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.

Since Then

June was insane.  I finished a draft of my third novel by writing every day for thirty days, no excuses, including weekends (I logged about 40,000 words).  During ten of those days, my husband was singing in California, leaving me to parent our 12, 13, and 14-year-old on my own (read: forage for brightly colored foods like pop ice and cheese and binge-watch old episodes of House while the kids played too many video games when they should have been sleeping).

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(Photo by my son, Ivan)

By the time my husband finally came home in early July my youngest sister and her three kids were already visiting our home to celebrate Independence Day.  Then, suddenly, my grandmother passed away, and my middle sister and her three kids drove thirteen hours to join the rest of us during that hard time.  The last seven days are a smear of lipstick and tears.

And, to quote Sarah Mclachlan, I’m so tired that I can’t sleep.

A few things come to mind: 1). Life happens in contractions.  There’s the normal we get bored of and there’s the pain we resent.  2). We don’t appreciate the respite without the strain in-between, and 3). You can still get a lot of stuff done in chaos, but you’re always glad when you managed to work ahead and can somewhat avoid that I-can’t-feel-my-feet feeling.

And then there’s this.  God is always good, even when life isn’t.

Back and Forth

We said goodbye to our four-year-old nephew today.  We’d kept him for a few days because his parents were out of town.  It’s amazing how much having a little one changes the dynamic in a family.  With two teenagers in the house (and one who’s almost there) things are different for us than they were an eyeblink ago.

These days our lives are marked by large swaths of the predictable.  There’s lots of quiet and a fair bit of angsty journal writing.  But four-year-olds need to yell, to jump straight up in the air, to be reminded to go potty.  They need eye contact and physical touch and snacks.  They need sleep.

As we re-arranged our lives to provide those things for our nephew I realized that my teens need a lot of the same things he does–still, after all this time.  I watched them hunker down and watch kid cartoons with the pre-schooler, wrestle till they were sweating, play hide-and-seek, and evil robots.  I watched them grab books and blankets during the little guy’s nap, giving in to the old relief of a time-out.  I watched them be kids, and also, I saw their rapidly approaching adulthood as they helped meet the needs of someone smaller.  Someone they used to be.

And I remembered:  deep down, we are all four-year-olds.

 

 

The One Percent

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As I type, my daughter lies sleeping next to me.  We’ve been up since 5:00 A.M, stuffed stray shoes in backpacks, filled coffee mugs one last time, because my sister and her kids left to return to their home in VA while our town still slept.  They were with us for over a week, a blessing we didn’t anticipate because we hadn’t counted on the winter storm that painted our city and theirs in clean, thick white.  We couldn’t have been more pleased.

We did a lot in our eight days of togetherness–a little homework, a lot of Netflix watching, video game playing, late night giggling, drawing, even poetry reading.  We took turns cooking our favorite comfort foods and tossing paper plates and napkins into a continually popping fireplace.  We stared at one another’s messy hair and naked eyes and smiled comfortable smiles.

We are rich in family.

I told all six kids that after they’d piled into one room to spend their last night together.  Rich as Croesus.  Not everyone is.  And just like with material wealth, those who live in abundance should seek out those who don’t, in order to bless them in small or big ways.   My prayer is that some of what filled our house this week will spill over into other lives that intersect ours–to pay it forward, somehow.

In the meantime, I’ll keep warm this winter from inside out, my heart stoked with the orange embers of sister love.

The Invisible Tie

My sister is coming to visit tomorrow, and it’s at just the right time.  It’s always at the right time–one I can hardly plan and didn’t know I needed until after she arrives.  Then she parks the van, and the kids tumble out,  and I realize I almost wasn’t making it before but that I didn’t know it.

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And then I feel that jolt, you know the one, when you jerk in bed because you think you’re falling off the edge, and your heart is left racing at something that never happened.

Sometimes my heart races when she and I are sipping coffee in my kitchen because, what if she hadn’t come right when she did?  But then I tell myself it’s just a bad dream. Because she always comes when I need her.

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.

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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.

A Defiant Hope in 2016

We put away our tree yesterday without regret.

Christmas was warm and simple, the way I hoped it would be.  After opening presents, we visited my grandparents in their separate care centers, and both were in high spirits.  The kids played the piano in the rec room for my grandmother, which I think she liked, though a younger man in a wheelchair muttered that we were interrupting his Christmas Sports Center experience.

Often we feel wistful when we put decorations away after Christmas, but not this time.  There was nothing sensational about the season, but it was enough.  We had holy, quiet moments where we reflected on the birth of Jesus, on his life, death, and resurrection, on the salvation that he offers to those who know they need it.  We listened to Christmas music (the kids begged for international renditions as well as electronic remixes this year).  We ate loads of chocolate and spicy sausage.  We opened presents and created hazardous fires with piles of discarded paper.

And now we’re ready for 2016.

Last year was an anxious one for the United States and the world.  We struggled for perspective, finding ourselves caught up in an endless barrage of bad news along with everyone else.  It looks as if the new year will continue to present us with compelling reasons to lose hope.

But we’re ready, and we refuse.

Jesus is both the reason for Christmas and the reason for the hope that is within us.  (Which is not to say he’s the author of some pie-in-the-sky optimism that won’t look properly at the dire straights we’re all in.  On the contrary, his mandate to love others means that as his followers we’ll likely feel and see more sorrow–not less–as we seek to clasp hurting hands wherever we find them.  More sorrow and more reality).

We’re determined to carry on in 2016 without hand-wringing and panic because he promises that he will never leave us, never forsake us, never stop remaking us.  And not just us but, someday, everything.  Until then, we will join him in telling people Good News–news that hurts in the short run but heals in the end. And we will love boldly because we have been loved.

Yep.  We want to face 2016 with defiant, humble gladness, like people who have read the last chapter.  Because we have.  And it’s very good.