November 8, 2016 § 1 Comment
There are few things more effective at waking me in the morning than stumbling into the kitchen for some hot black coffee only to find a dead rat lying on the rug.
Since moving in with my grandmother and our two family pets, Scout, the black and white border collie, and Lucifer, the black cat named after the devil, this has happened to me not once, but several times. My grandmother’s house in Dallas runs up against a drainage ditch that all kinds of wild animals call home — possums, raccoons, squirrels, and, yes, rats — and either Scout or Lucifer (I can’t be absolutely sure which) wants to show me his respects by offering up these kills.
Common knowledge tells me it’s the cat who’s bringing me my morning surprises. After all, cats are notorious for hunting rats. But Lucifer is rather fat and lazy, and she hardly ever leaves my bedroom or her favorite sunlit cushion in the living room, so my hunch is it’s Scout.
Technically, Scout is my brother’s dog, but since my brother rents a single bedroom in a tiny house in Burbank and I live in a whole house with a yard in Dallas, he’s essentially become my grandmother’s dog and my dog.
Scout is a beautiful dog, and I’m not just saying that because he’s mine. Everybody thinks so. Or at least, all of my neighbors do.
He has a half white, half black face split perfectly down the middle (at one point, my family tossed around the idea of calling him Phantom). He’s smart, as most border collies are. His favorite activities include sleeping at the foot of my grandmother’s bed, taking an afternoon walk, rooting around in the backyard shrubs, being scratched by my grandmother behind his legs, eating ginger-flavored dog treats, eating table scraps of any kind, barking at pedestrians, barking at other dogs, barking at cats, barking at squirrels, and barking at absolutely nothing — usually, at night.
I like to call Scout “Fluff Muffin”. My brother likes to call him “Killer”. When I say, “Fluff Muffin, come get a treatie!”, my brother likes to remind me that once, “Killer” jumped into the air and caught a bird in mid-flight.
The dead rats I almost stepped on always made me wish Scout was a little bit less of a killer and more of a fluff muffin. That was, until I found the live rat.
I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room, enjoying an evening bowl of ice cream while watching the Olympics on TV, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a gigantic rodent with a long grey tail scuttle across the brick wall from the fireplace in the corner to the dark shadow behind the TV. It happened in a flash, in less than a millisecond, so quick I thought perhaps I was hallucinating. After all, can rats really climb on walls?!
It turns out, yes, yes, they can. They have sharp, strong claws that can grip the sides of just about anything. I discovered this while watching with horror a number of YouTube videos on the very phenomena later that week.
“Mim!” I said, turning to my grandmother where she sat in her favorite armchair. “I think I just saw a rat on the wall!”
“What did you see?”
“A rat, a huge rat!”
“A rat? No.”
“Yes, there was a rat! I saw it!”
Unperturbed, my grandmother adjusted her shoulders and went back to watching Kerri Walsh Jennings serve a volleyball effortlessly over the net.
“Well, Scout will get it.”
Scout lay asleep on the floor. When I sunk my fingers into his fur to wake him, he simply rolled over, exposing his belly for me to rub.
I did not finish my ice cream that night. I also slept with my bedroom door closed.
Several days later, I was back watching the Olympics, Mimi sitting in her usual armchair, I seated on the couch beside her moving on to my second piece of biscotti, when there again, the rat! It ran across the wall!
“Mim!” I shouted, jumping to my feet.
“What? What is it?”
“The rat! I saw the rat!”
“Behind the TV! There is a rat behind the TV!”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it? I can’t catch a rat.”
“But we have to do something!”
“Scout will get it.”
Scout’s ears twitched in his sleep. He did not open his eyes.
The next day, my grandmother called her yard man who is also the man who deals with her wild animal problems. He set up a small metal trap on the mantel above the fireplace. I stopped eating desert in front of the TV. My bedroom door stayed closed all day.
After a week, though, neither Scout nor the trap had caught the rat.
“Scout,” I said to him on one of our afternoon walks. “How come you won’t catch that rat?”
After all, he had caught all of those other rats and left them, dead, for me to find.
Scout stopped to sniff a maroon-colored rock, the same rock he always stops to sniff. A squirrel ran by and his ears perked up. I got no answer.
The next day, my father came to visit. When I told him about the rat living behind our TV, he shined a flashlight back there and sure enough, two white eyes stared back. My father smiled.
“I’m a master rat catcher,” he said. “But first, let’s see if Scout or Luci will catch it.”
It turns out, it isn’t that hard to get a rat from behind a TV. All you have to do is bang on the side of said TV and soon enough, the rat will flee. A few seconds into my father’s hitting the TV, in a flash, the rat ran across the living room floor, burrowing deep beneath my grandmother’s desk.
“Scout! Get that rat!” my father cried.
Scout looked between my father, my grandmother, and me, and then rested his head on his paws.
My father tried again, this time banging on the side of my grandmother’s desk. Sure enough, out came the rat! It streaked across the carpet in a grey blur, returning to its former home behind the TV.
“Scout! Luci! Get that rat!”
Again, neither cat nor dog moved.
My father shook his head.
That evening, my father set several traps all over the house — one beneath the TV, one in the fireplace, and one beside my grandmother’s desk. As grossed out as I was by the rat, I couldn’t help feeling bad for it. After all, my father was a master rat catcher. I remembered him catching rats, raccoons, and even a skunk when I was a kid. My rat didn’t stand a chance.
But if my father was a master rat catcher, then the rat must have been a masterful fugitive, because the next morning, all of the traps were empty and we never saw that rat again.
I did see another rat, however. Several weeks later, Scout was back to his old tricks, and one morning I almost stepped on a dead rodent lying in the middle of our kitchen floor.
“Scout,” I said, ruffling his ears as he panted up at me, staring lovingly through those big brown eyes. “I guess you’re half fluff muffin, half killer.”
Then, I used a rag to pick up the rat by its long, skinny tail and tossed it in the ditch outside.
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.
August 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
A few days before my 25th birthday, several of my older friends admitted that on their 25th birthdays, they’d woken up feeling rather like someone had punched them in the face. They were no longer in their early twenties. They were 25 now. They needed to get their lives together. They needed to grow up.
These were honest, innocent admissions, not meant to bother me, the one nearing this momentous occasion in her life, but they gave me pause.
At 24, I’d already experienced my fair share of difficulty: rough moves, disappointing jobs, and unexpected grief. I did not need the additional hardship of simply turning one age to another. Yet, as much as I tried not to give in to this myth of the quarter life crisis, I found myself waking up on my 25th birthday with the stark realization that where I was in life was not at all where I wanted to be.
I wanted so much more.
Not that my life lacked for good things. Quite the contrary. I have traveled some, taking to heart the advice I once read that when you are young, you should travel cheap and far and wide. I am full to the brim with deep, lasting friendships, for which I am ever more grateful day by day. I am perfectly healthy (well, except for that recent bacterial infection from a manicure — a first world problem if there ever was one).
And yet, I am not satisfied.
I want. So much. More.
What is this urge, this deep desire within me?
I wake with it in the morning. It ceases momentarily while I sit at my computer to write (this is, I’ve come to believe, one of the reasons I love writing). Then it is back as I drive across the city, as I work in coffee shops, as I walk my dog in the evening, as I fall asleep at night.
It is an urge to get up and go, a sense that if I sit here, alone, for too long, the whole world will pass me by. It is a sharp desire to rise and flee. It is a vague longing within the center of my chest. As I told a friend lately, I feel like a deep cavern of need.
I could write down a list of all of the particular things I want at this moment. Actually, being the overly-organized person I am, I already have. This list includes normal things any 20-something-year-old wants, both within reason (money for monthly yoga classes so I can stay in-shape) and without (an upscale flat in Paris where I can live with several obscure, but exceedingly rich and brilliant artists).
But I’m not convinced that any of these things will actually fulfill my cavern of need. I think my cavern of need is like an ever-growing pit: the more you fill it in, the larger it grows.
Half of me thinks I should cultivate contentment: don’t let your greediness for more taint the good things you already have!
But another part of me thinks I should press into this neediness: the world is full of so many lovely things, and we ought to be greedy for all of them.
I guess this life is full of contradictions. I guess both things can be true at once. This is the beginning of something I’m learning in my 25th year.
April 26, 2016 § 3 Comments
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
I suppose it’s a personality quirk, this tendency of mine toward melancholy. In fact, all of the personality tests I’ve ever taken (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, all of those free tests on BuzzFeed) tell me so.
If some people see the world through rose colored glasses, I see the world through lenses of gray.
Where others might find hope, I see a shattered world. Where others might find abundance, I see only what could have been.
Sometimes, this melancholy is warranted. Certainly, there are times when it’s appropriate to grieve, to feel downcast, to be sorrowful. But other times, this grayness can get the best of me.
Other times, I need to remind myself that while, yes, there is much to lament over, there is much to rejoice over too. There is so much goodness in this world. There is so much to give thanks for.
Which is why I’m reminding myself today: If a sacrament is a sign of God’s love in the world, then this life is flush with them.
It is eating bowlfuls of my grandmother’s tortilla soup, simmered to spicy perfection. It is long walks in a green-canopied neighborhood that smells overwhelmingly like sugar-sweet wisteria. It is planning trips to a ranch in West Texas and a gravel road in Iceland and a lake town in Northern Michigan for a dearest of friend’s wedding. It is being asked to be maid of honor by another close friend.
It is creamy lattes and bright green matcha tea and sour popsicles in the heat. It is morning sunlight illuminating my room like a sunbeam. It is hot black coffee and the friendly fern growing beside the windowpane. It is warm, shorts-wearing weather. It is looking above a concrete apartment complex to see a sky streaked in lavenders and blues.
It is Blue Bell ice cream eaten in the starlit sun room of an old yellow-painted house. It is green-sprouting vines growing along red brick walls and making friends with a local barista. It is fresh mint in Earl Grey tea and evenings of hot yoga.
It is this, all of it. It is a sign.
And it is good.
December 14, 2015 § 3 Comments
It hardly feels like Christmastime here in Dallas. I’m sitting outside under the leafy oak tree, sunlight dappling the green lawn, birds chirping in the limbs overhead. Earlier, I jogged around the block, enjoying the 70 degree weather in my T-shirt and running shorts.
Though it’s hardly Christmas-like, I am glad for the warmth. There is something sweet in weather like this, something that makes me rather nostalgic for summers in high school, for the excitement of driving down a rarely trodden dirt road, for the pleasure of climbing a hefty low-limbed tree.
This weather is making me feel good, making me feel something rather like joy, something rather like hope.
And of course, hope is at the heart of Advent.
But hope isn’t always so easy to come by, and the thing we have hope in during Advent (namely, that the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby) often seems silly at best and downright mad at worst.
This weather, though, it’s making me look at hope through new eyes. It’s making me pause and wonder, what if?
What if the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby?
And what if He did that so that He could grow up and die?
And what if, in dying, He turned back the clocks, unfolded the sheets of time, threw back the stars in their galaxies?
What if He’s doing that in us now, clawing away our crusty exteriors, breathing fresh air into the dark holes of our being, filling us up with honey and wine?
What if we stepped back from our expectations of what the world is and will be and always has been, and thought, maybe God came to Earth as a little baby?
What if we dared to hope, dared to look around for God, dared to see Him, if just for one brief instant, here in the sunshine of a balmy winter’s day, here, on Earth?
November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments
Some days, you just need to go.
You need to call up your friend who lives far away. You need to pack a red duffle bag with a random assortment of clothes. You need to buy a plane ticket and get on that plane and fly to Colorado.
Some days, when you feel twisted inside, when you feel a little like a deflated balloon, when you see a hundred looming question marks ahead, when it seems like you’re stuck in a maze and keep coming upon the same horrid corner, on those days, you need to take a deep breath of cold mountain air.
You need to remember what you forgot.
You need to remember who you are.
Some days, you need to spend time with a friend who knows you as well as you know yourself (and sometimes even better).
Some days, you need to drive a few hundred miles until you’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing but you and the silence and the sky.
Some days, you need to sleep outside in a tent to remember what it’s like to be vulnerable and afraid.
And some days, you need to stop for bread and soup to remember all that’s nourishing and kind.
You need to get up and go so you can return.
So you can face those giant question marks again.
And so you go.
And so you remember.
And you are filled with courage.
And you are filled with strength.
And you return.
And when you return, nothing has changed, not really. Nothing except you.
But that makes all the difference, you see, because you, you, are ready.
November 11, 2015 § 8 Comments
This week, I catch a plane from Dallas to Denver, flying north as the sun rises, landing in view of the snow-capped mountains, greeted at baggage claim by one of my closest friends who now lives here.
She is the kind of friend I hope everyone has at some point in his or her life, a friend who’s known me through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, a friend who understands my single-line cryptic text messages sent in moments of despair, a friend whom strangers stop to comment on how happy we seem together, a friend who suggests road trips when we’re both feeling a little stir-crazy, a little unsure of what-the-hell-we’re-doing-with-our-lives, a little in need of wide open spaces and close companionship and fresh autumn air.
I am twenty-four and she is twenty-five, and so we are both right out of college in this strange in-between time where neither of us have our dream jobs and neither of us live in a city we truly love and neither of us are entirely sure we won’t be stuck for the rest of our lives telling well-meaning acquaintances who ask what we do that we’re “in transition.”
It is a stage of life where we have a lot of ambition and hope and courage, and piled on top of that a lot of fear and doubt, a stage of life so often caricatured by statistics and glazed-over profiles in newspapers and magazines: the generation of millennials-come-of-age who can’t seem to launch, can’t seem to move out of their parents’ basements, can’t seem to get full-time jobs, can’t seem to get off of social media, and can’t seem to accept that this is real life and real life is hard and you can’t always get what you want, but, oh by the way, this is 21st century America so actually you can have everything you want, you just have to either do something you love or find happiness in the small things while doing something you hate, and it will help if you eat healthy and learn these meditation tricks and buy a standing desk and then, then, all will be well and you really will look like that photo of the happy-go-lucky lifestyle blogger with over a million followers on Instagram.
Both of us are fairly level-headed and fairly well aware that these stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, and need not apply to us. But both of us are also “in transition”, and in need of each other and of Colorado’s open sky.
Over the last few years, I have had countless conversations with friends and acquaintances around my age about how being in your twenties is just plain hard.
Usually, we talk about how up until now, everything in our lives was fairly mapped out: go to middle school, graduate; go to high school, graduate; go to college and, yes, graduate.
Now, many of us find ourselves in limbo. We have glimpses, dreams, visions of good and meaningful things we want to do with our lives, but how in heaven’s name do we get from here to there, and do we really have to take this boring office job or become a coffee shop barista or live at home with our parents along the way?
And even if we are fortunate enough to get the job we’ve always wanted or move to the city in which we’ve always thought would be amazing to live, suddenly, we see the cracks in the glamor and realize, okay, this isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I’m not quite sure this job is my vocation, or whatever, because it certainly isn’t filling me up to the brim.
I have been in both of these situations, and I think the word “hard” is apt. It may not be hard in the same way physical pain is hard or loss of a loved one is hard or poverty is hard or life as an immigrant is hard, but it is still hard, it is still confusing, and it still matters a heck of a whole lot when it’s happening to you.
I am a Christian, and I have many Christian friends, and this is usually the part of the story where we start talking about finding fulfillment in God rather than our situations in life. We might bring up God’s will and how it is mysterious and how we never quite know exactly what He’s doing in our lives but through this suffering God is probably drawing us closer to Him, and isn’t that wonderful, isn’t that just peaches and cream?
I think it is. I really think it is. I think so, because I’ve been there. I’ve been at a low low place, where I thought I would be eaten alive by depression, where everywhere I looked I only saw creeping blackness threatening to tear apart my soul, and the presence of God was the only thing that kept me going. The words from the Psalms were my lifeline, hemming me in, behind and before, a healing balm, a soothing whisper, and yes, I was drawn closer into the mysterious presence of God during that time.
And yet, I don’t think it is blasphemous or uninformed or impious to say that a flippant answer like this doesn’t always feel like enough. Sometimes, looking for God’s will doesn’t seem like it’s getting me anywhere, and sometimes, telling myself that this is all part of a plan is a flimsy way of saying I’m trying to make the best of something that right now just doesn’t make much sense.
My friend and I go to a park near her apartment and kick around a soccer ball. The sun is a high and bright November light. It is so warm, I wish I had packed shorts. We laugh as we reminisce about our crazy high school. We remember how I am no good at soccer. We toss around ideas for our upcoming road trip.
In the distance, the snow-capped mountains are one line of navy blue and another line of jagged bright peaks jutting high in the sky, a wall of solidity.
We go for a walk beside a sparkling creek, falling into step beside one another, continuing a conversation we’ve been having for years, one that began sometime in high school. We talk about our past, present, and future. We talk about our dreams.
Some of those dreams have become a reality. Some are still half-formed. Others are dreams we didn’t even know we had until they miraculously came true. God is surprising that way, I guess, always giving us what we need when we don’t even know we need it, always slowly revealing our insides to ourselves mysteriously over time.
This morning, I wake in the dark apartment to snow falling quietly. It is peaceful, a cold blanket, a fresh presence, and as I watch the flurries fall I think, we’re pressing into the uncertainty of a quarter of a century and together, in Colorado, under the sharp-edged mountains and the softly falling snow, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.