February 14, 2019 § Leave a comment
Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed following the trajectory of the cross-generational music partnership, Liturgical Folk. They’re the unexpected artistic pairing of a retired Anglican priest who writes remarkable religious poems and a young songwriter who composes unique folk songs. If you missed it a while back, I wrote about them for The Dallas Morning News.
This past week, I published a follow-up story about their latest albums and the success of their project overall for Christianity Today. As it turns out, Liturgical Folk is part of a broader trend within the Anglican community right now — revitalizing music in the church with liturgy, poetry, and personal response.
September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
For the past few years, I’ve accumulated a variety of potted plants. Sea green aloe vera. Flat-leafed jade. Spindly fire sticks. Some were gifts from friends; others, clippings from the cacti in our backyard; and still others, splurges bought at Home Depot and the local nursery when my soul was hungry for something green.
I am fairly good at tending them — so far, I’ve only killed one, and that from overwatering. Lately, though, I’ve realized that almost every single one of them needs repotting. They’ve outgrown their old pots, heavy leaves drooping over the lips onto my windowsill, long stems jutting up, up toward the window and the sky. Some of them are three times the sizes of the pots they call home.
It’s high time for repotting.
It is still hot in Texas in September. Sweating, I haul a large pot from the tangled mass of unused pots in our backyard, along with a bag of fresh dirt and rocks to line the bottom. First up: my zz plant, also known as a Zamioculcas Zamiifolia. It lives in a tiny, round, grey clay pot, five thick stalks covered in glossy flat leaves. Sturdy. Healthy. An easy first go.
Easy, I think, until I attempt to remove it. The plant won’t budge, and soon I know why. When I finally manage to pry the zz plant from its pot, I realize the whole bottom half of the pot is thick with fat roots wound tightly around each other in a massive ball. Finally freed, the roots hang down a bit too much like ropy worms than I would like, the roots nearly as long as the plant is tall. There was hardly any dirt in that pot at all, I realize. Mostly, it was just roots growing steadily in closed darkness.
A longing stirs in me as I stare at the zz plant held in my hand, white roots dangling above its new pot half-filled with fresh dirt. I feel my own limitations, the constraint of my own tight space pressing against my metaphorical thick ball of roots. How many of you, like me, need a new pot? Space to spread our roots, to sink deeply in rich soil, to stretch ourselves toward the sun? How many of us are cramped deep in dark spaces?
Like the zz plant, we grow substantially, faithfully within our limitations. Like the zz plant, when we’re set in our big, new pots, we will be ready, ready to prosper, flourish, ready to thrive. In the meantime, we grow quietly.
I set the roots of the zz plant deep within its new pot, giving them room to lengthen, to widen. I imagine the plant is happy because it can suddenly breathe deeply again after its many years of constraint. I wonder what it is like to have space to be fully what it was meant to be. I set the zz plant in a prominent spot in my room, a green reminder of what’s to come.
September 18, 2017 § 2 Comments
Lord, have mercy on the artists.
Have mercy on the ballet dancer who’s memorized the steps for her upcoming audition so perfectly she dreams the movements in her sleep, her toes pointing and flexing beneath the sheets. She arrives early to the audition, her tired pink leg warmers drooping along her calves, her worn point shoes tied at the ribbons and slung over one arm, her eyes shining with the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time she will get a part in the dance.
Have mercy on the painter who wakes early every Saturday morning to catch the golden light at the dawn of day. She arranges her paint brushes, canvas, and easel at the edge of the water, listens as the birds begin to chatter, watches as the sunlight first touches the lake. During the week, she works as a waitress, balancing trays of ice water and fried fish with a strong arm that now holds her palette, but when people ask her what she does she lays claim to her true nature and in the face of their skepticism (How do you make a living painting landscapes?), she answers boldly, I am an artist. It is a labor of love.
Have mercy on the pianist who’s taken private lessons in the living room of an elderly lady with shock white hair since she was three years old. She volunteers at her church now, playing old hymns that still tingle her nerves, her fingers flying across the chipped black and white keys. She dreams of one day playing on a Steinway at Carnegie Hall. And why not? Her parents always told her she could do anything. And it isn’t out of vanity or ambition that she practices arpeggios and scales day after day, but because she loves the clear and complex sound of the chords as they progress gracefully. She only wants an audience for her music, an audience who appreciates the great composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich. She wants to perform well, for the music to transport those who listen.
Have mercy on the actress who cannot decide whether she should stay in her small hometown where she teaches acting at the local high school and performs starring roles in the community theater or move to Los Angeles where she might attend audition after audition and never receive a single callback in ten years. She fell in love with theater when she was thirteen years old because the theater kids were weirdos too, and she thinks she has real talent, thinks she might actually be somebody someday. Her motivations are mixed: she loves theater, enjoys it for what it is, but she also wants to be rich and famous, a true Hollywood star. She doesn’t move because she’s afraid of this monstrous ambition hidden deep within her, and yet, she probably is talented and hard working enough to catch the eye of any producer.
Have mercy on the writer who wakes every day before the sun, brews strong black coffee, lights several candles and a stick of sweet incense before sitting hunched at her laptop, stringing word after word, spinning stories out of smoky air. On her good days, her imagination carts her off to magical lands where she meets strange and interesting characters who come to life on her computer screen. But on her bad days, she is full of fear, a fear that keeps her from that other land, a fear that says, Nothing you create is worth anything. It is all the vanity in Ecclesiastes, words dispersing like fine blown dust.
Lord, send your grace upon these your people. In their failures, in their ambitions, in their needs, remind them that You love them. Remind them that You are pleased whether they do anything or not. Remind them that the tasks set before them are worthy. Remind them that You bear their disappointments with them, that they are not alone. Remind them that they have something to offer. Remind them that they are, simply, children of God.
August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Well, here I am.
Finally, another blog post.
Last week, I turned 26, and a birthday seems as good a reason as any to sidle back to this small (and lately, neglected) corner of the Internet to set down a few of the thoughts bouncing around in my head. After all, what’s the point in having a blog if you don’t use it as an excuse to formulate some of those fleeting ideas that strike you on the drive to work, in the shower late at night, over a beer with a friend, during an overpriced yoga class when you should be focussing but, let’s face it, can’t.
So, here I am.
Last year, I wrote about turning 25. This year, instead of writing about turning 26 (really, it was uneventful in a good way), I’ll share some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. These ideas have helped me navigate some unfamiliar territories — a new job, the usual relationship drama, my own inner neurosis that have plagued me forever and probably always will (don’t lie, you know you have them, too!).
Maybe these ideas will help you, too. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re kind of interesting. Or maybe you’d rather read something that’s definitely interesting, like that time a few months ago when I got lost in the Himalayas in the dark. Either way, here’s to another year of trying to make it through this weird, confusing, often difficult, but definitely beautiful, world.
A friend once told me that all of life is simply a series of decisions. While I suppose that’s rather reductive, I think he’s onto something. In a given day, we’re required to make a number of decisions, from slightly inconsequential decisions about where to eat lunch to more important decisions about who to date, where to work, and what to believe. Decisions are mandatory, and learning how to make a decision well is a surprisingly useful skill.
But if you’re like me, choices can be paralyzing. Not necessarily whether to eat that second piece of cheesecake (the answer is always, yes, definitely eat it), but whether to live here or there, whether to take this job or that job, whether to befriend this person or that person. What makes these decisions so challenging is not that one choice is the boring but morally correct choice and the other the exciting but morally wrong choice — that’s a different scenario. Rather, both choices offer potentially good outcomes, and choosing one over the other necessarily cuts off a potentially good thing from happening.
In other words, as another friend pointed out, we can expect an element of sorrow in every choice we make, because making a choice by necessity requires losing out on something good.
Why is knowing this helpful? By accepting disappointment and sorrow as a given in every decision we make, we’re empowered to act. We can enjoy the fruit of our decisions while simultaneously realizing that something is lost — and that’s sad. It’s not how it’s meant to be, even if it is that way on this side of heaven.
on going slow
I spent the summer working in a bookstore, and you wouldn’t believe the number of titles piling up on our shelves that are all about slowing down in an age of distraction, in an age of busyness (or maybe you would believe it; busyness is rather endemic in America, after all). All of these books offer something valuable — tips and tricks for leading a less hectic, more meaningful life. But I would like to take the idea of slowing down a bit further.
Often, we find ourselves in situations we don’t like. Maybe it’s a relational situation. Maybe it’s a difficult job. Maybe it’s being fed up with the same old miserable problems day after day. Often, our response to challenging situations like these is to violently end them by lashing out, quitting, or simply shutting down. Sometimes, of course, this needs to happen. But other times, a more prudent, slower response is better.
Lately, I’ve been reading Jesus’ parables (and an excellent book about them: Tell It Slant by Eugene Peterson). Jesus’ parable of the fig tree struck me in particular. The fig tree isn’t growing or producing fruit, and it’s owner wants to cut it down in anger and despondency. Instead, however, he decides to give it one more year, puts a bit of manure on it, and waits. Adding the manure is banal. It’s a bit gross. It requires patience to see what happens. But that little bit of manure may make all the difference in a tree that’s barren and a tree that’s ripe with fat, sweet figs.
In the same way, making small adjustments to disagreeable situations and waiting with patience to see what happens is often wiser than shutting something down. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the same problems will bother you next year. Or maybe, just maybe, that little adjustment was all you needed.
Maybe, you need to go slow.
If you got this far, maybe you’re interested in some of the other things I’ve written lately. I frequently write for The Well, a nonprofit in Oak Cliff that helps those who struggle with mental illness. Here are several of my latest pieces, including one on how pets help the mentally ill and another on the importance of community for the mentally ill.
October 5, 2016 § 5 Comments
For me, the true horror of depression lies in its rootlessness.
The black tar of melancholy appears suddenly from some unseen place, seemingly causeless. One moment, your day is bright and shiny. The next, you’re awash in a wave of blue. Something sinister, sticky, and horribly familiar rises from the bottom of your gut, threatening to envelope you in an obsidian shadow, and as much as you try to articulate the overpowering sensation gradually swallowing you whole, you cannot.
When you get a bacterial infection in your thumb from a manicure gone wrong, you know that you should visit your doctor for some sound medical advice. And when that bacterial infection spreads to your pointer finger a week later, you know that it’s because you didn’t take your doctor’s advice to apply that topical anti-bacterial ointment three times daily. In fact, you didn’t even buy that topical anti-bacterial ointment because it cost $50 and wasn’t covered by your crummy insurance policy.
But with depression, it’s often different. With depression, you’re often unsure what’s causing the suffering, let alone how to handle it. Sure, there are medications, like Zoloft and Prozac, but these merely treat the symptoms, rebalancing the chemicals in your brain so that you feel better. They don’t address the root cause because the root cause is often entrenched deep in your mysterious self. It’s not easily isolated. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to exist at all. Moreover, medications are for severe forms of depression, not the milder forms which temporarily afflict high numbers of adolescents and adults today.
This milder, but nonetheless real, kind of depression has emerged in my life several times in different ways, like a creature always appearing in a new mask, taking me by surprise just as I think I’ve beaten him.
In high school, it took the form of long walks at night while the darkness wrestled like storm-tossed waters in my belly. It was crying in the middle of rehearsal for a play and my director looking at me confused. It was a record playing over and over in my head saying, I will never be happy, things will never be okay.
In college, it was standing gloveless on a snowy, silent, moonlit field, letting the frigid wind freeze my slender fingers. It was refusing party invitations, preferring my own unhappy company to the unbearable camaraderie of others. It was thinking about my future and seeing nothing but a black hole, ready to suck me into nonexistence.
In my early twenties (since I am 25 now, it feels like I can write about my early twenties), and on my bad days, I pictured depression as this black-clothed, red-eyed demon barreling like a tornado down the highway after me. I saw myself driving a red pickup, stepping on the gas, speeding away from him as fast as my little engine could. And with every puff of wind, every mile covered, the demon grew taller, stronger, and more insane. He became a swirling cloud of shadowy fire, and eventually, I knew I’d run out of gas.
For a long time, I felt ashamed of these periodic dark moods. After all, aren’t all high schoolers angsty? Doesn’t every college student feel sad from time to time? Isn’t life in your early twenties supposed to be challenging? I told myself my dark moods were nothing unusual. I told myself I was selfish. After all, I was white and upper middle class. Think of all the people less fortunate. I should be happy. Anything less, and I was ungrateful.
Of course, all that denial, all that dampening of my true feelings only made things worse.
I am now in a happy moment of my life, a time in which I don’t have to look for the silver lining — everywhere I look the world is aglow in silver and gold — which makes it strange to look back on difficult times and write about them. On the one hand, it is easier to write about them through the distance of time. On the other hand, it feels immensely vulnerable, and even weirdly dishonest, given my current equanimity. But I find myself wanting to write about my periodic bouts of depression anyway, because like all things that happen to us, they played an essential role in who I am and what I believe today, and I’m trying to understand what, exactly, that role is. Writing always helps me do that.
Most religious traditions claim that suffering, be it physical, emotional, existential, or what, can be a source of great spiritual transformation. For Buddhists, reaching enlightenment involves recognizing that suffering is merely a part of normal life. For Hindus, suffering is the result of karma, so if you want to be healthy and happy in your next life, you’d better act well in this one. In my own religious heritage, Protestant Christianity, suffering is the unfortunate result of sin, but the all-powerful, loving God uses this suffering to bring mankind closer to him.
For most of my life, the idea that God uses suffering for good has been anathema to me. That’s great if he does, but if he’s all-powerful, wouldn’t it be even better if he simply got rid of the suffering altogether? In fact, doesn’t it prove he isn’t so good after all, since he has the power to end suffering, but doesn’t? In philosophy, this conflict between an omnipotent, good God and the existence of suffering in the world is called the problem of evil, and for a long time, the problem of evil was one of the main reasons I could not and never would call myself a Christian.
The thing is, though, when you’re actually suffering, when your depressive tenor reaches an all-time low, you don’t care too much about the contradictory nature of God. All you care about is receiving some sort of relief, some sort of balm. And when all else fails, you turn to God, even a God you’re not convinced exists, in a last ditch effort for help.
Or at least, that’s the way it was for me.
One evening several years ago, I sat on a twin-sized bed, a book lying open on my lap. But I wasn’t reading. I was staring out the window, my emotions churning and disoriented. I felt so poorly, like I would never be able to read another word, let alone get out of bed, that I decided to temporarily suspend my disbelief in God and ask him, please, to ease the pain.
Amazingly, something happened.
As I stared out that window into a cold, snowy night, an image appeared in my mind, an image of a strong, firm hand reaching through my bruised ribcage to cup its soft, steady palm around my wounded heart. And as my heart rested against that warm hand, settled into it, unclenched its tension, a sense of peace settled around me, and I entered a momentary solace, a temporary reprieve.
In the morning, the melancholy descended upon me again. But I carried with me the memory of that comforting hand, using it to wield off despair. I was still suspicious of God and of prayer, still unsure whether I’d received an actual answer or simply conjured the image I needed. And yet, I guarded the memory of that hand, of that fleeting peace, reminding myself of it whenever the shadows slunk too close, threatening to cave me in.
This experience nudged me toward a deeper investigation into my religious heritage, but it did not convince me of the existence of God, nor did it resolve in my mind the seemingly unresolvable problem of evil.
So, maybe God comforted me in a moment of despair. But if he were a good God, there wouldn’t be any despair to begin with, any need to comfort me at all. He would have done away with all that suffering long ago, maybe never allowed it to exist in the first place.
It wasn’t until my investigation led me to the story of Jesus that a realization clicked into place.
Of course, I knew the story. Growing up, I’d heard it in church services, talked about it at my evangelical high school, and even studied it from a literary perspective in college.
Yet, I’d never let the words soak into my skin. I’d never imagined what it must have been like for Jesus when Pontius Pilate handed him over to be flogged, the wild whip stripping away the skin on his back until he was nothing but mashed red meat, the crown of thorns smashed onto his beaten and blood-drenched forehead, the nails hammered forcefully into the palms of his shivering hands. They say in order to breath during crucifixion you must lift your whole body up by your hands, and I see Jesus’ palms torn open by nails digging sideways through flesh and bone.
And then Mary, his mother, comes to stand below him, with Jesus’ beloved friend John at her side. And they look up at Jesus with tears in their eyes, and how deeply Jesus must have wanted to be let down from that instrument of torture to be with them. And then Jesus cries out to God, but God has forsaken him. And how lonely and abandoned he must have felt. How much he must have suffered. Really, in those last moments of his life, he experienced all the various kinds of suffering that exist in the world.
Which, of course, means he was and is acutely aware of every kind of depression, from the occasional down day to the severest mood swings.
Christians often describe Jesus as a compassionate God, and as I began to reflect on the story of Jesus’ death, I began to think he must be. Consider the word compassion. It comes from two Latin roots: com, which means “together”, and pati, which means “to suffer.” These roots combined mean “to suffer with.” To be compassionate, then, is to share in the suffering of another.
And isn’t this exactly what Jesus did, what he’s still doing today? He knows intimately what it feels like to suffer – be it from depression, from physical illness, from grief, from poverty – he knows what all that’s like because he knows what it was like to die on the cross. And he cries with us because he knows our pain. He cries for us because he knows what it’s like to suffer. In fact, he went to the cross to be able to enter into our suffering with us, to take our suffering onto himself, to let us participate more fully in his divine life.
This suffering with us, this entering into our pain, this compassion is what allowed me, for the first time, to trust God, to believe he wasn’t at best, indifferent, or at worst, malicious, but instead, fully aware of my tendency toward melancholy and fully wanting to bare that burden with me.
Of course, there’s still evil, there’s still suffering, there was and is and always will be, and this is a conundrum, a difficulty that philosophers and theologians continue to debate and struggle over, but if I were to believe in a god, in any god, it would be the God who tackled the problem of evil head on by jumping deep into the middle of the most painful experience of all. As the philosopher Peter Kreeft put it, the only way we get God off the hook for all the suffering in the world is for him to hang on the hook. Then, and only then, can we trust him to understand, trust him to comfort.
I prayed once more that year, a unique prayer said in another moment of blue.
Again, I stood in my small room, looking out the window at the nighttime snowdrifts. Again, my insides were steaming with boiling black sap. What I wanted more than anything was another moment’s reprieve – like that night when it felt as if God reached through my chest to massage my poor heart. And I didn’t want it to be fleeting. I wanted to know with solid assurance that what I felt was real, that I wasn’t making it up in my head, that God actually appeared to me, and would appear again.
And so I suspended my disbelief once more and asked, if God existed, really, truly existed, that he make me turn to him again and again until I saw his face, even if what made me turn to him was depression and that meant letting me descend into the deepest, most severe darkness I’d ever experienced. If that’s what it took, let it be.
In that moment, I intuited what I now believe: that the presence of God is often strongest and most apparent in our deepest fears, and it is often through pain that what is hidden becomes abruptly illuminated. Jesus said those who mourn are blessed, a counterintuitive, bitter truth I began to understand just a little through my own invisible, blood-red wounds.
He’s always standing solidly in the center of our struggles, holding our hands, knowing, knowing what it’s like, realizing that we don’t always understand, and inviting us to trust him and walk a little further all the same.
September 29, 2016 § 4 Comments
A friend of mine recently introduced me to The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, a trilogy of prayer manuals that are a modern reworking of fixed-hour prayer. With roots in Judaism and early Christianity, fixed-hour prayer is one of the oldest Christian spiritual practices. While it has evolved over the centuries, it is essentially the practice of praying (often by chanting) certain predetermined prayers at certain predetermined times of the day.
Since learning about The Divine Hours, I’ve realized I’m a bit late to the game. Now, I come across the books everywhere: on friends’ bookshelves, tossed around in various conversations, and even in the occasional artsy Instagram post.
Isn’t that how it often is? Something can be right in front of your face, and you don’t notice it until you need it.
On a late summer morning, my friend and I settled ourselves beneath a blanket, mugs of steaming coffee in our hands, and chanted together the prayers and passages allotted for the day. It was an unusual thing to do in her modern apartment, our monotone voices joining a legacy of petitioners extending far into the past. While at first, the chanting felt strange on my lips, uncomfortable even, in its sincerity and unconventionality, soon, I settled into the mantra, our low voices soothing to my soul, the simple act of singing words of thanks, of request, of remembrance, of praise good in and of themselves.
The prayers set me firm in my body for the day, but more than that, I liked what Tickle wrote in her introduction: “The Divine Hours are prayers of praise offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and faith to God…The fact that the creature grows strong and his or her faith more sinewy and efficacious as a result of keeping the hours is a by-product (albeit a desirable one) of that practice and not its purpose.”
In a world in which there is so much pressure for everything from the work we do to the prayers we pray to have immediate material efficacy, it was a relief to simply enter into a practice with no other goal than to see and acknowledge what is good.
A passage that continuously appears throughout The Divine Hours, and one that draws my eye again and again, is this verse from Psalm 55: In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice. My friend pointed it out to me on that first day, and each time it reappears, I think: yes, that passage is for me.
Because isn’t that what I do all day long, complain and lament, both to others and to God? And isn’t that a picture of grace, that these complaints and laments do not fall on deaf ears, that however big or small my daily trials, they are always heard, they are always acknowledged.
This, I think, is why I’m coming to love The Divine Hours. This continuous, all day, everyday, looking for God. This turning every complaint and lament, every hope and exultation, every thought, small and large, up to the sky in habit-forming rhythm. This basic movement of the lips and of the heart.
July 6, 2016 § 4 Comments
Every so often, usually in the late afternoon when I’m a bit tired and would rather like a latte or a nap, a small voice in my head wakes up and this is what it says: “You, Elizabeth Hamilton, you are a failure. You have tried, and you have failed. You don’t have what it’s got.”
When this happens, I usually try my best to ignore the voice, and when that doesn’t work, I usually try my best to reason with it. “No, no,” I say, “I’m not a failure. Look at all I’ve accomplished! Look at all of the good things in my life! Why would you say such a thing about me!?”
Yet, despite my best efforts, the voice in my head usually wins. Oh, occasionally I manage to pile enough of my accomplishments and a litany of good things in my life on top of the voice to muffle its insults, but the effort always leaves me emotionally drained and wondering if that voice might be correct after all. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I don’t have what it’s got.
I know I’m not the only one out there with this voice in her head, and that’s got me thinking: why, exactly, do we think we’re failing? And why is failure such a bad thing?
And here is what I’m learning, here is what I’m glimpsing through the fog: failure isn’t such a bad thing, and though we’ve all failed in some ways at some things and succeeded in some ways at others, we ourselves are not failures, at least, not in the way the small voice thinks.
When we fail at something, it hurts, yes, but it is within that space of disappointment and even despair that, if we’re willing, we can begin to understand greater truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.
I have failed and succeeded at a number of things in my short life. Yet while each failure rocked me to the core, split me open, broke me down, I found myself opening up.
I found myself learning through failure what it was that I truly wanted, which turned out to be quite different than what I thought. I found myself developing empathy for others in similarly shattered situations, and out of this empathy came the greatest gift of all: love. Not love in a wishy-washy, I love M&M’s sort of way, but a deep, abiding love that sees the humanity in others and wills their good.
And so, the voice in my head is wrong to call me a failure. Because what is failure without a definition of success? The two are wrapped together, opposing concepts known only as one.
To the voice in my head, success is immediate, and usually involves a vague notion of prestige and money and power. But with a little consideration, I’m seeing a new vision for success, one that finds fulfillment even in the center of disappointment, one that lets setbacks split me open so that a never-ending flow of warmth and light spills forth, one that realizes how you and I and everyone else are at our best when we are softened, and that softening comes most generously through the bump of a fall.
*Photos from my recent trip to Iceland.