 24, 2011

Person of Interest

This season, in addition to New Girl and Madmen, my friends and I are hooked on Person of Interest. We joke that this is the show with Jesus in it (Jim Caviezel from The Passion of the Christ), and boy is he a sexy Jesus - I mean ex-special forces guy who now stops crime in a truly criminal manner. His costars, Michael Emerson and Taraji Henson, are equally classy actors who play a computer genius and a detective respectively. It took me a few episodes to get into the show (Caviezel's acting was a bit lethargic, and the premise takes some getting used to), but now it's literally one of my favorite shows ever. It's not a simple crime drama. The episodes build on each other, and they contain an inner cat-and-mouse plot involving Detective Carter and Reese (Caviezel). One of the most sophisticated elements of the show is its cinematography. Instead of using cliched skyline shots and glamorous landmarks, all of the cityscapes are achieved with traffic-camera-style angles. Honestly, have you ever watched a scene set in the Bronx (stop right there), where you know you're oriented toward the south but can't actually see Manhattan? This is the real New York. And the soundtrack is excellent. Watch this show!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Regretting the Summer Palaces

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

~ T. S. Eliot, "Journey of the Magi"
I've gone too far to turn back. My world was a complex system of social, religious, and family rules. I started tinkering with it, asking questions, thinking that the final result would be a refined and polished version of the original. But I pulled out one loose brick, and then another, and a wall came down, and there was dry rot everywhere and before I knew it the whole building had fallen about my ears. I'm standing in the ruins, a big sky overhead, the world around me large enough for a human soul. But a little part of me is grieving the loss of something that wasn't all bad. People with good intentions built it. They wanted safety, comfort, tidiness, like in a Thomas Kinkade painting. I wanted all that, too, for a while.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Third Sunday of Advent

It's the day we light the rose candle, the symbol of joy, and the homily was about suffering. How strange, and yet, the more I think about it, how appropriate. For it's only as the question of suffering grows ever greater, a gaping hole in the universe, that we demand anything like a suitable answer. Have you ever peered into the abyss? Have you ever faced the chasms of fear, shame, and loneliness that live inside you, or gazed at the ugliness that surrounds you? Flee from these realities and a mere household idol will be enough for you. You will only need a god who satisfies small needs and petty questions. Admit your suffering and you will have to ask the agonizing question of whether a bigger God exists. The more I've come to terms with my pain, the more I've demanded a God who knows what to do about it. My worst fear was that He didn't exist. But He does - and He speaks an answer so infinite it shakes the earth and floods it with rivers of light.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Lighten Our Darkness

This evening, I ask my hands to say what my heart is too battered to believe. In the corner of my room between the windows is a small Christmas tree that I cut down myself, and around it I've wrapped a rope of gold-colored beads. So tonight I hang a few more of the ornaments from the pile of silver balls in different sizes and styles on the windowsill, next to the scrawny wire hooks. After I've turned out the lamp at that end of the room, the soft darkness of the tree harbors frail light. The silver balls turn into luminous half-spheres, the rope glimmers faintly, the gold tree skirt gives off a dull sheen and one or two sparkles. It's the only light we can find, but it's better than nothing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving

I have a lot to be thankful for today, and I don't mean in a shallow thank-God-for-the-air-you-breathe kind of way. I'm thankful that God is real and good and that love means much more than I ever thought it did. I'm thankful that pain wakes us up from the lethargy and numbness of despair and teaches us to look for something better. I'm thankful that God puts escape routes in place before we even realize we need them, and that we can change and grow stronger and suddenly discover hope inside us. I want to tell you something, dear friends: we weren't made to live with gaping holes inside. Half of you don't even realize you have them because of the layers of denial and defenses that scab over your wounds. Sometimes I go crazy, seeing the sadness in your eyes and hearing the real story behind the words that you say. The other half of you know that something is wrong, and feel the pain and questions eating you alive. What I want to say is this: be brave and face your pain. It is telling you that there is something better for you. It takes courage to go down the path of finding that better thing, but it is a worthwhile risk. You will be okay.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Shieldmaiden

I love the part in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years where Don Miller is describing a very painful time in his life, and he says, "I didn't want to get well, because if I got well, nobody would come and save me anymore." That sentence describes me and, I think, a lot of other Christians. For years I waited for God (or someone) to rescue me. It was partly because that's what I wanted. It's always easier when someone else does the work. It was also partly because my theology described God as the only one in the universe with the power and the right to act - all of us humans must submit mindlessly to His bidding. The way this worked out for me was that I waited and I waited to be rescued and things kept getting worse, and God just sat there for some reason. Finally I decided that I cared enough about my own survival to try rescuing myself. I guess that's what God was waiting for because after that it's been like a journey in which He says, "Here's some options you could try," and I say, "Well, I'd really like to go in this direction," and He says, "That's an interesting idea." Eventually I discovered that instead of me being the princess riding behind a prince on a white horse, I had my own horse and a sword and shield and everything. It's really fun. Maybe this is why Eowyn is my favorite Lord of the Rings character.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A World That Says Welcome

Through the screen, golden light atop the lamppost
Glints along autumn sidewalk, tiled with wet leaves
Exhaling a breeze damp with rain

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Now I Know

Depression still comes. Dark days feel darker, my skin feels like it's being pulled off, my heart races in panic. Sometimes I'm afraid to leave whatever room I'm in, or venture out into town. Old patterns play out again, old triggers and symptoms that return and fight against my health and peace. This time around I let myself into the dark place to see what was there. I've changed. Fear and shame may still express themselves in my body and my emotions, but there is something certain deep inside. I believe certain truths now. I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt that these things are true, because I've lived the learning of them. Let me tell you what I know: That God loves us, that each one of us matters. We care more about rules than He does. He doesn't look at women as less, or single people or sick people. He wants us to grow up and make choices and be brave and learn to enjoy life, to have fun and get hurt and try again. Every minute He comes up with a new way to turn our lives around.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Theirs Is the Kingdom

Sometimes, coming home after a hard day, I have to look at myself in the mirror just to be sure I'm real. All day I dance between and through rigid social systems devised by people who have to define me, put me in my place. They tell me who I am when I follow the rules and also who I am when I do not. I realize this is a reality of the world in general, but within Christian communities it is a shockingly prevalent dynamic. And the failure of love hurts worse where the potential for love should be so much greater. All day I interact with people who paste smiles on their faces and spout biblical phrases, but I see the truth. I can read your faces, I hear what you are really saying, I look between the lines of what you write. Our rules are corrupt and our lives corroded. This is not what God intended, but before you can find what He really meant, you have to admit there's something wrong.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Perfect

I used to think that if I wasn't perfect, then it was my fault if the world fell apart. All the time I needed to be beautiful, clean, smart, capable, moral, in control, because that meant I was worthy and deserved to be loved. Ugliness and messes and emergencies scared me because of what they said about me: you deserve to live in a world like this. Yesterday, after a week that started out with a best friend in town and then a flareup and then a severe cold, I wandered around the house missing another day of work, smelling terrible, just proud of myself for doing laundry. My hair stuck out all over my head because I've been too tired to get a haircut on any weekend. The roses my friend bought me before she left were in a vase in the living room. And then suddenly heaven, as I stood in my bedroom watching the curtains waft inward on the clean, cool breeze and the swish of branches. The autumn sunshine made the leaves glow ruby-red. The touch of God was everywhere, in the crickets chirping, in the sunshine that cast not just light but shadow, in the silence and the rustling. My brother called and arranged to visit me that evening, which made my day. I don't know why I don't realize this until I'm at my worst, but it turns out God doesn't care if I'm at my worst or my best. He's good with me the way I am.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Last Beautiful Day

Fall came too early this year. I was dreading it because I dread winter. With the end of summer curtained by perpetual downpours and clouded skies, fall snuck in and the sun seems so shamed by this coup that it refuses to appear at all. It's wet and dark, day after day, and I feel, honestly, a little angry about it - if I wanted this weather, would I be living in Virginia? It seems you should get what you pay for. But a couple weeks ago, there was a short chain of delicate, early-fall days that acted like propaganda, enticing us to submit without fear. Driving with a friend, I saw strokes of color on the trees, colored leaves lying on the ground, falling to the ground. The air turned dry, and the sunlight's new angles took on that hammered-gold warmth signalling the equinox. One day, on my way to work, a crimson leaf with dark edges, doubled back on itself, wafted across my windshield. It was actually a butterfly.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I'll Risk Saying This

There's an article going around that was originally published in the member magazine of the Home Educators Association of Virginia. It's called "Exposing Major Blind Spots of Homeschoolers" and you can read it on Josh Harris's blog here. It's a pretty brave article with a lot of good points. But I find on element of it particularly upsetting, which is the idea of parents "having" their children's hearts. This is a popular idea within the homeschool community. It gives me the creeps. It's basically the idea that if parents love their kids just right, the kids will feel so secure and trusting in their parents' love that they will offer an extreme allegiance - allow their parents to "have" their hearts and therefore have control over their beliefs, emotions, and behavior. I know that some of you are going to think I'm exaggerating the meaning of this idea, and I might be, but not by much. I've spent most of my life in the homeschooling community and this particular idea is as dangerous as legalism or over-sheltering - it's just more subtle.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Architecture and Artifacts

Sometimes the intangibility of my life is driven home to me. It's not just that I'm a daydreamer; there's a good role for the imagination in creating a better reality. (And it's not that my vocation is words, either - words are real things, palpable objects.) It's that I've lived in my head, clung to mindless routines, and insisted that I was happy in order to escape a reality that I found very confusing and frightening.

I'm a more real person now, trying to live a more real life. Last summer I got rid of over half my belongings (clothes, books, furniture) in order to be ready to move on to whatever was next. Now, my possessions barely fill up a quarter of my massive bedroom. To me it stands for the fact that I've started over, but also the truth that up till now I never thought it was okay to fully invest in my own life.

I want to build something. I lie in my bed and stare at the windows, framed by gorgeous curtains, a tiny picture frame on the windowsill and a half-burnt votive candle. Through the glass I see the sky and trees and the top of a lamppost. This summer I've been thinking about goals, refining old ones and polishing off rough new ones. I imagine myself as the architect of my life. Today I'm just framing it; one day it will be rich and solid.

The only way I know of to counteract a feeling I sometimes have that life isn't real (when it happens all the pictures in my head become instantly two-dimensional) is to have a life I can touch. I'm going to decorate my room with things that are meaningful to me, keep pushing toward an editing career, plan adventures, be with my friends. One day I'll look around and my life will be built with tangible objects. I won't be able to doubt it then.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Real Christianity?

I grew up being told that God loved me, but I really didn't believe it. Certain things about my life just didn't make sense. My heart was broken by pointless loneliness during my teenage years, and then, at about the time when life seemed like it was really becoming possible, I got so sick that I couldn't reach for what I wanted. I couldn't get out of the trap. It wouldn't have surprised me to learn that God sat outside guarding the exit, whip in hand.

I believed that God was perfecting me through suffering. (Which meant He cared more about my perfection than my happiness.) I also believed that I was receiving the greater gift of Himself in place of lesser gifts. (Which meant I had to pretend I loved Him and was grateful even though it hurt like hell.) I believed God wanted me to demonstrate faith by looking past the circumstances of my life to some strange reality beyond that I sometimes caught a glimpse of. (Even though my very life and identity were dissolving.)

You have to pull apart these Christian answers, look at them from the outside, to realize how awful, even abusive, they are.

* * *

In the religious world I grew up in, words do not have actual meaning. Love is not a real thing; it's an empty concept. God's "love" means perfecting us at whatever cost to ourselves. And if we really want to be perfect, we have to submit to that perfecting process without ever saying stop. We have no power. In fact, we are told that it is good to be humble and submissive. We are told that we are so evil, so fallen, that we couldn't possibly understand when to say no anyway. Our hearts are deceitful. Instead, we are supposed to exercise "faith" - saying it's okay even when all the evidence screams that it's not.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Story People

I'm one of those either/or, black-and-white, all-or-nothing people. I'm not saying this is always a bad thing, but at this time in my life it's not the best way to find emotional, spiritual, and mental balance. Dismantling the faultily built areas of my internal structure requires a steady mind, not one given to extremes.

So, it helps me to think about life, and myself, in terms of stories. When you're thinking about stories, you can't deal in extremes. For example, the Calvinist/Arminian debate goes out the window, because who can really sit around quibbling about fate versus free will when both are so clearly in evidence?

This weekend I started musing over one way to categorize the various personalities involved in a story. Here are the categories, and how they bring clarity to various personal conundrums:

Me (a.k.a. protagonist). While it's true that God is telling one big story about the history of the universe - the super-story, if you will - it's not true that each of us is only a little piece in this big story. Each of our lives is a story with intrinsic meaning.

We are not the story tellers, but luckily, as any author will tell you, characters do take on lives of their own. In other words, although I'm not the one creating the story, I have a say in how it goes. I have free agency. I may not be able to choose all the circumstances of my life, but I can decide what to do with them. I can decide, for example, to walk to Europe. Of course, I will have to turn around once I'm in over my head in the Atlantic, but at least I drove all the way to the beach. I got somewhere.

God (a.k.a. the author). This is the guy who actually sets up the story. He decides, for example, what the setting looks like and who the people in it are, and He calls some of the shots. A good author kinda lets things go at that point, sees where the characters end up next. However, I've never read a truly good story where there wasn't some kind of miracle at the end, just where you thought things couldn't turn out right. I'd like to believe God steps into my life, too.

One thing characters can't do, because they're imaginary, is interact with their authors. So I have to be careful about identifying too much with this author/character analogy. I may be a character in a story, but I'm not a powerless, voiceless victim of the author's pen. I can talk to Him about the story, get His perspective on it, tell Him my perspective.

Other people (a.k.a. supporting characters). The most important thing, here, is not to get the other characters mixed up with the author. None of the other characters can rescue me in the ultimate sense. None of them is perfect, so none of my relationships with them will be perfect. Also, although each person is the protagonist of his own story, none of them is the protagonist of my story. My story is uniquely about me. I can't depend on or allow other people to define my story or make it happen.

But if I realize that the perfect, powerful Creator is a distinct person from the imperfect, yet important and valuable, creatures, then I can interact with each of them as appropriate and not demand the wrong things from the wrong people.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sheer Silence

In church today, the Old Testament reading was the story of Elisha hearing God not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the "sheer silence." I found this phrase particularly beautiful (other translations render the phrase "gentle whisper"). It makes me imagine God as so gentle and loving that when we need to talk to Him, He sits there quietly, patiently, really listening to us.

There are people who can't listen because they're making so much noise, externally or internally, that there's no room for your voice. And other people exhibit a dead silence, like a wall of snow that muffles you and protects them.

"Sheer silence" is something different entirely. It's like the silence you hear when you park your car at one of the overlooks on Skyline Drive, and no one else is around, only you know that all the trees and plants and leaves are growing and all the animals are scurrying about, and the Shenandoah Valley is scooped out before you like huge hands holding everything up to the sky. Or the silence you hear in a piece of music by Aaron Copland.

* * *

Back to my old blog name! Half-Life was the right name for the past 15 months or so, but I think I'm done with that part of the journey.

* * *

From a quotable book: "It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it" (Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, ch. 15).

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Knight in Shining Armor

Okay, I promise someday soon to stop writing so much about Lyme. I feel like I'll be ready to move on soon; it will still be a part of my life, but I won't need to think about it so much. However, in the meantime, something I've been pondering.

Over a year ago when I first started meeting with my counselor, she had me draw a diagram of my extended family, describing each person in a few brief words. She was struck that I described myself as "burdened." I had no idea at the time how significant that word was when applied to me.

I was always the girl who had it all together. I was perfect. I followed the rules. I was smart, funny, capable, understanding. A good listener, encouraging, always had the right word at the right time. I was a good writer and a talented musician. I took care of kids like a pro and adults loved me. I could solve problems. I never lost my temper. I was mature, responsible. I was everything to everyone. I didn't complain about sickness or sorrow. I fit into the landscape so well that I might as well not have been there.

I was so busy helping other people with their lives that there was no time, no energy for my own life. And I was so stubborn, so tough, so committed to remaining this girl everyone could rely on, that I would have continued living this empty life indefinitely - probably until I died. I knew somewhere deep inside that if I failed, if I let things fall apart, certain people in my life would be angry and disappointed with me.

You don't think of God rescuing you with suffering. It almost seems obscene to say it. But if I hadn't gotten so sick and depressed that I literally couldn't function anymore, I would never have given up. I wouldn't have paused long enough to see the lie I was living, the horrible emptiness of it, the desperate settling for scraps of happiness.

I had to abandon the me that had created that life. To live something better, I had to let God remake me from the ground up. And He did. He's pretty awesome that way.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

It Is Not Real

Somewhere on the continuum between doubt and trust, I have discovered a place where truth has taken root deep inside and begun to grow toward the surface - but doubt, like old layers of skin, still clings to the outside. It is weakened and thinned out, but still there, a shell that covers me.

I still react to life in the old ways. When I have a bad encounter with someone, a voice inside my head still tells me I'm worthless and talks destruction into my ears. I'm cagey with people I'm just learning to trust, welcoming them one minute and putting up walls the next. On some days I feel a darkness leaning on my shoulders. I want to give up, quit fighting.

When you don't have any reason to hope, these reactions make perfect sense. I would never tell someone who was in a place of real doubt and fear that they just have to hold on, believe, stay strong. I was at that place for many years. The right thing, at that time, was to admit exactly how terrified I was and do whatever was necessary to protect myself from life and God. And God took care of His side of things, began the discussion, came and reasoned with me, told me stories and worked miracles, spoke my language and showed me love.

So now the evidence all points to something very different from the evil universe in which I previously existed. I truly believe in something and Someone better. Gradually that fragile belief is becoming stronger. I have a sense that I'm crossing a great divide, that I'll never go back.

But in the meantime, I'm still crossing. And I'm learning to carry myself through the old emotions. I'm realizing that even if I feel afraid or circumstances are repeating horrifyingly familiar patterns, that doesn't mean the story is going to end badly. I can't stop the emotions, but I can identify the truth that I know and I can believe it, even if I don't feel like it is true.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I Know How This Guy Feels

"Our conversation turned to the supernatural and Dr. Gottlieb was saying, '. . . a man of my age knows that events have a logic of their own. Above all, they are the product of causality. Your mystics feel insulted if things happen in what we call a natural way. But to me the greatest and most wonderful miracle is what Spinoza called the order of things. When I lose my glasses and then find them in a drawer which I thought I hadn't opened in two years, I know I must have put them there myself and that they were not hidden by your demons or imps. I also know that no matter how many incantations I might have recited to retrieve them, the eyeglasses would have stayed in the drawer forever. As you know, I am a great admirer of Kant, but to me causality is more than a category of pure reason. It is the very essence of creation. You may even call it the thing in itself.'

"'Who made the causality?' I asked, just to say something.

"'No one, and therein is its beauty.'"

~ "The Missing Line," Isaac Bashevis Singer

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Timeless

People tell you to "live in the present," but I've never been able to - not from lack of trying. My present was often a painful attempt to retreat into the past or launch into the future. It was exhausting. Finally I gave up, stopped making plans or dreaming or even making wise decisions, because it didn't seem to matter, but that meant I had no hope.

I'm discovering that living time-bound is all about balance. Aiming toward the future is important. Having dreams and goals (the more precisely expressed, the better) gives me movement and direction, and it seems like God can't do much with a life that isn't moving in some direction. A lot of times I don't get to where I planned, but at least I get somewhere and that's a whole lot better than staying stuck.

But it's also important to have a life that's livable now. I have friends who are always saying, "As soon as this happens" or "As soon as I do this." Usually these people are pretty miserable in the present, but they're convinced that doesn't matter because eventually things are going to be perfect. I had a pastor once who was always talking about how great heaven was going to be and that's how we could get through our troubles on earth, and I would think, "That's great, let's go there now." One of the worst things about being a Christian is when other Christians tell you to just hold on till you get to heaven, and all you can think is, why is God making you go through this crap in the meantime? What kind of God is that?

What I'm seeing now, just from the way my life has gone, is that how I feel about my life in the present really does matter. God isn't a sadist who wants us to suffer without remedy. So if my wonderful future plans are causing me misery in the present, or if I'm using the future to distract myself from the present, then it's time to do some repair work on the everyday. With the right balance, my view of the future can enrich my present, and my present can give me the strength to push toward the future.

This is an unforgivably long post, but allow me some random closing thoughts. I just unclogged two sink drains all by myself (generations of women have had this master bathroom before me), and would you believe I found a safety pin and one of those plastic covers for a razor cartridge in one of them. Thanks to my previous landlord for giving me painstaking instructions in the art of drain clearing. Two blogs I strongly recommend: Don Miller is incredibly hard hitting and thought provoking, pretty much the sanest and most balanced voice that I know of in Christianity today; Kelly at A Restless Heart has been blogging about Lyme recovery and she's verbalizing many thoughts that express my own experience, but the words are so difficult for me to find. I've been reading Isaac Bashevis Singer; he grows on you until you're almost dependent on him - I'm reading a collection of his short stories literally straight through, with the same what-happens-next anticipation that I felt when I first discovered novels as a child.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Jacob stood in front of the granary

and watched the snow falling. Some of the flakes dropped straight to earth and others swirled and eddied as if seeking to return to the heavenly storehouses. The rotting thatch of the roofs was covered with white, and the clutter of broken wheels, logs, poles, and piles of shavings was decorated with fleece and the dust of diamonds. The roosters were crowing with wintery voices."

~ The Slave, Isaac Bashevis Singer, ch. 4, section 2

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Snapshot

I haven't posted in a while - my life has gradually become interesting enough to me that I don't actually need to sit down and write about it. But for what it's worth, here's where I'm at right now:
  • In the church year, today is Trinity Sunday.
  • Reading Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend - a clear and organized distillation of the things I've started learning over the past year.
  • Rereading Sense and Sensibility. I think I understand now why I never liked it before. Elinor is such a goody-two-shoes! I'm enjoying this novel more now that I'm responding to the story honestly, and I'm curious to see where Austen takes it.
  • New website in my blogroll: tylerstanton.com. This guy is very funny.
  • Flowers on my dresser: lavender mums.
  • At work I was recently upgraded from a cubicle to my own office. And it has a window!!!
  • I'm moving into a new apartment at the beginning of July. Actually, it's the same townhouse where I lived a couple years ago, before I moved back home for a while. This time, I'll have the master bedroom instead of the basement. Movin' up in the world! I've started packing up my room and looking into furniture purchases. I've always enjoyed moving, but this is the first time in a long time that I'm not actually running away from something, and I'm making mature decisions. Way too much fun.
It's weird how God has brought me full-circle, back to where I was a few years ago - and yet it feels like a totally different me. I like myself better now, and I like life too. It doesn't feel like a half-life anymore.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Question Behind the Questions

This was one of my tired weekends (they're rather common). What I've achieved - grocery shopping, coffee with a friend, cooking, reading a bit and watching TV - has happened in snatches between naps, and even when I'm awake my brain is so foggy I don't really feel conscious.

I've learned the first lesson of illness: to accept the stripped-down existence, the inability to distract myself with activity, the impossibility of guaranteeing that I will be able to do anything on any given day. It's a stern and yet freeing reality. I can sleep all day because I know - as a fact, through experience - that God provides generously for both my needs and my desires, and that He gives me exactly the strength required for whatever He wants me to do on my own.

A lot of times I start asking myself, why me? Why this illness? Does it point to some kind of calling? Is there something I'm supposed to do or be for God, some way I'm supposed to help people because of what I've experienced?

That's where I come to a second lesson. The first lesson strips the mask off a deeper fear - that I don't have value to God unless I do something super-spiritual in exchange for His bounty. I cry out against my nothingness with churchy phrases and ostentatious submission. I try to find a way to guarantee that He'll always love me.

The Christian-sounding questions that I ask really mean, "Will You always be here?" The second lesson means to ask that question instead of the other ones. To ask to be taught, in the face of my daily fear of betrayal, that my mere existence is proof that I am created and loved.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday

The body in the tomb was deader than dead,
for not only had the flesh rotted away and the bones turned to dust,
But the soul had died also -
passed out of memory so long ago that she had forgotten who she was,
Having lived so long only as an image in other people's minds.

Come to think of it, even in her heyday
she had been rather insubstantial - a sort of shade among shadows
Desperately reaching for proofs of her existence;
but strangers buried her; picking over her small horde, they didn't know
What this pot meant or why that ornament -
And tossed some of it in with her and the rest consigned to oblivion.

Poor soul: every molecule dispersed
to some far corner of the universe

So He died that Friday and
appeared to that nothingness in her tomb

Within His eternity He had long years
to sit there, calling back the fragments of her existence,
And wrestle that angry soul back into life,
long years in that tomb with her stinking carcass, remembering gently
Who she had really been and could be.

Let us wait reverently by this tomb,
awaiting their emergence, wondering what He tells her
When finally she breathes on her own.
No day was lost because I saw each one, remembering you
Better than you did yourself.

We lost nothing,
didn't even waste anything

Even when you had disappeared
I lived for you in this empty room.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The tree outside my window

is sprouting tiny, crumpled leaves. I was enjoying that fact today, and suddenly realized that the tree had finally shed the dry red leaves that it had worn all winter. I remember wondering just a week or two ago how those dead leaves could cling so tenaciously, through wind and rain. Now they've disappeared, seemingly at the last possible moment.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Pointillism in the Air

This spring is emerging atom by atom - coming so slowly we can see everything growing in slow motion. Today I drove in a rainstorm, staring open-mouthed at the trees delicately dotted with closed buds and tightly furled leaves. There are three shades of leaves: green, yellowish, and reddish, and some of the trees have opened a little more than others, the leaves unbinding themselves into tiny ruffles and frills. The buds are emerging by color: pink first (magnolias waving pink globes, cherry trees so pale they're almost white); the white trees came early this week; on Friday I started seeing purple. The full-blown cherries are weighed down by rain; the flowers have a heavy, fruitful look as they pull down on their branches. A weeping cherry I glimpsed today looked like a waterfall of blossoms.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Substance of Things Hoped For

It's a slow, messy spring. It's been teasing us with hints of warm weather and sunshine (such a very little bit of sunshine) blown away in wind and rain and chilly air. Every few days I catch a new flower in bloom or tree awakening. One by one new birds add their voices to the morning chorus.

This is the year reborn in the real way: messy and ugly as childbirth, and just as full of hope and delight. Painfully (and painstakingly) slow - the carefulness of a scattering of reddish buds emerging on a bare wet tree. And yet the tactile beauty of these words, and the loveliness that exists already. This is what I looked for so long. Can it really be true?

In my world God has always meant rules and love has been a sham, something people use to get you to do what they want. Words like love, salvation, goodness have the meanings sucked out of them by people who don't believe the real thing could possibly exist. Anything worth having is turned into an abstraction.

Where is love? How do I find it? Sometimes I catch a glimpse of it, but I'm too scared to hope. Because I know how the story ends: the way it always has.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Too Good to Believe

I bought waxflowers at the grocery store yesterday - tiny petaled cups of pinkish-purple and white, with dark centers. I'm no flower arranger. They stand in a clear glass vase on a corner of my dresser, the mirror to the side of them, blossoms floating atop a plume of tall evergreen stems. The dresser is honey-colored, situated where the two corner windows, like sluice gates, let sunlight flood in. The walls are pink. Thus the light around the waxflowers is bright and light and clear, causing a physical sensation of lightness when you look at them.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sitting in Bed

I regret to say that I've been watching a lot of 21 Jump Street lately, but today the real show is happening outside my window: the luxurious sound of rain and a wet tree with reddish-brown autumn leaves still clinging to it. The damp air comes in the window and wraps me in the outdoors.

I just read Collected Stories of Carson McCullers, and the two stories you always hear of - The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and The Member of the Wedding - are as brilliant as they say. I'd like to see the play version of The Member of the Wedding that brought McCullers so much critical acclaim. It must be stunning. Does anyone ever produce it nowadays? McCullers is buried in Nyack, New York, which is where I used to live.

It's rare to find well-written literary criticism. I have stumbled upon it in the introduction to W. H. Auden's Selected Poems (expanded edition), by Auden's literary executor Edward Mendelson.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The Samurai" by Shusaku Endo

I broke out of my habit of reading only literature that was originally written in English to read something translated from Japanese. Shusaku Endo was a modern Christian author who has been called "a Japanese Graham Greene" for his deep explorations of Catholicism. The epithet is unfair to both authors, since the only things they had in common were their religion, their willingness to ask painful questions, and their consummate skill as novelists. Their styles and perspectives are completely different.

In other words, I read this book with as much enjoyment as I did any of Graham Greene's stories. Endo's art as a novelist shines through translation, since his structural balance and precision with symbols transcends particular words. The emotion contained in this story is very deep yet restrained, making it feel characteristically Asian.

Endo's Christ is a man of suffering who can identify with the poor in spirit, and in The Samurai, suffering is the gateway by which humans begin to desire God. It is an extraordinarily thought-provoking and meaningful novel.

Waiting Together

"I wish I had known. I wish I could have just sat with you," commented a friend on a previous post in which I described a time of great darkness in my life.

She expressed what Henri Nouwen describes as key to our spiritual lives: waiting together. Nouwen recounts that after being visited by Gabriel, Mary visited Elizabeth, who also was waiting on a promise from God. The two women spoke God's words to each other and together experienced joy and awe at what God was doing in each of them. Nouwen says:
By being together these two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for. . . . Christian community is where we keep the flame of hope alive among us and take it seriously so that it can grow and become stronger in us.
Does your Christian community allow space for your fears and questions? Does it listen quietly, intently, for God's voice spoken into your life? Does it accept the existence of times in your life when you are not alright? Does it sit by your side as you wait, just being with you, a warm presence when the world feels dark? Does it affirm the promises you have heard, expecting to see God's goodness expressed tangibly to you?

It's very rare to find Christians who can wait with us, but it is a good desire to have. If you are waiting alone for something, don't feel ashamed if you have to look outside of your current community to find people who can truly help you in this way.

There's a lot more in Nouwen's "Path of Waiting" that I didn't discuss in these blog posts - specifically a big section on God's waiting for us - so go read it yourself now!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Active Waiting

My last entry about Nouwen's essay said that it's okay not to be some kind of spiritual hero while you wait for something. But I do believe there is a practice of waiting - things you can do to draw out the meaning and purpose of your particular situation. Here is what Nouwen says about this:
If we wait in the conviction that a seed has been planted and that something has already begun, it changes the way we wait. Active waiting implies being fully present to the moment with the conviction that something is happening where we are and that we want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, believing that this moment is the moment.

Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna were present to the moment. That is why they could hear the angel. They were alert, attentive to the voice that spoke to them and said, "Don't be afraid. Something is happening to you. Pay attention."
I try to be present to the moment by thinking in terms of the following questions:
  • What is happening inside me?
  • What is happening around me?
  • What might God be saying to me?
For nice little Christian girls like me, asking myself what is happening inside is difficult. It means identifying how I actually feel - whether that means admitting that I actually feel sick and therefore can't follow through on a particular commitment, or admitting that I feel angry or fearful or some other emotion that I have learned to suppress as evil. But when I allow myself to just listen to what's going on inside, I meet myself on a deeper level. And it's the real me that God cares to interact with.

What is happening around me? is the fun question. Instead of fleeing my current situation or feelings, I bring myself to the moment and engage all five senses. I look out my window or listen to the wind, or I pay attention to the people around me.

And then I use the information I have gathered from within and without to see where it points. Sometimes the beauty outside my window reminds me of God's gentleness and the fact that He is taking care of me no matter what happens. Other times I see something to be done - something simple and practical like eating lunch, or something more longterm and complex, like seeking counseling. (Again, this is hard for me. Over the years I've somehow developed the mentality that suffering is merely to be endured, not addressed.) And other times, nothing happens. I stay there on my bed with my headache and nothing changes, and I try to be patient, and sometimes I am and other times I get grumpy, but eventually the headache does go away because life never sticks at just the one place forever.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"'If people can live all alone,

why do cries of grief fill every corner of the world? You have travelled through many countries. You have crossed the ocean and circled the globe. Surely all along the way you must have seen that those who lament and those who weep are seeking after something.'

"What he said was true. In every land, every village, and every home they visited, the samurai had seen an image of that ugly, emaciated man, his head bowed and both his arms extended.

"'Those who weep seek someone to weep with them. Those who grieve yearn for someone to lend an ear to their lamentations. No matter how much the world changes, those who weep and those who lament will always seek Him. That is His purpose in living.'"

~ The Samurai, Shusaku Endo, ch. 9

Saturday, February 05, 2011

When You Don't Know What You're Waiting For

Those who were waiting [Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna] had each received a promise that gave them courage and allowed them to wait. They received something that was at work in them, a seed that had started to grow.
What if you don't have a promise? Nothing's happening and nothing's changing, and you're just hanging on, barely holding on and perilously close to letting go.

I have been there, so I don't write this flippantly. I have waited so long, such an agonizingly long time, for things I wasn't sure I would ever receive. In the summer of 2009, just before I was diagnosed with Lyme disease, I gave up hope that I would ever be healed from chronic illness. I had waited so long that my soul was emaciated with it.

I wasn't waiting on a promise, like the people Nouwen mentions in the passage above. I had no idea what was in store for me. I couldn't count on something good happening. In a way, my waiting wasn't waiting at all - it was a day in, day out struggle. And I don't fault myself in the least for that. I got tired of spiritualizing my misery, trying to exercise some sort of superhuman faith that had no relation to the reality of my existence. I got tired of pretending, or of putting the real me to death so that I could look all churchy.

We don't always know what we're waiting for.

* * *
We too can wait only if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. Waiting . . . is always a movement from something to something more. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna were living with a promise . . . that nurtured them, fed them, and enabled them to stay where they were. By their waiting, the promise could gradually unfold and realize itself within them and through them.
Just because I didn't know what I was waiting for doesn't mean that God wasn't bringing it to pass. I can look back now and see the "promise unfolding," God laying the paving stones of the path I would walk on to freedom. It was all happening in those years of devastation. When everything inside was dark, the little dead seed was getting ready to grow. Things were happening; everything was happening.

God doesn't need our help with this stuff. He doesn't need our false patience and our empty faith.

* * *

So you don't have a promise. All you have is dreams of a better life, of real love and living beauty - a vague dream of heaven. And it's a heaven you aren't even sure exists. You aren't sure about the God (god?) that lives in it.

We are all so wonderfully human, with that ghastly survival instinct, that stubborn will to live. Something in the tangled darkness of our hearts keeps breathing, makes us fight for air. It's horribly selfish and yet beautiful too, because that's the life that God fans into flame. That's the promise when we don't have a promise.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Fear

Nouwen rightly identifies fear as a main reason why we don't want to wait. "As fearful people we have a hard time waiting, because fear urges us to get away from where we are. If we find that we cannot flee, we may fight instead. We are aware of the many destructive acts that arise from our fear that something harmful will be done to us."

Take my mid-afternoon slump at work, when I want to bolt across the country. What fears am I fleeing? I am afraid of a meaningless existence, a life in which no adventure happens. I am afraid of never getting married. I am afraid the difficult things in my life will never improve. And these are not small fears. To fear meaninglessness is to recognize that as a human I was made for splendor, and to wonder if the God who made me this way will also satisfy this need, which is the same as wondering if He is good.

I may not be aware, as I sit there in my cubicle, that my agitation results from an uneasiness about God. But in my restlessness, I might do some pretty destructive things. I might be unproductive because I can't concentrate. I might go and have a stupid conversation with someone, a conversation in which I don't really love the person I'm talking to, because I'm trying to silence my fear. I might spend a panicky half-hour planning a particular future for myself that I'm never going to follow through on.

The alternative is to wait: to sit with my fear for a while, hold onto my questions without answers.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Walk

In case you are wondering if the things we are all looking for can really be found, let me say that this afternoon I took a walk, arriving in a roundabout way at a big park near my house. I sat on a bench looking down a hillside that swooped down and then up again with two people walking their respective dogs in the distance, and behind them the tree line and then very, very far off were blue mountains on the horizon. Although I am sure the bench is not far above sea level, I feel like I'm sitting on top of the world there. The wind was cold and as it blew it made a singing sound. My ears were so cold they hurt, but the wind felt like it was sweeping the world clean, blowing in something fresh and new.

On my way back home, I passed the pond, with mallard ducks playing in the shallows. Most of it was frozen. Some of the ice was churned up where the waves had frozen stiff.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

We All Wait

In our personal lives, waiting is not a very popular pastime. . . . In fact, most of us consider waiting a waste of time. Perhaps this is because the culture in which we live is basically saying, "Get going! Do something! Show you are able to make a difference! Don't just sit there and wait!" So, for us and for many people, waiting is a dry desert between where we are and where we want to be. We do not enjoy such a place. We want to move out of it and do something worthwhile. ("The Path of Waiting," Henri Nouwen)
I think the reason most of us don't think too much about waiting is because we don't realize how much we wait. I hear Christians talk about waiting as if it's a once-in-a-lifetime event, like a solar eclipse. It's easy to identify waiting in the life of someone with an illness, or a long engagement, or a military deployment - but the fact is there is a terrible lot of waiting in the ordinary human existence. After you graduate from high school, life becomes a series of interminable periods: college semesters, eight-hour workdays, singleness, marriage, pregnancy, child raising, retirement.

These big chunks of time are periods of waiting because every day is the same; nothing exciting is happening. After three or six months we realize we haven't arrived anywhere. Every day we wake up and shoulder the same burden; every night we go to bed and contemplate picking the burden up again in the morning and carrying it through another day. We start to panic and we look for things or people to rescue us, take us to a place of love and meaning.

For example, I get this way in the afternoons at work. Even though I love my job, it's full of challenge and variety and tons of different writing opportunities, and I work with interesting, entertaining, and very kind people - right around 1:30, I want to get out of there. It's because I don't want to wait. I don't want to cross the afternoon wasteland, push through the boring or difficult parts of projects, stay awake instead of napping, bathe in the gray office lighting, have one more flippant interaction with people who all go home at the end of the day to their separate lives. The part of me that was made for better things rebels.

The point is, we all wait. And that is why Nouwen says at the beginning of his essay, "Something that has been on my mind for the past few years, and which I sense is of importance to our lives, is the spirituality of waiting."

Sunday, January 09, 2011

"The Path of Waiting," Henri Nouwen

With the coming of the new year, spent in new settings and with newfound confidence, I'm thinking a lot about where I was this time last year. It was not a good time for me. The first week of 2010, I woke up from the three-month fog and illness associated with the beginning phase of Lyme disease treatment, and discovered that I was actually feeling better. Hope, which had been pretty much squashed into the ground, began to perk up a little. But almost simultaneously, my personal life fell apart in an incredibly gruesome way. A wound opened up in me, pouring out agony that couldn't be stanched.

One of the things that was happening at the time was a grieving process for all I had lost to illness. As symptoms began to drop away, I tried to figure out when was the last time I had really felt well, and realized it was sometime before I went to college. That's right, a fair estimate of how long I had had the disease was ten years - the entire span of my twenties. During that decade, I had watched many other people my age pursue careers, get married, have children, go to graduate school, and buy homes. Meanwhile, I had quit school, stopped full-time work, abandoned plans to finish my undergraduate degree, and moved back in with my family. And I really had no way of estimating when I would feel well enough to have a "normal" life again.

The other day I happened upon a chapter in Henri Nouwen's Finding My Way Home called "The Path of Waiting." Over the past few years, I have thought a lot about the theme of waiting in my life (along with other important themes like silence and listening). Nouwen's thoughts about waiting in this brief essay helped to catalyze some of my own ideas. Over the next few blog posts, I want to move through Nouwen's essay to discuss waiting a bit more deeply.