there is a crack in the door filled with light

If God is on my side, who could be against me?

I’ll tell you who – apathy and grief and sadness and confusion and depression and discontent, especially discontent. That’s who. These are all “against me.”

It’s gonna get good and honest, friends. First, you should play this song by NEEDTOBREATHE that I danced to in my living room last week. I didn’t even care that the curtains weren’t all the way closed and our 5-feet-away neighbors could probably see me stretching out in homemade modern dance moves on slippery hardwood floors. It’s okay, they clearly don’t care that we can see them.

Well, this is officially the weirdest part of my grief story (does it keep getting weirder?) – the part where I am still living, where I still have appointments and things coming up on the weekends and plans for this summer. This is the weirdest part of grief and it wrings at my insides usually when I am least prepared. Like when we watched a beautiful, northern New York sun sink behind mountains on Sunday or every time I walk in the door after a full day of work and see the excitement in my husband’s eyes because I am home.

People will find me after this post – perfectly lovely and well meaning folks – and they will say, “Give yourself time, Caroline. Give yourself grace to feel whatever you need to feel.” I get that, or at least I think I am starting to. But, I also feel the Spirit telling me to preach Romans to my fickle heart. Grief isn’t a trump card to “do whatever you want until you feel like doing something else.” I don’t get to sin that grace might increase.

And it isn’t all grief. That is the worst part.

I think am afraid of being content. I am afraid, I guess, that being “ok” where I am professionally, creatively, and intellectually means I have given up on everything I haven’t accomplished. I think I was/am afraid that this is it. I guess I want what everyone else wants: purpose, joy, fulfillment, significance. And grief makes me want all those things more while sapping my strength to chase like I could when I was less weary. So, I am afraid to be fully where I am if that place is too humble or too confused or even just too regular.

But there is a crack in the door filled with light.

I am learning about joy. There have been sweet times in my life where I think I felt the full freedom of joy and then there are times when I would rather slum it in the wasteland then turn my head towards the light. I would rather proudly declare the things that are dark than step into the light of the open doorway. Marriage is teaching me these things about joy and it is painful. I didn’t think I would be so resistant to my own benefit.

Pat is so patient and encouraging as I sort out my grumbles. He reminds me often that joy is a choice because God is not different in dark times. God is not less light or less provision. God is the same and He is all we need to get by, really.

There is a beautiful story in the Old Testament, one of my favorites. It’s actually in that long and tedious book of Numbers (21). The Israelites, all grumbles, are out in the desert. The whole freshly exodus-ed group was telling Moses they thought it would be better to be slaves in Egypt than to wander around in the wilderness (as free people with miracle food falling from heaven). Then they started to notice snakes at their ankles, snakes that bit people and bites that took their lives. The people came back to Moses and pleaded for him to do something – to speak on their behalf to God (who they knew they had offended). God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent on a pole and to tell the people that whoever would look up at the pole would live. And that’s what happened – some looked up and some didn’t, but the snakes still swerved at their ankles.

I really relate to this grumble-heavy waywardness. After being saved from a tyrant and preserved in the wilderness, the Israelites doubt that God can/will provide for them, for their joy. To experience God’s provision, the people had to obey His Word. The snakes stayed, but He saved those who believed His word because God is a promise keeper.

I wonder… I wonder how they talked about that snake-saving event – if later they said, “I am looking at the bronze serpent and I am not dying, but boy are there so many snakes around my ankles.” Because, that’s where I feel I am.

My pride keeps me from stepping into the light of joy because I really like to remember how hard it is with all these snakes. It’s hard to fully step into the provision of marriage joy and work joy and friendship joy and creation joy… because half my heart wants to talk about snakes at my ankles.

The point of “God is on my side” is not that there is no one against me. The point is that God is sovereign over everything that is against me. There is not a single snake or emotion or creative brick wall that is more powerful or able to steal the joy God provides. If God is on my side, which snake can prevail?

I’d like to stand in that crack of the door filled with light – to make statements about joy that aren’t quickly qualified by snakes at my ankles. I’d like to bring the grief and grumpiness of me into that shaft of light and believe that His light is  enough to cast out all darkness forever.


Find all our grief notes at this link and join with my family as we mourn in hope.

things that remind us the world is not completely in order

I attended a training at Google yesterday on 8th Avenue. A friendly someone escorted us past the motion sensitive entrance gates at security and down the hallway to the elevator, where we went up to the 10th floor. The building bustled with activity, but it didn’t feel like the working gears of the world’s biggest search engine. It just felt like an office building with interesting interior.

The training was a crash course in Google Apps for non-profits, so the little, charitable guys can make good use of the technology the big guys are using to maximize profits and percentages and growth. There were just a handful of us, maybe 20, spread out in the giant auditorium space on the engineering floor. Our questions revealed few of us to be tech-savvy and all of us to be interested in what Google offers to non-profit organizations for free.

The presenter spoke over and in between some pipe banging and construction that sounded like it was happening in the next room. And then the videos in her presentation would not play… and then she had to open up the presentation in another format, and a few slides later the same issue happened again, and then that ridiculous countdown message popped up in the lower right-hand corner telling her to reboot or else.

I felt horrible because I have stood in the same place, in front of students or families or colleagues, with a technology-dependent presentation. Being from non-profits and familiar with these kinds of re-routing scenarios, several attendees gave suggestions and computer advice to the woman from the Ad Sales Department at Google. She was gracious and we were gracious and we all got through the glitches with a fine understanding of what the Google Suite could offer our non-profit.

The irony of technology glitches inside Google is somehow comforting. Technology doesn’t work perfectly all the time for anybody, it doesn’t matter who you are. And people are people, in big buildings and little buildings, skyscrapers and crowded flats the world over.

Life’s got glitches and no one is exempt.

I guess I just feel a solidarity in the struggle. The little struggles, like technology glitche,s and the bigger existential struggles, like systemic glitches in humanity. We spend a lot of time getting rid of glitches, minimizing the struggle and minimizing discomfort but it never seems to be completely resolved. We can never get clean away from those things that remind us that this world is not completely in order.

I’ve probably leaped too far this morning, but I had to wrap this up before work and I leave in 3 minutes.

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.

to look up and believe that anything is possible

We were all little underneath the bigness of the tall trees in the Virginian forest, but she was the littlest. Emma was an easy and obvious target for our attention, frolicking her 2-year-old self in the colorful, autumn glory.

I got a little bit caught up watching her eyes dart from leaves to trees to path to playground. I got a little bit caught up chasing the heels of her adventure – a present and ready endeavor. But it wasn’t thoughtful or intentional, because the adventurous spark in Emma’s eyes was intuitive.

What else would one do with a perfect autumn day underneath tall trees filled to brimming with all colors of leaves?

Emma told us, “I’m gonna fly to the treetops and touch them!”

And before I could think to say what I felt (Yes, yes you are!), she mustered a jump and extended her fingers above her head to squeal, “got one!”

Of course she did.

Today, a man was slicing up a giant fish on the sidewalk when I walked by the 2/5 train stop on Winthrop. Today, the sun melted into hot pink on the horizon as I watched from the subway platform on Crescent Street. Today, my students said I looked like I could be from the Bronx or Staten Island. Today, I watched my laundry eat my quarters and swish around in circles while I chatted with my laundry friend Mohammad.

Today, I lived in the city, far away from tall trees and wide eyes, but this past weekend I dropped off the city grid to walk on forest paths and step into the wonder that just comes naturally when you are two feet tall.

Of course she thought to touch treetops. And of course the treetops were within reach.

The world of treetops stopped being reachable somewhere in my adolescence. I guess I started to shrug it off when it became unreasonable and ignorant. I’m not sure how it became less okay to dream, but it just kind of happened. I’m fighting it, but it happens often in my concrete corner of the world.

I’m fighting it, but I need lessons with Emma in the Virginia forest to remind me about mystery and imagination and touching treetops.

Because the people here are mostly more than five feet, so they have forgotten what it is to look up and believe that anything is possible.

 

if concrete tears could hang like a cloud

If all of New York City’s concrete tears could hang like a cloud across the concrete streets, it would be the heavy haze of this early evening. My homeward bound steps felt like sadness tonight, which is unusual because I have learned to love my commute (and the love came easily).

I felt deeper the tension of people in close proximity absent any affinity for one another. I felt that tension on the subway platform and on the J train and when the crowd of people threw elbows and pained expressions at Broadway Junction. I felt it more tonight than I have before.

Perhaps it was the fog – because when I stepped off the B44 on Nostrand, I promise I looked the city in her face and her eyes were brimming but her face was dry. It was like she was holding back, trying to hem in whatever hurt had happened on Thursday. And the hurt that happened was thick.

It’s getting darker. These days turn to night before I am ready. That might be the only sad thing about autumn – it sleeps too early.

I could blame the melodrama on the quesadilla I ate today, from the Mexican place by my work that is run by a nice Chinese couple. But I’d be lying if I said the tension didn’t feel real. It does. But, who is surprised? The city is a ruthless place. But, there is always tenderness. 

There is always beauty inside and around ruthless. Always. And every once in a while, when I let the stubbornness of my soul soften up, the Lord shows grace so I can see. Grace to see His provision and grace to believe His provision is enough.

Grace.

The end of this day is full of grace because the whole day was full of it but my soul was just now soft enough to see. When I knocked on my neighbor Elsa’s door to respond to the note she taped on mine, I found her with a beautiful flowering plant to share. Later, when I opened my door to a knock, I found Patrick with a bag of groceries and dinner plans. When we sat in our now a-little-less-empty living room drinking cinnamon and nutmeg, I found laughter.

And this is grace. Sweet grace when the concrete tears hang like a cloud on concrete streets.

fight the face

One week + two days and I’m already fighting the face.

It’s everywhere – on the subway, the sidewalks, the streets. Expressionless, the face often walks with headphones and looks most like aggressive stoicism. It says, “Don’t talk to me, don’t bother me, I’m important and confident and trying to play it NYC cool.”

I’m not good at the face. I smile too much and I think I come by that naturally – probably because there is always a conversation going on in my head worthy of laughter. The face says all things opposite to how I feel (please talk to me, I don’t mind being bothered, I’m not anything too special, and you and I both know I’m not NYC cool).

I’m not good at it, but I’ve still felt my eyebrows and cheekbones and jawline try to slide into this unhappy city facial posture.

I’m going to keep fighting it. Because joy is worth showing on your face.

So far, I’ve got only love for Brooklyn.

If I was still in 8th grade…

If I was still in 8th grade, I would probably write a song about this emotion. I would probably scribble this excitement into stanzas and practice at the piano. I would write about this infinite hope holding my hand like Hercules and putting ground beneath each forward step. I would write about treasure and blessing and the joy bursting out like a thousand piñatas.

I would write about these lessons I’m learning and I would not be ashamed to sing out my young, cheesy optimism. Several weeks ago I came across a huge stack of diaries, dating back to age 13 and documenting almost every year since.

As I read some of the pages, I rolled my eyes at the drama and blushed at the honesty. When I started writing, I used pencil because I thought I may have to go back and edit it for future publication. I also included chapters (again to save time in the editing process).

It all sounds so goofy now, but there is at least one thing I do not want to lose from my 8th grade self.

Hope.

Not just the melodramatic and flaky hope for a diary to be published or a song to be picked up by Point of Grace (because I sent them a song and gave permission for them to use it on their next album), but the kind of steady hope that is fueling my days. This hope is as concrete as the jungle where I now live, but it is indestructible.

This hope in the future grace of the Lord means I have certain hope for good things in this world and certain hope for eternity. This is a different language than hoping for rain or a job or a good report from the doctor. This hope, rooted in the work of Christ, is secure. I am hoping in something that will come to pass.

This is why I have joy like confetti and footsteps like dancin and days like diamonds – because God is in the heavens doing whatever He pleases, and He was pleased to call me child.

Today is my second day of work as a middle school success counselor in a rougher part of Brooklyn. A certain hope is exactly the kind – the only kind – of hope that can make this a joyful pursuit.