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18Feb

My Own Personal Tuscan Blitzkrieg

For Valentine’s this year, Dan gave me something I’ve hinted (except without the subtlety part) about wanting for ages: a few days away from home by myself with absolutely no responsibilities other than taking dictation from my muse. No one except myself to feed or clothe or deodorize. No interruptions. No need to operate on a normal or even a sane schedule. My own personal Tuscan writer’s retreat.

I couldn’t have arranged it any better than Dan did. He booked me a room in a tiny hillside town that I’ve visited before (i.e. – no pressure for me to sightsee) and loaded up a grocery bag with tea and chocolate and sandwich fixings and ramen “nudolini.” I asked him about a thousand times if he was sure he and the girls would be fine, and he assured me a thousand times that not only were they going to be fine but that they were going to party it up and have company every day. (While the introvert is away…) The man has often outdone himself in the gift department, but this one left me particularly wobbly-kneed.

We kissed goodbye, and I drove off into the Monday morning sunshine last week dreaming of my return trip in three days’ time, at which point I would have twenty or thirty—or hell, why not two hundred?—brand new single-spaced pages saved to my hard drive. The prospect of focusing and digging into my current writing projects felt like a giddy secret. I was so going to win at this thing.

If you have any experience reading stories, you’ll know that that last sentence portends doom.

The champagne bubbles trailing across my imagination lasted until the moment I had finished unpacking my suitcase. I looked around my hotel room, realized with an awful kind of clarity that I would now be spending 84 hours in my own company, and began losing my mind. Truly, that’s the best way I can describe what happened. My brainwaves began to scatter like so many spooked chipmunks. Thoughts dropped out of my head the minute I reached for them and began running up walls, scrabbling under doors, whirling themselves down drains, and tucking themselves into the impenetrable sheet folds at the foot of my bed.

I went to bed at 8:00 that night with exactly three sentences written, each one of which had required an unmedicated wisdom tooth extraction of the soul. My plan was to bid this day good riddance and get up at 4 the next morning with all of my brain cells back in their proper places and waves of inspiration lapping my fingers. I couldn’t explain what had gone wrong so far, but I was sure it was nothing that a good night’s sleep couldn’t cure.

This may actually have been true.

I wouldn’t know though. That night, I managed about two hours of total sleep, snatched in fifteen-minute increments while insomnia was on coffee break. I can only remember two other nights of my life dragging by so agonizingly, and both of them involved childbirth. This time, it wasn’t my uterus taking me hostage but a mind that had turned as spastic as a volcano full of Pop Rocks. My 4 a.m. wakeup call came and went in a fog of despair that pleated itself as firmly as hotel sheets around the corners of my room.

By lunchtime the next day, I’d realized that this retreat wasn’t going to be a “retreat” at all. Not if I stayed, that is. Every minute of that morning, I’d had to consciously beat back the impulse to give up, and not just to give up on the projects I was[n’t] currently working on but to give up on writing altogether, on the idea of ever again sitting down in a quiet space with the intention of creating. Fears that I had never seen before came scuttling out of shadowed cortexes. Writing, the creative outlet I took up out of pure joie de vivre when I was five, was suddenly the most terrifying construct in the whole world, and I wanted nothing more than to drive home and pretend this getaway had never happened.

I couldn’t have been more bewildered by how my writing retreat was going than if I’d gone to Disney World and promptly been bludgeoned comatose by Winnie the Pooh.

[For the sake of your sanity and mine, this is gonna be a two-parter. Stay tuned! Oh, and if you’ve ever experienced similar terror over something you love to do, feel free to share. Misery loves company, even in retrospect.]

[Ed: Part 2 here.]

5Feb

That Kind of Week: Three Vignettes

The plumber our landlord always calls, whether due to some personal connection or plain ol’ thriftiness, came by last week to replace our crumbling sink pipes. We now have new pipes and a slow flood. While we wait for the landlord to return our calls (did he flee the country, perhaps?), we keep hanging sodden bath towels outside to drip under equally sodden skies. I think there’s probably a verse in Ecclesiastes that speaks to this.

The previous time that the plumber was here, he replaced our cracked toilet seat with one that has rusted-out hinges and slips sideways off the toilet when you’re not careful.

We are quaking over his return even as we pray for it to be soon.

/ / /

I realized during a sudden bout of filing that we were missing one of Natalie’s grade reports from two years ago. Fortunately, we live right across the street from the school district headquarters. Unfortunately, the school district director came out of her office just as the secretary was about to hand over a copy of the missing grades.

I think I can sum up the school district director in one sentence: Her first move after landing the position three years ago was to outlaw birthdays and parent participation in the schools.

This is not a woman who allows people to pick up copies of their children’s grades all willy-nilly. No, I’m only allowed to have a copy if I first go to the military police, “denounce” the grade report as missing (i.e. – stolen), and receive an official report from them confirming the theft.

I’m still not sure whether I’m more inclined to laugh myself silly over the situation or to become a cat burglar. I mean, really.

/ / /

Eleven years ago, I flew Iceland Air for the first time on my way to visit Italy. The seats did not come with movie screens, but there were radios built into the armrests. After consulting the in-flight magazine, I tuned to “Icelandic Children’s Music” because it was a genre I hadn’t even known existed. Two minutes later found me teary with laughter and Dan perplexed.

In vain did I search the in-flight magazine for the artist’s name, and in vain did I comb through Amazon MP3 samples later that summer for the song, so when I located it on Spotify yesterday, it was as the unearthing of a long-lost treasure.

For your listening pleasure (watch at least to the 45 second mark, though the 2 minute range is better):

According to the Stammtisch Beau Fleuve glossary, “The lyrics of Prumpufólkið [generally translated ‘The Farting People’] were written by the comedian Jón Gnarr, who also performed the dozen or so sound effects on that song. In 2010 he was elected mayor of Reykjavík.”

That might be my favorite thing I’ve read ever.

20Jan

A Sense of Somebodiness

I didn’t move for a long time this morning after listening to the Letter From A Birmingham Jail.

I’d read it before, but this was the first time I’d plugged in my ear buds and let the words roll in one by one, slowly enough to saturate and pool beneath my ribs. This is the first year that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has felt to me more like a movement than a memorial.

I have struggled with, and ultimately abandoned, many versions of this post over the last six months. The truth is that I’m a white girl from the South, and if I can speak about racial inequality from experience, it’s only because I know what it is to be on the pedestal. I was born onto it, as many were (and many more were not). I grew up so accustomed to its perimeter that I didn’t see it as anything out of the natural order of creation until somewhere much closer to adulthood than not.

After Ferguson, I listened like it was my job. I heard the chorus singing Look! Listen! This is real!, and I felt like I’d suffocate from the enormity of the truth I was hearing if I didn’t push it back out into the world with my own voice. Others were suffocating in real life though, and the last thing I wanted to do was to make #icantbreathe about myself. I couldn’t find a way to advocate that didn’t feel like trying to reclaim my pedestal.

Silence hasn’t sat well with me either though. The Letter From A Birmingham Jail was written to white moderates who were sympathetic to social justice issues but ultimately more concerned with not ruffling feathers. Meanwhile, the group being discriminated against by society were “so drained of self respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they [had] adjusted to segregation.” How a human soul can disintegrate in the silence of those with good intentions.

I know what it is to grow up on the pedestal, to be told that nothing stands between myself and the stars. Somebodiness is woven into the bedtime stories we tell our children. It’s as much a part of our vernacular as are confidence and constitutional rights. When I hear that kids are growing up absent of it or feeling their sense of personal relevance leeched from their bones by the same society that supported me, I want to push a refresh button until it all starts making sense. How can there still be inequality in 2015? How can “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” still be considered more important than putting wrongs to right?

It all swirled in the air around me after I finished listening to Dr. King’s words this morning, a complicated and deeply sobering nebula of past and present truths. I had no influence over the circumstances of my birth—the DNA braided into the pigment of my skin, the culture poised to catch me. Even now, it’s easy to think that I’m just a product of my environment, just a white girl with white privilege guilt who is no more capable of changing the world than she is of bustin’ a rhyme.

I know what a sense of somebodiness looks like though, and if Buechner is right about God calling us “to the place where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” then maybe this is where I can be the change—noticing where the lie of “nobodiness” has latched on in the environment around me and starting there, staying small, being willing to ruffle feathers at my own expense, giving up the comfort of silence if it means gaining even a millimeter toward a more just world. It’s not much, but it’s a start toward one of the truest portraits of heaven-on-earth I’ve ever heard:

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (from the end of his Letter From a Birmingham Jail)

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9Jan

Move It (Metaphorically Speaking)

Last weekend, we drove to an outlet mall a little ways out of town. I’d intended to use the opportunity for a nap, still feeling every bit a shadow wraith after our 4 a.m. New Year’s Eve, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery. Winter in Umbria is an unconventional beauty. They call this the Green Heart of Italy because of its evergreens—spruces nodding their tufted heads in time with junipers, cypresses straight-backed and regal—but I’m captivated by the deciduous trees as well, their line-drawn latticework against the blue, each birds’ nest the silhouette of a secret. White-tipped mountains smudge the horizon. In the foreground, tilled fields and olive groves follow the eccentric lilt of the landscape. Each town has a way of looking like it was grown here, stone towers and archways hugging the hilltops and the low winter sun fanning through. The general effect is that of a Van Gogh painting.

“Why don’t we go out exploring more often?” Dan asked me.

“Because we never have it on our schedule.”

As I answered, I thought about how easily a schedule can function as blinders, the parameters of my day confined to whatever I’ve planned out beforehand. I appreciate having a schedule, just as I appreciate lists and goal outlines and brainstorming diagrams and all manner of ISTJ-happy organizational strategies. I actually put “Apply makeup” on my to-do list for this morning, if that gives you an idea of how much satisfaction I find in mapping out every last moment. (Yes, I have problems.)

It’s easy to get stuck in a perpetual state of planning though. My focus can be so narrow and unaccepting of deviation that waking up in the morning can feel like staring down a ski chute. Did you see the “Best Ski Line of 2014” video going around a few weeks ago? Like that. The precision of it all has a way of paralyzing me, and it’s easier to keep refining my plan, adding more items to the list, and maybe going back to my brainstorming pages than it is to kick off.

Not getting things done, of course, leads to profound dissatisfaction at the end of a day, and not having space to maneuver beyond my schedule—going out with my family to explore the winter landscape, for instance—crushes. As I’ve been thinking this week about how to beat both the paralysis and the inflexibility in this new year, two words have come to mind: “Move it.” It’s a mantra, a motto, a ridiculously catchy children’s song, and a reminder. “Move it” means taking action, doing the things that I’m liable to keep putting off forever. It also means shaking a little, shimmying a lot, cultivating the art of wiggle room in my life.

I hadn’t really planned on coming up with a word (or, uh, a phrase) for 2015, but it seems like one found me all the same, my direction for the year now pirouetting like Van Gogh hills toward the horizon.

Winter in Umbria 4

P.S. – Have you picked a word or a phrase for the new year? I’d love to hear it!

5Jan

Resolution for the Un-Invincible

In college, I used to stay up all night so often that four a.m. almost lost its filter of delirium. Sometimes I’d put my favorite Ben Folds Five album on repeat while I caught up on work. Other times I stayed up for the pleasure of ambling down lamplit paths with a friend in the deep Texas hush. In retrospect, I can’t figure out if I’m glad that I befriended the night back when my only real responsibility was keeping up my grade point average or if I want to shake some sense into that college girl who didn’t recognize her perpetual exhaustion for what it was.

I still have to remind myself that the skinned-knee tenderness at the front of my emotions in the week following New Year’s Eve is fatigue, not inadequacy. It’s so easy to underestimate my need for rest. I see it clearly in my daughters, the link between sleep-deprival and total personal fragmentation, but my perspective blurs when I look at myself. Even all these years into adulthood, a part of me still insists on believing that grown-ups are superheroes.

If I were to adopt any one resolution this January, it would be this: to approach bedtime with mindfulness and gratitude instead of careless disregard.

This isn’t an easy one (though what resolution ever is?). There’s something prowling and nocturnal in my makeup, and the thinner the hours stretch, the easier it is for me to believe myself invincible. Time loses its price tag. I see the dark and the quiet as valuables that someone has left out on the curb, and I have to fight every thrifty, curious instinct in me to leave them be, to declare the day sufficient unto itself.

Right now, though, I’ve cleared enough of the post-holiday fatigue to remember just how smoothly the gears of life slip into place when I’ve gotten enough rest. This seems too basic and obvious a point to bother writing out until I consider how often I neglect it. Sometimes the simple truths of our biology are the hardest to approach with reverence or even acceptance. Thus the resolution: to end my days with gentle determination, to respect my own need to recharge, and to treasure sleep as if it were my greatest asset in 2015.

Because, in some ways, it is.


How about you? Any self-care strategies you’re focusing on in the new year?

31Dec

New Year’s in 2D

Traditionally, New Year’s Eve is personified as an old man with a pocket watch, but this day strikes me more as a teenager, awkward in orange vest and bowtie, manning a bin of disposable 3D glasses. There are plenty of pairs to go around and the promise of a year in review once we put them on. Inevitably, though, the red and blue cellophane lenses are wrinkled and the paper frames keep sliding down our noses and our visions have trouble adjusting to the depth and scope of what we’re seeing. Or is it just me?

I’m struggling to hold the entirety of 2014 in my gaze right now. As much as I treasure perspective and closure, I can’t seem to zoom out enough to get the shape of the year—all its triumphs and frustrations and the few big changes uncapping like matryoshka dolls to reveal an infinity of smaller ones. This is how it is every New Year’s Eve. My mind is still licking red and green sugar off its fingers and trying to remember what I used to do with myself before Christmas came to town.

I used to write. I know this much. I used to wake up in the morning with a thousand ideas straining against the confines of whatever responsible, grown-uppish tasks were scheduled for the day. I recently asked a friend looking into graduate programs (hi, K!) what kind of writing she was hoping to do, and she answered, “all of it.” I know exactly how she feels. The desire to make art out of inklings only gets stronger with time.

There’s the desire for community as well—to cultivate it always more, to live in our neighborhood and our church and our city as people invested in the outcomes. I did better at this in October and November, but I also ended up flat in bed with my breath clenched tight around a runaway heartbeat. I need to learn to do smaller more deeply.

There are so many other bits of myself, past, present, and future, bobbing around my periphery, indistinguishable from one another in 3D. Trying to pin down the nuances of this past year keeps pulling me straight into the next on the same threads of hope, and I wonder if that’s all New Year’s Eve should be after all—a surge of forward momentum, a hello.

Real live snowflakes are waltzing around my window right now (a once-every-two-years kind of sight here in central Italy), and tenderloin is roasting for a low-key evening with friends. The girls are in the next room chatting in the vein of sisters who will never, ever run out of things to say to each other. Dan is cooking lunch; glory be. My fingers are typing out the rust, and a whole new year is waiting in the wings, and it’s enough. My year doesn’t have to be processed in reverse to be complete. Sometime in the future I’ll look back and see the perimeter of 2014 backlit clearly by hindsight, but it doesn’t need to happen today, whatever the kid with the bin of disposable glasses says.

Here’s to the hope-threads stretching ahead, to every bright possibility we’ll be toasting at midnight. Welcome, 2015!

Merry Christmas 2014(And however you celebrate, happiest of holidays from the four of us!)

5Dec

Chains Shall He Break

No hymn has ever gotten to me the way O Holy Night does. In fact, I tend to get itchy around hymns in general, but something about this one strums a resonant chord straight into my solar plexus and out the other side. If I were a good evangelical, I’d call it powerful. (And if I were a sufficiently ironic hipster, I’d call it trippy.) Admittedly, gaping-chest-wound is not the feel one usually looks for in Christmas songs, but there are some years when it’s a deep comfort, when getting busted open by lyrics about social justice and hope helps to make sense of all the other things busting our world apart.

This is one of those years.

You know what I’m talking about, I expect. Michael Brown’s and Tamir Rice’s and Eric Garner’s faces have been on the news here in Italy too, and I glance at the TV over my treadmill and feel another crack splintering across the surface of my heart. This ache has no borders.

I’ve been reading some of the stories and avoiding some, and each has its price. When I wade into the details of tragedy, I feel as though they’ll suffocate me. When I choose not to read though, to give myself a break from all the heartache, I’m distancing myself from a reality that dear friends of mine don’t have the option of escaping. My inability to breathe is only figurative. Not a real possibility. Not the script of realest loss.

I’m doing my best to listen to those who have the most to teach me right now, and what they’re saying is that racism and systematic oppression are not confined to the past. That Christianity is still very much a platform for prejudice. That people whose skin color makes them look threatening actually have far more reason to feel threatened by mine. That whatever pain I might feel over the injustice I see in the world, it can’t compare with the pain of those actually experiencing it. That my voice right now matters more than I realized.

O Holy Night is cycling through my headphones again, and the words press up against the raw of this week:

“Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease”

My mind can’t fathom what it would be like for all oppression to cease, but my soul has an inkling, and it feels like no coincidence that the first candle of Advent stands for hope—that “thing with feathers” which fills the dark with music and helps us believe against all reason and experience that one day we will recognize each other as kin.

None of us, I imagine, was hoping to spend these holiday weeks busted open and aching. This is about as far from tinsel as a soul can get. That doesn’t mean we’ve derailed from the season though. I especially appreciate Christena Cleveland’s recent thoughts on Advent:

“It was into this ‘worst world’ that the Light-in-which-We-See-Light was born, liberating the people from the terror of darkness. So it is in the midst of our worst world that we, too, can most clearly see the Light, for light shines more brightly against a backdrop of true darkness.”

Or, as Sarah Bessey puts it, “Advent is for the ones who know longing.”

This December, the weariness of our world is real to me as it never has been before. Not to say that violence or oppression are new arrivals, but I’m listening more closely this year. I’m willing my eyes to follow the threads of inequality woven deep, deep into the fabric of society and throughout my own thinking as well. I’m absorbing the stories of people (including friends) who have been harassed for being #alivewhileblack. I’m doing my best to engage with the discomfort instead of ignoring or rationalizing it away. I’m grieving, not with the same weight of experience but nonetheless with those who are grieving right now.

And it’s this year more than any other that Emmanuel, God-with-us, feels like a lifeline to this whole spinning, busted-open planet. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. A thrill of hope that one day, the first light of morning will spill over a humanity-sized heap of broken chains.

The weary world rejoices.


(If you can get past the organ music and the videography, this performance might just punch a hole through your solar plexus too.)

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