the other place

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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.

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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?

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a history of thought

I find it obscure how memories can be latent and lost for years, beyond recollection, until something suddenly awakens them again. There are massive gaps in my childhood memories, and yet there are certain moments I remember with such precision, it seems as though they only happened yesterday.

Many of my vivid recollections seem to be attached to a particular age, and for some reason, ages seven and eight seem to hold some of my most accessible memories. I believe these years brought with them the wonderful and equally tragic world of self-consciousness. For me, they mark the beginning of a more abstract and complex pattern of thought.

Age seven. I remember standing in the large foyer of our house, my small form swallowed up by empty space and high ceilings. I remember staring out the windows that bordered the front door and thinking about God. Who was He? Where was He? What would life be like if He had decided not to create any of this, any of us? What would the absence of life feel like? All I could imagine was a void of nothingness. All I could picture was blackness. The thought made me shudder, but I found myself returning to it again and again, as if my mind was a new toy I was just learning how to play with.

Age eight. I remember carpooling with my friend to gymnastics practice. I remember sitting in the backseat of her mom’s Mercedes Benz in my leotard, my thighs sticking to the tan leather seats in the humid Atlanta heat. I looked over at my friend’s thighs and noted how much skinnier they were than mine. I thought that if I positioned my legs in a certain way on the seat then they might look as small as hers. When someone mentions the word “self-consciousness,” this is one of the first memories that comes to mind.

One afternoon, at around this same age, I remember sitting on the wooden swing set in my best friend’s back yard. I anchored my toes in the dirt as I swirled the rest of my body around in a circular motion, trying not to tangle the metal chains that suspended me. These random details surround the first time I can remember having “the thought.”

It’s a thought that we’ve all had. It says, “What if I had done that, and not this?” The thought looks like a person standing at a crossroads and choosing one direction, and then, miles and years down that chosen path, looking back and wondering, how would life be different if I’d chosen the other way? 

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This thought of “what might have been” can be intricately laced with regret and longing, and if carried too far, can become unproductive and even damaging. However, I also think there’s a chance that it can enhance and inspire how we choose to engage in the life we have chosen, or rather, the life that has chosen us.

As a seven-eight year old, I didn’t do much with the thought. Most decisions were made for me; life was still quite simple. At the time, I think I was more intrigued that a person was capable of pondering such things and that the human imagination could construct such vivid scenarios in attempt to fill in the blanks to questions it did not know the answer to. In the years to follow, this would become a favorite past-time of mine.

And now, twenty five years later, I still find my mind drawn to these questions. What if I’d never gotten married? What if I’d never had children? What if I had never joined the military? What if I had never met this person or attended that university or gone to that church? Where would I be now, and how would life be different from what it currently is? The current one I’ve been pondering: “What if I had chosen art instead of nursing?” (more on that later.)

What if? What if? What if?

I believe that my ability to construct elaborate and fantastical answers to this question can be a strength, but it has also been one of my great downfalls. My mind can create and imagine that which has not yet become a reality. This means that I also possess the ability to scare myself–to create my own worst scenarios and entrench myself so deeply in them that I start to loose a grasp of what is real and what is not.

Over the years, and with support, I believe I’m starting harness up the darker side of these thoughts while also loosening the chains on the brighter side of my imagination. This is leading to a greater sense of gratitude and contentment with where I am now, while also allowing myself to dream deeply about what is yet to be.

I’ll finish with a poem that comes to mind as I write all of this. After all, there is a poem for everything…

“What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.”

–from “Mornings at Blackwater” by Mary Oliver

***

Food for thought:

What are some of your most vivid early memories?
When do you remember first pondering more abstract and complex ideas?
What thoughts does the question “what if?” provoke in you?