The Sacrament of Choice

During a ten day silent retreat on the outskirts of Nairobi, a Jesuit priest stood before our group of retreatants — a community linked by silence and prayer, the communion of shared meals, the mundane kindness of a passed pitcher, a proffered mug, a quiet smile, and the holy mystery that is the Eucharist — and told us that to be human is to choose. To choose, and to accept the consequences of one’s choice.

It was the day of the feast of St. Ignatius (the man who founded the Jesuits upon principles of discernment), and four months later the priest’s words still echo in my heart and mind: to be human is to choose.

We live in an age ripe with decision fatigue. Where many of our foreparents were expected to live the lives set for them — by circumstance, by parental authority, by God — we are expected to choose our own. To forge our own paths: what to study; where to work; who to marry; where to live; when, and if, to have children; where, and if, to worship. Few of us have either the restrictions, or the comfort, of the seemingly ordained.

Yet I have chased that sense of destiny across continents, longing for a sense of calling that would put doubt to rest. Wanting to relinquish control (and responsibility) with the cry, “It wasn’t me, it was God.” Not my choice, not my fault, not mine, not mine.

I’ve never liked the weight of control. The responsibility of driving a car that could cause injury. The possibility of starting something only to see it go wrong. The culpability of saying “yes” and risking someone else’s heart. I’d rather be a passenger, called to the holy work of submission. Of finding contentment in the midst of a life handed to me, rather than forged through my own action and choice (with all the potential for getting it wrong).

And certainly we are called to that holy work: for we are not, will never be, truly in control. And there is great freedom to be found in accepting, and embracing, that fact. As Emily P. Freeman writes in her book Simply Tuesday, “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This day belongs to the Lord. And he has set out craft paper and Play-Doh. . . . He invites me to come sit at his table and pull up a chair made for small legs. He invites me to surrender myself to his agenda and trust that he intends good things” (134).

But the call of God is complicated and paradoxical. And even a child, invited into a preschool playroom, must choose where to start, where to focus, what to do. (Children, however, seem to lack the fear that paralyzes — trusting all choices as good, they inhabit the fullness of their moment without mourning the loss of what they did not choose. If only I, too, could embody such trust and fearless embrace!)

Perhaps I take choice too seriously. Rather than seeing it as an invitation to playful encounter, a way to explore the world God has placed before my feet (trusting always in his presence to comfort me in the bumps and bruises attained along the way), I dread choice because I recognize too much room for error. Certain choices preclude others, and how can I choose the best, when I know myself short-sighted, lacking in wisdom, ignorant of the future, blind to variables? When I know, in short, that I am not God?

Yet perhaps that is the point. That knowledge — recognition — of my limitations. That moving forward in a fear and trembling that is nothing if not faith.

I’ve been reflecting recently on grace. On what exactly it is (and isn’t). Within protestant traditions, we have a tendency to think about grace in the widest possible way: an unmerited gift. And don’t get me wrong, I love that definition. The breath in my lungs is grace, as is the strength to get out of bed this morning; the colors of last night’s sunset; my nephew’s smile when I walked into the room. I have done nothing to earn any of this, and the more I recognize the gift inherent in the details of my life, the more my soul is set free to worship. To exist in a state of wonder and awe not unlike that of which Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Mindful“:

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.

Yet that is only one definition of grace. The more specific one (what Catholics usually mean when they refer to it) is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”

The significance of this difference, in my mind, is that it helps us recognize — with gratitude — that which does not manifest as obviously as “gift.” Under this definition, much is grace that is also painful, difficult, and heartbreaking. As Cowper declares in his hymn,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

In fact, if the great human rebellion lies in determining to be God — to exist in ourselves and for ourselves, immutable, self-sufficient, and in control — then grace is precisely that which awakens us to our limitations. That which reminds us that we can’t, in fact, do it alone. That we are not — cannot be, will never be — God.

Choice, then, is not simply an oft-dreaded, ever-present, and inconvenient reality of my 21st-century life. It — like marriage (that joyous and painful winnowing ground) and singleness (a furnace all its own) — is a sacrament: an external reality through which grace enters the mundane, sacred details of our everyday lives.

My brother and I have discussed this subject often this fall, as we’ve walked through the fields around Santa Cruz or driven the hours to L.A. and back. Regardless of one’s best intentions, it seems transition cannot help but raise questions about the future. About all the unknown paths and the choices that must be made between them. As I’ve fielded questions (my own and others’) about those choices, my brother has been there to remind me that, while I might theoretically prefer a world in which the future was set and all I had to do was face it with humility and love, that is not my calling — is not the life I was born to.

My calling (the life I must strive to submit myself to) is this messy reality of choice. This is the sacrament I must accept with open hands. The tabernacle in which I am invited to meet with God.

The church calendar begins anew in two weeks (with the first Sunday in Advent). As we go forward into this new year, readying our hearts once more for Christ, may we face our choices with the courage, faith, and awe that Mary demonstrated in accepting her own sacraments — a pregnancy and marriage not of her own choosing. May we know the truth of Christmas in the deepest places of our being: we are human, we are frail, we are limited, but Christ is with us; we are not alone.

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22 January 2018

Not so much a poem as a prayer. Not so much a prayer as a whispered thanks. Inspired by Reid Carpenter’s “9 October 2017.”

I started today with a strip of sun against a dark sky.

I started with the sound of thudding feet, the tingle-cold of a Kenyan dawn, the huffing breath of a mile run.

I started with a cat in my kitchen, languidly bumping its nose against my leg, submitting to a pat, a scratch, a pet — always hopeful for a tasty snack.

I started with matcha and overnight oats, filled to bursting with chia seeds, toasted coconut flakes, slivers of almonds.

I started with the words of Paul and Nouwen and the misty morning light, snuggled beneath a blue shuka on a large porch.

I started with my nephew cooing from the confines of a small screen, his smile sudden and bright and too beautiful to bear.

I started the day with grace. May I walk forward in that promise.

Five Manifestations of Joy

Yes, yes, I’m aware that it’s December. And yes, I am aware I haven’t written since the spring.

There have been some significant life developments since then: For one, I went skydiving. For another, I turned thirty. I also ran a half marathon, spent a week in silence at a Jesuit retreat center, took my first art class since the 8th grade, and decided not to renew my contract. Oh, and I got a tattoo.

So yeah, some changes in the air.

I hope to revisit some (many?) of those topics in the future, but this post isn’t about any of that. Instead, it’s about November, and giving thanks, and the places in my life where I am finding joy (ordinary, beautiful, life-sustaining) at this particular moment in time. So here are five snapshots of my life right now.

1. NaNoWriMo

I spent most of November writing. Or, if not writing, thinking about writing.

Some of you may be aware that November is National Novel Writing Month. When one falls off the writing-wagon, there’s nothing quite like this particular challenge to whip one back into shape. I spent October trying to warm up for the endeavor, following a former professor’s advice to write at least 250 words a day. Even that felt like a challenge (though there was some unexpected poetry to show for it).

I have to admit that while I have won NaNoWriMo on my own (the year I spent in the U.K.’s Lake District), I have only undertaken the challenge, while teaching, as part of a co-writing endeavor with one of my close friends. This November was our third such undertaking, and our third successful completion. While sharing the burden may sound like a cop-out, and is certainly less impressive than writing 50,000 words individually, if you think writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day, while teaching full time, is easy, then I invite you to try it.

The discipline of daily writing is alternatively exhilarating and mind-numbingly frustrating (not to mention exhausting), but also consistently satisfying. And I’m reminded, whenever I undertake it, that stringing words together into sentences and paragraphs seems (even now) to be a central part of who I am. Of what brings me to life and gives me joy. I still don’t know if I really have anything to say — any words of beauty or truth to lighten the darkness or bless others on their way. But exploring the possibilities of language and story certainly lightens my darkness and blesses me on my journey, and, for now, that will need to be enough.

2. Climbing

I think fall 2017 may always be associated in my mind with the discovery of rock climbing.

I’ve had a free membership to a climbing gym, here in Nairobi, for the past two years, and always meant to give it a try. Realizing I was leaving at the end of the year finally forced me into action. I have several friends who climb regularly, so I started inviting myself along, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s been life-transforming.

I have a long history of struggling with stress and anxiety, and learning to care for my mental health has become a top priority these past few years. Exercise is, of course, an important (and effective) way to combat stress, which was a significant motivation for becoming more serious about my running last year. However, as an over-thinker, running still leaves quite a lot of room for mental noise, and quieting my mind is a consistent battle (one I rarely win).

Climbing, however, leaves no room for noise: it requires my complete presence, both physical and mental, on the climbing wall. (Looking back, I wonder if this is one reason ballet played so significant a role during my teenage years and why I was willing to give up sleep to row while I was at Oxford.) Climbing is exercise, but it is also meditation. And since I go with friends, and one has to rest between routes, it also provides room for community.

Needless to say, I am loving it.

3. Community

I grew up in a family that deeply valued community. I shared my room, off and on, with young women who lived with us for months or years at a time, and my parents modeled what it meant to share life with others — to work, minister, and play together, to rejoice and mourn, learn and grow.

Community is probably one of my deepest longings and highest values — and one of the central reasons I find teaching so difficult.  As a single adult (now in my thirties), community is not forced upon me by the demands of family, rather I have to seek it out, cultivate it, choose it. And this takes effort and time (not to mention energy) — all of which teaching leaves me little by way of reserves. Learning how to cultivate balance — how to leave room for life, and not just work — has been another ongoing battle, and while I’ll never claim to have mastered the struggle (in fact, my choice to move away from teaching next year is due — in large part — to not having mastered the struggle), this has been a year of growing in my sense of belonging. Of knowing and being known. Mostly due to my awesome Bible study group and Netflix’s Stranger Things. (If you want to know how Stranger Things can help cultivate community, I suggest you make some food, get some drinks, light some candles, and invite over some friends to watch the show. Repeat the process once or twice a week until you’ve successfully consumed both seasons in each other’s company.)

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My lovely Bible study ladies at Sunbird Lodge on Lake Elementaita.

4. Students

I struggled intensely last fall over the decision of whether or not to renew my contract for another two years. I finally compromised by negotiating a one year contract, and if this year has done anything, it has confirmed, over and over and over again, that I am meant to be here, at this time, for these students.

Students who brighten my life, every day, in a million tangible and intangible ways. And sometimes bring me poems, just because.

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5. Magnus Joy

This, right here, is my nephew, born November 21st. Need I say more?

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In Praise of Sleep

So, I have a confession to make.  I am a perfectionist, and it is a disease.  One of its many symptoms?  The trail of accumulating posts in my drafts folder.  I don’t know why I never posted this, back when I wrote it (Thursday, Nov. 12th).  Clearly, at the time, I did not think it qualified as “finished” or “good enough.”  And probably it doesn’t.  

After all, all writing, like all living, is ultimately process rather than product.

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Sleep is a daily reminder from God that we are not God. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). But Israel will. For we are not God. . . . Sleep is a parable that God is God and we are [human]. God handles the world quite nicely while a hemisphere sleeps. Sleep is like a broken record that comes around with the same message every day: [Humanity] is not sovereign. [Humanity] is not sovereign. [Humanity] is not sovereign. Don’t let the lesson be lost on you. God wants to be trusted as the great worker who never tires and never sleeps. He is not nearly so impressed with our late nights and early mornings as he is with the peaceful trust that casts all anxieties on him and sleeps.

-John Piper

A few weeks ago, I asked my AP Lang students to begin the day by reflecting on part of the above passage.  I asked them to write about the challenges in their life that were currently reminding them that they are not God.  I asked them to consider how those challenges — how that reminder — might be a blessing, even if a painful one.

Today that challenge was turned on me.

I spent the morning at a ladies brunch organized by the church I attend.  And the topic was cultivating a thankful heart.  Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts — which spoke to me so powerfully when I read it several years ago — was repeatedly referenced, and the message was powerful and simple and convicting and familiar all at once.

I have long advocated (to myself, mostly) a life of gratefulness — a life lived fully alive — fully aware, and awake, to the beauty that surrounds us.  To the presence of God in the Other and in the world at large.  As G.K. Chesteron declares: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”  I have long wanted to exist — to live — inside of that wonder.

But finding things, in all situations, that I am thankful for, is not quite the same as being thankful for all things, or for all situations.  Enjoying the beauty of the flaming bougainvillea outside my window does not keep me from grumbling about my daily grading, or my distance from family, or my loneliness, or my singleness, or my migraines — or whatever else I happen to be discontent with on this particular morning.  And when the bougainvillea starts to fade, becoming no more than a wall of dusty green (as is the case at this moment), what then am I left with?

I feel that God is challenging me — as I tried to challenge my students — to find his presence, not on the periphery of the struggle, of the pain, of the heartache, of the weakness, but within it.  As Voskamp states (and as I have quoted elsewhere), “I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.”

Not on the edges, but within.  The costly thanksgiving.  The thanksgiving that is repentance and surrender and submission — that is a prayer of “your kingdom come, your will be done.”  Not my way, not my dreams, not my best, but yours.

And as we were reminded today, God’s kingdom coming is, in its very nature, disruptive.  I am currently reading Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, and her story, if nothing else, reminds one that conversion is always “arduous and transformative.”  The paradox of the Christian faith has always been that one must die to live.

And truth be told, I am trying not to die.  I have always been trying not to die.  To hold on to my dreams, and my story, and my control, and my mastery.  I am trying to live my life my way.  To fully give in — to give thanks — for singleness, and teaching, and the lessons learned through loneliness and heartache — to embrace the life that God has given me, in this moment, as it is — to do so it to truly give my life over to the one who created it to do with as God pleases.

I remember, as a child, responding to requests to wash dishes, or clean my room, with a grumbling reluctance that was intended to communicate, “I will do what you ask (because I must), but I want you to know that I resent your authority over me.”  To respond cheerfully (without complaining or arguing) was to relinquish some imagined right of resistance.

And, like George MacDonald’s Lilith — with her clenched fist — I am still clinging to that right.  That right to say, “No, this is not what I want,” when the path of joy is there before me.  Requiring only that I give thanks.  That I say, “Yes.” That I allow myself to fall into the arms that wait to catch me.  Into the story that has been prepared.  Into this day, and this one.  That I accept each and every breath, every task, as gift.  As possibility.

The path to life is not complicated: all we need do (once more in MacDonald’s imagery) is accept the bed prepared for us.  Accept the sleep that reminds us we are not God.  Lie down, rest, and relinquish our burdens.  Salvation is not, I think, so much a doing, as a ceasing.  An accepting of what has already been done, and what we could never have done ourselves.  The end of striving, and the beginning of thanks.

Fall in, let go, and live.

It is not complicated, but it is hard.  The way is narrow and the cost is high.  I must choose to be human, and to be satisfied.  Submitted to the One who governs my life.  The One whose ways are good (but also inexplicable and mysterious: higher than mine).

I must choose thanks.

Semester #2

I walked home today in the rain.  Not the soft, misty rain of Oregon and England — places I’ve lived and loved — but the pouring, rushing, rumbling rain of Kenya.  Rain that makes rivers out of roads, and shoes (those things that, in other places in the world, keep one’s feet dry) into jokes.

Like the rain, today rushed by, a rumbling blur of shorted periods and textbook returns, yearbook signings, and an awards ceremony that stretched into the afternoon.  And it felt, almost, like a culmination.  Like the first day of summer.  For though we come back next week for finals, it finally feels like the break is taste-able — touchable — here.

cozy 002So as I watch the rain, and prepare to cuddle up for the evening with blankets and tea and a hot water bottle, here is a post I wrote last weekend, reflecting on the end.  An end which isn’t so much an end, but a beginning.  A continuation.  Summer, and the year that follows.  How strange to be staying in one place . . .

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The school year is winding down, and it is easy to measure in nots — what I have not done, not accomplished, not achieved.  My failures are apparent in a semester’s worth of non-existent blog posts, journal entries unwritten, stories untold.  Mornings spent sleeping, not reading.  Evenings spent neither running nor in my garden with my tea.

For whatever reason, I’ve lost the plot this semester.  Hunkered down into a state of survival that is far different from the lived life I long for.  It’s hard to articulate what triggered the general fog of these months.  The complacency and apathy and lethargy (all words I wish I could expel from my vocabulary and my life).

But I generally find that it is easy to see blank space.  What is harder is seeing what is actually there.  Not missing, but present.

So here are some of the things that I did do this semester.

I survived.  It’s a little early for fireworks, but I’m down to my last projects to grade, journals to read, finals to write.  This time two weeks from now [Sun. May 17], I’ll be two days into summer — on a plane, heading off to family and graduations and weddings.

I thrived.  No, not in all the ways I wish I had.  Far too much TV for company.  Far too little creation and productivity.  But this may be the first time that after a full year of teaching I’m not done — not ready to throw in the towel, to escape, to run as far as I can without plans to ever come back.  For the first time, wrapping up the school year, I can already admit what it usually takes me months and hindsight to articulate: I sometimes really love this job.

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Ol Pejeta: Photo Credit Lindsey Lane

I camped.  Ah, Kenya: the zebra; the lions; the rhino.  What a gift to live in this place.  To explore it.  To have friends with 4-wheel drives (and tents!).  To have elephants wander through, barely 100 yards from one’s campfire.  Ol Pejeta.  Tsavo West.  Names from adventure books (and horror movies about man-eating lions).  And I’ve been there.

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Kitengela Glass Factory

I traveled.  Slowly, slowly, this country is taking shape around me: the Kenyan coast (Watamu; Malindi); the Kitengela glass factory; Eldoret; Kitale.  No longer just names, but real places.  Places on a map, places in my memory.  I’m beginning to see, to know, this country.  One small piece at a time.

I read.  Books about Kenya.  Books about America.  Books about childhood.  About discovery.  Imagination.  Even books about poetry (which I WILL finish . . . eventually).  When my re-reads are factored in, I’ve averaged about a book a week — not bad for full-time teaching.

I cooked.  Not as much as I might have wanted to, but I’ve still created recipes all my own, discovered the recipes of others, and grown just a little more confident in my ability to create in this magical, mysterious, and (for some reason) terrifying way.  I’ve found that when I have the time and space, cooking in the evenings, with the an audiobook for company, can be restful and restorative.  And I’ve even fed a few people along the way (though not many).

I wrote.  Not much.  Barely any.  But some.  There are words on the page that didn’t exist before this semester.  Worlds, even.  And a little is more than none.

I spoke.  In front of people.  In front of a lot of people.  About God’s process of stripping me bare.  Of setting me free of the things in my life I define myself through.  Find my identity in.  My worth.  Revealing the depth and breadth of a love that requires nothing of me. The grace that engulfs me even when all I am is just a ‘stupid kid.’

I taught.  Seventy-four days (give or take), 300 periods (give or take), 18,800 minutes . . . and counting.  And I’ve loved some (many?) of those moments.  There is much that I wanted from this semester that I do not have.  But one thing I do have is my students — courageous, tenacious, creative, and so, so beautiful.  I didn’t expect to enjoy them (be blessed by them) quite this much.

And yes, I want more.  I want to press in deeper.  Because true contentment requires a prerequisite of wakefulness, and this semester I have often been asleep.  Often wanted to be asleep.  And I hope never to be satisfied with my own complacency.  But I am, nevertheless, thankful for what I have had — what I have experienced.  And for the grace that covers the rest.

I am ready for a break.

Twenty-Six Expressions Of Thankfulness

I finally (after much rigmarole) regained access to this blog.  So I’m transferring this post from Dreaming Spires, where I posted it on August 7th.
I am 27 today, kicking off a new year, and a new adventure, here in Kenya.

I would love to have some words of wisdom to offer, ala my friend Koh, about moving into one’s “late” twenties, and all that jazz, but all I really have is a list of things I’m thankful for from the spectacular year that was 26 (spectacular because, well, every year is spectacular, isn’t it, if we really stop to notice?):
1. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing with the sibs, on (or about) my birthday.
2. A mini Tardis, which served as a good omen, linking my year of Doctor Who in the UK, with Karise, to my year of Doctor Who in Corvallis, with Marisa.
3. Blackberry walks.
4. Blueberry picking.

5.Trading a year of accomplishments in walking for a year of accomplishments in driving (the first time I was ever in a car alone was trying out my new commute from Corvallis to Newberg, and I made it =)).
6. A year of Corvallis to Newberg (and back) commuting. With the fields and the hills and the sky, alone with my thoughts and so many wondrous audiobooks.
7. The incredible opportunity of spending a year teaching at Fox. A bucket-list dream realized, and an experience that provided so many challenges and allowed room for so much growth.
8. Getting to co-teach with the spectacular Melanie Springer Mock.
9. Conversations with wise, wonderful people: Howard Macy, Rick Muthiah, Kathy Heininge, and Roget Newell, to name a few.
10. The protection of God and Mr. Toad during my scary car crash, in January.
11. Conversations and sleepovers and movies; Thai food and espresso; creating new memories, and celebrating the old; processing through who we are, and how we’ve changed, and what dreams still drive us — all in the presence of the ever-fabulous Kohleun (once an FLP, always an FLP?).
12. My students, who challenged me in their writing, and in their discussions, and came to see me during office hours, and let me catch, even a glimpse, of the great beauty and light inside them. The many who met me halfway, and more than halfway, and blessed me with their friendship, their questions, and their gratitude.
13. A chance to read Faulkner and O’Connor in the company of Bill Jolliff and his wisdom and his class.
14. Theatre, even if only to watch, and not to participate: In the Family of Things, The House of Bernarda Alba, Parade, The Lion in Winter, and The Game’s Afoot.
15. A year of reconnecting with dear friends (in Newberg, and in San Diego, and while roadtripping): Alicia, and Tammi, and Megan, and Michael, and Ruth, and Mariam, and Elspeth . . .

16. Time with family, at Thanksgiving (in Corvallis), and Christmas (in Bethlehem), and Brendan’s graduation (New London and the Caribbean =)).

17. The World Cup, and all the joys of futbol.

18. Time (always too brief) with extended family. And what an incredible group of incredible people they are.

19. All the ways that God provided financially: Obamacare, and my job at Sunnyside, and parents and siblings who extended grace upon grace.
20. Being able to be a part of Susanna and Zack’s wedding, and celebrate in the company of so many who dearly love them.

21. A friend who challenges me to write, and to seek God, and to serve others. Several days in her (and her grandparents’) beautiful presence.

22. Books that gleam and spark: Art Objects
23. Films that do the same (inspiring conversation and thought): Noah
24. Others with whom to converse and think, and watch anime and Game of Thrones, and be challenged by to live the life one aspires to live.

25. Three beautiful days in the beautiful UK, shared with such beautiful people.

26. The grace and patience of God, which undergirds all things: And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
And one for the coming year:

27. That God has brought me to this place, to this garden, to these friends (both old and new), and leads me on; God’s grace, and strength, sufficient for whatever lies ahead.