The passenger seat

Growing up, we took a lot of road trips, and because this was pre-smartphone/iPad/TV-that-drops-down-from-the-roof-of-the-car, I spent a lot of time staring out the window. The other day, as I was crossing one of Portland’s many bridges, I took my eyes off the road for a split second to glance at the trees in the West Hills, growing rosy and auburn with autumn, and I realized I can’t remember the last time I was a passenger and not a driver in this city. I’m single, I live alone, I own a car, and I don’t understand Uber. I am always behind the wheel.

It is admittedly a heavy-handed metaphor, but I have spent most of my life behind the proverbial wheel, too, trying to steer myself to satisfying destinations. There have been a lot of detours, a lot of flat tires, a lot of stops for coffee. I have picked up hitchhikers, slammed on the brakes for stray dogs, and been lured in by tourist traps that, as they so often are, turned out to be colossal disappointments. I have kept Jesus in the passenger seat, in part from sheer habit, but mostly from lack of trust. In both the literal and proverbial cars, I feel more assured when I’m driving.

It never ceases to amaze me how different people can be as drivers than they are in everyday life. I have gotten into vehicles with peaceful humans who’ve turned out to treat the streets of Portland like their own real-life arena for playing Grand Theft Auto. I’ve entrusted my life to intelligent people who, come to find, have less sense of direction than a blind rat. And I have, against my better judgment, climbed inside what I assumed would be a death mobile with my more high-strung acquaintances, only to be scooted along in the right lane at ten miles per hour below the speed limit.

People are not always predictable. God isn’t either, though not in the same way. But because we are humans and most of our interactions are with other humans, we tend to apply human characteristics (including faults) to God. Sometimes, I wake up crabby for no reason. I am made in God’s image, so my tendency is to assume He does the same. That sometimes, He just doesn’t feel like dealing with me today because, I don’t know, St. Peter had the angels repaving the streets of gold all night, and it kept Him awake. My point is this: without always realizing it, we can start to believe God is as variable as we are.

Recently, I’ve tried to shift my Bible reading away from “how does this apply to my life?” to “what does this reveal about God’s character?” Of course, the second question will inherently influence the first one, but I (and many others, I’m guessing) am more inclined to put myself in the place of the humans in Scripture, to see how they approach God in times of both joy and lament, to learn how they grow as He carries them through trials. I am less inclined to consider the other perspective: how God responds when His children cry out to Him, how He receives us in happiness and in sorrow, how He leads us through the difficulties of existence.

Funny thing—when you start to read the Bible from God’s perspective, you can’t help but notice an obvious pattern: we are the ones who are inconsistent. We’re the ones who are constantly tripping up, hurtling ourselves into places we ought not to be, forgetting the One to whom we belong. God, on the other hand, is as steady as steady can be. To an extent, He shifts when we shift, but this is more the way an attentive parent opens his arms to catch a falling child than the way a negligent one turns his back and walks away. We’re the ones nosediving off monkey bars and flinging ourselves from the swings, while God remains present, consistent, and unwavering.

Last week, one of my pastors gave a sermon on idolatry, and something hit me: my chief idol is my need for control. It’s not my writing, my pride, my desire for a relationship. It’s not my health, my running, my meticulous schedule. These are the symptoms. My need for control is the disease. It’s the thing that makes me believe I’m capable of strangling my life to match up with some predetermined timeline, even while knowing I actually have very little control over anything, which only makes me hold on that much tighter.

In 2 Timothy 1:12, Paul writes, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” Oh, to have such faith. I’m more like, “I know whom I have believed, but I remain unconvinced as to whether or not he is capable of guarding my life better than I am.” I have no logical grounds for my distrust. From both personal experience and from reading Scripture, I can intellectually agree that God makes a better guardian than I do. But this, for me, is not an intellectual problem. It’s a heart problem. I have never been particularly good at trusting anyone, and I’ve suffered enough losses to know, guarded though we may be, we are not always spared from pain.

It’s interesting, that word “guarded.” It can mean “protected.” It can also mean “a posture of defensiveness.” Being a word nerd, I go for the origin, which is late Middle English, and referred to a sense of “care” or “custody.” If you are a Christian, you believe you’re in God’s care, while also knowing you live in a fallen world full of sinful humans and a spiritual reality that permits (though it does not necessarily condone) terrible things to occur. So given all of this, what, exactly, are we trusting God to do for us? I do not always know.

I’ve been working on the book I wrote during the year following my father’s death. In one of the vignettes, I talk about my fear of letting my guard down, “certain the slap of a sudden shock” would ambush me the moment I did. It concludes, “These are the aftereffects, the way you become convinced the world is held together by a single string, and you alone are responsible to keep it from fraying.” I can tell you from experience that this is a horrible way to live. But given the state of things, what choice do we have? God may be unchanging—He may be for us and not against us—but this does not change the fact that we live in an unpredictable world.

One of my good friends recently read my book. She was also with me during the week of my father’s death. When she sent me her notes, she told me she still couldn’t believe he died in such a tragic way. She said, “I also can’t help but think that this book wouldn’t have been able to come about, or maybe not as well as it did, if things would have happened differently. Nothing too significant to say about that, except that nothing is wasted when you are a child of God.”

I used to bristle at statements like this, as though suffering was part of a play written by a Divine Sadist, and yeah, okay, maybe He brought some good out of our pain, but wasn’t He perfectly capable of bringing that good without the suffering? But I no longer believe it’s that simple. Another one of my pastors has been saying over and over lately that there is no adequate theodicy that explains how a good God and a relentless evil can coexist. I had never heard that word before, so of course, I looked it up. Theodicy is “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” There is a word just for this. Apparently, I’m not the only one with these questions.

So we can’t, in our human understanding, reconcile God and evil. Be that as it may, we can be assured of something else: that evil does not have the last word, and that every painful experience handed over to God has the potential to have goodness birthed out of it. I believe this with every fiber of my being because I cannot, apart from or outside of Jesus, account for the healing I have experienced, when by all logic I should, by now, be an embittered shell of a sub-human, holed up in the dark and quickening my own demise. I am not full of star shine and glitter. I still have a lot of pain and a lot of questions. But I know whom I have believed, and if He is capable of redeeming even the worst of my earthly suffering, I think He might also be a God worth handing the steering wheel to. He might even be a God worth trusting.

How very little

I have a postcard on my fridge that a friend sent me from France some years ago. On the back, she wrote only this: “Can you believe how very little we still know, about anything?” I look at it every morning. It’s the perfect thought to begin the day with.

Last week, I pulled out the suitcase where I keep my old journals. I read through a handful of entries and thought, This was half my lifetime ago. And also, What a difference sixteen years makes. Most of what I was afraid of in my early life was theoretical: the places I wouldn’t go, the great feats I wouldn’t accomplish, the man I wouldn’t marry. But now, nearly everyone I know (myself included) is gristled with tangible loss—loss of a parent, loss of a partner, loss of a child. How small our theories become in the face of such reality.

I wonder what would happen if I could crawl back through the years and tell my younger self, “Darling, there are griefs in this world beyond your deepest imaginings. Do not waste your time worrying about what hasn’t even happened.” Likely, hearing this, even from my older self, would’ve made no difference. I am of a stubborn stock that has, historically, had to slog through miles of swamp land before I’ve been capable of ingesting any kind of wisdom. I couldn’t hear it if someone else said it. Not until I’d seen it, felt it for myself.

I have been this way even with God. Throughout the years, I have heaped more unfounded theories and senseless fears onto Him than I can count. I have shoved words into His mouth and feigned He was the one speaking them. I have conjured an image of Him that is so far from who and what He actually is that it boggles my inmost being. I have treated Him as a human, just as fallible and, yes, incapable as I and everyone else.

Consequently, I have wasted so much time, trying in hopeless futility to be a thousand people I am not. Trying, in fact, to be god. I have traced back the threads through losses, both tangible and intangible, all the way to those early years when I scribbled in a spiral notebook, and always, I find I was bracing myself against a world I saw as wanting nothing more than to skin me alive. There are a million reasons I can point to for why and how I lived this way, but the most significant one is this: I did not understand God.

I did not understand that to be created is to be known, down to my lightest wish and my heaviest woe. I did not understand that to be born into this world is to matter, and not in the happy/sunny/vapid way we all try to impart to our masses of faceless followers on Instagram. But to actually, truly, inescapably, and at times, inexplicably matter. Through every loss and sickness and setback—through every victory and healing and joy—we matter. And what’s more, we matter to God.

In Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard writes, “The world cannot in fact take everything, simply because it cannot give everything—only God can do that.” I have lost much in my life. Some things were taken from me. Others, I lost by my own volition because I didn’t understand I had a choice not to lose them. Never, not once in all my years of intensive education and stressful jobs and scrambling to clutch and grab at all the things the world told me I had to have—all while trying (and epically failing) to live at the pace at which the world told me I had to live—did I stop and ask Jesus if this was the only option.

When I left my job last year, I wrote out this quote from Oswald Chambers and taped it to my desk: “Jesus says—Go steadily on with what I have told you to do and I will guard your life.” These words, I knew, would be my proverbial lantern on the uncertain path ahead. I stumbled over them many times, dropped them, lost them, set out in the middle of the night with a flashlight to find them again. I am only now, after fourteen months of staring at them, beginning to settle into what they mean.

Until now, I did not understand that the way so much of modern life grated against me was not because I was defective, but because I wasn’t living according to how I was made. I did not understand that the things I’m good at, the things I love and yearn to do, were given to me for a reason and serve an eternal purpose. And yes, the intensive education and stressful jobs and scrambling have all fed into learning how to live like I was made to live. God is redemptive like that. But how hard it is to let go of a lifetime’s worth of habits. How hard it is to let God be God. To let Him, in fact, be everything.

Can you believe how very little we still know, about anything? In I Corinthians, Paul, both a wise and learned man, writes, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” I think he has it right. If we are to know anything at all— fallible and incapable though we may be—this is the place to start: with the God who is infallible and intentional and unfailing, with the Savior who understands what it is to grieve and to lose and to come alive again.

Rest

I am not good at relaxing. While I’m militant about getting eight hours of sleep, I am terrible about allowing myself to rest. Unless I’m on vacation, my hyperactive work ethic insists I am continually thinking, doing, accomplishing—whether that’s writing, juggling a broad smattering of freelance projects, or just fixing meals and keeping my apartment (relatively) clean. Even when I’m on vacation, I tend to choose the “let’s go somewhere we’ve never been and spend two weeks running around all day” ones over the “let’s go to the beach and lie in the sun for fourteen days” kind. Truth be told, lying around loses its luster for me after a day and a half, tops.

I didn’t always have this problem. In grad school, I was, for the first time in my life, in charge of my own schedule, and I chose, as twenty-one-year-olds tend to do, to go to bed at 2:00 a.m. and sleep until 10:00. Healthy, this was not, nor were the hours spent watching Roseanne and Law & Order: SVU whenever I needed a break from the piles of writing and the piles of books. Nor, I would argue, was this exactly “rest.” I was mentally checked out for hours at a time, but I didn’t emerge from those TV binge sessions feeling restored or refreshed. I emerged feeling gross and vaguely self-loathing, which too much screen time tends to do to me.

It wasn’t until I finished school that I began to stuff my schedule to bursting. Once I had to figure out how to shove in writing time around work time, panic started to warp my already ambitious nature into a relentless drive that caught me by the scruff of the neck and told me I better stay committed to this, or I would end up like everybody else who set out to accomplish great creative things, only to watch those things get consumed by laziness. Now, I could be accused of possessing many unflattering traits, but laziness has never been one of them. That didn’t matter, though. Fear became much louder to me—and much more convincing—than truth.

So I hurled myself along for seven years, through various jobs and various quitting of jobs, through seasons of writer’s block and seasons of fervent creativity, through weeks of not having much to do and months of being so overworked I wanted to fall into bed at 7:00 p.m. And then, last summer, I left the job I’d had for over three years—the job I loved the most, the job that stressed me out the most, the job that morphed my feelings towards it more times than I could count, and perhaps most significantly, the job that compressed my schedule more tightly than anything had up to this point.

When I quit that job, I began, out of nothing short of necessity, to slow down. I stopped setting an alarm. I took forever to get ready. I lingered in the shower until the hot water ran out. I read books. I wrote a million essays. I slept. It took me about six months before I felt ready to work again, and it took me another six months to figure out the best arrangement of tasks in any given day that let me accomplish all I needed to accomplish with integrity and (a relative amount of) sanity. But even after all that time, I was still leaving church on Sunday with a panicked feeling in my gut—the “I have to get home and write and cook and fold laundry and and and” mental spinning I fell prey to every weekend when I was still at my job. Even though, now, the cooking and the laundry would already be done, my mind would still find things for me to do.

Which brings me back to the idea of rest. This year, I’ve read books by two powerhouse female theologians: Smoke on the Mountain by Joy Davidman and The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson. Though masterful in many ways, both include passages on the necessity of Sabbath, that ancient biblical practice of taking one day out of the week to do what I and, let’s be honest, what most of us are terrible at: rest. Not just getting eight hours’ worth of slumbering reprieve from the grind of existence. Not binge-watching three seasons of Orange Is the New Black. But genuine, honest-to-goodness, peace-be-still rest. Something even God took time for after He created the universe, but which we, as mortals, seem to think we can afford to brush aside.

In an essay called “Decline,” Robinson writes, “The Sabbath has a way of doing just what it was meant to do, sheltering one day in seven from the demands of economics. Its benefits cannot be commercialized. Leisure, by way of contrast, is highly commercialized. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress. Sabbath is a way of life.” When I first read that, it stopped me. Robinson exposed an idea I’d been circling around but hadn’t yet put into words: the reason rest was so difficult for me was not because I didn’t need it, but because unlike every other aspect of my life, I could not directly tie it to a subsequent achievement.

Try though I might, I am, as we all are, a product of my upbringing and education: I was bred to accomplish. I was, from a young age, instilled with the notion that my place in this world was only as good as what I had to show for it. When I was in school, this was straight As. When I became an adult, it got murky, especially since I’ve never been anywhere near wealthy and will likely, short of a divine miracle, never be. So instead, I’ve proven my worth by being as hyper-vigilant as possible to keep my life running as swiftly as a German train station. The only problem with that is I am not a German train station. I’m a human being, and despite what this world and my own insecurities have long drilled into my head, I need to ease up, not just for my health and well-being, but also for my faith.

Davidman titles her chapter on the Sabbath as “Day of Rejoicing.” She discusses how the concept of a day of rest has been warped throughout history—how we, as humans tend to do, have distorted God’s original command into a law of drudgery and artificial holiness. But holiness, as Scripture defines it, is something quite different from the way our culture tosses the word around. “How do you make a day holy?” Davidman writes. “By stopping work—that is, by stopping all the pursuits we engage in for necessity not for pleasure, all our struggles with the world conceived as an enemy that is trying to starve us to death. By looking at that world and seeing that it is good. By entering into all its good and friendly and loving activities, and rejoicing in them. And, above all, by looking beyond the world to the Love that sustains it.”

Now here’s an interesting turn of events: could it be that engaging in deliberate rest is a way of honoring God? It would seem so, and it would also seem that refusing this rest—digging in our heels and insisting, no, really, we have to do x, y, and z before we can relax—is taking trust and gratitude away from Him. One of my favorite Old Testament passages is a conversation between God and Moses. When Moses asked God to show him His ways, that he might know Him and continue to please Him, God replied, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” I remember the first time those words struck me, and years later, they are still sinking in: God is most pleased when we believe that He is with us and when we allow Him to bring us rest.

A few Sundays ago, I came home from church, and as usual, I had a list of things to do. But instead, in the middle of the afternoon, I sat down and watched a movie I’d really been wanting to see. To me, this felt so delicious, my hyperactive nature was certain it bordered on sin. But it was wonderful, and when the movie was over, I got up and made dinner, and my week was no less the worse for those two hours I took a break. In fact, shock of shocks, it was better. I didn’t go overboard. I didn’t spend the whole day drooling in front of the television. I mindfully chose something that would give me pleasure, that would, as far as I could see, accomplish nothing, but that, somewhere within me, I knew I needed.

I tend to be tired on Sundays. Even now, when the week is nowhere near as clogged as it was a year ago, I still get weary. Life is hard in every season, and I have to continually remind myself of the necessity of rest. This afternoon, I crawled into bed at 3:00 p.m. I am constitutionally incapable of napping, but I dreamily chatted with Jesus, thanking Him for the soft bedspread, the fan, the silence, the hazy afternoon light pouring in through the skylights, the beautiful apartment I am grateful for every day I wake up in it. And after an hour and a half, I got up, ate a cookie, grabbed my laptop, climbed back into bed, and wrote this post. Rest means something different for everyone, but at its core, I think Davidman’s words ring true: “For how do you make a day holy? By seeing that it is holy already; and behaving accordingly.”

Home

I’ve been in love with German ever since I learned the word weltschmerz. Its literal translation is “world-pain,” the depression that arises when the realities of existence don’t line up with the ideals in your head. I talk about this word in the opening chapter of my memoir, how when I discovered it, some gear inside me clicked into place, and I thought, Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying my whole life to explain.

My weltschmerz has lessened considerably since I’ve grown closer to Jesus. I understand now that this world, in its present state, cannot satisfy the longings that gong deep and low in my soul, and the only way to find fulfillment is to hand my whole self over to God. Only when I stopped expecting writing to save me did I experience freedom in it. Only when I started asking Jesus to show me who and how to be did my desperate and ultimately futile attempts to claw out a cure for weltschmerz subside.

The second German word that caught my eye, I discovered in Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God (arguably my favorite novel). The narrator’s mother, who’s spent her adult life in New York, talks of how she longs for the Germany of her youth, overturned and wholly unrecognizable after the war. To describe this longing, she uses the word heimweh. “‘Another word you have no English for.’ Homesickness? ‘Yes, but more than that.’ Nostalgia? ‘Stronger than that.'”

Google Translate offers three English words for heimweh: homesickness, longing, nostalgia. But what I know of German is the same thing the mother of Nunez’s narrator knows: more than that, stronger than that. Like weltschmerz, it, too, is a compound word. Heim means “home.” Weh means “sore, ache, woe.” More than homesickness, stronger than nostalgia, heimweh is a visceral, whole-person yearning for the place of one’s belonging. For home.

Just as I did with weltschmerz, I’ve spent my cognitive life bearing the weight of heimweh, only my longing isn’t associated with the place where I grew up. Every time I approach Southern California by plane, I look down on it and think, Crowded, cluttered, cloying. Not mine. I experienced this the first time I came back from college, leaving behind the multicolored trees of a New England fall, descending upon a place that looked the same as when I’d left it that summer. Thirteen years later, my reaction is also the same.

So when I talk of heimweh, I don’t mean what most people do. I have never felt “at home” in my hometown. As soon as I was old enough to realize there were other places to go, I dug my roots out of that arid soil and held them to my chest until I could move them somewhere else. For a while, I set them down in Boston, and though I loved it there, they didn’t take. I dug them back up and returned to California, before I hightailed it up to Portland, Oregon, where I’ve lived ever since.

That was eight years ago, and throughout those years, I’ve had various debates with myself (for various reasons) about whether or not the Northwest is, in fact, my home—is the satisfaction of my heimweh, such as any place on this earth can be. For heimweh is like weltschmerz in that, ultimately, the answer to its keening lies in God. He is our home, our belonging, our peace, and our rest. But though I know now that home is more than where I lay my head, the “where” still makes a considerable difference.

My time in Portland has been challenging (again, for various reasons), but whenever I look out the window and see the swells of this good, green city, all I can think is, Home. So why do I hesitate when people ask me if I’ll stay? I could give any number of answers: Because I never thought I’d find a place I loved, and now that I have, I don’t know quite what to do. Because Portland is changing so much, and I don’t know if I’ll still love it in two years, ten, twenty. Because though I don’t know where else I would go, sometimes, I’m not sure I have a reason to stay.

I live alone in a studio apartment. I work from home. I have no pets, but I do have friends, and we see each other from time to time, though we’re all busy, burdened, running this way and that. My existence is, by and large, a solitary one. Four years ago, when I said goodbye to my last roommate and got a place of my own, one of my first thoughts upon moving was, Who will find me if I die? But beating like a heart beneath this question was and still is a larger one: Who will notice if I live?

At the end of her meditation on her mother, Nunez’s narrator says, “I think I know what Heimweh means.” I think I’m also beginning to understand. What I long for is not just the “where” but the “who”—the person (or people) to make a home with. What I want is the collision of matter and meaning: marriage (and motherhood, should that come with it). What I yearn for is a reason to feel tethered to this earth, to spread my roots into the good soil God has brought me to and grow, until Jesus calls me home.

The latest winter

I live 500 feet above sea level. It’s not much, but it’s enough that, when it snows, I’m trapped, even if the rest of the city is not. While others may be free to come and go from their homes without fear of careening down a driveway-turned-bobsled-track, I also know, whatever the weather is doing, I’m witnessing the worst of it. This leaves me in a curious position of both disadvantage and advantage. I believe the same can be said of grief.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of my father. In every dream, I know he’s dead (this has been the case ever since he passed, with the exception of a few instances right after his death), and in every dream, he’s fixing something or giving me advice on some practical matter—doing the things he did in real life. But now, when he appears, I’ve begun to relax, and I tell myself, “It’s okay. He’ll come back for the important things.” Exactly that phrase, every time: He’ll come back for the important things.

A friend once told me, following a break-up, “Grief is not a linear process.” I’ve said that to myself and many others countless times since. Grief is an Etch A Sketch in the hands of a toddler. Its lines run helter-skelter in every direction, making it impossible to locate the epicenter of pain. Am I upset because my father died thirty-two months ago? Or because I just said goodbye to someone I love? Or because, five years after the fact, I’ve finally deleted the emails I’d held onto from my last relationship?

Yes.

People leave our lives for a thousand different reasons, and I am not convinced one way is easier to bear than another. Whether by death, by choice, by necessity, or by slow and neglectful fade, losing someone still amounts to coping with loss. It still means facing the hole he’s left in your days, turning each morning to a heart-spot he alone filled and feeling it pulse with emptiness. To me, it means returning to these lines from Deborah A. Miranda’s “Advice from La Llorana”: “Lean into the pain. / You can’t outrun it.”

My father is not coming back for the important things, and yet, I kept his number in my phone for over a year after his death. Holding onto emails from a relationship long-departed has done me no good, except that taking so long to get rid of them made me realize something: I have learned to be gentle with grief. When I dragged those emails into the trash, there was no internal chastisement, no I can’t believe you’ve kept these for half a decade. There was only acceptance that, until now, it had not felt okay to let them go.

It’s late winter and snowing for the first time this season. Two weeks ago, I was running in leggings, and now I’m stuck in the house, doing interval workouts around a small rectangle of carpet. I gave up believing the forecast after last year’s sudden storm, when the predicted four inches of powder morphed into a foot and a half. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor, but I’m going to use it anyway: we never know what’s coming. We can be going along fine one day, and the next, we’re hit by a shock of cold we thought had already passed.

I’ve lived in this part of Portland for four years now. I know the drill: when the snow falls, you turn up the heat and burrow under a blanket, and you wait, knowing it will eventually subside. I have learned to treat grief much the same. So when my heart breaks again, I turn down the lights and crawl into bed. I get quiet, and I cry, and I listen to the same handful of songs on a loop. I let my mind cast about in all the directions it needs to. I let it ask the questions I know will have no answers, then I take it by the hand and say, “Enough now,” and I sleep, and tomorrow, I begin again.

In “The Latest Winter,” Maggie Nelson writes, “Suddenly I get it / You can suffer happiness too, for what it’s worth / You can handle yourself gently.” The magnificent and maddening thing about humans is we’re veritable kaleidoscopes of emotions. Gordi’s cover of “Avant Gardener” may have me flat out on the floor in one moment, but that ridiculous guide to dog breeds on Bored Panda will still be funny when I take the bait and click it. Grief is not a linear process, but nor does it always hold an emotional monopoly. I have learned that this, too, is okay.

Grief is the house in the hills. Things look worse up here, but that’s why it’s important to remember there is life down below—why it’s important to occasionally climb down, be that for a phone call with a friend or a silly article on the internet. It’s important to be honest, and in the times you’re one big heart bruise, to treat yourself accordingly. But it’s equally important to remember that the God of Psalm 107 is also the God of the swells in your soul: “He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.” He walks with us even in our deepest aches, and He will mend us, by and by.

The art of disappearing

A number of years ago, I stayed in a monastery high atop the mountains of Big Sur. There was no internet, no cell reception, and no talking allowed anywhere on the grounds, except the bookstore that also served as the check-in area. I showed up late one afternoon, exhausted and bedraggled, with nerves as frayed as the bristles of a six-month-old toothbrush, after having driven miles of coastal highway that whipped around the mountains and provided no guard rail to keep me from plummeting into the ocean below. I stepped out of the car and onto the dirt. Lilacs spilled over the roof of the bookstore, and the sound of bees buzzing in and out of them was the loudest thing I heard. I held my breath. The silence vibrated.

After I checked in, I went into the kitchen and discovered that, whatever the communal meal had consisted of that evening, all that remained were thick slices of ham. I ate a bowl of granola, then set out on a walk. I hoofed it as far down the mountain as seemed wise in the coming dark, then climbed back up and wound around the cabins on the property. I moved quickly, absent-mindedly, because that is what I do when I am seconds away from coming undone, as though my body’s speed can outdistance whatever psychological trauma is readying to rip its way into my heart and head. I’m sure I cried that night, back in my room, though I don’t explicitly remember this. What I remember is the next day, and the day after that, feeling as I had never felt before, how profoundly tired I was.

It is no great revelation to say modern life offers a landfill’s worth of distraction. This may be getting worse by the generation, but I’ve read enough literature from different time periods to know every age has its opium. Human beings have long been masters at numbing ourselves to the reality around us. In our lifetime, numbing takes the form of full-on immersion—with technology that makes it nearly impossible to not be distracted—and while we are the most informed generation in mankind’s history, I would still argue our immersion is a form of numbing. Because we are enveloped by something other than what is physically in the space we inhabit.

In Big Sur, I was able to feel—in fact, could not escape from feeling—how utterly exhausted I had become because there was nothing around to deaden me to this reality. Sure, I could walk, but I would tire eventually. I could read or write, but these required brain space, which I did not have, as well as a kind of immersion that is the exact opposite of what technology swallows us in. I couldn’t bounce around on Facebook. I couldn’t text my friends. I couldn’t even strike up a conversation with the stranger next door, though anyone who knows me also knows how unlikely I would’ve been to do this, even if I could have. Yet you’d be surprised what I or anyone might do in that environment. You’d be surprised how fierce true solitude can be.

So what did I do during my stay? Aside from wandering around the grounds, I slept. A lot. I went to bed before the sunset, and while this was during the summer, that’s still saying something. When it was time to check out, I loaded up my car before the fog had lifted and sped down the mountain as quickly as safety precautions allowed me. The implications of how I behaved on that trip wouldn’t settle into me until years later. At the time, I remember thinking I would never go back. Despite how good it had felt to get some much-needed rest, the loneliness was too immense. This surprised me because I had always been an introvert, prone to spending inordinate amounts of time alone. But there is a big difference between being alone and being in solitude, as I had been on that mountain.

Fast-forward four years, when I quit my agency job. One of the first things I did was turn off the sound on all my devices. While many things seemed critical at that particular juncture, regaining my attention span was high up on the list. So was sleep. I had not, in all honesty, felt truly rested since my father had died two years before. For a while, I kept up the habit of waking at a “reasonable” time, spending a full day doing freelance work and looking for other gigs. But soon, these things began to slip away, as though God was gently pulling all the busyness from my hands and saying, You need to rest. While I have always been adamant about health and sleep, I have never been a champ at relaxing. But much as they had been on that day I showed up at the monastery, my nerves were shot to hell. My frantic life had electrocuted my beautiful soul.

So I gave in. I took the inheritance money my mother had given my brother and me after our grandma’s recent death, and I did what few people in this era could fathom doing: I stayed home, and I wrote. Six days a week, for nearly two months, I sat down at my desk, and as of last Thursday, I have a draft of a new book, along with two dozen other essays. I also read. I put a pile of books by my bedside and a pile by my chair, and I told myself I would finish them all by the end of the year. I reconnected with friends in meaningful ways and remembered how much I loved to cook and bake, and I went for runs at lunchtime and, for the first time in years, could go for more than three miles, my body no longer strangled by stress. And I prayed. So much, I prayed, and the more I did, the more I pushed my phone out of reach, the more I asked myself, Is what you’re looking at right now really that important? And nine times out of ten, it was not. So I stopped.

Naomi Shihab Nye has a poem I love called “The Art of Disappearing.” My favorite section goes like this:

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

What I didn’t realize during my stay at the monastery, and what I have begun to understand now, is this: I am trying to remember something too important to forget. I am trying to silence the cacophonous chatter of the world, not because I don’t want to be informed or involved, but because letting distraction bleed into my soul deadens it to the still, small voice. The voice that, for years, had been trying to tell me something. That I was tired. That I was spent. That I needed to stop. The luxury of being at home all day and writing will soon, out of necessity, come to an end. But I intend to fight to keep this, not new, but remembered awareness. I intend to maintain the space to uncover what my new book will turn out to be. I intend to hold onto the art of disappearing, and if necessary, do as Nye instructs: “When someone recognizes you in a grocery store / nod briefly and become a cabbage.”

Contradictions

I hate putting things away. When I was a toddler, my mother let me entertain myself by emptying the kitchen cupboard where she stored canned goods. I’d pull everything out onto the floor, crawl inside the cupboard, and lose interest (I’m guessing) in approximately seven seconds. As I walked away, my mom would ask, “Can you put the cans back?” “No,” I’d say, and keep walking. She’d let me go, and I often joke with her this is why I became an adult who would rather spend an hour washing dirty dishes than ten minutes returning clean ones to their shelves.

But paradoxically, I also get edgy when things are not in their proper places. I’ve made co-workers move boxes out of my line of vision, will spend ten minutes arranging my desk chair after vacuuming, and once got down on my hands and knees to pick up dozens of ping pong balls from my boss’s office after he’d been pranked, and no one but me was at all distracted from their work due to the plastic chaos strewn throughout the room beside us.

I have always been an embodiment of contradictions, and this is just one area where that quality rears its well-groomed but frizzy head. Another is in my work life. In my years of project management, I was labeled things like analytical. Technical. Left-brained. The non-creative part of the team. I often had to remind others (and myself) that this wasn’t entirely true. I was also imaginative. Idea-laden. Right-brained. Creative (a writer, for heaven’s sake!). But if you do one thing for long enough, people drop you into a box, and they’re not typically inclined to listen when you try to argue your way out.

Three weeks ago, I bid farewell to my agency job, where I’d worked for over three years. It was the longest I’d stayed at any one company and the first time I took an honest-to-God day job with health insurance and PTO and all those other grown-up things. It was also the first time I’d found a group of people with whom I genuinely belonged. Leaving was an unbearably difficult but necessary decision. I didn’t quit out of despair or desperation. I quit because God told me to go.

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers writes, “If you are going to be used by God, He will take you through a multitude of experiences that are not meant for you at all, they are meant to make you useful in His hands… Oh, I can’t deal with that person. Why not? God gave you ample opportunity to soak before Him on that line, and you barged off because it seemed stupid to spend time in that way.” This passage played on a loop in my head for the better part of a year because, for most of that time, I wanted to quit my job. I loved my team, but the work bled me lifeless, and yet, I stayed because I was convicted that it was where God needed me to be.

Whenever people asked if I liked my job, I didn’t know what to tell them, mostly because I wanted to say, “You’re asking the wrong question.” Don’t ask me if I like my job. Ask me if I’m where God has placed me. Ask me if He gives me daily insights into why He calls me to remain. Ask me if I love the people I work with more than I ever thought I could love a community. Ask me if, in spite of daily if not hourly failures, I still feel myself becoming more and more the person God would have me be. If you had asked me these questions, you would have gotten a “yes” to every single one.

That fact did not change when I decided to leave. What changed was God’s instruction. One day, a series of events began unfolding, and soon after, His message went from “stay” to “run.” And so, I ran. I hemmed and hawed and discussed and paused and cried and clawed the walls of my left-brained box, but ultimately, I ran because I have learned the hard way what happens when I don’t listen to God. Because I know by now that my life is not my own, but His, and just as it is good and right to endure suffering when He asks this of us, it is equally good and right to take His hand when He comes to lift us out of our predicament.

In so many ways, that job did not make a lick of sense for someone as idealistic, creative, controlling, and consistency-craving as I am. I get too drained, need too much space and quiet, and spend too much time thinking about Rilke and Lewis to be engulfed in a world that, no matter how I tried, I could never fully embrace. But I was also good at that job. I have a shockingly receptive memory, alarming attention to detail, a deep-seated desire to help whoever needs it, and the ability to keep more thoughts in my head and more balls in the air than seems humanly possible.

I believe our gifts are given to us by God, which can only mean, in some strange way, that so are our faults. Or maybe, God permits our faults, so He can teach us to work through them and ultimately overcome them. I am better in a thousand ways for having had that job. I would never go back—would never have chosen it in the first place, but I needed it. I may never be purely analytical, but now I know I’m capable of grasping technical complexities and working under far greater strain than I ever thought possible. Now I know where the canned goods belong and that I am, indeed, able to put them there, even if I’d rather be the one scattering them across the floor.

On being a mountain goat

My co-workers like to joke that I’m the resident witch doctor. If you have an illness, injury, or other physical ailment, I probably have a remedy for you. I may even have it in my purse. But my ability to offer solutions extends beyond bodily care. If you’re looking for something, I likely know where to find it. If you’ve broken something, I’m often the first to say, “Give it to me. I’ll fix it.” My father was this person, my mother the one who had whatever we might need during the course of a day’s outing (again, probably in her purse). This practical upbringing managed to stick amidst all my ambitious wanderings. So while it’s no secret among those who know me that I’m greatly annoyed by the minutiae of daily life—I would rather run three miles than spend three minutes sweeping my deck—I can banish colds, unclog sinks, and locate the nearest vegan restaurant with the best of them.

So, there’s self-sufficient, and then there’s me. I once heard a fellow Capricorn explain why a goat was the perfect symbol for us: “A Capricorn could be climbing a mountain in the heat of the day,” she said, ” exhausted, sweating, dehydrated, and a group of people could drive up in an SUV packed with food, water, and air conditioning and say, ‘Hey, would you like a ride?’ And the Capricorn would wave them off and say, ‘No, thanks. I’m good,’ and keep climbing.” This rings entirely too true for me. Like most toddlers, one of the first things I learned to say was, “Me do it myself.” I don’t know at what age that mentality typically burns out of a person, but it never left me (though fortunately, I did acquire better grammar). I have been a fearsome, determined, strong-willed creature from the moment I refused to participate in “tummy time” in Gymboree class.

I don’t believe that needing others is a sign of weakness. But I like to help people, and I don’t like to bother them, and the best way to achieve both of these goals is to be able to know and do as much as possible on my own. The only person I’ve ever habitually relied on was my father, and while what he supplied me with was entirely pragmatic and left something to be desired in other arenas of life, it filled what I discovered upon his death to be a massive void. I had no idea who, if anyone else in my life had knowledge of things like banking, car maintenance, health insurance, ant trapping, pipe clearing, appliance purchasing, super gluing, tax filing, and the list goes on and on. Why should I have? He was always in the next room, or if not, just a phone call away, ready and waiting to dispense advice, whether I asked for it or not.

But because I had been brought up beneath the sturdy wing of this eminently practical man—and because I am in possession of his same willful temperament—I was not very worried about how to plug the gaps in my knowledge. I didn’t want to, and for a long while, I resisted learning—not because I couldn’t, but because I wanted him, and making a decision to switch health insurance plans or to get my brake pads replaced without consulting him felt like betrayal. Like I wasn’t letting him do the only thing he ever wanted to do, the only thing—I am becoming increasingly convinced—that allowed him to demonstrate how much he loved me. I remember, when he was in the hospital and the prospect of waking from his coma with brain damage seemed more likely than not, how each of us recoiled at the thought. If he woke unable to care for us, it would be better if he didn’t wake at all. For him, it would’ve been a fate worse than death, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind it would’ve killed him just the same.

The other morning, I reread C.S. Lewis’s introduction to The Four Loves, in which he begins to open up the differences between what he calls Need-love and Gift-love. How we tend, at first, to think of the former as bad and the latter as good, but how, upon inspection, it becomes far more complex than that. “No one calls a child selfish because it turns for comfort to its mother; nor an adult who turns to his fellow ‘for company,'” he writes. He goes on to show how God Himself “addresses our Need-love: ‘Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy-laden,’ or, in the Old Testament, ‘Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.'” I told someone the other day that I have an innate need to help the people I care about, that I am happiest when I’ve discovered what will make someone feel better, happier still when it’s something I am capable of doing. And as I’ve said already, I can do much.

Where I don’t excel, however, is letting people do things for me. I’m the goat stubbornly huffing up the mountain, the woman pumping her own tires full of air or hauling a fifty-pound suitcase up nine flights of stairs. I take pride in being this woman, and I have no intention of flopping down on a chaise lounge, waiting for someone else to clear the cobwebs from my vaulted ceilings (though, man, that would be nice). But lately, I’ve been considering the fact that, just as it was for my father—and let’s face it, just as it is for me—helping people might be how others demonstrate their love, too, and by refusing to let them, I am stifling that expression. Giving love is only half of the equation. It also has to be received. The Need-love and the Gift-love are incomplete without each other, or to look at it another way, they are made for each other.

In that same introduction, Lewis writes, “Our whole being by its very nature is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty yet cluttered, crying out for Him who can untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose.” I believe there are rifts in our beings that only God can fill, and while there is always the danger of placing human loves too high in the hierarchy of our devotion, I also believe one of the ways God mends us is through the love of others. I’ve always liked what Jesus says in John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Am I so proud that I can let Christ love someone through me, but not the other way around? Those of us who excel at climbing mountains might never accept the ride to the top, but we might do well to accept the food and water, or even to let someone else climb alongside us.

All the minor chords

A few weeks after my father died, I received a letter from a friend. We wrote back and forth about injustice and pain, and in her last note, she said, “What is this world? If anyone can make beautiful sense out of strangeness and sadness, it’s you, but I completely understand if you wouldn’t want to.” I did not then have the strength to say this, but “want” has little to do with it. I’ve always felt an irrepressible need to find the through-line in the chaos. To make sense of the world around me, even and perhaps especially when there is no sense to be found.

I was introduced to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by the first man I ever loved. Well, Jeff Buckley’s version of the song. I’ve never had much of an ear for Cohen himself, but this song hits me in a way that nothing else does. When I’m despondent, when I’m conflicted, when I’m straining to uncover all that I don’t know how to explain, I put on some version of this song and listen to it over and over again: “The baffled king composing hallelujah.” My draw to it has become a kind of litmus test for the state of my psychological clarity. I have listened to it a lot over these past two years.

Two years. That’s what everyone kept saying when my father died: “Don’t make any big decisions for two years.” In three and a half months, it will have been that long, and I suppose that means I and the rest of my family will then be qualified to make big decisions once again. Except life must not have received that same memo because each of us has had to make many rather large decisions in these past years, qualified or not, and while the sting of the grief no longer cuts as an ice water shock to the lungs, it lingers. I do not see how it could ever stop coloring our perspective.

I remember having dinner with another friend a handful of months after my father’s death. I asked her how different I’d become, and she said, “You’re still you. But there’s a gravity to you now.” Even before losing my father, I’d never been particularly light-hearted, and though my relationship with him left much to be desired, his existence provided mine with a certain stability I did not fully comprehend until he was gone. To explain what it’s been like, I can only say this: My father died, and everything I understood about the world went with him.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle writes of the artist as “someone who is full of questions.” She says, “Along with Plato’s divine madness there is also divine discontent, a longing to find the melody in the discords of chaos.” In these past years, I have dug ruts down miles of worn roads, working my hands until they’re bloody and bruised, in the hope of unearthing what’s been long-buried—the thing that, when brought to light, will label all the unnamed markers and set me back on a straightened path. It is my “divine discontent,” my need to “make beautiful sense out of strangeness and sadness.”

But lately, all my digging has been for naught. I have stood in the dirt with my shovel for some time now, feeling a mounting awareness of “wrong.” Whatever I used to do—however I used to seek the answers—isn’t working anymore. And if I read further in that chapter of L’Engle’s, I come upon this: “It is not that what is is not enough, for it is; it is that what is has been disarranged, and is crying out to be put in place.” Uncovering what lies beneath the mire is quite different from being handed a pile of bricks and being told to rebuild the road. But the more I think about it, the more I realize this is exactly what I’m being told to do.

If you read the Psalms (or really, the entire Bible) enough times, you can’t help but notice the tension between hope and despair: the writers’ unflinching awareness of just how bad things are, running right alongside an equally strong assurance that their God has not forsaken them. “From the ends of the earth I call to you,” David writes. “I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” It is this same David who Cohen sings of in his “Hallelujah.” The baffled king. The man with faith, who needed proof. The one who cried a cold and broken hallelujah—but a hallelujah, nonetheless.

It seems to me that there’s a pattern here: looking up. Not in the trite sense of “a shift in perspective changes everything,” but in the very real sense that, if you strive to see how all of this must look to God, your vision, too, must alter. Your actions must also change. L’Engle concludes the chapter with this: “Perhaps the artist longs to sleep well every night, to eat anything without indigestion; to feel no moral qualms…But the artist cannot manage this normalcy. Vision keeps breaking through, and must find means of expression.” I do not think I’ll ever find that world I lived in before my father’s death, but perhaps I can assemble all the discordant notes and compose a hallelujah just the same.

We’re going to drown

I have something I like to call a “crystal ball complex.” Whenever a new situation presents itself, I have to stop myself from declaring how it’ll likely all turn out. It’s not that I believe I can foresee the future. It’s that, for some time now, I’ve been a “worst case scenario” kind of girl. In many ways, I am idealistic beyond reason. I know what I want, and I will settle for nothing less. But on my journey to unearth and acquire those desires, I hoard self-protective contingency plans up the wazoo. No march into battle will begin until I have at least a dozen escape routes tucked inside my brain.

I wasn’t always like this. I grew up with no concept of “plan B,” and sure, my “plan A” left a lot to be desired. But it was mine. I was going to see it through, and nothing and no one could deter me. Shortly after the end of grad school, though, life—as it often does—began to kick me in the face, and to be perfectly honest, it hasn’t stopped since. Something happens to a person after years of looking for the next proverbial bullet to be shot into her chest: she grows a shield of caution and piles her plans behind it. She becomes hesitant and quiet and wary. She gets predictive.

And thus, a line of logic forms: if I can think of all the ways this might go wrong, I won’t be taken by surprise when it does. It’s the unknown that’s most alarming. Not so much the pain that follows—which must be endured slow and sick over time—but the sudden shock of the earth falling out from underneath you. The “ha ha, just kidding, this isn’t really a road.” You’re not getting married. You’re not getting published. You won’t make it to the end of your twenties before you lose your father. Drag yourself through enough things like that, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to start creeping around every corner, watching for whatever you might lose next.

A few weeks ago, as I was praying, I thought of the story in the Gospels when Jesus and the disciples sail across a lake, and a wild storm kicks up while Jesus is asleep. The waves begin crashing into the boat, and the disciples run to Jesus to wake him and say, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown.” Any time I’ve heard a sermon on this story, the focus is always on what comes after, when Jesus rebukes the wind and waves, and all grows calm. In Matthew, He says to His disciples, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Or in Luke, “Where is your faith?” The story is treated as a condemnation of doubt. But I don’t believe Jesus meant these words the way we so often read them.

I keep thinking about the disciples’ declaration: “We’re going to drown.” It’s important to note who these men are. This isn’t their first time out at sea. Many of them have been fishermen their whole lives. They know what a storm means. They know what will happen when a boat takes on water. “We’re going to drown” is not, on the surface, a statement of doubt in God’s power. It is the logical conclusion based on everything they’ve experienced as fishermen thus far. Their prediction isn’t wrong, or it wouldn’t be in any instance prior. But what they do not yet understand is that everything is different now that Jesus is in the boat.

I’ve always resented simplistic statements like “just believe, and it’ll all be okay.” I resent them even more as I grow older and see how often things turn out to be not “okay.” I continue to struggle with the concept of hope, of trying to figure out how to pray for something to happen when I know full well that it may not. The rain can keep coming. The boat may tip over. My lungs might fill with water. How do I know? Because they have. But what I am challenging myself to consider lately is the same thing I believe Jesus was challenging His disciples to consider when He put a stop to the storm: why are you so afraid, and where is your faith?

I am afraid because I’ve seen all the ways it’s possible for things to go wrong, but has God not carried me down every one of those dark and thorny roads? He has, so where is my faith? If tragedy, time and again, has lit up my world like lightning, and still, my God has not forsaken me, I don’t have the right to declare, “I’m going to drown.” Not because I am guaranteed to live, but because the moment Jesus stepped into my boat, the plotline changed. Things became possible that had never been before, and my thread of logic must now make room for the God of the universe—the God who loves me—to intervene, however He may choose.

When Jesus asks His disciples, “Where is your faith?” He isn’t asking them to believe their lives will be without suffering. In many instances, He declares the exact opposite. In Matthew 10:16, He says, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” I think that second part is the key. Innocent as doves. We weathered sailors know how to be shrewd as snakes, to wind our way through this roughened world, to burrow in the ground and wait for danger to pass over. Where we struggle is with innocence. With leaving room for miracles. With entertaining the possibility that we do not know everything. This is where God challenges us—simply to allow the belief that the conclusion isn’t foregone.