"What if there are really gleaming, castellated cities hung upside down over the desert sand? What limpid lakes and cool date palms have our caravans always passed untried? Until, one by one, by the blindest of leaps, we light on the road to these places, we must stumble in darkness and hunger." ~Annie Dillard
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I want to paint you like I see you,
He says to me. I doubt him—
not his skill, or his intentions,
but whether his eyes are up to 
such a task. 

In the waning light we sit
on the downstairs neighbor’s porch,
rocking in chairs that creak and
thunk in a slow, predictable rhythm.
I tell him he should paint the sky.
Think of the colors you can use,
I say, pointing to the cotton candy 
sunset.

He is quiet for a while, then sips his 
wine and shakes his head. He insists
that I do not understand. Inspiration, he
instructs, is so much more 
than color.

I turn that over in my mind. Then,
Paint me if you must, I concede.
But paint me in the manner of a million 
sunsets.

He looks to the sky, shakes his head
again. Surely, he whispers, 
you must have no idea what 
you look like.

Let me paint you. You’ll see.

Nana

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I feel badly telling other peoples’ stories for them. It feels like a theft.

But Nana is gone now, and she cannot tell her own story. I realize, now, that maybe her story isn’t just hers, anyway; that somewhere along the line, her story grew into our story: hers, mine, all of ours. And so if I tell a story, that’s what it is. It’s ours. It’s mine that has taken hold of hers, that carries it into the future in the same way that, someday, my grandchildren will puzzle over my life, attempt to make sense of it, forgive it, bless it, and God willing, tell it.

The pieces of her life, though, only belong to me in fragments. 

—-

There is a memorial service on a crisp fall day in Boston. It is beautiful. 

I pull into the cemetery and linger next to my car. We are waiting for the distant relatives to arrive from New Hampshire: two brothers, a sister, a sister-in-law, some nieces and nephews. As I stand next to my brother, his wife, my parents, my aunts, I realize that “distant” is only a matter of perspective. The people we await are strangers to me, but they have known her forever. They knew her when she was young, they saw her grow and knew her friends, her boyfriends, her husband. They tracked my mother as she and her three sisters came of age. They knew Nana in a way I did not.

Distant is perhaps a more appropriate term for me.

—-

That afternoon, at the luncheon hosted by her aging brother, I learn that although there is distance, there are common anchors, too. She was the same person, though we knew her differently.

It is puzzling to think of Nana as a child. But her brother gets up, the spitting image of Nana in his mannerisms and features, and though his voice shakes and his body hunches, he talks of a girl I wish I had known. I sit next to my brother and we listen, we learn. We think that maybe this is the ghost of Nana, standing before us and filling in some important details for us. The sketch of our grandma gets some clearer lines that day.

We learn that there was an amusement park, and that one of Nana’s most precious childhood memories was going to the park with her father and brother. I heard, that afternoon, about the carousel that Nana and her brother loved to ride. Nana loved riding the horses. And I learned that day, from her brother who recalled these things about his sister 80 years later, about her sweet tooth and the ice cream that she would always eat: butter pecan.

At that point, I looked up and caught my brother’s eye, and we just nodded. Of course.

Because if you were to ask me the two most solid things I know about Nana, they would be these: She loves horses and she can’t live without butter pecan ice cream.

—-

That evening, I look in the mirror as I brush my hair. I am in my hotel room. Downstairs, two groups of people circulate the lobby on this busy New England fall day. There are tiny girls dressed in cocktail dresses and done up in makeup prancing from conference room to conference room. And there are undergraduates and their parents going in and out, in constant motion, attending the events of Boston College’s Parents’ Weekend.

I stare at myself in the mirror and realize that it has been 10 years exactly since I graduated from that place. 14 years since the first weekend when my parents came up, stayed in a hotel, attended football games and convocations and breakfasts with me. People were still wearing the same shirt. It was all the same.

I’d believed, all those years ago, that I was striking out on my own, exploring new territory, asserting my independence from my family so far away in Ohio. What I didn’t realize was how close the distance can be. What I didn’t really comprehend was that Nana grew up down the block from my University. She lived on Commonwealth Avenue, about a quarter mile from the apartment where I lived my last year of college. We lived on the same street, 75 years or so apart. I used to walk by her house every day on my way to work. The places where I slept, and ate, and went the weekend of her memorial service were all places I knew well. But I didn’t know them because of Nana. I knew them because that had been my life.

And here I was again. 

When I looked at myself, I could see her. I have her eyes. They are light, unobtrusive, gentle, hard to penetrate, just like hers. 

The stories. They don’t keep their distance. They begin to merge in a way where I can’t tell whose is whose.

—-

That night, I sit quietly and watch my aunts go through a box of pictures and cards that belonged to Nana. We are all in that box. 

Sometimes, my mom or one of her sisters would pull out a picture and stare at it, trying to make sense of who it was or what the occasion could have been. I hear bits and pieces of stories, long forgotten. I fill in more pieces to the puzzle of Nana’s life, realizing again and again how little I knew her.

The memories I have of Nana are mostly very shallow. I remember things like sitting in her giant bed watching cable television on days when I was home sick from school. I remember how special it felt to hold the cable box in my hand and change the channels—oh, so many channels—without getting up. I remember that her house is where I first learned of Nickelodeon. I remember that she made me toast with butter and raspberry jam. I remember that she served it on a little white plate, and that I got to use a tv tray that she placed across my lap.

I remember going to the barn with her as a kid and watching her ride her horse, Magnum. I remember spending Christmases with her, and celebrating her birthday. I remember her taking me to see Home Alone when I was 9, and how she’d picked the movie out because she’d heard how cute it was and thought that I would enjoy it. I remember exactly which theater we went to. I remember that she loved it, and so did I.

As we both got older, the memories change to times when I helped her. I’d take her shopping. I’d drive her to see her horse. I’d take her out to eat, or drive her to one of my brother’s choir concerts. I remember the feeling of sadness when I started to understand what was happening: that Nana was getting old. That it was no longer safe for her to do these things by herself. That her memory was dwindling. That, soon, she might even forget me.

Midway through the evening, someone pulled out a newspaper clipping. It was old and yellowed, in the center there was a prominent picture of a woman riding a horse, confident and happy. I snapped a picture and saved it on my phone. 

This was how I wanted to remember her.

—-

A year has passed, now.

I know because fall is here, and I long to make my way to Boston.

A deep homesickness resides within me for a place that is only marginally my home. I wonder, now, if that is Nana’s legacy; if that is a place where our lives come close, where our stories merge.

Maze-Walking

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I almost didn’t get out of the car.

I sat there for a while, listening to the radio, watching people linger in the space that I’d been claiming as my own in my mind for a few months. It was a beautiful day. I’d waited for a gorgeous morning like this one to come to this place—I’d put it off, saved it until the time was right just like a little child saving a long-awaited dessert until just the right moment…

But I never imagined that there would be other people there. This was a definite problem.

A group of men in business suits sat on benches facing each other, enjoying a hearty conversation in the late summer sun. A couple of women traipsed out of the woods and circled around the wide paved area, tiny dogs in tow. A person talking on a cell phone walked through the courtyard to get to the building beyond, clearly in a rush. 

None of them seemed to notice the central feature of that beautiful courtyard: a large prayer labyrinth, placed lovingly in the ground with red and black brick. It lay there unused and unacknowledged, as far as I could tell. The gentlemen had their backs to it, the ladies with the dogs walked far wide of the outer edges of the maze.

All the while, I sat it my car waiting for an opportunity to enter the labyrinth. I couldn’t really explain why, but I felt drawn to this place. It felt like something I needed to do—but not like this. Not publicly. So I got out of my car, slowly, and found a bench to wait on. I spent some time reading and staring off into space, waiting for the onlookers to leave so that I could finally begin my walk. 

It was then that I realized that the world doesn’t stop so that you can wander in circles chasing after God. You just have to do it. You have to get out of your car. You have to find a spot to lay your bag. You have to muster up the nerve to give it a try, no matter who may watch you as you do it. No matter what kind of a spectacle you may make of yourself. 

So there I went.

What became plain to me in the moment of action was the clunkiness of it all. I emerged from the shadows and walked up to the circle, following the circumference of the labyrinth around 180 degrees until I found the small pathway that opened into the swirl of lines inside. I turned right and headed down the path, which at the beginning was relatively long and straight and headed into the center of the large area. The moment I stepped over the brink I became suddenly, painfully, aware of my largeness. My stride felt too big. I felt wide and awkward. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so I shoved them in my pockets, and I didn’t know what to do with my eyes, so I watched my feet tread the pathway. I felt or imagined strangers’ eyes on me, watching.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t sure how one does this. This praying. This walking. This maze-going. I wasn’t even sure anymore why I was there.

And so rather than entering the circle in a prayerful, quiet state as I had imagined myself doing, I entered in with my old companions anxiety and insecurity, my mind babbling at me about all of the reasons why I was doing this wrong and assuring me that this was a dumb idea.

It was then that I realized that your mind and your thoughts and your worries don’t stop so that you can wander in circles chasing after God. You just have to do it. You have to put one foot in front of the other. You have to remind yourself once, twice, three times to slow down. You have to just keep going until the moment comes when you have out-walked the awkwardness and you no longer care that there is a woman walking by, talking on her cell phone to her husband while she stares at you wandering in circles on the pavement in the middle of the day.

It took longer than I expected. The path twisted and turned so many times. Long straightaways turned into sharp switchbacks. I’d tread very close to the center, thinking I was almost there, only to walk back out to the edge and realize how far I had yet to go. My thoughts turned to the path itself: to how hard it was to know where you were in the process; to how easy it was to veer off onto the neighboring path if you stopped paying attention; to how long it took to walk to the center of the circle in this inefficient manner. 

I made it to the center, said a quick Lord’s prayer, and then headed back in to retrace my steps. I savored the trip back, walked more slowly. My mind was quiet and I felt free. Free from making this into something spiritual. Free from manufacturing a lesson, or a takeaway, and free, instead, just to walk the path on this beautiful day.

It was then that I realized that you don’t wander in circles to chase down a God who lives in the center, or to find a God who waits at the end. You walk the path to remind yourself that there is nothing special about the center—or the end, for that matter—because when you arrive at these places and there is just more walking to do. Soon, you will reach the end of this path, but then you will have the walk back to the car. And then you will have to journey into the rest of the day. And the path will stretch out, out, out into the mist. There is not a point at which you will arrive at your life. You are already there.

But what the path reminds you is that there is One who walks it with you. Through the straightaways and round the twists and turns that make you dizzy. Close to the center and far away. There is One who keeps you company as you go, who tells your feet to keep moving, who lays out the path before you. 

I knew this, but I had just forgotten. 

And this is what I thought about as I walked back to my car, drove out into the city, and headed back to my life.

Lessons from a Summer Evening

“If you watch too hard, it won’t light up,”
she says this to me about her lightning bug, as if the
wriggling creature comprehends that this is
what I am doing. But I am not watching it, not at all.
I am, instead, doing my best to push it off of my
finger and into the mason jar without squishing
its legs, or head, or its florescent bottom against the side.
I finally get it into the jar and she fills it with things
it should like: some clumpy grass, a thin stick, other bugs.
It scales the glass walls with ease and circles 
the top, pokes its nose through a tiny air hole. It stops.
It doesn’t light. Hasn’t for a few minutes, now, 
but when I look into the distant woods where 
the shadows have already fallen, the bugs flash
every time I blink; a mid-summer fireworks display. 
But we are still so exposed out here, and I advise her
to wait. “Just give him another minute or two,” I reason. 
“He probably likes it dark.” But she is restless.
She tries to darken the glass with her small hands. 
They leave large gaps and fail to keep the light out;
no one is fooled. Agitated now, she taps the top of the lid 
and watches the bug slip, just a bit. “Stop watching,” she says,
to me, to herself, to the evening. “Stop watching and then
it will happen.” She turns the lid and closes her eyes.
She stands like that, jar open, eyes closed, until the shadows
drop. Does one minute pass, or ten? When she comes to, 
the jar is empty and the world around her alight.
I hear her whisper, to herself, to me, “Sometimes, 
you just have to take your eyes off of things for a while.”
It was one of the hardest things I have ever done,
to turn silently and creep back to the lit-from-inside house.
I shut the shades, tucked myself into bed, closed my eyes.
She came in glowing some time later, and her light
has not gone out since.

Compulsion

We are compelled,
Not by what stares us
In the eyes and makes
Demands, but by that
Which hovers outside our
Reach and says very little:
A thought, a fear,
A scrap of hope worn thin.
Let us pray, then,
To be haunted by angels
And dressed down by devils.
For in the one, we shall learn
Trust; in the other,
to laugh.

Bend a Knee

The absurdity
of bowing to a 
wooden post—whose
face you chipped out
yourself with a chisel
and hammer—in order
to secure your salvation
rivals only the complete
insanity of casting
all your cares 
before the altar of
anxiety and expecting
her to envelop your 
world in safety.
Bend a knee, instead,
at the temple of Fear
Not and bring all 
your treasures there.
They will be taken from
you but you will get them
back in the end,
or so they tell me.

Love Poem No. 1

I never thought
that life would slip me on like
a leather glove.

You have been good to me in
all the ways that someone can be good.
When I fall asleep early, you 
bring me to bed and lock the doors.
I wake in the morning and feel known. 

Our love is gnarled and knotty and
smooth—freshly sanded grain on 
a rustic tabletop.
I want to take it apart and build
something that moves:
a pirate ship, or a catapult.
You prefer growing things.

Cultivate me with the 
delicate hands of a gardener;
teach me to mature in stillness.
In return, I will dismantle you piece
by piece and make you into something
fierce and free.

Gypsies

You were gypsies, once.

Do you remember those days,
when you were the wanderers?
You have told me the tales in soft whispers
over so many rooted years.

We were just babies and when 
you finally stopped, we were there, too—
accidental passengers on your pilgrimage.
Infants bundled to your chest as you walked
far from home.

The settling was easy for us.
We learned the foreign dialects, 
became fluent in the rituals and rhythms.
They grew to be our very own.

But we have gypsy blood, gypsy memories.
We are strapping our children to our breasts
this very moment and
checking the thickness of our soles. 
I know that you will remain.

One day our sons and daughters
will recall this journey in different tongues
as they raise their children to their chests.
I will beg God to guide their wandering—
perhaps even to bless it—
As, maybe, this is home.

The Discipline of Confession

This is the second post in a series of thoughts and stories surrounding the spiritual disciplines that will be posted on Fridays. I am defining the term “spiritual discipline” very loosely to refer to a practice that one engages in regularly and intentionally in order to draw closer to God or deepen one’s relationship with God. Click here to read the intro post and here to read last week’s post on the discipline of showing up.

—-

A while back, I had a very nice, cordial conversation with someone who I really like, and when we said goodbye and walked away, I was startled to discover that I was upset.

It took me an hour or two to believe that I was, in fact, upset. Whereas before the conversation I’d been going about my day joyfully, after the conversation I felt irritable and lost in the spinning wheels of my mind. I began feeling really badly about myself; I heard a tape playing in my head telling me that I was a failure, but I had no idea where all of this was coming from. Over and over again I asked myself why I felt so angry. I wasn’t at all angry at the person I’d been talking to. Rather, I was feeling angry with myself.

Finally, I got into my car and went for a drive. I left the music off and let my mind wander—trying to allow whatever was bothering me to release into the night and leave me alone. But I kept coming back to the conversation, and I realized that maybe there was something there that God wanted me to pay attention to.

I replayed the conversation in my mind, trying to identify the point at which everything had shifted. It didn’t take me long to hear the two sentences the person had said in passing—sentences that hurt even to think about—and I knew I was getting close to the answer. My friend had been explaining something and in the process had inadvertently struck a nerve. I’d felt attacked, defensive. And though my friend was not communicating this message in any way (and would, in fact, be distraught to know this is how I’d taken it), I took the two sentences as if they had said Kristin, you’re a total loser and a complete disappointment to everyone

As I kept driving through the night in my silent car, I was—for once—able to step out of the downward spiral and see how my reaction was totally disproportionate to the stimulus. In fact, if I looked at it objectively, my reaction and ultimate conclusion looked completely unreasonable. I know this person. I know that they don’t think this about me. The point they were making in our conversation had very little to do with me. Yet, why was something in me going to that dark, extreme place so easily?

I began speaking out loud in my dark car as I rolled through the lonely streets. I asked God to help me unravel what was going haywire in me; to show me what the exposed nerve was that was accidentally struck by my friend.

For me, it usually comes down to two things when I feel the weight of offense like I did in that moment: criticism and rejection. Like many people, I don’t take criticism well—at times I receive even the kindest feedback as a negative judgement and rejection of my person. If you say: maybe you should try doing it this way I sometimes hear well, you’re obviously stupid and a complete failure. I have long believed that maybe this is just my personality. That I am just sensitive, and that I just need to push through hard moments and move on.

I was stopped at a stop light, all alone at a lonely intersection late at night, when God spoke truth into my whirling mind. 

This isn’t about your personality. This is about what you’re choosing to believe.

Suddenly, I could see what was happening, clear as day.

I’d felt criticized because I was unsure of how I was handling a certain situation that my friend had brought up. I was unsure because—ultimately—I didn’t really believe that it was up to God to intervene and make things right. At the bottom, I thought I was the one in control, the one who had to fix everything, and I was feeling the anxiety that comes from the world weighing on your shoulders. Certainly, failure is inevitable if it is up to me to fix the world. No wonder I was feeling so agitated.

But the truth is that I am not in control. It is not all up to me. And that is a mercy.

A few minutes later I pulled into my driveway and sat there in the dark. I confessed it all, out loud, before God. I confessed to being defensive, to being overly critical of myself, to being willing to believe that I am worthless and a failure. Most importantly, I confessed how I’d taken on the belief that I was in control of things; I’d made myself God, rather than trusting in the One who is really God. I confessed how much I needed Him, and how much I needed it to be true that He is God, and I am not.

I am prone to think that the discipline of confession is a painful thing. That it is hard to admit to the things we think and do, that it is a punishment of sorts. But that night, I began to think of confession as a gift. I didn’t experience condemnation when I confessed reality; I experienced freedom from the self-condemnation that I’d put myself through all day. Confessing my unhealthy and misdirected thoughts cleared the air. It was like taking a deep breath after coming up from underwater. I knew that I could let this go; it was time to move on.

Confession has become a small and regular discipline for me. It is a regular discipline because it happens daily—sometimes hourly. It is small because it is such a little action that I take. A lot of times it is me pausing and stating the reality in my mind: God, I don’t believe that you’re in control of this or God, I think you really messed up here. Hearing myself confess these things forces me to re-examine what I am believing in the bottom of my heart, and it allows me to recalibrate and move on.

So how about you? Does the discipline of confession factor into your life? What does it look like?

The Discipline of Showing Up

This is the first in a series of thoughts and stories surrounding the spiritual disciplines that will be posted on Fridays. I am defining the term “spiritual discipline” very loosely to refer to a practice that one engages in regularly and intentionally in order to draw closer to God or deepen one’s relationship with God. Click here to read the intro post on the spiritual discipline series.

—-

When I was twenty-one years old, a two year old little boy, who I loved, died.

It is a really sad story. How can it not be—for any two year old, in any situation? I’d lived with him and his wonderful mom in a funny home that summer; it was a home full of random misfits trying to get their lives together. I was there as the official intern. For the first few days I thought that meant that I’d get to save people, or at least be instrumental in helping them turn their lives around. 

It only took a week or so for me to realize that I was there mostly to drive people around in an old, beat-up fifteen passenger van: to court, to the hospital, to job interviews. I also learned pretty quickly that it was best if I just kept quiet and tried not to give too much advice.

My saving grace that summer—that hard, hard summer—was the little boy. He was living at the house while he awaited a lifesaving kidney transplant. He was so cute and tiny and full of personality. And he loved me. I think that’s really what saved me—the fact that someone loved me there. He’d come into my room early in the morning and wake me up with his chubby little face with the tube coming out of his nose and taped down his neck all the way to somewhere where I couldn’t see it. He would find my camera while I was still in bed sleeping and I’d wake to the clicking of the aperture and a lens pointed centimeters away from my face. He would grin and giggle the moment I opened my eyes. So would I.

By the time I left to go back across town to school in the fall, there was a date set for his surgery. It was going to happen while I was away at camp for a week. I thought about him while I was gone, and about his mom. They’d waited for over a year for the surgery. They’d been living apart from their family in another country, and I knew how great a sacrifice it had been. I was relieved that the surgery was finally happening and hopeful that they might make it home soon.

A week went by.

When I returned seven days later, I checked my voicemail.

[BEEP] Hu-hullo? Hu-hullo, Kristin? Uh, this is Terry. Um. Uh. I’m, I’m so s-s-s-s-sorry to t-t-tell you this, but, he, he died. There was a complication and h-h-h-he died. I’m s-s-so s-s-sorry. [BEEP]

I was devastated. It was the last thing I expected to hear. 

Shaking, and barely holding it together, I called the house and talked to the woman who ran the place. They were inconsolable. This little boy had meant everything, to everyone—not just to me. 

It was over. There was nothing to be done. I had missed the funeral. It had all happened so fast.

When I hung up the phone, I knew. I knew I would never talk to them again. That though I said goodbye and promised to come by soon, I never would.

It hurt too much. And all I knew to do was to stop showing up. Because that was the easiest way to dodge the pain. And because what would I say?

That was twelve years ago. I haven’t been back.

—-

I have learned that I have this tendency.

When things get hard, when all seems lost, when it is just too much….I stop showing up.

I have good excuses. I can convince you of them all and explain how I have not bailed but rather maintained healthy boundaries. I have spotted the crack in the foundation and left the building before it crumbled. I have broken up with you so that you cannot break up with me. Wisdom, I call it.

Perhaps it is.

But maybe, just maybe, it is a lost opportunity.

There are a few places in my life right now where I am tempted to stop showing up. Things are hard or scary or I feel clueless in knowing how to act or what to say. I have these moments where I want to run and hide because I don’t know what is going to happen next; getting out of bed or off of the couch sometimes feels like pushing a boulder off of myself.

And when I bring these things to God, I think he is asking me to just keep showing up. I must kindly overrule my body and gently disagree with my fear. I must tell it to get up, to eat, to get dressed, to get in the car, to do the things that it needs to do. There are days when ordering my sad, scared little self to just show up is the only reason why I make it. It has become a discipline like fasting for me. Showing up is an act of faith, an act of obedience. It is my willing spirit telling my weak flesh that God is here, we don’t want to miss him, do we?

A funny thing happens when I show up. The hard conversations and awkward moments don’t suddenly disappear. No. I still find myself wanting to run away sometimes. But you know what? They’re not ever as scary as I think they are going to be. And even when things go badly, at least I’m still in the ring. I’m learning to wield things like humility and confession and repentance and perseverance and forgiveness and reconciliation, and these are good, good things. 

And when I show up—not just with my body but with my whole, open, vulnerable self—God usually shows up too. I’m learning that showing up is worth it just for that. 

—-

Six months after the boy died, I ended up in a counselor’s office.

I wasn’t really sure why I was there. I complained that I felt numb. That something just felt wrong

I told him the story of the boy who died and about how since then I had just felt…hard. Unable to engage. But I didn’t understand why.

His answer was somewhere along the lines of: Has it occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, your heart is completely and utterly broken? That you’ve been walking around for six months with a shattered heart, pretending you’re fine when you’re not? Would you like to talk about it?

And though I never went back there to that house or to those people, I found ways to show up, grief in hand, to my life. I wrote about that summer and I read my words to people who cared. I talked about it. I got past the fear of opening up that raw, painful wound, and dove in headfirst.

Showing up to reality didn’t make reality hurt less, but there was definitely something redemptive about it. 

God always has been and always will be present in the nooks and crannies of our lives that we’re sure he’s not in. I can choose to avoid those places and never be proven wrong. Or, I can practice the discipline of showing up, willing spirit guiding weak flesh, and dare God to meet me there.

So how about you? 

Are there places in your life where you’re scared to show up? How can you practice the discipline of showing up in the hopes of finding God?