The Social Animal

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I want to keep a quiet heart like Elisabeth Elliot did

but

to keep one I have to have one first, I gather.

It’s not easy.

(I add to the noise in the world, sometimes,

while wishing I hadn’t.

And sometimes I just soak in the static because

Breaking!

You won’t believe it!

Outrageous!

Fools!

Idiots!

Look over here!

Click, click, click on it.

Oh! and

please, pay

no attention to the Man behind the curtain

unless you mean to buy

something

from him).

 

 

Beauty for Ashes

There is something bizarre about staring at your 39-year-old face in the mirror, the one that’s held up ‘til now (more or less) but is beginning to give up the fight, not all at once, but in little slip-ups under the eyes and near the nose, while also thinking about your dying grandmother. She doesn’t want to die right now, but pancreatic cancer doesn’t care what she wants, and you watch the familiar melt away, one day at a time. She doesn’t pencil in her brows anymore or wear the pixie-cut wig she paid so much for during chemo. That’s how you know where things stand.

You look at your own face and think about how you’ll get even older than you are now, older than this. The fat pads that have already begun their Emperor Penguin march down your face will sink further until they hang like chicken cutlets toward the center of your expression—you’ve seen it on others–and you think about the way you plan to hold them up without plastic surgery, like Natural Woman magazine said: Smile even when you aren’t happy.

But you know you’ll keep being shocked at your reflection until you die because your grandmother is shocked at hers and she’s 81. Only in her case, the fat isn’t resting along her jawline, log-jammed and soft and sweet. It’s gone. And you realize for the first time how very good fat is, how much you love and need it to feel normal.

You start crying, again, because you love her so much and because it’s unacceptable to watch her evaporate like this. You think about the futility of everything, of the hair color you use and the tinted sunscreen, of the 10K you’re trying to run. You hate yourself for wondering if your tears are, even now, speeding up the aging process. You dab your eyes with toilet paper (never tug), and you Google medium coverage CC creams that cost a little more than you can afford. Because you can’t not care, God help you, though none of it matters in the end. You notice your eyes get small when you cry, but are nice enough under makeup, what with your inherited good eyebrows. Like her eyes used to be.

All the hanging on, the self-pity, it’s ashes and dust. You’ll end up there anyway, you think, if you live long enough. People say

Embrace your age,

love it,

it’s only a number,

 beauty is ageless,

you’re only as old as you feel,

beauty is skin-deep,

death is natural,

 circle of life,

she lived to a good age,

she’s leaving behind a legacy of love.

Noise.

You want to see your grandmother again in the New Earth, where everything sad has finally come untrue, and you want her to be thirty and strong and sexy with her tiny waist and red lips and shiny black hair. And you want to run to her and grab her up and swing in circles while you both laugh and she raises one arched eyebrow and says, “Hi, darlin’.”

So you’ve decided you’ll wait ‘til then. You’ll watch your own face melt and keep smiling. You may even accept the process of dying after a while. But you don’t have to like it, you remind your reflection. You don’t. In the meantime, you’ll be happy for her, whose glory will soon be more shocking than you can imagine because she’ll bathe in the light of Jesus and he’ll have made her smile forever.

*I said I wasn’t going to blog anymore–or probably not–or not very much, but here I am, posting this blast of grief because of what’s going on in my life right now. So be it. Sigh*

Further Up, Further In

psx_20160512_125110Recently, I went back and read the first post I ever published on this blog, and it reminded me why I started blogging in the first place. I’d just come back to the U.S. after living in India for three years. I was grieving. I didn’t know how I was supposed to be in this new/old culture. Writing helped me to bear witness to the confusion of repatriation and to the eventual clarity that time and distance gifted me.

After a while, cultural commentary/navel gazing snippets morphed into other kinds of posts, some about homeschooling, some about learning how to be a stay-at-home mom without losing myself completely. And then there were updates about the new global adventures I ended up on, ones I didn’t see coming.

But then I wrote a novel. And another one, and then one after that. I still blogged, but it felt different, like digging in a sandbox without a shovel. This summer I attended an enormous writers conference where I thought, This whole fiction writing thing isn’t beyond my reach after all. And I didn’t blog once.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle,

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…come further up, come further in!”

He gave these words to a noble character named Jewel, and he wasn’t talking about writing, but about Aslan’s Country. Still I resonate with them when I think about writing stories.

Which brings me to this: I’ve been thinking I need to step away from blogging. It’s been enormously helpful for me to write about what bubbled to the surface of my brain these last few years, but now my brain is full of fiction. I won’t delete this space, but it may gather dust. Or, who knows, I may come back to it one day when I need it most. But I suspect I’ll probably just keep writing–and living–stories.

Thanks for reading. It’s meant a lot.

A Better Burden

I’m on my second cup of coffee and it’s well before 7 a.m.  I’ve woken up at 5 without an alarm for the second morning in a row.  This is unusual.  My stomach flirts with the idea of rejecting the scalding black liquid I keep sending down into it because it wants to be asleep like my teenagers are, but I keep on sipping.

Being awake turns out to be what I need.  Now I can think in straight lines.  The breath of the box fan tethers my brain to the real, though, if I’m honest, the real isn’t strictly better than the dreams.

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The world has lost its mind, like I’m sometimes sure I’m losing mine, and this forces me to ponder Things That Matter. Should I have had another baby, I wonder, now that the kids are stretching toward adulthood like the potted ivy on my side table?  (There is nothing like housing a human in one’s core to realign everything).  But there’s the self-destructing world–that giant live coal that blisters our souls as we walk on it.  There’s us.

And that’s when I realize I’ve been tired for a long, long time.

I reach for my coffee mug, but this time my stomach is not playing around.  I need more than caffeine can offer anyway.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” he says to me, to us.

I fill up my lungs, let the air out slow.  I close my rusted eyes and choose to believe Him again.

(This).

A Momentary Love

I hesitated before publishing this very personal vignette about a time in India when I actually did what I felt compelled to do–not because I’m ashamed of it, but because the topic of charity, especially among the poor in a country not one’s own, is fraught with landmines of misunderstanding.

We do what we do largely for ourselves.  Any good we accomplish is often as much for our own well-being as it is for others’, and is never quite enough.  It’s complicated by mixed motives because our souls are marbled with selfishness and self-aggrandizement.

On the other hand, for Christians, loving others is to be the outworking of God’s love for us (1 John 4:19).  It’s that simple, and that difficult to live out.

So I offer the following, not as a pat on my own back, or as an instruction, but as an introvert’s journal entry on the way to love.

*******************************************************

I sit in the coffee shop with my husband and kids and we’re spread out around a clean table, sipping lattes and lemonades. The air conditioning sends luxurious blasts of chilled air down onto us and I feel as if I’ve been wrapped in silk.  Opposite our table stretches a huge window out of which I can see the dusty Indian street we’ve just walked. I let my eyes slide over its endless clots of auto rickshaws, its streams of rainbow-clad humans. Then I see her squatting under the shop’s awning.

At once the still, small voice that compels me whispers His purpose.

Go to her.

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My heart beats hard and fast because I am a coward. Even in India, when offered a hundred grace-soaked chances to do what is right in the face of a thousand wrongs, I quake. I am the one who scrapes up the courage to speak ten seconds after beggars have pushed past me, one who is frustrated by her frozenness.

My children search my face. They aren’t facing the window like I am, and they can’t see the woman who crouches with her two small boys on the ground in front of it. They ask me why I look sad. I tell them that God has moved me, that I’ve determined I will obey him this time, that my heart is beating so hard it hurts. They turn in their chairs to look outside.

Before I can talk myself out of going out into the wretched heat to speak to a woman I don’t know, in a language in which I stammer, I shove my chair out from behind me and stand up. I walk out of the shop, and as I do I feel the eyes of the beautiful, shiny-haired Indians who have money to pay for lattes boring into my back.

The air outside is difficult to breathe. It’s dense with the fumes of diesel fuel, fried foods, and dank streams of liquid waste. I am instantly damp with sweat. I kneel before the woman. She stares at me with yellow eyes and an open mouth. I drag a quick breath through burning nostrils, praying in the back of my mind, and I say,

How are you, sister? in Hindi.

The woman sizes me up for a moment, then answers me with a thick accent I do not recognize. She tells me that life is hard with no husband. She is alone, from Bihar, she says, and has these two boys. She begs only because she has to. Even so, and she looks me in the eye when she says this last part, people are not kind.

As the woman speaks I realize that can understand her and I feel a kind of euphoria spread over me, though her words are hopeless. At the same time I notice that she is not sweating, even under this angry sun. I rest a hand on her desiccated arm.

Two shopkeepers have come out on their front stoops to watch us. I am aware that I’m facing the coffee shop window and that my children and the patrons are staring at me as if I’m acting in some strange silent film.

I tell the woman that Jesus loves her. That he sees her and her sons. I say this in childish Hindi. She nods and sways but I can’t be sure she has any idea what I’m talking about, and I beg God to fill in the terrible chasms I’ve already left in his Story. I hand her a bottle of water and she takes it, smiling. I am ashamed at how insignificant it is.

I ask her if I can pray for her and she nods again, but I don’t know the right words. I shift and hear my knees pop. I decide to pray in English.

Dear God, please. Please. Because of Jesus. Because you love her and her boys. Amen.

I’m crying now and can’t think of anything else to say.

I open my eyes and hand her a wad of rupees. She takes it cautiously, with the gentleness of a lady, and it makes me want to give her everything I have. But I’ve caused a scene and I have to go now. I stand up and clasp her hand. It’s rough and old, though she is still young enough to bear children. I offer a wobbly smile and walk back into the coffee shop.

I can feel a shift as I sit down at my table. Only God knows what he plans to write in her difficult story. All I know is that, this time, I was a little bit faithful. And I’m not the same.

The Most Typical Time of the Year

It’s almost Christmas.  Yesterday I sat down with the kids and told them how this week will unfold if everything goes the way I suspect it will– that there will be fun but also boredom; sweet moments but also snippy responses from siblings and parents with cabin fever; excitement but also hints of the blues, maybe.  I reminded them that Christmas morning will come with presents under the tree, but also visits to two separate nursing homes, where my grandparents wait out the ends of their lives without knowing what day it is.

I wanted my kids to be prepared for the everydayness of this week–the truth that, even with the sparkle of the season, there’s going to be plodding and flashes of frustration.  Even in the happiness, there might be secret (or not-so-secret) undercurrents of grief and insecurity, as there are for so many of us.  I wanted them to understand, when they’re slightly let down after ripping the last package open, that having mixed feelings about all of it is OK.

Because I feel that way, too.  And so do most people I talk to about this season of high expectations.  It’s only when we accept that joy will steal up on us while we’re not expecting it, that it will be interspersed with normal–even banal–things like loading the dishwasher, standing in the doorway of a hospital room, or serving cookies to someone who can’t quite chew them the way she used to, that we are set free to celebrate the baby who was born in a drafty barn on an ordinary night.

*For another take on helping kids set reasonable expectations of the season, see this.*

Making It Home

So much happened in the world while I was away from my family last week.  I tried not to see or read about all the death piling up on various continents because I felt naked and small without the comfort of my children’s faces in my Paraguayan hotel room.

But I knew.

I’m home now and I’m sad and grateful.  Sad that so many will never hold their children again in this life and grateful that today I am holding mine.

Life is short and I’m choosing to be thankful for what is in front of me for as long as I have today.

It’s possible (normal?) to be both sad and thankful, I’m finding out.  Maybe the sadness makes the thanksgiving realer, somehow.  All I know is, I still have Hope.  And that He is good even when life is devastating.