Wednesday, February 6, 2019

I’m up on a barstool touching shoulders with one of my friends. She asks me how I’m doing, and I inadvertently begin counting the times I’ve had to answer some sort of question in the last forty-eight hours. Yesterday was my birthday, which I had forgotten about. Not because I’m too old now to be bothered by birthdays. But in case you missed it, January was four months long this year, so about halfway through I just quit subscribing to calendar days and assumed the glitch in the space-time continuum sucked up my birthday, too. Don’t hear me say that I’m not grateful to have been remembered and thought of and celebrated – it’s always humbling that someone would take however long out of his or her day to wish me well. I hadn’t mentally pumped myself up for this one, though, so I was far less prepared and doubly frazzled. All the fuss seemed more unmanageable than usual, and I already feel victimized by enthusiasm on a normal day. I must not be the only one.

People that I know or don’t really know tugging on my shirt, wide-eyed, and wondering how it feels to have survived a quarter-life or, worse, about the full itinerary of my special day. The day was fine. But I came up short thinking of thirty-six new and exciting ways to say that. I must have at least offered something more than a stare, because every one of them would nod and smile back in contented agreement. I remember moving my mouth, but I don’t remember hearing things come out. Was I rude? Did my response even correspond to the question they asked? The same words are swirling around and it’s finally hard to discern which ones belong to me. I’d break eye contact and let my eyes dart around the room to settle on inanimate space, maybe a piece of art, which lets me know my feet are still planted in real time. To end each exchange, I say thanks for asking (which I don’t mean) and then I go sit because my knees are tired. I recognize this feeling from the theater – it happens after a suspenseful movie that doesn’t let up for over two hours, and when the credits roll, you stand up and walk to the car on stilts.

So, my friend asked pointedly how I was doing and I left it hanging there a while. She’s okay waiting. A pointed question requires a thoughtful answer rather than a flippant question, which isn’t let down by a more careless one. I’d like to be a pointed and patient question-asker this year. But anyways, before submitting some hurried half-truth, I start to separately scan my heart and mind and body. When someone asks how you’re doing, this is a good exercise in thoughtfulness. And if you’re not used to searching these areas independently of each other, it can be tough to discriminate at first. I feel good, bad, burdened. Tired, off, or nervous. Maybe you do, but these are shorthands we’ve created, and they’re an insufficient attempt to explain a system much too convoluted to reduce down to a word. The more we use them, the harder it becomes to engage our hearts, our minds, and our bodies as individual and equal parts. If we don’t manage them as equal parts, then we’re naturally favoring one of the three. And this, of course, is unhelpful because we’ll never then know how we’re truly doing at any given moment.

Ideally, we’d put in a faithful work for the Holy Spirit to be our sole proprietor, controlling, governing the heart, mind, and body, but that’s a daily work, expiring every night. And the percentage of times we fail at this is regretfully larger than the times we get it right. In human terms, and according to anatomy, we should typically look for emotions that drive the heart, thoughts that drive the mind, and immediate physical manifestations that drive the body. The heart is the seat of our will. It communicates shame, feels conviction, and falsely exaggerates. It points us to gratitude, envy, gladness, or unease. Everything we do flowing from the current state of it (Proverbs 4:23). We shouldn’t trust our heart to tell us the truth (feelings most times feel like truth and often aren’t), but in regards to its current state, which evolves on a whim, we must tend to it frequently.

Our minds, on the other hand, are blown about by the thought attention (we think) necessary to keep our sails up. The graveyard of unchecked tasks that riddle the planner. The gossip you were actively or passively engaged in. The phone that begs you to connect. The marriage or child you can’t save. The finances you can’t hoard. The law you can’t change. All of these occupying mental real estate that cannot be sold elsewhere, and therefore disrupting the present with wasted meditation that must either be dealt with or entirely let go. To be made new in the attitude of our minds (Ephesians 4:23) requires much discipline – de-cluttering that which has been infested for so long and preserving politely a space for whatever is true, noble, right and pure.

Lastly, and most palpably available to us, is the body. A lady yesterday passed up a second cup of coffee because her neck felt stiff and she knew that the caffeine had done it. When I wake up to three new blemishes and can’t peel myself from the sheets, I know it often has more to do with the bread I consumed than the hormones. I might not feel overworked but my rash clues me in. And vice versa, I might wear all the visible signs of fatigue, but I’ve taken care to get good sleep. Ah ha! I remember my conversation with a man the day before – he’s frail and his face sags because his stage 4 diagnoses swept in quick. They invaded him but couldn’t remove all of it, and now he lays in bed and knows that his wife will be financially taken care of if he dies before he turns sixty-five. In that case, he says, I don’t think I’ll choose to treat. I’ve taken on his news. I am tired emotionally, but it manifests for me physically every single time. I have to recognize this and distinguish the difference or else all the world’s problems are my own, and I’ll neglect that the Spirit dwells amidst a tired temple and a dying one (1 Corinthians 3:16).

When my friend asked that day and I decided to let her wait, this was the first of the three that stood out to me. I searched my mind and it felt full but rightfully so. We have two big, stressful moves going on – at work and at home. I searched my heart, and I felt nothing. I’m just here, I said to her. And then I noticed my right leg bouncing up and down on the metal bar that holds the stool. I watched it and knew it had been restless for at least ten straight minutes. I would make it stop and go on talking, only to catch it bobbing again. My body tells me that I’m agitated, and I listen. For had I sloughed off its signal, I’d have gone days assuring people I’m fine by all other accounts. My body feels wholly submerged in a pool of something, I say. I’m aware of my senses but none of them clear. My hearing is impaired, my vision blurry, and I can hardly taste. My reactions are severely slow. It seems the restless leg syndrome is the only thing tying me back to a pace of the bustling people on land. She understands.

I was telling someone not too long ago how frustrated I felt with my heart, mind, and body combo. Behind tears, I confessed that mine never feels how it’s supposed to. Fully functioning, balanced, at equilibrium. There’s a bag of rocks and a noose that gags and drowns the most susceptible of the three and then they all take turns. I’m light, stable, happy, and the Lord feels near, but I can’t stay off these g-dd--- antiobiotics. I’m finally nursed to conceivable health and the Lord still feels near, but now I’m crying twice a day and not only is the fear irrational but it stays and stays and stays. Or, my favorite – I feel like a million bucks, emotions are in check, but the Lord feels far, and more honestly, I don’t think about him much. I can assume that harmony doesn’t happen for any of us until the stuff in the garden is redeemed, but who could ever really be joyful until that day? The only win in this sad scenario may be that at least I’m enlightened. Some people, I take it, are willfully ignorant about which thing they lack, and what a pity that is. But then again, they’re happy! And they certainly aren’t victimized by other people’s happiness. So, maybe mine isn’t a win after all.

Like I said, my husband and I are in the middle of a move right now. It’s the first time I’ve moved since transitioning from my childhood home to marriage with him. It feels hard in that regard – I can’t just leave unwanted things behind. All of it must be sold, given, thrown or kept. And then wrapped, packed, loaded, lifted, unloaded, unpacked, unwrapped, and settled. Our current apartment is stripped and bare, but we’re still living in it. Broken down boxes stacked to our ceiling waiting to be built. A couch but no table. A table but no chairs. And a single lamp to light the whole place. Six-hundred and seventy-eight square feet feels wildly smaller with one lamp. It hasn’t been restful here for awhile, and our poor walls lately have known the fights of unrest. When you’re out of your own body, it’s miraculous, impossible even, to cater to another person. And so we bicker.

In the weeks that have gone by, keeping me company is this book by Henri Nouwen called The Way of the Heart. He speaks about silence, solitude, and prayer – the foundations of spirituality, reflections from our fourth century desert mothers and fathers, and the ways in which these three disciplines might transform our own ministries (“ministry” in terms of being, not doing or going or saying). The purpose of their time spent in the Egyptian desert was to be alone with God, and here, Nouwen says, solitude and silence are the context within which prayer is practiced. He tells us that the literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest.” This rest having little to do with the absence of conflict or pain.

It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle. Abba Anthony even says to a fellow monk that it belongs “to the great work of a man…to expect temptations to his last breath.” Hesychia, the rest which flows from unceasing prayer, needs to be sought at all costs, even when the flesh is itchy, the world alluring, and the demons noisy. Mother Theodora, one of the Desert Mothers, makes this very clear: “…you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie [sense of boredom], faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away.”

. . .

I guess I just want to say that if you’re discouraged, as I have been, don’t be hasty to assume that you’ve failed or have little faith. Your body aches, your soul is tired, and every fruit the Spirit bears is lost on you. Spend some time in the Word – it will bring you insurmountable joy, they say. Joy comes in the morning. But why doesn’t it for me? There are impatient people, unfaithful, and unkind, and ones that lack self-control. Joylessness seems less common for whatever reason, but that's my fight. I’m emotionally honest about sorrow and suffering and our whole need for a savior, and this comes at the expense of my real, true joy most days. But the point is, we don’t resign to these things. We don’t read or wish them away, either.

In the book, Nouwen talks about our misperception and misuse of prayer. We use big words to convey a profound message (God already knows our words) and we carry our prayers on far too long. We minimize prayer to simply speaking with God or going about our days thinking about him and this boils him down to nothing more than a subject of our intellect. To pray always really means to come to rest with Him. He’s there in your heart when it tempts you to anger, he’s there in your mind when you wonder what it might be like to go away from the world, and he’s there in your body even if it slays you.

A friend of mine was experiencing another stint of anxiety a couple months back. Crippling worry, fear, and feelings of dread. It was impairing his ability to function in social settings, keeping him far from anywhere that might lead to shame or embarrassment. Coincidentally, also keeping him far from anywhere that might lead to healing or freedom. He could call out the lies but couldn’t make truth penetrate the heart. He’d read and study and pray all day but couldn’t get his mind right. Finally, I said, just stick to what you know. Tend to what’s already here in front of you. He said he knew how to eat whole foods, hydrate well, sleep for eight hours, and exercise (if only for a little). These small assignments wouldn’t fix him, but they were enough to pedal forward. And rather than suspecting he was all at once broken, he could isolate his body from the heavier two, recognize the Spirit’s dwelling there, and let that simple presence begin to buoy him back to a safe health.

Like peace for him, I have full access to joy, but it isn’t my natural bent. I’ve learned that I’ve got to put myself right in the way of it sometimes, and that doesn’t make me less prayerful or holy. I’ll watch funny movies and take notes from my excitable husband and lay off the emotional integrity for a day. It'll be there again tomorrow. As silly as it sounds, I’ve got to practice laughing and thank God for the gift when I do because it doesn’t come easy. All parts of me are at odds from sun up to sun down, but since the Spirit takes up unique residence in each of them, I can come to rest still. Don’t wait for the absence of a war to do this, just let it fall quiet around you. As fruitful as it may be to abide in him, please don’t shy from the importance of his abiding in us – fractured, incomplete beings that are nurtured when engaged. If you’re alive, you bear his image which means you were created to bear his fruit. Not some of them, but all. Forge habits that might till the soil for whatever one you long for instead of claiming it’s not for you. Maybe it won't ripen overnight, or even show, but fellowship inside a fidgety body inside a festering world is the act of unceasing prayer. Our flesh is itchy, the world alluring, and the demons noisy, but these temptations will grow strangely dim against our discipline in tending to the kingdom of God, which is already here.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Around this time five years ago, he and I were committed to each other in as many ways as two can be except by way of ring or covenant. In hindsight, the youngest and most dangerous of all the ways. We were fighting already like old people – a lot over schedules and semantics then, and we both hated pornography. He loved me and I loved him, and we knew from the humble beginning that we’d end up together, rounding out those last and final stages. I’d hear his same profession, let it sink impatiently deep, try with all my might to value its simple three-word form, and then I’d ask him for the first time, “But what do you love about me?”

We’d released our good and ready phrase into the atmosphere with an adolescent force to be reckoned with, and as many of you know, you’ll never get that bird back in its cage again. It flits and flutters about, intentionally careless, landing when it needs to or when it doesn’t, singing soft and loud, never enough times. And it’s true. Just when you think the love well’s run dry or it’s at least losing tread, there are days when it’s uttered between every literal breath and even then it’s still too few. So when, then, did I start needing more?

But what? He’d say well, of course your blue eyes and your family and our very common interests. I’d look at him – a stranger – my eyes drifting for his phone, and I wondered about who else he might know with blue eyes, a family, and similar favorite things.

. . .

I was scrolling through Instagram the other day, and this happens to me sometimes – I’ll go from zero to irked with not much context for the trigger that brought me there. I’m sure social media is a contributing factor, but it’s not the only one, and I won’t resign to an eternal temperament that’s just annoyed at the wind. With the help of the Holy Spirit who convicts with immediacy, I’m getting to the bottom of the provocations and the reasons they make me utterly out of control. Sometimes all-day irritable, sometimes more. Like rolling your windows up, locking your doors, and – only until your voice breaks and betrays you – suffocating a whole car with the devil’s dictionary of expletives and not a sin in sight to blame it on. Anyways, we’re working on it, sanctification and me.

That particular day, I’d come across some fluffy account (that’s what I call them) and behind this one, another blonde preaching from her impressive platform about dreams and margin and the ethereal lies that whirl around a misshapen identity. Throw in a few kitschy phrases about what to do when God says no and you’ve unlocked the winning formula. An anemic, scripture-based message and a thousand-person chorus amen-ing in unison. About what? She hadn’t risked a thing speaking in platitudes, she received the applause she had hoped for, and her blind affiliates can say they sort of feel better about themselves. Maybe it was a win-win all along.

He tapped me gently and told me that this was one of those times. Caught in the unbecoming web of judgment, condescension, and a gnarly assumption that her empty, loose words couldn’t possibly resonate with another human soul. It was a vulgar response, and a wrong one, but it was an assessment I wanted to come back to because it wasn’t new to me. I didn’t have pen and paper handy, so I scribbled down what notes I could quickly into my phone before the free thought vaporized and became bitter like it’s done before.

Vulnerability is specific and should be practiced without restraint – In relationship, in faith, in writing. Including detail and pointed repentance will highlight the character of the Lord more than vague representations of openness will. How much is too much to share or is that the point?

I collapsed it down and put the phone back snugly in my pocket, recognizing good and well that my opinion is only that, and I’ll need One more knowing to really get at what’s true. But with a swift and single pivot, I was at least able to catch it in a jar and examine the bug more clearly from above than from inside, slamming our heads into glass.

It really bothers me when I see a writer beat around the bush and call it honest. In fact, I think to name yourself a writer at all, you must be willing to learn more words and stretch them out to describe a thing well and you must be willing to suffer twice, making a reader live through the very affliction that made you tear the page up in the first place. I’m not trying to hear about your tiff with anxiety, which has you beat down. I want to see the color of the hives that cover your chest when you take your shirt off at night and know if they feel like bubble wrap as you press your fingers in. I’m not concerned with how inadequate you feel as a wife unless I know about the way you situated both soapy hands against the kitchen sink and with your neck strained out long you cry out to him that you don’t quite care what he has to say. And when you talk about apathy, try not to use the word more than once. Instead, tell me how scary it is to sit around a table eating chicken with the five people you love most and to still feel nothing, much like how someone might react after they’ve lost sight or sound or touch or taste.

Now, there’s a bit of controversy surrounding this one, but it might behoove the church to come out and just stand by something. Rather than covering its bases with a brush of generalities, I wonder how many might actually be comforted by the force in which a leader admits that he wishes they’d not split families up at the border. We’d nearly eliminate congregational phrases like, I know you didn’t mean to say it this way or what is he/she really trying to get at? You don’t have any reason to listen to me because I don’t know the first thing about stewarding a local body and I’m closer to apolitical than anything, but it’s just tiring to hear a voice in whatever capacity be mild and agreeable. Ask the spirit to correct, of course – and He will – but then find your convictions and don’t let them down, because the godforsaken name of authenticity depends on it. It seems we've gotten less thoughtful in our speech, and speech dictates more than we could know. I want Christ to impart wisdom in me, and wisdom is not light or undecided. It is pointed and sound.

If you’re familiar with any of my other ramblings here or elsewhere, you know that the Lord’s been teaching me for some time about my words. They trip me up and come out wrong and have been the cause of a handful of hurts over the years. It was a cruel irony when the Lord fashioned me with a penchant for writing and an unkempt tongue, but we’re working through that. And regarding the tendency to spill my guts all over the floor, there are moments where I’m certain I’ve let people in on way more than they bargained for with no way to take it back and no way to rearrange the story. But He’s quick to remind me that the word of God is specific and that when understood rightly, specificity is a gift too often snubbed and turned away as baggage. God was clear in his commandments, Jesus clear in his preaching of the gospel, and the Holy Spirit clear in his prompting and direction. The enemy tends to crouch near specificity and offer that they didn’t ask for this, and when you notice that, push further and you’ll hear the truer voice offer that maybe it’s surely what they need.

Ryan and I have spent all of our subsequent years in the throes of intimacy and the compounding specificity required to stay there. Say what you will about the Enneagram, but it’s a recently trendy tool that wasn’t as trendy four thousand years ago. Studying it closely has defogged a world of frustration for us. It doesn’t fix marriages or make you a perfect companion, but it encourages purposeful communication and comprehensive understanding – both ideas that demand precision.

We’ve learned to be specific in our praise and intentional with our questions. I don’t notice a fridge full of groceries and tell him thank you anymore. I go to him and say hey, I appreciate you going to the store. That’s really freed me up to rest, finish my work well, etc. Used to, he’d ask me what in the world is wrong, and I truly, madly wouldn’t know. I’d tell him nothing and neither of us was happy with that half true response. Now, because he knows that the shame-game is a 4’s broken heel, he’ll lean in and say that he knows I’m embarrassed for blowing up unfairly earlier and is that what’s bothering you? And the fact that he knows me well enough to direct his language accordingly is what separates shallow, self-serving openness from risky, self-sacrificing vulnerability.

After all this time, it’s not what he loves about me that’s changed, but the scope with which he shoots has become smaller. But what, I’ll say. And it’s something silly like how my nails click against the iPhone gorilla glass when I’m typing a message. He can hear it from a mile away. Most people use the pads of their fingers which produces an entirely different sound. Or when you’re primping in the mirror, he says, you make this same face. He demonstrates. Your lips purse and your eyes are like almonds, but you don’t know you’re doing it and no one would notice unless they’ve admired it for many, many mornings.

With such specificity, he’s captured my attention, and I believe anything he’ll say.

It’s not like we have nothing to lose in doing so, because I’m sure there are plenty of things. Reputation, perception, followers and fame. There’ll be backlash and possibly extreme opposition. But what if we dug all the way down and reached the guilty ground with signs that show we’ve said too much only to find that there’s more to go. More to uncover, more to feel, more to say. What if we risked over-sharing, misunderstanding, and being exposed for the sake of real rock-bottom depth and communion. I think we’ll find there’s freedom in saying exactly what we mean and consequently meaning what we say. Be diligent to pray against shame once it’s out there, and ask the Lord to do what only he can do when you’ve emptied yourself of everything. Go further than you’ve gone and expect quite a new thing to well up in you.


Monday, September 10, 2018

The ground outside is wet. I’m not inspired to write – I’m inspired to sleep until ten, which I’ve already done. But we’re here, it just happened this way, and we’ll see how it goes. Our dog is furled up nose to paw along the grooves of a pregnancy pillow. He loves that thing. I don’t know why we have it. It sits snug between his crate and recliner, and he shares window light with the terracotta houseplant. His eyebrows are matted up all covering his eyes, but he’ll peer through every once in awhile without moving his head just to make sure I’m minding my own business. If the music’s too loud for his liking, he’ll let out a four-second guttural sigh from his lonely, disrupted corner. He and I are much the same, and I think about this often.

I tried talking to him one day. Ryan was gone for work, and we sat together on the couch. He’s better at eye contact than a lot of humans I’ve met until he senses that something might be wrong, in which case he’ll flit his eyes back and forth with his neck craned down until you pull him into your chest for rescuing. He hangs for dear life onto the words we say, and when we speak, he responds appropriately every time. It’s still hard to tell if that’s characteristic of a good, obedient listener or just someone who’s scared to let you down. I cupped his face and brought it close to mine, and I said to him, “Baby, if you can talk, just say anything. One tiny, little word. I won’t tell a soul!” And he gets this frantic look in his kind eyes that’s worried you’ve just offered him something that he’s unable to fulfill. Out of all the many tricks in his brilliant repertoire, I had chosen the one that wouldn’t come, and he retreated to his room.

His room is just the kennel that he stays in when we leave home. A two-toned quilt remains folded over top to keep it dim and sheltered and safe from outside forces. On top is also the graveyard where leashes and fashion bandanas and unused waste bags go to die until they’re resurrected another time. There’s a grey fleece that fits nicely inside for him to circle around in until he’s found his final form. He must like it in there, because there’s little to no effort in getting him settled on our part. The kennel door is merely a suggestion that I think he’d respect even if left ajar. He’s bound to social rules and only rarely feels frisky enough to toe that line, and it’s usually when Dad and I are around to slap his wrist and tell him he knows better. He’s a sneaky little bastard that’s seduced by rebellious ideals but values loyalty to his people more than the thrill of saying no. I wish I could communicate how lucky he is to have learned this lesson – faster than me, but maybe I have to be thirty before that kind of maturity really takes root. Some people say that about your twenties.

It must have been last year when I noticed, but Ryan and I were in a tiff that could have been about any number of things. We sat oceans apart in our small living room. I cursed at him while he continued unsuccessfully to land his point. Our dog is intuitive and gets nervous when tensions run high between the girl and the boy that raise him. There’s not a moment when he positions himself within eyeshot of only one of us – it has to be both. And when we fight, I think it gets tougher for him to breathe. The air gets thicker and hotter and I know he feels like his being there is inconvenient. This night, I watched him slink off his chair and into his open crate. I’m sure he prayed for us to shut the door and lock him up tight, but at least it was black and there were walls. He rolled up near the back and waited for the storm to pass, and he’s done it ever since. I cried the first time, resenting myself and my unruly self-control, and in the same thought, crippling thankfulness for refuge where we all can find it. I flashed to mine twelve years ago – the twinkle lights and candle shrine and cold, dark window seat. You could hear it still from the other room, the shouting, but you weren’t in the way and a room doesn’t care if you use it to hide sometimes. Plus, if you hum loud enough or fall asleep you mostly forget it’s there.

I’m not an all dog person in the whole manner that some claim to be. I’d like for them to be easily trained and unassuming, tender, careful, mildly excitable and really sad to see you leave. Maybe there’s some sort of universal personality pool that most dogs fall into by default, but whatever the case, we had winning numbers when we found ours. He is exactly as you need him to be a hundred percent of the time. He’s skilled in matching the energy of a room, empathetic as all get-out.

He displays a bit of social anxiety, but he’ll sure try until he can’t any longer. He plays hard by his own standards and sleeps harder. Always sleeps harder. He’s quickly concerned and wears my sadness when I’m sad. But when we jump around, you better believe that he jumps, too – ears pinned up, tongue out wide, and backside shaking all over the place. He feels everything we feel and carries what we carry, and I bet you he feels crazy like his mother, but what a gift that’s been to me to have him balance the load. It’s wild, isn’t it, how what serves as a gifting for one feels like the short straw for another. In this case, the one is my dog and the other is me.

I’m reading a book right now about burden-bearing and how to do it rightly. She speaks about spiritual sensitivity and this anointed ability to pick up on peoples’ pain, or a person’s pain. To not only feel for them, but feel with them, and to not just feel with them, but to take it from them and bear more of it so that they might bear less. The ones who naturally exhibit this often don’t know it, which leads to the conclusion that the way they were made to be is hopeless and inherently wrong. Tired all the time, bouts of irritability triggered by unwarranted events, likely withdrawn, and happier in the forest than in a crowded room. These unsuspecting victims latch onto the emotions of others and are responsible for doing something about it. And what was intended to help and relieve and intercede on the Spirit’s behalf has a tendency to get stuffed and stifled and thrown out with the cursed children. I’m a cursed child in the infant stages of a course correction, but I still catch myself wondering why me.

We have a friend from France who comes to town and lives with our family from time to time. Her last stint in Texas was three months long, and I got to take her into the city one of the days. On the road we talked again about culture differences, racial bias, and the generation gap. As she and I drew a bridge from Paris to here, she said something true and I’ve gone back to it a lot in this context. Conceptually, it seems as if the issues easiest to form our small opinions about are – universally – some of the toughest to articulate. To yoke our speech and our thinking more evenly (and respectfully), she says, we must be willing to change our language of hard things first. Are they actually hard or are they just misunderstood, misidentified, or mistaken? In order to change our coming thoughts on a matter, let’s make good their purpose on our tongues.

I want to thank her for saying that, because it’s teaching me inadvertently that a gift is a gift is a good gift whose goodness is tarnished if our well-meaning knowledge of it trails behind a sad, sorry-for-yourself song. And maybe it’ll take some aligning of what I know to be true of this certain gift and what I say is true of myself, but I can’t fairly throw one out without recognizing the other. The thing you’re sure you admire in your neighbor can’t possibly constitute the same chorus of why me’s along the way. I don’t know how long that could take, but if I’m lucky, something that normally feels like emotional upheaval and total burnout would snap its fingers and bow to its helpmate: a prayerful returning of a whole room’s brokenness back to where it came from.  

I’d also like to thank my dog for being him, because he’s borne enough of my burdens over the years for me to come around past envy, denial, and avoidance to finally say show me your ways. And maybe just as soon as those words start to materialize will I then begin to think of God’s gift as a good one. I’d really like to think of it as a good one.


Thursday, June 7, 2018

I’ve been quiet around here lately, and that doesn’t bother me like it might have a year or two ago. I don’t want to speak frivolously, but my purpose for this space and writing in it is not for those of you who read and want more. I covet your time and feel thankful for each strange twinge of human connection it’s fostered. Really, there’s something cosmic about the transfer of experience from being to being, having met or having never yet met. Reading someone’s mail, as it were, and letting it happen the other way. I think we need more of that brutal exchange, and I’ll offer myself up for the opportunity every time.

But if I wrote for you simply because you read and you liked it, this shit would be over. The muse becomes a different thing entirely. It’s no longer art, or rather the manifestation of art as Christ through me. It would look like long-suffering deadlines (the two of these by themselves breed faithfulness but don’t play healthily for me in conjunction), opinion as an idol, and filling inevitable spaces that I was never meant to fill. The minute I start owing anyone anything, I’ll owe everyone everything, and that’s not a white rabbit I’m willing to chase. I hope this makes sense.

Truthfully, it’s been a little of this and a little of that. I’ve had my nose in the dirt, forging ahead in some areas I’d have been too fearful to go for in a previous life. Doing over saying, which is a new concept for me and in some ways a better one. I’m riding the proverbial wave (after a good stint of toes in the sand) and in doing so have felt the kind of pruning that happens when you’re finally ready for it. Some, you know, we stumble into and some works itself out over time, but this kind doesn’t feel sharp as much as it feels like I’d imagine a freshwater rain would after several days lost at sea. Gathering the pails and buckets and empty sardine canisters because here it comes, boys, and please don’t miss it. Patience, open-handedness, a spirit of peace and a gentler one. The pruning that only stings because it would have been nice to have had it awhile ago and now you’re scared you’ve got to ration the miracle because will it stay? And if not, will it come again? I drink with my tongue out wide like my life depends on it and I apologize for the belated invitation.

The idealist in me, though, wonders about the real reason I haven’t written in three months – as if what I said before wasn’t excuse enough. Is it because sometime earlier this year I’d committed myself to put down the pen and to read? I’d make my tiny veins plump with wiser words laid out like a feast before me, ones that had done both the sowing and the reaping and all the preemptive becoming. I’d lay a blanket over mine so as not to collect much dust but to forget its whining for a time so that I might press in to the gleaning. And I’ve done that, some, but it wouldn’t have stopped me. I’d have snuck into my room and plucked the blanket aside, bludgeoning the page until I could breathe properly again. Writing is no discipline for me, although I could make it one. I listen to it and respond accordingly and usually against my will or better judgment.

. . .

I remember being younger, maybe fourteen, and being dubbed “Megaphone Mouth” by Dad. He’d say it sweetly and like he wouldn’t trade it, but the decibels in which I said regular words apparently translated to some ungodly and uncomfortable level for those in earshot. In high school, my health teacher let me hear it. I’m Mrs. Conscientious, never-miss-a-day, star pupil, but I couldn’t seem to figure out my volume. I snapped at her, because the entire class was in uproar, hissing and chattering, which she recognized. She shrugged and said, “Your voice is the one that stuck out louder than all the others.” I had crafted a masterful frequency that outran the rest, maybe due in part to a large family and one that shouted remarks in ladder-like fashion. To keep up meant crawling on someone else’s shoulders and beating on your chest in pride once you reached the top.

I’ve got a strong bent towards feeling unheard or misheard with a lot to say and no real way of getting it across, and perhaps this heightened my perception of “tell something worth telling or you ought not tell it at all.” Words were my gavel for many years. I could make them what I wanted and they would tell me how to feel. I hung my hat believing, in the language of Kim Addonizio, “there is something you absolutely need to say. No one is asking you to say it. You know that, and yet here you are, an army ready to do battle with the forces of silence.” I respect that sentiment still to some degree. Voices of hope, or not even hope – just a voice of anything – in a hollow land. This land is hollow and I have a voice to use. I got real good at taking up my words as a shield, and they’re some of the times I regret most heavily. The Lord’s been kind in revealing to me moments that I’ve used words for senseless battle. He’s been kind in showing me that the forces of silence are often a gift and shouldn’t be fought. And he’s been kind in teaching me how to let the shield loose and wield a new thing, one that might not involve my words at all.

We were sitting around a BBQ joint the other night, most of my family and I. We stammered on over Shiner about the fish that the boys caught earlier. We got on to telling stories of growing up, building upon memories of when we’d laughed the hardest, comparing our separate scenarios with sleep paralysis, and uncovering the phenomenon of recurring dreams, ones we’d each had that were too hard to articulate at the time. The four of us there finally circled back around to birth order and marveled at how different we all are, me from my brother in the middle and even he from our brother that’s the youngest. In a few moments of tender discipline, we called to mind instances we had been hurt by each other and areas in which we were most skilled in hurting.

There will never be a time when that’s pleasant to hear, but I’m more inclined to hear it in the moment, when it’s a fresh, clean sweep up. There’s a scuffle and a flash and then it’s over until the next time. This one was miles worse and far more jarring because you’re at eye level with almost twenty years of your bloodiest battles, ones during which your words did all of the wounding and they’re still talking about how much it hurt. Not anymore, they say, but maybe. Who knows.

I went home and cried in the shower for fifteen minutes. I scrubbed my skin raw and wondered how much damage does it take to equal a wasted life and at what point do you stop hurting people in the exact same way? I was thinking about my husband now.

He’s only been on the receiving end five years, and I’ve delivered to his door enough persecution for this life and two more. Manipulation, fabrication, domination. Shrinking behind plated armor when I have felt embarrassed or duped or misunderstood or unwanted. And as much as he recognizes the hurtful hiss and chatter of the rest of the class, I’m just so scared that he might one day say that your voice is the one that stuck out louder than all the others. And as I fumble my way out of the bathroom, soaking and sobbing and looking for a shirt, he’s there with a blow dryer. He sits me down in the hallway on our floral, hand-me-down chair and combs the tangles in my hair and says that the ones who have every right to run will still outlive the rest. That’s how it works when people love you, he said, and that if it’s not one stupid sin it’s another. We all know, and we’ve all stuck around, haven’t we. Don’t be so hard on yourself and say you’re sorry when you can.

. . .

I will write until I'm gone, because I have to, much like the need to salivate or to swallow. It always comes when it needs to, but just as I’m thankful for the discipline of writing words, I’m equally so for the discipline of harnessing them, sitting on them until they're used rightly. Making them not like a rope of possession or a whip of correction or a leash of control, but making them like a ribbon of comfort and truth and wisdom that brings healing [Proverbs 12:18].

Another writer years ago told me that I’d be doing a great disservice to the world by not exercising my gifting publicly. That it was more prideful and selfish to hold onto my words than to share them. I lived a long time after that thinking I’d better tell something worth telling then. And I guess what I’m realizing now is that I could live a quiet and really faithful life without ever writing a word for you again, though that’s not my hope. I hope that you’re encouraged when you come here, but I pray you don’t depend on it. I pray you depend on muscling your way through your own junk sometime and that he’d wield a new thing in you, too.

I wanted to share a poem with you that I found. It’s about the quiet, faithful life of a tree who wouldn’t speak if given the choice. Let’s you and me care more about sinking our roots into the ground that grew us.

The Life of Trees by Dorianne Laux

The pines rub their great noise
Into the spangled dark, scratch
their itchy boughs against the house,
that moan’s mystery translates roughly
into drudgery of ownership: time
to drag the ladder from the shed,
climb onto the roof with a saw
between my teeth, cut
those suckers down. What’s reality
if not a long exhaustive cringe
from the blade, the teeth. I want to sleep
and dream the life of trees, beings
from the muted world who care
nothing for Money, Politics, Power,
Will or Right, who want little from the night
but a few dead stars going dim, a white owl
lifting from their limbs, who want only
to sink their roots into the wet ground
and terrify the worms or shake
their bleary heads like fashion models
or old hippies. If trees could speak,
they wouldn’t, only hum some low
green note, roll their pinecones
down the empty streets and blame it,
with a shrug, on the cold wind.
During the day they sleep inside
their furry bark, clouds shredding
like ancient lace above their crowns.
Sun. Rain. Snow. Wind. They fear
nothing but the Hurricane, and Fire,
that whipped bully who rises up
and becomes his own dead father.
In the storms the young ones
bend and bend and the old know
they may not make it, go down
with the power lines sparking,
broken at the trunk. They fling
their branches, forked sacrifice
to the beaten earth. They do not pray.
If they make a sound it’s eaten
by the wind. And though the stars
return they do not offer thanks, only
ooze a sticky sap from their roundish
concentric wounds, clap the water
from their needles, straighten their spines
and breathe, and breathe again.
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