Why I Read, Write and Listen

I went to a high school in a small town just northwest of Boston, Massachusetts. My teachers were edgy, dedicated and smart. I look back so fondly on them. Many were young, wide-eyed and ready to do their part. Among this clan, was my English teacher, Ms. Baldwin. Every word she said was smart and perfect. She went to Swarthmore for undergrad and was dating a tall and dark Harvard academe. She also wore these purple scarves a lot, and sometimes at the lunch table we’d talk about providing her with some accessorizing support but then again what did we know? We were fourteen year old girls. And besides, she liked her purple scarves, and probably wasn’t afraid to.

Ms. Baldwin lifted words off the page for me. The really wooden English terminology like “plot-line” and “past participles” that we poured over in eighth grade didn’t matter in Ms. Baldwin’s class. Now, the ideas mattered so when we read, everything was on the table. Discussions were rich and made me feel alive. In grammar-land, the ellipsis, or the “dot dot dot” is frowned upon when overused (I’m guilty, it’s so handy!). The ellipses clarifies nothing and points to an insufficiency. For precise people, this is annoying. But, in Ms. Baldwin’s class, we talked about the gaps and possibilities. We weren’t trying to pin as much down as we were trying to acknowledge the ellipses. I gave myself up to it.

Suffice it to say, I still cringe when I remember the way Ms. Baldwin spoke into my sweet little ego one ninth grade afternoon. We got our papers back on Mondays, and she had returned mine, with a “See Me.” See me? I thought. I had worked so long and hard on this paper! And I think, in the midst, of shedding new light on the “Raisin in the Sun” metaphor I may have found the answer to world peace. I knew Ms. Baldwin was tough but so was I. I wanted an A, not a “See Me.”

I walked up to her. “Hi,” I said.  Ms. Baldwin went right in: “So, you have this thing with words, Sarah,” she said, setting her coffee cup down. I felt so embarrassed. She kept going. “You have really great ideas, but why don’t you just write what you know…you know? Say what you mean. Be direct.” After a bit of conversation, some humbling instruction and a gracious second chance, I walked away from Ms. Baldwin’s desk dejected because I knew she was right. I had work to do if I wanted to be any good, and for better or for worse, I desperately did.

Still today, I have this obsession with words. I like to make things pretty and cozy with excessive adjectives. I love how Jane Austen uses words like “felicity” and “undulating.” They are beautiful and I just want to use them too. However, I respected Ms. Baldwin and tried to follow her lead. I tried to mean what I wrote even if it wasn’t poetic. In college, I became swept up in the postmodernism of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. It was all very enlightening and most of the time left me asking totally pointless questions like, “What are the limits of language?” “What is form?” “What’s in a word?” As an English major I wrote these heavy theoretical papers intrigued by the greater meanings of language and culture. I asked a lot of questions and got to read a lot of books. I sat in our large and stone collegiate library and sipped tea. I miss all of it: the tea, the library and the books.

Now, I’m on my way to being a full time therapist and still, I’m a word junkie. But, I’m also learning words are not always the point. What about un-wording? What about silence? What about the fact that some rich and unsearchable things are actually lessened by language. If I were to write another paper, I would write it about un-wording and I would write about how stories of suffering make us silent. It’s a paper that might not have a lot of words, but it would move you to tears.

My work as a therapist is a lot like the small scope of work I’ve done as a reader except infinitely more real.  There are gaps to fill in, ideas to flesh out and possibilities to name. But this time around, the gaps and unspoken truths are not in between humorous characters or dialects. The gaps are human ones: raw and fleshy. True and sorry.  They leave me perplexed, longing for justification and careful analysis.  “Now what did this seven year old do to get treated like that?” I suppose I could look to the research on victimization or generational poverty to give reason to something that has none. And in fact, I do. I do try and add things up. I do try and understand more. But, when I’m in the moment and in my office, watching a small mouth speak words heavier than freight train, I must rely on the grace of silence. There are truly no words.

But  it is hard, when the inclination is to speak into things. The richest passages of my books are annotated several times over. I want to make more of them. And so I’m asking: Is it okay to want to make more of someone else’s story?  To annotate someone else’s life?  And perhaps most importantly: Where is the line? 

I don’t know. I also don’t really know what human margins look like other than knowing they are private and precious. Any scribble room I have is nothing short of an honor.

This year, I am learning that I do not need to holler into emptiness just so I get an echo. I do not need to make music or chatter to fill the room even when everything feels too vulnerable to be useful. Usefulness is not the point. The point is loving presence. The point, like it was in Ms. Baldwin’s class is the gap- the fact that it’s full of potential and lacking precision. And I need stamina more than words. Dear God, I need stamina. To bear this kind of mystery. To bear this kind of silence.

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Falling

Fall in Texas is this catch-22 for me. On the one hand, I’m thankful to have (finally) stopped sweating. On the other hand, it’s still 80+ degrees; tweed jackets and boots necessitate the AC (what’s the point, folks? let’s keep wearing shorts), and besides that, the light is all weird. Has anyone ever noticed that? In Waco, the dusky light foreshadows October, but then I step outside and it’s steamy. With a sigh of disappointment, I try for gratitude acknowledging at least it’s not July.

Still, being the sap for setting, place and nostalgia that I am, when I remember my leafy Massachusetts hometown my heart skips a beat. Autumn was a peaceful and still sanctuary, even though the foliage was ablaze and the colors ran wild. My mom, with her beautiful knack for ritual and celebration, made a tradition of leaf-walks. Together, we would go in the woods behind my house and crunch through the leaves the maples had let go. We would hold hands and hum songs, and in between, I’d tell my mom all my secrets.  The crunching and the humming just made me spill. It was all sort of magical. I would ask her what her favorite color leaf was, and without fail, she would say, “yellow like the sun,” and I would say, “I like the orange because it’s a mix.”

On top of the trees, and the leaf-walks, and the leaf-piles that dotted our yard, there was the hustle of the season. Autumn is a season of intention, purpose and energy. For better or for worse, this is my stuff of life, so I welcomed their seasonal arrival even as a young child. The lazy days of summer are over! I get to go to school! And meet more people! And do more things! And work hard! It’s true and a little pathetic. My own neurotic harvesting, if you will.

But now, as a grown-up, beginning my fourth year away from my bright and dear East Coast Autumns, I am thinking about the way the falling leaves and the rising harvest-time shape the season. The beauty of the trees is also their downfall. Come December, the maples are skeletal and scrawny, and the leaves, glorious just a week ago, are gone. Thanksgiving is over. We have planned and gathered. We have prepared and stored. We have begun new routines and they have quickly become dull. Now, the light has gone away and the frost has come. There is a natural lull and winter covers things. And in Northern New England, that covering is for, well, a long time. We have no choice but to release the things that we had worked so hard to maintain and just settle in—we don’t hold our breath.

So I think about these things as I am carving out my corner of the world. I think about the losses that I must endure, and continue to endure so I can mature in the way I seek my God and find myself and engage creatively with others. Letting go has something to do with release and release has something to do with freedom and freedom, for us small human beings in this great big world, must include a bit of surrender.  So, might we live life with the passion and all the rich color of Autumn herself, but might we let it go as easily and as naturally as she does? Might we give in and surrender the attachments that keep us from running wild and ablaze? Might we let go of things that make us run ragged well past harvest time? Let us be alive! And when winter comes, let us be alive still.

I’m not sure how well I ease in and out, or up and down or over and under life’s transitions. It’s painful, to let go of the people, dreams and notions that we harvested. But, it’s necessary. Let’s face it: no one wants to welcome a seven month freeze, but you know what? To do otherwise would be to ignore what’s there, and delusion, when caked on too thickly over the years makes us crusty, hard-headed and quite….stuck.

One thing I know: Loss is hard, but when we give, just a bit, it begets wisdom, just like the changing season begets the budding crocus or the burnt leaf or the first snowfall. We are thankful that grace, once again, has arrived unanticipated, against all odds and all at once. And all the sudden we are down on our knees again, knowing that life is good and life is fleeting. And we let life in.

These Four Walls

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Recently, my roommate and I moved to a new residence. There’s nothing quite like a new nest and also nothing quite like moving in Central Texas heat at the end of June. It was a scorcher, but the day had an end and the new apartment was ours, so we did what we could to keep lifting the boxes. At the end of the day we sat on a hardwood floor, slurped some Popsicles and drank white wine like water. We drank and dreamed and talked about important things, but I’d like to think that the fluidity of that hour or two- the swish-swash of cooling off and settling in as best we could was the most important thing of all.

It seems that most people, including myself, make big deals of homecomings and housewarmings.  In part, I believe homemaking is a kind of christening. A new belonging. Gladly, I break such sacredness into the humdrum because it’s graceful to name the ways in which we belong. After all, good belonging, sounds and feels a lot like beloved- and really, what else is there? If I can say I’ve belonged to one or two or three beloveds and they’ve belonged to me, I think I would feel quite complete.

So this has got me to thinking: when we talk about homecoming, I want to already be home. If the process really is sacred like I’m saying it is, I just shouldn’t rush it, by I do. I find myself scheming how it is I might nest all at once. It makes me feel manic, and is definitely hard to live with. Indeed, such compulsion isn’t very cozy, but it happens. Especially to me. Especially when I have to wait. And sometimes, I think all good paintings, novels, songs…soul-food really is about the angst-old question of human-hood: “Could this be home?” The redemptive part that keeps us reading and listening and looking translates to: “Well, let’s make it home for now.”

I don’t know if this angst is good or bad or healthy or unhealthy. Maybe it’s just plain dramatic. Drama queen or not, I feel almost home-ness a lot, and the feeling is pretty real. I know that’ s sort of a paper-thin response. Elusiveness helps me to hold things more lightly. So, at the end of the day, I can throw up my hands, and say things, like “it is what it is.” And at the end of the day, this is what it is: my friend, settling in just as best as we can and me: cross-legged, delirious and thankful for sweet Popsicles and sweeter wine.

>Today it is Easter.

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It has been a whole month of springtime since I last blogged. Easter has come and gone, and it was a beautiful one. Easter is, of course, always beautiful.  This year’s particular beauty may very well have tumbled out of my pressing necessity for rebirth.  And when a necessity like this is quenched, grateful doesn’t cut it.
While Easter’s calendar date is off of our world’s radar for the time being, I’d like to write about it because I continue to feel it.  And yes, I know that as Christians, Easter really is the whole point of, well, everything, so resurrection is something we should practice everyday, like Wendell Berry says.  I know I’ve spoken about this before. Usually it’s community or prayer or bits of Scripture, perfect simplicity,  sweet melodies or laughter that make the sanctity of this Resurrection real to me.  But sometimes, on a more non-conventional note, the things that clear the mud from my eyes, are the springtime wildflowers.

This spring, I have become well acquainted with the stretch of Highway 6 between Waco and Bryan/College Station.  My Aunt and Uncle live on a ranch just outside of Bryan, and I had been before, but it has seemed more beautiful than ever these past couple of months.  Either Texas is growing on me or I’ve just started looking more carefully.  I might as well have driven down Highway 6 with my hazards on. Yesterday, I got to drive home from Houston on this sacred stretch of highway with someone who was first my roommate but now has become a dear friend.  We had been separated for the past four months while she was off on an adventure, and I deeply missed her and also her company, care and the way she would do things for me, like leave the light on.

We drove yesterday in an off-and-on kind of silence, and I think I speak for both of us when I say that we were filled with reconnecting, prayer-like songs on the radio and, of course, the bluebonnets.  And in this perfect and peaceful space between what feels like the end of an ending and the beginning of a beginning, I felt words like Hallelujah from the inside out. And in this very subtle way, Hope, and all of its attachments- goodness and mercy and lovingkindness are truer than they were yesterday. Resurrection has been practiced effortlessly because today it is Easter, and tomorrow will be too, and it satisfies.

Love-Lambs: Spring 2010

I just spent a weekend in New York celebrating a dear friend. What. A. City. I had been there before, but it’s been some time, so I felt like I got a second chance at a first impression.

Some first time visitors are awestruck by the looming buildings or the swarms of bodies climbing into the same subway car.  The same wide eyed folks might count how many languages they’ve  heard while perusing the MET, or how many boutiques hem in Brooklyn’s street corners. Others are inclined to feel the energy, the adrenaline, the rush of so many lives seeking so many differently similar things.  I’ve found, however, that most never fail to mention the pizza. Let’s be honest- food is a sincere love.

So this is what I’m writing tonight: about sincere love.  Like pizza which is most concretely cheese, tomato and starch, and most abstractly an Italian art form, love is best when it’s both.  It’s entirely simple (mozz+tomato+bread) and entirely complex (who knows anything about Italian cooking?). Give me a brick oven pizzeria in the West Village and a four cheese pie? “Buon Appetito!” I’m in love.

I haven’t found him (you know not to be cheesy but, “the one,”) yet, but I tell myself he is coming as quick as he can. And maybe, just maybe, the hold-up has to do with the fact that he’s been stumped by this mozzarella of a mystery too. I once experienced a break-up/breaking-off/ending of a dear relationship (read: most painful), in which I pleaded with this person who didn’t love me back to tell me why he ever referred to us as “we” if in fact, he didn’t love me the way I loved him.  I know it sounds pathetic, but it was the real thing.  He would always talk about OUR plans and where WE were going and what WE would do and how WE were different than everyone else. Did he not understand the significance of these pronouns? “Everybody wants a we!” I cried to him.  It was sad. As he shook his head, I felt bare and I never wanted to see him again.  We did not go together anymore.

And that’s what it comes down to doesn’t it?  Belonging.  Even before the philosophical truth that love is this astoundingly simple and complex wonder of a thing like light or wind or water, we first understand that we belong to our beloved.  I am yours, you are mine. Not like a possessive ownership thing. . But a BElonging, the long-awaited piece: tailored to fit a longing.

I have found myself, these past few weeks, increasingly grateful for the complexity of my God’s love for me. He is Abba Father, and Messiah King and Counselor Friend. He loves me.  Some nights, I am in such great awe that I might lift up my hands, or open my heart, or pray for purpose with more purity than the night before.  Or quite simply, I might just thank Him that He is my shepherd and I am His lamb and He is gentle with my stubborn bleating self.  And then I will roll over and sleep well. We cannot help but be found by the depth of His love. It seeks us out, beckoning, “Come, come, you belong with me.”   What sweeter words do we know?

New-ish Grown-Ups

Yesterday evening I celebrated the 29th birthday of my friend dear friend, J.  J is her nickname because she is petite, sweet and to-the-point and it has fit her for as long as I have known her. All honorary invitees to this party were total foodies so we dined well: chile-quile, homemade guacamole, and a creamy/cool dessert. The evening was slow, lingering and celebrating her was a process, as it should be.

My favorite writer of late, Barabara Kingsolver, pays much homage to the processes of life:  celebrations, but other things, too. She writes about organic transformation.  Even more, she trusts that the basics we often neglect, suffice as cultivation. I love Barbara for this, and I loved last night for this too. I’ll try to explain. This particular house I was at, is always a little wild and random.  Nothing is really set up just so, or has to be this way or just like that. The conversation lulls and then we go outside, wave to the neighbors, talk about tattoos, go back in. Time seems to take its time- slow and lazy and dawdling the way grownups told us not to.  The dishes stay undone and the dogs (all four) play. All is well, and I like it. I know that I’ll go home when it’s time but for now, I’ll stay and drink sweet red wine. To my friends in the yellow house, please keep inviting me over.  I like laughing with you. We stick to the basics: good food and good company and it always works out.

Things move along.  We step from one decade to the next. And I think I’m realizing that new things, or stages, or days, are more new-ish, not just plain new.  Take age for example.  Do you recall when age became very apparent to you? I do.I was probably four and focused on telling people I was four and three quarters.  Additionally, I was a girl. Four year are naturally self-obsessed, labeling all parts of themselves and others, too. (We’ve all had these awkward conversations) That small wrapped up bundle was a baby. The gray-haired woman with the old man was a grandma. My cool single babysitter with the poufy bangs and painted fingernails was a teenager. And the tall(er) woman next to me that made rules and kept me safe was a grown-up. 

I’m a twenty five year old grown-up, and last night J became a twenty nine year old one. I feel sort of grown-up on the inside, but I am not a very skilled rule-maker and I don’t have many people I need to keep safe. Maybe that’s coming.  Mostly, I feel like I have bits of all of my 4 year old and 9 year old and 15 year old (even thought I tell it to go away) and 21 year old selves in me all at once.  Something tells me it’s probably not a good idea to leave them behind altogether even though they might be unattractive, lest we forget who we were (are?). If we do, they’ll show up, in the middle of the night, drenched in loss: “I don’t like feeling deserted.”

Unexpected company. Let’s invite them in, out of the rain,  so they don’t stalk us.

We are new(ish) each day but the journey has mattered. And continues to. You know: that year we learned things aren’t as they seem. That year we lost hard. That year we realized we can’t always deliver. It adds up.  I guess it makes sense we wrinkle up too with all that baggage tucked away in our heart and soul. I just sure wish we didn’t. Perhaps my 32 year old self will be okay with it.

Grace Blankets

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