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.

Makoto Fujimura: Silence and Beauty

“When you feel overwhelmed with the enormity of your assignment, give yourself boundaries. Limitations are wonderfully clarifying. So when I started thinking about illustrating the four Gospels, I gave myself a boundary and started with the shortest verse: Jesus wept.”

Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ) “Tears of Christ” Makoto Fijimura

This was how Makoto Fijimura began his speech,  and the painting that started the evening. His intent in the painting was to start with a dark background (the backdrop of the voids and traumas of our world) and illumine it with prismatic colors.

The painting fit his speech, “Silence and Beauty,” as Mr. Fijimura unpacked the story of John 11 and 12. I wanted to study the painting for a long time. There is depth, darkness, movement, passion, and light in it. I watched the world-renowned artist shuffle gently back and forth on the stage, talking softly–so softly that I couldn’t catch every word, smiling, peaceful, confident, gentle. He showed us a picture of his simple painting called “Silence,” which he is giving to movie director Scorsese who directed the recent movie with the same name, based on a novel by the same name. “This is painted on mulberry paper, using ink that’s a hundred years old. It’s easy to transport, compared to my other works that are harder to take from place to place. And with their colors, when you take pictures of them, they just disappear. So you just have come see them.” Gentle tone. Shrug. Beaming eyes. Smile.

Fijimura is uncommonly equipped to critique the movie and the novel Silence because of his extensive knowledge of Japanese thought, culture, and art. His speech last night was uncommonly ambitious, moving from a nod to his art, to “Jesus wept,” to Silence and our own unanswered questions, and back to Jesus.

An aside: I was glad of how candidly Fujimura spoke when he showed a picture of the carnage in Nagasaki. He said more Christians died that day than had ever died as martyrs in that country. He didn’t dwell on it, but he put it out there. It is right for Americans to hear and see images of that unconscionable trauma that often gets glazed over.

I haven’t read Silence yet. I’m trying to decide when I’ll have the fortitude to read what I understand to be a harrowing, deep story. But Fijimura was doing more than providing well-informed commentary on Endo, the novelist, and talking to more than those who have read the book.  “Do you know what it’s like to talk to God and to hear nothing in return?”

In John 11, Mary and Martha say the same words to Jesus at different times. They don’t understand His silence, His inaction. Their faith is not an issue. They know He could have kept their brother from dying.

To Martha, the busy CEO of the house, activist, organizer, the one who makes the party happen, Jesus responds with left-brain answers. To her He gives the shining proposition: I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE. He speaks her language, meets her where she is.

Mary is the artist, impractical, intuitive, inefficient. She says the same words Martha did, words of questions and bewilderment. For Mary, Jesus has no declarations of truth. He is silent. Instead of declarations and explanations, He weeps. He speaks her language, meets her where she is.

The Gospel is not about fixing things that are broken in a shattered world. The Gospel is about the tears of Jesus and His presence. 

Because He is the answer. His silence is not distance. He is present, and His presence heals what is shattered.

Then in chapter 12, Lazarus is the only one is the story who does nothing. He’s not fighting a culture war to prove that he’s on the right side. He just stays with Jesus, confident,  knowing reality of the Resurrection. They can’t do anything to him because he’s already died and knows death won’t have the last word. What is there to fear or be defensive about? There is nothing to defend and get worked up about. The resources he draws from have no limit. I think Lazarus’ confidence was akin to Makoto’s gentle invitation for us to come look at his paintings. A shrug, a little grin, nothing to prove or defend.

Mary, the artist, pours on Jesus’ feet the perfume that would have pleased her husband on their wedding night. Artists rebel against the bottom line because they know that their resources are infinite. Mary, extravagant, intuitive, lavish, gave the best she had.

How to respond to trauma and betrayal? What if Jesus’ artists would spread His aroma, the Gospel, extravagantly, wastefully, because we know the resources will never end? What if left brains and right brains would meet in the amygdala, the brain’s center, and be Lazarus, and not fight culture, but stay with Jesus?

Mr. Fujimura’s speech moved me deeply. I wept again this morning, remembering Jesus’ response to the women, and I know the message will stay with me always. The speech itself was profound, with ambitious themes covered masterfully in a most understated way. His words were like giant brush strokes that at first appear disconnected but eventually paint a stunning design of emerging light, space, and color.

Matthew - Consider the Lilies “Consider the Lilies” Makoto Fujimura

 

 

Anita’s Life Hacks

If you read other life hacks, you know that some are genius, and some fall flat. Well, these are my latest ones, and they work for me.

Kefir with orange concentrate

A couple years ago, I was attracting every bug in town, even with eating garlic sandwiches and Polish pickles at a tremendous rate. Jewel and I had an English student who is a metabolic dietitian (isn’t that a cool title?!) and she said I need probiotics.  So I got attached to kefir, and now I don’t like to do without it for more than a couple days. The healthiest option is to use fresh or frozen fruit to make smoothies with it. Last year when I lived in a dorm, that wasn’t easy to carry off, so I improvised by just adding lemonade mix, and it was lovely.

Now, with summer being over and frozen fruit being at a premium again, I found another solution: orange juice concentrate. I drop a dollop of it into my pint jar, add a bit of sugar, and  oh, it’s so good that I moan every time at the first sip. I associate cold, juicy oranges with this time of year anyhow, and this just fits. Add a smidgen of vanilla and call it an orange julius for breakfast. Yum.

Happy bubbles 

You know how some little people need time to warm up to you, and sometimes you don’t have that kind of time? Or they’re grumpy and won’t be charmed? I found a trick. It’s called bubbles.

It started when I just happened to slip a little tube into my purse after a wedding, and happened to remember it was there when I was trying to befriend a fairy child. The minute I started blowing the bubbles, she started giggling and chasing them and suddenly she liked me after all. Well, she liked the bubbles, but that was ok. Her rollicking laughter was the best thing that happened to me that day, and her gorgeous, chocolate truffle eyes are still with me. I gave her the tube to keep and she couldn’t get done talking about her “happy bubbles.”

So now I have a supply of mini bubble tubes in a closet (JoAnn Fabric’s bridal supply) and keep one in my purse to give to the next child. It’s a sure way to make sweet little friends in an instant. (The photo is at my sister’s wedding reception when my nephew forgot about being grumpy and hungry.)12698453_805008379644694_4219333476885333484_o

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.

Image result for when breath becomes air cover

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.

Tasty Words

coffee-690421_1280

We were a group of friends around a campfire with a silver moon and glorious crisp air around us. It was “literary night” and some of us read wild and wonderful bits and pieces–excerpts and short stories–to the others. I cheered and laughed and ate up all the deliciousness. Among others, there was Dickens and A. A. Milne and then O. Henry.

“Goody, goody, I love O. Henry,” I said under my breath.

“How do you know all those books?” my friend next to me asked.

I shrugged and said I grew up with them. But now that I think about it, except for Milne, that’s not really true. I always read voraciously, but in very protected parameters, without access to a public library. Sometimes I feel like a hoax when I talk about my favorite writers and books because somehow people think I read a lot, but in comparison to other friends, I don’t. I think I give the impression of being well-read because I’m vocal about whatever book and author I’m enthused about, while my friends read much more high-brow content much more quietly and know far more than I.

But I follow some writers I like, here and there on their blogs or talks on YouTube, and then I recognize their names when their books get on best-seller lists.  And I watch some literary reviews in some papers, which alerts me to the up-and-coming new books, and then years later I unearth them in a 2nd-hand shop. Or a friend loans me one like this recently: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I can’t repeat that title very fast, but it was absolutely delightful, and I was none the worse for having waited for it several years after all the book clubs in Ireland were reading it.

And now I’m in an academic setting where most of my assignments center around reading, reading, reading, and for the first time in my life, it’s something I MUST do many hours a day, and while I love it, it’s not easy. I thought it would be like eating chocolate cake. But the Chesterton book right now is such that I can. not. understand any two consecutive sentences. And it’s the book that has a section in which I’ll be responsible to guide a discussion, so I HAVE to get it. The experience is sort of like chewing steak. Tasty, but tough. Nourishing, but work.

This is not going to put me off books. It will probably make me more excited and vocal about words and ideas. And definitely more enthused than ever about wrapping up the day with Milne or O. Henry.