solitude is an OK thing to need

The Atlantic did not have to be the one to tell me.

I did not, necessarily, need to read it from the pen of artists who have already ‘made it,’ but I suppose I believed it more easily. I was quick to let the words resonate – to make my solitude-seeking legitimate and unselfish and regular. Maybe it was just that title, “What Great Artists Need: Solitude” that made me first click through to the lengthy article. I want to be a great artist someday (everyday) and I will gladly take all pieces of free, expert advice.

And so Dorthe Nors tells me she learned about needing solitude from the creative genius of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. In addition to having a very interesting name, Bergman is known for directing somewhere around sixty films and documentaries. But Nors points to his writing in The Atlantic article.

All of it resonated, but some little bits are still haunting me almost two weeks later. Because I do battle with solitude. Every time I plan a party or agree to a coffee date there are moments (and sometimes many) when I want to cancel. I want to turn inside myself because it is easier and because I’m out of energy and because there is no way I can attempt all the creative things on my to-do list if I am never alone. Let’s be honest – forget creative… I won’t get to the practical things either like cleaning out the fridge or fixing our bathroom door so it closes or worrying about the baby mouse I have seen scurry across our kitchen floor twice.

Alone time is good to get things like your kitchen and your bathroom and your soul in order. Solitude should not always get the leftovers because many times it is where we do serious business with the demons in our lives. Nors writes,

“Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.

It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you’ve experienced in your life become the writing that you do. And there’s no easy way to get to it, if you want to write literary fiction.

And that’s what Bergman and other Swedish writers have taught me—to stay in that painful zone, discipline myself through it to get where I want.”

This is what Swedish authors are teaching Nors and what Nors is teaching me. It does take courage to be alone – and not just for the baby mouse that needs to be caught in my kitchen. I am a petty person and cowardly and all kinds of ugly. If I’m never alone, I never really feel the weight of those things I am. Nors talks about something Bergman wrote in one of his journals, compiled in a book called Images,

“Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.”

It’s not even about creating the kind of literary fiction that will be remembered like Bergman and Nors. It’s about having the imprint of eternity on our souls… and knowing that the eternal imprint is never contained by a body or inside a day.

It’s a too much feeling that not all the words in all the world could explain. But it is a tension that doesn’t need explanation as much as it needs space.

Rest. Tension. Time. Space. Struggle.

All this, my solitude-seeking, could also be related to my search for Sabbath rest. Artist or not, we all need that.

It was a jumble of reasons that landed me in the middle of reflections on solitude and Sabbath as I read the lessons Dorthe Nors learned from Ingmar Bergman. But, I guess I get it. It is good to be with people, but it is good to be alone – to fight against the too much pushing free of my chest. It is good to do battle with the space between my silent face and an empty ceiling. It is good to sit with the painful, weighty bits of humanity inside that remind me I am weak and poor and ill-equipped for everything I try.

It is good to make space enough for a full swing of the only sword fashioned to win against such a mighty weight, such a mighty too much.

when eyelids protest at half-mast

Sometimes, in a season of late winter nights and early chilled mornings, my eyelids protest at half-mast to honor the sleep they have been denied. Sometimes, I am more gauche than my unusually high average. I leave pancakes on the hot stovetop in the morning and I spontaneously hit up galleries in Manhattan looking like disaster and I lean over to check the hot water when my roommate inserts this phrase calmly into the story she was telling,

“… ‘is your scarf on fire? your scarf is ON FIRE”

These are real life stories of my real life self. And, surprisingly, I am not more graceful at half-mast. After forcing my eyes into alert and screaming like a scared child, I hopped back and forth and swiped at the sparks jumping around my neck. So smooth.

And last night, half-mast style, I sat my gray dress down with a beer in the kitchen while a roomful of wonderful people enjoyed macaroons and comedy in Patrick’s tiny living room with no seating. I crossed my legs on the food-covered wood floor and admired the fact that I was still wearing uncomfortable heels… and the fact that the macaroon making party wasn’t a complete disaster and mostly the fact that there was a successful gathering of friends and strangers and neighbors laughing in the other room.

My second wind came eventually and it carried me through until 4:30 am, when we walked into my apartment after I lost to Patrick (but within respectable reach) in the game Ticket to Ride Europe Edition.

On a regular basis, I am wrestling the wind instead of feeling the breeze. I don’t know if one is better than the other, maybe they are equal and equally good. But these are real life stories about my real life self.

We really did invite 20 people into Patrick’s apartment last night to whisk egg whites into stiff peaks and blend $15 almond meal with powdered sugar and cocoa. I really did attempt a very specific recipe that reads “difficulty: hard” with a bunch of people who were varying levels of comfortable in the kitchen. But that didn’t really matter, because it was all set up on a 2×10 piece of wood on top of two chairs next to the bookcase in the living room.

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Wrestling the wind is risky.

I’m never sure where I will get thrown and if the landing will be safe. In a literal sense, Patrick thinks I should get renter’s insurance and never leave the stove when I turn it on. As an analogy, I don’t think insurance is an option.

Sitting next to Patrick in the kitchen last night listening to the laughter in the other room, I knew that wrestling the wind was worth it. Chocolate disasters and recipe improvisations and floor seating… all of it. I guess life and fullness is about inviting people in to messes as much as it is inviting people in to order.

We are all amateurs at life, at least everyone I have met. Our lives are not storyboarded like a Kinfolk photo essay. The recipes we attempt are not always delicious and sometimes we have to throw something away and start from scratch (during the dinner party). Our apartments don’t have seating enough for a crowd more than three. We spill wine and say the wrong thing and misspell macaroon. We are all amateurs at life and it is okay to be honest about all the ways we are not “adult.”

Maybe I’ll never have a full day to prepare for a party. Maybe I won’t ever feel confident about the space I invite people into or my attempts to make them feel “at home,” but my attempts as I wrestle the wind are worth it because of the laughter in the other room.

I think God means for us to live together like amateurs, to invite each other into chocolate disasters and ill-fitted living rooms. I hope I don’t ever get old enough or adult enough to stop learning these lessons. I am listening to the protests of my half-mast eyes and I will sit to feel the breeze soon, but right now I’m surveying the scene where the wind has thrown me. And it looks good.

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we are chance creators

There is this thing in soccer called “chances created.” It’s a statistic that tracks how many times a soccer player has created chances for plays. I heard about it yesterday at church because our pastor’s favorite soccer player is known for his “chances created” statistic.

And this matters because the friends of the paralyzed man in Matthew 9:1-8 were about creating chances. They knew that carrying their friend to the door of the home where Jesus was preaching was not enough. The crowd craned their necks from all windows and doorways to see and hear the teaching; there was no way to get their friend to the front where Jesus stood.

Oh, sure, they could have turned back and no one would have asked why. But they were about creating chances – they were determined to get their friend to the feet of Jesus because they thought something unbelievable could happen.

There was no guarantee, just a chance to witness something beautiful.

And that belief was big enough to motivate their deconstructing a roof and their Macgyvering a lowering system to interrupt Jesus’ teaching with the presence of a disabled man.

The presence of Jesus was that important.

They created a chance for their paralyzed friend to meet Jesus because they believed it could change his life forever. Even just the chance was worth the sweat and trouble and questioning stares. Worth it.

Do I think getting uncomfortable and awkward and tired is worth the chances it creates for others to meet Jesus?

Good question.

Sometimes I waste time weighing out my options. I wonder if the invitations will be received well and if the conversation will be offensive. I wonder about future conversations and wonder if I will keep or lose friendships. I wonder about looking silly and feeling ashamed. I wonder about how much the other person even wants a chance to meet Jesus.

But these guys, they were relentless. And when their paralyzed friend finally got lowered down with the Bible times version of duct tape and WD 40, Jesus surprised everyone.

He looked past the paralyzed man’s obvious and most debilitating physical need. He looked past the years of struggle and got inside his heart… and what He saw needed forgiving. Whatever it was, we can all relate. We are all the paralyzed man, inside. We all need to get to the foot of Jesus so He can expose what is dark apart from any physical anxieties that knot us up on the outside.

So, this was the man’s chance at the feet of Jesus – his chance to experience something that would transform everything else about his mat-constrained life. And then Jesus healed this paralyzed man of sin. He forgave him for all the darkness hiding out in his heart. That was the magic and that was the mystery – the play that happened as a result of the chance created.

After the crowd backlashed and questioned, Jesus also healed the man’s physical body so that “you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” He is Lord over the spiritual and the physical. All of it, everything.

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Abraham Kuyper

This is why we are chance creators.

Because God is the best at unearned surprises – the eternal and physical, the now and future, the simple and complex kinds. He is the best at surprises and we must be about creating chances for friends and neighbors and strangers to sit at His feet.

We don’t know what will happen, but it will never be bad.
God will always be glorified and it will always be worth it.

Definitely love your local church, but if you want to be encouraged by mine, listen to this sermon from Sunday by Vito!

there is no master puppeteer

It happens to everyone’s life.

We think we’ve wrangled enough control away from the arms of fate to coordinate our own puppet strings. We convince ourselves we are more secure this way – directing our own destinies. If the pace gets too frantic, we say it is because we want it to be that way. If it is too slow, we say the same.

We are all trying to “make it” and none of us want to fail. That explains the mad wrangling to be master puppeteer. But that means somewhere, in the middle of the dead of winter’s whirlwind, we lift up our stringless arms like we’ve seen them for the first time. We realize there are no puppets and no Master Puppeteer. We realize the fate controlling position we have been desperate to maintain is not a position at all.

It doesn’t matter if the ways we want to “make it” are worldly or heaven worthy. It doesn’t matter if our aspirations are corporate ladders or non-profit puzzles. It doesn’t matter whether or not we are clever. It doesn’t even matter if we have felt success.

What matters is that somewhere, in the middle of the dead of winter’s whirlwind, we see that only God is sovereign.

Maybe in theory, we always knew. We read the verses and heard the sermons and listened to friends’ humbled tales. We looked up at that great blue expanse and at the speckled night sky. We blinked eyes open in the morning and held joy in our hands. In theory, we always knew this world was too mysterious and painful and beauty-drenched to be contained by strings we could hold.

The devil in us convinced us it was possible and we believed.

But there’s something about winter that unravels the belief that we can control anything. Maybe it is standing on a subway platform wondering if our ten toes are still in tact. Or maybe it is trudging miles every day against the wind to catch public transit so we can make it 3.7 miles across the borough. Maybe it is lugging laundry 3 blocks away in wintry snow/rain mix. Or maybe it is gaining weight and wearing layers like marshmallows.

And when winter does unravel this foolish belief that we can be the Master Puppeteer (and that there is such a thing at all), we collapse a little bit with a great sigh. We fold into relief that it doesn’t depend on our performance or our planning. We re-read the words we’ve already memorized in Scripture and we nestle in to a future we cannot control.

“My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:19

“Let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.”
1 Corinthians 3:21-23

“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
John 15:7

“In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.”
John 16:23-24

“Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”
Mark 11:24

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.”
Ephesians 1:3

“Whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.”
1 John 3:22

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
2 Corinthians 5:21

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
2 Corinthians 5:17

“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
Ephesians 3:20-21

“God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.”
2 Corinthians 9:8

“Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation.”
Psalm 68:19

We bless the Lord who daily bears our burdens – not as a Puppeteer but as a Savior. We bless the Lord as we claim His control over the future and the past and the present. We bless the Lord as we live today believing He is able to make grace abound.

the art of being fully present

I’m here.

I’m a bunch of bundled winter layers, waddling around this city’s concrete maze with dancing feet to fight from freezing. But, I’m here. I’m sitting through the winter with NYC like she’s undergoing snow-capped surgery. I’ll be here when she wakes up in the Spring and I’ll be ready to unleash all the frozen energy of my hibernation. But for now, I’m here.

And I’m learning that presence is a big deal.

God must have thought so when He sent His only Son to be fully present in a messy world. There is something special about walking dusty paths and rubbing elbows at dinners and swapping conversation in the synagogues… something special about God choosing to send Emmanuel (literally, God with us) to be present in all the daily grind of things.

But sometimes being present is a slow suffocation – like a packed, silent subway car or an empty apartment or a long walk between the B44 and the A train. It’s hard to sit still, hard to think slowly, and hard to listen. Even now, I am filling the hour in between work and Club with jazz, seasoned sauteed mushroom/pepper scramble, and this post.

I wonder how Jesus lived fully present, fully inside the moment right in front of Him.

Last Sunday, our pastor talked about presence being the most important gift we can give because it is the most important gift we have received. Christ gave Himself. When it was awkward and hard and one-sided, He gave Himself and found delight in knowing it pleased His Father.

This kind of being is not easy. Sometimes, it feels forced or foolish or fumbling. It feels like all those things a lot to me. But, at least when I’m brave enough to try it, my pastor’s words are right. It is beautiful and I want to do better.

I need grace to live more fully present – to give myself when it’s awkward and hard and one-sided. I need grace to keep posting Pancake Monday signs on neighbors’ doors and handing them to friends. I need grace to know how to listen well. I need grace to fight the urge to hide away and grace to be honest when that is exactly what I most want.

I need grace and God loves to pour it out. 

Life here feels like a novel written in stream of consciousness style, dreaming and waking and working all weave together with fragmented threads. But God has grace enough to shake me free of all the clutter. He has grace to invite me to receive the gift of His presence and to learn how to give the way He gave.

The art of being fully present means giving myself away like Jesus did, trusting that God is faithful to fill me up and overwhelm me with delight.

hey love, why you gotta be so hard?

Sooner or later, twitterpated wears off.

Maybe some dating couples sneak into marital bliss before this happens, but I’ve heard few of those true tales. I’m still asking around. But when the twitterpated wears off, by some miracle, I’m supposed to remain satisfied in my first love while trying to love someone else well. Truly, this love dance must involve miracles.

Because all of a sudden, it’s not just about moving across the country to see Patrick more than once every couple months. All of a sudden, it’s about weekly routines and juggling independence and fighting demons well hidden in my singleness. Turns out, I’m not as flexible or as humble or as generous as I had made myself believe.

Turns out, being supremely content and fulfilled in the Lord is not a milestone you run past toward a far off finish.

Of course, I knew those things when I was flying solo. I knew where joy came from and that it never runs out and that I need new doses every day, all day. But somehow in the mix of a cross country move and getting to know an amazing man, I forgot.

I forgot that God has called me beloved and I am His. I forgot that His promises are trustworthy, but His trustworthiness only feels abundant if I believe it. I forgot there are pleasures forevermore in His presence. I forgot that depending on anything or anyone else for life and breath is foolishness.

I’m living through that lesson – the lesson that love is hard. Unattached, involved, or committed forever – love is hard. The vantage point does not matter, because the object of our highest affections is most important. If I really believe that His love is best, my heart is full before I go on a date with Patrick and before I miss him when he is away. My heart is full because I am called beloved by someone who has the power to grant true contentment – the kind you can sigh into on a snow day in your favorite flannel shirt.

Being satisfied in Jesus is a miracle, but it is not an event.

It is not a part of my chronological love story, the part where I say, “…and then I just felt so content to be single…” God’s provision is too good and His love is too precious to be a tick mark on a timeline. I’m learning a lot, about being vulnerable and honest and bold as I let someone else see my messes. But what I’m learning most is that I will only love well if I love Christ first.

When I want to be selfish or sassy or secretive, the answer is not to love Patrick better but instead to love Christ first. When I feel insecure or scared or anxious, the answer is not to expect Patrick to hold me up but instead to believe God already has and promises to remain steadfast. I’m learning I am just not strong enough to reform myself. It never works out in the end.

The crazy thing about this whole humility lesson is that it frees me to really enjoy the gifts in front of my face – like his laughter and our spontaneous adventures and the way he says, “Hey” when he opens his apartment door. 

Being satisfied in Jesus is a miracle and I hope my heart is always ready to receive it – unattached, involved, or committed forever.

So I kind of get it, I guess. Love has to be hard because we would miss out if it was easy. We would not see how brilliant or sovereign the Lord is when He orchestrates the miracles that make love happen. If love was easy, my heart would forget completely how much I need a perfect Savior.

above, below, within

It feels good to be tucked inside my parents’ country farmhouse, away from apartment supers and monthly subway passes and all the financial details about adult life I would rather avoid. It feels good to be under someone else’s roof, especially two someone elses who somehow manage to make frugal feel abundant. We feast and play and laugh and revel in holiday spirit and there is always something in the cupboard to throw into the pot on the stove.

And it has me thinking about living above, below and within my means.

I remember having a phone conversation with my dad after his first mission trip to Kenya. He said, “Caroline, we have so much here. We just don’t have any idea. We can easily live on so much less than we do but we choose toys and vacations and excess instead.”

That was years ago.

I am typing out this post today while wearing a brand new pair of ice skates my dad found at a thrift store. It wasn’t even a Christmas gift. It’s just because he is a giver. He could do a lot of things with the money he makes in his second (or third?) career, but he and my mom choose to live like he is still milking 50 cows. Because they want to be givers.

My parents will always be one of my favorite studies as I try to figure out how to be a giver. It really doesn’t matter what I am making or the bills demanding payment. It’s about a heart condition. It’s about being ruled by anything or anyone other than the infant King.

So, how do I calculate intangible glorious riches into my budget? How do I prize what Jesus prized and value treasure that does not rust? How do I make my bank account better reflect those kind of priorities, without feeling like my bank account needs to have a giant cushion between it and negative numbers? (Or any sort of cushion at all).

I’m not sure, but I want to be a giver.

I always want to have enough to add another plate to the table. My Grandma Avonell was famous for that kind of abundance. She never turned away a stranger or a neighbor from the heavy oak table that now sits in my parents’ dining room.

Add a leaf to the table and water to the soup, because giving is always within our means.

Feeling poor is hard and it makes my generation uncomfortable. We don’t want to struggle… but if we have to, we don’t want anyone else to know about it. In NY, we don’t want our friends to see our sparsely furnished, cramped apartments or notice our hand-me-down trends. In Iowa, we don’t want our friends to know we are still renting or without a retirement fund. Everywhere, we fight hard to look like we get to enjoy the things of people with means.

We want the instagrammed vacations and the airport selfies. We want the newest version of the riding boot to pair with our pinterested ensemble. We don’t want to struggle and, I guess, who would?

I’m still in advent mode, still reflecting on the miracle of God planning from the beginning of time to send His only Son to earth as a baby… to later suffer and die.

It was the most extreme case of living below his means. He was a king with the deepest trust fund, royalty with the most lucrative inheritance, but he was a helpless baby in a crude manger born in the middle of nowhere. And this was God’s plan.

God intended struggle and suffering when He emptied His Son of everything royal in order to pour out royalty onto an undeserving creation.

I’m trying to understand how to joyfully choose struggle and suffering with the small sum in my bank account. God was not stingy with the greatest treasure and He was not arm twisted into giving. It was God’s delight to send love through His Son. He sent Love out of His great love … and then Jesus struggled and suffered “for the joy set before Him.”

I’m not good with numbers, but this means conversation is a heart condition that I want to figure out. I want to be a giver when it hurts and when it is easy. I want to be a giver when it doesn’t make sense and when it is obvious. I want to be a giver when what I really want is to be everything else.

The heart condition of a giver is really about belief. Do I believe God is a Provider – in Iowa and NYC and in harder to reach places? Do I believe God gives good gifts to His children and do I believe He has already given the best and most valuable gift?

I’m praying my heart into belief – belief that above, below, and within is a conversation that is not too big or complicated for the Lord.