October 10, 2022 § Leave a comment
At the end of summer, I packed the car with a cooler, a plump duffel bag, and two paper sacks of medicine. I got up early, and with a thermos of hot coffee in hand, hit the highway west out of Dallas.
I was headed to the desert. But I was not sure if I would make it.
The last two times I had attempted a trip of this magnitude, I’d canceled at the last minute because of my poor health. This time, I felt stronger. But it wasn’t until ten hours later, when I parked in front of a small cottage in the heart of a canyon encircled by dry desert mountains, that I realized I was stronger. Strong enough to make it all that way.
I’m pretty sure there were more wild javelinas than people in this Far West Texas outpost. It was quiet, but not still. I watched the long grey ears of a jackrabbit disappear into the underbrush. A stag paused beside the tangled thorns of a mesquite tree. Dozens of birds clustered in the juniper bush outside my bedroom window—red cardinals, blue jays, hummingbirds.
I was there to write, and read, and rest. But mostly I was there to see if my body could withstand it.
On day three, I attempted a drive down the mountain to visit the one grocery store in town. The car bottomed out on the dirt road just as the sky started spitting rain. I was convinced I’d punctured a tire on one of the road’s sharp rocks. I turned around at the nearest pull off.
Back at the cottage, the Internet was out. It was raining hard now. Thick ribbons of hot water streamed across the road. This is flash flood country. The dry ground can’t soak up the rainwater fast enough, and rivers appear in minutes where before was only dust and stone.
All the fear from my years of illness—of sudden, unexpected, and debilitating catastrophe—flooded my mind, creating an empty crevasse where common sense normally exists. I held my phone up to the window in search of service that was as elusive as the mythical jackolope.
As quickly as it came, the clouds cleared. I looked out the window at the chirping birds.
I thought, Look at the birds of the air.
I thought, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
There, hanging like a Crayola drawing between two mountain peaks, a shimmering rainbow appeared.
I am not one who takes much stock in rainbows as signs. But there was something comforting about this bow, which evoked the happiness of a carefree child, the kind of peace that really does pass understanding. I decided to believe in it. To believe that, as the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich put it, All shall be well.
Julian would have earned that phrase given she lived during the Black Plague, which wiped out something like half of the European population. All shall be well meant something deeper than, “everything will turn out all right.” It meant the very matrix upon which creation rests is moving toward flourishing. It meant that, despite many signs pointing to the contrary, at the heart of the universe lies a profound and trustworthy love.
The next day, I hiked for two miles. My body worked in ways it hasn’t in over a year. It was cloudy all weekend, so I never saw the Milky Way. But that rainbow lasted nearly all afternoon.
This post originally appeared in my September newsletter.
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August 29, 2022 § Leave a comment
I’ll be honest, I’ve had a difficult time deciding what to write in this post.
At the beginning of August, I began my second Lyme treatment, and I’ve spent most of this month in a drowsy haze.
I sleep. A lot.
I watch reality TV (Love Is Blind, anyone?).
I pet the kitten.
I think about bears in hibernation as I snuggle deeper into a plush blue blanket and reread a paragraph in my novel, trying to make sense of the words.
My doctor calls this “brain fog.” An inability to focus, to keep my eyes open, to feel refreshed even after ten hours of sleep and a nap. Brain fog is a common symptom among Lyme patients, though (thankfully!) I’ve rarely struggled with it until now.
She says it’s a sign of the treatment working.
She promises me it won’t last forever.
Still, after the joy of a relatively healthy June and July, this fog plugging my head can feel like a step in the wrong direction. Of course, I wanted my journey back to health to be a straight line upwards and to the right.
But the truth is: progress is rarely linear. Improvement is nearly always more like a jagged line.
And what might look like failure on the outside could be, in truth, the most profound achievement. Success is circumstantial.
These thoughts flutter through the fog in my head, small, bright birds singing hopefully. They offer me encouragement. I hope they do the same for you.
This post originally appeared in my August newsletter.
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August 1, 2022 § Leave a comment
Recently, I told a dear friend, “These days, I feel about God the way my kitten seems to feel about me after I give him a bath.”
I had been giving my new kitten a bath every few days because he came to us with ringworm, a potentially deadly but easily treatable diagnosis for a kitten, and regular baths with special antifungal shampoo were supposed to help.
Most of the time, the kitten can’t get enough of me. He’s either attacking my foot or sleeping on my stomach, and any time I leave the room, he trots along in my wake. My husband calls him a Momma’s Boy.
But during those first few minutes after the bath, when he looks more like a wet rat than a tiny black kitten, that little guy wants nothing to do with me. He slinks off to some dark corner of the house to lick his fur, and anytime I pass, he eyes me warily.
“I haven’t lost my faith in God,” I tell my friend. “I’ve just had enough of Him and the world He’s made to last for a while, and I kind of wish He’d leave me alone.”
Sometimes, when I say things like this, I wonder if it might be better if I kept my thoughts to myself. After all, a thought like that doesn’t exactly encourage a sense of tenderness, let alone love, towards God. If anything, it enhances a kind of confused distance between our challenging lives as creatures and our (sometimes) obtuse creator.
But then I remember the time roughly a year and a half ago when another friend invited me to use her late husband’s prayer shed. That day I was having a flare-up of my Lyme symptoms, and I was angry. I was not at all Zen or pious, like I figured one should be when preparing to use a prayer shed. Instead, I was mad at God, and fed up with a world that included a microscopic creature with the power to make my life a living Hell.
But when I stepped inside that quiet, simple prayer shed with the woven rug on the floor and the wooden icon of Jesus on the wall, I heard this faint whisper: You can be angry. In fact, I have given you an entire room to be angry in.
I am convinced God gives us plenty of space for unpleasant emotions. He wants all of us, after all, including the parts of us that don’t exactly look or feel good.
The kitten is chasing his tail around and around in violent circles, so I leave the house to sit on the front porch and pray on the phone with another friend. She is going through a hard time which has lasted far longer than we ever imagined, and it seems impossible that God could be anywhere near her life right now. Certainly, she cannot feel Him. Is He even there?
An image comes to us as we pray: my friend standing in a pitch-black room with no doors or windows. Her eyes are open, but she can’t see a thing, which means she can’t see Jesus standing just a few feet in front of her, holding out His hand.
It could be a cheesy image—Jesus is still there! In the dark!—but it isn’t. It’s exactly what my friend needs, and frankly, it’s what I need also.
It’s often tempting to want to tie up our hardships in a bow, to turn them into some kind of purposeful, triumphant event, and sometimes we do understand what it all means in the end, but more often we don’t.
More often what we have is Jesus standing with us in the dark, reaching out an invisible, scarred-over hand.
This post originally appeared in my July newsletter.
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July 12, 2022 § 2 Comments
Last month, I had a draft of my newsletter ready to go when something happened. I had a flare-up.
This flare-up wasn’t exactly unexpected. I had recently started another treatment for my ongoing Lyme disease, and my doctor had warned me that as we killed these “bad bugs,” as she calls them, I might feel worse before I felt better.
Feel worse I did, and Sunday evening found me lying on the couch trying not to move because movement exacerbates the nerve pain in my arms and legs (pain I once described to my husband as akin to the Cruciatus Curse in Harry Potter).
It sounds bad, and it is, but I’m also used to it. I have these flare-ups about every few weeks to every few months, and I’ve learned some tricks to manage them.
I cancel everything for the next few days. I schedule an appointment with my favorite osteopath. I take medicine that usually alleviates the pain within 36 hours. And in the meantime, I wait. I do my best to limit the TV (truthfully, there are only so many times I can watch even my favorite shows before I start to feel my life slip away). I perhaps write a few words using the dictation software on my tablet. I pray a little. I read.
This time around, I found myself returning to an irony that struck me early on in my experience with Lyme: as hard (read: at times, horrific) as it’s been, this battle with illness has pushed me further toward Truth with a capital T than just about any other event in my life.
Why is this ironic? Because (with some chagrin) I’ll admit that not too long ago I was convinced I should devote my entire life toward knowing the “Truth with a capital T.” This was why I got a philosophy degree. To some extent, this was why I became a writer (I would write my way toward Truth). All this even though at the time I was also convinced there was no way to be certain about anything (think, Matrix-style: could this all be a dream?).
A lot has changed since then (conversion from agnosticism to Christianity, for one; maybe I’ll write about that another time). But what is this so-called Truth that having Lyme disease revealed to me?
The truth is nothing new, not really. It’s that the world is broken. Or wrong. Or somehow off. You choose the phrasing. Whatever phrase we use will likely sound like a platitude anyway, something tossed around so many times its lost all meaning. Nonetheless, there’s something to it. There’s a reason it’s been said so many times.
When we are not going through a crisis, it’s easy to walk around like everything is basically fine, like you and I and the rest of the world are not deeply messed up (I could use another word here, but I won’t). It’s like when my flare-ups cease, and I have a hard time imagining I was ever in that much pain. Could the world really be so bad that I could hurt that much?
But having a disability or an illness, when the brokenness is your very body, you can’t escape that. You can’t free yourself from your own physical form. You’re forced to reckon with the reality that something is very wrong within the created order, you know it in an embodied way, in your very bones.
And this, in turn, reveals other truths. You see with new clarity that all along your life was tied up in the lives of others, the ones on whom you are now so clearly dependent. You see that at the end of the day you need something other than yourself to save you. You need medical intervention, to be sure. You may very well need God.
What’s neat, of course, are the moments when this brokenness is made right. When a bit of the Kingdom of God, if I may, breaks into a sick body. As in, when the meds start to work, and I can go back to yoga. Or when I have a “good day” and can cook an entire meal standing up in the kitchen. Or when I can type this letter to you without my hands hurting. All of a sudden, we have the resurrection inside our very veins. We feel the difference between the wrong way and the right way, and know how easily it could all go south, but for just this moment it doesn’t, and grace takes on a whole new meaning.
There is a lot that’s terrible about long-term illness, and I am fighting tooth and nail to get better. Though I have a lot of hope for my future health, it could still just as easily be me who’s sick for a lifetime. For now, I find these kernels of reality, of truth, a kind of consolation.
Next month, maybe I’ll share that neatly edited essay. For now, what I have is this musing hastily written on my iPhone late at night. I’ll end with yet another platitude that’s nonetheless true: I do hope you’re well, wherever this note finds you.
This post originally appeared in my June newsletter.
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May 31, 2022 § Leave a comment
Friends, it’s been a little while since I last posted on here, and a lot has happened since then! Last year I took a sabbatical from professional writing for my health, and while that sabbatical continues, I have slowly, tentatively begun to follow my urge back into writing. To that end, I’d love to invite you to join me in my latest writing endeavor!
|I suppose a better title for this newsletter might be something along the lines of, “a note from the candle-lined, Epsom salt-filled bathtub” or, “a note from the mint green couch under the third story apartment window.” Or even, “a note from the bed, where I sit propped up by a handful of linen throw pillows.” Because in truth, it’s been nearly a year since I last sat at a desk.|
I can’t sit at a desk, not really, at least not for now. I have yet to find the right chair to correctly support my back, the right way to position my hands at the keyboard, the best spot to place the screen that will allow me to sit long enough at any desk to write without my nerves flailing out of control.
I don’t share this to illicit pity. I share this simply to be honest, and because I have a great deal of hope that one day—hopefully sooner rather than later—this note can rightfully be called “a note from the desk” because I will be well enough to sit at one. Preferably the handsome wooden corner desk my husband bought for me when we were dating—the one that’s a bit scratched and scuffed, the one with the coffee mug ring in the corner. I love that desk. And I have every intention of using it in the future.
And that is why I’ve titled this newsletter “a note from the desk.” Because even though I come to you from the tub, the couch, the bed—nearly every spot in my apartment but the desk—I have hope that one day I will pen this note to you from a desk where I sit without any pain (or, really, less pain—I’m not asking for perfection).
Something I’ve learned during these years with Lyme disease: some kinds of hope are easier to have than others.
And having chronic illness, and remaining hopeful, perhaps not for the correct treatment, but at least for a life that does not circle entirely around the sad and tough components of illness—that is a very hard hope to have. That is hope that takes some real muscle. Some courage. Some inner strength. And frankly, it’s a hope that’s a whole heck of a lot easier when you don’t have to do it alone. I have found it a lot easier to hope when I’ve acknowledged just how hard it is to hope when you are sick and have been sick for a very long time.
Perhaps this is you? And maybe it’s not illness, but something else. And I won’t pretend to have the answers for how to keep going, though somehow I have kept going, and if I can do it, I think you can, too.
This newsletter is an experiment in hope. I don’t know what the next months will bring—greater health or another flare up. I have come to expect surprise rather than certainty. But I’m stepping out, nonetheless.
It probably won’t be easy. And I don’t care what they say. I would very, very much prefer easy. But that’s not the road I’m on. And God promises that even on the narrow path—the difficult one, if you will—there are still opportunities for lightness, for ease, for joy. If I’m anything, I am determined to find that light yolk Jesus speaks of. I’ll be like Jacob; I’ll wrestle it from his grasp.
One thing’s for certain: I do hope you’ll decided to join me (see above about how it’s so much better not to go it alone).
January 13, 2021 § Leave a comment
He is the radiance of the glory of God.
~ Hebrews 1:3
Recently, I have felt God speaking to me through the moon. During the hardest parts of my struggle to diagnose and overcome Lyme disease, God was to me the waxing moon, each day growing bigger and brighter, until He was the full round moon, so bright, I could not escape Him. His presence was so real, to disbelieve in Him would have been to rip the organ of reason from my mind. I saw Him everywhere. His radiance was bright upon my skin during one of the darkest nights of my life.
Then, health. How wonderful to recover this most precious of gifts! The strength to walk. The relief in my back. The easing of the sharp pain in my fingers. And just as the pain seeped away, so too did the moon of God begin to wane. “I believe He is still there,” I would tell my husband, “just like I believe the moon is still there, even when I cannot see it.”
So it goes with so many of us. We see God most certainly in the hardship. This the paradox, the mystery we hold, but who can understand? So thin did God become to me in my newfound health, He was like the new moon, His light no longer present, no longer illuminating even a single blade of grass. I would go outside, and look up at the sky, and see a great blackness.
But why be surprised? The spiritual life has its pattern, just like the natural world has its circadian rhythm, the rotation of the earth, the steady repetition of the seasons.
At the beginning of the month, my husband and I braved a plane to Antigua, an idyllic island set like a green jewel in the pristine blue waters of the Caribbean. A respite at last from what has felt like a merry-go-round of madness. While we were gone, some people stormed the capitol, but we heard about it later. For just this moment we were blissfully unaware of other people’s opinions and the movement of disease and the mad vying for power. I stood at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, and the sun shone, and the waves fell relentless. The natural world is so indifferent. Sometimes this scares me. Other times it feels like relief.
This morning, I read in Hebrews that Christ is the radiance of the glory of God. I pause. I let the words settle. Radiance. The sun’s bright rays. I cannot look directly at the sun without being blinded, but I can feel its warmth on my skin as I bathe in its downpour. I can see the water and the sand and the metal mast of my parent’s hardy sailboat reflect its luminescence. Christ like the rays of the sun: warm, illuminating, observable. I know the truth we too often gloss over: when I cannot find God, I can look to Christ to know Him.
Now, we are back home. Back to routine. Back to a new year and work and play. I miss the sun and the salt water. I even miss the manchineel tree, beautiful to look at, poisonous to the touch. But despite the low temperature out my window and the frost on my resilient broccoli plants, the sun shines here also. My skin is browned in places, red and itchy in others. A tangible reminder, at least until it fades. A physical, temporary locus of a hope which ebbs and flows, yes, but remains.
June 5, 2019 § 1 Comment
In Korcula, we feast.
Our guest house is a good thirty minutes walk from town, and each day we make the trek along the blue-green water, sometimes more than once. This is Europe, so of course the cars mind the pedestrians. The miles add up, step by step, and soon we are walking six, seven, eight plus miles a day.
Thank goodness, because this is the land of plenty.
There is rich chocolate gelato dripping down fingers in the sun. A dry white wine, Grk, grown and distributed only on the island, tasted from a chilled green bottle alongside a sweet red wine, a cherry liquor, an herbal grappa. Goat cheese and cow cheese and black and green olives. Bread and olive oil so flavorful, it’s a meal in and of itself.
If this is not enough, fried shrimp and fried calamari caught straight from the sea lapping at our feet, and even a taste of salty crisp sardines dunked in tartar sauce.
Still more, though: cherry, cheese, and Nutella-filled, flaky, and warm pastries in the morning; black Americanos sipped at tiny tables in an ancient stone alley; later, a bus ride into the rainy hills to a seemingly otherwise desolate town, roses the size of fists growing before crumbling stone homes and quiet empty churches overgrown with the twisting of floral vines, to the popular Belin restaurant, home to homemade pastas and Dalmatian green beans and, why yes, the caramel cake for desert, why not?
It is not always so decadent, of course. The simple meal of bread and cheese and salami, perhaps a leftover slice of cold pizza, also suffices. But the abundance is a gift to be savored — call it fulfillment, satiation, the cup that overflows.
June 1, 2019 § 5 Comments
We have come to rest, he from the demands of work, I from the trauma of a waning illness which I am determined to wholly recover from, determined shall not hold me back. In the mornings, we drink coffee and eat yogurt and bread and cheese and salami and Nutella, reading and watching the perfect ocean. Is it indulgence? Or merely living life well? Leisure, really. The bliss of long night’s of sleeping without an alarm, of awakening to sunlight and birdsong, to afternoon strolls through the ancient medieval walls of a city built hundreds of years ago, a city bombed and since reconstructed, a city jam-packed with tourists from all over the world.
Then, it’s onto a ferry that whisks us across the Adriatic to an island, Mljet, legendary oasis of Odysseus, possibly a haunt of Paul’s. I am determined to make it, but here again, the splitting pain, the lying on a strange contraption called a “back jack” that miraculously eases said pain, the walking through it because I did not come all this way only to suffer.
We take a boat across a teal-blue salt lake to an island on the island — St. Mary’s, home of a Benedictine monastery. In hat, dress, and sandals, I circle the monastery walls in the sunshine, clamber over crumbling rock steps split by red poppies, white lilies, purple and pink wildflowers buzzing with giant honey bees and yellow, green, and orange butterflies. It is a fecund place, overgrown and blossoming, a tomato and zucchini garden here, a stained glass window of Mother Mary there. Along the way, an occasional weeping juniper.
The monastery is under reconstruction, but I imagine the monks’ prayers anyway, lingering in the sweet, quiet air. I join mine with them and take a photo of their seclusionary walls. Are we all praying for each other, at the heart? We find a sunlit slab and promise to return the next day, for a swim in the warm, buoyant salt water. No wonder Odysseus stayed so long, my guide book says. It is the isle of bliss, Edenic.
“I feel better,” I tell Jared. He says, “And tomorrow you will feel better. And the day after that, better. And the day after that, better.” And on and on, we live in this space of not-yet-healed, moving toward what is whole and holy.
The next day, I do surrender my body to the water, but only part ways — in reality, it’s freezing. Afterwards, we walk for seven miles around the lake, feeling better. And even better.
May 25, 2019 § 2 Comments
Is it foolishness, or acting out of a sense of hope? I say the latter, but is that merely because I am greedy for beauty, greedy for a return to that version of me who went, went, went, on planes from here to there, longing to see with my own eyes these views of glory?
I am being too poetic here.
What I mean is this: we bought two tickets to Croatia when it seemed so very likely that my health was on the upswing, and then, one week out, my back erupts in excruciating pain.
Why now, I wonder? Just last month, I spent a long weekend camping in Big Bend with no Lyme symptoms at all, and now, a slight turn of the back at my desk and suddenly, I am back on the phone with my doctor, back shelling out money for therapy I pray will alleviate the pain that is all-consuming before I must confine myself to a tiny airplane chair for eight hours.
It’s the pain that does it: I can think of nothing else. My doctor reassures me: this will pass, your system is simply vulnerable, you. Will. Be. Fine. But that part of my brain based in fear only remembers this time last year, when it was uncertain why I was in so much pain, whether the pain would ever stop, and I am doubtful, though still, there is the acting out of hope, the slow preparations, Jared’s reassurance that he will be with me, to help.
On a Tuesday, we board the airplane, I take a muscle relaxer and fall asleep with a knife in my back, a whisper of a prayer like smoke rising with me into the darkening, eastward sky.
And then, suddenly, Paris, the city that never ceases to enchant. We thread the dingy underground Metro, and emerge into the sunlight — oh, city of lights! Ten years since I walked up and down beneath the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, another five since I tromped the long lane of the Champs Élysée, eyes widened with the wonder of Paris, of Nutella crepes and cigarette smoke and flowered balconies and the ritzy, rich shops — tight black jeans, sugar-spun scarves, occasionally, a burka. We walk along the Seine, tired, red-rimmed bleary-eyed, stopping before the Louvre for a quick photo, sipping chilled Rosé, eating at a tiny round table a croqué madam, croqué monsieur, blackest espresso, deux café au lait, s’il vous plait. Once, I sat in classrooms and learned the language, but how much I can’t remember.
Oh well, the main thing is this: in the morning I wake in Paris, pain-free.
How quickly I forget pain once it passes. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” says Emily Dickinson. For me: a forgetfulness. Was the pain ever so bad? Did I ever curse God Himself in the fury of a child who’s fallen and can’t understand why she smarts so? Did I ever see Jesus, standing at my church near the altar, seated beside me in my room, floating above me in the bathtub where I soaked my poor muscles in the hope that heat would ultimately alleviate the pain? He did come with me, pressing the knife of His hand into my back where the split occurred, that invisible wound I carried and became all of me, all-encompassing strange companion of white-lit nerves.
But now: all is forgotten. I sit beside Jared on a sunny terrace overlooking orange-tiled roofs and the green-treed islands of the blue Adriatic. Birds chirp and the breeze is cool. Dubrovnik, Croatia, our city of rest. My body, slowly restored, sign of mini-resurrection.
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.