Erlebnisse

Erlebnisse: (n.) The experiences, positive or negative, that we feel most deeply, and through which we truly live; not mere experiences, but Experiences. 

Have you ever taken the time to sit and listen to your own heartbeat? To settle back, close your eyes, and focus on the steady beat of that fist-sized muscle whose rhythmic pulse keeps you standing upright, eyes-wide and hands-reaching. There’s something comforting in its reliable tattoo, as if it were a tangible mark of your life, a pin-point sound that seems to say “We’re alive. We’re here.”

My own heart hasn’t historically been very consistent. I mean this metaphorically as well as literally. I can be unbelievably changeable, but it’s been in the past few years that my heart has taken on inconsistencies of its own. It was last autumn, sitting in the clinical cool of a doctor’s office, that I was shaken awake by the stern reprimand that it wasn’t going to keep going unless I made changes to help. I don’t discuss my health issues too widely- I don’t feel the need to- but I will say that at the time there seemed to be no explicable cause to the long string of sypmtoms I was experiencing. To my shame, it would take several more months of struggling before I decided to really do anything about it, but since I have it’s been amazing the improvement in overall quality of life, not the least of which includes a steady heart rate.

So I sit and I listen. And I marvel.

A lot of what I’ve been doing have been simple life changes, most of which go along with my word for the year and all the refining that accompanies it. It may seem a simple or even a silly thing, but at one point I sat down and wrote out my values, all of the things that are important to me, and compared them with the way I live. What we value shapes how we see the world and our reactions to things, but not always what we do. Cognitive dissonance is the technical term for that sense of unrest and inner conflict that arises when our actions contradict our deepest-held beliefs. You’d think that one’s deepest values would shape even the most mundane choices, but it’s not uncommon for culture or perceived expectations to get in the way and start making decisions for us instead.

Lifestyle blogs are an excellent example. I find them showy, overdone, and unbelievably unhelpful, and all they really do is push people further into the toxic mindset of comparison and dissatisfaction. And yet for the longest time I’d fall prey to them myself. Lifestyle is something deeply personal and unique. You can share values with someone, but you can never truly share the same lifestyle. Your daily habits, your preferences, your tastes, your wardrobe, your time, and even the way your hair reacts to certain products are all going to be particular to you. To try and fit one lifestyle into the advertised blueprint of someone else’s only furthers that sense of dissatisfaction and inadequacy when it still doesn’t feel “right.”

I’ve begun cultivating my own lifestyle (and no, I’m not going to tell you all about it). I’ve been learning to challenge my daily habits and start saying yes to more things. Better yet, I’ve started saying no to some as well (boundaries, especially with work, aren’t something that have really existed in my life up until this point). So far this has mostly just looked like more excuses to wear outlandish hats and eat more pancakes, but it’s also been permission for me to meet new people and reach out for help when I’ve found myself plunged back into the perpetual night of the I-Suck Abyss.

My favourite change so far, though, has been that of creating space and luxuriating in it. For several months now I’ve been going every Sunday to the same coffee shop in Scranton to sit and read and write and listen. I never see anyone I know (although one of the female baristas did try and ask me out), but it’s easily the most fun I have all week. I sometimes spend all afternoon there drinking overpriced coffee and reading, or just listening to people talk– eavesdropping on twenty different conversations, jotting down lines and observations, and enjoying the anomaly of sharing close quarters with complete strangers for hours on end. It’s a delicious experience that is always new and all mine.

So what does this post, in all of its ramblings, have to say? Well, dear reader, that I am learning to feel my heartbeat, and that I am learning to appreciate it. That I am stepping out of my habits and comfort zones and into new things and that vast un-comfort zone that takes up so much of the world (at least when you’re looking at it through my lenses). I’m hanging fairy lights in my room, staying up to read until unholy hours, eating pancakes for dinner, and going to see films on my own (and usually being the one to laugh the loudest in the room). I’m learning to have experiences and to live. I truly hope you are choosing to do the same.

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Refining

2017.

As the rest of the world (or, at the very least, Millenial American culture) has stood in defiant anger at the flicker and snuff of 2016- a year that seemed to many to rage like a destructive wildfire- it will come as no surprise that I’m just as elated to see it extinguished. The new year seems so promising, a veritable book of blank pages upon which anything could be written should you just have the courage to wield the pen. Of course this is a somewhat silly as our construct of time is little more momentous than Earth’s ceaselessly-spinning track, and the new year simply the completion and restart of her annual pilgrimage around our main source of heat.

In times past I’ve chosen a word for the year. Perhaps “chosen” is a little strong– the process of finding that word has always been one of deep personal introspection and- at the risk of sounding mystic- spiritual reflection and prayer. It was more of an uncovering or stumbling-upon than a choosing. And so that word would set the tone for the year, defining encounters, spurring choices, shaping attitudes; it was the compass I used to navigate the 365-day sea of time. Or perhaps the north star? The analogy quickly breaks down.

I had no word for 2016. I leapt in with both feet, my graduation on the horizon, and well-laid plans to go abroad and teach promptly afterwards. I didn’t feel the need to find a word: the waters were calm and I could navigate just fine.

Which is funny, because I didn’t. Looking back, I think the word for 2016 has been death, perhaps destruction. I don’t mean the many, at times inexplicable, deaths of celebrities (although I mourn their passing too). However, a group of strangers was nothing compared to the unexpected death of a beloved uncle in late January, followed soon after by the suicide of a close friend on my birthday. I’ve watched relationships die- some more painfully than others- and was deeply struck by the representation of Death played by a friend in a just-as-striking production of Everyman. I’ve watched friends and family alike struggle with living life after a death comes to call, and I’ve lived that struggle too. Heck, I even played Death at a comic con in the spring. Part of me wonders if this has been my comeuppance for so blithely approaching the year, but the greater side of me knows that it was necessary. I’m a great believer in the chiaroscuro of life, that shadows prove the sunshine, that we need contrast to understand the colour and light. It’s the decomposed nature of the soil that enables plants to grow and thrive (and anyone who knows me knows I adore flowers).

Which brings me to my word for 2017 (because I have clearly learned my lesson and will heretofore be paying proper respect to my superstitions). Gold.

Disappointed? Me too. Typically these things are strong, flourishing adjectives or verbs: create, brave, luscious, bright. But no, this year I get no such flourishes, just a colour. A colour, in fact, that I’ve never truly even liked.

Forgive me as I wax metaphorical, but it’s the process of gold that charms- and scares- me. The purest and best is melted and refined several times in a blazing fire, formed and shaped until it is deemed perfect. Its loveliness and value are inherent, but are multiplied through what can easily be called a painful process. I’m sure you can understand my discomfort.

Several months ago, as I sat frustrated and defeated on my bed, my sister sent me a piece of valuable advice: find out who you are and what you like, and go from there. Simple? Yes, but something I’d never really thought about doing ,much less made efforts to explore. I’ve spent years coasting on the preferences and habits I formed in late high school, relegating my adventures to literary expeditions and theatrical productions. The boldest thing I’ve done in the past year has probably been admitting to a large group that I “actually kind of like that song Cheerleader by Omi.”

As I approach 2017, I look forward to not only refining, but being refined. I anticipate the challenge of trying to understand and embrace my inherent value and beauty- things that I was raised to believe nonexistent- both as an individual, and as a general human in a wide spectrum of other humans. I hope to align my living and choices with the qualities and values that I find most important. After four years of college, it’s refreshing to stand on the brink of a new year that could be anything, rather than a segment of semesters with some free time in between (most of which is spent napping).

So here’s to a new year, a golden year, a year of departing the valley of shadows and finding life and light on the other side. Here’s to you, whoever you are, and your new year and new ventures. Go for the gold.

The Problem of Pain

It’s October again.

I know, I know–a truly revolutionary statement. October carries with it it’s own dignified sense of autumn, distinct from September’s gentle turning and a far cry from the bite of November’s march into winter. October is falling leaves and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; it’s bundle-up weather and early evenings, pots of cinnamon tea and hand-knit socks. It’s also become my month of endings, of death.

I think about death a lot.

There is a point in every child’s life where they come up against the truth of mortality: perhaps they lose a family member, or they see an animal die. It’s formative, necessary even, to the development and understanding of a person as they age– that knowledge that everything is temporary. But I cannot remember a time in my life where I wasn’t acutely aware of death. Even before I tangibly encountered it, I knew what it was– who she was. I’ve never feared death; rather, I’ve always found myself somewhat fascinated by it, evident in everything from my reading and writing preferences to the way I’m forever identifying with fictional personifications of it, either male or female (my favourite to date have been Neil Gaiman’s Death from Sandman and a friend’s interpretation in a recent theatrical production of Everyman, in case you were wondering). This preoccupation with the subject has over the years become a close acquaintance with the lady herself, which brings me back to October, and into the subject of pain.

Pain reminds me somewhat of a child, not entirely without sympathy: he remains to sit with those left behind once Death has moved on. You will find him there, by the coffin, the closed door, the empty closet, his grey dog Grief lying unleashed and close at his heels. October, death, and pain have come hand-in-hand this year more than ever, and I’ve spent a lot of time searching for a way to express it all in words. Not a day into the month and I found myself finally ending a long, tumultuous, complicated, abusive relationship with my father. The day after that, a relationship was ended with me.

In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis discusses the fact that there is no “unimaginable sum of human misery,” saying that “there is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe.”

Why then do I feel like I’m bearing the pain of three people?

My poor relationship with my father only ever complicated and warped my image of and relationships with men, while also tearing a sizeable hole in my relationship with a God who’s chief attribute of love is most often described in paternal terms. The decision and ability to finally relinquish the endless and impossible struggle of sufficiency enough for my father has opened a door to finally move on past all the cruel words cluttering my mind in his voice. The decision wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t quick: it took years to reach and several sleepless nights to choose. To be broken up with unexpectedly barely a day later took what was already fractured and shattered it completely.

I’m discovering that over the past few months I’ve somehow forgotten how to be alone. The independence so hard-wired into my system, strengthened by months spent navigating the streets of New York City on after high school, then sharpened as I moved halfway across the country for school seems a lifetime away, so easily obliterated by a single summer as I find myself in the position of relearning how to operate independently, how to pass my time on my own, how to savour solitude once more. I never used to notice an absence, but now absence is all I feel. I wake up every morning to begin regathering all the fragments once more, pieces to a puzzle that I can’t seem to assemble.

Lewis later goes on to write “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”

In the mean time, life (like time) continues to march ever-steadily forward. Lewis wrote his treatise on pain in his effort to explain the coexistence of a purportedly loving God in a world so riddled by injustice and grief. This is a quandary I’m spending more and more time contemplating these days. Being raised in an environment where asking God “why” was viewed as defiance and “counting it all joy” the only right response has caused me to balk countless times in my spiritual life, opting to muddle through things on my own terms rather than carry them to a loving father God who’s purposes and ways are too terrible in their goodness and mystery for me to comprehend. But if there’s one thing I’m learning this month- this year, this lifetime- it’s that it is sometimes necessary for uplifted hands to turn to fists, if only for a little while, with the knowledge that there is grace enough even for this.

I know I’m not alone in this. Part of the struggle has been grappling with these things while coming alongside others around me who are fighting to carry their own burdens as well. We none of us can do it alone.

So in the midst- or rather at the end- of this heavy October, despite the unanswered questions and the gaping holes, despite the darkness, and most certainly despite the pain, I’m permitting myself the bruises and blood that comes from being so repeatedly driven to my knees, hoping that better and more glorious things will come of it the more I do.

In summation (and as only Lewis could put it): “The great thing to remember is that though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.”

Up Til Now

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Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you: and by funny I mean entirely unexpected, rather unamusing, and somewhat unwanted. But that’s the way it works, all at once and while you’re not paying attention. I’ve had so many questions from friends and family concerning my plans since crossing the stage in May to receive my diploma. I in all my scatter-brained busyness have hardly had the time much less the inclination to answer every well-meaning inquiry, but I’ve decided it was high-time I brought the world up-to-speed.

I’ve found myself in the unique position of moving rather deliberately from stage-to-stage these past few months, carried along by events that have felt out of my hands, and in a way that most do not have the privilege of experiencing. I slipped easily from the world of undergrad classes and into the waiting arms of a relationship, and an internship that would keep me distracted from the wait-period following my interview for a full-time job. God knows my tendencies, and in turn gave me lines to memorise and stage tasks to fill the weeks of what would otherwise have been anxious hours. The internship’s end bled into the job’s start (which I did get), while also leading me to the people who will become my flatmates in the house we just discovered will be ours for the coming year. All of these things shifting gently one into the other almost imperceptibly until I suddenly realised that life had been circling for weeks, moving in slowly and knocking me out in surprise: guerrilla warfare of the most ordinary kind.

Ask me at age sixteen, fretfully counting down the days until I reached adulthood, where I would be at twenty-three: “Europe,” I’d probably say “reading books along the Seine” or “bicycling around Reykjavik;” “writing in a flat overlooking London.” Ask me a yaer ago and I would have said the same thing. Certainly not Pennsylvania: certainly not settling down, not by any means.

I am a gypsy, and I like to travel light: one blanket, my trusty pillow, a few pieces of clothing, and a battered copy of Eliot’s poetry in hand. I arrived on-campus my last year of undergrad, my entire life packed in two suitcases under fifty pounds with room to spare. I am always yearning to roam, and I am certain to be equally prepared to do so. I moved to six different homes the summer of my junior year alone. As long as this wanderlust keeps me itching for another quest, my dream-home has sworn to stay relegated to photos of rooms filled with softly filtered light. Commitment and settling down for me looks like an excess of blankets and pillows, a wall of bookshelves filled with my own personal library, the contents of which have spent the last four or five years over two thousand miles away, packed up in cardboard boxes.  

Suddenly these days I find myself perusing websites and store walls, asking friends what they use, what they think.”Don’t even think about it,” breathes the ever-practical traveler within as I run my hands over the pile of pillows- those down-filled-delights that epitomise impracticality- stacked in Target, “how would you take it with you when you move? It’s a hassle to carry with you when you go.”

But that’s the thing: I’m not sure I am going, at least not now, at least not soon. I have a house and a job, a degree and a car. I have someone who makes it worth the staying. For the first time in my life I’m considering shelves and calculating the cost of seven large boxes of books shipped media mail across the United States so I can reread them all over again. I’m planting things and building a pantry’s supply of spices. I’m tracking down a mattress, and considering putting at least two pillows on my bed. And while all of this feels like it should be unsettling and a touch scary, it really isn’t. 

Certainly I’m not always committed to this concept of commitment. Depending on the day, I am overwhelmed in a gulf of panic at the thought of losing my independence, my ceaseless desire to roam. It’s as if by purchasing pillows I am nailing my feet to the ground, never to explore again, and that simply isn’t so.

It takes a lot to relinquish the well-laid plans that took years of dreaming to formulate and grasp, exchanging them instead for the things that appear in front of you now. Sometimes we get so used to wanting something for so long that when we no longer want it, we feel we must still cling on, if only to justify the time and energy we’ve invested into the thought alone. To let go feels like admitting defeat. In cases such as these I think we often find it’s the tradition of the thing we can’t relinquish rather than the thing itself. Or at least this is what I’m discovering about myself. 

And so I am willingly facing the coming days and the commitments both large and small that they doubtless hold. There’s a certain power in staring down the unknown and shouting “I choose this” into its void. It’s a power the faith of which rests in an assurance that a greater plan is in place, and that the plan holds greater things than my little suitcase heart can fathom. And perhaps choosing to trust that plan starts by purchasing a few extra pillows.

Presently

Something there is
Courses through the open window,
Parted blinds,
Riding on the back of the
Afternoon light:
A wind
Like memory,
Heavy with summer scents
In mid spring,
Casting dappled patches of light
That seem to say
“Look:
The light is here,
The time is now.”

Finifugal

Finifugal: (adj.) Hating endings; of someone who tries to avoid or prolong the final moments of a story, relationship, or other journey.

This past week has been a veritable tornado of things and feelings that have ultimately formed themselves into a crisis of sorts, reflected in the fittingly changeable weather plaguing north-eastern Pennsylvania. My birthday coincided with the sudden death of a close friend, leaving me breathless and wondering how God works all things (all things) for good (because He says He does, and I sometimes don’t know how to trust that). I’ve spent the last seven days waffling between busy okayness and moments of exhausted despair.

In the midst of the guilt that trails in a suicide’s wake, as well as the existential questions that naturally form as another candle finds its way on to the cake, I’ve found myself questioning my identity. Who am I in Christ? Who am I as a person? How do the two meet and mesh? If there’s anything I’ve learned moving through these things before, it’s how easily it is to let the weight of sadness overwhelm you, turning life into a question of blank futility. “What’s the point?” you ask. I have a theory: I believe that sadness is like matter– it can be neither created nor destroyed, just manifested and passed along. Suicide passes the greatest of sadness onto those left behind, a sadness so great you feel like you become the emptiness itself. So it’s in this moment that I find I need to remind myself who I am, and especially Whose I am. You don’t necessarily need to this list (although it may help you understand me); but in this moment, I do.

I like to think that God believes in irony, but never coincidence.

I can (modestly) climb a tree while wearing a skirt. This talent took years to cultivate.

The quickest ways to my heart are flowers and books.

I want to take a cross-country road trip in which I stop and spend time on a swing set in every state.

I take sermon notes in free-verse poetry.

I can spend hours in a museum.

I like pots of tea at 4 PM- scones of course are always welcome.

The only place flannel and plaid belong are on blankets and kilts.

I sometimes get caught up thinking about the micro-worlds that could exist on every single dust mote.

There are few things as satisfactory as a purring cat.

I love tall windows and natural light: I avoid using overhead lights.

The best part about tall windows and natural light are the patches of shadow-and-light they throw across the walls and floor on clear afternoons.

I drink coffee out of necessity, I drink tea out of preference (and sheer enjoyment).

My favourite films are in black and white.

Even so, I know almost every line from the original Star Wars trilogy.

No matter where I go, I almost always have two books with me: a small anthology of Eliot’s poetry and essays, and a rather battered copy of Donne’s verses.

Someday I want to live somewhere I can keep a garden.

Kindles are convenient, but real books are best.

Paperbacks are for dog-earing and annotating.

I like to buy used books with notes in the margins: it’s like a peek into the previous owner’s mind.

Both my favourite poem and song have the same title: Clair de Lune. One was written by Paul Verlaine, the other by Claude Debussy.

Cumulus clouds are my favourite.

I don’t know who I prefer: Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald.

We will obviously be singing choral music in Heaven, because it’s simply the best. I imagine the set list will include Eric Whitacre, Arvo Part, and Gregorio Allegri. Also, there will be cellos.

I desperately want to have a picnic in a graveyard.

The thing that astounds me most about salvation and God is the incredible freeing nature of His grace and love: I am a fearful person, and I find it hardest to rest in the knowledge that the only thing that could ever make me whole was completed by His Son. There is an amazing kind of peace in that.

My favourite day and place is a foggy beach along the Pacific.

Stargazing is wonderful, but it’s better with someone else.

I could survive on banana pancakes and orange juice.

Everyone has a story, and stories are for sharing.

I don’t trust people, but I’m working on that.

If you cut me I would probably bleed salt water, ink, and earl grey tea.

As hard as it is to move through suicide, I’m coming to understand that perhaps one of God’s desires for me is to continually find and work with people who struggle with it. And that scares me.

April Is The Cruelest Month

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
-T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

April: gently filtered sunlight passing in and out of cloud-cover, windows-opened for the first time in months- permitting the breeze to make its way through the room, the stir and stretch of the world as she wakes and brings things back to life.

I feel that all of the openness and light should make this my favourite month of the year, yet somehow these thirty-odd days have managed to encapsulate a sense of death, life, darkness, light, loss, and growth all at once, and it’s a paradox the inner workings of which I’ve long-since given over trying to understand.

But the more Aprils I experience (and I’m beginning to amass quite a few) the more I see parallelism between what transpires in my life as things transpire in the ground– the discomfort of death and life and that blank space in between where the living usually drowns into mere existence, about the discomfort of growth and T.S. Eliot using words to prod the pain of letting go to stretch into bloom.

It’s ironic that with all of this living, April is to me instead a struggle with death and how to come out or away from it. I know death- we’ve long been on speaking terms she and I- and I’ve stood at the edge of her cliff numerous times, usually holding the hands of friends, in dialogue about all the reasons to walk away as we continue to toe the line. A number of them have slipped over the side anyway: it’s never something you get used to. And that is April.

I think a lot about how little we understand life without the contrast of death– of Icarus as he fell, suddenly aware of what it truly meant to live. How impossible it feels to consider an eternity of living without death to make us aware of it! How strange to imagine that it was never intended for us, for this world, to begin with.

Growth requires the letting go of the dark, cool safety of the earth in order to move skyward, and April signifies this in so many ways: the fear and discomfort of growth and light, and the pain of loss and letting go of even that. Things bloom out of death- dirt itself is comprised of dead things-and it’s that which is necessary for plants to not only grow, but to sustain life. In that way it’s much like the death and life of Christ to the believer. He took on darkness and death that I might have

light and life. And perhaps that’s the thing: for all of the darkness in me I know myself to be a creature of the Light, and there’s the unbearable dissonance of two things that cannot mix. The darkness so often wins. But I always thought that if I could remind anyone of anything I’d want it to be cherry blossoms. Someone once told me that was silly and childish: I choose it anyway.

“I have learned
Things grow towards the light.”
-A Fine Frenzy, Grasses Grow