Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dear Hilary, Love, Hilary (A Bit of an Advice Column for Myself)

I'm newly obsessed with "Dear Sugar" who writes a weekly column over at The Rumpus. She spins words of truth and words of beauty and power and a little bit of feisty language, and there's so much good in it all that I wanted to soak up her atmosphere for a while.

And that gave me this idea to write myself an "advice column" this week. I'll be the person who pens the letter looking for the perfect constellation of wisdom, and then I'll take a whack at being the constellation-draw-er too.

So, here we go!

Dear Hilary, 
I want to dream the big dreams, but I find that more often than not, I dream the - practical dreams. They are good dreams, I guess - but how do I imagine beyond that? How do I imagine the harder things to grasp? And what do I do about being so scared that they won't come true? I'm terrified I won't ever be good enough or beautiful enough or smart enough... but I feel like this fear keeps me from living fully and joyfully. I don't want to be a perfectionist, Hilary, but it creeps into the smallest corners and crevices of my life. What would you do? 

A Perfectionist and a Dreamer


Dear PD, 

I have good news for you. Your letter to me suggests that you already dream big enough to see where your fears inhibit you. Your vision and your hope is intact enough to want the changes you talk about. Sometimes, when we're deep in the muck of our fears (as I've been, many times), we can't even tell that our way of seeing the world is off. We can't see how illogical, how untrue it is to believe we won't ever be beautiful or smart or powerful or good. And it is, you know. It is wrong to believe you won't or aren't beautiful and smart and powerful and good. You are. And you are wasting precious time, time you won't ever get back, by telling yourself this "not enough" story.

Now, sweetheart, you've got your fair share of work to do. Exercising the muscles of our imagination is like exercising our prayer muscles, our love muscles, our generous spirit muscles. You want an imagination that flies free into the world and is hopeful beyond all reckoning? Practice. Every day. You want to write the words that shimmer with truth? Write. Every day. Sit down at your computer or your notebook and watch the world beckoning to you. And write it down. It's only and ever going to come from you because only you have the two eyes you have and only you can tell us what those two eyes see.

You want to compose music that colors the air with its cadences? Compose it. Sing the songs in your head to your mirror. Sing to your best friend. Scribble it down. Go out and listen for the songs hidden in between bricks on a sidewalk and overlooking the harbor and in the murky clouds.

You want to chip away at the questions of ultimate meaning? Think it. Read good books and wrestle them in your journal. Carry the question - what does it mean that God exists? - in a pocket in your heart and start seeing the answers in each encounter, in each miraculous moment of living. Tell us about what you learn.

Live a life colored by verbs: compose, sing, write, laugh, pray, weep, cradle, cherish, learn, worship. 

Live the verbs, love, and the rest begins to follow just as it should. And above all, be patient as the moving forward unfolds before you. You are so young, love, so before all the beginning, as Rilke whispers. And he and I beg you to be patient, and trust that the biggest dreams are always perched in your soul, ready to be taken up again. And trust, too, that the beautiful, and the good, and the intelligence? They follow the obedient heart. They arrive at the doorstep of the person who loves sincerely, who speaks truth, and who obeys the Good Shepherd.

Love, always, 

(This was fun... perhaps I should try it again sometime?)

Friday, May 27, 2011

On Forgetting (A Five Minute Post)

Lisa-Jo challenges us to write in five beautiful, precious minutes without worrying about what comes out - just free and easy down the road we go! This week it's on forgetting. {I hope you come join us!}

Our minds are harbors, you know. Ships of ideas dock for seasons, some staying just til the next day like grocery lists and where we hide our car keys and how much we need to set aside for student loan payments and what it means to whisper thank you to God every morning. Sometimes they linger long into the winter and shore up tight - this idea of gratitude or joy or the hidden wonder of just about everything.

And more than anything I want my mind and heart to harbor long the good things and to let the others float away, set sail for forgetting. How long have I harbored grudges long past their time for departure? I remind and remember and retell the stories, the ones about woundedness, the ones chock full of memories that bite and burn and why? Because I'm afraid to know what might happen if I forget my story.

But then I remember this other wonderful thing that happens when the good thoughts linger long into the seasons of life: after all, the story is written by One who forgets nothing. And it makes me want to shout and dance and laugh til milk comes out my nose because I don't need to scrawl memories of hard things anymore, I can draw in pink and orange chalk the stories about His wonderful love and His faithfulness and His love? I can just write that story and let the cool summer rain wash away all the things I never needed to remember or harbor?

And that is the most beautiful thing to remember.


Monday, May 23, 2011

For the forever babysitters

His face is the window to the galaxy of five years and older siblings and a brown chocolate lab and babysitters and pirates in dragon-filled lagoons. And he remembers the worlds we built in his backyard last summer, in between trees and behind the house and by drawing in water with our fingers the treasure map. And he climbs up into my lap and settles there, remembering also that I am big and old and a student, and that I can read books to him and tell him stories.

When he smiles it lights the room, and I smile because he is smiling. We watch Playmobile Egypt and Victorian mansion videos. We laugh because somehow his Max & Ruby video is in French of all things, and that's just so silly! And I am floored again and again because he makes everything in my world that seems so desperately important... evaporate, and I laugh at the things that are funny, and I look serious at the serious problems, and I stare down dragons and listen close to what he whispers into my ear.

Today I had the privilege of being taught how to color. I sat across from my five year old friend, his face puckered in concentration, drawing careful racing lines, asking more than once how to spell "racer" and asking each time I got up to get post-its and a red pen where I was going. "Hil-a-wy, are you comin' back?" and each time I'd say, "Yes, I'll be right back."

And when I was told to close my eyes, because he was drawing a picture for me, I scribbled quickly these words:

This is the beauty of a forever babysitter, when you obey a child because it is time to be one again. When you say, in the presence of this small one, all I strive for and covet and envy in my green heart, it melts like August popsicles under his warm weight in my lap. And the not-realized things, the disappointments, the waiting, and all of it vanishes in the too-real moment of existing.

And when I opened my eyes he explained each picture drawn in Mom's pen like Van Gogh at his easel. "You can use the back to make your own picture, Hil-a-wy." He offered the paper like a wise man to Mary. And so I grabbed a broken crayon from the box between us and I tried to draw a hill, some flowers and maybe a tree spreading its branches to a yellow and orange sun. And he piped up in his unabashed way, "No, Hil-a-wy! You need to use a pen!"

My lines were wobbly and imprecise, and he saw it. And the solution was offered in his small hands like the simplest and most profound gift: a pen. Draw with a pen. Stick your tongue out while you press the ink into the paper, and then use your red and green and yellow and blue crayons to color in and outside your lines.

Today I was taught how to color. How to hold a pen and draw without taking it back. How to draw my lines in solid black ink and how to explain my pictures like I am Monet at his easel. And the big blue eyes looked back at me as I drew, and suddenly the things that seem heaviest evaporated, and the things we can't grasp, that we can only trace softly through the air as they pass by, those moments of gift sunk deep into the morning.

This is the beauty of a forever babysitter. That we are humbled by the children we meet, that we know as if by accident how to listen for their secret wisdom, their weight, their special kind of gravity. We are taught and retaught how to color. We learn to finger paint and eat goldfish and laugh at the jokes and tuck little arms and legs into bed and tie shoes. We peek into their imaginations and find that for a moment, our own disbelief is suspended. We become pirates and racers and queens and detectives. We are inscribed with their blessing.

And when he left this afternoon, he flung his arms around me with a hug and a big kiss, and I know that for the forever babysitter in me, this is the radical reshifting of my world at the beginning of a long week, and it is beautiful and true and I treasure it.

Love from my babysitter heart,

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Me & Carrots (A Surprise Five Minute Post for Anne Shirley)

Lisa-Jo challenged me in a comment on my "Five Minute Friday" post to only write in five-minute increments and see what comes out. You wonderful folks who read and comment on my small corner of the blogging world have told me I'm like Anne Shirley (you know her as Anne of Green Gables). I wanted to say thank you to Anne. 

"I know I chatter on far too much... but if you only knew how many things I want to say and don't. Give me some credit" - Anne Shirley

Anne is the person who flies up on the wings of anticipation and soars into the glorious sunset and thuds to the ground because no expectation is quite free of disappointment. She teaches me how to laugh at myself when this happens, over and over, when my wild untamed imagination spins a story that the world can't quite contain and I thud to the ground. She teaches me to dust off my pride and make my spirit smile again. 

Anne has always been the person I wanted most to be in literature, ever since the spunky red hair made its first entrance into my life when I was in elementary school. I call friends "kindred spirits" and talk too much and I want to make the world laugh with me at my antics. I feel everything a little too deeply and dramatically, and me and Anne rush forward into thunderstorms and over fences and through forests all for the sake of the dramatic adventure, the story we can tell when we come home. She learns peace through her growing up in the world, and she shines her way into the hearts of everyone she meets. 

I want to be that joyful and to learn that kind of peace that keeps the spunk and the slightly ridiculous airs. I want to talk about what I imagine and dream as if it is real and possible. I yearn for the moon, the long beautiful raven hair, the future to clatter onto my doorstep. Like Anne, my reddish hair is unconventional, and I'm never sure what to make of myself next to the others. Like Anne, I love fiercely and I want to protect the ones I love and like Anne, I think my exchange with my someday husband might be, 

Gilbert: Well, I figured you can give me a hand with my work, and we'll call it a fair exchange.  
Anne: Aren't you worried? I'm liable to break another slate over your head
Gilbert: I'm more worried I might break one over yours, carrots.

And like Anne, I think the world is beautiful to bursting even on the cloudy days and like Anne, I want to throw my arms around it and be idealistic and build schools and teach and laugh and treasure the smallest moments and give too much of myself to everything I do. Like Anne, I want to fly up on the wings of anticipation and hope and let my imagination dream its winding way into the heart of God. 


Friday, May 20, 2011

When Seasons Change (A Five Minute Post)

Lisa-Jo says, write about when seasons change in just five minutes!

When they change I throw leaves in the air, have pictures snapped in Lincoln Park sunshine, revel in the possibility of God making something new and bright in the world. And when spring comes with its streaks of dirt on jeans and smell of rain-soaked lilac bushes and with the promise of rest from the busy school year I laugh and throw my windows open.

But truth be told, when the other seasons change, the ones of people, familiar places and coffee cups and sounds (the clink of the mug on the table, the sigh, the door creaking open) - when those appear I run, or hide, or hibernate. I throw on blanket after blanket and I worry and I fret and I grasp my old familiar self firmly in my hand and say, "I can't do this." And when those seasons change I feel myself looking a white canvas of winter, wondering if God will decide to paint spring on it again.

And He does. He always has. I moved from high school into college, I moved from Boston to Washington, DC and back, I moved in and out of Orthodoxy and lurked in the vestibule of Catholicism and receive Communion from Anglicans and all the while God is painting the canvas of my life bright with His colors. It won't always stay the white of winter's hidden promises. It won't always stay unknown and frightening. Someday, maybe even soon, a new burst of blossoming weekly phone calls or letters or glasses of wine or cross-cultural, cross-country, cross-oceans of hearts will emerge.

He has to give us the canvas of winter so that He can paint spring.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Did You Smell the Lilacs?

I am in love with lilacs. I know, I know, you can't be in love with a flower. But I am! I love their small clusters of purple blossoms and their joyful dance with the breeze. I love how they grow everywhere. I love how faithful they are to spring, even when the rain hurls itself at the ground and the sky goes gray and the world shudders under cold May drizzle. I love that they smell like the best of spring - a hint of rain, a touch of blossoming... they smell just as flowers should.

They remind me of England. I don't know why. Maybe it's their loyal spirit - when I take the moment to look for them on my drive home, or my drive to work, they are always there, though always hidden. They are patient with me every spring, like England is patient with me every year that I long to go and can't find the money, the time, the peace of spirit to make a trip happen.

I wonder - have you ever longed to be a place so badly you thought you might burst with it? If it is a prairie in Kansas or the mountains of Colorado or the hot sun of Pretoria or the sweet tea laden Mississippi or maybe the marché in Aix-en-Provençe? Have you yearned your heart into that place, even if just for one small intake of breath?

I've been feeling that way about Greystones, Somerset, England all week long.

Yesterday I had the most wonderful thought as I drove home along Route 22 (one of my favorite winding roads). I thought, "I feel like I'm in England!" The rain outside the car windows, the gentle hum of music in the background, the anticipation of a whistling kettle and the really excellent mug of tea (perhaps even, on the cold and rainy day, an escape into a good book with fleece blankets and soft lamp lighting?).

I take a pencil to my imagination and my mind is drawing the world as I think it would be: I'm older but not too much, making a go in the world of writing, keeping chickens in the backyard, having at least two dogs and two cats and a rambunctious family and even though everything, everywhere is noise somehow I'm quiet. I'm taking time to snap a picture of the gurgling stream and gather lilacs growing in a corner of the field. I'm watching the miracle of the world brush my cheeks clean of the mess of the day. I'm the same and I'm different.

A pause, a gasp. The thought seemed almost too revolutionary to be true. "What if this summer, I lived out all the peacefulness and all the exuberance and all the whole-hearted slowness that I imagine I could live over there?" Another pause. Another audible gasp. My exasperated and gleeful wide-eyed stare: yes, I think I want to do that. Yes, my heart says. Yes!

When we yearn for those places we're also yearning for who we become when we're in them. 

And maybe you can't don your beret and let French roll deliciously off your tongue in the middle of the Boston metro, but can't you be the same curious, anthropology-learner, lover of that country? You can't find the same breathtaking prairie, maybe, but could you breath the summer air slowly into your lungs and let it fill you? You can't feel the Mississippi humidity but could you read "A Rose for Emily" or "Good Country People" and let Faulkner and O'Connor feed you?

We can become the people we long to be there, here. We can smell the lilacs at the corners of fields and listen to the rain and enjoy the clatter of fingers on keyboards, knowing that here, He meets us and loves us and waits for us. Nowhere else but here. 

Love, from my yearning heart,

Monday, May 16, 2011

Surprised By Blessing (So I Remember)

Before I let any more time slip away from me, I want to share with you one of the small miracles that happens when you drag yourself to church on a drizzly and humid Sunday morning. I have to share it because I woke up remembering it this morning, and I don't ever want to forget. It's an odd thing, memory - the ones we want to keep are the hardest to hold onto, and the things we really shouldn't remember, we replay over and over in the vain hope that we'll redeem it by remembering.

But I want to inscribe the blessing into this keyboard and into your screen as you read this (thank you, thank you for journeying with me). Here is my story. 

Yesterday I sat in a pew mostly by myself, down at one end. A grandmother in a purple suit sat at the other end, accompanied by a peppery-haired grandfather, clutching a prayer book in his gnarled hands. My eyes welled up remembering how Granddad's hands were gnarled like that, years of walking sticks and petting dogs and rapping rulers on the desks of unruly British schoolboys written into his skin. And I looked through the bulletin and there it was - "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" (and I cried a little bit). And I listened closely to the sermon, but it wasn't until the Eucharist that I was suddenly, inexplicably struck with a desire to be blessed. 

And the words flowed from the altar - "But chiefly we are bound to praise thee for the glorious resurrection of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the very Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and hath taken away the sin of the world; who by his death hath destroyed death, and by his rising to life again hath won for us everlasting life."

And I wanted blessing. I wanted to feel the warm heavy hand of the priest on my forehead and have the living water of prayer poured over me. I wanted to close my eyes in the presence of the living God and hear the provisions pleaded on my behalf. 

I walked up to the table, flung myself to my knees in a haphazard way and held out my hands, and the priest gave me the living Bread but swept by. I sighed ever-so-slightly to myself and walked back to my pew.

After the concluding hymn, I was talking to my headmaster from high school and suddenly Father Ross appears at my right elbow. "Excuse me," he says to Peter. And then he looks at me and he places his sturdy warm hand right on my forehead and his voice booms loud over the empty place of praise:

May the Lord bless you and keep you, and make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May He look upon you with kindness and give you peace. May the Almighty God bless you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Father Ross looks at me, smiles, and says to Peter, "Hilary likes blessings." A few more minutes to chat, and then he departs. And I gape after him, knowing that somehow, even my dejected sigh was heard by the One who is our peace.

And He blessed me right in the back of the sanctuary, because He sent Father Ross to speak the heavy good words over me. And I walk away treasuring this moment, blessing pressed on my forehead and into my heart.

May He bless you today when you do not think He can hear you.
(photo: Ryan Groff)
Love, in Him who gives all blessings,

Sunday, May 15, 2011

God is not a Sheepdog.

"God is not a sheepdog!" Fr. Brian looked around the congregation this morning, into the still-bleary eyes and repeated himself. "God is not a sheepdog!" I couldn't help it - I almost choked on the laughter bubbling up inside me. Come on! This is the summit of your sermon? God is a Shepherd, not a sheepdog? Very clever!

But even as I crossed my right leg over my left, scrunched my back against the pew and folded my arms in a superior, skeptical stare, Fr. Brian (and the Holy Spirit) smacked me over the head. "With sheepdogs, the sheep obey out of fear and guilt and shame. The sheepdogs bark and corral and bite the sheep. But the Shepherd calls his sheep by name and they follow him. With the Shepherd, the sheep obey out of love."

And my defenses against the Good Shepherd melt into a puddle at my skeptical feet. This seems to be a pattern in my life, this undulation between living in the furious life-giving love I have for the Shepherd, and wanting nothing more than to take my sheep self and hit the road as far away as I can. And Fr. Brian's words hit me fresh: God is not a sheepdog. He calls his sheep by name and they follow him. 

God is not a sheepdog. He does not guilt us into obedience. He does not shame us. He does not terrify us with threats or harm us. He does not corral us back into His family when we stray. He goes looking for us. He goes out into the world, out into our hearts, and calls us by Name. 

God is not a sheepdog. We do that guilting, shaming, fearing to ourselves. God is not a sheepdog. We run away over the hills and valleys. We hide from the rain of disappointment (but God, I wanted it!) in shadowy caves and He finds us. We hide from sorrow (but God, why did she have to die?) and He searches for us. We hide from doing the hard brave thing (but God, I don't want to have that conversation!) and the Good Shepherd calls out to us. He does not bite at our heels or bark at us to scare us back into the sheepfold. He calls out to us. 

And we know His voice. We know it deep in the pit of our heart, but our stubborn skeptical fearful lost sheep-selves can't get back into the sheepfold.

We know the Shepherd's voice. It's the Shepherd we love, the Shepherd we trust, the Shepherd who comes looking for us on the hillside where we're hiding. 

God is not a sheepdog. He rejoices when He finds us. He carries us on His shoulders back into the sheepfold, back to the still waters and the green pastures. He lays down His life so that we can live. Through the watches of the night, through the wolves, through the tempests, through the deserts... God is  the Good Shepherd. 


"O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people;
Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who
calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with
you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen." (Book of Common Prayer, Fourth Sunday of Easter)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Deep Breaths (A Five Minute Post)

Lisa-Jo challenges us to write deep breaths in just five minutes!

Last night I lay awake for too long, tossing my sheets into a crumpled mess at my feet and wishing desperately to fall into sleep, into the tired weary exhale of the night. But suddenly the thought hit me that all of this is God, all of this restlessness and weariness is my soul yearning me back into His arms. He makes us restless for His rest, restless til we flop weary bones and bodies into his waiting arms. Until the Rembrandt van Rijn painting of the prodigal son is gloriously transformed into a picture of you and me and God and this world in Him, the love and tenderness in between brush strokes suddenly blazing out like fireflies blinking and shafts of sun through a cool Chartres cathedral and the waters of Baptism blessing helping us breathe.

I love God, I told my dear friend over coffee mugs and cinnamon French toast. I love Him terribly and deeply and with a ferocious kind of certainty that makes me mad sometimes because I think, I can’t not love You and be restless for You and squirm and fuss and gasp for air to breathe You into me. I want the bread from heaven, the manna… and I know lying in bed that I do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from You and I breathe because You give me breath and I am peaceful because Peace is Your gift and I am tied to You, God. I love you terribly. And I want to breathe that kind of desperate love for Him all over this day and the lilacs that bloom and the restless beating heart and the broken relationships and the scattered thoughts and I want to stand in the middle of my life holding up the mess and saying, “I love you. I sing because You are my God.”


Monday, May 9, 2011

When God Paints It in Watercolors

It turns out that one of the best places to make metaphors about your life is in a certain wise mentor's living room sharing halves of cupcakes (this time, something chocolate with oreo buttercream and a raspberry filled one with raspberry buttercream) and drinking tea.

My analogy, with the help of said wise person, goes as follows: I love drama. I love hurricanes of feeling and storm clouds gathering at the outer edge of the horizon. A thrill of excitement shivers through me as I hear the rain at first from a distance, pattering on the thirsty dirt, then growing louder and stronger as the cloud passes through me.

But of course, when the storm arrives, I realize that I'm out in a dinghy in the middle of my anguish with one paddle. I get tossed by one wave and then another. I capsize occasionally. I get so stressed or sad or tired or fearful (or all those really all the same - just feelings of storm?) that I lose my paddle and then there's just me and my wooden dinghy in a hurricane of emotion. 

It sounds unwise. It sounds like that bucket of storm cloud I carry around with me. It sounds like chaos. And what is less like peace than chaos? 

So just imagine with me the second half of the analogy, and if you can, picture me looking at my wise and lovely friend and mentor like this as it all clicks into place: 

(Photo: Mandie Sodoma)
I could move through my life like an ocean liner. 

I could let my soul learn God's deep and tender lesson of peace: life in the ocean liner, unshaken by storms, unafraid of clouds on the horizon, unhurried. I could fasten my heart onto Psalm 62 and to the Selah that accompanies verse 8:

 Trust in him at all times, you people;
   pour out your hearts to him,
   for God is our refuge.

And then when a day appears on the horizon too full, wobbling with expectation, when the chaos forms a whirling hurricane veering straight for my heart, I could be like the ocean liner. I could be steady. I could see beyond the storm. I could trust. I could wait

(Photo: Mandie Sodoma)
Today I got a taste of how to make your dinghy an ocean liner. I was sitting on the landing outside my office working on a project for work, my face wearing the story of my capsized boat. I was sighing (in my head). I was not leaning on anything, but letting the waves of i-just-want-to-cry! roll over me. And then?

God painted the sunset in watercolors. 

I looked up and I saw the most beautiful splash of fiery pink and orange bleeding into the white steeple of the college chapel. I looked up and He seemed to write a bigger Peace in that sky than all the Chaos a day can conjure. I looked up and behold, the beautiful momentary world stood there, waiting for me. It takes peace of heart to see it. It takes an ocean liner heart. It takes Selah. It takes patience. 

And sometimes He helps us begin to learn by excessively beautiful things. Go look for some, and tell me about them? I'd love to know. 

Love, from my dinghy to yours, 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Particular Joys (A Thank You to Theater)

I crept back behind the rows of packed chairs and hovered in the corner of the black box theater. I knew my light cue. I knew my sound cue. I knew my lines. I smoothed my crinkly blue dress and shifted from side to side with my stack of books. The song right before my entrance sounded strangely echoing from my hiding place, but as it faded away, I took a deep breath. And then came the cue, and trembling, I walked forward and into my scene.

And when I am onstage somehow fear melts into the audience, into the lights, into the floor under my feet.  I become the person who drops her books, who loves the Green Lantern above every other superhero, who knows Calvin Coolidge from their American politics class.

I want to remind myself why there are some very particular joys in life that maybe are just gifts from the good Giver. Like theater. I'm not a theater major. I'm not pursuing it in a formal way. I'm not very good at creating characters who are extremely different from me - but I have a knack for pouring my own quivering heart into the characters on the page.

And that was last night - somehow there is a particular joy hidden for me in the theater. It's this joy of putting myself onto the stage and freeing her from her expectations. She does not need to do what I expect her to do. She can surprise us all - love superheroes with a passion, say "Crap!" when she drops her books, talk to a guy she meets in a park... She can not feel worried about how she looks in the blue dress. She can not feel worried about whether or not she's missed a meeting or a deadline or a paper.

I love creating this character and letting her teach my own self something. I love falling on the stage in front of the audience. I love the joy that surges through your bones when you look around you and you realize you've created a world for these wonderful people and that this world is the point, this collective creation, this trembling in our shoes together.

There is particular joy for me in theater. There is in solving calculus problems. There is in singing "La Vie en Rose" by Edith Piaf. There is in finally solving a stoichiometry problem and predicting the outcome of a double replacement reaction in chemistry. There is in sitting with a group of people and talking about Flannery O'Connor.
(Photo Credit: Mandie Sodoma)
In each of these particular joys I've discovered that all I want when I'm there is to be there. That I'm not yearning for a floodlight into the future. That I'm not trying to meet an expectation. That I'm not (most of the time) criticizing myself for not being good enough at it. That I shed the backpack of insecurities and trip onstage and trust that God is pleased with the simpler fact of me existing.

Gilead taught me this, too. I was reading it before I went onstage. John Ames seemed to look at me in the book and write his words as if he was looking at me:

"So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping in the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world." (page 9)

Ah, this life, this world. What a beautiful phrase. Can you imagine if we lived aware of its loveliness?

I think that might be what the particular joy is for me - a moment of living, intense awareness of the loveliness of this world and all of its mysteries. A moment when the future and the past fall into silence and the roar of the present, the heart-stopping beauty of the present, the ache and groan of the present, becomes the only thing I can hear.

I wonder, is there a way to make everything that kind of particular joy? Is there a way to live in that heart-stopping beauty every moment?
(Photo Credit: Ryan Groff)


Friday, May 6, 2011

Motherhood Should Come with... (A Five Minute Post)

Lisa-Jo asked us about motherhood this week - just five minutes, like we always play, our words free of all those edits and corrections and insecurities.

Motherhood should come with patient eyes, the ones that wear worry in the corners because their grown up girl, this one blogging late in the watches of the night, is up too late and is working too hard and is too stubborn to listen to you. Motherhood should come with soft hands that smooth away the wrinkles of the day with spontaneous trips to Starbucks for chai and cuddling close even now as feet creak across floorboards and we cling like kangaroo cubs.

Motherhood should come with strong arms that catch the kid turned superhero leapfrogging off the couch into the middle of life. Motherhood should come with plenty of tissues for the final decision to say goodbye, the final moment of moving away, the final moment of doing the brave thing in the quiet. Motherhood should come with lots of good red wine.

Motherhood should come with a bucketful of grace all its own for the moments when daughter and mother look at each other too weary even to make words from their shared heart. Mother becomes mercy. Motherhood should come with an endless supply of tea and mugs. Motherhood should come with the looks of love saved up for the moments when we the children stamp our feet and cross our arms because what we want is to not need you but all we need is you. You and your strong soft arms and your big comforter heart that wraps us up tight. 


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I Feel Pretty / Unpretty (After Lent, and No Makeup)

This Lent I gave up makeup. My paintbox was tucked away, all the powders and pencils, my mascara, my beloved eyeliner (the one that makes my eyes blue-grey and full of smoke) neatly put in a drawer. Forty days of no makeup made me cringe in the beginning. Why had I done that? I thought for the first few days of startled recognition.

And at first I was a stranger to myself. Cold water and traces of apricot scrub were the only addition to my freckled English skin. When I got up in the morning, the routine was simpler, quieter. No frantic smudging bronze speckles across my cheeks. No pulling eyelids down to swipe a smooth black line across my lower lashes. No sweet gooey lip gloss to accidentally smudge on my chin.

It was forty days of blushing from my heart. Forty days of my eyes reflecting only the colors of the cloudy sky or the dress thrown on after oversleeping, or the mood of my day. Forty days of smiling, dimples and all. Forty days of fresh skin scrubbed clean of the old definition of beauty. Forty days and then the glorious celebration of Easter and...

(Thank you, Hannah Cochran, for capturing us makeup less)
I don't really want makeup any more.

I was watching Glee last week and the episode was all about learning to know ourselves. To be truthful. To look makeup-less into the mirror and marvel at what He has made. Two of the characters sang this duet - the song 'I Feel Pretty' from West Side Story, and the TLC song, 'Unpretty.' I couldn't get it out of my heart after I had heard it. The song talks about that word, "pretty" - and how it twists and wrenches and how we feel so unpretty, so unsure, how we teach ourselves to hear the word and doubt it.

But I sit here blogging in the piles of books and questions, looking over at the mirror, thinking... what if we start to believe in the beautiful in us? What if we took back the word "pretty" - so that it meant full of heart, lovely, delicate, "pleasing by delicacy or grace"? What if we made that word mean overflowing with His grace? 

What if I keep makeup in its drawer?

As the tulips outside your window open their petals to the good spring rain, as your laundry sits in a towering stack in every room, as you fix macaroni and cheese, as you drink a glass of good red wine... Imagine with me all the wondrous things we could do to take back the word pretty to be a word of joy. To be a word of grace. To be a word about love.

Love, from my makeup-less, wondering self,

Monday, May 2, 2011

When Your Heart Skips a Beat

I am standing in the sandwich line. I am ordering the same sandwich I always order, chatting with the same lovely lady about peonies and the month of May. And because it is what everyone talks about, because two billion people watched the parade, the vows, the kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, we are talking about England.

And my heart skips a couple of beats. The others in the line are laughing at the hats, discussing with rapture the lace dress, the veil, the Queen's yellow dress. I am reeling, the weight of remembering suddenly heavy.

Sometimes I forget what I am carrying around with me. I am carrying her inside me, my English grandmother, and carrying inside me this new and strange reality: she is gone. She is asleep in the Lord. She is in a mystery of love, a mystery of knowing and restoration and peace and all of these good words that should taste like water but today taste like dust.

And there, holding my sandwich in front of me with a hesitant look on my face, I remember.

I remember her smiling at me, maybe catching glimpses of her younger self in my twirling skirts and staunch refusal to do anything but read, read, read. I remember her pouring tea, and her house slippers, and how she looked concentrated when she cooked. And how she used to feed the black lab sponge cake. And how one Thanksgiving she made a turkey for me and Mom and we ate it in the living room by the crackling fire and she proudly displayed an apple pie, "for us Americans."

Why do we remember? Why do we watch London on scratchy video footage and ache in our guts for a home, a grandmother, a self that has slipped beyond our grasping fingers?

I am standing in the middle of my twenty year old life aching to run back to age seven.

And I wrote yesterday about jumping up and down as an Easter girl, and I want to, but how? How do we slip into joy when we hold in our hands the hard things? I wonder all of this as I walk back up the stairs to work, as I feel the afternoon drift by me, as I look in at spring. And I remember how all of this joy keeps marrying itself to homesickness. I sat on the T on Saturday night and suddenly longed for the cool female voice of the DC Metro ("Step back, doors closing"), and for Lincoln Park in October, for the swift wind over the Atlantic at Lillie's house listening to her play the piano...

And I keep waiting for the small voice that usually speaks from my left ventricle, a voice of rationality, a voice of theology, a voice that says what is true about God's goodness and His love and what is true about practicing joy.

But I find myself instead just waiting. No words to ignite, no story to spin. I'm waiting for Him. And as I wait, I hear the Psalm 63, verses 1 through 8:

 1 You, God, are my God,
   earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
   my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
   where there is no water.

 2 I have seen you in the sanctuary
   and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life,
   my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live,
   and in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
   with singing lips my mouth will praise you.

 6 On my bed I remember you;
   I think of you through the watches of the night.
7 Because you are my help,
   I sing in the shadow of your wings. 

8 I cling to you;
   your right hand upholds me.

Love, in the midst of waiting

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sunday is a Day to be Thankful! (Reminding Myself)

The Orthodox Church has a treasure trove of true things that every so often creep into my frenzied brain and park there, patient. Among them are the words, theosis, eucharisto, kyrie eleison... and there are also the ideas: the desert as a place of spiritual clarity, the cloud of witnesses as a great deal closer to us than we think, the Resurrection as victory and rescue in addition to propitiation.

Today, I remembered something Father Constantine told me my freshman year, in the midst of exploring Orthodoxy. "Every Sunday, Hilary," he said while smiling congenially at me from across his desk, "Every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection." I don't remember being floored by the idea at the time, and I imagine I nodded after he said that and filed it away to be considered later. But now, the idea comes back to me two years and many seasons of self later. Every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection. 

Last week was the liturgical calendar celebration. The one that we mark with annual traditions, with the seasons of the year, with the hymns we save for just that one Sunday. And there is grace in this yearly celebration. It is like watching our life, the purpose of our whole becoming, written out in bold and beautiful script. On Easter Sunday, we put a magnifying glass to the truth of every day: that He is not dead but alive! 

But today I remembered Father Constantine's words to me, and it made me wonder if I live out Easter thankfulness and Easter joy in all the nooks and crannies of my life, or if I save it, like my favorite hymns, for just one day a year. I woke up this morning with prayers of need: God, I whispered as I shrunk into my covers, I don't know why you've put all this on me but I need your help so you better help  me. I pray prayers of frustration: BUT WHY DON'T I KNOW THAT ALREADY? I pray prayers of desire: I really just want... 

But Sunday is a day to pray thankfulness for the Resurrection. A day to marvel at how the tulips in my front yard shiver in the warm sun and the breeze. A day to marvel that I have been surrounded by miraculous people, who buy me cupcakes and drink tea from chipped family mugs with me, who challenge me to behold beauty with them, who read this blog and teach me how to hear my own words. A day to marvel that things exist.

And when I really begin to celebrate the Resurrection on this Sunday in Easter season, on this Sunday of ordinary proportions, I want to run outside and dance in the afternoon sun and jump up and down because I have been freed and made whole and I am an Easter girl all the days of my life. 
(Thank you, Hannah Cochran)
Sometimes I forget that I can make all of my life a conversation about Easter. That I could make every thought, every action, every sympathetic or exasperated sigh and nod of my head, every giggle and every word - all of it could be about the new life on the vine. 

So I end praying with you, not from a prayer book, and not from a liturgy, but just from me:

Heavenly Father thank you that life begins with the Resurrection. Thank you that you remind me in the moments when I am tired of it that it is a gift from you. Thank you for the mercy that you teach me. Thank you for the people you entrust me to. Thank you that although I am weak and weary and though I can only lift my eyes up to the next hour you lift my whole self up to the sunrise. Thank you that above all, you make known to me in this beautiful world and in these small prayers the reality of your presence. Make me obedient to you, and may we ever yearn to live and grow into the promise of life and the celebration of the Resurrection. For you are holy, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.



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