Use Your Words

I’ve loved words for as long as I can remember. Our family parsed words to death, arguing whether a word meant one thing or another. When I taught ESL in Poland, I made the bag pictured above with words from a favorite hymn because I thought an English teacher should have a bag with words. And Wordles were so much fun! They’ve kinda gone out of style by now, but I loved their eloquence and simplicity.

Sometimes I buy a thing just because of its fun name. Like a car air freshener called “High Maintenance” or a mini orchid because it’s named “Espresso Orchid.” It was white, not espresso colored, but it fit in an espresso-sized cup, and I found it irresistible, and am thrilled that it’s finally shooting out a bud stalk.

Words. Names. We fling them around. Label things. Describe ourselves, describe feelings, describe situations. And what a humdinger of a situation this year has been. What a stupendous opportunity to use words well, to let them sparkle, fly, heal.

I’ve seen healing words, heard them, received them. They infuse me with new energy and light. Words carry light, you know. Or darkness. Which is sobering. In mysterious, staggering power, words create our reality. We can name a thing wonderful or terrible, and it becomes that. Is this power part of carrying God’s image–the part of Him that named creation into existence? Is it akin to how Adam named the animals?

I’ve heard wise moms calm their distraught, screaming children by saying, “Use your words.” Then the child says, “I’m cold.” Or “He hit me.” Or “I want to go hoooooome.” Then the mom knows what’s happening, and the screaming stops.

I think this weird year gives us a fantastic chance to try to name what’s happening. We’ve heard lots of yelling, words flung around like daggers, weighted with hate and anger. We’ve complained, and tried to be strong, and given up lots of dreams, and readjusted our plans a hundred times, and cried a buckets of tears of deep loss and sorrow. We’ve worn out tired words like

unprecedented

anti-maskers

fraudsters

systemic

mitigation.

Anger and grief are real and valid and we should name them. Name them, own the tsunami emotions, and care deeply for those in hardship. Death, a serious health diagnosis, loss of home or loved ones, mental illness, front-line medical work, violence, and abuse deserve words like

suffering

devastated

crushed

agony.

God’s people should be leading the way in holding the broken hearted, comforting, helping, and offering quiet presence. If they speak, they should give gentle, luminous words, not judging or giving quick fixes.

In contrast, when a storm comes through and takes away electricity for more than 30 hours, or a vacation got cancelled, or masks are mandated for specific situations, we can use words like

uncomfortable

disruptive

disappointing

inconvenient

sad.

When I hear anger about masking or changes in holiday plans, I want to say, “Use your words!” And choose them appropriately. We can be sad and disappointed about many things, but if we’re not in a flapping tent in a refugee camp, and we have contact with our loved ones, and we didn’t bury a family member, are we suffering? I suggest not. I suggest we use our words.

The stark pictures of boots and crocs upside down outside a UNHCR tent in Greece (upside down so the rain doesn’t get in them, and outside so they don’t dirty the living quarters in the tent) calls me to be utterly careful how and where I use the “suffering” word. When I hear people yelling about masks, and being worried about the effect of COVID on our nation, I automatically think they don’t get out much. Am I being judgy? There are much worse, much harder situations across the globe that deserve our anger and our prayer. We can be honest about how we feel (anger or sadness doesn’t disappear by ignoring it), but we also need perspective and higher goals than keeping ourselves comfortable.

What if we’d use our words to name our situation with truth and grace like Jesus did? What if we channel our deep emotion toward gentleness, compassion, and caring for what is truly devastating? Could we create a new reality by naming things accurately?

I wonder.

Patina

rain chains

Rain chains on amazon.com

Reflections on re-entry to my birth country, five years after.

They swooshed camp chairs
Out of carry bags
And lifted Pinterest-perfect snacks
From Thirty-One bags
And glided on soft-soled shoes
To friends with nodding faces.

I watched
Them and
Ordered
My lungs to breathe and
My knees to not crumple

Until I found a quiet place
To sob and sit and list
All the things I missed
And what was new. I’d never
Needed a camp chair.
(Stumps and grass
Had always worked fine.)
And what was Thirty-One?

Words dribbled over lines,
Lines puddled into memories.

Lewis said far, far better things lie ahead
Than any we leave behind
So I lettered his lines for my wall

But a life won’t be stuffed into words
And memories ooze
For years. The tears
Don’t stop but drip down
Down to the mother bowl
Of copper dark
To rest and glisten and breathe
And sometimes see
Chimney swifts circle and drop
Circle and chirp and drop to 
Home.

Days drop into weeks
And years into a rain chain where
Loss empties gain, fills loss, drips gain and
Splashes into weathered green
Mystery rimmed
Shimmering.

Smiley Faces & Emojis

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Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

When I want to send a text these days, I look at my most-used emojis and feel astounded at how they reflect the essence of much of my communication. It’s a long way from the hundreds of smiles I wrote by hand—like this, but vertical: =). Dashes for the eyes, not dots, are important to me. I don’t know why.

Twenty-five years ago when we moved to Ireland, someone chartered a bus for our friends and relatives to go with us to Dulles Airport, a three-hour trip. After a helpful agent checked in our mountain of luggage, all the dozens of friends and relations trooped through the airport, onto a shuttle, and waved us off at the door of the plane. That’s how long ago it was.

In the first years, we relied on letters and faxes to stay connected with people across the ocean, five time zones away. I spent a big chunk of my stipend on stamps and stationery. I remember the wonder of watching a fax come squeaking off the machine. Never mind that it was thermal paper and could easily fade. It meant someone was feeding the message at this exact moment, and it was magic to feel that connected in real time. I wrote dozens and dozens of letters, and Michelle and I wrote each other every week for the first two years. I often wish I could read them again. Or maybe not.

One friend saw how much Michelle missed me and gave her money to call me once. We arranged by letter what day and time we’d call, so we had to schedule it way ahead. The rate was something like $20 for an hour, and the call was such a treat!

Then a friend in PA told me that I could write her via her family’s email, and I said, “What’s email?” Eventually we got a modem for our family computer and every morning it would do its whirring, chirping, burbling noise to send and receive emails. That was when we got all the silly chain emails that said if you don’t forward this, your billy goat will do something bad. Our family shared one address, and our friends would write our names in the subject lines so it would go directly to our individual folders, but even so it wasn’t a super confidential system.

When I got my own gmail address, I loved the versatility of logging in at any computer in any state or country and connecting with my people. I spent hours and hours emailing friends who lived far away. My isolation and loneliness in Ireland and Poland pushed me to learn what it takes to sustain long-distance friendships. I was willing to put in that time and effort because it was a large part of how I was supported and connected with people with whom I shared history. I had dear friends and mentors who had a lot of patience with me and with email in those days, and I’m deeply grateful. It helped that I could express myself well with words, but communicating via email was a skill I prioritized. I didn’t buy as many stamps anymore, though they were still important. I started typing and printing my letters instead of writing them long-hand like I’d always done. Also, I laughed and laughed when I first learned about the chat option. You could message back and forth in real time! And send animated emojis! There was a new kind of culture in chats I had to learn. You didn’t have to do formal hellos and goodbyes. You could just show up, message something, and disappear as you wanted. Kinda novel. Kinda fun.

In 2004 a friend told me about Xanga. She said it was like online journaling and I thought that’s the oddest thing I’d ever heard, and I would never put my journal online. Then for some reason I got an account, and moved around in that world a little bit but it was always a little noisy and scary and overwhelming to me. I liked it and didn’t like it. I didn’t like the pressure of creating a persona for myself. But I made some good, life-giving connections that I still treasure.

Then came Skype, which avoided the cost of a phone bill, though I still had to pay something to call internationally from Poland. It was a good system in its time, and I feel a little melancholy about its iconic beep-beep-swoosh ring tone. When I had major surgery in Poland, it was worth a lot to use the Skype video option to call my mom the next day, show her my incision, and let her see my surroundings. The tables were turned several years later when she was on chemo and I was five time zones away. Then I used WhatsApp video, and it helped me feel not so far away to be able to see how she looked when she lost her hair, and how she closed her eyes when she was tired.

There are lots of voices out there that decry technology but I’m so grateful for the ways that it has helped me feel not so far away from so many people I love. I’m particularly fond of voice messages. I sent a voice message to RSVP to a bride, and she messaged back: “I’m so glad you sent me a voice message. I can hear your soul that way.” Or another friend who was recently in such a remote place in West Africa that she didn’t get messages for three weeks: “When I got your message, it made me feel so loved and a little weepy because I just want to have an evening together.”

These days, I get tired of staring at chins and necks in Zoom calls and “You’re muted.” BUT WE CAN SEE EACH OTHER AND HEAR EACH OTHER! (At least, we can when the weather is clear and my wifi works.) Bumpy, scratchy Zoom calls are still better than thermal fax paper. Most times, anyway.

I’m super choosy about the podcasts I listen to. I want substance, not chitchat, so I mostly listen to counselling episodes and journalists with the BBC. This week I listened to this one about naming unspoken griefs. They talked about ambiguous loss and how it shapes our relationships. One line hit me hard: “Sustaining long-term long-distance relationships requires you to live in ambiguous loss.” It’s true. I’ve learned ways that work well to communicate but my soul never gets used to the distance, never is reconciled to the dissonance of being psychologically present but physically distant from my people. It’s good to have a name for it now.

These days, my task bar shows two—sometimes three— messaging apps I use every day. Please please please don’t send me an invitation to another messaging platform. Can we please just use what we have, which already works great?

After all the words and voices and sound bites, sometimes there are no words. My most-used emojis tell the story of what I say when I don’t have words. They span the spectrum of my current experience: a (tan) thumbs-up, a face with floods of tears, a broken heart, a dancing lady in a red dress, a laughing scholar, puzzled, wrinkled eyes with a grimacing mouth, a grinning face with sunglasses, hearts floating all over a happy face, a wink, a wink and a kiss, a party hat face, a shocked face with wide open eyes and mouth, hands holding a blue face, cheering, waving hands.

The smiley face with the dashes for the eyes and the (tan) praying hands all do the same job. They give a way, a mechanism, a system for hearing and being heard which is mostly about loving, and I’m very grateful for all of it.

The Freedom of Both/And

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I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a beautiful big toe. Unless they belong to a tall, slender woman, all big toes seem lumpy, gnarled, irregular, with dirt embedded under the nail.

Big toes are also super important for walking well, staying balanced, and keeping grip on flipflops. Toes are both ugly and important.

So maybe it’s a lame metaphor, but give me a chance here!

By nature, I’m an all-or-nothing person. If I can’t have everything, I don’t want anything. Don’t compromise. Don’t give me compensations. Just give me what I want, or forget it.

How similar is this to a two-year-old near you?

This is why I’m trying hard to learn how to live well in ways that don’t mirror a two-year-old.

Maybe it’s personality. Maybe it’s the brain trying to sort its data and get rid of dissonance. Maybe it’s from growing up in structure and strict morality where things were black and white. If one thing is true, an apparent contradiction can’t also be true.

It’s too messy to make sense, it’s too complex to be tidy, so get rid of gray. A toe can’t be both ugly and useful.

Except. Maybe it is.

Actually, it IS both.

In the current season of global collective grief, I’ve seen myself going to the binary way of thinking. It’s all or nothing. Suffering isn’t suffering unless it’s job loss or illness or death. Therefore, my pain/disappointment/discomfort doesn’t count. Yours doesn’t either, unless you’re an Indian rickshaw driver who lost his job in the shut-down, or your loved one died alone in a hospital.

But I’m discovering that something wholesome happens in me when I hold two apparent contradictions and hold them both as true, recognizing each, not discrediting either.

I learned this in another season and I keep bumping into it.

I loved the elegance of European fashion AND it drove me crazy and made me feel like an ugly country mouse.

I loved teaching English AND I hated not being able to be able to communicate fluently in Polish.

I love my job and my people AND I dislike Pennsylvania.

I’m really sad to cancel my summer trip to Jordan and Uganda AND I’m happy to have Plan B come together.

I’m sad about my canceled summer trip AND I’m sad for India and Minneapolis and all the college graduates who couldn’t walk across the stage.

When I was getting ready to leave Poland for good, a co-teacher asked if I’m ready to go. “Yes and no,” I said. “I’m ready to go, and I don’t want to go.” He said that makes sense because I’m too complex a person to have it all one way. (He also grew up with only sisters, so he knew how to be patient/understanding with complexity.)

Every time I answer a question with “Yes and no,” I reiterate that life is too complex to have one clean response, and it’s ok. It’s even mature and wholesome to hold many disparate emotions because it makes us larger, more empathetic, more understanding of others. When I find myself lashing out, quick to set someone straight, I’m missing a chance to hold their truth, validate their story, listen to their words as they try to make sense of their world and their experience. Validating their experience helps heal them and helps to stretch my soul bigger.

Maybe we come up with our binary statements and use our all-or-nothing lenses because it’s easier than doing the hard work of entering tension and staying there for awhile.

Also, this is very important to me:

Holding apparent contradictions never excludes truth, beauty, and goodness.

I can cry my eyes out about a deep loss AND the sun always comes up again and the hummingbirds swoop to the feeder and my people somehow love me. A big part of wholeness is opening my eyes to the beauty that still surrounds me and always will.

This often stumbles me. I tend to focus on one or the other, and dismiss one or the other: the sun is still shining, the hummingbirds are still beautiful, so I should stop crying and enjoy the beauty.

Well, maybe. Possibly.

Beauty is healing, and it can stand a good lot of focus these days but it doesn’t negate the ugly. Maturity (moving beyond the two-year-old stage) and knowing Jesus enables us to acknowledge but not stay focused on the ugly-but-true. Because there are many beautiful things that still are true and real.

I think Christians should be the first citizens to recognize beauty for what it is and call each other to pursue it, but we don’t have to do that at the exclusion of acknowledging what is hard and ugly and broken. Wholeness and healing is not so much a matter of balance (focusing on one side of the scale as much as the other side) as it is about living well with tension, which never feels super comfy.

Our brains don’t do this naturally. Like using a stiff muscle, we need gentle stretches, gradual strengthening, increased rigor to build our gratitude focus.

In the middle of crisis, none of us has good perspective. With time and listening to others’ stories, we gain new definitions of suffering and pain. Like the two-year-old who begins to be aware of another’s feelings, we start seeing our story in light of other’s stories, and we gain equilibrium, gentleness, patience, with both ourselves and others.

Embracing nuance and not denying reality, however disparate and confusing it is, I hope we can come to flourish in both/and instead of either/or.

It’s All Good

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For two weeks, I’ve been able to be a conversation partner with English students in Krakow, Poland. Since Graceland is doing everything online now, they’ve collected a group of native speakers on this side of the Atlantic to partner with their students.

A couple minutes before class starts, the ten of us chat and ask questions of each other, then the students start appearing. They’re shy or friendly, waving or quiet, and then the teacher starts talking about origins and faith.

The text is from Genesis 1-4. The administrator breaks us out into discussion groups at least every fifteen minutes. We read, talk about questions, work on quizzes. It’s so much fun, and when I leave the Zoom meeting 90 minutes later, I feel like a new person. It’s been one of the brightest spots of this stay at home era.

In the first lesson, my conversation partner observed the order and pattern of created things–light, water, seeds, animals. “He thought of everything!”

In that moment, I felt newly-made. Her off-hand, casual comment reminded me of what I miss so much about teaching English as a second language. I miss profound things said in simple, beautiful ways. I miss the laughter and honesty that comes from stumbling for words.

Today I spoke briefly with a mom who was picking up her family’s school work for the next week. Masks muffling some of our words, we compared notes. We’ve both worked extensively overseas and stumbled through re-entry. We’ve both done a version of this stay-at-home order in our previous life, so this hasn’t been so bad. Back then, my bubble of casual socializing was limited, and I stayed connected with friends/family via email because they lived a million miles away. I had students every day, though, so this isn’t an exact parallel.

“Do you still miss your old life?” she asked me.

“Yes. Terribly. I live with grief. It’s not gone away these nearly-five years. I have a lot of joy too. It’s both-and, not either-or.”

I think about the process of re-entry, losses, hard beginnings. There is groaning and sorrow, discovery and delight, memories and budding joy. When I’m sure of nothing, I trace the path of a gentle Shepherd, wise beyond my knowing, loving beyond any love, surer than my plans, and more magnanimous than my dreams. Everything is ok.

He thought of everything.

 

Always A Bridesmaid and Never a Bride

12698453_805008379644694_4219333476885333484_o (1)Last week, my good friend Shari posted a guest post I’d written for her blog. I wrote 500 words  about something I don’t hear a lot of conversation about. I wasn’t planning to post it on my blog, but here we are, in a more-or-less quarantine, on-line more than normal, with more free time than normal. I don’t usually ask for  interaction from readers, but there again, we’re breathing different air right now.

So let’s talk.

“My church doesn’t know what to do with me.”

I’ve heard this line from singles many times. Maybe it’s the default setting in a sub-culture that greatly values marriage and family, but it always makes me sad. However, I’m deeply grateful for a church that gives me a place and lets us singles feel welcome, equal, and human.

Some things they do to give us a place:

  1. The ladies look for ways for us to be together—ladies’ evenings when the men have brother’s meeting, women’s retreats, extra ladies’ nights when we relax and laugh and tell stories.
  2. The men meet my eyes and shake my hand after church. They regularly publicly honor and praise single and married women’s contributions to the families, school, and church.
  3. Families invite me for meals and tuck leftover food into my bag as I leave because they know I don’t have all day to cook.
  4. They treat me like an individual with a life: they remember my birthday and ask about my family. They care about my dreams.
  5. The men generously give advice and assistance in their area of expertise: purchasing and maintaining a car, phone, house, or garden, which can include pest control, yard work, or a mechanic’s number.
  6. They send us reports of their brother’s meetings.
  7. Church treats us like people who have something valuable to contribute, and so we’re on the hostess list and the church cleaning list and the list of people for jobs on reorganization night. And no, I don’t like the job they gave me but it means they believe in me.
  8. They compliment my clothes. They remember I was gone last week and ask about the trip. They remember to ask about things we’ve talked about before.
  9. They don’t ask us singles to serve the Valentine’s banquet.
  10. They invite me to join their family in the fellowship dinner line.

Some time ago, in another place, I was helping to host an event and several men acted as if I wasn’t there. Were they wanting to prove their loyalty to their wives? Was I intimidating or dangerous? I got a taste of my friends’ lines: “They don’t know what to do with me,” and I felt newly thankful for the conversations, camaraderie, and support the men in our church give to me and other single women.

A key part of this is that healthy relationships are two-way streets. I aim to give more than I take. I need to contribute, not just consume. I must plug in, make effort, invest, because the good life is not about me and my comfort. I often don’t feel like going to cell group or bringing food for an event or doing my assigned job, but who does? And who will have the richest life—those who stay home and curl into a ball when they feel like it, or those who push themselves to do hard things and love their people?

It goes both ways, but if you know a single in your church, think about how you could love her well and let her feel like she matters and belongs.

Now back to you:

What would you add to this list of 10? Which ones do you feel aren’t important?

What keeps you from engaging with someone with a different marital status than you?

What do we singles do that makes us seem threatening or dangerous to marriages?

To be clear: extended singleness isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. It’s not a crisis situation, and there are much, much worse, harder scenarios to live in. But singleness IS a disenfranchised grief. There are no sympathy or thinking-of-you cards that address it, and singleness doesn’t keep getting better every year like a good marriage apparently does. So it’s a lonely place for most of us, and one where good role models are scarce, and it’s hard to talk well about it without sounding bitter or desperate.

So.

Let’s hear each other, ask questions, and walk toward wholeness and mutual understanding. This isn’t a platform for bitterness or accusation. We all need each other and we’re all far more alike than we are different.

We all want to matter, to make a difference.

We all want to know we’re beautiful and loveable and not obnoxious.

We all are hungry for more connection and less isolation.

What would you add to the lists of commonalities and ways to integrate?

Nested and Ready

Some years ago, in the days between Christmas and New Years Day, a handful of us took the train from Warsaw, Poland to Berlin, Germany. In addition to taking in charming Christmas markets and glorious coffee, we took a walking tour based on Berlin in World War II. We met our tour group at the gates of the world-famous Berlin Zoo (but didn’t go in, so I want to go back) and walked around the city for the next three hours.

Our guide was a passionate college history student. Among many  things, he showed us the Reichstag building, the enormous Hauptbahnhof, remnants of the old Berlin Wall, and ended at a parking lot under which Hitler had his last bunker and killed himself.

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Reichstag building

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Hauptbahnhof: Berlin central station

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a playful bear between remains of the Berlin Wall

I often think about part of the tour where the tour guide had us stand on a sidewalk and look at the shops lining the street and apartments stacked above us. He told us to imagine how it was for a housewife who lived four stories high during the war when the Allies’ planes dropped bombs on the city. The housewife would cook and take care of children and do the grocery shopping with ration cards, but every minute, she had one ear open for planes and the air raid sirens.

When she heard the sirens scream, she’d turn off the burners on her stove, bundle up her children, trundle them down the steps, and head down the block to the nearest bomb shelter. She would wait there in the dark with strangers and sick, terrified children until they heard the all-clear sirens. Then she could go back home but never knew what time of day or night the sirens would go off again.

The level of stress, fear, and traumatic memories had to scar that generation beyond what we will ever know from history books.

These days, another era of devastation is happening in Syria, Turkey, and Greece, with traumatized men, women, and children running away from fire and bombs and being refused a safe place to stay. They’ve left everything they love and own, but people shoot at their boats to keep them from landing safely.

When I see those pictures and hear those stories, it makes me cry and feel like the richest girl in the world. Our current distress of endless disrupted plans and shelter-in-place restrictions is nothing like the trauma of being homeless and escaping bombs.

There’s a valid sense of loss and grief, but let’s keep some perspective. I don’t want to be glib because this IS real hardship for a lot of people, but we have food (not rations), soft and warm beds, electricity, and WiFi to connect us to our loved ones. This is hardly trauma–not the kind that rearranges our neural pathways and transfers to the next generation. It’ll be in the next history books, and it’s taking awhile to find our way, but MOST of us aren’t fragmented and devastated like a country in war.

A couple weeks ago, before the social distancing restrictions, a sweet friend hosted a painting tutorial party. It was the best way to spend an evening, and our teacher said she enjoyed it more than anyone, which was hard to imagine because we had so much fun.

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While we painted, we talked about words we could put with it. Everyone had different ideas for words they could use. Several days after painting it, I cautiously wrote some light, feathery words on mine then took it to my office.

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He will cover you with His feathers.

 

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Now with the COVID-19 upheaval, I keep thinking about how we’re in a nest. It’s a little dark and prickly in spots and confining, but we’re utterly safe. We’re fragile and clueless, but the enduring nurture, tenderness, and gentleness of God’s feathers cover and carry us. We have access to healing and rest and comfort beyond words.

We’re not going to do this crazy era perfectly. We’ll get impatient and frustrated and feel odd compulsions, and it’s ok. Crisis brings out the worst and best in us, and we can give each other space to fail.

But what I love about this is that, unlike World War II, this is not one nationality pitted against another. The pandemic is global and it’s unifying humanity like we were created to be.

Christians should be leading the way to model what Kingdom citizens do in crisis: respect, serve, love generously, sacrifice, create, work in tandem with God to make His power and glory visible.

Like a great stage master behind the scenes, He has already been working to put the broken world to rights. We are covered with His feathers, and He had this wild idea that we could partner with Him in that enormous work. (Ok, the metaphors are getting muddled here, but think about it!)

I don’t know everything that partnering with the Almighty means but I’m in! It will probably not include heroics. It will probably mostly involve little, hidden decisions to do the next right thing and push against comfort and toward love for others.

Join us?

A Lifescape

I work at Faith Builders, where we provide learning experiences that nurture love for God and neighbors. Part of the program for Christian Ministry and Teacher Apprentice students is their internship, a five-week stint in an established school or ministry. Whenever students ask me for advice as to where to go for internships, I tell them to go, go, go. Outside their zip code. Outside what’s instinctive and comfortable. Outside the country.

I have this theory that we don’t change or grow if we’re always comfortable. But that’s another post for another time.

This week students gave short reports about their internships. One had been in Greece, and another in Ireland. Both made me cry. I felt this deep, wordless connection with their stories that condensed into tears. They weren’t just reporting. They were taking me back. I’ve been to those places, breathed that air, ate that food, loved those people. The girls’ experiences tugged at my heart strings that stretch taut to those places.

Several years ago, I saw this painting at my friend Dervin’s house.

Dervin

I thought it was striking even if I don’t like gray, and he said Susanna, a mutual friend, had painted it for him in preparation for an art lesson, and it shows the places he’s lived in.

Cha-ching! I knew my next project.

It would be a way of illustrating the places I’ve lived in and loved. It would help organize my story and help me make sense of it. I pinned the picture to my To Paint board on Pinterest and looked around for similar designs. Susanna shared her art lesson plan here. About a year later, I toyed around with design and color, and came up with this.

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Oddly enough, it sits on the floor behind my office door. It’s the story of my life, and it sits on the floor. There might be a subliminal message there, but I don’t dwell on that. I love the cool, lively colors peaking out from behind the door when I’m working.

Childhood

This is the tree swing of my childhood and the mountains in VA where I was born.

Ireland

This is Ireland, a round tower that became a rich symbol to me of God’s protection, a rambling castle, and the cove where we’d swim.

Poland

This is Poland and my favorite old church in our town.

The water stands for all the water I’ve been in, at least the Irish Sea, the Baltic, Lake Erie, the Aegean, the Mediterranean.

Greece is on the far, misty horizon.

More than a fun art lesson of shades and tints, perspective and silhouettes, I love how this briefly tells the story of my life. In another 20 years, I hope the painting will look different, but this my current story.

I also like that it shows how each element is a part of the whole, and can’t be isolated without loss to the whole. I live in Pennsylvania but part of me is still far away and it’s rare when my worlds overlap. Which I guess is why I cried during the intern reports.

Morning Comes

I was teaching English in Poland in 2013, the year my health spiraled and I needed major surgery. That year was a saga in itself, and not one to tell here except to say that God and His people took care of me in ways that still choke me up.

The day of the surgery, December 4, was easily the worst day of my life. They’d planned for the surgery to be one hour, but it lasted three hours, and my body went into shock in the recovery room where I stopped breathing twice. I was so annoyed at the nurse who shook my shoulder roughly each time and said, “Breathe, breathe!” because I’d finally been comfortable and resting, and I didn’t want to breathe because it took too much effort.

Later, they trundled me into the room closest to the nurses’ station so they could keep a close eye on me, and they clunked a brick of ice onto my stomach, over the incision, and I was out of my mind with pain and freezing cold and anesthesia. Lolita hovered above me and asked what I wanted, and I said, “Music.” She opened my computer and found a few choral hymns that I always loved, but when she turned them on, they were terrible. Tinny and chintzy and awful. I forgot about music in the long, terrible evening as the nurses and doctor tried to get me warm and the pain under control.

My sister came too, with chocolate, and called my family several times to keep them updated. Before she left, she helped me think about what I’d need for the night, and put the stuff in a little tray within arm’s reach. I was confused, and didn’t know what I needed, but she was patient. Swabs. Call button. MP3 player and earbuds.

The next morning, I already felt better. Still lots of pain and achy and awful, but better, and the sun was shining, and it was snowing! I went to this song on my player and listened to it with one earbud on the quietest setting because two earbuds made it too loud. It was exactly right.

In the next days, the cloud of pain and anesthesia cleared and the only music that connected with me was that song, “Morning Comes When You Call,” and an album by Voices of Praise. I forget the title of that album, but I especially loved “I’m in His Care-Oh” and I always skipped “America the Beautiful.”

Two years later, I saw this picture in a little booklet,

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and I knew what to do with the latent memories of that worst day of my life. On a wintry Sunday evening, I took my chalk pastels and card stock to a well-lit table, and made this:

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My favorite feature is the yellow of the sunshine edging into the scene and bouncing off some trees. I asked a friend to do the lettering because I wasn’t confident enough to do that, and she said it was an honor.

The picture shows the crisp, snowy sunlight the day Ria came to see me in the hospital. She didn’t want to hurt me so she hugged me gingerly, after walking in from the bus, and her black wool coat was still cold, with drops of melted snowflakes.

The picture shows the contrast of light and shadow, the night and morning, the clouds and stunning light I experienced in that terrible, wonderful week. The day after the surgery, the surgeon checked in on me, and as she left, she said, “You were a very sick girl. Now work on getting better!”

I didn’t get all better that day. Recovery took a long time, and mild PTSD has stayed with me, but it’s improving. I keep thinking that, on every level, I feel healthier now than I ever was in the last ten years. I don’t have enough words to say how wondrous the on-going gift of healing has been.

To be accurate to my experience, the shadows in the picture should be darker, the night more visible on the horizon. But I like that that’s how it is with healed memory—it mostly sifts out the terrible, and the predominant memory, arching over everything, is light and joy and deep peace.

Fingerpaints of Venice

For something different, I’m starting a little series about the artwork I have in my house and the stories that go with each piece.

Four years ago, I was a student at Faith Builders and figuring out how to live in the US again. I flew here with just enough belongings to settle into a small dorm room and be a student. I didn’t have an envelope when I wanted to send off an application and I didn’t have a jar or rubber band to make kefir in my dorm room. (I’d brought the grains though: priorities.)

Apparently customs officials had riffled through my suitcases and found what seemed to be a large nut, and threw it away, but it was actually a dear little carved nativity scene that had been gifted to me, and I still miss it. I’m not that attached to stuff, but it still felt like a loss. The biggest loss was my rich connections with people who now lived an ocean away.

It was a topsy-turvy season, shattering and bewildering. Many, many good things happened, but mostly it was hard.  Beautiful, loving people surrounded me but I felt like my heart was mostly vacuum, hollowed out, shivering. There were weeks when I cried every day.

About eight months into re-entry, we had a group activity where we divided into teams of four. Using poster paints and our fingers, each team replicated their choice of painting from the Impressionist masters. Our team chose Monet’s Sunset in Venice:

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Claude Monet [Public domain]

We started dabbing colors onto the margin of the big poster paper.

“I’m not an artist.”

“I don’t know how to do this.”

This is what some of my team mates said, but they went to it as if they’d done it all their lives. They studied the original, dipped their finger tips in paint, and dabbed it carefully. I flitted around, sketching briefly, maybe mixing some colors.

I don’t remember which part I did, but my predominate memory is that I cheered and cheered for how their success surprised them, and my fingers and palms were smeared with great colors, and I started breathing deeper and easier than I had for a long, long time.

We ended up with this:

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My favorite feature is the rippling reflection of the spire:

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We left it to dry overnight, and I felt like a new person.

All the teams displayed their paintings in the hall for several months, then threw them away, but I couldn’t part with ours. I found a frame for it, and I don’t have wall space for it, so it’s propped against the wall in my hall. Maybe sometime it’ll find its way to the dumpster, but not yet.

I wonder if I’m more attached to stuff than I thought.