“Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine–not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature–and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the horror; the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness. The tension is time. The stillness is eternity. With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate. But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art…can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding…” –Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet
“Literature, painting, music–the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things…
And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is the love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for Him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”
—Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary
When I started to study poetry about eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking about the implications it would have on my Christian faith. I was clumsily writing along, trying new things with words that felt stupid and frivolous and unproductive, trusting some vague impulse that I was learning a language that was somehow already inside of me.
Over the past year, I’ve started to realize that the socially-disadvantaged genre of poetry is actually everywhere around us. It isn’t wearing knee-high socks, sitting the bench. It’s in our popular song lyrics, our slang, political speeches, and Netflix TV shows. It isn’t usually recognized as poetry, so we often miss it.
In the same vein, it’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of poetry in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets spoke almost exclusively in poetry, because it was perhaps the only way of writing that allowed them to describe the world according to the way they saw it–a world ridden by judgement and hope–a world that was ending and beginning. In essence, they saw a world full of complexity and tension, a world whose mysteries could not be easily pinned down.
Further, in looking more at the gospels, it recently struck me that Jesus spoke in parables, which are like little poems. He used the power of images to do the work that words alone cannot: a mustard seed planted in a field, yeast permeating the dough, the narrow gate, a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.
I find it fascinating that God, the creator of language and the entire universe, chose for His official book to be highly permeated with poetry. One could potentially conclude that poetry is God’s language, that poetry is the language of the Kingdom. Jesus said, I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world. It’s like He knew that poetic language was the only way to communicate the hidden things, which happen to be the big things in God’s economy.
In light of this, I find it so weird that the churchy-world and the artsy-world seem almost diabolically opposed. Sure, poetry is a wild animal with an affinity for ripping open new realities and new ways of looking at things. The church, the political world, or any other structured institution is perhaps scared of that wildness. But, isn’t that what Jesus was all about? Challenging the current structures, speaking in new ways, seeing the world through new eyes?
What would happen if we were to bring poetry back into the modern evangelical church? It might get real gritty and interesting! It might get as scandalous and inappropriate as Jesus!
I was recently listening to a wonderful podcast with Walter Brueggemann–theologian, professor, and prolific author–about his book The Poetic Imagination and the connection between prophets and poets. He says,
What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, is it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation, and then it’s deathly. So, we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that’s healthier than that, you’re gonna have to take time to sit with these images and relish them, and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame, otherwise you’re just gonna be left with these dead formulations, which again, is why the poetry is so important, because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close, until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power. So, more metaphors give more access to God…and it’s amazing how in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, there are just endless metaphors. What a metaphor or an image does, is to invite you to keep walking around it, and looking at it another way, and noticing something else. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
So, what does this mean? Well, maybe the way we experience the transformative power of God on a personal and global level is as basic as reading poems and trying to write them. Geez. It’s so simple and so small, kind of like that mustard seed Jesus was talking about.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not
I am making a way in the
and streams in the wasteland.
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
I’m currently sitting amongst the wreckage at my desk: crinkled receipts, lit magazines, old journals, my marked-up calendar, stray earrings, hair bands, loose change, a high pile of papers from the children’s schools. Multiples times today I have tried to bring order to it, to sort and file and throw away, but instead I end up staring at the disaster, then looking out the window instead. So much for getting organized in the new year.
I’ve hardly written a thing since I graduated this summer. I suppose the pendulum has swung the other way. The break from writing, however, gave me the opportunity to re-engage with another part of myself as I’ve re-entered the nursing/working world. My thoughts have been many; my words few.
I love how the new year is a natural ushering in of change and reflection. 2014, for me, was a year of finishing. I was able to tie up loose ends both personally and academically. In many ways, 2014 felt like a return to myself after a decade of wandering, both geographically and psychologically. I am thankful for that.
As I look ahead to 2015, I am painfully mindful of the brevity of life. During the holiday season we lost an incredible nurse at my workplace. Margie was an inspiration to me and made my transition back into nursing such a positive experience. She was so warm, so open to people and life. Her sudden death was completely unexpected and has left us all rattled and grieved. The sobering thing is this: We are not guaranteed one minute. Each new day is truly a gift. I know this reality is lost on me all too quickly. As I enter this new year, I want to hold onto this truth. I never want to take life for granted.
This past week I wrote down a few concrete personal and professional goals, but beyond these, I suppose my biggest hope for this year is to live life with an open posture, like Margie did. Sometimes, as a working mom of three kids, life feels exhausting and overwhelming. I close myself off to things because it can all feel like “too much.” I create invisible walls around my little psyche in the name of self-preservation. I hope that I have enough faith as the year unfolds to allow some of those walls to relax a bit and say “yes” to things I might not ordinarily. I want to enjoy the moment and let the cards fall where they will. I want to love people well, and with a bit more abandon. Life is too short to hold back. And, of course, I hope to write more, too.
What are your reflections on 2014? What are your hopes for 2015?
black & white
Juxtaposition. Two things seen or placed together with a contrasting effect. The snow this week provided a perfect backdrop for contrast, for unexpected pairings.
Also, I love when little bits of life converge all at once, like this poem and our current weather…
“A Hymn To Childhood” by Li-Young Lee
I’ve recently been reading more Li-Young Lee, one of my favorite poets. I found two of his collections–Behind My Eyes (which the above poem is from) and The City in Which I Love You–at the library last week.
I don’t know if it’s the fact that he’s a Chinese male, like my son, and that his lyrics feel like some sort of link to my son’s culture, which we long to preserve in some way, or the fact that he has this elegant and sensual way with words. Probably both. He is one of those poets that feel very special to me in some indescribable way.
In any case, this poem felt like the perfect one to share today, as we are holed up in the house, the city shut down from snow…
Still talking to God and thinking the snow
falling is the sound of God listening…
What juxtapositions do you see or experience in your life lately?
What unexpected pairings?
9×12; mixed media
It’s been a long week here. The children staying home from school 4 out of 5 days this week completely derailed my plans. Plus, I have a willful first grader at home and it appears that she is six going on sixteen! We are facing the sobering reality that as parents, we can do what we can to teach our children what is right, but a lot of what they decide to do is out of our control. Terrifying. All at once I want them to be self-sufficient but also do exactly what I say. I guess it doesn’t work this way.
…and faith that the big stuff that’s out of our hands is in His. It’s hard to do what you can and detach from the rest, but I am learning that it’s essential to sanity and survival.
In any case, amidst the hard work of parenting, there was magical snow…waking up to snow on Wednesday morning, the entire yard covered in smooth and unsullied white. I remember drinking my first cup of coffee that morning standing at the window, looking at the beauty just beyond the glass, life seeming to stand still for just a moment.
Life is such a blend of struggle and beauty. I suppose we are always bouncing between the two and grappling with where to land amidst the polarity.
The above painting is one that I did a few months ago, but it felt appropriate to share it today. Coffee and poetry in scripture have helped sustain me this week. Trusting in Him…pouring out my heart to Him. I am thankful for faith–for freedom that comes in trust–and for creative endeavors that bring me peace and calm even when life doesn’t go as planned!
It’s a cold, rainy, December morning. The house is quiet except for a new album I bought last week that plays quietly in the background. Winter is the perfect time for new music. I find that it helps fight off the drab and darkening weather–it makes life feel new and fresh and inspiring again.
I bought the album “Strict Joy” by The Swell Season. You may have seen this pair of talented musicians (Irish musician Glen Hansard and Czech singer/pianist Marketa Irglova) star in the movie “Once.” They also created this beautiful album together back in 2009. If you are looking for new music to combat, or perhaps embrace, the winter blues, I recommend this one.
As I was listening through the tracks this past week, this lyric hit me…
GIVE YOURSELF TO A LOVE THAT CONQUERS.
It’s a beautiful image and one that feels so central to what we celebrate this time of year as we anticipate the birth of Jesus, the One whose Love conquers all, today and forever. I wrote the lyric on our chalkboard so I can think about it for the next few days.
How do I give myself to His Love…on a daily and tangible level? What struggles does His Love conquer in my life? Where do I still need some conquering? Good questions to think about during this advent season.
Today I’m thankful for little inspirations, for colored lights, new music, moody gray skies and hot coffee.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” — James 1:17
His love conquers. His love is permanent.
Fragmented thoughts on a Wednesday morning, the week after Thanksgiving…
I look out the window at such an ordinary scene. Gray skies and a wet gray parking lot. Early December and the trees are nearly done shedding. The holiday bustle has begun. This morning I write in my journal–fragments of sentences, fragments of thoughts, trying to psyche myself up:
“Trying to stay grounded in the holiday season. Live in the moment! Just do the next thing! Don’t think too much!”
What I find today is a mind jumbled by a series of broken to-do lists. Return this. Register for that. Buy that. Throw it away. Get to this appointment. Paint that wall. Pay this bill. Finish the laundry. ALWAYS, finish the laundry. (It is never finished.)
I sit here at this bench at Starbucks, the first glimpse of stillness in about a week, the children back to school after Thanksgiving, and I am giving thanks.
There are so many roadblocks to creativity, I think. So many things that make us feel caught on a crazy-making hamster wheel. It takes a good hour of just sitting and staring blankly out the window before I can even begin to hear some semblance of truth, to skim the edges of the creative space inside.
Like I said–I struggle with the demands of this time of year. Stress. To do lists. The million details involved in raising a family. Tantrums. Messes. (I currently have two 3-yr-olds.) Doctors appointments and flu shots and antibiotics and missed dentist appointments. The appointment I’m running late for. This…on top of the extra celebrating and joy to make room for! Writing mumbo jumbo posts like this at least help me feel like I’m keeping my head above the water!
The season of Advent calls us to set time apart from the stress of the season. It’s ironic, isn’t it? In attempt to celebrate the birth of Christ, I feel that I can travel so far from the heart of Christmas and inadvertently create things that can lead me away from the core of it all. The simplicity and reality of a baby in a stack of hay, God incarnate. Huh? What is that?
I even feel pressure within the Christian culture–pressure to rise up and get my heart in proper emotional state to celebrate the birth of Christ, to viscerally FEEL the significance of the occasion, to do an Advent calendar, to light the candles and read the proper verses, to dress my kids up in coordinating Christmas outfits and get a professional photograph taken and then have Christmas cards printed and mailed out to everyone on our contacts list (can’t even begin to attempt this one!), to create and implement holiday traditions into my family and then post pictures of it, gingerbread houses, sprinkles all over the floor, cookies, lights, decorations, gifts, Santa’s lap, HOLIDAY CHEER!!! Do you feel this pressure, too?
For me: the pressure of being a “good mom” during Christmas = PARALYSIS.
This is what I’m thinking about, though. This one sentence:
“Let every heart prepare Him room.”
It’s a verse from “Joy to the World” that I saw posted by a friend on Instagram the other day. It resonates.
How does a heart prepare room for God to dwell…not just as a one-time deal, but on a daily basis, and especially during this time of year? I suppose it’s different for everyone. The preparation, for me, today, means an hour at a coffee shop, sipping regular coffee, sans kids, watching regular scenes of ordinary life unfold outside the window. He shows up in mundane moments, to-do lists aside. I prepare Him room today in the monotony, in the moment, in the relative silence. No agenda. No duty. Just sip and listen.
These are the un-fancy thoughts floating through my mind in this brief moment today. How about you?
What practices help your heart prepare Him room? (and stay afloat during the holidays?)
What things block your creativity?
How do you stay grounded, especially during this time of year?
In my last poetry workshop, we studied some of Juliana Spahr’s work. I love the simplicity of her verse and I also love the way she weaves language together in such a way that it reveals the complex and paradoxical connections between things. The above excerpt is one of my favorite parts of her book, as she explores the human longing for more–always searching and seeking “the geography of the other place.”
I think this sense of longing is universal. I believe it is a good thing, as it compels us to go after something “other”–something beyond ourselves. It is the urge which ultimately leads us to find God. However, like anything, it can have a darker side–a side that can steal contentment and acceptance from our lives–a side that leads us to seek perfection in an imperfect world.
Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth
This is one of my favorite paintings. It used to hang in my high school art studio and I remember how something inside of me connected with this girl in the painting–the way she seemed fixed in one place yet longed for the home on the horizon–the way her posture seemed to be reaching for what was beyond her. I wondered what was in the house that she wanted, and I wondered why she stayed in that same spot on the grass. My art teacher eventually told me that the girl in the painting was handicapped–she had suffered from polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. It seemed such a sad portrait of a girl alone in an open field, longing to move yet unable to.
Do you ever feel like that? If you were to put yourself in this painting, what posture would you assume and what would surround you? What would that thing in the distance be that you are longing for? Is it real, or is it a mirage?
I have often struggled with contentment, idealism, and withdrawing into a fantasy world. I can tend to have this unhealthy awareness of what is missing in life and allow my own imagination to fill in the missing pieces. I am like Spahr when she writes, “I am in one place and longing for the geography of the other place…I am in days wanting it all.” In recent years I realize how much this struggle can steal from my enjoyment of actual life. Living in some fantasy world of “what might have been” or “what could be” or “what should be” takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. It can steal my ability to truly engage in the present-tense-reality of what life actually IS.
Growing up, I had an idea of how my life would turn out. It is an illusive idea, not grounded in reality at all. It was always wrapped up in living overseas, in some brand of self-glory, living life as a loner and free-spirit, perhaps as a traveling nurse, helping others and needing nothing, free to do anything, to be my own person. The more I try to nail down the fantasy, the more disappointing and vague it actually is. I don’t know that I ascribe it to any one place–it is not grounded in anything truly tangible or even good. Yet, I find myself ascribing to it when my current reality is hard or disappointing. It is a way to escape.
A few weeks ago, my daughter, Tess, had a stomach virus. She was puking into plastic bags from Target in the backseat of the car as we drove her two younger siblings to preschool. As we drove along in our Honda Pilot, past stop lights and strip malls, I thought: why didn’t anyone tell me about this part? It was not a scene my imagination had conjured or clung to when I envisioned my future. At the alter, saying my vows with my husband…in the bathroom, holding positive pregnancy tests…vomiting children is among many things that I had not envisioned. (You know that part of baby showers when you ask older mothers to share their wisdom with you? How did projectile vomit miss the memo?)
This got me thinking about how unreliable our ideas of the future really are. Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would. My foresight is terribly limited. And, the life I originally imagined for myself, which floats up in some pastel cloud, fluffy and unreachable, is completely detached from anything I would probably ever want to touch, taste, or feel in reality. This realization leads me back to the present, to this hard wooden desk where I currently write, to luke warm coffee, half-eaten biscotti, the stack of half-read books and crumpled napkin at my side. This is what is real. This is what I love. The here, the now…the paradoxes and dichotomies of daily life. The more I accept these, the more I am happy to let my flowery fantasy world float away like a balloon until it shrinks into a tiny speck in the sky, no longer visible to the naked eye.
I was talking with a friend of mine on the phone last week. We are both thirty-somethings–now fully established in the decade that has largely (though not entirely!) escaped from the drama, reactivity, grandiosity, and insecurity that defined our twenties. We are “officially grown ups.” At this point, we are realizing that if we don’t start to discard the fantasies that we chased in our teens and twenties, our lives will pass us by, un-lived and unappreciated. It is time, we both have decided, to accept and embrace the full reality of life, in all of its ordinariness. If the fantasy hasn’t happened by now, it probably won’t, because it probably was never attainable anyways. It is time to embrace the plainness of a dry open grassland and a cloudy sky and the fact that, try as we might, we sometimes can’t move ourselves from where we sit in this big open field. We are here, where we are, for a reason, and perhaps there is joy and contentment in burrowing deeper into our current landscape, embracing both the grit and softness of the earth around us.
This week, the week of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for life–even life that is “less than ideal” at times. I am grateful that my life didn’t turn out the way I imagined it–I would be miserable. I am thankful for the geography of the place I am in–its ordinariness–its many joys and disappointments. I am grateful that God gives us a heart that always longs for more…but that can also find rest and peace where it currently is. I am finding that there is great significance and value in “normalcy.” I am grateful that the home on the horizon–the one that I long for in the distance–is not something I can ultimately create for myself. It is a place that God has made for me, and it is real.
What do you long for?
What are you thankful for?
I kept a daily journal of our China trip last year. I was good about writing during the first week, but after that my entries abruptly tapered off. Once we got Ren, we quickly entered into newborn delirium, even though he was already 19 months old. At that point, I had to trust that my mind would hold onto the moments I was meant to remember.
I thought I’d share the entry from Day One. I remember writing it in an airplane as we flew back to the west coast en route to Beijing. It was the second of ten flights we took round trip. It was such a strange feeling flying back to California that day, as we had just left our home there to move to Virginia. It felt as though we were back-tracking and getting nowhere, stuck in an endless round-a-bout of planes and automobiles, like an episode of The Twilight Zone. This journal entry could probably use some editing, but I left it as is, an authentic draft of delirious travel thoughts.
Day 1 — Thursday, June 28th, 2012
We pulled out of our driveway at 7:15am this morning–or should I say yesterday morning? It’s past midnight EST right now, so technically today is already tomorrow, but I’ve entered into that traveling-haze where the hours blur together and it hurts your head to try and figure what time it is. All I know is that I’m tired.
We have been traveling all day but we are still in the continental US. We are flying over the western states right now, but it’s hard to say where because it’s pitch black outside. I think we are due to land at SFO in about an hour and a half.
The first stretch of today’s journey involved driving the girls down to my parents’ house in NC. We woke the girls up this morning and loaded them right in the car, gave them juice boxes and protein bars for breakfast. It was strange pulling out of our driveway, leaving our new home that doesn’t feel quite like home yet. We just moved cross-country from California, and after a week and a half of unpacking boxes and moving furniture, it is already time to let go of “home” again.
[leaving the Atlantic coast. Portsmouth, VA.]
The road trip to my parents’ place is four and a half hours, door to door, with one stop. We got there around lunch time and my parents had food waiting for us. We were ravenous! Chris and I stayed for about 40 minutes–just enough time to eat, get the girls somewhat situated, and say goodbye.
[driving through the Virginia countryside.]
That was the hardest part of the day–saying goodbye to the girls. I felt like I was betraying them. My dad wanted to pray for us all so we huddled together in the middle of their family room, held hands, bowed our heads. I immediately felt the sting in the back of my throat, the warning that tears were soon to follow. Both of my parents prayed over us and the gravity of what was before us hit me with each word.
I was eyeing the girls during the prayer. Tess looked around, not quite sure what to make of it all. She was studying our faces for some indication. Lucy stood next to me, lost somewhere in toddler-la-la-land. My heart ached for them because I know I won’t see them for seventeen days and I know they can’t wrap their minds around why we’ve left them–at least, I know Lucy can’t. Tess and I have been talking about her brother in China for awhile now and she seems to be tracking pretty well. I know my parents will do great and the girls will enjoy their time, but I also know that this is a long time to be away and this journey is going to impact everyone–everyone is going to feel it–everyone already does.
We all walked out to the car together and I scooped the girls up and squeezed them tightly, whispered in their ears how much I loved them. Tess burrowed her nose into my neck and didn’t want to let go. Lucy said, “I love you, Mommy.” She knew we were getting ready to leave her and she wasn’t going to let me put her down. Her legs tightened around my hips. Finally, my dad asked her if she wanted to come inside for a popsicle and she happily obliged.
Chris and I drove away, suddenly alone in the car. We drove past roadside stands of plump peaches, ears of corn as big as bowling pins stacked high in pyramids on wooden stands. They had tables full of watermelon and tomatoes and wooden signs advertising homemade ice cream–tastes of summer in the South. The dense green foliage along the North Carolina country roads stood in such sharp contrast to the golden rolling hills of northern California that we’d grown so accustomed to. I found myself struggling to adjust to the jolting differences between the east and west coast (not to mention the new continent we are now heading towards). I was quiet in the car as we drove by it all. Everything was starting to feel real.
We drove for about two hours until we finally reached the Greensboro airport, where we started our journey back to the west coast. We had a two hour flight to Chicago, then a two hour layover which turned into much longer thanks to delays caused by thunderstorms. Day one of travel has been full. We’ve been going non-stop in cars, terminals, and airplanes for about 18 hours and I’m ready to get off of this plane. Tomorrow is going to be just as intense.
The flight attendants are about the bring the beverage cart by for the second time. It seems strange to order coffee so late at night, but I think I’m going to need some. When we land at SFO, it will be about 11pm PST, but it will be 2am for us. Then we will need to rent a car and drive to Modesto–about an hour and a half drive. We will stay in a hotel in Modesto and then fly from there BACK to SFO tomorrow morning, and then onto Beijing a few hours later. Flying out of Modesto verses SFO saved us about $600, and Chris was trying to be as thrifty as possible when booking our airfare. It is insanity to me, but every $ counts at this point.
We are quickly approaching the end of our funds. We are almost tapped out. We have about $8,000 cash strapped to our bodies in money belts. As we stashed the wads of money around our abdomens this morning, it felt as though we were conducting an illegal transaction. We are close to reaching the limit on our credit card. There have been so many costs along the way but most of them have come right at the end. We weren’t expecting that. Still, God is providing in ways we didn’t imagine and I know He will continue to do so. And, like Anne Morrow Lindberg says, purposeful giving has a way of filling one up…the more you give the more you have to give…like milk in the breast. I don’t know that life always feels that way, but I’m hoping this proves to be true.
That’s it for today. I will write again tomorrow, most likely on the flight to Beijing, high in the sky over the vast, blue, Pacific Ocean.
[back to the Pacific. San Francisco, CA.]