The Wine of Paradox

July 1 marked three years since I left my Poland home. Anniversaries like this always give me a space to reflect, compare, and contrast. They help give a measure of perspective that I don’t have in the middle of the thing.

It’s a mercy that I didn’t know how hard re-entry and transition would be. It’s another mercy that it happened and I didn’t detour it.

Arched over the last three years is the word belong. I was comfortable in different places on the globe but when I came back to my birth country, I found I didn’t belong anywhere. I found this disorienting beyond words. The disorientation happened mostly subconsciously but it was the undercurrent in every new relationship and every new situation. I was a loose ion looking for an atom to fit into. I was the spiraling whirlpool of an identity that had evaporated. If I wasn’t the English teacher eating Polish bread and pickles and walking on Polish sidewalks anymore, who was I? I had no idea.

As if bread and pickles gives you an identity. But when your world tips you upside down and nothing is the same anymore, you get sentimental about bizarre things.

Home

When I first came to the US, I said I was homeless. I hated when anyone asked where I was from, because I didn’t know what to say. I’d get shaky and unreasonably worked up and exhausted from explaining my homelessness. Slowly, I’ve come to coin the word “home-full:” I belong in many places. Many people claim me, and I claim them. They press me to spend weekends and holidays with them, and I know they’re not just being polite, and when I’m with them, my soul is utterly at rest. In three years, I moved from a dorm room to a tiny apartment then across the road to a trailer. It’s like living in a tin box, but I live with a dear co-worker, and we have everything we need, and it’s home. For now. I don’t expect to be here long term because I don’t love marshes and mosquitoes and six months of winter. But for now, I love where I live, and I’m home-full.

Church

The church search has been hard, hard, hard. A husband and family would make this decision more complex, but this single woman has found it hard, uncomfortable, and bewildering to navigate all the questions, implications, and dynamics regarding a new church. I have good people walking with me and giving advice. But still. It’s no picnic.

I’m grateful to be attending a church that feels increasingly right and comfortable. When I’m not there, I miss it. When I’m there, I think, “Yes, I agree. I like how they said that. And I really like the singing.” It’s not home. It’s not my church. But they’re good to singles, and it feels like maybe someday I could belong.

Work

Last month, I was on a Greek island and went swimming in the Aegean Sea nearly every day. The water was unbelievably clear, and when my ears were right at the surface, it sang its tinkling, golden song, and I thought I was in heaven. Then came this fleeting shadow: “Next week this time, you’ll be in the office.” But the shadow lasted only for a second, and it didn’t fill me with sadness or dread because I looked forward to whatever I needed to do in the office. I wasn’t going to rush there because no sane person would leave Greece before necessary, but I have no words to say how grateful I am for a job that I really, really love. I walk up the hill to work every morning and I think, “I’m living in a dream. How did this happen? How did I get here?”

I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve lived in many dreams in other places. It’s the life I’ve been given combined with a million decisions to see goodness in the present moment.

I still miss Poland terribly. I miss teaching ESL. My friends and students there and my people in Ireland have no idea how often I think about them and ache to hear them talk and laugh. But I’m learning that embracing the details that comprise my present life no longer feels disloyal to my former life. Maybe these three years have expanded my heart to hold the paradox of both loving and grieving, both gaining and losing, both embracing and releasing.

Robert Capon said, “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency.”

I choose not to dilute my life. Its wine is piercing and sweet.

Directions, Please

Last weekend, I went to a gathering in a place that was new to me. I was told that GPS wouldn’t work after a certain point, and was given a sheet of directions to follow after I got off the main road. The directions seemed simple enough, but I found them confusing.  Driving in the mountains, my phone hadn’t had service for the last hour or so. I was on my own, with a confusing sheet of paper.

After I turned around a few times, I got onto a winding, steep, narrow, gravel mountain road. It was so narrow, I hoped I wouldn’t meet anyone coming the opposite way. One place was so steep, I was afraid I would spin out. I was glad it wasn’t dark. Then the road opened up to a crossroad that led to a correctional facility, and I knew that wasn’t in the script.

I was whimpering and panicking. Where do I go now? I can’t do this. I’m alone and lost. Why do I think I can travel alone anywhere? Whimper, whimper. Blood pressure sky high.

The sheet of directions had a phone number, and the phone had service at that moment. Thank you, Jesus. I called the number and said in a rush that I’m lost and need directions and can you help me, please? The man asked who I was and asked me to repeat my question. He was calm, spoke clearly, and asked clarifying questions. I don’t know who he was, but I’m pretty sure his voice was like Jesus.

Yes, I know exactly where you are now.

I know the point where you turned off wrong.

When you get to that next road, be careful because it’s gravel and curvy and they just graded it.

I asked him several times about the directions on the sheet that were confusing me, and apologized for making him repeat himself, but he told me to start driving while I was on the phone, took all the time I needed, and explained the landmarks carefully.

Twenty minutes later, I was at my destination, and fell into my friends’ hugs, and had a most wonderful weekend. Two days later, I felt newly-made and refreshed beyond words.

As I drove home, I Voxed a friend about the good weekend, the traumatic time in getting there, and my ensuing questions. Why did I panic? God took care of me. I was never actually alone. Had it been a lesson to teach me the futility of panicking?

No, she said. I shouldn’t kick myself for that, or think I must never panic again. That emotion is an arrow to direct me to God. If I don’t know the depth of my need, I don’t know how able He is to meet my need, and I stay self-sufficient.

I know she’s right. When I feel panicked and alone, I can use that desperation to run to Him. He never scolds me for needing Him.

I hope I’ll remember in the darkness what I learned in the light that day: I’m never really and truly alone even if it feels like it.

Also, if I’m ever giving directions to a frantic girl on the phone, I might never know that I’m speaking Jesus’ words to her.

Enough Light

A long time ago, in another life, more than 15 years ago, I was a shop keeper. On Saturdays, I’d work 12 hours. After closing shop, I’d not-always-but-very,very-often drive over to my friend Jenny’s stone cottage. Her little girls were in bed, and her husband was working the night shift, and we would curl up in big overstuffed chairs in front of her wood stove. From a compartment in the stove, she’d whisk out a plate of nachos, toasty and gooey with cheese. We’d eat them messily with salsa, bites interspersed with tales of the week. Sometimes there was another kind of simple food, but usually the nachos prevailed because we loved them so much.

There was incense wafting from a wand in its holder, and the smell always lingered on my clothes even after I was home. At some point, she’d always bring me a tub of hot water, plant a kettle of boiling water beside it to replenish with, and say, “Now stick your hooves in there.” I would soak my feet until all the water got cold, then she’d rub my feet, and the hours and hours of stories and quandaries and dreams and hopes that would come tumbling out of both of us those nights are some of my dearest and most shaping memories.

We were both pilgrims on a journey, just like Christian and Faithful, and we knew very little about our path except that it led to the Celestial City.

That’s why I was ecstatic to go to a Greek island this month to be with my sister and her husband AND Jenny and her family! We had a most idyllic time, replete with all the food and swims and laughs and heart connections. And because we’re still kindred spirits and pilgrims on the way who need good footwear, we bought the same make of Greek sandals! (We like this picture because it looks like we were wearing baggy Turkish pants even though we weren’t, and even though we went to Turkey for a day.)

But I digress. Going back to the story of sitting at my friend’s wood stove in their stone cottage–

Eventually the clock would warn me that I would soon turn into a pumpkin, so I’d pull on my shoes and socks. Jenny would take the lantern that had been glowing in the window (these friends were off the grid when we first got to know them) and close the heavy wooden door behind us.

She’d take my arm and hold the lantern so we could find our way out the lane that had grass in the middle and a bend and a gate at the end. There was a little circle of light that showed us enough for the next step and kept us from crashing into shrubbery or the well or Mr. Austin, the antique car.

Just enough light for each step.

 

She’d open the gate, hug me goodbye and say, “Now be good, and God bless,” and then I was across the road and in my car, warm and smelling the incense that wrapped around me.

When I’m angsting about my present journey, and the impossible questions–how do I know? What should I prepare for whatever’s ahead? What is all this leading to? Jenny is one of my stable people who talks sense into me again. (Voxer and Whatsapp help enormously to close up the miles between us.) “Remember that lantern? It gave us enough light for the next step. We couldn’t see the end of the lane, but it got us there safely. All you have to do now is take the next step because you have enough light for that.”

In my current shadowy lanes, in my loved ones’ scary dark lanes, when I’m sure of nothing else, and I’m terrified of my imaginations of what’s around the bend, all I know and see is the circle of light beside me.

And it’s enough.

For this moment, for this step, that small pool of light is enough.

Prayer Day and a Paraphrase

Something I love about where I work is that twice a year, we have Prayer Day. The institute empties for most of a day, and people scatter throughout the surrounding area to find solitude and fellowship with God.

As part of my Prayer Day last Wednesday, I paraphrased parts of Lamentations 3. I thought it would be a nice exercise. I didn’t realize how accurately it would reflect my story.

My paraphrase of parts of Lamentations 3: 15-33:

He made me eat distasteful, disgusting things. He filled me with bitterness. When people bumped me, I spilled over with acid and scorn.

He filled my mouth with grit. I lay lower than the curb and sidewalks. I had no rest in my soul, no quietness, nothing to soothe me–not even a padded savings account.

I can easily recall the awfulness. It’s always just under the surface of my thoughts. It’s easy to say “I’m desolate, bereft, devastated, ugly. What I thought was lovely about me or my life is gone. God has broken my heart.”

The memories haunt me. I remember the depression, the acid, the hardships and injustice. I can feel the old darkness and and heaviness and suffocation again.

BUT

I remember something else, and this keeps me from despair.

I was low, but God’s immense, endless love kept me from death. His care and deep concern for me never stopped, even when I forgot Him and gave in to darkness.

The signs of His care surround me. Every morning’s light reveals new love notes from Him.

Every morning.

Every morning.

His mercy always shows up again.

So I remind myself of what is true: “My God is my life. I will die without Him. He has proved Himself, and when I can’t see or feel Him I will wait. I will rest quietly, confident that He’ll show up again. When my eyes are cleaned from their cloudiness, I see He was with me all the time.”

On those whose gaze is fixed upward and outward, He pours His goodness. To the one who craves His presence, He presses in close.

It’s good to be quiet and rest instead of strive. It’s good to watch, hand over mouth, at how He saves the day again. It’s good to work hard before I’m old because it develops the muscles of faith and teaches me how utterly and completely dependable He is.

Though He allows hardship, His care never stops. He weeps with me, and covers me with endless love. He doesn’t enjoy seeing His children struggling in loss and grief. He knows tears too. And He knows that pain isn’t the end of the story.

Gold and Cracked Pots

I enrolled in a class the last two weeks of Winter Term: Growing into a Godly Woman. I took it because I like knowing more about how a wise woman should live and how she should see God and her world.

It was intense, and the homework every night kept me hopping, but the effort was very worth it. We looked at subjects like forgiveness, vulnerability, friendships, and trusting God. We read wonderful, wise books and responded to their themes. We were listed our dreams, memories, fears, and disappointments.

Making lists  is a good discipline because it pushes me to own the thing. As long as it’s a distant, foggy idea, I don’t have to grapple with it, but when it’s in black and white, it actually exists, and then I have to do something with it.

I couldn’t come up with 10 fears to list because I try very hard to live without fear. Fear is paralyzing and ugly and damaging and I try hard to live in ways that don’t let fear call the shots. But maybe I have more fears than I think, and I just didn’t think long enough to list them.

The list that gave me the most pause was the list of disappointments/losses/failures. It was easy to think of 10, but as I listed them, I kept wanting to give qualifiers for them, and explain what happened next, and that it wasn’t the end of the story. I keep thinking about that impulse to explain and assure.

The last day of class, each of us shared the time line we’d made of our life. We were to share birthday memories, school memories, when we felt most alive, and a time of disappointment or loss.

This is not the platform for me to tell the world-wide-web about my losses and disappointments. There are plenty of them, and the story I told the class still pierces me with its staggering pain.  But it occurred to me several days later that even that story is not the end of the story. There are good things, benefits, beauty that came out of it–and can I say it?–joy. The pain still takes my breath away, but so does the piercing goodness that came of it.

It reminds me of the painting I finished last year to illustrate my idea of kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold.

The idea is that the bowl is more beautiful because of its broken pieces.The gold adds to the beauty and the overall design of the piece of pottery.

This is not something to trip out glibly when you hear a distressing story of grief. Romans 8:28 is true, but it’s not a lot of comfort in the depths of loss. The pattern for good is more true and deep than anything else, but it can take a long time to come to see or feel or know it. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. Sometimes it’s not visible in this life, but heaven is true and real and long enough to solve those mysteries.

Meanwhile, I work on my pottery painting collection and try to perfect my bowl shapes!

His Own Secret Stairs

Years ago, I was reading The Lady’s Confession by George MacDonald, and was thrilled to come across this poem. It felt like a bonus, to find this treasure in the middle of a story.

Now, every year, in Advent and the extended celebrations leading up to Christmas, I revisit the poem often.

They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes and lift them high;
Thou cam’st a little Baby thing
That made a woman cry.

O Son of Man, to right my lot
Naught but Thy presence can avail;
Yet on the road Thy wheels are not,
Nor on the sea Thy sail.

My how and when Thou wilt not heed,
But come down Thine own secret stair;
That Thou may’est answer all my need,
Yea–every bygone prayer.

I reflect on God’s ways, and witness His comings and goings that are completely unpredictable. In my beautiful, broken world, He keeps showing up. He changes things and heals hearts and bodies. He does it in endlessly creative ways without fanfare or announcement, and never in the way that I was expecting.

This is a season that always invites me to nostalgia and reminiscing. I mark time and progress in myself by what other Christmases were like. Four years ago, two weeks after major surgery, I flew home, using the airport’s handicap services. Three years ago, I ran and up down four flights of steps to host a ladies’ evening at a friend’s apartment. Two years ago, I was newly living in the US, visiting my sister and her little family. One year ago, I was in Greece with another sister who supports those caring for refugees.

Greece broke something in me that is still not cured or answered or solved. I cannot reconcile my comfort and ease of living while thousands of beautiful women, children, and men barely survive in super-crowded, cold refugee camps.

There are lots of overwhelming, devastating things going on across the globe that tempt me to despair. I want answers, solutions, a king to sweep in and slay the foes.

I would most certainly despair if I weren’t so sure that He has His ways, His own secret stairs, and somehow, in a most mysterious exchange, my by-gone prayers make a difference.

On this surety, I can sleep well and delight in beauty and rejoice in miracles and not stay crumpled in a heap about the injustices in my world.

Who can know how He’ll show up today?

Things I’m Noisy About

“Anita, are you hungry?” My friend asked me in the lunch line. “You’re exclaiming at everything you’re seeing, and I’m just enjoying hearing your delight!”

Well, I was hungry, but the real truth was that I’m always noisy about the things I love, so when there’s wonderful colors and flavors around me, I start crowing and cheering and talking in superlatives. Plus, I haven’t lost the wonder of working in an institution where lunch–colorful, fresh, creative food– is waiting when I walk to the food bar every day. And today’s fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw really and truly was the best lunch all year.

Since bloggers are allowed to rant and rave about whatever they want, and this blogger tries hard not to complain or rant, (but sometimes she fails, judging by the looks of another post that’s simmering) I’m going to be noisy about two things I’m excited about at the moment.

  1. People frequently ask me for book recommendations, and I’m thrilled to give them ideas and push books into their hands, but it always mystifies me because I don’t know why they come to me with their questions about books. There are other people who read far more than I, but I wonder if I get asked about books because I’m just noisier than others about the books I read.

I’m part of a book club, where we read a book a month and the person who chose the book leads the discussion afterwards. (We take a break in the summer, in which our sole group activity is a grilled steak dinner. The men grill, and the women bring salads and desserts. “This is such a perfect evening” we kept saying to each other as we cuddled babies around the fire and drank coffee and looked at the stars. I’m the newest member, and don’t know all the traditions or rhythms yet, but it has been most enjoyable.) Our current read is River Town, two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, who relates his experience as an English lit teacher in China with the Peace Corps.

 It takes me to my own experiences of teaching English as a second language, the child-like identity you have to take on as a foreigner, the way life narrows down to finding the right word to buy supper, the simpler lifestyle that comes with living in a small apartment in town far away from family, the freedom of stepping on a train to explore an even newer place, the love/hate relationship locals have with foreigners, the stereotypes that every nationality presupposes on other nationalities. Peter tells his story with great heart without being sentimental, and I frequently giggle at the stories. The folk lore, the quirks such as the “Happiest Man in All of Fuling as well as the Luckiest,” the teaching bloopers, and can you imagine–pet birds in cages that you bring with you and hang in the rafters when you hang out in the teahouse with your cronies. Can you imagine!

Everyone should experience being foreign at least once. It is terrifying and embarrassing, but wonderfully clarifying and exhilarating and deeply enriching.

19 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust

2. For many years, I dreamed of taking voice lessons. Then for a couple months in Poland, I was at the right place at the right time and exchanged voice lessons for English lessons, which was a singular experience.  I think the Slavic way of singing is different from what I was wanting, plus, my teacher wanted to make me a soprano and insulted me when he said “Most altos are lazy sopranos.” I have no hard feelings. It makes a good joke, and now I think I understand the point he was trying to make. I will always treasure the English lessons where we watched musicians’ speeches and songs. His English was advanced enough to understand the poetry, and I always think of him when I sing “Heal their hearts, heal their souls, their lives can be golden if your love enfolds.”

Last summer, I started going to a voice teacher at the local college. My friends had told me I’ll like her, and they were right. Claire is an incredibly gifted soprano, deeply sensitive to her students. I often wished for 30 minutes to catch up and then 30 to sing, because it was like meeting a friend every week. She hears what isn’t said or sung, and knows what I need to hear or do to improve. In the lessons, I learned that when you hand your soul to a stranger you don’t die, which helped me feel less fear in other settings like public speaking. I learned that driving onto a campus and finding my way into the right building isn’t impossible. I learned that I can sing higher  and sustain lower than I thought I could. I learned that I can bomb a recital, forget everything I knew to do, and still not die. Unfortunately, I’ll never be a credit to Claire, and this week I had my last lesson with her. New responsibilities and other things to learn have crowded out this privilege, but I will always value those lessons. I experienced the law of the echo and the enriching power of a focused discipline.

Of course, the best voices train for years, but I think everyone should take voice lessons for at least one year.