“Sometimes a Light Surprises”

Today I ran as far as I could, trying to rid myself of how overwhelmed I was feeling.
I can’t run that far, friends.

My response to dealing with one hard thing is to become anxious about all the other potential hard things awaiting me. And I can pretend all I want that I’ve conquered worry and fear and anxiety. It’s just not true.

Today, as many times before, there came a point when I was exhausted from running. Exhausted from trying to stuff my fears back down into myself; trying to deal with everything quietly and on my own; trying to excuse my worrying as only an unfortunate habit.

Every time I reach this point, Phillipians 4:6-7 runs through my head, over and over. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

It sounds so easy. Just stop being anxious, Jo. Tomorrow will worry about itself. You know this.

Sometimes it seems like it’s the very things we know best with our heads that are hardest to keep solidly in our hearts.

Take a look at a hymn written by William Cowper (1731-1800), who also wrote “There Is a Fountain” and other great hymns:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
to cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing
But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people, too;
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

Isn’t it an encouraging hymn? Listen again to these words: “Set free from present sorrow, we cheerfully can say, ‘Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.'”

That Cowper guy, he must have really known about worrying and what the biblical response ought to be. Well, yes, you might say that, but let’s look closer.

William Cowper was friends with John Newton–even wrote hymns with him–and there are accounts of their interaction. Cowper struggled with depression for much of his adult life, at one point even attempting suicide. John Newton encouraged him through these times, but Cowper thought that he had committed an unforgivable sin in trying to take his own life.

Eventually, he stopped attending church, although he remained close friends with Newton until his death in 1800. Several hymns written in the latter part of his life attest that William Cowper still trusted in Christ, but did he ever get rid of his depression?

William Cowper, struggling with depression, penned these words: “Yet God the same abiding, his praise shall tune my voice, for while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.”

Was he relieved from all worries and cares in his life? Or did he just pretend he wasn’t struggling? Likely neither was the case. Not until William Cowper met his Savior face-to-face, was he relieved of his crippling depression. We can see from his hymns that he knew the right answer, and I think that he probably returned again and again to the comfort he found in Scripture.

What can we say about dealing with depression, or anxiety, or worry, plain-and-simple? Can we fix ourselves by somehow having enough faith, or by pasting on a smile and pretending we’re not anxious?

Here’s a better question: what are we to do with our anxiety and cares, when they come? We don’t ignore them, or think God won’t listen because well, here we are again, worrying about that same old thing, worrying about a new thing altogether, not having learned the lesson from last time.

God listens, friend. Go to Him. Tell Him. 

Do you know that He meets the poor in spirit right here, wherever they’ve stopped running because they’re exhausted from handling everything on their own? My weakness, your weakness, William Cowper’s weakness–all these are opportunities to learn more and more what God’s peace is like.

And no, in this life we may never stop dealing with worry or even depression–but the point is that God is able to draw us to Himself even through tough moments when we are vulnerable and overwhelmed.

He inspired William Cowper to write a powerfully encouraging hymn, all the more powerful because the author proved in his heart (again and again) what he knew with his head.

 

Thanks for reading! Reach out in the comments or through email if you’ve got thoughts on this topic and want to have a conversation. I’d like to be praying with you:)

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Letter #8: For Jonah-days

Dear Aglet,

I’ve started writing this probably five times over the past few weeks. Just now I saw that it’s my thirteenth blog post I’ve written a draft for and not published. They’re about various, unimportant things: one is called “Purple hair dye and communion wine” and I think it’s about dressing up as Madam Mim for Halloween.

In other words, I’m not sure I have anything worth saying, but I’m writing anyway.

That last sentence may end up being my autobiography in one sentence.

I tried doing NANOWRIMO for the fifth or sixth year in a row, and all I have to show for it (so far) is one page, handwritten on front and back, about a young preacher’s wife who moves to a town called Marysville, TX, where it’s always dusty and dull and she has to do good all the time and she misses the trees in Arkansas.

I don’t like how it’s heading, so I’m retiring that story, maybe forever.

Everything ends in autobiography with me, Aglet, which is a real shame, because I’ve not gone and done a whole lot with my life thus far. Hence, I’m not sure I have anything much to say. There have been some Jonah-days here lately–days where your soul feels like the grayest of days in November, and it doesn’t seem like anything can make it better.

There have been wonderful days too–days like today, when the sun came out and various poems by e.e.cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins kept popping cheerfully into my head and distracting me.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

I cry about everything, mostly, even lovely things. Even while laughing, sometimes. I heard my dad’s voice and cried; heard a sad song and cried; thought about what it would be like to have cancer and cried; thought about what it would be like to have someone I loved have cancer and cried.

Worried about what might happen tomorrow, or in five years. And cried.

It’s ridiculous, especially because I have been down this road so many times, and I’ve made a choice over and over and over not to fret about what happens next (or five years from now), but instead to trust God, who’s infinitely worth trusting.

I need help trusting God and being more honest than simply stuffing my fear into my pocket and pretending that means I don’t have it anymore. Jonah-days will come to you. Whether you’re terrified of things not turning out perfectly or whether you think you’re so strong that hard times will just bounce off whatever rationalistic armor you’ve been layering on as a defense against overwhelming emotion–something will happen that’s too hard for you, Aglet.

You’ll have to decide where to run and what to do when you are overwhelmed with fear, or depression, or anger, or grief, or any of a thousand troubles that won’t be a reality anymore when we’re in God’s presence. But they’re reality now, and they needn’t be pointless. If, when you discover you’ve been horribly wrong about something important, you yield to despair, thinking you’ve ruined everything and you somehow can’t ever fix what could have been, you’ve missed something.

You’ve missed (and when I say “you” you better know I mean “I“) grace, in a way, and the precious illustration of your own desperate need for grace. Feeling heart-sick, or lonely, even feeling rage at the wrongness of the world–all these may drive us to prayer: to wrestling with how on earth lovely things and wretched things exist together, and to asking our Father to fix what’s broken, to fix us.

So yes, on Jonah-days, read Hopkins, read cummings, even read Whitman, but most of all take comfort in knowing that God is both good and great, and He blesses the poor in spirit.

Love, your grandma,

Jo

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Stir-Crazy

Some days, when I don’t understand what I’m doing, or when my eyes are glazing over from scanning the computer screen, or when I have no clue how to answer the question someone just asked, I remember that I, in fact, set my own hours, and that sitting numbly at my desk isn’t going to help anyone or anything, so I take a pause to try to remember why I do things in the first place.

They can’t be long pauses, I realize, or I’ll never get anything done, but it’s like in college, when it’s late and you’re staring at a paper and you can’t possibly think of anything to write, and the better thing would really be to go to sleep and work the next day, refreshed. There will eventually come a midnight, I know from experience, when waiting is not an option, and you must push through and turn in something.

My sister, when she’s stressed, likes to bake cookies (and she’s great at it). I make pizza.

I go into the kitchen and start tossing stuff into a bowl. I hardly ever measure anything. I prefer to approximate in cooking, which is probably why I can’t make cookies very well. You’ve got to be exact when baking desserts. Probably you have to be just as exact with pizza and I just don’t know it.

I like to experiment. Tonight I’m making spinach pizza (mostly because there’s a bunch of spinach in the fridge we’re supposed to eat up before it goes bad), but I hope to make the most exquisite, most delicious alfredo sauce to go on it, without measuring a thing.

It’s really a terrible plan. Sometimes I wonder how God created the world–did he just toss stuff around haphazardly–as in, “hmm, how about some light?” Or “I think I want to see what an ocean would look like.”

I doubt it. I don’t think God’s capricious like that, or stir-crazy like I happen to be. I think God knows exactly what He’s doing and what it’ll be like when He’s done.

I, on the other hand, still refuse to be precise when creating things, and yet have the audacity to imagine myself years from now running a pizzeria called “Mama Jo’s.”

Quality control? Psh, no. Every pizza will have its own unique character, spurred on by the restlessness of its equally imperfect maker.

Try to Remember

I haven’t seen the musical “The Fantasticks,” but I love a song from it, called “Try to Remember.” It’s calm and sweet and reminiscent, and I think you should give it a listen:)

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow
Try to remember and if you remember then follow

I’m writing for a few reasons–one is that it’s September, finally. And that is worth reveling in, just by itself. The -ember months (including the very loveliest, October) have a way of waking me up inside; in fact, I’m half-convinced I’m doing a sort of sleep-walk/hibernation the rest of the year. The air dries out and a breeze comes down the trees, and the breeze is bringing fall. And it smells like smoke and cinnamon and hope and yearning.

Another reason I’m writing is to inform the blogging world that I got a job, which is weird. Because I can’t just take the job and shut up–I have to do some soul-searching and agonizing before I turn into corporate-brained robot Jo. That’s not what I meant. What I mean is that, well, I wasn’t gonna get a job this year (see The Plan for that particular bit of soul-searching). I was going to read and read and read, and relish just being with my family, and take all the opportunities that would never come once I settled down to whatever-the-future-might-hold. I wasn’t going to worry; I was going to let next year worry about itself.

I was going to be a lily.

So while I’m very thankful for this job, I feel in some way that I’ve failed by doing anything so crude as being employed. (See what an absolute idiot I can be? I can regret anything.) Enough of the regret. Enough enough enough.

The job, if you were wondering, is medical writing/editing. So I do a lot of scanning long documents for numbers and split infinitives. If I describe it any more, you might think it’s the most boringest thing ever, but that is NOT the point I’m trying to make. The point is I get to use what I’ve learned (about sentence structure and the use of semicolons) and I get to help very smart people communicate even better. Because I’m not terribly smart, scientifically, but when I understand what I’m reading, it’s fascinating.

So my job involves detective work: (1) because scientists like to hide their identity with a bunch of passive voice; and (2) because I have to look up every third word in my newly acquired medical dictionary.

And there’s a third aspect to medical writing–it’s a game Mary Poppins might call “Well begun is half done,” or “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

“In the most delightful way.”

I see if I can make it interesting–whatever “it” may happen to be. I just see if I can be intrigued, and sometimes, God grants me a curiosity about things I never would have expected to be interested in.

Not that reading an essay by E.B. White still isn’t vastly preferable (I love that how that man wrote), but today, for example, I found myself staring at a diagram of a human cell, feeling a steadily rising excitement at the prospect of defining “ribosome” or “reticular.” I like learning (or re-learning, in this case). Words make me laugh, words like “glucocorticoid.” It sounds hilarious.

Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing–either with this blog or with this job. I do know that I’d kind of forgotten what I wanted to write about, or how I wanted to write, so being reminded of the importance of communication has been lovely. The very idea that literature is valuable and science article abstracts are valuable–this has me wanting to go read Poe’s “Sonnet: to Science.” I’m not seeing the dichotomy between literature and science–or at least, I’m not seeing that the conflict has to be there.

I’m thinking of Robert Herrick and his ode to a woman’s breast and how I blushed when we read it in class, hearing the speaker describe, quite beautifully, quite unscientifically, the appearance of his lover’s body. There’s a wonder there, about the way things are, and the sort of delight that, at least in the abstract, I share. Of course, people are more than only their physical bodies, but the physical is there, and it’s funny and intricate and weird.

I think it’s when I forget that, behind the diagrams and clinical descriptions, there’s a design and a Designer, that science ever could become boring to me. It’s when I forget that the same things are signified by literary words and scientific terminology that the definition of amino acids as “building blocks of protein” fails to delight. Think carefully–of what is meant by building blocks, of what your experience of a building block is, and suddenly the picture is there.

In my mind, there’s a nursery with toys strewn around, and a very solemn and holy baby picking out the perfect little protein block to place on the next one, and so forth until a cell, an organism, a human has been knit together in the womb.

Language is lovely.

Science is lovely, if you can just remember there’s something beyond the physical that gives reason and meaning to existence. The idea that the heart pumps blood without my remembering or my telling it to pump–in a way, to my unscientific mind, inexplicable. If it can lead you to wonder at something other than yourself, it has promise, I’m thinking.

I don’t even know about this whole blog post. Better go and read E.B. White, or the rest of this Septembery song:

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow
Try to remember when life was so tender
And dreams were kept beside your pillow
Try to remember when life was so tender
And love was an ember about to billow
Try to remember and if you remember then follow

Deep in December it’s nice to remember
Although you know snow will follow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember
Without a hurt the heart is hollow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember
The fire of September that made us mellow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember and follow

Letter #7: Heading West

Dear Aglet,

I’m heading west with my parents and a sister–it’s my turn to drive and I find myself completely Hyped. Up. on caffeine, mentally penning a letter to you, my dear, future, hypothetical grandchild.

You might be tempted to think it’s because I’m bored by the treeless terrain of the Texas panhandle. Most people where I live say there’s nothing here.

But I find the nothing beautiful.

I love being able to see to the horizon, feeling how the land goes on for so long. And as the sky expands, growing bigger and bluer and wider, I feel my soul expand in a way I can’t explain, quite. I start feeling more hopeful, maybe, more at ease, than when my view of the heavens is restricted by the tall pine trees.

Not that I don’t like trees–I do like them (just ask my college president)–and I’m glad to be where I am, generally, but every now and then, it’s nice to go west and stretch a little.

I’ve inherited it from my dad, I think: the restlessness that occasionally comes and can’t be shaken off or distracted. Herman Melville prescribed for this rising of the spleen a good long sea voyage, but for my family, the cure is going west until the wonderfully desolate land meets the sky. Perhaps the two cures are not very different–both satisfy the urge to see far on all sides. Both calm, at least for a time, the crawling feeling of confinement.

I used to dream of living out here, of having a ranch near Saint Jo, Texas, where I’d live, hermit-like, in a small yellow house with a little dog named Joe Gargery and a big sheepdog named Chesterton (“Chester,” for short). The dream is still appealing, especially when I feel the impatience of loving imperfect people or the ensuing, awful realization of my own glaring flaws. Then the independent spirit comes upon me and I want to be off where uncertainty is gone and I can see with clarity.

I crave certainty, Aglet.

But when I am told what to do, or how to do it, I resent it like the wretch I am, and I prefer the former ambiguity. At least control my own indecision.

Paul, in his letters, said he’d learned the secret of being content in any situation. I think I’ve learned the opposite–I manage to be restless and discontent any time, any place. But I wouldn’t call it a secret or a gift.

Slowly, very slowly, maybe I’m learning that I’ve had many plans and many dreams, but that happiness doesn’t depend on them turning out perfectly, or even coming true at all. That’s not to say I should suppress all my desires and ambitions, more that I should be wary of where I hang my hope, and my heart, and my happiness.

I find myself in my early twenties and I’m thinking about what I want my life to be like, about what would possibly fulfill me, and I sense that the stakes of living a worthwhile life are at once terribly high and wonderfully low.

If I think that this is all there is, I ought to scramble to get all I want and make all the happiness I can, even if it only lasts for a little bit.

If I think there’s something else, though–something beyond this world and this life–it at once raises the stakes and lowers them. I would have more of an urgency to do what’s worth doing, regardless of how exciting it feels at the time, knowing that my source of satisfaction is in Christ. It would mean I could choose what I do and be motivated by more than simply what makes the most money, and yet my job wouldn’t be what fulfilled me.

And it would mean that your future, hypothetical grandfather (my “Mr. Mister”) needn’t be a flawless sort of Mr. Darcy in order for us to love one another or find joy together. It would mean, even, that I might never meet Mr. Mister and my life would still have meaning and fulfillment. I might go on great adventures and weather awful sorrows.

Anything might happen, or nothing.

Life would still be a gift.

Sometimes tears come in the loveliest of situations, reminding me that this isn’t all there is; that I haven’t experienced perfect joy yet; that there is a longing that won’t be quite answered by anyone or anything, wherever I live. Even the open horizon becomes monotonous, and I grow bored with the same mountains that astonish me. My capacity for gratitude is smaller than I want it to be, and my appetite for wonder is really pretty dull.

It’s curious that such a yearning could be a comfort, or that a desolate place could be beautiful. Strange, that horizons bring hope, or that feeling so small could bring joy.

Love, your caffeinated grandma,

Jo

About Writing

There’s a Remington manual typewriter over there on my desk that I rediscovered in my closet the other week and dusted off in the naïve hope that it would get me writing. It hasn’t helped. If anything, it’s hindered me, taking up the desk space where I might otherwise put my laptop. There isn’t any ribbon and it weighs all of twenty pounds, if not more, so bringing it in here was a miserably futile move. I was wrong to think that an old-fashioned tool, purely by virtue of being old, will motivate me to write something I wasn’t writing with the newer tool (laptop) or the older still (pen and notepad). It’s like the notion that the latest technology will somehow inspire more creativity merely because it’s this year’s model. Stupidhead, Jo.

Sometimes I just have to start something, even if I am not completely sure it’s worth much. I have no idea who would read this stuff, for example, but it’s something I need to write. Sometimes I think it’s the stuff probably no one will read that’s most important to write down.

At the risk of sounding like the self-absorbed, yet self-satisfied, yet self-doubting person I am, I am not sure I can actually write worth a flip. I’m not even sure anymore that I have anything to say. And if I do have something to say, I’m not sure it’s anything worth hearing. But I’ve said for so long that I must write, that I think I must try. It’s the last thing I knew with certainty I needed to do. And whether I feel the urgency now or whether it’s faded, I keep remembering that strong, strong urgency to communicate something I could never articulate audibly, but came closer to expressing on paper. There is, or at least there was, something in me that needed to write.

I wanted to write something that would help a person understand he was not alone, even when it seems like no one around him understands or agrees with what drives him at his core. I wanted to write to the twelve-year-old girl who witnesses bullying or gossip at school or at church, and who knows she ought to speak up, but who doubts that anyone will listen. Or perhaps she is afraid of what others think—cripplingly afraid of being unpopular, even if she’s for standing for what’s right. What that girl does there, at age twelve—how she decides to respond—that is going to shape her, and it seems likely that when she is twenty-five, deciding how to act in a new, professional environment, that decision she made a decade before will influence how she acts around the water cooler.

There are things I wish I’d been reminded of when I was twelve, and eight, and fifteen—things maybe I did know, but I wish someone had told me again. I know my parents were there to encourage me to be kind and to do the right thing, even when it meant standing alone, but that’s not true for a lot of kids. And it helps, sometimes, to see things in the light of another story, a book you can be engrossed in, identifying with the protagonist, seeing where he or she is tested, and where he’s victorious, and where she fails. The reader can see redemption and forgiveness when failure happens and the twelve-year old in the story cows to society’s pressure to act cool and strive for popularity above all else.

Children see everything adults see, it seems like, even if they don’t have the tools yet to interpret what they’re seeing. Some things they shouldn’t have to see. It’s a wrong world, and all the beautiful sunsets and waterfalls and butterflies can’t quite make up for the feeling of losing a friend, or being rejected, or watching other people watch bullying without intervening. If a child is engaged with the world around him, he or she is going to deal with many of the same decisions adults face: do I tell the truth when it costs me something; do I defend the helpless; do I stand up for what’s right, and when I do, how do I speak with compassion to everyone involved? Do I listen to this gossip and do I join in, or do I change this conversation before it hurts someone (because it will)?

Maybe I forget that children are just shorter people—they aren’t some alien species that turns into humanity upon puberty or upon leaving adolescence. They are humanity—but still untamed. Kids are wild people who need to be trained in what it means to be human. If the adults in a generation decide that the only things that matter are food and sex and entertainment and getting what you want, that’s all they have to teach the children of the next generation. But they will continue to be wild. If, however, you hold that humanity is different from baboons or dogs or fish—if you believe there is both human dignity and human depravity; that men and women have the capacity for doing great, good things, and astoundingly evil things; that there is something called a soul that no physician can see or repair; that the soul has hunger pains, longing for something that nothing on earth can satisfy, not food or sex or unlimited entertainment—then you will have something more to teach the coming generations.

So I’m wondering if I could write something that would help a young person understand, at the important age of twelve, that feeling lonely in the middle of a crowded room doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you or that you will never have friends.

I’m talking about writing about close, strong friends who love each other faithfully and sacrificially, rather than superficial friendships that may look attractive but have no depth.

About the act of seeing the world clearly—not glancing back and forth at every glittering distraction—but delighting in mountain and molehill alike. The goodness of learning and training your mind and joining in the conversations that have been going on since the beginning, and the joy of noticing small wonders like smiling and music and the color of other peoples’ eyes and, all at once, understanding the wideness of the world’s horizon and its simultaneous smallness, looking at the pinpricks of starlight that aren’t icy cold, after all, and realizing how curious it is that we live on anything so wonderful and strange as Earth, and finally, finally, asking how such things have possibly come to be.

Who made this?

So we start somewhere, with a blog post, maybe, or a conversation in real life. And in the meantime we mow the yard and paint the house and work a job or two. Maybe the key is to try something, to stay motivated by a worthwhile cause while at the same time, somehow, finding contentment in the here and now.

Prosey Poesy

This post was supposed to be a smarty-pants book review of Eric Metaxas’s If You Can Keep It, but I got about halfway through and got annoyed by what I was writing, so I’m taking a break on that particular ramble.

Instead, here are two sort-of poems. They’re lazy poems, rough poems, slapped-down-on-paper poems which I really should heavily edit before putting them anywhere people can read them. The second one isn’t even finished yet. But since when do I edit things I write? I’ll get to them in a minute.

Last semester, I read a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s works, both fiction and non-fiction. I even wrote a smarty-pants paper about disability in her life and in her short stories. It’s a topic I probably had no business writing about, but it got me thinking a lot about the Christian response to suffering. Long story short, O’Connor seemed to agree with this guy named Pere Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher/priest who wrote about what he called “passive dimishments,” or suffering that cannot be avoided or escaped, but must be endured. This sort of suffering, for the Christian, is to be accepted (Flannery wrote that she hoped to accept suffering in her own life “if possible, with joy”).

Important note: when a miserable situation occurs and a person can mitigate his suffering, he should do whatever he can not to suffer–just in case you were thinking this was starting to sound like grim fatalism. Passive diminishments are different in that they are instances where there is not really an option for improvement, so the options are either to accept reality or to be doubly miserable, refusing to learn and grow from the (perhaps undeserved) “diminishment.”

Anyway, I started thinking about my own life, and how I haven’t suffered at all to speak of, but other people have, and I may someday soon. In another post on here I wrote about the future in terms of a Story, in which the characters may not know the impending plot twist, but the Author does and, if he is a good author, will write the story so that even surprising events are somehow right and meaningful in the end. [Click here for that ramble: On Wanting to Know]

In that frame, as you might expect, I was thinking of how God as the Author of creation knows his plans for his people–Psalm 139 uses similarly literary language, saying “…in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.” It’s a comforting thought if you know God as a merciful, mighty Father whose plans are perfectly right and good.

And yet it’s kind of scary at the same time. I can say til my face turns blue that I trust that what the future holds will be meaningful and worth-while, but when something actually arises that is too hard for me to handle, how am I going to respond? Last week I was sick off and on for several days and I was so impatient to be well and up and around–doing something useful–finally realizing in the middle of the last round of sickness that I hadn’t done a dandy job of honoring God in the middle of feeling crummy.

And other people have ailments far more serious than the stomach bug.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking of–that episodes of the stomach bug and even the persistent, eternal common cold can prepare us for some harder thing in the future, if we’re willing to accept those things we cannot avoid as being given by a good God for a good purpose in the future. I’m not saying the bad things that happen are good in themselves, just that nothing God gives is, or ever can be, pointless.

I’d like to hear your thoughts if you want to share them. Here’s the poem:

Forbearance

I want my works to justify;
I wish my words expressed me.
In suffering I’d like to rise
And rejoice in times that test me.

But I can hardly keep the faith
Through little trials that come.
Complaint and doubt bestrew the way:
I choose the hard road home.

I haven’t suffered much, and still
I tend to worry and despair
That some thing waits unseen, unknown
For which the present should prepare.

And since I have not suffered well,
But struggle to accept
The daily, inconvenient Given—
God’s promise made and kept—

How can I, then, expect to be
A martyr or a saint
When daunting grace draws near to me
And my weak soul grows faint?

I curse this inability
To say with grace some worthwhile thing:
Moses-like, I have a tongue
Unfit to praise my God, my King.

My rhymes are forced, as are my works,
And dead: they have no power
To justify or plead my case
When comes the darkling hour.

Then bless, my soul, this living hope
Which cannot be defeated:
My Intercessor, Savior, Friend
Who, long ago, entreated

Me to come to Him, when I
Was sick with fear
And, casting doubt aside, has granted
Love and cheer.

Cheer that stays through charcoal dusk
And crows aloud at morning;
Love that wonders at all things
And gives herself, an offering.

An offering of praise and thanks—
A quiet, glad assurance
That all is grace, that God is good—
I learn from this forbearance.

And here’s the prosey excerpt thing:

The man of acts says he is pierced by a great thorn—
I believe it. Scholars consider what Paul meant
And what shape the thorn might have taken.
I think it is enough to know there was a thorn,
Even in the side of one so earnestly following his Lord.
Enough to wonder at the curious way God governs,
Giving weaknesses as if they are gifts, and planning
For His children paths utterly unpredictable to human hearts.
Blessings that do not look like blessings
Til seen with new eyes.

Thanks for reading.

The Plan

A couple weeks ago I had just completed my final undergraduate assignment–reading my paper about Flannery O’Connor for faculty and friends–and I was waiting for the next day’s graduation.

So then I graduated. It was the perfect day: I smiled and cried and spent the afternoon with a few people, quietly celebrating four lovely years. I love celebrating things in a certain way–with people who understand that joy doesn’t always have to be raucous (although belly laughter is one of the best feelings in the world). Often, I find a certain kind of joy that’s real and glad and good, but that’s a little bit solemn–or maybe I mean serious. I have been seriously happy these weeks, just being with my family.

I’ve unpacked and cleaned and painted and written notes and gone to a piano recital and to the lake. I’ve mowed and picked apples and had a tea party on the floor with my niece and nephew. We jumped on the trampoline and my niece taught me how to feed her baby heifer Isabel, who had a very slimy nose. I’ve had time to read, and I’ve played Chopin and Amy Beach purely for pleasure. I’ve had coffee with my mom, which is what I wanted just about most of all. It’s been idyllic, mainly.

But then a week had gone by and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was half afraid someone from school would come knock on my door and say, “Now, Jo, what is your plan, now that you’ve graduated?” I doubted whether any of what I just listed would satisfy a future employer or potential grad school. And I didn’t feel any closer to knowing what it is I want to do with my life, as far as job titles go. Can writer please count?

If you’ll notice, I didn’t list “writing” as one of the things I did that first week–this blog post is my first attempt at sorting things out, and I’m terrified that writing is just one of the things I would tell people to try to get them to stop asking about the plan–rather than something I really mean to put effort toward.

The truth was I didn’t have a plan, and I was realizing how audacious (read, stupid) of me that was. I joked with my family that after college, I was going to be a bum for a year. Except now I kinda felt like a bum, and it had only been a week.

Every now and then, in the middle of walking through my house–I would be quite happy, then suddenly the thought would come, almost audible: what are you doing, Jo? How dare you not be planning for the future? You can’t bum off your parents forever and living on your own is going to require money. You aren’t being a productive member of society if you aren’t at least sending out your resume to work or continuing with grad school.

If you haven’t noticed, friend, this is shaping up to be a blog post about what almost all my blog posts are about, which is the struggle between working and worrying; between striving and trusting. It’s about fretting and constantly wondering if I’ve done the right thing or if the other decision would have been better. And Oh, God, I don’t know if I’ll ever learn the lesson.

But we do keep trying.

A dear friend sent the following to me, and at the time I didn’t think I needed it–I just thanked my friend and went on unpacking (or whatever I was doing at the time):

Don’t forget to find your self-worth in Christ’s righteousness, instead of whether or not you have a stereotypical job.

I don’t understand how the Holy Spirit does that–prompts people to send words of encouragement that, even if they don’t seem relevant at the time, at some point will be effective in another person’s life.

What I mean to do is make a sort-of plan for this year, a plan that’s still not quite up-to-par with anything someone aspiring to be CEO of a company would have in mind after college. It’s a plan for what I want to learn and do and accomplish, and write. I’ll be putting some updates on here, probably, as I go, and as I descend into various existential crises and, by God’s grace, come back out.

I’m starting off by reading all the books that have accumulated in the packing crates I used for bookshelves in the dorm room:

If You Can Keep It and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, both by Eric Metaxas. Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher, The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton (both of which I have been reading for years now and haven’t finished yet!). The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.

There are others, and when I’m done with mine, my father has bookshelf upon bookshelf of things he’s promised I may read. To keep myself accountable, I’ll try to write a quick thought or two about what I learned, so that if you’ve read the same book, we can compare notes and learn something together.

I’m also working on projects around my parents’ house, many of which involve learning handy skills, such as scraping, painting, plumbing, and things they generally don’t teach you in college. I’ll be figuring out how to save and spend money wisely (hopefully), and when to take a rest and when to keep working.

I suppose I want to figure out what is worth doing–and then I want to learn to do those things really well. It’s not that impressive of a plan, but thank you for reading:)

Letter #6: The Power of Words and the Absence of Coffee

Dear Aglet,

Yesterday was sunny and gorgeous and I was glad just to be alive, breathing in the spring air.

Today was dark and rainy and I hadn’t had any coffee.

If local weather patterns and the absence of caffeine make as much of a difference in my mood when I’m a grandma as they do now, heaven help us, Aglet. Specifically, heaven help you.

Possibly by the time you’re around, they’ll have discovered caffeine is this CRAZY addicting drug (no way!) and they’ll regard my generation as the last of the foolish human societies who imbibed ridiculous amounts of this drug in an attempt to become as gods and work around the clock without consequences.

Maybe it’ll be illegal by the 2040s, and caffeine will be the drug of choice for business men and women, the only ones who can afford to enhance their alertness with impunity. Some poor menial will get busted Thursday because his eyebrows were raised too high during a boring staff meeting.

There’ll be a society formed to help wean people off their caffeine dependencies, full of men with disheveled faces and women with crazy hair, all horribly grouchy, attempting to function as normal human beings.

It’s in that age, Aglet, that I’ll tell you of the delightful days when was young, and getting together and drinking caffeinated beverages was the thing to do. My own parents got me started on it and thought nothing of it–how they’d just reduced their daughter to one of those weirdos who is bummed out all day FOR NO REASON except they’re tired, also for no reason.

There’s almost always reasons, Aglet. People like to blame sad days on the weather, or their hormones, or not having had their fix (of coffee), but I’m not sure why we can’t just sometimes have sad days and admit there might be valid reasons for being sad.

It’s okay to be sad sometimes.

There are lots of reasons to be sad in this world, Aglet. They have a lot to do with how the world is and how the world ought to be, and all the myriad of instances where that doesn’t line up.

I forget how powerful words are, either to lift up or to tear down. They can also wear someone down, through a consistent negativity that’s like clockwork in its accuracy. A thoughtless or impatient word somehow comes out faster and easier than does a kind word.

Tonight my lovely mom–your great-grandmother–noticed I was down and came to the college to talk with me. She bought us ice cream and told me some stories about when she was in college. Later I did some talking, and she listened, and I realized that the kindest thing she’d done was to notice that I seemed sad and ask me about it.

How often do I take the time to ask people if they’re alright? I’m not saying I need to badger people to tell me every detail of what they’re thinking, but if I had to pick a thing that’s truly worth spending time on, it might be in making myself available to listen, or speak good words to someone. Not out of an attempt to fix them, as if being sad is always a thing we must fix (often we don’t have the power to heal their situations), but out of a consideration for the person. Out of a love for them.

My mom needed to do taxes tonight, and instead spent two and a half hours visiting over some ice cream. And oh, how I love her for it.

Caring for Daffodils

I’ve just gotten back from my house, where I watched a sweet, sad movie called Random Harvest with my family. The movie was terribly sweet, and terribly sad, and I cried three times during it. It was lovely.

This whole day was lovely–a reprieve from the Very Busy Person that school’s made of me for the past few weeks. And while a journal entry about the lovely Saturday I had isn’t the most interesting topic for a blog, it feels somehow worth recording. I’d like to remember this Saturday when I’m seventy. So, to whichever of Jo’s mental capacities is in charge of what memories to keep around for the next five decades, I’m telling you: keep this one, please.

I played soccer with my sister’s friends and, while I was not good, and while one of the little girls honestly resigned herself to the prospect of being on my team with “Well, I guess I’ll be doing all the work,” I did try. I ran. I hustled. I tried. And it felt glorious.

Before the soccer, I’d gone home to enjoy the beautiful, spring-ish weather. My dad was clearing vines and dead leaves from a flower bed, and offered me the clippers, telling me that anything was fair game–except the blueberry. Maybe don’t cut down the blueberry, he said. So I didn’t.

I started reflecting on things while I was crouched down in the flower bed, in among the daffodils and wild onions, clearing out the dead leaves and rot, but oh-so-carefully lest I pull up something blooming. It felt so good to get my hands dirty with something clearly useful, instead of running around like a headless chicken trying to meet a bunch of deadlines. I felt so tired of school–and I like learning. I have just gotten tired, lately.

It felt good to be working with my hands instead of working for a grade. I like the prospect of clearing away dead things to make room for green, living things. It’s what I want to be known for–valuing life, helping others, caring for small things. In a small way, it’s what I’m trying to do with those abstract papers and theses and schoolwork–trying to work out what is life-giving, and what ideas are worth living and dying for.

I think people are worth living and dying for.  Maybe more so than ideas. And I’m just rambling now–probably the movie I watched is helping me be more emotional than I’d be otherwise–but goodness. I would like to love people better than I do; to be more concerned with helping them grow and with giving them life than with anything else I can think of. I’d rather not think so much of who all recognizes me or knows my name or whether I am ever famous. What I want to do with my life is clear away some of the rot and help the daffodils grow. You’ve got to be careful with daffodils, if you really like them.

This is pure emotion talking now, and I’m sorry if I’m not making much logical sense. But when I was standing there in the daffodils, I was watching my parents talk with our new neighbors. There were kids all over our yard–my sister and her friends, the neighbors’ children. I was proud to be my parents’ daughter, because my mom and dad were just being themselves, getting to know someone new. Being kind is such a quiet thing, mostly.

Tomorrow’s Sunday, and I don’t know what you think about church. If you don’t go, I hope and pray you find somewhere you can go. If you do go to church, I have a request for you. Please, please. Find someone you don’t know much at all–maybe someone you’ve never even met. And ask them their name. And if they’re shy, well, then, be careful and extra kind, but don’t give up. Tell them your name, and tell them how glad you are that they came. Try to get to know someone, if you can.

That movie I watched tonight was about memory, about loss and restoration, and how sometimes we miss people without even knowing it. About how precious life is. Curiously enough, those things are also what my senior thesis aims to be about (although technically I’m taking a break from that this weekend so I shouldn’t even mention it).

Life is precious.