faith, Life

Introductions

I had lunch with a friend yesterday on top of a clock tower overlooking the campus where we both work. We stretched out at an iron picnic table, taking in the sun and the sound of the sprinklers spritzing the grass down below. The conversation felt contradictory to our surroundings, as if we were taken out of a dark, rainy room and plopped into the perfect summer day. Our words were measured and contemplative. My friend said she didn’t know what her ideal self looked like anymore, and I confessed that there are so many versions of the person I want to be it’s hard to decide which one to give the most attention. They all float around inside me and receive a somewhat-equal amount of attention in my real life. Let me introduce you to them.

There is Lori the minimalist, who only wears neutrals and uses a very high-quality bamboo toothbrush and has a single, abstract piece of artwork on one wall in her bare loft. Then there is Hippie Lori, the activist. The one who recycles and crafts beautiful, colorful meals from the community garden outside her chaotic but neat tiny home and doesn’t straighten her hair or wear anything but thrifted, flowy clothing. That one is very similar to Lori the Missionary, who probably eats meat at times so as not to break the rules of hospitality, but she certainly doesn’t straighten her hair. She reads her Bible all the time and never tires of talking about Christ. Then there is Writer Lori, in her quaint townhouse with the lamps and walls of bookshelves and an ever-boiling tea kettle (color scheme: burgundy and speckled mint). I suppose I should mention Patagonia Lori, too. She’s through-hiked the AT. Twice.

They overlap in places such as faith and health, but the differences are enough to make them unique selves. I used to debate the idea that we could choose who we want to be. I argued that we are who we are, and no matter how much molding we do, we’ll always bounce back to our essential form. But perhaps our dreams of who we want to be speak to who we are more than I’ve credited in the past. My thoughts now wander to whether or not it’s harmful to try to blend all those selves into one super-self, or if it’s best to choose just one to pursue.

Could you introduce me to your selves?

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Life

Write Your Pain (And Your Joy, And Your Mundanity)

Mitchell has always been one to include me in various writing projects. There was the summer that we texted each other a prompt and then mailed the finished product, expecting the other to mail back their comments. Another summer (or the same summer. I can’t remember), we created a reading list of plays that we intended to get through by deadlines we set for ourselves, heeding the words of our writing professors (and Stephen King) by reading good things in order to write good things. On one occasion, we went to a local hotel lobby to sneak the coffee and write poetry with endless catches. This time you have to write a poem about an object without saying what the object is. Now, take the last line of your first poem and make it the title of your next poem. We filled notebook pages that night, writing vertically as well as horizontally, cramming poems in the corners of our pages, making our fonts progressively smaller to get it all in–not in the name of being green, but in the name of Romanticism, of being capital-w Writers. A more recent venture–as in a couple of years ago, at most–centered around writing in a state of sleep depravity. The goal was to stay awake as long as we could until we became delusional or enlightened or whatever, and then we’d begin writing and see what brilliant things came from our insomnia. We never saw that project come to fruition, or at least I didn’t. I’m pretty sure Mitchell does this on a regular basis. It’s funny what states we find ourselves contorting into when we want to produce good, creative content. Or, rather, what states we find ourselves settling into.

I heard an interview on NPR a few months ago about author, Leslie Jamison’s, fear of how her writing might suffer if she gave up drinking. Addiction, she learned, made her writing great. I listened to the main portion of the interview stuck at a red light, so I had plenty of time and space to internalize the subject, one I had thought about in less fleshed-out ways prior to listening. I’ve never been an addict of any of the “mainstream” addictions, but I do believe that in the saddest eras of my life I have settled into the sadness a bit longer, sunk into the dark place a bit more than was necessary. Whether I acknowledged it or not, I found ignorant sentiment in them.

I revisited the interview recently as I’m think about writing and what sort of stories I can carve out of an addictionless past. In trying to do so, this excerpt is particularly poignant to me:

JAMISON: I think that the ways in which people have made beautiful art from suffering, from pain – those connections are absolutely real. But I think it’s the idea that pain and torment have, like, a monopoly on what art can be. I think that’s where the delusion lies and that – I think sometimes it’s a lot harder to write the compelling stories about happiness or about getting better about positive states of feeling, about what it feels like to just wake up every morning and show up for your life, like, show up for work, show up for your relationships.

And that was kind of the aesthetic gauntlet that I wanted to throw down for myself in this book. Like, could I write a book where the story of recovery wasn’t just the final chapter that readers kind of, like, flip through thinking, like…

SHAPIRO: Right.

JAMISON: …Oh, I got to get through this recovery part, yeah.

SHAPIRO: It’s not the happily ever after, yeah.

JAMISON: Yeah. I wanted to show that it’s, like, rich and complicated, and getting better is just as interesting as falling apart. You just have to find the story in it.

Perhaps some would find my attraction to that last quote a bit too gushy for their taste. A bit too optimistic. Maybe it’s my faith that makes me love it, but I can’t resist. Leslie Jamison concludes by saying we have to “find the story in it,” and she means all of it. I’ve agreed to stop sitting in the leftover torments of past experiences for the sake of good art. I’ve also agreed to not be lazy when writing (or painting or singing or dancing etc.) about my ordinary days. Art that comes out of darkness is just as beautiful as art that recognizes the magnitude of this fine life in its seemingly duller moments. Life is rich and complicated, and it’s all interesting. It’s all miraculous.

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faith

An Altered Prayer

I drove to the high place behind the railroad tracks last night, situated just behind the big factory whose sign looms over the parking lot of our apartment complex. I couldn’t see the sign from where I was parked, up on the hill behind the plant. I could see a few stars, though, an empty pick-up truck, the place where Mitch slipped my engagement ring on my finger clumsily and joyfully. I could see the tip of the clock tower far away, on campus. I could see the differentiation of smoky clouds from pitch sky and the glassy black puddles left over from an all-day, slow rain. It was a dream and wholly tangible at once. I prayed.

This has been a week of the highest highs. I swapped one of the numbers in my age, and nearly all of my most cherished friends were there to celebrate with me. Then, in the same world, there came bad news and bad tempers and holding-things-against-you-even-though-I-vowed-I-wouldn’t. I’ve been in and out of toxic annoyance, looking and feeling like a vial of poison that I can’t get close enough to screw the lid on straight.

Both of the C.S. Lewis books I’ve read have been gifted or loaned from friends, Til We Have Faces and Mere Christianity, Miranda and Veronica, respectively. Mere Christianity. The implication of the title underscored by a line written on the cover just beneath: “What one must believe to be a Christian.” I finished the book this week, finished this book in the same world that I existed so unlike Christ. What an odd reality this one is for me.

My emotions take me by surprise. I can’t beat them. My chest hurts when I join the hard ones. They’re sticky and feel mostly permanent, like cement. Scraping them off just leaves a bunch of hardened residue, and I ache.

There is this one part of Mere Christianity that I underlined over and over with my pen.

If there are rats in your cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rates: it only prevents them from hiding.

I’m a good person, but–more to the point–I’m really not. I have so many rats in my cellar that I forget they’re there until weeks like this when my hormones are acting a certain way or someone says something that stirs me just so. Frustration breeds anger breeds frustration at being angry. O, the woeful, unrelenting cycle. I frequent it.

“I try so hard,” I said to Mitch. It didn’t feel true. So I said it to myself, multiple times in different ways. “I try so hard.” It felt even less true than before. So I went to the high place behind the railroad tracks, the one situated just behind that looming factory. My car idled and I cried. I said it to God. “I try so hard.” And it didn’t feel totally false that time. It just felt peripheral. And then I knew what to pray instead.

“God help me.” And he does. He always has.

 

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Speed-Dating Questions

Lengthy Answers to Speed-Dating Questions: Cat Person or Dog Person?

Some time during the span of my Elementary career, my family gained sort of a reputation for having lots of cats. The reputation was merited, of course; we had a ton. I’m not sure how the strays found our house where it is still situated on a faded, gravel-paved road surrounded by farming land, but find it they did. I don’t think we ever brought a cat home. They just seemed to be omnipresent, a wave of animals eating out of the dog dish in our back yard.

We had one cat who liked to climb up into the innards of my dad’s truck. One morning my dad started the truck up, not knowing she was there. We aren’t sure what happened to the cat while she was in the underbelly of the truck, but the next time I saw her, half her tail was missing with part of the bleached white bone sticking out at the end. A white flag of surrender.

We also had a pair of cats once that were siblings. One liked to lie down with his paws under his chin and suck on his toes. The sister would clean him constantly. I’m not sure what their dynamic was, but we had to stop letting him in the house because he drooled when we petted him. Cats are weird.

When our weird, stray cats would inbreed–which they did do, often and to our dismay–we would take the litters in cardboard boxes full of old towels and stained tupperware containers (the ones we couldn’t find lids to) full of water and food to the elementary school to give away. My aunt worked in the copy room there, and she’d send out emails to let the teachers know there were free kittens. In the days leading up to Give Away Day, I’d pick a favorite of the litter. It was usually the smallest, shyest cat. Unwittingly, I think I would imagine a whole personality for the kitten, so that by the time they were at my school and being picked over to be taken to new homes, I was extremely sad. No one knew Patches/Socks/Leah/May like I did. They didn’t deserve him/her. My self-righteous, kitten-loving objections never made it past my mom’s consistent logic: “As soon as it’s a few months old, you’ll be over the thing.”

There are only three cats at the home I grew up in now. They stay outside, like they always have. Max, Leo, and Mr. Beans. They tend to do their own thing, and Mama lets them in the house sometimes, particularly when it’s cold. I have a cat now, too, at my new home. Her name is Koa. She’s a calico, fourteen and diabetic, and she has a thousand different personalities that Mitchell and I make up different voices for (whoever isn’t talking for her is obviously participating in the dialogue with her). Sometimes she’s a little boy begging for food. Other times she’s an eighty-year-old chain-smoker with an attitude problem. She surprises us.

I’ve been getting really frustrated lately because, probably due to her diabetes, she’s been urinating on the couch. The stress this causes me is unreal. She doesn’t do it often, just often enough to make me instantaneously burst into tears whenever I notice a wet spot on the couch. Then, I come in with my towels and bottles of enzymatic cleaners or whatever remedies I most recently Googled, ready to tackle the smell, so ignorantly hopeful that it won’t happen again, which is why the tears happen every time, maybe. But every time I look at Koa and try to imagine what sort of discipline would help her–a bop on the head, taking her food away, rubbing her nose in it–I lose the nerve. I see her, sitting on the carpet, looking up at me with her sweet yellow eyes, and I think, she’s just a cat. And not only that, we brought her here! She didn’t ask for the somewhat erratic life of a couple of newlyweds who always have their rowdy friends over, in the space she thought was hers. She didn’t ask to be trapped inside a one bedroom apartment inside an old woolen mill all day every day. Who knows what’s going on inside her small, feline brain?

I hope that, one day, scientists discover a way to measure the intellect of cats so that Koa and I can have a genuine conversation about why it’s important that she only use the litter box to deposit her waste. Until then, I clean up her mess, and I pet her.

And sometimes I put my face to hers and baby talk until she gets annoyed and runs away.

***

 

Gunnar is my dog, my family’s dog. He lives five hours away, in my childhood home with Mama and Daddy. He thinks he is forty pounds lighter than he actually is, and he used to make a habit of crawling into my lap when I went home. He smells like dog. He doesn’t really bark. He just kind of…mopes. But in a very kind, old soul sort of way.

I love him, too.

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faith

παρρεσια

Once, at a particularly unhealthy time in my life, a friend told me that I didn’t try very hard. It wasn’t just what he said that was upsetting; it was the way he said it, very matter-of-fact, as if it was a truth of life that had just dawned on him. He furrowed his brow, staring straight through the ground. Then he looked up at me, sort of puzzled. You don’t try very hard. It’s the sort of assessment one doesn’t easily forget.

Sometimes I worry that I don’t tell people what they need to hear. I think I’m a considerate person. Can one be too considerate? I think I am. I don’t mean to credit myself as being uniquely kind. That would be untrue. I only mean that I often find myself skirting around feelings, uttering half-truths or omitting truths altogether in order to keep peace, to ensure my acceptance. And, what’s more, I find myself cringing at and even (passively) rebuking others when they speak blatantly. I’ve wondered recently if this is wrong of me. When my friend told me I wasn’t trying hard in my relationships with others so long ago, it felt as though he’d rammed the pen he always kept in his pocket right through my chest. It immediately resonated, and the pain I felt acknowledging the truth was as immediate and sharp as it would’ve been had he actually pierced me, leaving black ink running down the front of my shirt. But that was just it; it was the truth, and I wasn’t a better friend until it was brought to my attention.

That cliche about the truth hurting is, in itself, mostly true; it certainly doesn’t hurt to hear that someone you admire loves you or that you’re getting a Christmas bonus. Often, the truth is uncomfortable, and not only do I dislike discomfort, I run from it. The more I live, the more that approach seems like such a mistake. The Gospel, in all its truth, is one of the more, if not most, uncomfortable texts I’ve ever read, and I wholly base–or, at least, try to base–my life on it.

The author of the book of Acts prays that the servants of the Lord would speak with παρρεσια or parrhesia. I’ve been thinking of that word for some length of time now. It’s used throughout the Bible to mean the same sort of thing: speaking with boldness, speaking openly, speaking plainly, speaking the truth without reservation or deceit or omission or rhetoric that alters or hides the meaning, speaking it confidently. It is the truth, after all.

While I still hold some of my natural reservations (some rhetoric is nice, right?), I believe that parrhesia is a part of Christian faith that can’t be left out. Mine is a faith which I am commissioned to share with the world, even at the risk of discomfort. Lord, let me be bold.

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Life

They Were There Before, Honest

People are always jawing about tattoos. You should get them or you shouldn’t or once you start you can’t stop. People view them as increasingly cool or sinful. Myself, I’ve gone through phases of wanting and not wanting, a steady admirer of others’ body art but never committed enough to do anything but talk, then take myself to task for just talking later.

I’m looking at my skin now, the skin where a tattoo might some day be. A friend challenged me recently to write about scars. I smiled when she mentioned scars, physical scars, because I remembered my kneecap, the left one, the one that skid across the ground at the little league baseball field where I ran with the other little siblings while my brothers played ball on the shoddy dirt fields. I remembered how the skin peeled back and how red and shiny the flesh was underneath. I remembered how proud I was to be wearing that enormous bandage on my knee, the left one, for the next week or so. I was tough.

When she mentioned scars, I looked at the kneecap that would surely hold a reminder of that experience, and there was nothing there. Just wrinkled knee skin. It looked just like my right knee.

***

I had shingles when I was in middle school. They were jumbled in the left side of my mouth, on my tongue and the soft skin on the inside of my cheek. Then, they spread out onto the skin around my mouth. Just the left side. That’s how my doctor knew even before he ran the test that it was shingles and not herpes simplex, a phrase which made my fifteen-year-old self blush. They were painful, so much so that I sat with my mouth open for the majority of the time I was sick, trying my hardest to keep my own hot breath from making them burn more. Eating was a joke. When the prescription medication finally started working and the blisters started fading, there was one particular patch that proved stubborn. It was right on the corner of my mouth, left side. That patch took forever to heal, and when it finally did, it left a small pock in its place. Its stubborn ghost refusing to move until it’s business was finished. I suppose it finally did. Finish its business, I mean. Sometimes I think I see it still there when I’m wiping foundation onto my face in the morning or rinsing it off at night. But then my eyes focus, and it’s gone.

***

So I have an idea for a tattoo. I’ve been drawing it everywhere recently. On pages in whatever open book happens to be in my lap. My arm. My tiny black notepad that I use for jotting down ideas at church. I’m solidifying the idea, so that when I take the plunge later I’ll be very familiar with it and won’t go through the phase of oh my gosh, what I’ve done, this is so permanent, etc. Except I won’t email the tattoo artist back. She asked when I could come in and I haven’t answered. It’s been weeks.

I think this is normal. Lots of people are timid when it comes to permanent body markings.

***

Where did all my scars go? I think I lost them.

***

I have an idea for a Twilight Zone episode where aging happens in reverse, but not in the sense that the main character returns to infancy. First, her crow’s feet start to disappear. The wrinkles on her face smooth out, but she doesn’t look like a younger version of herself because other distinctive factors start to disappear, too. The freckles that her daddy compared to stars in the night sky when she was a little girl, they leave. She doesn’t even know they’re going and can’t prepare for it at all. Age spots, white scars, pink scars, tan lines. They all fade to a simple, single shade. There aren’t even highlights and shadows to show the definition of the muscle and fat that lies beneath her skin. Her nose blurs into her face, and her ears melt into her head, and eventually she’s just a flesh-colored human shape, like an unfinished dressing mannequin. At this part of the episode, the music–strings, of course–will swell and the camera will zoom in on the faceless face of the eldery woman fading into obscurity. And that’s what will scare the viewers: the thought that all the woman’s little accrued markings and physical uniquenesses that have documented her life–the one she lived for years and years, laughing and gathering memories in her heart that surfaced on her very skin–could disappear in a second. That her worn shell would forget the stories she spent so long telling it.

***

When I get to this stage in the tattoo process, the stage where I decide that I’m not ready, there is always a yet tagged onto the end. I’m not going to get a tattoo yet. I don’t want to have a permanent piece of art on my body yet. For the longest time, I thought it was because I couldn’t commit to a certain drawing or phrase enough to put it on my body. But that doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem right because, no matter how many times I go through this cycle, I always have a deep yearning to be marked. I always want my skin to talk. Perhaps I can’t follow through not because I’m worried about the skin’s ability to hold on, but because I’m worried about its tendency to let go, to send my body’s hard earned stories into oblivion.

Or perhaps it’s the former. Who can say?

 

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Life

Intro to Dialogue

Do you find yourself Googling the time in various countries?

Do you ever feel the need talk to yourself on purpose? Just to hear what your voice sounds like? Because you feel a particular need to hear a voice at a given time?

Have you ever twisted your bare foot around on concrete and noticed the way it made the inside of your stomach feel?

Did you know that bananas are segmented into three virtually equal parts, but it’s hard to tell because most people just squish them when they’re trying to differentiate the parts?

Does time scare you? “Time” meaning ending? “Time” meaning endlessness?

Do you buy popcorn when you go the the theatre? Do you go to the theatre?

Have you ever listened to Cat Stevens while driving with your windows down? Have you ever listened to Bon Iver lying down on cool grass in the middle of the night?

Do you know that there are songs for rainy days and days the sun is shining in summer (different from songs that are for days the sun is shining in winter)? Songs for mourning with a group and alone? Songs for holding hands on a first date and holding hands with the man you married? Songs for holding your friend’s hand? Songs for studying for your exams and songs for writing fiction? Songs for writing poetry? Songs for reading poetry? Do you know that there are songs for going out for your friend’s birthday in early February and that those songs are different from songs for going out for another friend’s birthday in late July? Songs for the night you break up with someone you have loved? Someone you still love? Songs for finding salvation? Do you know that there are songs for everything?

How often do you scream just to be screaming, not because you are particularly angry or excited?

Can you be sure about your heart? About the things you feel in there?

How many people do you know? Can you list one of their great aunts or their most anxiety-inducing fears?

When is the last time you sunk into freshly laundered sheets? Were your dreams lighter?

Can you remember your last nightmare? Was it recurring? Singular? Did you wake to find yourself sobbing?

How much money did you spend today?

Could you introduce me to your nine-year-old self? Could you introduce me to your sixteen-year-old self? Could you introduce me to yourself?

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