Making melodies out of the humdrum.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Blessing Hearts

I'm a fan of Southern culture. Now, if you are a born-and-bred Southerner (I am not), the charm may be less conspicuous to you.  Yet having grown up in a quite lovely, but altogether rough around the edges corner of New England, I will tell you that I like the niceties.  Some Yankees that I know (slash die-haaahhhd Red Sox fans slash avid skiiahhhss slash Hahvaaad grads) are quick to call the friendliness phony.  It very well might be. But, it also might not be. Besides, most days I like warm and friendly people and unless you catch me in some nightmare, I usually am one.  So, to my Down-Easters, I say: "Don't worry, they don't want anything from you."

I'm not even sure that a memoir would do the differences between Waco, Texas and Boxford, Massachusetts adequate justice. Sometimes driving around, I'm obliged to re-articulate to myself how it is again that I ended up here, because it just feels, so, well, random.  Remember, Sarah? Remember?  You were working in that cube and you felt like a caged bird or something, and you wanted an adventure and liked the idea of cowboy boots, and "y'all" and social work and here you are. When I tell myself that story, sometimes I feel pretty cool and fly by the seat of my pants, and sometimes I feel like a flake. Maybe there's not a difference.

I sound flippant.  Let me clarify.  Even when I feel my feathers in the wind, I am filled with divine peace and gratitude. I am convinced that God led me to this sweet little spot in the center of Texas, and has graced me abundantly with community that has helped me to heal and trust and believe in a God that has come and is coming and wants me to be a part of it all. 

Still, the culture shock is funny.  And I'll be frank: as much as I'm a fan of southern hospitality...the "m'ams", and the "dowhat now's?" , and the little grocery baggers who say these things to you as they help you out of the HEB, I still miss many things about my roughish and rustic New England town. Am I allowed to miss it and not want to go back? Because I do.  I deeply miss it but am quite content staying right here. 

I'm also hopelessly nostalgic so sitting with the memory can be fun. Let me indulge for a moment:  I liked that the houses were all two-story clapboard colonials. I liked that there were lots of windy roads and stone walls, and town commons, and things and places and buildings established in the 1600's. And, no offense to barbeque or anything, but I liked that there could be things at a party besides well, just that.  Or beans.  There will be always all sorts of beans as long as I am in Texas. 

So, this brings me to the real reason I started writing. The point, if you will, though I usually hate dragging in the point. I used to think the expression "bless your heart" was really odd.  If you didn't know that it's Southern, I'm here to tell you it is.  Sort of like the equivelant of "wicked" in the North.  Perhaps, such expressions could be a greater metaphor for their respective regions. I won't go there.  

I first heard "bless your heart" when I was at my friend Lauren's house in Memphis.  She had a rash on her arm, and her mom kept looking at it and "blessing her heart." I'm really not a literal person, but I did keep thinking, why is she saying that?  And like many idiomatic enigmas I come across here in the South, I first, wonder if it's a Southern Baptist thing. But, "bless your heart" is not.  It's more of a thing that you say with a smile and an emphatic twang and it's mainly just for fluff. I never really liked bless your heart because I thought that it meant something bad or gossipy or rude was on it's heels.  Not that I never participate in these things, but if we're going to be sassy, let's call it what it is and not guise it with the blessing of the heart. 

So, I've found a new-found love for this expression.  Do you want to know why?  On Christmas Day (yes, I worked on Christmas Day), a seven year old boy came into my office.  He is the quiet type that speaks with insight when he does in fact, speak.  And unfortunately, in the chaos of my work environment, I get to listen less frequently than I wish.  He said: "Miss Sarah?"  I said, "Yes?" He said: "I made something for..." I looked up, and he was pointing at me.  I said, "What do you have?"  He showed me this: 

And, I melted a little bit.  What do you even say besides, "I'll put it up on my door!"  I have never met a more sincere blesser of the heart.  He's allowed to say that one :) 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Resting for Christmas

Okay so we are not the most meticulous cookie decorators, but I think they turned out so fun! Sprinkles make everything look better! 

This past weekend, I rested.  While one of the downsides to working in a residential setting is working on holidays (hello 8:30-5:30 Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), one of the upsides is flexible scheduling.  This being the case, this past weekend was my Christmas weekend, and I was able to take Friday AND this Monday off in lieu of my Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  

I made new friends. I slept (until 9:43 am). I downloaded new music (Noisetrade- JJ Heller, PLEASE check it out). I prayed. I baked. I wrote.  I ran. I got a pedicure.  I read.  I ate Chuy's. I drank Shiner Cheer.  I laughed with Brooke. Life is good, and I can't help but ask myself, "How did I get so lucky?" 

More Christmas cake balls! Yum!  Do you know they sell these at a local coffee shop for a $1.50 EACH?!?! 

And as I retired for the evening still with some bounce in my step, Brooke said, "your eyes look brighter!"  And, as I looked in the mirror, splashing water on my face, I thought, yes, they do.  My job is tiring.  I listen a lot.  I problem-solve a lot.  I diffuse a lot.  And I attempt to soften the blows of deep and raw and very human need.  

Now, I'm not complaining or doing that melodramatic martyr thing-- promise.  But I will say that it is helpful for me to remember that the level of stress and crisis I deal with is not so normal, and it might be good for me to remember to sleep a little longer, and self-forgive a little more. 

Peppermint frames, for my kids to put their pictures in.  Just arrange mints on a baking sheet, bake at 250 and they melt into these perfect and festive wreaths! We are even thinking of decorating our tree with mini wreaths! 

Courtney knows all the latest books to have on your shelves, and she recently gave me: "Sabbath" by Wayne Mueller.  Apparently, Lifeway Christian Stores won't carry it because they call it "dangerous."  I say, that's a) ridiculous and b) quite a shame.  Mueller reminds me that the refusal to rest is quite arrogant-- contrary to the inclinations of my good little American self: " 'Remember the Sabbath' means 'Remember that everything you have is a blessing.' Remember to delight in your life, in the fruits of your labor. Remember to stop and offer thanks for the wonder of it."  This life, and all its nooks and crannies-- from conversation to melody to vegetable enchiladas, is one great big gift, and I have no business taking it for granted. Mueller reminds me that it is wise to reflect, and just plain dumb, to take in great stories of pain and suffering without grieving.  Sponges are hardly helpful when they aren't wrung out. And besides that, we're not robots--we're little ones and big ones that are capable of much, but still very small in the vastness of this great big world.  And in the same way that plants and animals and other living things need the basics to keep on keeping on, sometimes we must take ourselves on back to the basics.

So, I am grateful for the things and people that wrung (not wore) me out this (very long!) weekend.  I feel fresh. 

"Better is one hand full of quietness, than two hands full of toil and a striving after the wind."  
-Ecclesiastes 4: 6

Sunday, December 20, 2009

God With Us

I listened to a sermon recently by Corey Widmer, the pastor of my former church in Richmond, Virginia.  You can listen to the sermon, "Searching God" here.  

Everytime I listen to him, I wish that I listened to him more; it makes me remember and miss home, and more importantly takes me to the crux of the Gospel- the outlandish generosity God has shown a broken and bumbling people.  Moreover, he outlines our calling to live in such a way that is a response to this radical love shown to us.  

This sermon in particular comes from Luke 15- the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.  In short: God rejoicing over our coming to Him. Rejoicing doesn't even go far enough. He is ELATED! that we are His, and the world stops when we finally put our bags down and let Him love us.  In this, I find the essence of a deeply relational, profoundly personal God. When I read this passage, I believe more than other times, that indeed, not a moment goes by when my Heavenly Father is not one with me- in his mind and on his heart so much so that I might be "engraved on the palms of His hands," like the prophet Isaiah says. 

During advent we use language that rejoices over the coming of our Savior: "Joy to the World!"  I love this season dedicated to love and longing, I picture God's people, linking hands, smiles bright, "We are ready!" "We have been waiting!"  "Come to us!"  

But what I think is funny is that in our imploring and our exultations, sometimes I forget that it is not we, the receivers that have an ounce of anything to really offer.  "Welcoming" brings along with it this idea of hospitality and graciousness.   It is fun to welcome a beloved friend into a home cozy and lit with candles- soup on the stove, bread on the oven. At least it is for me.  I like giving and offering parts of myself to people that I love.  

But may we remember in this season, that despite our humble exclamations to the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!" It really is He, who is coming after us. And while in His graciousness and lavish love, He finds our offerings and preparations perfect, they are pittance to His glory. 

I am reminded of a quote by Simon Tugwell my best friend Chelsea shared with me a long time ago, and while I never think of it as advent-y, for some reason, it is today:

"So long as we imagine it is we who have to look for God, we must often lose heart. But it is the other way about: He is looking for us. And we can afford to recognize that very often we are not looking for God; far from it. We are in full flight from Him...and he knows this and has taken it into account. Where we thought finally to escape him, we run straight into His arms.  Our hope is in His determination to save us, and He will not give in."  

Emmanuel, God with us.  Amen.  

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Favorite Things.

I try very hard not to get too attached to material things. Recently at a staff meeting, my boss made the point that an individual's bank statement easily translates into his or her value system, and I cringe when I hear this because I know mine reads sweaters and ballet flats and dangly earrings far more than it should.  It's a work in progress.  More accurately, I am. (a work in progress, that is). 

Nevertheless, sometimes I think it would be fun to have a favorite things store.  The mood would be altogether whimsical and earthy and delightful-- think free spirit meets quirky bookworm all in a quiet, bucolic setting.  And twinkle lights.  There would be twinkle lights. 

So, I've decided, here are a few of the things my non-existent store would have: 

1. Fabric. 

I spend hours in fabric stores and I can't even sew.  I want to learn someday, but even before I do, I will still buy fabric.  I lay it on top of my dresser, and tuck the jagged ends under.  I pin it to foam board and frame it to hang on my wall. I drape it over the back of my desk chair. Layers of fabric make rooms look lived-in and warm, more approachable even. Some might say that the mish-mosh of prints and patterns is haphazard, but like I said earlier, I'm all about that work-in-progress.  And besides, who ever said perfection was completion? 

2. Tea 

No, not tea like sweet tea or, in the North what we'd called "iced" tea. But, hot tea poured into tea cups and boiled in a real teapot.  It's proven to ease tension and stress and gets to include things like chamomile and lavender (yes, please). AND, I would put those inspiring quotes on the tea bags, that say things like, "love what is ahead by loving what has come before" or "let things come to you."  I mean, talk about warmth. 

3. Pretty Paper Products 

I hope that letters never go out of fashion.  I think about how Jane Austen's characters lived their lives in hopeful anticipation of the mail carrier.  Great and terribly important topics were broached with the ink pen.  I find it funny how the most ill-fated news, like the Mr. Collins' engagement proposal or the deceitfulness of Mr. Wichkam is padded with fluffy words like "felicity," "tincture" and "lamentation."  

While I am grateful for the convenience of our cell phones and emails, and even more, the exclamations and innuendos of dear ones that live far away,  I still like opening envelopes, and smiling to find the familiar script on the enclosed pages. 

And please, can we not use the term, "snail mail?" 

4. Used Books 

When I lend out books, I like people to mark them up. This is what I say before handing them over: "Underline the important parts, dog-ear the pages, sign your name, and date it too." I try not to sound neurotic when I say this, but I really like people to do it.  I think that's because books are very living to me, and I think they change me the way relationships, and conversations and all beautiful things can change me.  And the way people respond to the written word, does something in fact, to the words themselves. Lifts them off the page.  Gives them color and dimension and body.  

So this store of mine, would have plenty of books-- tattered and worn, because those are the colorful kind that hit you just so. And wasn't it Frederick Buechner who said, "The story of any of us, is in some measure, the story of us all." 

I think so. 

5. Earrings 

I know it's frivilous, but I love face-framing little jewels like these. 

I think there would be other things, like perfume and candles and recipes to share.  But for now, this feels like a good start :). 


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Organizing

The drawers to my dresser will never be organized.  It is a sorry sight, actually.  They are oozing out sweaters, and running clothes and socks that don't have their matches.  I try very hard to fold my clothes nicely and tuck them away tightly but to no avail.  This dresser corner has a permanent case of "morning room."  I wouldn't care except that I do, because for better or for worse, the way things look matter to me.  

In college I roomed with a friend who had that kind of dresser that you opened, and saw everything arranged just so, I began to suspect that the clothes might, in fact fold themselves. I watched and tried to mimic, but it just didn't work. By the end of the week, her clothes still had clean lines, and mine were crumpled.  My wardrobe is eternally indebted to Downy Wrinkle Release.  

So, I am reluctantly coming to grips with the fact that I am disorganized, unorganized (however it goes), but quite organized in my own way. I know all disorganized people have this perfect mess claim, so I won't try to further that point, but I will say that the organization thing, functional though it is, is sort of boring.  And I know it's weird to find the dog leash in the fruit bowl, but hey, you found it and remembered that your banana would go bad if you didn't bring it for lunch today. 

So, since there is nothing worse than coloring inside the lines when all. you. want. to. do. is PLEASE scribble outside of them, and heaven forbid, draw your own picture, I say, please do. At the risk of showing some skin, or some heart, even. Create. It's life-bringing. 

And for the "put-togethers" and "matchy matchers," I appreciate your boxes and your crisp, clean lines, really, I do. And I realize I am probably taking several of your orderly feats for granted. Regardless, I say to you: Dare you to let it get messy. 

Friday, December 11, 2009


This little one looks like she is very ready.  But waiting. Oh-so-patiently waiting.  I am reading, once again,  "Letters to a Young Poet."  Below is a quote from page 26 that sits with me each time.  I am endeared by the young poet's anxiety towards life, and in awe of the gladness and confidence with which Rilke writes.  What a standard he sets forth! I think I read this book so much because I so want to take it to heart. 

"Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come.  But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful, patience is everything."   -Rilke

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ordinary. No Extra.

I think I'm a "more is better" person. I suppose this is kind of embarrassing to admit since it makes me gluttonous and grabbing, but I say  it on the pretense that I'm not alone. We're a "more (and more, more, more, more please) is better" kind of culture. So we fill and strive and seek, and seek some more, all to quiet the discomfort of never actually "arriving" (shocker). And then what? Do we go numb?  

I've heard this rat-race rant before, and I bet you have too. I've heard it and continue to whole-heartedly participate although I'm not sure why because when I think about life as a mad-dash it totally stresses me out. 

The thing is we are all off to these fabulous destinations lickety-split. And I've found that sometimes these "ends" are idealized just as we like them, when really the good stuff might not be the things we're conjuring but the things that are right in front of us-- slapping us upside the face.  The things we are pushing, heaving even, out of our way, so we can get to our shiny places that don't exist. 

I know I ignore the beautiful slaps in the face because I don't think they are exciting enough.  I think they are boring, and sometimes it's hard to mesh with things that are just unabashedly, no-strings-attached, given let alone open up to something that has nothing to do with us. 

I had to write this because I have been thinking about it ever since I saw Robert Frank's photography exhibit at the MET. You can see one of my favorite pictures of his above.  I went with my sister over Thanksgiving and it was a part of the "American Stories" exhibit.  Critics lambasted Frank's work as it appeared in his publication of photos called, Americana, because it showed "the dark side" of America.  "Dark side?"  Really? Or just raw side? Life, perhaps as it is and not as it shoulda, coulda, woulda might be.  

Chill out folks, we get what we need.

It's just okay.

When I was really little, I used to ask my sister to tell me this.  Even when it didn't make sense. Especially since she was younger and smaller, and half the time I thought that I knew a lot more than she did (I didn't and still don't). 

 But for some reason when she said this,  I would breathe. And breathing is important.

So everything will be okay, really.  And smile people, it won't mess up your hair. Promise. 

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Anything Can Happen if You Let It

About a week ago, I saw Mary Poppins in Dallas with Brooke. It was one of those spur of the moment things that just turned up and then, turned out quite well. I tend to think spur of the moment things always do. 

I have always loved Mary Poppins.  I went through this figurine stage when I was about nine years old. You know, the little porcelain things that collect dust on your bookshelf?  Yes. I was an avid collector.

I had a bunch of farm animal figurines that I purchased during summers in Wisconsin, and then I had a Mary Poppins.  Additionally, four years ago I bought a purse because of what (I thought) was its pretty quilted pattern.  I always receive compliments on the purse, yet on numerous occasions people have told me it looks like a Mary Poppins carpet bag (you know, the bottomless one). The resemblance must be striking because that's a random comment so I cannot help but think that Mary and I are aligned in some way.  And I know it's lame, but whenever I hear that Feed the Birds song and think about little Michael saving his Tuppence for the birds, my eyes well up. 

So, you understand why I had to go see it last week.   
The performance was vivid and colorful.  Brooke and I were a bit weirded out by the way all of the Banks' nannies prior to Poppins were made out to be angry closet drunks but I think that's part of the artistic license.  Besides, maybe they were.  I like how performances always make people and circumstance exaggerated, dramatic and downright eccentric but it all flies because it's a musical. Let's be honest. You sit watching the performance and inevitably think, "This is a little bizarre..." but for some reason everyone smiles more than they get uncomfortable. Because it's on the stage?  I guess.  I wish we did that more in real-life, not just stage-life, because everything would be a lot funnier that way.  

So we listened, with great enthusiasm, to the Mary Poppins songs: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Spoonful of Sugar, Let's Go Fly a Kite, Feed the Birds (tear-jerker) and ChimChimaRee.  To my great excitement, there was a new song to add to the Mary Poppins repertoire! This one was called: "Anything Can Happen If you Let It." Another way to light up, in her Poppins way, that nugget of wisdom that I know but don't do:  Let go. Relax.  Be still. 

Letting go of these things that we hold with clenched fists is no easy task even though the catchy melody makes it sound like it is.  What a challenge it is to be still when we aim to secure and to manage.  To control and to change.  Even more so when we label this managing and controlling and changing with virtuous words like ambition and prudence. And who are we kidding?  The security is cozy, but temporary and illusory, and could vanish in a hot second. 

But Mary, in her controversial but glass-half-full kind of way, reminds us that something even better might be beyond that coziness we've settled into. 

Love it. And her.  

Thanks, Mary :). 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Africa Bite

I spent this past Saturday in Austin with a friend.  We call it favorite things day-- a.k.a soul care. The week was long, and it's not that it was all bad, but when you work with people in crisis it could go all bad all too quickly.  I'm still trying to figure out how to live on that edge while still maintaining regular blood pressure for a 25 year old.  And, I'm hopeful so please don't tell me that social workers are always stressed out.  Although my supervisor did tell me this week that to work with our population, one has to have a "dark side."  I have never thought of myself as having a "dark side" parse, but maybe I do.  

Austin included the following "favorite circuit:" freebie art gallery called Austin Art Garage, Anthropologie, Book People, dinner at Karibu ( a new Ethiopian food restaurant) and Whole Foods.  We drove home feeling nourished. 

While I am VERY excited about the new skirt and Splendid cardigan (Splendid as in the brand, splendid not splendid as an adjective) I got at Anthropologie, as well as the perfect pie pumpkin and hydrangeas that I bought at Whole Foods, I really wanted to take a moment and write about Karibu (which means "welcome," in Swahili by the way).  We didn't know how to order Ethiopian food, but the mixture of lentils and green beans and chickpeas delivered to us on a pizza- pan type thing was delicious.  The best part? No forks.  We sopped up our food with a crepe-ish bread and talked about Rwanda and the people that we met there that we probably will not ever forget but also not ever talk to.  Well, I take that back.  I still get random emails from Rwandan students that say: "Not much English. Met you for a time. Genocide in 1994. Kisses!" Unfortunately, I gave out my email admist a rush of meeting about 53 excited teen aged Rwandans, and I have no faces in my memory for these emails. 

At Karibu I said, as I have said before, that Rwanda is vivid and real still, but like a dream. And when something is actually a dream you can file it away as a dream, but since it wasn't, I'm not sure where to put it.  People have told me that maybe it just doesn't have a place, but I very much like things to have places for things, especially these things that affect me so. 

I have been thinking about Rwanda a lot, still.  This morning at breakfast I thought about how mushy African food really is delicious, but by meal three, you are really ready to actually use your teeth and chew something.  I thought about the genocide this morning when we read Psalm 46:2 and 3. 

So, I finally got myself together and wrote a letter to the many people that supported me financially and prayerfully while I was on my trip. I'm embarrassed because the letter is long overdue, but even so, here it is: 

Dear Family and Friends,                                                                                    

I know this letter is long overdue.  After a whirlwind of a summer, I have finally taken the time to share with you some of my Rwanda trip.  Before I do, I want to thank you for the support I have received and felt from each of you.  I am both blessed and humbled by the outpouring of financial donations, encouragement and prayer with which you have so graciously provided me. Many, many thanks.

 I toyed with giving you a play-by-play account of what we did, whom we met and what we learned.  But, containing the experience I had into a journalistic account, travel log or the like doesn’t seem to do my time in Rwanda justice. It feels too narrow, especially in a place where time was never the essence! So, to share Rwanda with you, I will try my best to tell you what I learned and what I felt, and now, what it is that I (think) I might know.  

 A page in my Rwanda journal is devoted to a list of words that best characterized this “land of a thousand hills.”  While it seems rather reductionist of me to summarize a nation of such strength and beauty in three words, I’ll do it anyways. For me, Rwanda was gracious, alive and open.  First impressions really are priceless, especially when traveling, and these three words began my word list on Day 2 of our trip.  They stick with me and will remain my words for Rwanda.

On that same Day 2 when Rwanda became gracious alive and open, our team drove around for some time in our ma-ta-tu (Rwandan word for bus), and I was overwhelmed by the amount of people outside! It sounds na├»ve, but I wanted to ask the people on the side of the road, “Where are you going?” People were walking (or skipping, or running) barefoot, people were in deep conversation, they were hanging up signs, digging ditches or carrying jugs of water.  People rode up and down the street on bikes, oftentimes with two or three babies in tow.  Even though this day-to-day (that is: the digging, and the carrying and the towing) looked at worst unpleasant and at best humdrum and routine, when we interacted with Rwandans, I thought their life was exciting! Full! And, perhaps most significantly altogether peaceful.   I walked away feeling refreshed and encouraged.  They seemed to embrace life, down to the very moment.  Or maybe, I was just seeing people who were simply convinced that life embraced them—I’m still not really sure which way it might go.

Early on in our visit, we learned about the Rwandan genocide, which took place from mid-April to early July in 1994.  I went to Rwanda with a vague idea of the atrocities that took place, yet visiting the many memorials honoring the 800,000 victims reshaped my perceptions.  One survivor’s story resonated with me in particular when she equated the terror of mid-1994 with a morbid silence.  “For 100 days,” she said, “no one said a word.”  I don’t know that I have ever imagined fear as acutely as I did as our new friend shared further details.  They were gruesome.  I have always found great value in sharing stories.  There is something that (can be) so genuine when people share a bit of his or herself and the listener willingly receives it. Relationship. Connectedness. The like. Yet as I listened to this young woman’s story, which was like so many other Rwandan survivor stories, I felt overwhelmingly moved yet entirely disconnected. 

What do I know? I thought to myself.  What do I know of courage or of hope or of family or of forgiveness? She spoke about these things with such grace and such candor that my eyes welled up. “How easy it is! “ I thought to myself. “How easy it is to feel convicted about these very things our friend spoke of from the comfort of my Waco, Texas apartment in a place where I am supported and encouraged and rest-assured that I will go to bed well-fed.  Writer Anne Lamott says that our most ardent and genuine prayers go something like this: “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and “Help me, help me, help me.” And in that moment, I thanked God over and over again, for this lady, for her story and for the way it brought me down to my knees.  Right where I should be.

Learning about the genocide at the beginning of our trip opened me up. It opened me up to experience and to heartache and to the moment because perhaps more than before, I believe (not just know) that this moment is all that we have. And indeed, most of Rwanda I can classify as a series of moments.  The moment that true beauty was an old Rwandan woman dressed in bright yellow grabbing my hand and saying “mara-ho.”  The moment that our bus driver, Cyusa (pronounced Choo-sa) told us that he  “would never forget us” and was “full of happy.”  The moment two Rwandan orphans, one named Rose and the other a name that I cannot pronounce, taught me a traditional Rwandan dance.  They were so kind and so patient with me and then all of the sudden, the dance wasn’t awkward anymore, it was fun! The moment that I looked around and saw that everyone, yes everyone, was dancing and laughing and dancing some more.  The moment our team found we would, in fact, be performing the song “Father Abraham” in front of a Rwandan congregation.   There were many more full moments like these, most of them brimming with such unique experience that I could barely stand it, and sometimes, it felt like I should be able to touch it.

But most of all, Rwanda opened me up to the greatness of our God.  Indeed, part of this characterization is, narcissistically, a response to how big the world felt and how small I felt when I was in Rwanda. But the other half has to do with the mysteriousness of our God’s love. 

Before I explain, bear with me for a moment. In my social work classes we spent a great deal of time talking about empathy. That is, how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes: honor their experience of course, but with a bit of intuition, or an attempt to conjure up the feelings that the client might be experiencing.   If your client is grieving, take yourself to a time when you suffered great loss.  In other words, invade the mystery of the other a little bit.  Recognize that your experience will never be his or hers, but in the name of service, link a bit of your life and maybe even heart to the one before you.  In Rwanda, I could not do this. It was all mysterious. And it didn’t even feel like I had a right to touch it. I could not touch it.  I was too far away.  In these moments I felt I didn’t know how to relate. I didn’t know how to understand.  There were times when I thought that I didn’t even have a right to listen.  I probably didn’t, but true to their graciousness, the Rwandans shared.

But the really funny thing? In spite of this initial disconnectedness this total foreignness, this “oh-my-goodness my world is being shaken more than I bargained for” kind of feeling, we were all still together.  We played together (yes, a soccer game Rwandans vs. Americans), laughed together, broke bread together, worked together, danced together, worshipped together and did, in fact, communicate.  It was altogether mysterious and beautiful and felt filled with the Spirit of God.  We felt close in the purest kind of way, the kind that transcends self, that does not have to do with self, but rather, redemption.  In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “ ‘ The kingdom of God is not to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’”  (Luke 17: 21-22).   Jesus tells us here that the Kingdom of God is within our grasp. Closer than we think.  Maybe right under our very noses. And in Rwanda, there was a holiness that brought such light to those words.

 God and all His goodness, all His hopefulness, all His light and His love; all these things that I seek in all the wrong places seemed to just come.  What a blessing! While the vividness of Rwanda has faded a bit, sometimes it seems that the memories rush in as alive and as gracious as the Rwandans themselves.  In the midst of these waves, my cup runs over. 

I hope that yours are too.

Love and Grace, 



Monday, September 28, 2009


I have been thinking about gratitude today.  Mostly because a most wonderful friend of mine shed some light for me this weekend.  She always has a way of doing this, and then two weeks later I'll say, "Remember that time when you said...." Usually, she doesn't remember, which goes to show, perhaps (or, I know) how genuine she truly is. 

Anyways, gratitude, according to Courtney, is wonderful because if it is real and in you, you are not stuck in the past, nor in anticipation of the future.  Instead, you are fully thankful for the here and now.  

I think gratitude helps us to be present. And if secured, it might just turn into the realest kind of hope. 

To remember, she gave me the poem below, it's by W.S. Merwin and taped to my wall. 

So, here's to gratitude:  

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with all the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Simple Truths

If you can't go deep, than you can't go high. 

Sometimes these words ring true.  But, not always.  That is: Does getting to the heart of things always beget freedom? Or, sometimes (if not all the time) is that free and fresh feeling a gift given to us and not at all the work of our own hands? 

May Sarton once said, "Go deep enough, and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard."  I like her insight, but I'm not sure if I cling to it as tightly as I once did.  Now, my affinity for a view like May's developed in and around a lot of things:  a liberal-artsy education for one, a penchant for all things philosophical, my idealism, and as I'm learning, my aversion to simplicity. 

I don't say "aversion" because I don't like it-- it's just a little counter-intuitive for me. I think it's hard to be simple in our culture. There's too much buzz about simple living and too many ways to "do" simplicity.  Which part of simple living are you going to embrace? Recycling?  Eating organic (or is it all-natural?) foods only? Committing less? Meditating every morning? Spending more time with friends and less time in the office? We have to wade through the options, which I guess is the point. I am not a very good wader.  I get distracted, and see each option as too opportune to forgo. Sometimes these "opportunities" makes for lots of mind-clutter (read: anxiety), sometimes these "opportunities" make for inspiring vision (read: daydreaming). 

In general I like this part of me, because I think it makes me a pretty deep person.  I don't mean extraordinarily intelligent or philosophically profound, I just mean deep. To me, life never feels simple because, well, there's just a lot out there.   Living is rich and full and brimming with deep suffering and joy. And I am curious about these things, and would like to feel them, and know them. Elizabeth Browning said it best: "Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes-- The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries." 

I don't just want to be a plucker, I want to take off my shoes.  But I wish I could find a way to make this simple in my life. 

The problem (or blessing, somedays) is, I think and see and dream a lot in layers.  Anyone with me here? The most concrete example I can give is that of language.  In college, I studied this theory explaining words as meaningless out of context. In short, language is loaded and therefore useless at face-value. For example, the word rain is a lament when spoken by a farmer whose crops are dying from drought. This is markedly different than a child looking out the same window, lightly singing, "rain, rain, go away."  The mood, the tone and the speaker all matter-- not just a tad, but significantly.  And it is only when we consider this significance that we can actually glean meaning from one. single. solitary. word.  

So, I do this.  Not just with words.  But with life.  Don't worry, I'm not totally neurotic or anything; I don't think it is a diagnosis-worthy condition. But, I get a little sick of the devil's advocate game I play and the pitter patter in my head.  You ask me why she said that snide remark that hurt your feelings? Well, tell me what she had for breakfast, her last conversation with her boyfriend, whether or not she thinks sarcasm is an appropriate way to communicate, and perhaps, the way that her mother addressed her growing up.  Then, I might be able to shed some light on the situation. It takes some time.  Not to mention all sorts of energy.

I used to get really obsessive about just figuring it out.  Figuring out A through Z (then back up to L then down to Q) before drawing any conclusions.  There definitely is good in that process.  Like they say, it's the journey, right?  But, I don't think such a journey is the only way to the one true thing--  to the rich experience that I, and I'm sure most of us, crave. Or as Elizabeth would say, to the thing that moves us to take our shoes off.  

Sometimes, the reality or the end result, is just given to us, and quite quickly, without notice, preparation or due process. Sometimes the emotion is that raw, that deep, that real, that it simply does not matter. It does not matter how you got there, because it just is. 

In the line of work that I am in, I have the deep (deepest for that matter) privilege and sorrow of seeing people overcome by things that just are.  There is no rhyme or reason that warrants the simplicity and sincerity of grief.  And sometimes, if the timing is right, I am genuinely overcome too. For them? On behalf of them? Because of them? I'm not so sure which one it is.  

Still, I have no choice but to take off my shoes. 

It's as simple as that. 

Sunday, September 20, 2009


About a year ago, I came across a bit of spiritual wisdom that resonated well with me.  I don't remember who it was or where it was, but it stuck.  The gist was: mundane religious habits and habitual acts of worship oftentimes feel silly, basic even, in light of our extraordinary God, but even so, they are important. Why? Because they help us to remember.

And we are so forgetful, aren't we? 

I'll speak for myself.  I know I am quite easily distracted by the newest, brightest (and often fleeting) idea, hobby, fashion, relationship or the like.  And quite frankly, living in new inspiration feels far better than singing the doxology every Sunday or tithing every month. But even so, the habit still helps me to remember.  Once again, in between the lines of the song, I think or sense that my God does not change, and that He is with me, and that He is the Love that will not leave.  And even when I do not feel close to Him, the practice keeps me anchored at least for a little bit. I have learned to trust the motions and God's working in them, albeit that my heart does not always sing.  

I thought about this idea of remembering when I framed a picture from my trip to Africa and put it on my desk at work.  Random, I know.  Hear out the connection.  I am not a linear thinker.

For two weeks in May, I went to Rwanda.  I experienced a nation pulled by the tension of two deep attachments: fear and hope.  I played with Rwandan children.  I learned Rwandan dances. I shopped at Rwandan markets.  I worshipped with Rwandan people.  And then I left.  

I think about Rwanda often and feel a little confused.  I am not trying to be dramatic, but I really do. I came back to the United States on June 3rd, and everything went back to normal.  I did not cry about my trip, or have a hard time reconnecting to my friends, I did not become overwhelmed by the daily abundance we experience here in the United States.  I'm not even sure that I was all that jet-lagged.

So, I think this "confusion" comes in part from the smoothness of my transition. I know that many people have a rocky transition, but I did not. I hope this doesn't make me a bad person. But, I think I just forgot.  Gosh, I am embarrassed by how easily I forgot the richness of dancing in the rain, or holding their hands, or watching them smile. 

So, when I framed the picture of me with six Rwandan boys that you see above, it felt funny. It felt funny because I am distant now, and it would be silly for me to think that I fostered a deep and meaningful connection when really we just shared a meal one afternoon in late May.  But, I framed it anyways, because I want to remember.  

And I believe that the experience was rich enough, deep enough, pure enough, that it will continue to bear fruit, even though I am far from it.  At least I hope so. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I left work yesterday evening on edge.  

I am still learning the level of concern for my clients that is appropriate-- that is: how to take enough responsibility over my work and the people I help, while not so terribly concerned that I don't properly care for myself.  Needless to say, I closed my office door feeling quite accompanied a) by the family that followed me out of my office and b) by the heartache of their current crisis and the imminence of the next one. All I could do was text my friend when I sat down in my car and say, "our jobs are so intense." Pretty basic statement.  But it's all that squeaked out of me and sometimes I have to share. 

I drove home feeling altogether giddy and tragic- tired out by the day, but tugged by the gratification I feel at work in the midst of the chaos.  To that end, sometimes I think that I am such a believer in the therapeutic process because it can provide just that-- a bit of peace, or comfort, or sense (i.e. a moment where you feel loved & affirmed ) in between the chaos (i.e. life). Sometimes its overwhelmingly hopeful, sometimes it allows you to hang on. Either way, it's enough.  In this, therapy looks so different for everyone.  There are many models that I learned in school-- helpful, well researched, well established, effective models.  Sometimes (few times), I ask a question of a client and think, "I just did x y and z." Most of the time, I trust that the knowledge I have is in me enough that I can rely on my intuition and go. 

This time (yesterday), therapy looked like this: 

Client walks in my door, wide-eyed. Looking terrified. My heart breaks for her. I give her an ugly purple stuffed animal. She looks at me inquisitively. I tell her I know it is pretty ugly, but it is so soft, I promise.  She looks at me like I'm weird but holds it tightly.  I ask her if she wants to talk about all the stuff we both know is going on. She shrugs. I turn on some quiet music. It's really quiet.  She pulls out a pack of MnM's she has in her pocket.  I tell her I don't like the blue ones.  She says she doesn't either.  She tells me (for about thirty seconds) why she is so scared.  Then she looks even more scared that she just told me. I tell her she doesn't have to say anything more. Quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet. I ask her if I can give her a hug. We hug. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Almost like someone is saying, shhhh, shhh, shhhh. 

 She asks me what my favorite movie is.  I tell her Pride and Prejudice.  She looks at me funny (for like the tenth time). I tell her I like books.  Then she asks me my favorite book. I tell her. Now we are playing the favorites game.  (Favorite song, favorite TV show, favorite know how it goes).  Then it's quiet for a long time again. She eats her MnM's and sits and cries. I tell her I am so sorry and that I am here. 

The end.

Who would have thought? Mnm's and the purple furry thing in my office corner.  And silent hushes. Therapy? Still trying to figure it out. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A New Friend

I am reading a book right now by Wendell Berry. It's called "Jayber Crow," and is the story of a barber (Mr. Crow) living in a coastal community called Port William. I hope Port William is somewhere in the Northwest, like Seattle or Portland, because that's how I picture it. Like many of the books on my shelf, the pages don't contain a whole lot of riveting plotline. I like growing with a character more than I like following a series of events.  When it comes to reading (and probably, life), I am most present with characters when I am privy to their thoughts, rather than partnered in their actions.  For me, good writing lifts people off the page, and I get attached and want to be friends with them.  I know that's kind of weird and impossible, but it's true. When I was in fourth grade, I used to tell my mom these things, and she would listen and nod her head for awhile, but then always ask me if I needed her to write a letter to the teacher to excuse me from reading these books. I'm not sure she got my point,  but I think she was just trying to help.

Anyways, I say all of this because I've decided, with 100 or so pages left in this book, that I'd really like to meet Jayber Crow. I have developed a deep affinity for this introverted, thoughtful barber. He grows up with limited attachments, bouncing from one relative's home to the next, but stands firmly on the vision of "making something of himself." In the first part of the novel, he routinely uses this phrase, enough so I think it soothes him because it is a pretty idea to cling to.  At first, this "making something of himself" means ministry, and the pending "call" or (lack thereof) keeps him awake at night-- wide-eyed, frightened and far too alert. Once he finds Port William and truly lives into the richness of this place and these people, he finally, (finally!) feels at home and quits trying so hard. He breathes.  

Around this home-coming, Jayber also becomes quite content to fade into the background-- a far cry from the lofty ideals he once held for himself. He does, what we might call, basic, if not perfunctory jobs: he is a barber, a grave-digger, and a church custodian.  He cuts hair, buries people, and cleans up after they worship. In these things, he finds peace and rest.  He experiences the things that matter in this world-- love and grief and joy balled up in the same moment. It seems that he lives by a few basic rules, and trusts that the rest might follow; 1) He shows up 2) He pays attention 3) He listens well.  In this, he says: "And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart." 

I read this line and first thought of John 3:16- the sacrificial Godly love that moves me to be who I am.  It's something I think about every day, and try to believe it (some days more than others), act on it (again, some days more than others) and in my own way, share with others. Sometimes I think I'm doing a good job, sometimes I think I'm missing the mark.  The latter more than the former.  But when I read Jayber's humble epiphany on page 254, I really believed him. I really believed that he was so loving and so gracious to the people he serves, to the community he has found himself in and to the seemingly ordinary gifts he has been given. I really believed that giving and grieving, for Jayber, go hand in hand, and it is altogether joyful. 

I think I am scared to death of finding that balance. Jayber doesn't seem to be. 

So, I'd like to meet him. 

Saturday, September 12, 2009


I thought about what to name my blog for some time. I'm not really sure how important titles are in this whole blogging world, but to me, a title is like a theme, and I like themes, so I figured I'd better pay attention to it.  I made wrote down prospective titles on the back of my grocery list, and even typed some out on the computer.  Some of my options, I think, were really bad, and maybe my winner isn't the most ingenious either, but here is why it felt right:
  1. I hum a lot. You might think it's one of those awkward fill-the-silence kind of things, but I don't really think that's the case. I'm pretty okay with silence. I think I hum when I'm content, the way we might smile or daydream or play or listen well when we are content. But humming lasts longer. And you can switch up your melody. And if its not annoying, it might be catchy. 
  2. I love music but most of the time, I forget the words to songs.  I'll remember the tune well enough to hum so it's halfway recognizable. There's comfort in that, isn't there? That the essence might be in the harmony, not the details?
  3. Humming is simple and wholesome and direct. Sometimes I wish my life was.
So, there you have my justifications. Please don't make fun, because clearly, I put some thought into this :)