Stretched Out Spaces

It was not a good day. I’d woken up in a cloud of sorrow for myself and my loved ones. My heart stayed heavy from hard conversations and many things that should not happen.n

Then I sent an embarrassing typo in a letter to 65 people and couldn’t just shake it off. I felt stupid and inept.

Then, mid afternoon, a dead battery at work kept me from doing my job. It was a special size–half the length of an AAA battery–and there were none on campus. I didn’t have time to run to town to get one, but I needed to take time.

On the way to town, I said no to ice cream and no to chocolate. I couldn’t afford a sugar rush when I was already so stressed. Instead, I turned on brass band music. Loud. I love trumpets because they’re so powerful and delicate at the same time. They can blast you away, then caress your soul in the next second. They can be playful and exuberant and serious in the same phrase. (Recommending: “Amazing Grace” and “Hallelujah Chorus” by Canadian Brass.)

On the drive to town, surrounded with trumpets and a soulful tuba, I looked for colorful leaves, sunshine, and perspective for my woes.

I thought of the gentle, buoyant man I met recently. He’s a retired nurse, a photographer, and jazz enthusiast. He told me he was on his way to pick up a new camera that day because his old one broke and his friends tell him he’s not dressed without his camera. What he didn’t tell me was that he was also going to see the doctor. At that visit, the doctor told him his stage 4 stomach cancer is in remission, but the man knows it could go into metastasizing rage anytime.

“You didn’t tell me you had stage 4 cancer when you introduced yourself to me,” I said later.

“I can’t let a disease define me,” he said.

I also remembered an interview I’d listened to of a young woman whose dura mater is damaged from a lumbar puncture gone wrong. The connective tissue of the dura can take months and months to heal. When the hole recurs, her cerebral spinal fluid leaks from the hole, forcing her to complete bed rest. She has traveled the world and climbed mountains in the last year, and then bent over wrong, and busted the hole open again. She remembers the agony of being horizontal for seven months, and she fears that will happen again. She’s been flat for a week now, waiting to go to patch the hole, which is a dangerous, unpredictable ordeal in itself.

And I think I’m stressed and troubled?

On the drive from town, I kept looking at the sunshine (a rarity in these parts) and kept groping for perspective.  “I don’t have stage 4 stomach cancer. I don’t have a cerebral spinal fluid leak. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.”

Those people’s positivity in the face of crushing pain and fear shames me for my complaining, and tells me to be quiet and observe.

Sorrow expands the soul. If I let it.

Joy does the same.

And beauty. That’s why I sometimes listen to trumpets. Loud.

To be unmoved by sorrow, joy, or beauty means our souls can’t become larger, fuller, more developed. Pain and sorrow don’t diminish a soul by default. It is selfishness and bitterness that make the soul wrinkly and withered, small and ugly.

Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come
To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
– Edwin Markham

Amazed to Witness Such a Thing

I’d heard friends talk about Gilead for several years. I’d seen it was a best seller, and heard authors quote it. It must be good, so I picked it up. Read through the first page or two. Nothing happened. I put it down. A couple months later, picked it up again. Nothing happened again. Blah.

I resigned myself to missing out on what everyone else was enjoying in the book.

Then one recent Saturday morning, my brother-in-law mentioned it in a family email. He said Gilead resets a person like a good night of sleep, and he wanted to discuss it with someone. I decided valiantly to try the book again, trotted up to the library, brought it home, and was absolutely taken in, like a fuzzy blanket wraps you up and you can’t untangle yourself.

Maybe it was the air, the leisure I was feeling, or the invitation to discuss. Probably it was mostly that I was mellow enough to absorb the words that had no great action, no shimmering plot line to pull me forward. It was the slow, steady beat of an aged man’s heart dribbling out of his pen to write messages to his young son, and he wrote so beautifully and lovingly that I read half the book that first day.

A dying pastor is writing to his young son, not yet seven. Seeing life and people and love through those old, gentle, wizened lenses felt sacred and sweet,  like I couldn’t get enough sweetness. It’s sweet but not cloying. Insightful, but not ponderous or stuffy. Full of love and longing but not sentimental or fluffy.

There is a reality in blessing. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that. (p. 23)

I’m glad it’s not just pastors who can bless when they pronounce the benediction. All of us can bless each other, and when we say simple words like “Bless you” (not for sneezes, but for big assignments and partings and dilemmas) we acknowledge and affirm the sacredness of that person and that moment, which is an enormous gesture to receive from anyone, a privilege to pronounce on someone, and something to practice generously. What if we sprinkled blessings around like confetti?

The next lines need no commentary, only long pauses to think about the lines for several days. If you read the book, let me know what you think!

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she [the newborn] did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. (p. 76)

 

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. (p.238)

 

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)

 

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. (p. 245)

Not long ago, I was driving in a dusk of golds and blues, and remembered these lines. I aspire to living in this wonder:

So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. (p. 246)

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Giveaway Winner!

It’s been great fun to see the entries come in all week! I saw lots of friends stop by the blog, as well as new names. It made me want to talk with everyone and find out who they are and how they found this giveaway.

I’m also curious about how give away became a one-word noun.

Anyhow, this morning I had Google’s random number generator choose a number, and it turned out to be Yvonne Zook’s entry! Yvonne, when I get your address, I’ll get it in the mail.

For the rest of you hopeful commenters, you can still follow Dorcas’ blog tour for other giveaways, or purchase your own copy. (Or sweet gifts for friends.) You can order the book from Dorcas at 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR 97446. Books are $12 each plus $2 postage. Checks or PayPal accepted. (dorcassmucker@gmail.com) Or find it here on Amazon.

Fragrant Whiffs of Joy Giveaway!

When I read Dorcas’ new book, I felt like I was sitting across the table from her, drinking tea and talking. The time we did that in Poland, she spoke wise, memorable words to me, and her new book feels like an extension of that conversation. I consider her a writing mentor (she was the one who nudged me to self-publish my book, which I have never regretted doing), and a kindred spirit, whose friendship I treasure.

The crazy thing about this week when I read Fragrant Whiffs of Joy was that I was experiencing another kind of whiffs in my kitchen. Apparently, a rodent has died somewhere inaccessible under the floor of the kitchen sink, and it’s been truly awful, and I still don’t know what do about it. You might say Dorcas’ book was good escape writing.

This is a user-friendly book, in that you can dip anywhere in the book, read a chapter (they’re quite short) and put it down til the next time you have five free minutes. Dorcas writes in a most colorful, fresh way, which means her metaphors and word pictures are so vivid you can see them, like the stitching on her dad’s barn mitts that showed all the national borders up to the North Sea. She writes these colorful descriptions and dialogues that take up most of the pages, then tucks in these little lines that reveal the point of the pictures and conversations:

This is what it means to be an adult, I think: to make peace with the life you didn’t foresee, to see spiritual significance in the daily repeated tasks, and to find fulfillment in doing them well.

That was in the chapter about fixing endless amounts of food for the multitudes.

This one is in the one about the minister’s wife, and how Dorcas fought the impostor syndrome:

We cannot go wrong with honesty and love, with flaws and laughter, with genuine joy or sadness. We would love to fix the world by distributing perfect solutions at arm’s length, but what people really need is for us to walk beside them until they figure life out for themselves.

I think that’s the main reason I consider Dorcas a friend and a lady I want to be like. She uses her words to express care and understanding without acting on the urge to fix and tidy everything up perfectly. She is honest and discreet. She is wise and humble.

When I got to the chapter about her son’s first mother, I started feeling all chokey, and when I got to when Steven’s mom sewed, I cried. I don’t know why. I don’t know anything about Africa or adoption. I think the tears came from awe at the beauty of an orchestration that’s way bigger than any person or family can arrange.

I giggled in the chapter about her fabric stash and New Year’s resolution not to buy more fabric that year. It made me curious about how that year went. I didn’t take time to ask her. Maybe we can find that out later.

You can order the book from Dorcas Smucker at 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR 97446. Books are $12 each plus $2 postage. Checks or PayPal accepted. (dorcassmucker@gmail.com) Or find it here on Amazon.

For now, I get to give away one of these books! Dorcas gave me one copy to keep, one to give to someone who is sick or in a hard time (that will be my mom, who was diagnosed with cancer last January and has been sick all this long year), and one to give away to one of you! I’m not going to ask you do anything like telling me your favorite cake, or saying what your deepest fear is. Just drop a comment below, and I’ll draw the winner on November 18. Ready? Go!

A Brave New Book

About six years ago, back in the days of Google Reader, a friend told me about a blog.

“Sarah Thebarge is a physician’s assistant, and has befriended this Somali family, calls them the invisible girls, and blogs about their experiences.  I think you’d like what she says.”

I did like the blog, very much, and followed every post until Sarah took the posts down because they were the copyrighted content of her first book called The Invisible Girls and then I bought the book.

Since then, I’ve followed Sarah’s story and found her to be a rare soul. A cancer survivor and fighter for other’s well-being, she quite her medical job, sold everything that didn’t fit into her car, and traveled around the US talking to groups about her story and the Somali girls, and called people to care for their neighbors and spread love into the world. There are people who can speak, and others write, but Sarah is one of those rare ones who does both very well. I’ve not heard her in person, but have enjoyed a few talks on-line.

I read her blog posts, and feel her passion to love our neighbors and spread Jesus’ love one person at a time. She writes searingly, stunningly courageous words about the agony and unanswered questions of extended singleness. She knows hope and healing and devastation and tears and beauty.

Then she went to Togo, West Africa to work in a clinic for three months, and contracted malaria that nearly killed her. She came back broken in body and soul, and it took months to recover and start telling her stories.

Here are those stories! WELL released today! Find her on Facebook, or buy her book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Sarah says, “The book is brutally honest about the medical issues people face in the developing world, and it grapples with real issues and questions about how people can love on the developing world in a way that’s helpful and sustainable.  But underlying it all is the fact that Love holds our beautiful, broken world….and invites us to do what we can to make our world truly, deeply WELL.”

I agree.

Reading it is not for the faint of heart. There are medical details and agonizing questions that could shake you if you felt squeamish or unsure of your faith. In a big sister way, I would suggest that Sarah was too exhausted and overwrought even before she went to Togo, and thus wasn’t able to roll with the punches there very well. And there were some dreadful body blows. But it is well-written, and the last chapter is the best one.

Standing here now, minutes away from my feet touching American soil for the first time in three months, I suddenly had the humbling realization that

I had been making unfair and untrue value judgments for a really long time. I had assumed that loving people while standing on the soil of West Africa
was more valuable than loving people while standing on a sidewalk in the United States.

That traveling for hours on a plane to get to people who were suffering was more significant than driving ten minutes in my car to the local rescue mis-
sion, or the Somali girls’ apartment—or even walking to the neighbor’s house next door.

Somehow, I believed that I earned more cosmic points for loving people while jet-lagged than for loving people while well rested.

That eating strange food was more significant than eating leftovers from my favorite take-out place.

That serving people who speak a different language from me was somehow more important than serving fellow English speakers.

It took a hard three months in Africa to open my eyes to the fact that the Somali girls were never a consolation prize. That cancer didn’t deprive me of
God’s Plan A for my life. That I was where I was meant to be, and if I never used my passport again, the life waiting for me in the States was just as signifi-
cant as the life I thought I’d have as a missionary overseas.

As I pulled my heavy bag off the carousel, I thought, Maybe in God’s eyes, the soil under our feet doesn’t matter nearly as much as the compassion in our
hearts. Maybe the love we show to others is infinitely more significant than the ground on which we stand.

Unseen but Seen

You know the riddle about the tree falling in the forest with no one around, but my riddle is:

If you didn’t see it on Facebook, did it happen?

When I’m enthused about something, I want the whole world to know. I think if it makes me happy or answers my question or tastes delicious, everyone else surely wants to hear about it and experience it too. I experienced big highs this week, witnessed magnanimous provision, life-giving words spoken, stunning red maples, busy beavers gnawing bark and poking sticks into their lodge. They were things that made me want to weep with joy and raise my hands in worship, but none of it went on Facebook.

So did it happen?

Silly question.

I live in a pretty tightly-knit community and I sometimes joke that there are no secrets because we pretty much live and work in each other’s pockets, but it’s not true, because the most precious, beautiful things are too sacred to talk about freely, much less put on the interwebs.

I suspect that some of my reticence to quickly tell the world about my latest enthusiasm and joy is a trickle-down effect from reading this book:


 

Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World that Loves to be Noticed

Sara Hagerty’s first book came out three years ago: Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. It tells her story of her evangelistic fervor, marital conflict, financial difficulty, and infertility, and how those bitter things became the impetus to find the sweetness of Jesus’ love. The book met me in an especially needy, opportune time and I count it one of the best I’ve read.

This summer, Sara’s second book came out, and I was a little skeptical because I know that publishers pressure successful authors to keep pushing out books, and sometimes an author has only one good book in her. But I wouldn’t have needed to skeptical. Sara really does have a rich, deep message in her second book that all of us need.

Here are some of the many excerpts I underlined and starred:

God used this desperation to intensify a thirst in my soul. God calls us to resist succumbing to readily available distractions and instead to press into these thirsty moments, or weakest seasons. Thirst is our ally. If we can tolerate the thirst long enough, staying in our weakness and our need, we will find more of God.

The path to greatness lies in hiddenness. And it’s a state of mind and a way of being, not a series of tasks to perform.

Those who turn to God and hide their otherwise-shamed faces in His chest? Those are the ones who hear His heartbeat. We haven’t been hidden by God to suffer or to be punished; we’ve been wooed into hiding to meet with the God who turns vulnerability into communion.

In every chapter, Sara refers to an aspect of the story of Mary who washed Jesus’ feet, the waste of it, and how Jesus responded to her scandalous act. While I read, I kept thinking

And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly.

and

I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places.

and

Not one sparrow is forgotten.

and

The darkness and the light are both the same to You.

I will probably never stop gushing loudly over things I love and remember and thrill about, but Sara’s book has soaked into me, in that I know it’s ok to be quiet, unheard, unseen, leaning hard on the source of strength, the true pillar of significance. Maybe the whole world doesn’t have to know about the stunning sky I saw between the color-washed leaves. Maybe I can just savor it and sit with the wonder of it.

But oh, you really should have seen those two beavers with their delicate little hands, nibbling bark as if it was corn on a cob. I happened to walk over their bridge, watched them beavering away, and didn’t document it with a photo. But it still happened, and I am still awed at the astonishing encounter.

I like social media. I work in Communications, after all. It is a happening place, and it needs to be. I believe that if you see something beautiful, you should tell it. I care deeply about expressing truth and light in winsome, attractive ways. But I don’t have much worthwhile to say before I have sat long, rested, lingered with Truth in quietness and hiddenness.

Out of that communion, everything else flows.

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.