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.

I Didn’t Marry Him

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There’s a line in Jane Eyre that goes like this:

“Reader, I married him.”

The line always sort of catches me, because I’m not used to being addressed while I’m reading a novel. Also, the understatement of it gives me a start.

However.

That line isn’t in my book.

Apparently, there are some readers of my book out there who are under the impression that I married the man who rescued me in the courtroom when I was in a crumpled heap on the floor.

Reader, I didn’t marry him.

The story was a fantastic flight of fancy I took one day when I was preparing a Sunday school lesson on justification. The word used in Romans denotes a legal transaction, where the debt is paid and the judge is satisfied. I wanted the concept to become real to the women in my class. The story I told them and later put in my book is completely imaginary.

Except, well, it happened on a deeper level. It’s a little scary, how much the girl in the story is like me. And she is me, really. But I’ve never stolen a credit card number in my life. And I’ve never been to India or at a Thai resort.

Can you be ok with that? That it didn’t happen, but it did?

I was a crumpled, ruined wretch, and my Jesus stepped in and saved my wrecked life, and asked me to spend eternity with Him, and is getting mansions ready even now. The details about the first-class tickets and ivory Taj Mahal and leather bags and receipts blowing away in the wind are just shadow words. You haven’t read my book and don’t know what I’m referencing? You can do us both a favor and buy it here.

I have to admit it’s been an interesting and unnerving season, getting feedback from readers. I heard in a round-about way that some speaker was telling a youth group that they shouldn’t read my book, so the girls went home and burned their copies. Then they told my aunt, who said it’s actually a good book, and they seemed interested in reconsidering. Then I heard that some readers think I stole the numbers and traveled the world and married the man.

All of this mostly amuses me. I don’t feel too jumpy and defensive. I’m no better than the girl who did steal numbers and go cavorting in India. I don’t have to defend myself, but I do want to put this out there to settle any questions that might be floating in the ether: I didn’t marry the man.

The Change I Want to See

water-1131456_1280My sweet, crazy friend in Germany sent me a Skype video message and asked if I’m too happy to blog these days. “I’ve checked your blog the last weeks, and I don’t see you writing anything and I wonder, ‘Ok, is she very sad, or is she just busy, or is she too happy to blog anything?’ So I hope you’re too happy!”

I’m all of the above, and mostly too focused on using words in other ways than on a blog. And more than anything, this is a season of rest and silence and transition, where the words that are part of my life are too intense and/or too foggy to put out there for public consumption.

Still, there are some words that should maybe see the virtual light of day.

It was in a class called Developing As a Servant. One assignment was to give a 2-minute presentation to the class about a servant who impacted us. I knew the stereotypical Sunday school answer: (given in a high little voice, nodding) “my mommy and daddy” but that was the prevailing impression that stayed in my mind as I tried to decide what I would tell the class.

I said my parents have given their lives to serving people and being in ministry in some way, instead of pursuing the American dream, and I’m so grateful for that example. Then I gave this vignette:

I was with my dad in town some years back. It was a couple days before Christmas and the atmosphere was pretty crazy. We were picking up an order that we needed for our business, and the lady at the service desk couldn’t find it, and wasn’t being very helpful. The details are hazy to me now, but I remember that we weren’t getting the service we should have and we needed the order NOW, not in a few days.

I worked in a store for many years and I know how to serve customers, so I’m very sensitive to the customer service I receive. I notice and am very appreciative of good service, but when it’s not so good, I quickly decide not to patronize the place again. At that counter with my dad, I was at the side, watching the scene play out. My instinct would have been to be snappy and demanding. (That was back then, I’d never do that now. sigh. Actually, now I’d probably go into a whiny mode and act pitiful.)

But my dad stayed calm and polite and even cheerful. He calmly asked when the order will be in and didn’t demand what was his right as a customer. I got the distinct impression that he was serving her and being helpful to her when she was the one who should’ve been doing that to him.

That’s my model, which seems like a mouthful to say, as selfish and myopic as I am. But it’s my aspiration–to give grace and understanding to my world. Indiscriminately. Generously. Cheerfully. Quietly.

I often cry when I think about how incredibly wonderful it would be to walk beside Jesus, laugh with Him, and listen to how He talked with people. In a tiny way, I can do that  now when I’m in step with the Spirit who is tenting in me and guides me. To serve my thirsty world, care, anticipate need, give gentleness–this is living like my dad and Jesus.

One customer service agent, one fellow traveler, one sister, one neighbor at a time. Jesus and I, we can change the world.

Join me?