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.


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.


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.


The other day, a married friend asked if this weekend would be hard for me.

“Why?” I said. “Because it’s Valentine’s Day?”

He nodded.

“Oh.” I waved a hand. “I stopped paying attention to that holiday a long time ago.”

But I lied. I lie all the time. I lie because I have been single for the vast majority of my life, and of the few relationships I’ve managed to hold onto, however briefly, none has overlapped with Valentine’s Day. My lying is never intentional—the words just come tumbling out, honed after years of acting tough about the fact that I’m alone, hating the thought that anyone might feel sorry for me. So I joke, and I pretend I don’t care, and I bet few people know I’m lying through my smiling teeth. That’s the thing about learned behavior: at a certain point, it stops being difficult to appear to be someone you’re not.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay called “Waiting (Gracefully) for Love.” It was inspired by these lines from Li-young Lee’s poem, “The Waiting”: “Love, these lines / accompany our want, nameless / or otherwise, and our waiting. / And since we’ve not learned / how not to want, / we’ve had to learn, / by waiting, how to wait.” I’ve heard it said that we are always waiting for something: a job, a house, a lover, a child. I have spent my entire cognitive life waiting for the man I’ll marry. It’s the backbone of every decision I make, the reason I always have one foot out the door, my days spinning their wheels in a perpetual state of pause, never letting myself settle in, not yet, because this isn’t where I’m going to remain.

But in the ironic way these things tend to work, I have always had trouble believing that I will, in fact, get married. I remember the way other girls would talk when we were young: “When I get married,” they’d say. “When I have children.” For them, it was a foregone conclusion. For me, it never was. Even before I started watching men boomerang away from me faster than they’d arrived, even before I began donning taffeta ballgowns and kitten heels and bridesmaiding at wedding after wedding, I never felt like I could say “when.” For me, it was always “if,” and that hasn’t changed, despite the fact that my desire grows deeper with each passing day, even despite the fact that I know and love God far better now than I ever have before.

Jesus and I have spent much time and effort trying to dig up the root of my unbelief, only to unearth twigs and scraps that probe at but never fully explain why this is the Achilles heel of my faith. Maybe it’s because I never had a particularly close relationship with my father. Maybe it’s because I was a strange, precocious child who knew from an early age that I was different from my peers, and so, could not expect to live a “normal” life. Maybe it’s because, as the years rumbled by, I became acutely aware of all the ways it was possible for things to go wrong. I learned that dreams do not always come true, even when you work and fight and pray for them with everything you have. Some things are just not meant to be.

C.S. Lewis speaks, in The Screwtape Letters, of “the law of undulation,” explaining that humans’ “bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.” Every few months, I repeat this pattern: I get fed up with the duel between my belief and unbelief and tell myself to stop waiting for a relationship, to accept the life I’ve been given—which, all things considered, is a good little life—and to let the appearance of a partner surprise me, if and when the time is right. But this posture never lasts. No matter how much it hurts to cling to the possibility of love, I can never seem to let go of the tether.

Other Christians often tell me, “God wouldn’t plant a desire in your heart if He didn’t intend to fulfill it.” And I know that. Somewhere within me, I do, and it might be the only thing that keeps me hanging on, when I also know—far more deeply than I would like to—how much easier it would be to drop it and get on with my life. Lately, I’ve been creeping up to the edge of that precipice, knowing I could ask God to remove my desire for marriage, or just make me numb to the want of it, and turn me into the person I’ve long pretended to be—a woman who is perfectly fine being single. He would do this if I asked Him to. I believe that with an unprecedented certainty, and that’s why, time and again, I stop myself from asking it.

It hurts to be alone. It does. We weren’t meant for it, and while we can and should be grateful for all the other love that is in our lives, that intimate romantic relationship exists in a different dimension, and I have found nothing in all my years of searching that can bandage the lack of it. But there is something important to be learned from this hurt. If I turn away, and if I don’t allow Jesus to work in my wounds and show me where He can be found, even in my deepest ache, I will lose the chance to hear what, perhaps, these circumstances alone can allow Him to say. In Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris writes, “Only when we admit that we have ‘no way’ do we have any hope of finding one. Out of what seems desolate a newly vigorous faith can arise, a certainty that is not subject to changes in moods or feelings, or the vicissitudes of life.”

I keep coming back to this phrase: faith in the in-between. What does belief look like when life hasn’t turned out the way you wanted, and when you also set down all the lying and sidestepping that lets you pretend you’re okay with that? I don’t know, but I’m working on it, and I’m failing at every turn. I don’t know how to live without being in constant want. I don’t know how to believe, but I think that’s the point. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis takes on the voice of a demon tasked with leading souls to damnation and writes, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

My first day back

Martha Serpas has a poem I love called “As If There Were Only One.” It takes its title from a line in Augustine’s Confessions, where he writes, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” The poem is narrated by someone going through a difficult time, and it describes the moment when God lifts her up out of her grief, not to rescue her from it completely, but to remind her that there is still life to be had, that there is hope. The poem concludes, “And God put me down on the steps with my coffee / and my cigarettes. And, although I still // could not eat nor sleep, that evening / and that morning were my first day back.”

Ever since my father died, I’ve been waiting for that moment—not the moment when I feel better, just the moment when I start to believe that, one day, I might. He’s been gone for seven months now, and I have watched the passing of every calendar page both expecting to feel different and realizing that I’m probably not going to. I used to pin great significance on the passing of time. I clung to anniversaries as if they held a special power. But with every new loss I’ve experienced, I’ve watched these supposed markers break loose from their foundation and blow across the landscape like sand in a storm. Grief keeps a timeline all its own.

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson writes, “It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise. But really this is like hoisting a harness onto an invisible horse.” In my twenty-eighth year, these are the things I was forced to give up: my freelance career, most of my reading time, running, high-heeled shoes, my safety net, my father, my fear of public speaking. I memorized the eulogy I gave at his memorial service, and sometimes, I recite it to myself while I’m making coffee or brushing my teeth. I remember the way the whole church held its breath when the pastor called me up on the stage. You have to be half out of your mind to get up and speak at your own father’s funeral, and I was. We all were.

“I thought grief would be dignified and monumental like a black tower shrouded in mist or quiet days spent weeping in a dim room,” James A. Reeves writes in “The Last Year of My Father.” “Instead I discovered that grief is a relentless feedback loop, a noisy wash of static riddled with fractured images, creepshow dreams, and broken questions that can never be answered. How could this. Why didn’t she. If only I. This wasn’t supposed.” I can’t say what grief does to anyone else, but mine has made me take a lot of long, hard looks at who I am, what I run from, and what I allow. But this came later. For months, all I could do was get up and pantomime the motions of existence, no more capable of saying “no” to something than I was of saying “yes.”

I’ve been seeing an acupuncturist for about a month now, in the hopes of healing a chronic running injury that I’ve recovered and relapsed from more times than I can count. Facedown on the table, I don’t keep track of the number of needles he taps into my back and legs, but I think it’s somewhere close to a dozen. Ten minutes alone in a warm, dark room seems nowhere near enough time to correct what’s been wrong for three decades, and yet, I keep returning, telling myself that piece by piece, he’s shifting things. Sometimes, while I’m lying there, I think of what my father would say about me doing this. It’s been 234 days since I last heard his voice. I used to go weeks without speaking to him, and now, there are times when I think I might cut off a hand just to hear him call me Jessie Lynne.

This is how grief gets to you: by making you believe it’ll last forever, though the truth is, nothing does. During the roughest periods of my life, what made them so unbearable was not the circumstances, but the belief that they would go on like this ad infinitum. That I would always be heartbroken and alone, have a terrible job or no job at all, remain unable to write or run, stay caught in the grips of the psychological issues that had plagued me for most of my life. I have long been a pattern finder. I dressed and worked and created in them from a very young age, and while it impressed my parents and teachers, it also became something of a curse. If you are a pattern finder, it is highly difficult—if not damn near impossible—to believe that they won’t keep repeating.

After seeing numerous doctors who could find no physical reason for why my injury kept flaring up, I realized I could point to a significant emotional trauma occurring at the start of every relapse. That meant, while my medical team could help me along, I was largely responsible for my healing. I couldn’t do anything to stop grieving for my father, but I could do a better job of managing the stress that was within my control. After three months of increased hours at work, I asked to cut back. I turned off the sound on my email and resolved not to peek at my inbox after hours. I started making protein bars and forcing myself to go to bed at a decent hour, and you know what? Last week was the first time, after a month of treatment, when both of my doctors looked at my injury and said, “All right, we’re starting to get somewhere.”

It’s easy to believe that things will never change, to accept your lot in life, and resign yourself to the limitations of frail humanity. When grief has pinned you down, the thought of getting out from under it seems impossible. But what my father taught me—both by what he fought for and what he didn’t—is that we always have a choice. It may not be a good one, and in the grand scheme of things, it may seem like nothing at all. But it’s there. It’s the decision to say, “I only get one life, and I have to stop treating it like it doesn’t matter.” It’s choosing to sleep more and trying to worry less and hoping that it will heal you, even if part of you still doesn’t believe it will work. It’s realizing that, when you can’t bring yourself to pray for the end of something, you can start by praying for the belief that God is more powerful than your patterns.

For my dad’s memorial service, we put together a slideshow of photographs and set it to some of his old favorite songs. Last week, while I was washing dishes on a Friday night, OneRepublic’s “I Lived” came up on my iPod. I dried my hands, hit pause, and went to my laptop. I hadn’t seen the slideshow since his funeral, but that night, I watched it again while I listened to that song. I saw my smiling father, my mother, my brother, myself, our relatives and friends float by, and I cried, not out of grief, but out of small flash of hope cracking open in my heart. “With every broken bone,” they sing. “I swear I lived.” I watched my father’s life, and I listened to those lyrics, and it changed things. It didn’t make them better. It just made me believe that, one day, they might be.

These pointless, invaluable things

I live in a studio over a garage, built before (evidently) they’d invented insulation. Winter is in full swing, and when I get home from work—which, these days, is around 6:30 or 7:00—it’s about 50 degrees inside my apartment. I set down my bags, crank on the wall heater, and plug in the space heater I bought last year, thinking it would shave some money off my electric bill. It didn’t, but on nights like these, I’m grateful to have two sources of heat, working together to fill my home with warm air, most of which floats up into the vaulted ceilings, to keep the cobwebs nice and toasty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about futility, the things we do that seem to have no point, or make no lasting difference. I remember, when I read The Bell Jar, it was the endless repetition of mundane tasks that got to Esther, the main character, as depression stole more and more of her mind. What began as a grand existential dilemma distilled down to her inability to get past the fact that if she washed her hair or made her bed, she’d just have to do it all over again the next day, and the next, ad infinitum until she died.

I get that. Sometimes, I can’t believe how often I have to go to the store, make meals, clean my apartment (not that often), clean my clothes, clean myself. Sometimes, I’ll be at work and wonder what difference it would really make if I didn’t add these pages to this website or place this ad on Google. It’s hard not to get bogged down by it all, especially if you’ve been saddled, like I have, with a go-go-go mentality that insists you work as hard and as fast as you can, as well as a mega-introverted personality that wants nothing more than a quiet room and time to write. Sometimes, I look at my life and wonder what sort of Dr. Frankenstein pieced it all together.

In my younger years, existential crises were a daily, if not hourly occurrence. I don’t have them as much anymore, and it’s not because I’ve figured it all out or because I’m living the life I always hoped I’d lived, fulfilled in every way. It’s because, after years of watching everything I thought I wanted catapult away, I finally admitted that I didn’t and couldn’t know everything—or really, much of anything—about how it all would play out. I could make good choices, make time for what I wanted, but beyond that, I didn’t have a whole lot of say.

My dad died five months ago. I don’t know why. Sometimes, I don’t think I realize that he’s dead. I mean, I do. I realize it when I have a question about health insurance or my car or how to soundproof my skylights so the rain doesn’t keep me awake, and I can’t ask him. I don’t realize it because I live a thousand miles away from my parents’ home, and I think a part of me still believes he’s in that recliner, talking to customers or watching politics or both, because I can’t conceive of a world where that isn’t the case. I realize it when I’m driving or typing or going about my day, and suddenly, it hits me, like the earth gave up its gravity—he’s not here, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.

Death is a funny thing. Nothing makes you question your existence more thoroughly than coming face to face with the end of someone else’s. When my father died, I didn’t know how I would return to the life I’d been living in Portland, not because I hated it, but because in those first weeks, it seemed impossible that anything could go back to the way it had been. Slowly, I’ve been finding my footing. I expect it will take quite a bit longer, though I’ve given up on the idea that things will ever return to “normal.” I live in a different world now.

And in this different world, I’ve asked myself, “If you knew you would die tonight, tomorrow, in a week, in a month, what would you change?” And every time, I have the same answer: “Nothing.” Not because my life is perfect. Not because I don’t ardently hope that, before I die, I’ll have the chance to be married, to maybe be a mother, to get my writing out in the world, to have more time for creativity than what I can squeeze in on the weekends, between laundry and cooking and cleaning, and on weekday evenings, when I come home late to a cold apartment and summon the energy for a precious hour of writing in my bed, before I fall asleep. No, I wouldn’t change anything because I trust my God.

My pastor told us about a woman he met on a trip to a third world country, who was crippled from birth, but so full of joy. The two of them talked about the vast difference between Christianity in America and in her country, and she told him, “God is bigger to us here because we need Him more.” The more hardships I endure, the more setbacks I experience, the more tragedy I watch bleed the life out of what and who I love, the more I am convinced of God’s power and provision, the more I understand what it means to have a peace that is not of this world. It seems so backwards that this would be the case, but then, God works in paradoxes.

I don’t know why I have the job that I do. I don’t know why I’m not married or published. I don’t know why my father died. But I do know that, if I’d had any other job with any other coworkers than the ones I have now, I would not have been able to return to Portland after his death. I know that life is like a giant painting, and we live it with our faces smashed against the canvas. We can’t see the whole picture. God can. And it may well be that my present life—down to every pointless email and futile endeavor to heat my apartment—is teaching me something invaluable for what He has in store for me next, even if that something is just learning to trust Him more and to get hung up on myself less. Even if it only serves to show me just how big my God can get.

Permanent, intolerable uncertainty

Whenever I’ve broken up with someone, I’ve spent a good deal of time in mourning, in part for the life we had together, but mostly for the future we’d now never live. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and can’t help but follow plotlines far down the road, but being with a guy, for me, always meant projecting “us” far into the future. So when he left, I didn’t just lose someone I’d known a few months—I forfeited an entire life with him.

It’s been three and a half months since my father died. It’s not exactly getting easier. The emotions are just shifting, and a couple of weeks ago, I was hit by a wave of deep and sudden sadness. Twice, I spilled into tears on my morning run and had to heave myself back to my apartment, then off the bathroom floor to go to work. There was no logical reason I should’ve been hit afresh with this weight. Then I realized I’d been doing with my father what I’ve always done with men I’ve loved and lost: grieving for the life together we will now never live.

Whatever happens next will never be how it could’ve been. I have no idea where my life will take me, but certain things, I considered a given: That when I published my first book, he would tell any and everyone who would listen, peddling copies like he did the Girl Scout cookies I was too shy to sell. That if I ever had a husband, he would know him. That if I ever had children, they would know him, too. That I’d go straight to the Games & Puzzles aisle at Powell’s when shopping every Christmas, to buy him another book of Sudoku, upping the challenge level with each passing year.

All of that’s gone now, like someone snapped their fingers, and away my father went. But with him went the life my family and I had all been expecting to lead. Three and a half months later, I’m beginning to understand: a part of us died with him. People have told me to focus on the life I did have with my father, rather than what I won’t have now. I’m sure that’s good advice. I’m just not particularly interested in perspective at present. I want to see the world from the kicked-in-the-face view I got thrown into when my center of gravity fell out of the sky. I need to look at this from every terrifying angle, to come to terms with what I’ve lost.

I am not the same person who listened to that brake-slamming voicemail my mother left me at seven o’clock that Tuesday morning, detailing what had happened, what was happening now, and what would likely happen soon. In the time it took my father to draw his last ventilator-induced breaths, I aged forty years. I can see it in my eyes, the way I saw it in the gaze of the airport security guard who checked my ID, looking from me now to twenty-three-year-old me on my license and back again. It’s me, all right? I wanted to shout at him. It’s me. And it is, but it very much isn’t.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had two things in mind: the way I hoped my life would go and the way I was afraid it would go. In neither case did I consider the possibility of my father dying. It never entered my brain space for more than a passing moment. Then, there’s the way my life is actually going, which is simultaneously what I hoped for and what I feared and something else entirely, but even it did not include a clause in which my father was simply gone, his part in the story now over. The future may be yet unwritten, and yet, the years stretch out before me in one endless act of revision.

Sometimes, I ask myself if I’m happy. That might seem like a ridiculous question to ask yourself when you’ve just lost your father, but I ask it. Tremendous trauma aside, am I happy? No, but I’m not unhappy either. I can’t remember a time when I was happy as the world defines it, except in brief, isolated instances. But I don’t think happiness is really the point. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes, “What we would here and now call our ‘happiness’ is not the end God chiefly has in view: but when we are such as He can love without impediment, we shall in fact be happy.”

I said it in my euology, and I’ll say it again: my father was good at finding joy. He was good at perspective. Sometimes, it was a misguided perspective, one that shut out more emotion than it should’ve and didn’t always allow room for being honest about pain, but I have never met anyone so willing to “keep on keepin’ on,” as he said and as he did. If what God is after is to burn away the things that hinder Him from loving us, then we have no choice but to submit to whatever comes our way. Not by pretending it doesn’t hurt, or that it sometimes doesn’t feel like the earth ripped open its throat and swallowed you whole, but by saying, even in this, we are pressing on for something bigger and more important than mere happiness.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” I have no idea why I am where I am. There was a time when that would’ve driven me crazy, and it’s not that it doesn’t bother me now. It’s that my trust in God is greater than my need for control, albeit only slightly. So if I trust Him, however haltingly, to guide me down a path that seems nowhere near anything I ever wanted, I have no choice but to believe that, no matter how upsetting or unfair, He will walk me through this “permanent, intolerable uncertainty” and teach me how to live without my father.