pa rum pum pum pum

I am that little child with that flimsy toy drum strapped around his angular little boy shoulder. Come, they told him. The sticks strike that moon face, commanding air and passers-by to listen to the rhythm, the foolish parade of one. I am that simple, repeat refrain. And even then, he does it better. He found the drum and the sticks and the bravery to begin.

Honest talk, I’m getting a little worked up facing this blank page. I am sad for being gone, sad for not playing my song (foolish as it sounds), sad for hiding my gift under a bushel basket full of distractions – mindless social media and early bedtimes with a tired brain.

My wet mess of a face almost matches the mess I meant to clean in our apartment when Pat left with Zella two hours ago. I don’t know why, but imagining myself into the story of the little drummer boy is just so exactly where I am right now. I guess the small gesture – lifting strap over shoulder and calling on a hidden, inner repertoire – convicts all my defenses.

Whew, I didn’t know I needed this kind of cry – let me take a moment. Let’s all take a moment.

I know – it’s not technically Christmas music. But sometimes the song beating rhythms behind our ribcage isn’t jingling bells. Most times, in my case. The Advent season is not triumphant. It is precious beauty, but it is sad too. We are the reason Jesus came all the way down, all the terrifying way down, from celestial glory to stomachs growling and torrential storms. I am both loved by this act and reminded that there was reason for His condescension. I am the reason.

My proneness to wander so pressed on the heart of God until it broke Him and compassion poured out in the real life of a little babe.

 

Anyway, I salute you – little boy and your silly pa rum pum pum pum refrain. Thanks for being brave enough to bang on your drum and make a grown woman cry while thinking about it. Here is me striking my drum in your honor.

a psalm for grief

What is this low, deep darkness –
where only apparitions play?
My hands grasp and find nothing;
my voice cries and the sound is soaked up.
Here I am! Inside the furthest dark,
and where are You?

O, be strong and steady –
do not disappear when I reach out
or go silent when I plea.
Be ever with me in this dark-
ever present in this death,
Be with me.

Restore to me the hope of resurrection
and the peace of a seated King.

You will not be shaken,
and You are keeping me.
There is no dark where your love is not light;
There is no light that is not yours.

I am found in You, my light
my home.


It’s been a while, but here are some writings as my family lives out the grief and sorrow of losing William. I do not usually write poetry, but this was an assignment when I was in grief counseling last year. I dug it up to help as I sit with sadness today.

It sounds too easy, too light and defined.

If I was a better poet, I would make it messy. I would make it say things like “wring the numbness out of me / and never forget to feel the pain of death” and “break morning light on this dark day to vanish the chills of night” and “wrestle and make my mind submit to a glory bigger, better and outside this pain”… or something. I would make it tangled and I would make it have the harsh sound of typing keys. click click clackety CLACK clack CLACK. The meter would feel staccato with something like a long cello line running through it. And the edges – the space around the words – would move in close to hug the anger out.

And still it would read wrong.

 

Psalm prayers + silent Saturdays

I am glad for Psalm prayers I don’t write and for Saturdays where silence can really stretch out. I didn’t realize I was whispering at the bagel shop until the sweet red-haired girl leaned in closer and raised her eyebrows over tortoise shell Warby Parkers, “Sorry, hon, what did you say?”

“Um, ehm.. I’d like an egg and avocado…”

“Oh, you want number 4 on 7 grain? Anything else?”

I felt like a child whose mom sent her out for eggs and this redhead knew I was breaking the rules. But I just bought a Dirt Devil and I’m hosting Thanksgiving, so I read the [free copy of the] New York Times like I belonged in the adult world. I picked up a few groceries on my way home. And when I got home, I stayed. I baked and pureed pumpkin, hand wrote a few cards, made brown sugar+cinnamon+chocolate chip cookies for tomorrow, put away dishes and drank tea. (Okay, I also ate four Oreos but I did not feel good about that). At some point in the middle of the candlelit silence, I read this:

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
he puts the deeps in storehouses. (Psalm 33:6-7 ESV)

And I breathed prayers without any new words. All these Psalm words are prayers enough and my words can’t get that big. My words can’t make heavens and my breath can’t make host to fill them. The waters ignore my commands and the deeps don’t respond. Only God can do this. And only God would want to cause this kind of creation commotion when He needs no one and no thing.

I feel very created today, very in my place.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:20-22 ESV)

Why is the One who gathers the waters in a heap also my help and shield? And how is He that?

The radiator is hissing in the corner, sputtering like antique apartment heaters do. It feels selfish to stay indoors, but I don’t feel well and I can’t remember the last day when I didn’t have plans. I suppose that is an excuse. Scripture needs silent space and time. I came to no conclusions and wrote no prayers; I don’t feel better or wiser. But I am remembering. I remember who the Lord says that He is. And I remember that I trust Him.

I trust that He is God and He has not given up on His redemption plan. He is very much in the middle of making all things new – old things and dead things and dry bones and this old, stubborn heart.

I’ve been a lot of inward lately. Last week, I was walking out of the subway after a frustrating stop-and-go “We are delayed because of train traffic ahead. We apologize for any inconvenience” situations. I was bundled and hunched and leaving sighs on the sidewalk when someone touched my arm and pulled me close. Patrick was leaving to go to work, but caught me just in time to say, “Hey, I love you.” I hoped that he couldn’t see all the self-pity in my face because the streetlight lit up his and it was full of the best husband love.

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain. (Psalm 127:1 ESV)

Sometimes living is labor. I don’t mean working the 9-5. I mean just living. I let Psalm 127:1 sing over some of the silence today until it felt like my deeps started to listen.

And I remember. Unless the Lord builds the house (read: plans, days, vocation, prayer, family, community), I will labor in vain. My building efforts end up being for my own glory or my own preservation or my own pride. But, the Lord – He is a great builder and none of His plans go to waste. None.

It is still Saturday and there is a bit of it left to savor.


To read more from my grief journey, you can find those posts here.

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 be a better thinker / Q & A

My cousin Vince started the email with “Carolina!”

He wanted to ask a few questions for a project he is doing at Baylor. Questions are kind of my jam, and for this guy I’d do about anything. He is a really amazing picture of what it looks like to battle in the trenches of the faith while serving the people around him. Every time we talk, I learn more about how I can better live out my faith.

Here is the little Q and A.

Why did you first start blogging?
I attended a conference called Faith and International Development at Calvin College while a junior at the rival liberal arts school Hope College in Holland, Michigan. At the conference, many of the things that had been bubbling up in my spirit collided and I needed an outlet. At the time (ahem, 2006), blogs were the newest and coolest way to give life to creative expression. Although I didn’t consider myself new or cool, the feeling of pushing publish was especially satisfying creatively and I’ve been doing it ever since.

What is the hardest thing about maintaining a blog?
Writing.

I never pretended that my blog was going to be about pictures or quotes or anything especially clever. Well, maybe I considered all of those for a hot second, but I never felt as much pleasure doing anything other than just writing.

I write because I love to write in a Eric Liddell kind of way – in the way that I feel God’s pleasure when I do it. But, writing is also the hardest thing about maintaining a blog. It means writing when you don’t feel like it and writing when you think you have nothing to say. It means starting a sentence when you think it sounds stupid. It means thinking of writing ideas when you are at the park and starting a blog while you are getting your hair cut or while you are riding the subway or while you are putting in your 9-5.

Writing is also the hardest because it is easy to be scared. I am afraid of what I write being less than good – that it will not be as interesting or as alive as it feels when it comes out of my fingertips. Sometimes that keeps me from writing. And if I don’t write, I don’t have a blog.

Would you say that blogging provides an outlet for you to express your thoughts and emotions? How?
Yes, I would say that exactly.

Sometimes, I think blogging pulls out of me what I didn’t know was inside. There are times when I stop myself in mid-conversation because I know the words will sound garbled until I’ve blogged them out first. It’s like therapy, I guess. But it’s also like exercise. It’s exercise for my creative spirit and my soul because I can stretch muscles in my imagination and in my intellect that don’t get used anywhere else in my life.

It’s like a playground where I my mind can run around, climb jungle gyms and swing off monkey bars. It can be (and is probably too often) an escape where I go to sort out the tensions in my heart.

Why do you continue to write your blog?
I suppose I continue to write my blog because it has become an inextricable part of my processing. The way I see the world and the way I engage with the world has a whole lot to do with the way I write the world. When I’ve thought something through and let it run out of my fingertips, I know it better… more fully. I know my weaknesses better and my fears and my vulnerabilities. I know my dreams and desires better. I know where I’ve let curiosity live and where I’ve let wonder roam, but I also know where I’ve hid light under a bushel and closed the doors on joy.

Maybe I don’t know any of these things better because I blog, but it sure feels like I do. And that’s why I keep blogging.

My mom called me from Iowa recently. She said, “Honey, I’m glad you finally blogged again.” I was kind of surprised to hear that she knew I was in desperate need of some blog time. “Mom, how’d you know?” Maybe in my cross country move or my new job and new relationship the need is more obvious than I realize. But, not everyone assumes a person needs to blog. “Well, I just know that sometimes you need to blog in order to think,” she told me.

Maybe that’s really why I write my blog – because it makes me a better thinker.

*If you want to know more (and feel better about how often/not often you are awkward in social situations) check out this post on my very gauche life.

gauche

admiration for existence

Cover of "Gilead: A Novel"
Cover of Gilead: A Novel

Oh, the mysterious power of story.

We look at life differently when we step into worlds where anything is possible – where things are upside down because that’s how the storyteller is telling it. We don’t look for any other explanation because we don’t need one. The story unfolds and we sit on the edge of our seats (or whatever nook where fiction is best read) to follow the narrative.

I’m so tangled up with the characters of Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead that I may already think of them as real people in my life – the way some people think about celebrities I suppose.

John Ames is a brilliant man, but the least presuming man I know. He is coming to the end of his life slowly and carrying very little resentment, at least that I can tell. He wants so badly for his young son to know things – things about his heritage and stories he was told as a boy. But John doesn’t just say things in the pages he hopes his son will one day read. This aging preacher admires existence by stringing words together and then invites his son into the wonder with him.

This is what the preacher’s writing is doing to me, anyway. I have so many things highlighted in my kindle edition that I could sit for hours and write the inspiration that comes from a few words, a phrase, a sentence, an analogy. He is genius in a way that isn’t self-promotional and my creativity kind of balks at that. He chooses words carefully, even though he knows that by the time his son reads the letters it will do him no good to sound impressive.

And do you see how brilliant Marilynne is as a storyteller? I am engaging directly with her characters, who I’ve decided are brilliant. When we can crawl inside the story and learn from the characters, the author has achieved a very fragile beauty. Her characters are teaching me, inspiring me, and creatively challenging me to look at the world differently – to see wonder in the way the light dances on the moon and to notice beauty in routine human exchanges.

In one of his letters, Ames wrote,

“I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.” (Gilead, p. 64)

What does being that full of admiration feel like and how does one know when proper enjoyment is just out of reach? Could it be that when we are enjoying fully we understand our enjoying to be a truer glimpse of what is to come (and that a proper enjoying will last forever)?

I know part of the beauty of Ames’s character is that he is near death and so finds freedom for transparency and for love in a way that we’ve constrained ourselves against (though we are all just as mortal).

Maybe there is a way to shake some of the constraint – to live a little less encumbered by this mortal life and thereby being freed to full admiration for its existence.