Christianity, life

The Beauty behind

Thus says Yahweh: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. — Jeremiah 6:16a

When I went to Tennessee I was tired. Worn out, soul-weary tired. We have such a vast, such a broken, bleeding world. Heart change, radical life transformation from the inside out, is the only thing that will ultimately bring the peace and justice, mercy and love so many of us are craving, whether we recognize where that craving comes from or not. But so many people also don’t seem to want to hear and taste and see and know the Truth that will set them free. It’s hard to love people sometimes and keep on loving them when they only want to set their own definitions and boundaries of love. And it’s hard to keep trying to speak the truth (in love) … maybe especially when you know what the ultimate Truth is, but aren’t quite sure where the point of starkly clear truth is on issue after issue after issue our country and world wrestle with.

When I went to Tennessee I was also reading Jeremiah. I read the verse above one of the mornings I was there, and it came up again a day or two later during morning devotions at Hutchmoot. One of the things I had been praying leading up to Hutchmoot, and one of the things I prayed while I sat in a rocking chair on the balcony of my charming bed and breakfast, reading scripture and journaling and just being, was “Help me see the Beauty behind.” This idea of the Beauty behind all things, the Reality that exists underneath everything we see and perceive, is one that has rolled around in my mind probably since the first time I read N.D. Wilson’s Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, but it’s been especially strong this year as I’ve often struggled to see beauty in the circumstances in which I find myself. “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” Oh God, help me see! It’s hard sometimes, isn’t it, when all we can see are the shadows of things, and through a mysterious process that is confusing and often painful to us, we are being made into the image of Christ — in a very real sense we both are and are not yet complete.

and the Beauty behind is what you can’t see
like the wind in the branches that talks for the tree
or the Word that split the shore from the sea

I went to Hutchmoot knowing I would probably cry a lot. Not because I expected to be sad, but because tears just come when I encounter beauty … when, I think, I internally see His Beauty, when I hear echoes of the past and the future. The first time I nearly started crying was when my friends and I were looking around the church hosting Hutchmoot and saw a sign for the session rooms. They were named things like Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, Buechner, Berry. “Even the room signs make me want to cry,” I joked to Hannah. “I know!” she replied.

And I probably just kept crying most of the time from there. I cried when John Cal, our master chef for the weekend, introduced each meal. Tears rolled down my face during Rabbit Room Live when Jennifer Trafton spoke and pretty much proved she knew the inside of my soul (or at least my mind, maybe) though she had no idea who I was and all I knew about her was that she wrote Henry and the Chalk Dragon (which I have not yet read). I cried during A Liturgy for the Planting of Flowers. I cried from doubled-over laughter when Jonathan Rogers talked about childhood poetry, writing, and fake vampire blood. I cried when Andrew Peterson talked about pushing on the Wailing Wall like he was Lucy at the back of the wardrobe, longing to get into Narnia again. Oh, you too, I thought.

I cried in the session Sleuths and Spaceships when Jen Yokel talked about sci-fi space stories and Wall-E and lots of other heart-rendingly beautiful truths that I’d have to consult my notes about in order to recount. And I probably cried in the same talk when Carrie Givens said her cats were named Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and that her favorite Sayers novel was Gaudy Night. Huzzah! I thought. Twenty-three years’ worth of reading mystery stories has not been in vain after all! 

But it wasn’t all tears (albeit happy tears). One feature of Hutchmoot that I (surprisingly) found myself loving was the fact that, because meals were taken at long rows of feasting tables, you never really knew who you would end up sitting next to during dinner. But it was marvelous, because everyone was so nice. And both interesting themselves and interested in you. We three ladies from Kansas City and Chicago probably told the sweetly bizarre story of how we all happened to be there together 20 or so times, and I’m sure everyone else told the story of how they got to Hutchmoot multiple times as well, but it never seemed to get tiresome to anybody. Maybe we were all just introverts who finally felt safe together. Or maybe, because we all loved a good God Who imagined into existence such things as good food and good stories, it was one big constant What, you too? I thought I was the only one! moment of instant friendship.

Somebody somewhere — probably multiple people in multiple times and places — said, in essence, that the skill with which you create is not the most important thing. Whether you get published or get commissions or make an album or do anything that gets you public recognition for your work is not the most important thing. What’s important is that you create — that you express the truths God has placed it on your heart to tell, through the medium He has given you, with the skill you have, to and for the people in community with you. I’ve had some minor disappointments this year of rejections for poems or stories I’ve submitted various places. I’ve been tempted to think I need to change my style or subject matter in order to be acceptable to the main stream of poetic persons, to the popular idea of what poetry should be about and how it should be written. It was affirming, therefore, to be reminded that God has given me truth to tell, and a way in which to tell it, and I don’t need to water it down or angst it up for anyone.

On Friday afternoon during a time when there were workshops or the freedom to roam around and do whatever you wanted, I wandered out into a little gardenish spot where there were benches and trees, shade and sunlight, and a subtly burbling fountainish thing. At first I sat on the ground, looked around, enjoyed the sun and prepared to review my notes from the morning’s talks. But then I noticed the woodchips and leaves were starting to cling to my bright orange tights, so I moved up to a bench occupied on one end by a petite woman with curly blonde hair. We shared a few comments, then my attention was arrested by the men with pipes in their hands who were starting to congregate in the little garden. Out from the church came a man carrying a metal case, which he set carefully down on the wall of the fountainish thing and opened, revealing pipe after beautiful pipe. I had inadvertantly wandered into Pipemoot.

Well, I couldn’t not go over and look. “Do you want to try one?” somebody asked. I demurred shyly, remembering the disastrous results of my first (and thusly last, I thought) attempt at pipe smoking. “C’mon, I think they need some women in this thing!” my vivacious bench companion said. So we both went back over to the case of pipes, and their owner and maker guided us through selecting a pipe, selecting a tobacco, filling the pipe, tamping the tobacco down, lighting it and drawing to keep it lit. Learning how to draw correctly without actually inhaling was rather tricky. “Don’t inhale or you’ll turn green!” Art Peterson said, with a twinkle in his eye and a pipe clamped in his teeth. Somehow, despite the awkwardness of not being good at pipe smoking and trying to keep it lit and asking if it’d gone out and all the minutiae of what to do, I felt more at home there with that bunch of bearded men (and my bench friend and the other women who wandered through) than with the idea of the inaugural Teamoot, which I could see being enacted on the other side of the courtyard’s doors.

The blonde woman from the bench — whose name I have sadly and completely forgotten — and I talked for a while together of this and that, of her family’s journey from California to Nashville that summer on faith and prayer; of my journey as a single woman arriven at 30 and wondering what to do with myself. In the initial stages of our conversation she asked what I liked to do, creatively speaking, and I said, a little squirmingly, well, I like to write poetry, for fun. I gave her one of the little Christmas books I’d made of poems, pictures and stories, and she exclaimed over it with enthusiasm. Later, when our suddenly deep and heartfelt conversation was wrapping up, she said, “And next time someone asks what you do, tell them you’re a poet, and say it with conviction — because you are.”

Yes, I have absolutely forgotten that woman’s name, which is a little embarrassing. But I remember her story and the hope and faith in God’s guidance and provision that it demonstrated. And I remember the care and affirmation she showed me, though we had been complete strangers to each other half an hour before. I don’t believe in coincidence, so I believe it was God who guided my feet to wander out into that little courtyard into the midst of the love and kindness of strangers. Here, surrounded by people who loved God and longed to see the Beauty behind perhaps even more than I did, I felt, even in the midst of excitement and the slow busyness of a conference, rest for my soul.

Here endeth the second lesson.

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photography

Maidens Drowned

This summer the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival produced Hamlet (with Nathan Darrow in the title role). Though Hamlet’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies, this was the first time I’d see the play performed. It was phenomenal. Just jaw-droppingly good. The woman who played Ophelia gave an especially striking performance after Ophelia went mad. Her flower speech and the account of her death inspired me to recreate her drowning photographically. But then I couldn’t decide if she should be fair or dark … so I went with both.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays. Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.
There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.

Ophelia dark

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There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Ophelia fair

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Christianity, life

The adventure that Aslan gives

This year has been … where shall I begin? Silent, if you consider the post previous to this one, written in January when the only voice I had was a faint and whispery rasp. But it has not been a silent year; many times I’ve wished it could be more quiet. It has been challenging, stretching, humbling — humiliating, in some ways, if I’m honest with myself about the blows to my pride. I have wished so many times, for various reasons, that I could just run away somewhere (mostly to England or Ireland or Scotland or Guernsey) and escape the difficulties of the here and now. But, if I continue to be honest with myself, I know that’s no solution, because where I am, there my problems will be also.

But this year has also contained a good deal of joy, gladness, laughter, fun, excitement, growing, beautiful things, life-giving moments. It has held innumerable instances of unexpected blessing. It has been full of good meals, good conversations, shared lives.

And here is the story of one such unlooked-for blessing. Or the first chapter of the story.

In January or February my friend Kimberly texted me late at night with a link and said “You should go to this!” “This” was Hutchmoot. Hutchmoot is an event created by Andrew and Pete Peterson and their organization The Rabbit Room (rabbits … hutches … you know). I’d read about Hutchmoot before, but the thought of going had never really crossed my mind. This time, however, when I read the description of what Hutchmoot was and was about, I started crying, and my heart ached to experience the beauty there described. I thought, well … maybe … and I looked at the dates. October, starting three days after my birthday. My 30th birthday. October: a busy time of year family- and work-wise. Hmm. I prayed and asked God that, if it was His will I should go, to work out the details, including the necessary time off from work. The next morning, I checked to confirm the weeks in October during which I absolutely had to be at work. The week of Hutchmoot wasn’t one of them. I texted my mom … So, Kim sent me this link to a conference for Christian writers and artists in Nashville in October. It’s not a week I have to be at work. What do you think? In a couple of minutes came her reply: Go for it!

Oh, and did I mention that registration opened that afternoon? Well, after confirming with my boss that I could take the necessary time off, I sat at the computer, every inch of my insides seemingly stuffed with excited butterflies, waiting for the clock to strike the magical hour for tickets to go on sale. After registration finally opened and I secured my ticket I sat at my desk quivering like a jelly who couldn’t stop smiling and sort of crying at the same time.

But it’s a while between February and October, so I had to wait to embark upon this glorious adventure. And I had to figure out things like lodging and how to get from the Nashville airport to Franklin, Tennessee, 20 miles away. Normal people who travel a lot by themselves are used to renting cars and navigating unfamiliar roads, right? Well, I’ve never been normal, most of my traveling has been done with other people, and I am terrible — terrible! — at geography. So there was another adventure awaiting me.

In June I had to write about Key limes for my job and I developed a strong and enduring hunger for Key lime pie, so I decided to have a Key lime pie and Key Largo movie night. The event got pushed into July, and, a week or so before, my mom said one day, “Did you see Hannah S. is back in town? You should get together — she likes doing the kind of things you like.” So I invited Hannah, who I had not seen since I was about 14 and she was 9, to my movie night. And she was an instant and marvelous kindred spirit. Since social media is a weird thing, we found out via Instagram that we were both going to Hutchmoot.

Now, isn’t that crazy? Here I haven’t laid eyes on someone for close to 16 years (though I did sleep in her bed one night last summer when her mother rescued me from Chicago’s Midway airport … but that is another story and will be told at another time), yet we meet again and now have myriad common interests (her eldest brother was one of my best friends when I was 3, incidentally) and are going to the same conference later in the year. I don’t believe in coincedence; I call that a Divine blessing.

Here endeth the first lesson.

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life

the mouse and the cathedral

flying

one of the things i’m most frequently teased about is how quiet i am. and it’s true that i’m on the quiet side — my default volume and habits are not what anyone would call “loud.” when i sneeze at work, one of my colleagues has been known to jest “and that’s the loudest sound she’ll make all day,” or to jokingly tell me to pipe down if i happen to yell across the room. a woman i was trying to get an on-camera interview with once looked at me and said “well, you’re just a tiny little thing!” (to her credit, i am somewhat petite; to mine, she was tipsy.) my grandpa has been asking me to speak up for about 20 years.

i don’t mind the teasing because it’s all good-natured, and because it’s true. strangely, though, i would never have thought of myself as quiet if other people hadn’t mentioned it. stephen hawking reportedly said “quiet people have the loudest minds.” i think that’s an excellent description of a lot of quiet people or introverts. we simply don’t realize we’re quiet on the outside because so much is going on internally — reflection, analyzation, creation. it’s not shouty inside my head, but it’s busy.

however, there’s another aspect of my personal quietness that i’ve become more aware of over the past year, and it’s admittedly more negative. all too often, my quietness stems from self-consciousness, from being more focused on myself and others’ perception of me than on them and making them feel loved, welcome and cared for, regardless of who they are or where we are. i’m content to stay quiet, to take a backseat role or scurry around doing background tasks (which, it’s true, do need to be done) than to step up, stick my hand out and open my heart to someone i don’t know.

and that’s another negative facet of my quietness — a fear of vulnerability. i am by nature something of a private person, and it can sometimes take a while to feel comfortable sharing deeply personal things with someone else. (but once i do feel comfortable i can literally talk people to sleep. i’ve done it multiple times, trust me.) it’s one reason why i have no problem writing poems that talk pretty freely about anger, fear, doubt or love, but have, in the past, been afraid of reading them aloud in front of other people. by reading this poem i’m looking you in the eyes and handing you a piece of myself, i’ve felt. and what are you going to do with it? the possibility of rejection, disapproval, or a simple lack of understanding is daunting, but i’ve come to realize that when i have been given a gift (as each of the “good” poems is), the important thing is that i share it with others. how they respond or what they do with it is up to them.

how i began to learn this and realize the ridiculous lengths to which i sometimes took quietness was through taking voice lessons. i love to sing. when i’m in the shower, or in my car, or feeling comfortable and brimming with mischief, i will sing at the top of my lungs without caring much what it sounds like. i was in a number of musical theatre productions from junior high through my early years of college, and, though i was usually in the chorus, i did a fair amount of singing. i first took voice lessons in my teens, at the height of my theatre involvement, and was struck with the truth that i wasn’t quite the whiz-bang singer i thought i was. my teacher was sweet and encouraging and classically trained, and did all she could to help me improve. still, when i started singing with our church’s music team on sunday mornings, i would have little whispering thoughts wondering if my voice teacher was wincing internally every time i got up there to sing. (no one ever reported wincing or asked me to stop singing, just for the record, and there were several comments to the contrary.)

so fast-forward to 2015-16 when i started taking voice lessons again, since i was singing at church more regularly and knew i wasn’t singing with proper form. my instructor this time around said the goal of our lessons was to find my true voice, and to strengthen and build on that. he — and i — quickly realized i had a problem with being loud. he told me once to laugh like santa claus. i was the most moderate, careful-sounding santa claus ever. other times he told me “be a cathedral; don’t be a mouse!”

oh, but it’s so much easier to be a mouse! people don’t notice mice much; they can’t fail to notice a cathedral. being a cathedral exposes your heart and your soul to everyone within earshot; being a mouse makes it easy to hide.

being a mouse is a weak plea to remain comfortable, unchallenged. being a mouse, in a way, is saying “no, i really don’t want to do this after all. i don’t love enough to leave safety. i don’t love enough to come to you. i’d rather stay where i am.”

but that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus came, without any regard for His own safety or comfort. Jesus spoke, Jesus sang. He didn’t go around shouting all the time — and i’m not trying to imply that anyone should do that, or that quietness is less valuable than volume — but neither was He timid, self-conscious, afraid to open Himself to others.

for the past six days i’ve been more or less without a voice. when i try to speak above a whisper my words come out pitchy, hoarse, broken, and only about one in five is audible. if i want to say anything more than a sentence or two in length i’ve had to resort to writing it down. i spent many moments of the past work week walking around to a coworker’s cubicle to stand right by their chair and say something in as loud of a whisper as i could muster, where normally i would have just said it from across the room (and probably repeated it at a louder volume).

the enforced silence has made me realize what a privilege and what a gift it is to be able to speak, to sing, to shout, even. God gave us voices to be used, and if we refuse or are hestitant to use them for His glory, to make people feel loved and welcome, or to speak truth where it needs to be spoken (always with love), then we’re neglecting a responsibility that the privilege of being God’s child brings with it. (note: i realize some people are genuinely physically unable to speak, or have great difficulty and/or discomfort in speaking because of physical conditions. i am not at all suggesting that people in those circumstances are selfish or complacent in not speaking audibly. God gives many forms of speaking, after all.)

my two new year’s goals or resolutions are rest easy and pursue people. the first deserves its own post, but on the second, i really want to learn to speak and to pursue people from a heart of love, from a mindset that is others-focused and not so concerned about myself. i want to learn to see other people the way Jesus sees them and appreciate them as His beloved creations who are in need of redemption or are redeemed and are being restored. this year, i want to learn to speak and to sing with strength. i want to stop being a mouse and learn to be a cathedral.

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Christianity, poetry

compline

Emmanuel — behold Him
the Meek and Mighty, child
the universe’s Maker come
to what we have defiled

Emmanuel — o praise Him
the righteous Warrior wise
He comes the fettered heart to free
and none will He despise

Emmanuel — adore Him
the Shepherd tender, true
He comes the broken to restore
and make all old things new

Emmanuel — hosanna
o, God-With-Us, save!
come sing Your song of triumph
from the manger past the grave

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Christianity, poetry

vespers

strikingsunrise3

i thank Thee, uncreated Son
that Thou didst deign to shine
within the darkness of my soul
and warm my heart with Thine

i thank Thee, ever-endless One
Who left Thy holy throne
to take my evanescent frame
and wear it as Thine own

i thank Thee, Living Water sweet
Whose life Thou freely gave
that Thou didst stoop to wash my feet
and me from death didst save

i thank Thee, shatterer of night
Thou art eternal Day
when new life rises with the morn
the old shall flee away

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Christianity, poetry

hours

field

go seek Him in the country
go find Him by the way
go see that in your night has dawned
the light of endless day

go seek Him in the village
go praise Him in the town
go tell the true and wild tale
of God to earth come down

go seek Him in the city
go paint Him on the streets
go sing the song of zion
and of triumph through defeat

go seek Him in the quiet
go dance amid the storm
go worship in the chaos
unto us a Child is born

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