Thursday, June 16, 2016

never before seen, never before done

My sister and I talk on the phone, a preamble to prayer. I sit on my couch, the light outside swelling slowly into day, while 3,000 miles away she walks around in the full heat of the New Jersey summer mid-morning. Lately, we do this once a month: talk, then pray. Before work (for me), after walking the kids to school (her).

We are talking about my work. I have just finished telling her how my strange tendencies to avoid unknown things had me procrastinating on an important project. I hate doing unfamiliar things, is the subtext of our conversation. Especially publicly, especially high-stakes, especially alone. 

Another story I could have told her is how on Saturday, when I helped set up for my friend’s wedding, the coordinator showed me to two wood planks decorated with words and told me to tie flowers to the top. I looked at the spooled twine and sprays of eucalyptus and dahlias and thought, but I’ve never done this before. As if she should choose a better candidate from the parents and aunts and husbands-of-bridesmaids that had showed up to help and were busily carrying things from one place to another and setting up tables and chairs. For a minute I stood alone, looking from the flowers and back to the planks, unsure how to start. And then I did. I cut stems and twisted twine and held it up to the planks. I prayed while I did this, an act that might seem over-reaching to some, futile to others. But it struck me that the Spirit who searches out the deep things of God might know something about the beauty I sought. Might know something about teaching me to do something I don’t yet know how to do.

And then there are these plans for Kenya, in which I am leading 40 young Maasai people in creative writing, photography, scripture. I have never done this (well, except the scripture part) in America, what makes me think I can do it in rural Kenya, with young people whose experience of the English language and the world around us is so different? This thought arrived in the storm of last week and landed like the heaviest snow of late winter, freezing all that hope that hard started to sprout up. The next thought that came was grace: I won't be alone. The Spirit will be there, will be in me, will do more than I ask or imagine. 

In the middle of encouraging me about work, my sister stops talking suddenly, her thought interrupted by something that catches her vision. I just saw this beautiful yellow bird, she tells me. I never saw one like that around here before. Grace, again. I understand it as a sign.


(photo: from wedding, exhibit a)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

tell me to come to you

Then Peter called to Him, "Lord, if it's really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water."

"Yes, come," Jesus said.

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water towards Jesus.

-Matthew 14:28-29


(photo: surfers in Venice Beach)

Monday, June 6, 2016

i want to give you something

For all sorts of mistakes are possible when you are dealing with Him. Long ago, before we were married, H. was haunted all one morning as she went about her work with the obscure sense of God (so to speak) 'at her elbow,' demanding her attention. And of course not being a perfected saint, she had the feeling that it would be a question, as it usually is, of some unrepented sin or tedious duty. At last she gave in -- I know how one pulls it off -- and faced Him. But the message was, 'I want to give you something,' and instantly she entered into joy.

-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I could tell you a few different stories about this book: how I started reading it after looking for a different book but finding this one instead, how the text on the cover intrigued me. How I found the receipt still stuck inside, telling me I bought it in 2012 but not telling me why. How, halfway through reading, I shoved it into a canvas bag to take it with me to read at the pool over Memorial Day Weekend and found the bag minutes later on the counter where I left it, swimming in the pool of water from my water bottle leaking everywhere. Now its pages are crumpled and stained.

But here's what I will tell you instead: you don't have to have experienced the loss of a wife (or a husband or a child or a parent or a friend) to find Lewis asking questions you have at some point wondered about. Lewis's nonfiction writing is decidedly philosophical, apologetic, heady. But this book, taken from a few moleskine journals he wrote in during the weeks or months following his wife's death, is much more reflective and raw.

I found myself reading the first half as a kind of observer. It's much more focused on the experience of losing his wife. At some point, Lewis notes a shift in his experience where the fog of grief lifts and he's able to experience his wife's presence in a much more clear way. It's at this point where he starts asking questions about his experience of God. His idea of God, shattered by the experience of his wife's death, has to be shattered again and again, he says. We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand the least. He writes of being utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in, and always understands God as being more generous, more loving, more present than the person thinks. The mistake is to think Him absent, inattentive, unwilling.

[On a writerly side note: I have heard so many times how good prose writing is built on the foundation of good sentences. I would always nod my head. Yes, intuitively that made sense. But Lewis's sentences are good. Their length, their feel, their shape lends a kind of subdued intensity.]

(photo: book on table, before the water incident)

Friday, June 3, 2016

literary, lately: june edition

Unlike fiction, nonfiction is not a genre. It's a headache. An explanation for why The Sixth Extinction was number one on a list of the top 100 books of English-language nonfiction (chronological, working backwards), this piece also forced me to look up the word vituperative and made me feel, once again, hopelessly under-read -- a feeling I am trying to make a joyful one (so many books to read, yay!).

In the end, the trials of their relationship are worth bearing, because Frog and Toad are most content when they're together. Loved reading more about these beloved stories, though the speculation that they were actually gay lovers felt disappointing and maybe unnecessary. These days, friendship is so easily confused for romance or cheapened by sex. I think the boundary lines of friendship are incredibly sheltering, not restrictive.

One day you will hear a physicist say we are all made from the bodies of dead stars, and it will feel as if you've known it all along. A powerhouse of a story, and short, which is good because you might hold your breath the whole way through.

Like the first man / I was cut so deep by heaven's knife. One of my favorite stories, in song form.

No words, just these photos. Kenya, I'm coming for you.

(photo: writing, the view from above)

Monday, May 23, 2016

how we find our way back

A few months ago, my sister Andi texted me an old photo of us together, along with the text-length story that she remembered of it. I wanted a photo of us and you wanted nothing to do with me. I didn't remember that at all, but I do remember years earlier when our parents wanted to send us together to the summer fair and I whined to my mother about how I always had to be with Andi. I suppose it was that I wanted the chance to try new things on my own instead of always walking the path my two older sisters had already made ahead of me. Only 18 months apart in age, Andi and I were often mistaken for twins from the time we were in preschool. Maybe it was because of that that, for a long time, I resisted belonging to anyone fully.

Jump ahead twenty years from that photo she texted me and we are spending a weekend together in L.A. - no kids or husband (hers). We spend four days, just the two of us. We shop for clothes, eat ice cream, run along the beach, listen to jazz, look at art, drink coffee, hike to see the city skyline, watch episodes of Fixer Upper, take selfies and post them to Instagram. We talk about marriage and dating and the cities we live in and how we miss the places from our pasts, about our parents and our other sister and our friends. Every once in a while I think about how rare this is, how we haven't done this since before her son was born more than seven years ago, and who knows when we will spend this much uninterrupted time together again. I want to take it all in and ask her every question and remember every word. I want everything to do with her.

And then there are those moments, the inevitable ones when the distance in our lives creeps up between us and reminds us how far apart we are sometimes. We sit in a church pew, only inches between us. But while these benches have held me as I've cried and prayed and laughed and had my heart broken and changed and re-made over nearly a decade of my life, to her the bench is not much more than a stiff piece of wood that she has trouble sitting on. I feel the distance so tangibly that, taking communion, I start to cry. Later that afternoon, while we walk around downtown Los Angeles, she walks slightly ahead of me to call her children and husband, as she has done every afternoon of her trip. I hear her try to explain to her children what this city is like, the kind of sidewalks she is walking on, and we both know she wouldn't walk with them here. How do you feel living in such a big place? She asked me something like as we drove across the city and I realized it's not something I think about all that much anymore. With her stories, she tries to explain what 15 years of marriage feels like, picks cards from shops we visit that might make her husband laugh when they celebrate their anniversary in a few weeks. I tell her I'll miss having someone else in my apartment when she leaves.

These are the paths we navigate now: not how we find a way apart from one another, but how we find our way back.


(photo: sister + me at favorite coffee shop)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

i read this book of poems

"Coda" by Danielle Chapman
     from Delinquent Palaces

Beyond the speeches we're given to when young--
the crystal moon, the harlot moon, the moon
big as the sun elongating scrolls
of banisters on the skin of someone
else so young--beyond the still moon cut
from a royal purple sky we stare into
as into the pupil of a beautiful
machine--beyond our grand stupidities--
the urgency won't perish: to be known
in one's own person as crocuses are known
by sun, conceiving green to breathe it,
for ravishment by light, to grow
into the moment in our cells when we open
ourselves as a plant uncoils pistils
and become refulgent whether looked at or not.

When I was in high school, my best friend started dating a guy who wrote poetry. So she started writing poetry, too, and sent some of her poems to me. Then, she bought me a small journal with blank pages and encouraged me to write poems, too. I wrote some really bad ones and stored the journal away for a very long time.

Since then, I've read books of poetry and books about poetry and even took a class on poetry. I found the journal and read my own early poetry. My conclusion: I'm no poet. And though I still read poetry, I'm sure that half the time I'm missing what's meant to be noticed. But poetry is forgiving. Just keep reading it over and over, and soon things emerge that you didn't see at first. I think that's why I love it so much. Surprise and discovery will keep you going after something.

So, I read a book of poems and here is my favorite one. I keep reading it over and over, each time finding something new.


(photo: blue sky over Michigan, at writing conference where I bought and read this book)

Friday, May 6, 2016

some thoughts on friendship

Friendship is something I’ve been wanting to write more about. I feel like I have a lot to say, and I’m trying to find the right stories to say those things. From a very young age, I have recognized that friendships with girls have been an important part of my life, maybe the most important part. I haven’t had many long-term dating relationships, which means that, as a woman in her thirties, most of my years and memories have been spent with friends. In that sense it’s been my collection of girlfriends that have shown me how to love, care, listen, open up, forgive, laugh.

This collection of friendships has grown and shifted over the years. Women move within my circle with their jobs and marriages and places of residence. One or two whom I thought I had lost forever slip back in and it’s like they were never not there. A few I’ve chosen to move ever so slightly away from, and as I get older and wiser, I am able to do this with more generosity of heart — recognizing that neither of us is at fault for the way our friendship took an unexpected turn. It’s that relationships are breathing things unto themselves, and much like with a child, you will always be finding new rhythms for them, and sometimes you must let them go. It is a miracle when they come back to you, whole.

Some of the experiences I want to write about are those painful ones. Parting ways with girlfriends can be as painful as romantic breakups, in part because they are often less talked about. The rhythm of a romance gone sour is a familiar one, and we know the language of comfort or villainizing the new love in the other person’s life or however it is we learn to cope. But how do you explain the strange shifts in needs and desire and love that happens between friends? Because it is there. I still mourn the loss of a particularly meaningful friendship in which I knew I needed to create some space in order to grow in the direction I felt led. I wasn’t convinced this would be a permanent separation, and yet as we pulled away from each other, I realized it was mutual, not one sided, and that there were very deep and real ways in which she was feeling hurt and not seen, too.

I experienced a tremendous amount of loss in our break. The thing about friends is that there is always something about them that surprises you, and in that is such a gift of delight that nobody else can give you. This friend surprised me in the beauty she saw in unlikely places, in me even. To me, our friendship itself, her choice of me, was unlikely (and yet I think she felt exactly the same way about me). I remember sitting in therapy a year or two after we had parted ways, still mourning something about that experience because there was no friend in my life who filled the same place — who understood my desire to write, who was a companion to me in what she laughed at and they things she loved to eat and how she explored the city.

Last weekend, I hosted a brunch for my birthday and invited all of my women friends and their daughters. There was something about life this year that had me feeling like I needed to celebrate with my girls. Leading up to the day, one friend asked if she could lead a time of listening prayer. When the time came, I sat on the floor, around me a circle of some of my closest and dearest friends, at this place and moment in time. After listening - to their own hearts, but even more, to God - each spoke words of affirmation and hope and love. I continue to hold the memory of that time as so precious, recognizing that my friendships with each of these women is a gift that may not always be mine, but knowing they will all remain with me in some form for years to come.