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, and though it bore some similarities, it was not at all like that other time I upped and quit a job. 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.

I have a question

A few weeks ago, my pastor shared this story: in the early 1900s, a British newspaper posed the question, “What is wrong with the world?” Well-known author and theologian G.K. Chesterton reputedly replied, “Dear Sirs: I am.” In The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller writes of Chesterton’s response, “That is the attitude of someone who has grasped the message of Jesus.”

I think it’s all too easy to turn our focus outward, to pinpoint one person or organization or movement as the cause of the greatest evil. No doubt certain people and organizations and movements behave with more apparent evil than others. No doubt we are right in feeling disgusted and disturbed when “the bad guys” gain the upper hand. But I cannot help but reflect on what Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the Church, you are no doubt familiar with the stories of Jesus casting out demons. One of the most interesting, in my mind, is a tale related in Mark of a demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs, ostracized from society because “no one was strong enough to subdue him.” When Jesus meets this man, He asks his name, and the man chillingly replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

C.S. Lewis appropriates this story in Surprised by Joy, which is the autobiography of his early life as an atheist and subsequent conversion to Christianity. When he comes to the brink of accepting what the Gospel declares about fallen humanity and Jesus’s salvation, he writes, “For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”

The closer I get to Christ, the more I’m made aware of how broken I truly am, how short I fall of the glory of God. Becoming a Christian is like being a peeled onion: just when you’ve let God rid you of one layer of hatred and loathing, another one with even thicker skin is uncovered. I know more of who and what I am now than before I knew Jesus, and consequently, I know more of humanity at large. I think this is why I am rarely surprised when the world is unfair, when bad things occur, when evil—though it will not win the war—sometimes wins the battles.

As far as I can see it, the worst thing mankind ever did was crucify our Savior, and God worked that evil out to become our highest good. Nothing else we do as individuals or a society will ever compare, which means there is no earthly situation that lies beyond redemption. It also means that all of us, every one, have blood on our hands. And if the Son of God could say of those who were in the midst of nailing Him to the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” then we are without excuse for the ways we so terrorize and refuse to forgive one another.

I know many people who find the Bible’s teachings about loving one’s enemies hard to swallow. But it’s important for us to remember that Jesus and the early Christians lived in a time of political tyranny so immense that it penetrated every sector of their lives. There were no such things as protests. If you disobeyed, even disagreed, you died. Without trial, without question. There are many parts of the world where this is still the case, even parts of our own country that are tipping towards this reality. To me, this seems like all the more reason to do as Jesus instructed.

In Romans 12:20, Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Paul concludes the chapter with this: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” One thing that has always stood out to me about Jesus is His unwillingness to pay heed to people who are cemented in the safety of their myopic points of view, how instead He stoops to those who are broken, unwanted, unloved—for those are the people who know how deeply they need a Savior.

What is wrong with the world today? Dear friends, I am. And it is one of many reasons I strive to live with compassion towards my fellow humans, regardless of what it is they have to say. Regardless of whether or not I agree. I recognize my own part in sin’s terrible story, and it is why I cling to the hope of redemption that only Christ offers. In Him, we are made new, and so I begin each morning with the prayer of The Imitation of Christ: et da mihi nunc hodie perfecte incipere, quia nihil est, quod hactenus feci. Grant me today to make an unflawed beginning, for I have done nothing yet.

Civil disobedience

I’ve always been something of a paradox. Case in point: I was an extremely well-behaved child, but if I was forced in a direction that made me unhappy, everybody knew about it. This dualistic disposition was carried into my teen years and on into adulthood. I have a deep-seated need to please authority and have always tended towards asking for permission beforehand rather than forgiveness after the fact. At the same time, though, I am fierce and defiant, and if anyone tries to push me down a road I know is wrong, I will dig in my heels and shout—loud enough for everyone within miles to hear—“No.”

People don’t like that. Authority figures find it annoying and inconvenient because (and I understand their point-of-view) fighters like me make their lives much more challenging. But peers have a hard time with my defiance, too. Because I’m loud and willing to verbalize what’s grating against me, I get out of things they don’t know how to extricate themselves from, and without realizing it or not, they resent the fact that I won’t just flop into the river like a dead fish and let myself get pushed along with the current. I look at all of these people with a strange sort of sympathy, and all I want to ask is, “Didn’t anyone ever teach you that you’re allowed to say ‘no’?”

I will admit that the way I go about this civil disobedience could use some moderation. I often lash out much more loudly and much sooner than most situations warrant, and I’m working on tempering this immediate assumption that everyone is out to get me. But I only react this way because I’ve spent my life being shoved into a box where I do not belong. I learned early that I was different, and because I’ve always had a strong sense of intuition, I also learned that the world did not give a flying fig about that. And so, I came to understand that if I was going to be true to who I was and get what I both wanted and needed in this life, I was going to have to fight for it and also be willing to accept the fact that most people would make me feel guilty for that.

The majority of humans spend their lives on a tightrope. They believe that if they follow the rules and do what everyone else is doing—get the job, marry the person, have the kids, buy the house—then everything will be okay. So if they see someone start to tip off the tightrope, or even jump off altogether, they become extremely nervous. “Hey,” they say, “you can’t do that!” Oh, but I can, and you know what? They can, too. Because the thing is, none of us is safe. None of us is getting out of here alive, and some of us wake every morning with the Lord’s voice in our ears, speaking through the poet Antonio Machado, “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” And listening to that voice, and doing whatever is necessary to remain obedient to it, is more important than pleasing people, even pleasing ourselves.

And in the end, this may be the hardest thing to get others to understand. I’m not just fighting because I’m a brat or because I get some sort of sick pleasure out of being at odds with those around me. I don’t think I’m better than everyone (or anyone) or deserving of special treatment. I am and have always been willing to admit that what I’m asking for is difficult, and that to ask people to accept me for it is more difficult still. But more difficult than all of this would be to live in a way that does not align with who God created me to be or what He consistently and insistently calls me to do. And at the end of the day, I’m answering to Him and no one else, and I would rather hear Jesus tell me, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” than receive even the greatest praise this dazzling, deceptive world has to offer.

Happiness

I’ve always felt a deep annoyance for the English word “happy.” It’s one of those words, like “love,” that has been applied too broadly—to mean too many disparate things—and therefore, has lost all meaning. I’m happy the weather has cooled down. I’m happy to spend time with my closest friend. I’m happy the brain tumor turned out to be benign. Clearly, I mean something different in each of these instances, and if I don’t, I have a problem that goes beyond the shortcomings of language.

But mostly, I get annoyed when people tell me that they want me to be happy, though I’m guilty of doing the same. It’s natural to desire the best for those we love, to want to see their dreams fulfilled, to wish them towards a state of health and contentment and finding their place under the sun. But the error behind this line of thinking is that we’re essentially telling each other, “Our sense of well-being is entirely dependent upon our circumstances.” We live in an unpredictable world, my friends, and to root our satisfaction in anything that can be defined as “earthly” is a dangerous game to play.

The world defines happiness via tangible markers of success: if you’re in a good relationship, if you have kind and basically obedient children, if you have a fulfilling job that pays your bills and also lets you go out for nice dinners and take nice vacations, and if you have friends and family who are always there for you and whom you spend time with on a regular basis—then, you’re considered “happy.” But if you have only some or even none of these things, still, people will try for the trap door: “Well, as long as you’re happy,” they’ll say. And if you, in turn, tell them, “But I’m not,” then everyone gets very sad, and you’re the girl at the party who’s just popped all the balloons.

I don’t have anything against people enjoying their lives, and I’m grateful that those I love want me to do the same. What I resent is the assertion that happiness—this vaporous, fleeting, impermanent state of existence—is somehow the litmus test against which we have to gauge how we’re doing in life. The root of the word “happy” comes from the Middle English word “hap,” meaning “lucky” in the sense of “luck” or “fortune.” When you look at it like that, telling someone you want them to be happy is the same as saying, “I want you to be defined by what you have absolutely no control over.” Great. I’ll get to work on that.

People die. Love gets lost. Jobs flee, children leave, money is burned away. And if you’re telling me that my contentment is dependent upon the presence of any or all of these things, then I am screwed six ways from Sunday—and so are you and everyone else. I am almost thirty years old. Tomorrow, my father will have been dead for one year. I’m not married, I don’t have children, I’m not a published author, and there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think, I could really use some more sleep. I am not, neither by the world’s definition nor that of my younger self, “happy.” But then, happiness, as I’ve here defined it, is no longer what I’m after.

I am definitely one to split semantic hairs between “happy” and “joy,” and fortunately for me, the American English Dictionary backs me up. The word “joy” also comes from Middle English, via the Old French joie, which is based on the Latin gaudium, from gaudere “rejoice.” Luck and fortune are beyond our control, but rejoicing is an action—rejoicing is a choice. Rejoicing springs out of a deep, abiding joy that, unlike happiness, is not dependent on circumstances. A joy that can look at the world my father was ripped out of and still find beauty, still find peace, still find God. A joy that I’ve acquired in the counter-intuitive way Jesus so often works: by being dragged through situations in which it was impossible to hold onto any earthly happiness.

This is what I’m after. Give me more of the joy that compelled me to sing worship songs to my God as my father lay in a coma, and I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that he would die very soon. Give me more of the joy that drives me to continue to attend church and believe what the Bible says about hope and faith and love, when on an hourly basis, I am pelted by the opposite of all these promises, with no sign that the tide is going to turn. Give me a joy that refuses to pretend life doesn’t hurt—or that it sometimes doesn’t feel like the earth ripped open its throat and swallowed me whole—but that even in this, enables me to rejoice. Even in this, helps me still trust God.

I love this picture of my dad holding me the day I was born. I love the sincerity in his face, the sense that he had already been smiling, long before the camera was pointed his way. I’m sure I started screaming my head off not long after. I’m sure, when that happened—and in all the sleepless nights that followed—he and my mother were no longer “happy.” But there is something in this photograph that goes deeper than that. There is joy. There is the assurance that, no matter what came before or what will come after—how hard it will get or what will be taken away—we have been given, in this moment, something bigger and more important than mere happiness.

newbornjess

H is for Help

Help me. It’s not something I’ve ever been good at saying. Ask my mother. Though I was a talkative toddler with a broad vocabulary, I guarantee I uttered no phrase with more frequency than, “I do it myself.” My self-sufficiency is both learned and innate. I can count on one hand the number of times my father paid someone else to do something. It was only after my brother and I became teenagers, and my father’s job became more demanding and his free time rarer and rarer, that he hired a gardener to mow the lawn and started taking the cars into auto shops to get their oil changed. Everything else, he did on his own. To suggest he do otherwise was not taken as an attempt to relieve his burdens. It was taken as an insult.

In the eight months and one week since he’s been gone, many people have tried to help me. They’ve sent books, suggested therapy and other methods of self-care, held up outings and classes and activities and hobbies like they’re offering me a surefire path out of the darkness. For the most part, I have turned away, have let the offer of “let me know if there’s anything I can do” hang limp in the air because there isn’t. There isn’t anything anyone can do. I remember, when my father was in the hospital, the way I bristled at family friends who tried to tell us what we needed to prepare for, in case he took a turn for the worse. Just shut up, I wanted to say. Not because their words weren’t true or because their desire to help wasn’t sincere, but because he was not their father. You haven’t been here, I kept thinking. You don’t know him like we do. You do not get a say in how we handle this.

The world is rife with lists and articles and seminars on how to cope with grief, and from these, too, I’ve turned away because I’ve never found blatant advice helpful. I think it’s why I’ve also resisted reading books on grief. I don’t need books, I’ve thought. I have my own words. I have more words than I know what to do with. What I need is someone who will listen, but what I fear I’ll find is something Amy Lawless describes in a series of poems called, My Dead. When an elephant dies, the other elephants pick up the deceased’s bones and carry them around in their mouths. Scientists come onto the scene, explain away the death with logic and reason, and attempt to take the bones away. “But getting an elephant to let go of the bone,” Lawless writes, “Is an entirely different matter.”

I never let go of the bone. Ever. The thing my friends implore me to do the most often is the one thing I can never seem to manage: “Don’t think it to death.” Grief has rendered me into a flattened, vaporous version of myself, but it hasn’t changed the fact that for eight months I’ve been trying, with every ounce of precious little energy I possess, to make sense of a world that, without my father, makes even less sense than it did before. And I have been resisting so much, fighting so hard to keep going, to keep working, to keep myself afloat, to maintain some semblance of order and control, but no matter what I do, it’s all rebelling against me. I can’t get out of bed on time. I never stop being tired. It takes me weeks to respond to personal emails, and all the while, I am weighted by the belief I’ve clung to all these months: there is nothing anyone can do to help.

Several weeks ago, a grad school acquaintance asked if she could send me a book by Helen MacDonald called H Is for Hawk, a memoir written about the time MacDonald spends training a goshawk in the year following her father’s sudden death. I said yes, though I expected to be disappointed, assuming I read the book at all. I am now seventy-five pages in, and I am anything but disappointed. MacDonald’s descriptions of her grief are eerily close to my own, but even more than I relate to her, I relate to the hawk she is trying to tame: “Gosses are nervous, highly-strung birds and it takes a long time to convince them you’re not the enemy. Nervousness, of course, isn’t quite the right word: it’s simply that they have jacked-up nervous systems…Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking.” I read that passage and thought, I am this bird.

I have always been a fighter. I am the oldest sibling. I am a Henkle down to my marrow and willful German blood. But I am also much more sensitive—in every meaning of the word—than any human ever ought to be. Both blessed and cursed with a hypersensitive nervous system, an empathetic heart, and an unflinchingly observant mind, I have always felt the need to daily retreat into my own little world for relief. But lately, my world hasn’t been doing much to calm me, or rather, I’m noticing the smallest noises, sights, and shifts in my environment to the point where it’s becoming unbearable. At first, I thought I was just getting fussier with age (as if I weren’t already fussy enough), but I’ve since begun to believe this isn’t about being fussy. My already-too-tightly wound system has been kicked into overdrive during these long, stressful months of grief and work and aloneness and loss, and I am living out the results of holding so tightly to my burdens: they have begun to unravel me.

At the point I’ve reached in the book, MacDonald has brought her hawk home and is trying to teach it to trust her: “The goshawk is staring at me in mortal terror, and I can feel the silences between both our heartbeats coincide. Her eyes are luminous, silver in the gloom…She stares. She stares and stares.” Again, I am this bird. The intensity of her gaze, staring hard at a person, at a world, that she cannot comprehend—having spent her life thus far in the protection of an aviary, and now thrust into open, alien territory—but damn it, she’s not going to let up. “She was scared,” MacDonald writes, “she wasn’t hungry; the world was an insult.” The way the hawk fixes her fear-drenched eyes on MacDonald, the way she resists any offer of sustenance and knows only her terror—I have been looking at the whole world like that ever since my father died. Even at my friends. Even at God.

For months, K. has been asking me to come visit her, and I’ve resisted. I’ve resisted making plans, resisted acting like the future is still something I know how to put my faith in, resisted everything but the day-to-day routine that keeps me moving, keeps me sane, or at least, keeps me suspended in what I’m beginning to think is less sanity and more functional madness. The other night, K. was trying to convince me, yet again, to let her buy me a plane ticket. I was a litany of noncommittal excuses, saying she didn’t understand what she was inviting into her home. I’m a wreck. An exhausted, unhelpful, irritable, listless wreck. “That’s okay,” she said, “I just want to take care of you.” I paused a moment at that, then said, “I can’t remember the last time someone took care of me.” She said, “I know,” and that’s when I finally relented.

I can never seem to remember that there’s a profound difference between giving up and giving in, and generally speaking, I am much more willing to give love than to receive it. In the past few weeks, I’ve had people who are very close to me say very tender, surprising things—that I’m incredible, that I amaze them every day, even that I, if you can believe it, make sense to them—and I have reacted just like MacDonald’s hawk, staring at them in complete bewilderment and disbelief. Why? I’ve wanted to say. I’m completely nuts, now more than ever, and they should know that better than anyone. That’s the thing, though: they do, and they love me still, and all they want to do is hold me near and help carry some of the weight. Maybe there isn’t anything anyone can do to move me through this grief, but maybe it’s less about the outcome and more about being willing to say, Help me, and then to let people try.