Monday, July 13, 2015

a steady gaze

Sometimes I settle in a pew in the back of the sanctuary. The musicians start playing on the stage up front, and families and couples and friends walk down the aisles and file into rows. I watch them from my spot in the back, friends greeting each other with hugs and parents settling their children next to them. The littlest of the children stay in their parents' arms or stand up on the seats and face the back. I know these children from those times I talk to their parents, the children shyly hugging their moms' legs or demanding their dads pick them up. I also know them from helping in the toddlers' class once a month. I give the kids wipes before serving them snacks in tiny paper cups and make revving engine sounds when we play cars together.

Ethan is one of these young children. He just turned three. He has many words, though most of them are slurred together. I have heard him say guacamole and tortilla, but the rest has been a guessing game. Except for when his mother leaves him in the toddlers' class to join the rest of the adults in the sanctuary - then I hear him clearly and loudly call for his mommy, whose neck he was tightly hugging just a few minutes ago when she brought him into the classroom. Most of us know that Ethan is one of the children who will be consoled by our picking him up and distracting him with a toy, so when I am in the class with him, this is what I do. Soon enough he's wriggling free of my arms and making pretend breakfast in the play kitchen in the corner.

Yesterday, from my spot in the back of sanctuary, I saw Ethan and his mom and dad and sister make their way down the aisle to the front where most of the kids and their families sit. Ethan was in his mothers arms, and when they turned into the pew, she deposited him in the seat next to her so that she could unload her bag and reach up to fix her hair. Ethan scooted himself around and put his hands on the back of the pew to pull himself up and look back. His eyes met my gaze and I smiled at him to signal I remembered him from our times in the toddlers class together. His mouth turned up in only the slightest smile. Then he ducked his head behind the back of the pew. One hand still gripped the top. And then, a few seconds later, Ethan slowly lifted his head again so that one sparkling eye met mine again. Though his mouth was hidden from me, I detected a smile. He was having a little bit of fun with me.

This makeshift game of hide and seek went on for a few more short rounds. Soon, Ethan moved on. He turned to his dad at his side and allowed himself to be lifted up so that he could rub his tiny hands against his father's bald head.

The music still played on stage as the rest of the church-goers faced the front, read lyrics from a screen, sang and clapped or swayed along. I listened, but was still thinking of Ethan and how he met my eyes with his over and over, his delight slowly growing at knowing that he'd see me there each time. This is worship, these childlike attempts to see God, as delightful as a laugh that grows in our bellies and spreads a smile across our faces. I wondered how often I peer over the edge of what's in front of me and expect to see Him holding a steady gaze, looking right back at me. I wondered at His joy in being the constant one, in waiting for us to lift our eyes to him again, and again, and again.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

coffee, rest, reading: my fuel

Life has felt especially full these days. This is because of really good things happening - promotion at work! some lofty, exciting goals on the writing front! good friends, fun travel, fulfilling ministry! And yet, on more days than I can count, I end the day wondering where the time went, when my laundry will get done, and who I forgot to call or text. My oil change reminder sticker shows a date and mileage that have both passed, and deadlines for some important things are coming fast. It feels counterintuitive to take time for things like rest, reflection, and doing nothing. And yet that storehouse needs to be filled. Time will start to feel thin if I don't take time to refuel.

So today is my day for coffee, for reading, for walking slowly. How are you resting this weekend?

Friday, June 12, 2015

get gripped

“I could either shut up, that’s the end, get on with dying. Or, get gripped, which is what happened.” 

-Jenny Diski, on the decision to keep writing after being diagnosed with terminal cancer

This quote really spoke to me this morning. Though Diski is speaking of death quite immediately, I'm thinking of it in more generally - like, isn't that one of two choices we face? The other, I think, is living with desire - or getting gripped, as Diski says it. Facing obstacles or impossibilities - that vast roiling sea on the shores of which we either die or find a way to the other side - forces the choice of allowing the end to come or finding the way forward. The problem with desire is that, often, it feels like it is bringing us to the end, too. Do you jump in the sea and swim? And even if the waters are parted for you to walk across on dry ground, the columns of water at your sides could crash in on you at any moment. But then there is what's on the other side that keeps calling to your heart, gripping you, and you keep walking.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

the echo that did not die away

Loving this:
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. ... All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it - tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest - if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself - you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeads, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all. 
...Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you... Your place in heaven will seem made for you and you alone, because you were made for it - made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.

-C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

i would miss this all so much

A few months ago, I traveled to Minneapolis for a writing conference. This wasn't so much a destination as a stop on my way to somewhere else, namely, becoming a better writer. The day I landed, April was acting more like February, keeping the sun hidden with a think layer of clouds and blowing cold wind to stir up the leaves and trash along the sidewalks. From the airport I took the light rail downtown, and dug my winter coat out of my suitcase to put over top my denim jacket while I waited for it to come. After the light rail, I crossed the street and took the bus a few miles to my hostel. Bare tree branches hadn't yet sprouted their new leaves, and the hostel had an old, creepy feeling (made even more so by the quirky characters who worked there). I looked at my room and one of my first thoughts was, I hope there are no mice in here.

The first day, it rained so hard that my boots and pants were soaked through by the time I walked the mile to the convention center from my hostel, and my coffee had turned cold and stale along the way. Later that day, it snowed. There wasn't much good food to eat or anything interesting to see, and though I liked my conference, I was eager to leave Minneapolis behind.

The next morning, I went for a run. Running a city forges a special relationship between you and it - you feel its roads, see more of it up close, get some of its wind in your hair. I stood by the Mississippi and took photos of the sky and bridge. Later that day, the sun came out. After the conference was over for the day, I walked in the sun's warming glow with some new books in my hand and full of new words and ideas. After dinner, I went to a coffee shop. And I think that's when it happened that I fell in love with Minneapolis.

It was familiar, in its brick and gritty city and white and black and trees and sky. And it was decidedly not Los Angeles, the city which has been my home for nearly 11 years but against which I still like to rail, an adopted daughter who still stands on the edges of her new home. The coffee shops were open late, people weren't trying to make statements, there were old brick churches and skyways and so many things inside instead of out. I liked that it was new and that I didn't have to learn to love it in the long-term kind of way one has to settle into home.

I suppose I have a bit of a wandering heart. On the flight home, I considered what it would be like to move to Minneapolis and have coffee not just one Sunday but every Sunday at that coffee shop I visited and to run along the Mississippi and buy a heavier winter coat. This was still on my mind when I arrived at Union Station from the bus that drove me there from LAX, ready to catch the light rail to Pasadena. I rolled my suitcase behind me and looked up to the cloudless sky that seems so big here. The sun painted the sky pink as it left for the day, and jasmine flirted with the early evening air that was cool, not cold. And I remembered, this is why it's good to call LA my home. I would miss this all so much.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

books as friends, and a city that gives you space

If books were my friends (which, um, they are), I'd probably categorize them the same way I do my friends. I hope that doesn't sound overly utilitarian, but let's face it: hopefully we love our friends as wholly as we're able, but we often appreciate them for those one or two unique and complex qualities that sets them apart from others we know. It's what appeals to us in them, what draws us in. For example, I have this friend at work who is endlessly bubbly and enthusiastic and loves frappuccinos (with lots of whipped cream, of course), and she also has this incredibly smart, analytic take on things. I especially love to be around her when I want dessert, need a pep talk, or feel like my brain is failing me. And because of her, I just bought a girlie dress that I wouldn't say is "me," but that I love.

The same with books. I'm not looking to each book I read to bring the same kind of experience. I guess this is pretty obvious, especially when it comes to choosing different genres. But even when I read, say, two different books of narrative nonfiction, the author's voice and spin and language and images all work together to create a unique feel. What I'm getting at is that, reading Meghan Daum's newest book of essays, The Unspeakable, made me feel like I was with a friend (and actually reminded me of one of my closest friends). Daum's book is interesting, and heartfelt but not overly emotional. She said a lot of things that question the way I usually think about the world around me, which got me thinking. And I didn't always agree with her, but I trusted her enough to keep going along with her.

I came to this book and author through an essay published in The New Yorker a few months back, which is also part of this collection. It's called Difference Maker, and in it, she writes about her desire to remain childless. As she digs through her experiences and relationships to help the reader understand her path to this decision, she remains balanced (not sentimental at all, a leaning that the subject could lend itself to pretty easily) and yet uncovers what she called the Central Sadness (what a universal name!) in her marriage during one season of recognizing what remaining childless might mean for her and her husband. When I first read this essay back in the fall, I sat on my couch for a while afterward, thinking about it - about her process and how I could relate to that Central Sadness she described, and also about how she was able to achieve what she did with her writing.

One of my favorite essays in Daum's new collection is about Los Angeles, called Invisible City. If you're a reader of this blog, you probably know that I have my issues with LA (the traffic! the incessant sun! the fake green! and the metaphor that is!). Daum doesn't so much rant about LA* as see it with clear eyes and describe what she sees. Her premise is that, even though LA is a place where people come to be seen (or known - like, become famous), it's also a place where you can be invisible. She writes:
Now I just think that LA is a place that's hard to see close up. You can't capture it from the street. It's an aerial-view kind of city, best photographed from a helicopter or hillside. There are people everywhere, but they are hidden in their cars or houses, or they are tiny specks hiking on canyon trails, their dogs even tinier specks beside them, the wildlife crouched in the sagebrush unnoticed. LA is a place that will leave you alone if you need it to. It will let you cry in your car. It will give you your space. (emphasis mine, because exactly.)
It might be weird of me to say, but Daum's essay made me a little more sympathetic toward LA. As if I never thought that some of its flaws weren't its intentional doing, but rather just a result of how people have people the place. That is one of the best qualities that a friend can have, isn't it - to help others see more clearly, and as a result, find it in themselves to forgive. To act with grace toward the world around them.

*Ok but she does rant just a little bit, with such fresh imagery: "The surreal effects of watching these [obvious LA] cliches play out before you in real life and in real time can make your head spin. They can make you feel like the one live person in an animated children's show."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

things you should do the morning after a failed first date (even though you won't want to)

Run instead of sleeping longer
Wash your hair
Resist the bagel; eat something that came from the ground
Say something nice about him to your friends
Avoid the temptation to generalize every bad quality to every man you know
Put on lipstick
Wear something you look nice in (even if it's not comfortable)
Agree to dwell on it only for a specified period of time
Recall something you laughed together about
Laugh about it sooner than you feel ready to
Don't take anything too personally
Make your bed
Get to work on time
Be glad for the sunshine
Welcome hope