Monday, June 27, 2016
If only you could breathe in and out at the same time, she said, followed by mention of someone we all knew who claimed they could do it. A few of us laughed or called her bluff while she experimented with her breath to figure out how it was done. The rest of us joined in, laughter muffled in the breath we held in our puffed-out cheeks, trying to figure out how to use our noses, too.
The context for this experiment was swimming. The weekend before, my friends had been trying to do as many rounds of front-flip-back-flip as they could without coming up for air. Holding your breath longer, or having a renewable source of breath, means you can stay under water longer.
Back in my living room, we all kept trying to perform those two opposing actions (in and out) at the same time. In the end, all we did was hold our breath, then let it out with relief. Impossible, we all agreed.
I told my friend this story when we talked on the phone. Sometimes breathing just requires focus, she said, as if she believed it could be possible.
Some time before all this, that familiar whisper came as I prayed. Psalm 37, it prompted, and I promptly turned to it, eager to be spoken to. A few verses in, I read that one verse that I avoid because it has always been so problematic. And he will give you the desires of your heart, is how it ends, which makes receiving seem dependent on the action that is mentioned earlier: Delight yourself in the Lord. The desire of my heart - the one I'd been praying about at the very moment the seed of that psalm was dropped into my palms - seemed far off, risky to ask for, unlikely and maybe, in the end, unholy.
That verse kept coming. It popped up everywhere. In a card from my mother, in a text from a friend, on the screen of my Bible app. One could say that the verse is bound to keep coming up because we sentimental Christians love the sweet simplicity of that do this, receive what you want mentality. It is an overused verse.
But it is anything but simple. If delighting in God is knowing Him as one who is just and forever good and eternally good-intentioned, then how do I go on delighting when the desire goes unfulfilled? Do I ignore the desire and assume it wasn't mine to ask for? Did the psalmist even mean give as in fulfill, or is it to signify origination (I will show your heart how to desire). A few weeks later God said to me that he is the giver of the desire, so don't I think he'll fill it? But even now my hands are still holding nothing but the seed of this verse. And what happens if I am being asked to go on desiring but not the specific thing anymore? A desire empty of specifics can feel like a gaping hole, an endless sea.
It feels like breathing in and out at the same time, I told my friend on the phone. Confounding, is what I meant.
Sometimes breathing requires focus, I remember, readying my heart for deep dive, wondering how long I can stay under, and if I'll get to the other shore.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
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
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.
(photo: surfers in Venice Beach)
Monday, June 6, 2016
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
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)