Vignettes on love {1}

January 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

Last week, I decided to splurge on an evening yoga class.

I was feeling restless and anxious, restless because, well, I’m always on the lookout for that Next Big Thing, be it a trip or an experience or a person to befriend, and wanted that Next Big Thing to happen now dammit, and anxious because, as much as I believe in providence, the future often seems like a huge question mark looming over me, threatening to disrupt my otherwise pleasant life, and on that day, in my life, the future was all but completely blocking out the sun.

Yoga is one of the best ways I know to calm my nerves and pull me out of my own fruitless thoughts. So, I donned my workout clothes, filled up a bottle of water, and headed to the studio for a grueling hour-long class of downward dogs and upward dogs and warrior ones (and twos and threes) and tree poses and eagle poses and other poses whose names I don’t remember but man, were they hard.

At the end of class, our teacher dimmed the lights and turned on some classical music. She instructed us to move into our final pose, the pose which concludes every yoga class: shavasana (a.k.a. corpse pose).

In shavasana, you lie on your back with your arms and legs slightly spread apart. You close your eyes and breath deeply, relaxing your body into the floor and relieving any tension in the muscles. Traditionally, this position lasts around thirty minutes, though we Westerners shorten it to around five (I guess we have to rush everything, even our yoga classes).

As I lay on my back, my muscles loose, my skin shining with perspiration, the air I breathed hot and smelling of fresh eucalyptus incense, I began to relax. I felt the floor envelope my body, holding me against it like the palm of a hand might cradle something small and fragile. And as my body slackened and my mind quieted, something else appeared: an overwhelming sense of love.

A sense that, in the middle of my restlessness and anxiety, I was loved, not just by my friends and family, whose love is good, but imperfect, as is my love for them, but by something bigger, by God. And in being loved by God, by being enfolded in God’s wings, by being cupped in His large hand, I was protected, I was okay. Maybe not in the way I always want to be, with complete surety about everything and complete protection from every physical and emotional and even spiritual harm, but in a deeper way, an abiding way that would lead me from here through life to eternity.

Now, I am the first to admit that this kind of phenomena is easily dismissed by those who consider themselves rational (of which I am one). A rational person could easily say that I experienced this deep sense of abiding love because I was overheated. Or dehydrated. Or perhaps daydreaming in my listless shavasana pose.

Yes. Perhaps. I won’t say any of those explanations are impossible.

But I also won’t deny my own experience, and my experience tells me that I felt, for one brief moment, what it’s like to be wholly loved, and the freedom that comes from it, the freedom to open my eyes in that dark room, to roll up my mat, to move effortlessly across the creaking wooden floor to the air-conditioned lobby of that yoga studio with lightness and purpose and assurance in my existence as one who is loved.

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from my recent trip to Washington, D.C.

Advent: week four

December 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

I’ve been putting off writing a blog post for this final week of Advent because lately, my mind has felt rather like a dry bed of ideas. Any beginning sprig of a thought withers and dies. Then, this morning I cut my thumb on a broken light bulb and found myself barely able to type this meager paragraph, let alone a whole blog post. I decided to see that as a sign and let myself off the hook, but so I won’t have to say I failed in my resolution to blog every week, I’ll share an Advent reflection from last year. Wishing you the merriest of Christmases!

*

“For nothing is impossible with God.”

The words leap from the page and lodge in my mind. They are the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth.

The angel tells her she will have a son, not by her betrothed Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit. Her son is the not only the son of Mary, but the Son of God.

Well. How many forms of impossibility can I name here? The impossibility of the existence of God; the impossibility of an angel; the impossibility of an angel speaking to a woman; the impossibility of a virgin having a baby; the impossibility of a baby being the Son of God.

Mary sees the impossibility.

“How will this be?” she asks.

“Nothing is impossible with God,” says the angel.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary says. “May it be to me as you have said.”

I am struck. Here is Mary, accepting the impossible possibility. How? How?

Because she knows nothing is impossible with God.

I believe a lot of things are impossible with God. I fear God Himself is an impossibility. How many days per week, times per day, minutes per hour, do I doubt God’s presence, doubt God’s power, doubt God’s love? Don’t answer; I don’t want to know.

But the angel says, “nothing is impossible with God,” and Mary nods, opens herself to impossibility, and the Son of God is born.

Mary is receptive. She listens for God, she hears, she receives, and the impossible is made possible within her.

It’s Advent, and I’m thinking a lot about impossible things. I think I see the limits of possibility, a thin line at the border of my life, fencing me in.

But the angel’s words are there in my memory, saying, “nothing is impossible with God,” and something in me stirs. The line begins to blur. Beyond the fence I see a field that stretches on and on, full of green grass gently swaying.

If Advent is about waiting, it’s also about being receptive to what we’re waiting for, and the beginning of being receptive is believing the words of the angel who says, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

Advent: week three

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?

Advent: week two

December 5, 2015 § 4 Comments

“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.” ~ George Eliot


I have a confession to make: sometimes, I twist my prayers during Advent, which should concern the coming of the Lord, into my own personal appeal for the things I want which I don’t have yet.

Advent is supposed to be about anticipating God’s coming, His birth long ago, His return in the future, and His presence with us now. But because Advent is all about waiting for something desired, I tend to confuse waiting for God with waiting for all of those other things I want.

Some of those things are good, some of those things are bad, and some of those things can be good or bad, depending on the situation. Nevertheless, instead of praying, “come, Lord, come,” I find myself praying, “come, would you just give me at least a few of these things I want already?”

I know this isn’t what Advent is supposed to be about, but it has me thinking: when is it okay to say, “all right, God, I want You, I really do, but I’d rather like this other thing, too?”

Because that’s really what I want to pray, and am already praying, but I worry that’s rather like saying, “God, sorry to break it to You, but You’re just not enough.”

And that can’t be right, can it?

*

I hear Christians say all of the time (and say it myself, on occasion), “God is enough.”

But what, exactly, does that mean?

Some days, I find it doesn’t mean anything. Those are the days when I’m not praying or listening or sitting in silence with God, when I’m distracted by my to-do list, by my worries, by my fears. Because after all, how can God be enough for me when I never think about Him, when I don’t invite Him into my sorrow, when I don’t ask Him for discernment navigating my life?

But even when I am in communion with God, there are still times when He feels distant, even nonexistent. And there are other times when the struggle I face isn’t eased or removed by His presence.

In other words, times when God doesn’t seem like enough.

*

But then I remember something important. I remember that God is an infinite love, a love greater than anything I could ever imagine. And I remember that I am like an ever-emptying cup, longing to be filled.

My never-ending desire wants something that is infinitely satisfying. Anything less would prove disappointing in the end.

And though I don’t receive understanding and fulfillment all at once, through spiritual discipline, through prayer and longing and searching and listening, I draw near to Him, and He slowly, wonderfully fills me up.

Maybe our cups will never be full until the Kingdom of God appears. Maybe that’s why all of these other desires seem so appealing to us now. Maybe that’s why waiting for Him to come again during Advent is so important, because then, only then, God, revealed in His fullness, will finally be enough.

*

But what about all of those other things I want? What about that fiery word, desire?

There are so many good and beautiful things in this world, and I would very much like to experience them all, or at least as many as I can.

And I think I should. I think you should too.

I think there are many desires laid in our hearts by God, and sometimes those desires become twisted with sin, and sometimes those desires drive us mad, and sometimes, when those desires are filled, we find they weren’t exactly what we wanted after all, and sometimes, when those desires are filled, we find they fill us up with more than we ever thought we could hold.

None of these desires need detract from our love of God. Many of them can even bring us closer to Him.

After all, He is not only infinite love, but infinite beauty and infinite goodness too, and we see glimpses of Him in the loving, beautiful, and good things of this world.

Perhaps, then, God is a lot more intwined in what we want than we might think. Perhaps, then, God is revealing Himself to us all of the time, even through the unfurling of our desires.

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Advent: week one

December 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

As some of you may know, I rather like Advent.

Last year, on an impulsive whim, I wrote a blog post for each day of the season, a spiritual practice that proved healing and expansive for me.

This year, I’m not so ambitious. Instead of writing about Advent every day, I’m reading about Advent every day, using the wonderful book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

May I suggest it to you? It’s chalk full of great writers like Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen and Madeleine L’Engle and so many many more. I’m only a day into the season, and I’m already smitten.

But despite my decision to read instead of write this go around, I can’t resist the urge to jot down a few minor thoughts about Advent, loving it as I do. So, here goes: a thought (or two) on Advent.

*

During Advent, people talk a lot about waiting. That’s because Advent, which means “arrival”, is the season in which the people of God wait for the arrival of God, both the celebration of His birth long ago and the promise of His return in the future.

We are all familiar with waiting. In fact, waiting makes up a good portion of our lives. We wait in traffic, wait at the doctor’s office, wait for emails, wait for packages, wait for dreams to come true.

Implicit in the idea of waiting is the belief that something is coming.

One doesn’t sit around waiting for someone who doesn’t exist to pop over for dinner. One doesn’t sit around waiting for rain in the desert. One doesn’t sit around waiting for money to grow on trees.

These things just aren’t going to happen.

But one does sit around waiting for a friend who promises to stop by after work. One does sit around waiting for the first snowflakes to flurry in Michigan. One does sit around waiting for the cherry blossom trees to bloom in spring.

These things will happen in a matter of time.

But what about God? Was God really born to a virgin in a manger? Was it really true when God promised He would come again? Should we wait for these things, or is that just so much insanity?

Part of me says it is. Part of me, the lonely part of me that has known God’s absence, the cynical part of me that knows promises are broken all the time, the hard part of me that says this is silly and can’t be true, those parts of me say it’s insane.

But another part of me, the peaceful part of me that’s been filled with God’s love, the hopeful part of me that knows God doesn’t make promises He doesn’t plan to keep, the warm part of me that’s moved by the idea of God making His way to Earth, those parts of me say, okay, I’m ready, I’m waiting. I may not understand it fully, but God’s mysterious and ineffable – it would be trite if I did.

So, how is this waiting thing going to go?

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(Almost) a quarter of a century

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.

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Looking for home

September 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

For the last two months, I’ve lived, more or less, out of a suitcase.

I spent several weeks working with a nonprofit in South Sudan. I vacationed in North Carolina with a friend. Now I’m in Los Angeles, visiting my brother who’s on fall break from film school.

Living out of a suitcase is not a bad way to live. In fact, most of the time, I rather like it. I feel inspired and energized when I travel; I feel restless when I don’t.

But all of this packing and unpacking, taking off and landing, driving and stopping to fill the tank with gas, all of this leaving and returning and leaving again, all of it makes me rather desirous of home.

*

I grew up in a military family, with a father in the Navy and a mother in the Air Force, so moving is second nature to me and home is a relative term. Growing up, I moved every year or two of my life until I turned 13. Even after living in Fort Worth all through high school, I attended college in Michigan, traveled during the summers, and have lived in three states in the two years since graduation.

My mom likes to tell this anecdote that explains how integral moving was (and still is) to my life:

When we settled in Fort Worth, I began attending a new school. At the start of the semester, the teachers gathered all of the eighth graders into the gymnasium to play a game that was supposed to help everyone get to know each other.

They passed out several rolls of toilet paper and instructed each student to tear off as many sheets as he or she liked. Some of us took one or two squares, several took half a dozen, a couple unrolled great swaths of white paper. When it came my turn, I unrolled a long strip, probably ten sheets long, and handed the roll to my neighbor.

Then, the teachers explained the game: we were to go around the room sharing one fact about ourselves per square of toilet paper. There I was with this long strip of paper, wracking my mind for interesting but not too weird facts about myself, wishing I’d been less ambitious and only taken one sheet like the girl sitting beside me.

I tend to freeze up in moments like this, and I was freezing up then when it hit me: there was something I had done at least ten times. Move.

After the girl beside me stated her single fact, I began tearing off square after square, listing place after place where I’d lived: Virginia, Washington, Germany, California, Boston, Washington, D.C., Virginia again…

The teachers thought it was funny. Several of the students’ eyes grew big. I felt slightly embarrassed for marking myself as different from my Texan peers, peers I was supposed to befriend, and was relieved when my last square of toilet paper somersaulted gracefully to the floor.

After attending that high school for two years, making some friends, going to the Valentine’s dance, acting in a Jane Austen play, I began to feel restless. I loved Fort Worth. I loved the sprawling grassland with its scraggly mesquite trees, I loved the pool in the hot Texas summer, I loved our neighbor’s horses, I loved skipping Friday night football games to hang out with my friends instead, but we’d been there for so long.

Wasn’t it time to move again?

*

Since graduating from college, every place I’ve moved I’ve wanted to make my home.

When I moved to Washington, D.C. for a journalism internship, I wondered: could this be my home? I loved the history, the ornate buildings, the excitement of the metro, the museums on the National Mall, the tree-filled parks, my little room in the house with the dark green trim.

Yes, I thought, this could be my home.

When I moved to Santa Barbara to write for the city newspaper, I wondered: could this be my home? I loved the adobe red-roof buildings, the sparkling blue ocean, the palm trees, the craggy mountains, the dolphins swimming offshore.

Yes, I thought, this could be my home.

Now I live in Dallas, and sometimes I wonder: is this city my home?

*

When I first moved to Dallas, I did not think it could ever be my home. Everywhere I looked I did not see Dallas. Instead, I saw what Dallas was not.

Dallas was not palm trees or ocean waves or coffee shops near the beach. Dallas was not hiking trails or wild bluffs or purple-tinged mountains. Dallas was not sunsets or seagulls or wineries in the hills.

Dallas was not California. Dallas could never be home.

*

But I’ve lived in Dallas for over a year now and in many ways, it is my home.

It is my home because it is the address I use when buying books from Amazon or signing up for a library card. It is my home because my grandmother lives there and (when I’m not living out of a suitcase) I live in her house. It is my home because I have friends in Dallas whom I love.

Despite all of this, I am still restless, I am still unsettled, I am still desirous of a more permanent home.

*

 When I feel this way, I sometimes think of Parmenides, the Greek philosopher who was so disturbed by the constant flux in this world that he conjured the idea that while everything appears to be changing what exists is actually one unchangeable entity, what his successors have dubbed the Parmenidean One.

I think about the Parmenidean One because I think I get why that’s so appealing. How nice to think that all of this flux, this moving, this change, this restlessness is just an illusion, that what actually exists is something firm, something solid, something to rest upon. I think it’s that solidity, that firmness that we so desire when we think about home. That’s what home is. It’s the place that’s comfortable and safe, where one is provided for and loved and knows who he or she is.

*

Through all of this moving and living out of suitcases, I think I’ve learned a few things about home.

One is that age-old cliché: home is where your heart is. This is true. Dallas is not my home because most of the things I own happen to be there. It is my home because so many people I love live there. Another city could easily be my home. Any place I go can feel like home for a week or a day, if there are people I love with me there.

Some places feel more like home than others, no matter how many people you love live or don’t live there. I am in California this week, visiting my brother, and I am remembering how much I love this place. The sun shining here makes it easier for me to stave off my proclivity toward moodiness. The easy, laid-back culture makes it easier for me to keep myself from spiraling into my usual self-perfecting anxiety. I always feel more at ease in Southern California, more comfortable, more myself, more at home.

Nevertheless, I am still restless, and I know this is a restlessness that cannot be cured. It is the deep desire, the insatiable hunger, the needy neediness of the soul for the real home, the true place where we are fulfilled. It’s a restlessness I will always feel, and so will you, no matter where you call your home. It’s a good restlessness because it moves us not to feel satisfied with what is here, but points us onward toward a more perfect and permanent place beyond.

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*Photos from my recent trip to Los Angeles.

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