Live a Good Story

(This blog post is the more polished, non-nervous version of the short speech I gave at the singles’ seminar yesterday at Penn Valley, about my story of living with passion.)

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“Beauty will save the world.” This is what Dostoevsky said, and I think I agree.

But I like to tweak the line to say Stories will change the world. And I’m out to live a good story.

I was born and raised in Virginia, and when I was 21, my whole family moved to Ireland and that’s where they still are. I lived there 14 years, and 5 years in Poland. The shape and the energy of my life have to do with words and people. Which is stories. In Poland, I taught English as a second language, and it was wonderful because words were my currency of exchange and all I had to do was sit in front of someone make them talk. In Ireland, I thought about doing what good missionaries do, which is to write  book about being a missionary in a foreign country. That book didn’t get written because I don’t know how to be a good missionary, but something else happened that I never expected.

When I was 29, I was reading a letter from a friend who  mentioned something she was learning in her walk with Jesus as a single. A voice from the ceiling told me, “You need to write a book for girls like this.” I doubted the voice; I thought it was my colorful imagination, so I told God that if it was Him, could He please confirm it? For the next week, nearly every day, He nudged and reminded and confirmed that it had been Him.

My motivation was to encourage and inspire. It’s not a how-to book, with lists of formulas on how to recognize a good man or how to become perfectly content. I saw women who were looking at being 30 without romance, and they became desperate and bitter, and I knew that God intended more than that for His creation. The book is largely about acknowledging that very few of us are living the life we were planning to live, but finding beauty and richness in it regardless of changed plans.

Maybe it’s a woman thing, or maybe it’s just me, but my deepest fear has been that I am or will be completely and utterly alone. That I have no one to walk with, lean on, depend on. I don’t mind solitude, but the fear of being existentially, profoundly on my own with no other resources has terrified me. I don’t say this cockily, because I still have fleeting moments of that fear but the experience of writing my book has taken most of that fear away. Because it was such an incredibly companionable walk with Jesus, a partnership with Him, where every step was in the dark, and I depended on Him to tell me what to do next and how to do it, and I now I know, as I never did before that I am never, ever alone.

I didn’t know how to write a book. There are things you should do and shouldn’t do, and I didn’t know what they were. But at every step, God put the right people in my path to help or give advice–some people with whom I haven’t had contact since, but they were there when I needed their expertise.

One day at work between customers, I made a list of the words about topics I wanted to cover. That list became my working outline. I’d write a chapter about each topic, and two years later when I got to the end of the list, I stopped, and that was the book. The outline morphed into sections of living with purpose (what is settled in the past, behind us), passion (what we do with today) and promise (what to look forward to.) I’m not much for cutesy alliteration, but that just happened. I should maybe mention that several readers have said my India story makes them wonder if I’m married. I’m not married. The story is completely fiction, even while it is scarily what I could do.

I have a new job now, working on a dynamic team that’s developing a history curriculum for elementary students. I’ve never taught history, and never taught these grades, so my current learning curve is huge. But I feel that everything behind me has prepared me for this moment. Among other good things, it combines words and people (stories) so it’s something I can put my whole heart into.

Stories will change the world. Not everyone needs to write a book, but everyone can live a good story. Donald Miller says a story is when a main character wants something and goes through conflict to find it. You have desires and dreams. Keep them! The minute you cut off your dreams and decide they’re too messy or ridiculous, your story stops. When you have conflict, don’t try to avoid it. Conflict is what makes your story. Think Joseph. Without the conflict with his brothers, he wouldn’t have had a story; he’d have just been Joseph in the field. Living a good story is not about muscling through and making things work, but it’s about keeping in step with Jesus and entering into His life and love.

Because life is such an incredible, beautiful gift and we should make the most of it.

Taste and See

daisy-712898_1280We were getting ready to practice the opening song for our friends’ wedding. It was composed for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, a sweet, simple melody: “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is. Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.” You can listen to one version here.

Before we started, our director told us to get out our pencils and write across the top of our sheet music: Taste the graciousness. My cousin sang the soprano solo, soaring way up there so high, I don’t know how she does it. The song was over way too soon to suit me, but I keep mulling the words. Taste the graciousness. Blessed, trusteth, Him.

You could say Taste His grace but I like graciousness because it means the focus is on God’s essence more than on what He does or gives. I think about what it means to taste, and I want to it be the shape of my life–to savor, enjoy, affirm the goodness. This is not automatic behavior for someone like me who complains quickly and is constantly bumping into the reality of living on this side of Eden. Things are not as they should be, BUT GRACIOUSNESS IS ALL AROUND US! It takes my breath away. We should all stop and stare at the wonder of it all. The telling of it is like counting the pearls on a string or drops of dew on a blade of grass or tear drops on a cheek.

The billows of wildflowers lining the roads.

Laughter with a child.

Phrases of songs that replay themselves in my head, healing and comforting.

Simple food with a friend.

I wondered a little why David wrote that verse with the two phrases that don’t seem to have much connection with each other. “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.” What does tasting have to do with trusting?

Then I remembered how Larry Crabb wrote in Inside Out: “Desire much and pray for much but demand nothing. To trust God is to demand nothing.” Tasting is savoring, keeping an open, soft heart, not demanding.

Picking a few daisies, not taking an armful.

Laughing with friends, not insisting on always laughing.

Savoring musical moments, not demanding a concert every week. Or a feast every day.

To taste and acknowledge the graciousness means trusting God for the places that still ache. To affirm the good things and trust God with the lacks and empty spaces and fractures, demanding nothing.

Those are high words to reach for, but I want it written across the top of my life: taste the graciousness!

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The Water is Wide

I call her my Polish mom, though she said she’s more like my big sister. She’s a grandma and has lived lots of life, so that’s why she’s like a mom figure to me. The drama and the dreams she comes up with are like no other, and forces to be reckoned with. By her own admission, she has ADHD, and it’s a standing joke and explanation for how crazy and boisterous it gets when she’s around.

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But she’s not just loud and wild. She cries and hurts and agonizes. What’s more, she hurts with other people’s pain. She has this enormous heart that she spreads over me and those in her world. I don’t have to say anything (and often I can’t because we don’t speak the same national language) and she knows what’s going on inside me. Is that because my eyes reveal so much or because she’s so incredibly perceptive? Probably some of both. Very often, she would ask how I am, and I couldn’t wiggle out of the direct question, so I’d be honest, and she’d say she knew it already. Then she’d cry with me and tell me it’s going to be ok.

It was an experience that’s hard to describe–how two verbose women who didn’t share the same language could talk or be silent and still understand each other. Tears and laughter are their own language. And God’s Spirit in both women is a perfect translator.

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We talked food and people and traveling and teaching. Having taught school for decades, she’s a master at handling children and teenagers, and winning their hearts. Her big heart wraps around them and they cannot stay untouched.  She asked me to be her English teacher, and it was delightful.  I especially loved how she praised me to the skies for my teaching ability even though she constantly lapsed into Polish and I couldn’t tell if I helped her English. I think the biggest benefit was just that our lessons were meetings of the heart, and probably that’s more beneficial than retaining language.

She knows heart break and the ravages of a devastating divorce. She knows ache and poverty and dreams that never come true. That’s why it’s so beautiful to see the power of Jesus’ transformation shining out of her. One of my favorite stories about her is here.

I left Poland last July 1, and she told me when she’d be at the school to tell me goodbye, but she never came. I was sorry, because I need closure. I don’t love pain, but not saying goodbye is worse than saying it. But clearly it was going to be too hard, and this was the easier route for her.

There is no right way to walk away from a vibrant, life-giving relationship. It’s impossible to cross an ocean, live among English-speaking people, and go on as if nothing happened.  My heart strings are still raw and dripping. Tears are always shimmering under the surface. Always. It’s different with my family even though they’re far away. They’ll always be family and we’ll always be in touch. Ela is FAR away, in another language, separate from anything here, involved in her own world, even though I know she’ll always love me.

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Yesterday I Skyped her for the first time since the time we didn’t say goodbye. She’s the same Ela, full of smiles and exclamations and wild dreams, pouring out so much love. She read me, as always, and observed that I’m doing better than when I left. But she didn’t see the quaking, shattering in my heart that went on the rest of the day and made it hard to concentrate because her voice and grin kept coming back to me and yet were so far away.

Sometimes I hate the globe and limitations of space.

A Little Girl in a Red Dress

So one day, about last Friday, there was this girl who went on a cabin retreat with her fellow students. There were about twenty girls bunking in one room, and when this girl was sleepy and tucked up in her bunk in the corner, someone in the room asked her to tell a story. Because she was in a stupor of exhaustion, she told the story of her day in about three terse sentences, beginning with “Once there was a girl in a red dress,” then she said “Good night.”

This is a slightly expanded version of the story. Is it terse? It’s impressionistic, after the style of her favorite artist.

One day there was this girl who was sad about some things, so she decided to wear her red dress because that’s her happy color. She went to classes and listened to lectures and discussions about literature and teaching the Bible. She packed her bags for a two-night retreat and hated that it takes so much Stuff to be civilized for two days.

Then for a couple hours, she went with two people to the children’s section of the library in town to find books they might use for history curriculum writing.It was fun and informative and felt productive in the way that touching something feels like progress and reality. In other words,  paging through a book in your hands and running your finger over the illustrations feels much more productive than just reading customer reviews about it on Amazon.

Mid-afternoon, she found herself in a car with friends, and before she knew it, she was wading in Lake Erie and her red hem got comfortably wet, swirling around her. The water was clear and cold, and she wished she could go for a swim.

In the evening, she led a fantastic team that used finger paints to replicate Monet’s “Sunset in Venice” and she felt as if she was high on some kind of drug. The colors, combined with the tactile connection of fingers in paint, plus the camaraderie, soothed something deep in her that had been restless for a long time. When she watched the real sun set over the real lake, she reveled in those colors and knew that it would be completely impossible to mix  colors so vivid with either paints or pixels, so she let the image make its own lasting impression on her soul and thought of the sunset happening just beyond the horizon and remembered these words that always make her gasp:

We could have lived on a dark planet. And been told that there would be one sunset. And we’d have lined every west coast of every continent and every island on the planet. And as we saw the glory of that event and tears came to our eyes, we’d have written about it in our journals and regaled our progeny with the glory of that event. But what must God be like, that He has made our planet a perpetual kaleidoscope of sunrises and sunsets?!

Soon she wrapped herself in her red, fuzzy blanket and someone read them a story and she ate ice cream and went to bed.

The End.

(The quote is referenced here.)

 

An Epic Search

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Note to the stranger sitting across from me at a social function: After you ask my name, pleeeeeeeease don’t ask me where I’m from. You can ask where I live, how old I am, what I like to do for fun–that’s all fair game, but I am still fractured enough in the present transition that I can’t believe how easily I fall apart when I’m asked where I’m from.

Honestly, I get all shaky and whimpery at the simple question.

Today it’s twenty years that my family landed in Ireland–my parents and me and my five siblings. All but two of us still live there.

Twenty years a good long time to find a place and call it home. But am I from Ireland? I wasn’t born there, and now it’s six years since I’ve lived there.

I don’t even like to write this all out; it wants to overwhelm me.

Meanwhile, I’ve just finished reading The Odyssey and completely fell in love with the lyrical words. Now when I open the blinds to see the morning, I have words to describe it. It’s “rosy-fingered” or “golden-haired.” In addition to the poetic prose (it was epic poetry in its original Greek form, after all) was its theme: nostos, the deep longing to return home. Odysseus has been gone from home for ten years, fighting battles, and his wife, Penelope is waiting for him while audacious suitors take advantage of the palace and try to win her favor.  (Another beautiful theme woven throughout was xenia, the honoring of guests, giving them piles of food and honeyed wine and making them comfortable before ever even asking their names and where they’re from.)

So since literature is an on-going conversation about what it means to be human, in reading The Odyssey, I entered a teeny tiny bit into the story of another human’s nostos, because I know what it’s like to not have a home. Well, I do and I don’t. I go back to my parents who now live in a house I never did, and my family gives me huge deference and mom cooks all my favorite food (always chicken curry and always chocolate mousse) and I go to all my old haunts, but in many ways and for many reasons, I feel I don’t have a place there now. And every time I’m with relatives and/or friends in the US, I’m overwhelmed with their love and inclusion, and I don’t feel homeless but actually home-full: I have many homes. I am very rich. It feels like my story will be many interesting, fascinating things, even its own kind of epic, but not nostos.

Extended singlehood is one layer in the story of having no home. Extended foreign service is another. I have no place to go back to and slot in, like the place Odysseus wanted. I’m still in media res–in the middle of the story. This plot line hasn’t resolved yet. Hence, the rabbit-in-the-headlights feelings when someone asks where I’m from. I hope that some day I can come to some kind of peace about it and have a sensible answer, but somehow the current answer feels like an idiot is talking: “I don’t  know where I’m from.”

Trust the resourceful Germans to have a suitable word for my current state: Sehnsucht. It’s the intense longing for a place I’ve never been to; raw homesickness for a place I’ve never seen. It’s the search for Eden, the place we were created for, and life is constantly bumping us against the reality that we can never go back. There’s an angel barring the entrance. Deep inside every human is that cavernous hole that wants to be filled, satisfied, rested in the comfort of home.  For those for whom nostos will never be reality, as well as for those who enjoy the deep, satisfying sense of home now already, Sehnsucht beckons all of us farther in and farther on.

Let’s go!

 

The Soloist, a review

I just finished reading The Soloist for the umpteenth time. In a friend’s house on spring break, the book called my name again. I drank iced tea on her balcony and soaked in the beauty of the story and the breeze and sun on my face and smiled and teared up and felt whimpery by turns.

It’s the true story of how Steve Lopez, journalist for the “Los Angeles Times” was looking for a story for his column and came across a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayres, playing his violin with 2 strings under Beethoven’s statue in Pershing Square.

He plays as if he’s a student, oblivious to everyone around him and this is a practice session.

How can I tell you the story without telling the story and spoiling it for you? It’s about music, creative genius, and friendship, and schizophrenia, and homelessness. About two lost men who inadvertently help save each other. Some name dropping here: Ayres and Yo-Yo Ma played in same concert orchestra at Julliard.

In a crazy, surprising way, I found myself identifying with Ayres and his ramblings. The way he would burst out passionately and eloquently about Beethoven and LA and “people who destroy themselves with the drug known as tobacco.” And interspersed were phrases that broke my heart: “I can’t believe how beautiful that sky is—can you believe it?” The only difference between us is that I don’t (usually) say my lines out loud because, well, I don’t like the blank looks I get when my spaghetti brain becomes verbal. I have this fear that my friends get tired of me exclaiming childishly about the beauty that’s stunning me, but Ayers just let it all out. “I cannot believe how gorgeous that concert was tonight. Did you see how perfect Mr. Hong was? It was absolutely flawless. How could he do that? I don’t want the concert to ever end.”

Lopez, a genius in his own right, tells the story with utmost sensitivity. Maybe the story moves me so much because of how fragile I feel even on the best of days. Like Nathaniel Ayres with his colorful, clumsy grocery cart of belongings that he couldn’t possibly let out of his sight even when he went to a concert hall, I have my own issues of letting go and trusting. His story reminds me of how crumbly the edge of mental health is, and how unpredictably the slide down can happen.

One of my favorite parts of the story is a conversation between the journalist and a doctor who’s seen it all at the homeless shelter. I think I like it because it’s an accessible, simple approach to the complex issues they’re discussing:

Let him find his way. Be patient. Be his friend. Relationship is primary. It is possible to cause seemingly biochemical changes through human emotional involvement. You literally have changed his chemistry by being his friend.

Disclaimer: In case you’re sensitive to it, there is rough language in some of the dialogue.

When Breath Becomes Air review

About once or twice a year, I see a book that I have to get. There is no waiting, no deliberating–I need this book now.

When Breath Becomes Air was one of those this week. Never mind that I had a small pile of assigned reading. This was imperative too.

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I’d watched an interview with him probably about a year ago, and it deeply impacted me, so I was already tuned to hearing about this book. When it came, I couldn’t put it down. I stayed up til the wee hours last night because I couldn’t bring myself to close the book. I rarely let myself do that, so this was particularly indulgent but necessary.

When I finished, my pillow was wet and my throat was tight.

Kalanithi first got his degrees in English literature, because he though literature might hold the vocabulary that gives life meaning. Then he studied biology and the brain because maybe there he could find out what gives humans meaning. After all that searching and studying and excelling in each field, he concluded that God gives meaning to life. Humans find meaning through revelation, not science. He was 36, in his last year of training as a neurosurgeon, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The morning he was dressing for his graduation, his body betrayed him completely, and he ended up in ICU for a week. Twenty-two months after his diagnosis, he died.  His daughter was 8 months old.

Kalanithi’s writing is absolutely pristine and totally engaging. It has awakened me so that today color is more vivid, the rain is wetter, and my friends’ eyes are more vibrant and beautiful than they were yesterday. I don’t feel morbid. But I’m thinking in new ways about what is valuable and real. The book was his project in his last year, and in it he explores what it means to be fully alive, nurture life (his daughter), love well (his wife and family) and face death simultaneously, which is where we all are except most of us don’t have a diagnosis and a medical chart.

I loved the medical jargon and needing to pick up a dictionary now and then. The book is the perfect blend of writing and technical terms–art and science. I feel inspired and weepy and resolved.

Resolved to live better than I have.

And to work on that stack of reading.

But first, to play with some chalk pastels.