Friday, October 28, 2016

pack nothing, except the prayers

...Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

-from the poem Thirst by Mary Oliver (a fav)

(photo: pasadena, ca)

Friday, October 21, 2016

pay attention to what makes you cry

Nearly a decade ago I interviewed for a job. I sorta wanted it; more, I wanted to escape the one I was in. I remember being confused and exhausted by my seeming loss of direction. Instead of becoming more of who I was, my twenties felt mostly like I was being asked to let go of important parts of myself.

After the interview, I sat in my car and cried, the built up emotions flowing out through tears.

That weekend, over the phone, I told my mom about the interview and the post-interview tears. She said, you always were a cry-er, to which I took offense at first. I didn't cry that much, I probably said back to her, not wanting to be known as whiney or weak. But underneath, it felt reassuring to know that my mother saw my emotions, even when I might have thought I did a good job at hiding them. And I started to think of times I remembered crying: from the discomfort of hearing my sisters fight about wearing each other's clothes to school. The shame of my best friend telling me my wrists were fat. (Wrists can't be fat, my mom had assured me.) The loneliness and uncertainty of my senior year of high school.


Pay attention to what makes you cry, I heard someone say recently. Here is what has made me cry this week: finding that a new friend I was connecting with over email with a new friend went to the same college and majored in the same course of study as I did. The desire to write. Trying to fit something in my car all by myself and it not working. Entering my church around 5:30pm, the light slanted through the windows and the cool stillness and the way I always feel God's presence there, always. Disappointment, shame, frustration, thankfulness, hope, exhaustion. Pay attention because there is information there, is what she was saying. Crying tells us about our hearts, what state they're in and what they want.

Tears can drain us, but they can also lead us to springs, a psalmist says.


Tears can take me two ways: further into the problem - whether that be by obsession or avoidance - or closer to God. I remember how Jesus himself (image of the invisible God) cried with a crowd sobbing over the death of their friend. And I remember a woman who, it is said, stood behind Jesus and, weeping, wet Jesus' feet with her tears. Maybe she was already known for her shameful public demonstrations (she was a prostitute), so that makes me wonder what the scene was like and how I would have responded if I'd been there. Likely, I would have been repulsed by her tears, like most other guests. But Jesus calls her weeping faith - the way she let the tears fall, didn't hold back, allowed her feelings to be what they were and lead her to Jesus.

Your faith has saved you; go in peace.

Friday, October 14, 2016

literary, lately: not about me edition

Writing quick and dirty this week has meant writing a lot of random thoughts about me. Ugh, I know. You're probably even more tired of it than I am. So I give you some other things to read, listen to, think about that are not about me. (Well, mostly not about me... This whole exercise leads me to some existential thinking about whether that can even be possible since obviously these are coming to you through the filter of me... but I'll spare you from that.)

Food tells stories and holds memories -- about our past, our wars, our ways healing. On stories and recipes from northern Sri Lanka.

This blog is helping me think less about me. Loved the update this week on the stories of #15girls and the short post on the new secretary-general of the U.N. (a stark contrast to a certain presidential candidate). And, using narrative to change attitudes toward FGM.

Someone else's favorites. I love these kinds of posts!

This podcast* is exactly what I need to hear, every week. And the host hits the heart by talking about her life (someone to learn from!).

Love this quote. ... it just begins to live that day.

*I know, it's really white privileged Christian content but... still, I think Christy Nockels, through her music and speaking, has such a deep and unique grasp on the Word that I really admire.

(photo: looking up)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

i will try to be myself

After more than thirty years of doing something, you'd think I'd have it down by now. But being myself isn't that easy. I'm always trying to be someone else. Take this week, for example. I came into it after a weekend away and Big Things on the near horizon, which meant I had a lot to get done. I blocked out all social activity after work and decided I'd hunker down and do it. Emails, texts, decisions, tasks. Cross them off the list and move on to the next. I was channeling my Type A sistas, one in particular who doesn't stop until it's all done. I always thought I was type A until I met her. Now I realize I'm more like type F or J or M. But this week, I wanted to be her and get it all done and motivate others to get their stuff done and be amazing.

Two nights of that and it caught up with me. Last night I plunked myself down at a coffee shop to keep working on Big Things and found myself leaning my head against the wall next to me, not sure if I had the will to make one more decision.

What I realized is that I was plowing through things without giving my heart a chance to catch up. This friend, these other friends, who can function fast and furious have different heart rhythms that, though I don't understand, I respect. But I am not them. For me, decisions are best made after spending some time in my head. My best energy comes when my heart has time to grow its enthusiasm and love for a thing. And after that, I often need to share and process and have others agree with or affirm where I'm headed.

So here is what I'm going to do tonight: send one or two more texts to make sure these Big Things are on track, then eat my dinner, light a candle, and listen carefully for what's next instead of looking at my list. I will try to be myself.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

my many people

On my drive home today, I listened to a virtual bookclub from a podcast I just started listening to. In the conversation between the regular host and her friend, they discussed how much they like this one particular memoirist. Then, one of the hosts started rattling off a list of authors to whom she pledges allegiance. I recognized the names, and have read some of their books, but I didn't recognize the names as those of my authors.

Which got me thinking, who are my authors? Who are the people I'll buy a book from as soon as it comes out, whose books all appear on my shelf, whose mantras or ideologies or quotes tether my heart to life in a specific way? I thought of a few novelists whom I enjoy, and then a few nonfiction writers whose one or two books or essays mean a lot to me. But none to who I'm loyal, or whom I feel are loyal to me in that particular way that fans can feel.

In this short mental search for my authors, I started to feel a little desperate, and then a little sad. It went deeper, because I realized it wasn't really about being able to name my own personal tribe of authors, it was about being able to name my own personal tribe of friends. Or, even more importantly, those one or two who will always be there for me.

Now let me say - I have some incredible friends who love me and have my back. They feed me, volunteer airport pickups and drop-offs (a true test of friendship in LA), bring food and keep my company when I've overextended myself in planning an elaborate dessert party, listen to my sometimes in-cohesive reflections, and tell me I'm ok. But here's the thing: I've always wanted a person. Some might say I had one growing up. My best friend and I knew each other since the time we were five and were often inseparable, and yet there were always other friends who came in and out of the picture and, to my scared and lonely heart, threatened our relationship. Now, friends have husbands and families and college friends and their own important things going on. Sometimes I wish their important thing were me.

I write this knowing that it points to my core brokenness: that one way (or, one of the ways) in which I will always feel an ache of what's missing. My senior year of high school, that best friend I'd met at age five had already graduated and left town for a city a few hours away, and then for another continent. I felt incredibly lonely, only intensified by the fact that I knew she was making new friendships during a new, meaningful experience in her life.

It was the struggle of that year without her that still defines me today: I would learn to let go and trust that I'd be ok even if I didn't have a person.

Or, rather, it was the realization that I could have many people. Since then, I have had many close friends, but nobody I would call a best friend. And I hesitate to do that (possibly still out of brokenness - will they then leave, to?). It is a discipline I practice: welcoming others, offering myself, cultivating a sacred in-between-us space. What this has allowed is a life full of persons without attaching myself fully to a person. Knowing a friend as one of many instead of my one and only has made space between me and her for others to be in my life. (And, if I can go there, for Jesus to be my one and only.)

It all does come back to the books, because if you come to visit me, you will see a really random assortment of authors and styles that fill my shelves. Some may see this and point to my lack of self control at bookstores (and they may be partly right). But I would also say that I've developed a way to let many voices and hearts in, and I'm still learning to enjoy the way this practice simultaneously crowds and empties my ever-searching heart.

PS I realized after writing this that I do have an author. Henri Nouwen is my guy, which is a little ironic because it was probably his writing that influenced this approach to keeping sacred distance in relationships.

(photo: alone with my shadow, Minneapolis, 2015)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

the stories we tell, and the stories we won't tell again

Last week, I ate salad with a friend at my small dining room table and told her a story. The events of the story had taken place a few months prior, but I hadn't told her yet and I needed her to hear it. I had already told it to other friends: several weeks ago to a friend over coffee, to a teammate by the dinner fire one night in Kenya, over text to a few friends after it happened, even to an imaginary audience in a rough draft of some kind of essay I thought it might turn into. Something about it merited re-telling again and again, and now to this friend.

Sometimes we tell stories because they explain our lives to others. This is how I met my best friend when we were five or this is how my daughter came into the world or this the way my mother made lasagna over and over when I was young. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, says Joan Didion, by which she meant that the form of a narrative, and perhaps also the act of telling it, gives shape to our lives.

But other times, I find myself telling the same story over and over precisely because it doesn't make sense. I tell it hoping that the way it comes out this time might flip a switch, or that the particular friend I'm confiding in will help me find the key. This story, the one I found myself telling my friend over salad, was like this. It ended with my being hurt and disappointed, and though it didn't leave me on bad terms with anyone in particular, it did leave me feeling confused. This particular scene didn’t seem to fit into the larger story I thought was forming, and I wanted it to. Maybe the story wasn't over? Maybe the larger story itself needed to change? Maybe not every story has a conclusion?

And then this happened: I was praying (though not about the story) when I heard the Spirit say that I wouldn't tell the story again. It wasn't instruction as much as description: the new way in which I was being arranged inside made it such that I wouldn't feel the need to go back over what had happened. The details have started to fade, their edges are dulled and less provoking. Even now, it’s as if the story is floating out to sea, a message I’ve shoved in a bottle and sent away with no intention of reclaiming. We tell ourselves stories to live, and sometimes we let them go to live more fully.

(photo: water and wood at tenaya lake, yosemite national park)

Monday, October 10, 2016

it always must be lost in some way

On a quick visit to my sister in Durham, I stopped at one of my favorite used bookstores. The day before, I'd finished a book and was ready for a new one - the perfect excuse to buy something there. This might sound silly, but I prayed as I entered that bookstore, hoping the Spirit would lead me to find what I needed to read next. I always end up finding books that mean a lot to me.

I bought three: a book of short stories, a book on Africa and a book called A Severe Mercy. This one had been ringing in my ears over the past few years - repeated in conversations or things I read online. So the title stuck out to me. What I knew about it was that the author tells the story of the death and his subsequent grieving of his wife, as well as of his friendship with C.S. Lewis during this time. Comparatively, I've read only a small spattering of Lewis, but I know that I love his letters and more contemplative writing, and hoped I'd love reading about this friendship.

The book starts with a strange prologue/chapter 1, then jumps into the story at the beginning of the story: boy meets girl. Neither follow any kind of religion. About a third of the way through, the author reminds the reader that, "this book, after all, is a spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers." He describes their early stages of love as a pagan love, since their orientation was inward. Their aim was to protect their love at all costs. He writes with a sense of superiority and great mission, which felt cumbersome at times (capital letters for the Shining Barrier they constructed for protection of their love,  the Appeal to Love which was their modus operandi in making decisions in their marriage). He also includes love poems he wrote -- for his love and about their love.

The writing wasn't exactly my taste, at least until he starts communicating with C.S. Lewis. Their friendship starts when the couple begins to consider Christianity. During their conversion and early days of following Jesus, as well as after the eventual death of the author's wife, Lewis writes with his characteristic clarity about themes of love, grief, joy and eternity.

For me, this book really hit its stride after the author's wife's death, perhaps because I'd had enough of his verbose descriptions of their love and life together. That's also where the universal truth he's trying to convey in this autobiography of love crystalizes: that like every life, every love must also die and be reborn.

Suggesting that the wife's death may in fact be a mercy from God, though a severe one, C.S. Lewis writes to the author:

I sometimes wonder whether bereavement is not, at bottom, the easiest and least perilous of the ways in which men lose the happiness of youthful love. For I believe it must always be lost in some way; every merely natural love has to be crucified before it can achieve resurrection and the happy old couples have through difficult death and rebirth. But far more have missed the rebirth.

A mercy because the rebirth is less likely to be missed, because the letting go is a forced one.

The book held a few other precious Lewis-isms, but really this the piece that keeps turning around in my head. Though young love is so much fun, I've always been drawn to that long-established love that has gone through the fire and burned off what was never going to last long anyway. I also love the idea of a love that has a life of its own, a story to tell, something to share with others.

(I've been falling behind on writing - both book re-caps and everything else that has a chance to flit through my head or heart. This week I'm hoping to write and post at least a little every day. It may not be good, but there will be words.)

(photo: at a coffee shop with my niece and nephew. styling by my niece, photography by my nephew. they're already hipsters.)