This is how my day started. I woke up early at my sister's house in Portland to steal away together for a few precious hours of girl time. I'm in love with all the delicious, local food served in the hideaway cafes in Portland, so she treated me to a scrumptious breakfast out. When we got back home, I entered the wild world of pirates with my three-year old niece. We dodged pirates, spying on Captain Hook with our telescope and filling up on power-building, piratey snacks (i.e., cinnamon Cheerios and Pooh crackers), and hiding beneath cargo blankets. It's been awhile since I evaded pirates. When we parted ways - her on one pirate ship and me on another - I drove to my favorite Gresham cafe to finalize plans for tonight's bachelorette party. It's bound to be a fantastic weekend.
Hence, I'm going to be a realist. I don't envision much writing getting done in the next few days, so I'm going to take a little writing vacation.
I'll be back in force next week - unfortunately, without pirates.
I've got flutters of happy anticipation in my stomach, and it's not even my wedding. My best friend is getting married this weekend in Portland and I'll be heading out this evening. I've got writing this morning, a full day of work, a long packing list I haven't even started, a necessary appointment with the gym (so I can get my second wind for the drive), and some final plans to tweak for the bachelorette party tomorrow to accomplish before I hit the road, that dull, flat mostly straight stretch of I-5 between here and Portland, praying to God I don't fall asleep. And then we'll hit the ground running. I'm so excited.
It's been a progression of emotion getting to this place of excitement. Of course I was happy when she told me, extremely so. But admittedly, there was also some sense of sadness looming on the horizon. For someone who has reportedly liked change in life, this change has been an interesting one to swallow. For eleven years, we have been in a similar season of life; in the trenches and also in the adventures together. I've taken some comfort from knowing we can relate to where each other is at in life. But where her path in life is going, mine is not. Not yet. In a few days, she'll not only have a wonderful husband, but also two beautiful little girls. A wife and a mom, I cannot relate to that. She goes on ahead of me, and I will let go and send her off, my heart overflowing with love, as she embarks on a new trail. I'm honored to witness this change, even as my heart has braced itself for the parting.
It's goodbye to one path, hello to a new one. I'll blow her kisses as she takes his hand and journeys on. And then I'll keep walking on my path that trails alongside theirs, crossing the bridge between whenever I'm able to visit.
I was chuckling about this all day. One of my "regulars" was making his way through the line during a lull and said he was doing some shopping for a class he had this evening.
"Oh? What class?" I asked.
"A class at my church," he replied, fiddling with a straw to slide into his latte. I remembered him talking about how he attends an Episcopal church down the street from here and felt a growing curiosity to know what he was studying.
"What's the class about?"
"Finding God's will," he released a light-hearted chuckle that seemed to communicate it felt like a hopeless cause. "But I think our teacher is a little discouraged with our progress - she thought we'd be further along by now!"
The humorous irony of that statement made me laugh right along with him. "Isn't that true of us all," I wondered aloud. "We all thought we'd have made more progress on that matter by now."
In fact, I remember stressing out about how to answer that seemingly illusive question for many years, particularly in my late teens, early twenties. I can't say I don't wonder about God's will anymore, that I've found some way to transcend or satisfactorily answer that question once-and-for-all, because it still pops up every now and then, lately in the form of, "Is my life acceptable to God?" In other words, "Are You ok with who I am, God?"
I know and respect people who might disagree with my theology on this answer, but I'm ok with that. I'm not saying this is right, but it's where I've landed for now: The more I grow up, the smaller my list of things I know to be absolutely true shrinks. The list may be shorter, but it's also stronger. It's not that different from the old saying, "The more you learn, the less you realize you know."
[On a side note, this includes my "list" of characteristics I would desire in a husband. The list started off years ago as something staggeringly long and specific, but it's been whittled down through the years to the bare essentials. I used to fear this was cynicism or pessimism or compromise. Instead, I've grown to see, it's none of the above. It's me recognizing the precious few things that matter most to me and being open to accepting someone's differences in the others].
There are fewer and fewer things I can state with certainty about many points of theology and doctrine, about the diversity of ways in which God appears to reveal Himself to us and the diversity of ways in which we respond to Him. I know some (again, whom I hold great respect for) might wave a yellow flag of caution about my ambivalence, perhaps citing our relativistic culture as having too great an influence in matters of faith. That may be so. However, I'm quite comfortable stating some beliefs with great passion and conviction and holding fast to them; but many, I hold with open hands. It doesn't frighten me to shake my head and confess about many things, "I just don't know."
Is Christianity really about knowing all the answers, or knowing and trusting the One who is the answer to these cries from the soul?
I don't believe that means following God is destined to be confusing. I think there can be peace and confidence in an attitude of humility that confesses there's much more I don't understand than I do, and the principle things I do hold fast to are enough to anchor me in the lack of clarity. I may not be able to wrap my mind around God, but I can wrap my hand in His and walk with Him. It sounds so simple, that being in God's will, perhaps, is just that. Wrapping our hands in His and continuing to walk.
I've written quite a bit about my faith in this blog. Maybe that's a little strange to some of my readers, but it makes sense for me. To leave faith or God out of my writing would be about as accurate as visiting the zoo and trying to understand the life of a penguin simply by observing it in its artificial habitat, with the assumption that penguins do not exist outside of the Woodland Park Zoo. It'd be absurd, right? For I'd know nothing of the region, climate, culture, or habitat from which they come.
So when I speak of having grown up in church culture, I literally mean, I grew up in it. From as early as my memories span, I remember church. For all of my growing up years, I don't remember missing a Sunday service except for when we were out of town or sick. I grew up with weekly Sunday school classes, church potlucks and picnics, youth group, weeknight kid's clubs, memorization of scripture, daily Bible study, Christian music, church camps, involvement in church ministries (e.g., helping with the nursery, singing on worship team, helping with youth group, community outreaches, etc.), and church Christmas productions.
Honestly, I'm thankful for much of this culture I was raised in. I love the family of God, imperfections and all, and I feel I received a rich heritage. Aside from being born into this culture, as a young person, I thankfully learned to make it my own faith, not merely a culture I was born into. Over the years, I've wrestled with my own questions and beliefs about God and faith, and some of them have changed, some of them have been replaced or broadened, and many of them have remained the same, merely being strengthened through the years.
Still, as with every culture, we tend to pick up some negative things along with the good, and we don't always recognize it, swimming around in it all like fish breathing in water. So along with many of the beautiful things I've gained and learned over my lifetime in church culture, I've picked up some things I'd love to let go of. Things like religiosity.
While talking with a dear friend this morning, we touched upon this idea of living a religious-less Christianity. For those of us who've been in it for awhile, this is much easier said than done. I know it's true, we Christians can be pretty religious, myself included. The sad thing is, following Christ was never intended to be a religion. It's a way of life, a passion, a love, a commitment, a change of self - but not a religion, regardless of public perception or even our shortcomings in living out this love for Christ.
For me, this is a hard one to swallow. All of my teenage and young adult life, prior to my Dad's sudden death, I was in the habit of reading my Bible several times a week, if not daily. I faithfully went to church every week. I prayed often and picked up my guitar to worship almost as often. I'd say I did this thirty percent out of habit, fifty percent out of desire, and twenty percent driven by a need to pursue perfection. Things changed drastically with my Dad's death, and while I feel my faith has grown deeper and more real in many ways, I have also acquired some guilt. I'm not as I used to be. Things don't come as easily to me in my faith as they used to. I often wonder if I'm a washed up, has-been Christian in comparison with my former self.
Through these past several years, though, I've been learning something about beholding God. While I have a hard time picking up the Bible as often and reading it, I love to go for walks and notice Him in my surroundings. When I'm outdoors, my soul sings God's praises. I settle down and enjoy talking with Him. The same goes when I'm writing. I'm learning to see God more in my daily life and incorporate that into the story I'm continually living and writing. When I'm talking with people, I see God more often. I see Him in the changing seasons, in the hustle and bustle of the city, in all the colors and diversities of people, in the unfolding of daily world events, in the babies and the elderly, in the homeless and the immigrant and refugee, in the poverty of some who are rich and the wealth of some who are poor. I see Him in the different ways those who love Him prefer to worship. I see Him in my times of play and my times of work, my times of joy and my times of heaviness.
In every day life, I'm learning to behold Him. But I still struggle with that guilt, that I'm not who I used to be, that who I used to be perhaps was more spiritual or pure or devoted. I'm not sure, exactly, but I guess it's the religious part of me I'm still trying to unlearn. I'd like to hold onto the rich treasure of the word of God, of personal times of worship and prayer, while letting go of the need to hold to a certain level of performance in these practices. I'd like to believe God is bigger and grander than my ability to perform and my continual inability to meet the mark of my own religious standards.
God help me, I'd like to love and live and breathe a religious-less faith.
I've always possessed a flair for escapism, in different forms. Not the kind of escapism that pretends life is not going on around me the way it really is, refusing to face reality. No, I'm talking about the kind of imaginative, distracting escapism that allows me to break above the water's surface for a few moments of lung-filling breaths before diving once more below. My eyes are open, I just need to see something different for a few moments.
As a child, the memories of my most beloved escapes occurred when we lived in the country. I would disappear for hours outdoors. Exploring the woods next to our house. Running through our neighbor's fields to their spacious old barn; their dog, Norton, on my heels, to climb and play and nest among the scratchy hay bales and comfort of its sweet aroma. Petting the droopy-eyed, red velvety, spotted jersey cows while they methodically grazed; gingerly approaching the friskier black horses, Skip and Lady, to feel their soft lips against my hand and the earthy smell of their coats. Climbing as high in the branches of the cherry trees outside our yard as I could muster the bravery to also climb back down. Arranging the inside of the two-story playhouse Papa built for me as if I had stumbled upon a deserted cottage in the woods. I'd sit there, sometimes for hours, writing stories or keeping a little diary written from the perspective of whichever character I was pretending to be that day. Not surprisingly, some of my favorite stories were the Secret garden, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and the Boxcar children series. I had imagination in abundance.
These days, I may not have a barn to escape to, fields to run through, cows or horses to pet. Yet it's funny how these moments will return to me, as if reincarnated, when I get the sudden urge to climb a tree, visit a farm, pet a goat, read a children's book, play in a fountain, stomp in puddles or drive through the countryside. Now I have incorporated more 'adult' diversions. I lose myself in my online Spanish course, imagining I was living in the pictures on my screen, speaking a language other than my own. I research newfound interests, like how to plant and grow tomatoes and how to live a shampoo-free life. With my camera around my neck, I stroll Seattle neighborhoods, straining to see life through a different lens.
I sweat my stresses out in weekly Zumba classes, grinning like a sweaty kid on the playground. I step outside my normal self to feel the music of salsa and dance as if life always felt so carefree. I create delicious meals with whatever ingredients I happen to have around, unleashing a different sort of imagination, and savor (or sometimes not) the final product. I hike around my favorite Seattle parks - Discovery, Lincoln, Carkeet - and stroll along the waters of Alki Beach, the downtown waterfront, Lake Washington, or Greenlake. I explore new and not-so-new neighborhoods in my city, admiring the houses, watching the people, browsing the shops, making mental notes of places I want to return to. Sometimes, I escape into a good mystery read late at night, some series about an ordinary sleuth living a somewhat simpler life in a small town, full of quirky, familiar characters. And I sit for hours in my favorite local coffee houses, savoring a delicious, roasty cup of coffee and doing one of the things I love the most: writing.
I love these simple escapes, this smattering of diversions throughout my daily life. They help energize me, in the way the sun floods my soul when it comes out after a winter of gray skies in Seattle, helping me be present in the ebb and flow of everyday life, helping me to stay connected with that curious, playful child still inside of me.
I've got a little something niggling away at my thoughts, so I'm going to come clean and get it off my chest. Let me be upfront and say that I would love your feedback on this topic: As a reader, what components make a good blog?
It's an interesting place of vulnerability and, at the same time, insulation, being a blog writer. Well, to clarify, more like an unknown blog writer with an almost nonexistent following. You see, as a writer of personal narratives, I willingly expose myself in a manner of openness that, I could be wrong, but I get the impression that it baffles some non-writers. Perhaps it feels too risky, too private. Why would I choose to bare my soul in such a way, one may wonder. I can tell you, I don't do it because I need an online diary, open to public viewing. I have a purpose in my disclosure bigger than my need to vent or keep in touch with people - a driving passion to creatively and authentically communicate my story (and some day, others' stories), to encourage, challenge and empower others in the telling of their own stories.
But there's another reason, too. I don't think it's possible to be guarded or overly private and still be a great writer. Great writing - fiction included, but more subtly than nonfiction - at its very essence is revealing. It's an unspoken agreement we sign up for when we write for others to read, that we will not shy away from revealing aspects of who we are, sometimes exposing both the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful parts of us. With this comes responsibility, for there must also be boundaries. Too much exposure is not beneficial for anyone, either writer or reader, and the boundary lines are not always clear.
Though I don't keep a blog just for the satisfaction of being read by others, I confess, being an unknown little blogger can at times be lonely. Like I'm sitting in a room talking to myself in the mirror, my words reverberating against the walls. Is anyone out there, I wonder, or am I merely talking to myself? Does any of this matter, is it reaching anyone? I really care to know. I don't know how to create a blog following, but if more people read my blog, I wouldn't object. It would add a richness and purpose to hear other voices, to hear how things impact you or sit with you after reading them, to hear your own thoughts and ideas and opinions. I value those things.
Hence, my opening question. What makes for a good read on a blog, for you? If you don't respond, is it because you're really busy, because you have nothing to say, because you don't know how or there's difficulty doing it on the blog site, because you don't know if I care to hear it, or some other reason I haven't mentioned? As a writer, your feedback would really help me become a better writer. Maybe it won't make me the kind of writer you most enjoy reading, but overall, it will sharpen my awareness and impact the way I communicate.
In a world where we're daily assailed with information, so many things clamoring for our attention, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this. And if you feel so inclined, thank you for taking the time to let me hear your voice.
A man's stomach shall be satisfied from the fruit of his mouth;
from the produce of his lips he shall be filled.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruit.
~ Proverbs 18: 20-21
I fill up daily on what goes into my mouth - what I feed myself - for better or for worse. But counter-intuitively, this Proverb suggest that I also fill up on what comes out of my mouth, through the words rolling off my tongue, forcing me to stop and think: on what, then, am I filling myself? In other words, what's my word diet?
When it comes to food, I am pretty intentional about what goes into my body. I have my vices, like everyone else, but overall I love putting healthy foods into my system. It feels good and satisfying to feed my body with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, and my other vegetarian sources of protein. I don't count my calories, but I try to limit the empty calories, mostly because I know they don't satisfy much more than a fleeting craving.
If only I were so intentional with my word diet. While I try to think before I speak, what comes out of my mouth is not always full of vitamins or substance, so to speak. It doesn't necessarily build up my spirit, let alone someone else's. Were I to look at my daily word diet (as in what comes out of my mouth), I think I'd find quite a few empty calories. Too many unnecessary fillers and not enough encouragers. I wonder how many cases of "food poisoning" my words have flared up in myself and others. It's a sobering thought. On the flip side, how many words have brought health and healing to myself and others? Perhaps it's time for a nutrition make-over for my mouth.
But how do I change my word diet? Sometimes, oddly, I think I can change it by talking all the bad stuff out of my system. Not terribly productive or brilliant. I think a change of word diet begins, not with words, but with silence. With fasting - from words. I can be incredibly analytical and reflective, but not necessarily contemplative. I can fill the air with my wordy prayers and verbal processing rants to God, but what if I simply sat in silence and filled myself up with the peace that comes from being in His presence? What if I actually sat long enough to hear something that fed my spirit? It sounds so simple, yet the thought produces such a squirmy response in me. You mean... sit still and be quiet? That's a tall order. I just don't know if there's a way around it. For the words coming from my mouth to truly build myself and others up with truth and grace and love, I need to practice this discipline.
And here I'm grateful, once more, for being set upon this 40-day journey of Lent. As I think about how Jesus prepared to give of Himself through the 40 days He spent alone in the wilderness, fasting and facing temptations, I'm reminded of the words He spoke to the devil when He was tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy His hunger: "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God' "(Matthew 4:4). When He emerged from His time in the wilderness, I'm sure His body was very hungry. And yet He was filled up with the Spirit. He had feasted on the word of God, which dwelled in Him.
During this Lenten season, Jesus, teach me how to feast on the words that come from the mouth of God, to sit still in silence, and to be filled up on good things. Help me to fast from such excessive speaking, to let my words be fewer and more life-giving to myself and others.
Since my introduction to the Catholic way of worshipping God, through Ricardo, I have set out on an unexpected journey of question and discovery. I grew up in a Christian home and God has been very real to me throughout my life, but my experiences in the church have been vastly different from the Catholic experience. It's not been a comfortable journey for me. I don't agree completely with the doctrine and theology of the Catholic church, but the same could be said of other churches within the umbrella of Christian faith. Some teachings of the Catholic church I know I do not understand very well, and some of them, I merely disagree with. It can be a challenge to differentiate between which teachings or beliefs are no more than differences in style preferences, which teachings I disagree with, and which are more complexly cultural.
I have noticed in myself that it can be easy to dismiss or reject someone else's way of relating to God because it is not as familiar as my own. I hate to say it, because I try so hard to be open-minded in a way that still holds to my own convictions, but different can too often be internalized as bad, without even trying. I have had to wrestle with this tendency in myself continually in not only the obvious cross-cultural differences (Mexican/American) between Ricardo and I, but also in the spiritual component of our cross-cultural relationship. At the very foundation, we hold to the same faith. I get frustrated, honestly, with the terms Catholic and Christian, as if they have to be two separate entities, as if they are automatically at odds with each other. They can be, but they certainly needn't be. For at the core of Ricardo's Catholic faith and my Christian faith is this shared faith in Christ. And we both agree that this is the central, most vital component.
So, after many conversations about not only the role of the Virgin Mary in our faith, but for Mexicans, the Virgin of Guadalupe, it is still not clear what I think of her. My background and the teaching I've grown up with culturally leaves me unsettled toward her, moving uncomfortably in my gut, leaving doubt that I could ever really accept her the way Ricardo does. I admit this. After studying more about how the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most popular cultural symbol in Mexico, and not only among practicing Mexican Catholics, I see how deeply embedded she is in Mexican culture, and therefore, in who Ricardo is.
It would be foolish of me to try to change that in him, as it would be foolish for him to set about trying to change my own deeply embedded cultural influences. What I know is that he doesn't worship her; he does not believe she holds the same place as God. For some, she may easily become an idol, but for Ricardo, having her image is more a testament to his Mexican makeup. Mexicans are very visual people, preferring to communicate face-to-face, and since they know this cannot happen in actuality with God, it helps to have symbolic face-to-face means of communication. Paraphrasing the words of Ricardo's close bishop friend and mentor, Catholics do not need her, but they like to include her in their prayers. In a way I struggle to relate to, the Virgin assists Catholics in their prayer lives.
I can agree or not agree with this practice, but in the end, I wonder if these preferences really matter to God as much as what's in a person's heart. Admittedly, I cannot really know what's in another person's heart, but I can be accountable to God for what's in my own heart. At some point, I have to not only choose whether or not I will accept that someone else's heart (in this case, Ricardo's) is, in his own beautiful, imperfect, personal and yet profoundly cultural way, seeking God the best that he knows how, just as I am doing the same with the same human limitations. The question then becomes, can we journey together in love and mutual respect, as both student and teacher, toward God, or will our differences divide us? As I said, it's not an easy, clear cut path, but challenging as it's been, I believe it can be rich and fulfilling, humbling at the very least. For which of us really peers at the fullness of God but through our tiny, human peepholes?
I may have found my next home town. While I've been alluding to my daydreams of experiencing life elsewhere for a season - sometimes, more so, escaping for a season - I stumbled upon this ciudad precioso (beautiful city) in Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato: Guanajuato City. It happened so innocently, while reading about author Tony Cohan's journeys in Mexico in Mexican days, that the wanderlust bug bit me. I'm very content here in Seattle, but experiencing a growing urgency to experience life in Mexico for a season.
Guanajuato state, for those like me who are unfamiliar with Mexican geography, is situated in the middle of the lower half of the country. Jalisco (the state housing the famous Guadalajara) borders Guanajuato on the west, Mexico City sits south more than several hours travel away, and the tropical state of Veracruz (bordering the Caribbean) neighbors to the east. Guanajuato City, the state capital, is situated in the Sierra Gorda mountains, full of character, charm, history, rich architecture and treasured artifacts, mystery, celebration, and cultural traditions. Cohan painted such a riveting picture of the city through his writing, that, without any photographs I fell in love. Once I started researching Guanajuato and seeing pictures of the destination of interest, however, my hunches were confirmed: this is my kind of city.
In addition to the colorful buildings and historic architecture, the abundance of festivals, the narrow winding streets that necessitate walking as the primary form of transportation through the city, the tunnels, the museums, the climate and location of the city, apparently it's not full of gringa(o)s like me. A huge plus. The last thing I want is to live in a Mexican town surrounded by Americans and Europeans. That town appears to be San Miguel Allende, about an hour away; a very beautiful place I've heard, but too touristy to live in for my taste. Adding to that appeal, Guanajuato is a less expensive place to live. I like it even more.
Maybe these are nothing more than pleasant daydreams that will evaporate with time. But then again, maybe not.
There's a mystery in the air this time of year. This time, when spring finally makes its much anticipated debut, breaking through the dark winter months with the promise of light and life; when in the midst of the season of Lent, leading up to the week of Easter, we ponder Christ's journey to the cross and the mystery of His resurrection. Spring and resurrection go hand-in-hand.
In light of the current events unfolding in the world, the phenomenon of resurrection - most poignantly, Christ's resurrection - carries even deeper meaning, reaching down deeply to our human thirst for hope and regeneration. How can we experience this resurrection in our daily lives, regardless of the death encountered in the news or in the lives around us? I know no other answer but to daily invite Christ's Spirit to dwell more fully in me, working side-by-side with Him to learn from Him how to live. From this place of dwelling and learning, we experience the mystery of resurrection as Christ's life renews not only us, but the lives of those around us who experience His life in us.
I may feel powerless to do much to alleviate the global suffering in this world, but what about this mystery I carry around inside of me? What about the resurrection life that is always present, like a seed planted that is always bearing fruit? Never underestimate the power of Christ's resurrection life to heal, to comfort, to draw in, to set free, to renew, to bring life out of death. This resurrection life is a well of pure water that never runs dry, never becomes contaminated; it is bread that multiplies enough to feed every soul that hungers for hope and life.
Yesterday was my dark day, my the-world-is-coming-to-an-end sort of day. It felt so real, and I was sucked in by the heaviness of it. Regretfully, I allowed it to rob me of my precious joy. Yet thankfully, it didn't end that way. I went to bed in peace.
And this morning, I awoke to the rare gift of sunshine. Mom and I enjoyed the luxury of a leisurely morning, going out for breakfast, which is one of our favorite Saturday traditions, flipping through magazines as we ate, sipping coffee, talking, and later in the afternoon, going for a longish walk through the trails of Carkeek Park. The walk through the forested trails, looping along the bay leading out to the waters of the Puget Sound was like an IV to my dehydrated soul. I gratefully absorbed the warmth encased in the cool prelude-to-spring breeze against my face. I sucked in the scent of the woods and marveled at the sun sparkling on the waters from my perch above on the trail. I smiled at the seagulls soaring freely in the air over me and at the people walking their dogs and kids through the trails.
The events of the world are going on as usual today, with or without my knowledge. I'm not forgetting them. But today, I took a small vacation from them, a luxury and freedom I gratefully acknowledge. Today, I reminded my soul of the joys in my life that my circumstances afford, and challenged myself to remember the joys that will still be mine, even if these others are taken away.
On days like this, recognizing the content of my writing of late has been weighted on the heavy side, I really wish I could detach and pull out something funny and astonishingly witty to write about. I wish I could write something that would help take my mind off so many other things, and in doing so, help provide comic relief for some other overwhelmed soul. But here I am confessing that, I'm sorry, dear reader, I just don't have it in me today. Bear with me if you can, I'm going deep again.
I'm still thinking about Japan, about all the people. I'm thinking of warnings of radiation traveling to the northwest. I'm thinking about the dried kelp I'm supposed to ingest daily now to get more natural doses of iodine to protect against this radiation. I'm thinking about all the different burdens my loved ones are carrying. I'm thinking about my brother-in-law who's been in the hospital much of the week, and my sister, who's been by his side. I'm thinking about Libya. I'm thinking of where I'd escape to if I could get a break from real life, bringing the ones I love with me. And then I'm thinking, does such a safe haven exist? I'm thinking about how much our world has changed in the time I've been alive. I'm thinking of the world my kids will grow up in if I have any kids someday. And in all this thinking, no light-hearted, witty stories come to mind to change the subject, even briefly.
As I was driving to work this morning, already trying not to be weighed down by my thoughts, I was listening to a song by Coldplay. My mind wandered further with a line from the song, "Home, home, where I wanted to go." The thought wandered all the way to heaven, and I followed it. I thought of my Papa, how he's at home in a different place, and I missed him. I'm envious of where he's at and glad for his sake that he's there. I thought of how, as the world continues to change, it becomes even more clear to me that I will never be truly at home here. My home is someplace else, and I'm just a temporary resident here, making the best of the time. I've grown rather attached to this place, though, and it's a bit painful watching all these changes take place. Still, it makes me homesick for the day when home will forever be a place of peace and rest, where death and sorrow and nuclear plants and weapons and natural disasters and epidemics and wars and poverty and sickness do not exist.
Home, home, where I wanted to go. I'm not there yet. But as long as I'm here, let me live and love and give courageously, until my last breath. For God loves this earth and all the people in it, and He's writing a story in which He already knows the ending. And the ending is hope.
Stories are all around us, daily calling out for attention, some louder and more immediate than others. The stories coming from Japan are particularly haunting to me, as they are to hoards of others. I imagine many are like me, daily reading or watching the news for updates, each time experiencing pangs of compassion and dismay, followed by paralysis. Were the events unfolding in Japan to have been a movie, and not reality, as I watched I would be thinking, "This plot is over-the-top freaky. There are too many things going on here to be believable!" And in reality, it feels unbelievable. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake, followed by hundreds of powerful aftershocks, followed by a devastating tsunami, followed by thousands and thousands of deaths and missing persons, followed by explosions at a nuclear plant and leakage of radiation, followed by food and gasoline shortages and scarcity of resources - and now, followed by snow.
I felt like shaking my fist at nature today in angry protest when I saw the headlines, saw the people already severely traumatized and afflicted, standing outside, now hungry and cold in the snow. I scanned the paper in growing disbelief. This can't be happening... but it is. And it drove me once more to prayer, though I confess, it's hard to know what to pray sometimes. My simplest prayer is, God, be near. Show mercy and compassion. Bring comfort and provision. Show us who You are. It may feel so inadequate, as I feel so inadequate, but I have faith that God is not inadequate. He will not be swallowed up by the enormity of need.
Still, I don't know about anyone else, but the goings on of my life this week feel so trivial. I struggle with guilt, that I have the luxury of going on with my life as usual. That I can still make plans for the future and take outings and enjoy the simple pleasures of life, while all of Japan reels in shock. I wrestle with the unfairness of it all, knowing that life is not fair, but feeling that answer is much too dismissive. In a worldly sense, I feel a bit of survivor's guilt. Why them and not me?
Of course, I also feel the relief of it not being me, the deep down hope that it won't ever be, the unsettling reminder that one day it could be, that regardless, none of us really escape unaffected by what is happening in Japan. There are worldwide repercussions. Again, my intention is not to be negative or discouraging, and certainly not to engender fear, but to be honest about my response to the events in our world and my questions about how to face them squarely and respond faithfully to them. It sounds cliche, but there really are no easy answers.
On some level, having experienced the shock and pain of losing a loved one and knowing how strange it is to watch the world go on as usual around me while I am reeling and knowing that my life will never be the same again, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the events in Japan. It is hard not to think about the suffering and all the lives forever changed. It is hard not to feel that, even from a distance, I am somehow rubbing my relative safety and happiness in their wounds. I confess I don't know what to do about that. The only answer I return to, quite honestly, is prayer. Perhaps anything that drives me continually to God in prayer, recognizing my ultimate powerlessness, need not be a negative thing.
I stopped today and took a deep breath through my nose, underneath the cherry blossom trees. It filled my senses with fresh, crisp, sweetness and my heart with hope. Spring is coming. Yes, winter still holds on, like the house guest invited to spend the weekend with you, who, upon arriving with a small duffle bag, appears chill and fun, but come Sunday afternoon suprises you by unpacking a U-Haul of her belongings and staying for four months too long eating all your food and not once offering to pitch in for expenses. But look around, at the crocases popping up out of the dirt, listen to the chirping songs of the birds returning home, smell the sweet flowers beginning to come to life again, feel the air shaking out its winter linens to fold and tuck away in the closet for another season. On the air is carried a whispered promise: Spring is just around the bend. Hold on and prepare to watch those things that were planted and lay unseen in the ground now blossom and grow.
Standing behind the counter at work today, asking people all day long how they are doing, I couldn't help but think about Japan. Each time someone casually complained about the weather or the gray sky, their tiredness or not wanting to go to work (myself included), I wanted to turn and point silently to the headlines glaring behind me in the news stand. I guess I wanted to gently and firmly remind myself first, and anyone else who struggles with keeping perspective, of how good I/we have it.
*Our skies may be gray, but the air is not filled with radioactive matter.
* It may be raining, but our homes have not been swept away by a tsunami.
* We may feel tired, but at least the beds we did not want to crawl out of this morning are going to be there when we get home tonight.
* We may balk at a $5.00 coffee (and probably should...), but we're not standing in line for hours to buy a paper cup of soup and a meager slice of pizza for $20.
*Our gas prices are going up, but we do not have a fuel crisis, a gas shortage; at least we have travel options.
* Traffic is bad, but our roads are still intact.
* Grocery costs are escalating, but the stores are abundantly stocked and the lines very short.
* We may have gotten irritated with a loved one or friend or coworker today, but at least we know where they are, that they're alive.
* We may feel burned out, like we need a vacation from our jobs, but praise God we get the luxury of going to work and receiving a paycheck.
* We may be unemployed and in a frustrating search for work, but we still live in a city and country where businesses are open and able to operate, where buildings have not been demolished in an earthquake or fire, where job openings still occur daily.
Believe me, I'm not trying to be self-righteous. I'm not saying I haven't heard some petty statements come out of my mouth the past few days in light of what Japan is facing. I'm saying, when we put it in perspective, the things we so often complain about suddenly appear, well, irreverent, disrespectful and minor. When we catch ourselves saying these things, let's not let ourselves off the hook too easily, but silently turn and point our attention to those headlines. It seems to me that now is an opportune time to practice gratitude for what we have and prayerfulness for those who are suffering so intensely. Beginning with myself.
When Japan shook violently last week, it sent existential aftershocks throughout the world. This is just a gut feeling I have, but I think those aftershocks hit those cities and countries that have many things in common with Japan. State-of-the-art technology and a leading (though struggling) economy immediately pop into my mind, not to mention position on fault lines and other scientific similarities that are far beyond my scope.
In Seattle, for example, news of this earthquake is grave on multiple levels. The first level, of course, is the devastation caused to the people of Japan by such an epic disaster. On a deeper level, though, the gravity of their situation hits an unsettling nerve in many of us here in the Northwest. That could be us. Many experts believe the Seattle area is due for a massive earthquake. We are positioned to not only experience a powerful quake, but also potentially more devastating, a powerful tsunami. If Japan, in all their preparedness could not escape the incalculable damage that has them currently stunned, our city has much less of an advantage over such disaster. It's hard not for this to hit home and cause our own internal earthquakes of insecurity, even fear.
But lest you begin to believe I am an utter and complete downer (and maybe you already think that), I confess my purpose in pointing out these observations is not to indulge your or my fears. I'm just saying, let's get them out in the open, because most of us feel them. And once they're out in the open, let's take it a step further. Let's not become prisoners to our insecurities about the state or our world our the events of the future. Much easier said than done, I'll be the first to admit. I am unable to provide a clear, succinct philosophical answer as to why things are happening the way they are in the world. I have some thoughts from a spiritual, biblical perspective that I could share, but I won't even go there today. My one thought on the matter today is as simple as this:
In a world that is entirely shakeable; though our cities and nations, our homes and lives, our ideas and beliefs, our economies and governments may be shaken; though our minds and hearts may be riddled with unanswered questions, things that do not make sense; one thing and one thing alone remains unshaken and unshakeable: the love of God.
I know that sounds really simple, really easy for me to say not being in the midst of devastation at this moment. But if I don't believe this one thing to be true, I have nothing, no foundation to stand on when the shaking occurs.
When I need to escape into a daydream, I follow the trail of thoughts like Alice following the rabbit to Wonderland, until I arrive... on an urban farm, of all places. How different this daydream is from the ones I must have dreamed as a twenty year old. Surely goats and ducks and chickens and fresh produce would not have been in my dreams then. Oh, but they are now. I realize I am horribly ignorant to the amount of work that goes into urban farming, though to varying degrees, and I am inserting my own romanticism, but still it makes my heart skip a little to dream about. I may as well be four feet tall with braids, wearing rain boots and doing a cross between skipping and hop scotch into some puddles on the sidewalk, that's how my heart feels.
I imagine that the phrase, the simple life, is nuanced when referring to urban farming. Perhaps the only simple thing about it is the return to getting down in the dirt and producing your own food in the amount of space you have to work with. Surely the work itself is not necessarily simple, though not as sophisticated as a large scale farm. I know I'm one of many who are itching to be part of a localized lifestyle - eating local, shopping local, producing local (better yet, as local as your own backyard). For me, while I'm sure this desire is partly shaped by my cultural surroundings and what's popular, it existed even before the culture shifted in this direction. It existed as my lifestyle shifted.
Certainly being vegetarian has brought this desire even more to the forefront. To grow my own fruits and vegetables, to raise my own ducks or chickens for eggs, these things appeal to my lifestyle and values, as well as the bit of "country" in me. When I was a kid, I remember having a huge vegetable garden at one particular house, out in the country on a few acres of land with a creek and a barn and some fruit trees. I was in heaven there, totally in my element. However, when it came time to work the garden, I was scarce to be found. I hated that kind of work. I guess I didn't appreciate fresh fruits and vegetables that much. I didn't appreciate the connection between the labor of tending the garden and the satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of your labor. So my poor mom usually got stuck with doing all the work.
For years I never thought I could enjoy gardening, but all that has changed. I mostly eat fruits and vegetables now, and I am well aware of how much the locally grown produce costs. I love to support these farms as I can, but I would find it even more satisfying to learn how to grow some of my own food. I drool over recipes filled with fresh vegetables and herbs and spices, wishing I could access some of these items from my backyard. The work that sounded dreadful years before is looking very appealing now. Funny how things change.
Then, of course, there's my love for animals - particularly farm animals. I can imagine the amount of glee I would feel in coming home to a fenced backyard with a kiddie pool of ducks, a dog, and possibly a goat or two. I can imagine raising my kids on what we grow together in our garden, teaching them the joys of digging around in the soil, creating our own compost, planting things and watching them grow. They'd grow up appreciating what they had and why it was so good for us and our neighbors and the animals, the small impact it has on our world. Maybe they'd have a chance to grow up more like I did, climbing trees and playing with the animals and running around outside, instead of sitting in front of a laptop or i-phone or Wii or X-box. Not that these thing are bad, but in moderation, as a small side dish instead of the main course. But that's all getting ahead of myself, seeing as I have neither house nor yard, husband nor kids, animals nor garden. But I can dream.
I had a great return to running last night. I'd just finished an unsettling phone conversation, laid my cell phone down on the bed and stood in the middle of the room, afraid of being still for very long. I didn't want to cry or think too much or sit and stew in my anxiety. I could feel old fears knocking at my door. I needed to get outside and move around, breathe, pray.
I said I was going for a walk and stepped outside into the blustery night air. Walking only lasted fifty feet before I decided it wasn't going to cut it. My legs needed to run. I'd tried this before this past year and hadn't gotten very far before my knees demanded I stop. It's been over a year since I was really a runner. Still, I felt my face set in determination and I set off at a quick pace, full of adrenaline. Lord, I need this. Please let me run tonight, I prayed. I've prayed this prayer before and had to accept that, for some reason beyond me, my request wasn't granted. Tonight, however, I felt a surge of freedom, as if I'd been given a free pass, and a confidence that I could finish the run.
I used to run this same route often. It was one of my favorites, a big loop around Ballard and Phinney Ridge, somewhere between six and seven miles, and a long hill sitting at about a seventy degree angle several miles into the run. Since being unable to run, I've walked that hill many times, but each time felt a twinge of sadness, remembering how much I used to love bounding up that hill until I reached the top, lungs and legs burning.
When I started off, I heard the faintest whisper of a question: "Are you running from your fears?" I kept running, as if to answer the voice, "Perhaps, but my fears can come along. I simply will outrun them." To be still in the midst of my fears and anxieties feels akin to walking into a den of hungry lions and trying to take a nap as they circle around me, licking their lips. I won't do it tonight, I said to God. I may be running, but I refuse to be eaten by those lions.
It was as if I heard the voice reply, "Alright then, keep running. I'm with you," and God's presence beside me, quietly, giving me strength. I wasn't running away; I was fighting.
As I ran, these words from Psalm 18 also ran through my mind, fueling my energy:
"I will love You, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised; So shall I be saved from my enemies...
For by You I can run against a troop, By my God I can leap over a wall. As for God, His way is perfect; The word of the Lord is proven; He is a shield to all who trust in Him...
It is God who arms me with strength, And makes my way perfect. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, And sets me in high places."
(verses 1-3, 29-30, 32-33) I ran as if no time had passed between my running days and now. I didn't slow down. As I clipped along, my legs shed the anxiety I needed to release and pounded it into the pavement, feeling strong and profoundly grateful for the gift. I ran until the fear had been left behind and it was just me and God in the cool night. And then I could be still.
Items of business first: my blog site did a naughty thing yesterday. After I spent an hour writing a post, it gave me an error message and wouldn't publish my post. In fact, the toolbar on my blog page completely disappeared, eliminating my ability to do anything with the page. I tried to access the toolbar later on in the day and it was still MIA. So I guess that was one of my "free cards" by default. It was a pretty good post, too, but it's possible it wasn't meant to be.
Now for the important stuff. I'm dumbfounded this morning, I've got to be honest. One of my close friends has a younger brother who's been living and working in Japan, in one of the port cities. Late last night she called to tell me an 8.9 earthquake had hit Japan, launching huge tsunamis through the country. They hadn't heard from her brother yet, and realistically, don't know when they will. Understandably, she couldn't get to sleep.
I read about the disaster online this morning and saw links to many pictures and videos of the earthquake and tsunami. I get weary of all the at-the-scene-of-the-crisis footage that's available to us these days. I didn't feel the need to experience the quake or tsunami second-hand, nor feed my sense of helplessness. I don't feel like writing much, only to ask for prayer for her brother, Matt, and for all the people of Japan.
These types of disasters seem to call God's goodness into question for most of us, at some point or another. I don't have a good answer for that. Mysterious and complex as they are, I still believe God is present and quite capable of working in the midst of the rubble. I pray for His mercy, strength, and comfort throughout the nation. I pray for safety and rescue and resources for the people. I pray for hope and salvation.
There are many holidays written on the calendar that I've never observed, nor necessarily known what they signify. Ash Wednesday is one of those. I've grown up in different churches, but oddly enough, never in one that celebrated the season of Lent. This year, due in part to my own desire and in part to my Catholic boyfriend, things are changing.
I never knew, for instance, that Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40 days leading up to Easter. It's rather embarrassing to admit that ignorance, but I suppose it shouldn't be considering I'm not advertising myself as a religious know-it-all. There are entire sections of church culture that I know nothing, or very little, about. It makes the learning process that much more wondrous.
I looked up the history of Ash Wednesday (and honestly skimmed through all the names and dates) to get a feel for the day. I learned that Christians have ashes traced on their foreheads in the shape of a cross, to signify humility and repentance, the need for salvation, and faith in the cross of Christ to meet that need for us all. What an appropriate way to begin the journey through Lent to Easter. I have been regretful each year for quite some time when Easter arrives and passes in the blink of an eye. I never actually prepare my heart for it, no more than several days or a week in advance, and therefore it passes through my heart and mind much too quickly, without digesting its significance. I feel anticipation growing as Easter approaches this year, because this year I'm going to be ready.
I've been thinking and praying a bit about what I want to do for Lent - what I want to give up or possibly add - to set my heart on God.
Today I picked up my Bible and read the story where Jesus is at the temple, teaching His disciples, watching people come forward and give their offerings. I can picture them standing off in the sidelines, unobtrusively people-watching. God only knows how long they watched and how many people they saw, because the story is short and to the point. Jesus points out the wealthy people giving their big donations then turns their attention to the impoverished widow as she releases her few coins to God. What He says in response is astonishingly opposite of how most of us think: "Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than you all; for all these out of their abundance have put in their offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had" (Luke 21:3-4).
When I read those words today, with Lent in mind, they traveled to my heart like an electric current. I have been thinking of what to give God out of my abundance. Let's be real here, most if not all of the things I could give up for a season come out of my abundance rather than a state of poverty. I pictured myself giving things I love up for a season and saw myself as one of those wealthy people. But I want to be like the widow. I want my offering to be my livelihood, not a small percentage of my wealth. I confess I don't know exactly what that would look like for me in this season, but it's something to fix my heart on.
Is my offering truly a sacrifice, or is it merely the leftovers of a slight inconvenience? I know, logistically speaking, that God cares a great deal more for what is in our hearts than the monetary value of our gift or sacrifices to Him, so my heart is a good place to start.