Christianity, life, photography

the way things are

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today marks one month until my birthday, which will mark one year from entering a new decade. last year, during a rambling late-evening discussion after my murder mystery birthday celebration had wound down, a friend asked me what i hoped would happen or what i would like to do in the next year. after gathering my wits and sorting through what i could share with an audience of two men, i came up with the following:

  1. share the gospel with someone, and
  2. submit some of my writing for publication.

in many ways, these have been an amazing 11 months. and in many ways, it’s been a tough old year.

i have had so much fun these past 11 months, dreaming things, planning things, trying things, creating things, being a small part of big exciting new things, seeing hope planted and watered and new life slowly unfurling its leaves. there are moments of pure joy when the light hits just right and reminds me God is big and He’s beautiful and amazing! and so, so very good.

i have felt so tired and so old this past year. i spent the first three or so months of the year battling sleeplessness and despondency, and finding myself not wanting to fight very hard, because every morning when i woke up, there was this cloud that wouldn’t budge and this feeling i couldn’t get rid of that i’d already failed and ruined the day. if i said i was constantly depressed that would be a lie, fortunately. but still, things weren’t right. it took a short sunday morning audio sermon on justification and grace to break me down (and set me crying for the next three hours, at church, on the front row, on st. valentine’s day, of all days) and eventually send me to the doctor to learn i had seasonal affective disorder and very low vitamin d.

two years ago i received some kind of tiny cypress tree in a Christmas gift exchange. it didn’t come with any identifiers or care instructions, so, having the brown thumb i do, i eventually killed it. last december i was tired of looking at a sad little crispy tree, so i bought a maidenhair fern to replace it. i like my plants to be signs and reminders of things (like isaiah’s children), so i named it hope. keeping hope alive has come to be the theme of this year for me — i have very nearly killed this needy finicky fern several times and have had to mist it every morning and trim all the brown leaves off as soon as they appear. sometimes i let things go too long and have to lop off an entire branch. such, i feel, has been the case with the past year.

with spring (and vitamins and supplements) came misty new leaves on trees, warm breezes, sunshine, longer days … and hope … and dreams that i never thought could be possibilities were taking shape in my soul. again and again i found myself standing on a cliff, toes hanging over the edge, dreading or anticipating what was going to happen next. i have long feared heights and falling from them —and much of the time, it’s because i’ve feared i’ll jump.

i have been weary this year to the point of not caring (and the Lord God gave the man low blood sugar to remind him he was not invincible). i have learned to walk past the point of fear and explain what is inside my mind or heart, as best i can. i have walked and walked and learned and forgotten and learned and forgotten and learned again how to pray. i have tried to be an escapist and have rammed my nose into reality time and again (thank God Who hems me in behind and before). i have worked and worked and worked and wondered what it’s all for before being reminded that anything done for Jesus counts for eternity.

“give up yourself,” c.s. lewis says, “and you will find your real self. lose your life and you will save it. submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorites wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. keep back nothing. nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. but look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

“take up your cross and follow Me,” Jesus says. “whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will find it.” 

every time i’ve had to face a fear or a frustration or have wrestled for control over something, i’ve thought i’ve learned what losing my life is, what letting go of my ambitions and favorite wishes looks like. what dying is. and every time i get to feeling worn down to a little wooden knot of a person and think, what, God, is this what You’ve called me to? He says and if it is, every day for the rest of your life, am I not enough in all of that? Who do you think I am?

i’ve learned (amid all the innumerable things i’ve learned this year) that i associate value with performance. if i’ve done well — if i’ve done what i was supposed to, when i was supposed to, and done it right — if i’ve lived up to my perception of others’ expectations for me as well as my own, then i have succeeded. then i have value.

i walked slowly down the steps of my empty office building this afternoon, past the darkened doors closed for the holiday weekend, trying to pull myself together and not cry from frustration and weariness (and lack of a proper lunch). i am a failure, i thought. i set lofty goals and never fulfill any of them. i haven’t gotten anywhere. and i complain about all of this and feel sorry for myself while widows in laos are being persecuted for their faith because Christianity is not convenient  for their relatives or their culture’s traditional religion. and here i am, with a good job and a great life, complaining and feeling sorry for myself because i’m tired.

when i have low blood sugar i get depressed. when i get depressed i can spiral down, down, down without realizing it because my will to care is so low at that point that i don’t want to make an effort to look up. but, i did. i remembered, God delights in you. He said, you are altogether beautiful, My darling. He completely approves of you, and it has nothing to do with what you’ve done. it’s because of what He’s done. you can’t earn His approval — and you don’t have to. that’s just the way things are.

the poems i submitted for publication earlier this year weren’t accepted. i haven’t shared the gospel with anyone, face to face, who didn’t already know it. if i look at my year, i have fallen back, back, back down this hill i’ve been climbing. but you know what? it’s going to be okay. and it’s going to be more than okay, because God doesn’t want my picking-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach to “success” or my wriggling self-loathing response to “failure.”

He wants me to hold His hand and walk with Him, trusting that He’s big enough to pick up the trees across the path and dig out the boulders in the way, and that He’s patient enough to match His strides to mine and pick me up and dust me off each time i fall down, even if it’s every other step.

and that’s just the way things are.

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the dryness and the rain

after completing messes of men, the first part of my photography project inspired by mewithoutYou’s brother, sister, cranking the second part out was surprisingly easy. as part of this shoot i learned about betta fish and discovered just how many things cockle burrs can latch onto. [and how cold 40-degree weather can be — thanks to models matt & carolyn of the fluorescent and ben for being great sports and incredibly patient even though it was painfully chilly outside.)

here are some selections from the shoot.

first came a strong wind
rippin’ off rooftops like bottlecaps
and bending lamp posts down to the ground

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then came a thunder, shattering my windows
but You were not that strong wind or that mighty sound

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that left the barn in shambles
the rabbit hutch in ruins
the split-rail fence splintered and the curtains torn

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all the cows out from the pastures trampling of the pumpkins
and the horses from their stable ambling in the corn

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i’ve flown unnoticed just behind You like an insect and i’ve watched You like a falcon from a distance as You passed

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then swooped down to be nearer, to the traces of Your footsteps to pick the fallen grain from the dirt beneath the crooked grass

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and i’m gonna take that grain and i’m gonna crush it all together into the flour of a bread as small and simple and sincere

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as when the dryness and the rain finally drink from one another the gentle cup of mutually surrendered tears!

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a fish swims through the sea
while the sea is in a certain sense
contained within the fish!

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oh, what am i to think
of what the writing of a thousand lifetimes
could not explain
if all the forest trees were pens
and all the oceans – ink?

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sunday sweaters

once upon a time on a late spring sunday afternoon (most likely after a thrilling nap), i found myself … bored? inspired? whimsical? i don’t know. but i decided to lean on the windowsill and pose for the camera … this was back in 2011 before the word “selfie” was ubiquitous. it was also before i got around to asking other people to pose for me on a regular basis. so i had to make do with myself … yeah, not really. (although self-portraits are interesting to construct, and sometimes harder than one might think.) the first of these is called “a very slow mind” (i don’t remember why), and the second two are part of a series called “sunday sweater.”

a very slow mind

sunday sweater iii

sunday sweater ii

this afternoon, for kicks and giggles, and to stretch my posing, focusing and actual stretching abilities, i decided to try to replicate them. it was a lot more difficult that i thought it would be to get myself into the exact same poses as i was before. you’ll see that the end results are not exact matches, tone-wise, focus-wise, pose-wise or what’s-outside-the-window-wise. but, in a way, i think that’s as it should be — though many things are the same as they were five years ago when those first shots were taken, a lot has changed. and so have i.

a very slow mind 2

sunday sweater iii 2

sunday sweater ii 2

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winter afternoons

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There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –

Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

Emily Dickinson

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messes of men

i’ve talked before about my love for mewithoutYou’s album brother, sister, and my desire to “illustrate” it, so to speak, through photography and other media. a desire four or five years in the making finally got off the ground last march when i did two shoots based on “messes of men,” the first song on the album.

then life happened — i couldn’t decide for sure how i wanted to edit the photos, of which i’d taken far too many and i couldn’t bear to part with any of them … i was involved in five weddings from august through december … my schedule seemed crammed to the gills … anyway, all that to say that i’ve finally finished editing them. whew! now to plot out the mixed media finished product.

here, for your enjoyment, are some selections.

‘i do not exist,’ we faithfully insist
sailing in our separate ships
and from each tiny caravelle
tiring of trying there’s unnecessary dying
like the horseshoe crab in its proper seasons sheds its shell
such distance from our friends
like a scratch across a lens,
made everything look wrong from anywhere we stood
and our paper blew away before we’d left the bay,
so half-blind we wrote these songs on sheets of salty wood

caught me making eyes at the other boatman’s wives,
and heard me laughing louder at the jokes told by their daughters
i’d set my course for land,
but you well understand
it takes a steady hand to navigate adulterous waters
the propeller’s spinning blades held acquaintance with the waves
as there’s mistakes i’ve made no rowing could outrun
the cloth blowing on the mast like to say i’ve got no past
but i’m nonetheless the librarian and secretary’s son
with tarnish on my brass and mildew on my glass,
i’d never want someone so crass as to want someone like me
but a few leagues off the shore, i bit a flashing lure
and i assure you, it was not what i expected it to be!
i still taste its kiss, that dull hook in my lip
is a memory as useless as a rod without a reel
to an anchor ever-dropped, seasick yet still docked
captain spotted napping with his first mate at the wheel,
floating forgetfully along, with no need to be strong
we keep our confessions long and when we pray we keep it short

i drank a thimble full of fire and i’m not ever coming back

oh, my G-d!

i do not exist we faithfully insist
while watching sink the heavy ship of everything we knew
if ever you come near i’ll hold up high a mirror
Lord, i could never show you anything as beautiful as You
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the view from today | autumn dusk

“october was a beautiful month at green gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in the aftermaths. anne reveled in the world of color about her…. ‘i’m so glad i live in a world where there are octobers. it would be terrible if we just skipped from september to november, wouldn’t it?…'” — l.m. montgomery, anne of green gables

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snapshots of summer

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we were away from home that day, somewhere out in the city, and got caught in the rain — the glorious kind of chilly downpour that catches one unexpectedly in the summer. when we returned we changed out of our wet things and gathered in the kitchen, just the three of us, as i recall, for chai and conversation sitting cross-legged on the countertops. i have no idea what we talked about, but i remember the spice, and the warmth, and the comfort of being safe and dry in good company. it was all i-don’t-know-how-long ago, yet that one vivid remembrance has come to mind every summer rain since, and sometimes, when dusk whispers coolly against my arms, i don a cocoon of a sweater and fix myself a mug of spicy tea.

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what did i do last summer? apparently there were weddings and races and parties and concerts … and tomatoes. apparently i wrote stories and made shortbread. i remember i learned to love solitary walks around the park and the neighborhood … the feeling of moving along only at the pace allowed by my short legs and unhurried soul. i stared at trees. i played cards with friends and laughed and laughed and laughed. i sat in a coffee shop and wrote in a little black notebook. i spent a lot of time chasing a mood, a certain kind of light, a place thousands of miles away where i had been but definitely wasn’t anymore. i read great books about good women, though they were mostly fiction.

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this summer has been parties and weddings and cheesecakes and heartache and joy and being friends with small humans and sobbing and hugging and being strong and weak and stretched and learning how to die so i can live the kind of life worth living. it’s a beautiful-horrible-beautiful world and sometimes it makes me so angry i think i will explode (or implode) … yet then there are those gracious glimpses of the glory to come, and i’m reminded that someone much, much bigger, better and wiser than me is in control of all things and is working all this craziness together toward something beyond my ability to imagine. and that it is good.

then i put my hand on my heart, to keep it from flying out of my chest, and breathe.

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