Friday, June 12, 2015

A half-circle of light.

Last night was black and stormy. I was driving home from my friends' house, a route that cuts a winding path through a swathe of unlit bush. As I rounded a bend, a tiny car up ahead of me swung out round a further bend. It was one of those moments where, for just a second, the mask of humdrum falls away and you get to see life for the poetry that it really is.

The car was just a gleam in the dark, a flash of glossy black with an arc of yellow light from the headlights, filling out a semicircle in front of it. It looked like a tiny beetle with a torch strapped to its head. It was brave. There was something fierce in the way it cut a path through the darkness before it, seeing only a few metres ahead at a time.

I'm not a fan of that way of doing things. I don't want to see only a few metres ahead. I'd like to live with the high beam switched on. Better yet, I want to drive in full sun, where I can see the path stretched before me, where I can look ahead to the horizon. I like to estimate the bumps in the road before I reach them. I want to plot a course so I can stay on track. I'd like to avoid potholes instead of coming across them in the dark and being forced to swerve. I want to be ready in case a kangaroo leaps from a shrubby block of shadows. I want to be in control.

There's nothing brave, though, about being in control. It requires no courage. A life lived in full sun is a charmed life; the real world has some dark patches. And though my anxious heart wants to see what's waiting around the corner, I'm glad for the tiny half-circle of light stretched out before me. It's just enough brightness to keep me chugging on.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ice cream.

Last week, I made up a new batch of music flash cards for my younger students. I drew cards for all the usual stuff: quavers, semibreves, crotchet rests, treble clefs, various notes on the stave. Then, on one of the cards I drew an icecream, a yellow cone with a pink scoop and blue sprinkles. I don't even really know why I did it; it was just a random moment of whimsy to surprise the kids, I guess.

This week I've been trialling the new cards and the kids have been enjoying it. Anything that's a bit new is a little surprise all of its own. But the first time I took one of my students through the new flashcards, I was the one who was surprised. "Minim," my little student said. "Bass clef. Mezzo forte. Ice cream. Middle C." She just sailed right on by the ice cream cone without skipping a beat.

She wasn't the only one. It's happened with every single student so far. Some of them grin. Some of them laugh a little as they speak the word. But not one of them blinks when the unexpected thing appears. That to me is itself unexpected, and it's delightful.

I think this probably wouldn't happen with adults. I think that, if I showed the flashcards to my friends, they'd say, "Why'd you put the ice cream in there? What's that got to do with anything?" At the very least, they might say, "Ice cream?" with their voice sliding up on the end to suggest the question. Not the emphatic and certain "Ice cream" I've heard from each of the kids.

It feels like there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Something about hope or miracles or even having the faith of a little child. Something about not yet being so programmed to think that everything must make sense, that there must be a proper order for everything.

But I'm just gonna let it sit and simmer for a while. And I'll keep grinning as the little ones go through their music terminology and without skipping a beat shout out "Icecream!" every time.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

To you:

We live in an era that applauds the big stuff. We celebrate the ones who win, who are the best, who do the most. And we celebrate each other on milestones like graduating, or getting married, or having babies. But life is the thing that is lived in the spaces between the Kodak moments, and excellence really just looks like doing the unseen stuff well. It takes strength to be faithful in the little things.

So good on you, today, my friend.

Good on you for consistently making your bed in the morning.
Good on you for buying celery last time you went grocery shopping.
Good on you for returning your mother's calls.
Good on you for taking a cup of tea to your husband.
Good on you for singing when you want to complain.
Good on you for smiling at the bank teller.
Good on you for dealing with constant sleep deprivation because you are working two jobs in order to pay your rent.
Good on you for crying with that friend.
Good on you for respecting your boss.
Good on you for walking into a new church alone.
Good on you for quietly writing that story in your spare moments.
Good on you for getting up at 5 to spend time with God.
Good on you for doing a lame job well.
Good on you for playing checkers with your little brother when you really just want to veg in front of the tv.
Good on you for tithing off the small amount that you earn.
Good on you for dropping everything to babysit your niece and nephew.
Good on you for going to that party because, even though you hate parties, you love the person the party was for.
Good on you for walking your dog when you feel absolutely wiped out.
Good on you for sending encouraging text messages.
Good on you for being thankful.
Good on you for loving that person when they are being unlovable.
Good on you for being a listener.
Good on you for not betraying confidences.
Good on you for teaching yourself to cook.
Good on you for returning the change you were overpaid.

'If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.' Good on you.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The temporal death that is loneliness:

As a child, I equated loneliness with being alone. It wasn't so much that if you were alone, you were lonely but, rather, that you could only be lonely when you were alone. People are the cure for the disease that is loneliness. This is what I thought.

But as an adult, I now recognise that loneliness is no respecter of persons or relationships. Most of those times that loneliness has weighed heaviest on me are moments when I am quite literally surrounded by people. Because there is not just one type of loneliness. There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds of lonelinesses.

There is the loneliness of being in the middle of a crowd that is engaged in watching or singing or being, and you are somehow disconnected from it all. There is the loneliness of being at a gathering where everyone is sharing and talking and laughing, but you can't speak because tears are close to the surface and to speak would make them spill over. Then there is its counterpart, that other, seemingly irrational loneliness that hopes someone will intuitively know what's up, seek you out, help -- care.

There is the loneliness of evolving friendships, of someone who was once very dear in your life slowly moving out of it. There is the loneliness of not having someone's hand to hold as the clock ticks over midnight and the fireworks blaze up into technicolour life. There is the loneliness of heading north while everyone else is headed south. There is the loneliness of someone saying "I wish I could help you," and then the deeper loneliness of someone saying, "I don't want to help you."

There is loneliness in unfulfilled expectations. There is loneliness in having to keep quiet when you want to speak. There is loneliness in fighting a battle that no one else around you is fighting. There is loneliness in the dying off of traditions. There is loneliness in frailty and loneliness in weakness. There is the loneliness of someone laughing at your dream, and the loneliness of endless rain.

There are perhaps as many different lonelinesses as there are happinesses, and each one of them feels like a small death -- a death of belonging, a death of hope, a death of security. But perhaps that is the very thing that is redemptive about loneliness, too: that just as it can come out of nowhere and make your throat tighten with unfelt feelings and uncried tears, so too can happiness. Just as unexpected, just as powerful.

In the loneliness, though, joy feels far away. Joy feels impossible. In those moments, I have to talk to my soul, to remind it that tomorrow, or next week, or next month, the sun will come out. I remind my soul that loneliness is a side effect of being human. I'm lonely because I'm alive -- which is, after all, the complete opposite of death.

[this post was inspired by the Life Captured Project]

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Sunday Currently

I'm stealing the format for The Sunday Currently from Carina, who in turn found it somewhere else. I like the idea of a simple check-in, a way to orient one's heart- and head-space at the end of one week and the beginning of another. It's also the perfect chance to switch gears from my last two kind of heavier/more analytical type posts (and thank you all for your really thoughtful and affirming comments, by the way). Here's what's current in my world:

As always, I'm deep in too many books at the same time. But the two I've spent time with most recently (hello, Sunday afternoon; today you were made of wonderfulness) are Fredrick Backman's A Man Called Ove and Anna Funder's All That I Am. Ove is my local book club's pick for this month and, to summarise it super briefly, it's about a grumpy old Swedish fellow who nevertheless has some endearing redeeming qualities. For the first thirty pages I hated it -- hated his constant grumbling and his almost cartoonish old-mannish ways. Then on page 31 something happened and I suddenly loved this character. I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of the story develops. And I literally only started All That I Am today, but already it's proving wonderful. Anna Funder's non-fiction work Stasiland was amazing, and I feel confident her fiction will be just as good.

I'm working on a short story at the moment. It's been in the works for most of the year, and I keep pulling it out when it forcibly impresses itself on my memory. I'm also dipping a tentative toe back into journalling. I haven't done it for so long that I confess I'm quite scared by the whole process.

I'm all about putting my iPod on shuffle these days. To my shame, sometimes I discover stuff I haven't ever heard before. I'm also not above skipping tracks I'm not in the mood for. Current/always/forever favourites are Josh Garrels and The Civil Wars (who are, sadly, officially disbanding), while Citizens & Saints are my newest favourite. Musically, their stuff is like gentler hard rock, if that's even a thing. Lyrically, their songs are exquisitely literary contemporary Psalms. So good.

Oh, what a wide brown land that word encompasses. I'm thinking a lot about being faithful in the little things, about reconciling the present with the future, and the interesting dynamics of share-housing (I've only ever shared with my sister; I'm so intrigued as to how people share a living space with someone they're either not related to nor in love with).

Bushfire smoke and a cool breeze.

[withheld, because] 

Hoping get better at hope; to find the delicate space between idealism and cynicism; for more cool breezes; to ignore the chocolate cake in my fridge; to connect with people I need to connect with.

Post-church, Sunday night daggies. If only I'd written this a half hour ago, when it was a black sheath dress, gladiator sandals, and a diamante collar necklace.

The feeling that life is maybe finding a rhythm again after several months of really intense busyness.

A little more job security, perhaps.

To go through my walk-in-robe-slash-storeroom-space and overhaul everything.

Grateful to be on the mend and getting my energy back after a really prolonged flu. 

Here for adorable German words translated into adorable line drawings. Here for cute Israeli cops lip-syncing to The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Here to watch the latest episodes of Doctor Who. And here because there's always something good to read.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Be more attractive."

Yesterday a friend sent me the link to a recent post on the Boundless blog. The tagline to the post reads: “If no one’s asking you out, here’s the solution: Be more attractive.” Author Josh Loke offers three ways for women to attain this attractiveness: demonstrate respect, look good, and be fun. Specifically, he adds, “If girls are looking for a guy with humor, kindness, stability and initiative, etc., guys are looking for a girl who’s hot.”

Somebody hold my flower.

A blog post like this presupposes that a woman’s one goal in life is to find a date (or enough dates in order to up the numbers and somehow statistically find The One). But let’s bypass that red flag in order to concentrate on what the injunction to “be attractive” actually says to women everywhere. It says that your success as a person and a woman is measured only by externals. It says that you have ‘arrived’ only when men are asking you out. It says that if this isn’t happening, then it’s for no other reason than that you are not enough. It says that your flaws – both the ones you can change as well as the ones you can’t – make you unlovable and unworthy of love. It says that whatever you are already doing, no matter if it’s your best, it isn’t good enough.

The thing is, there’s nothing new about this message. It isn’t some earth-shattering revelation. Culture screams it from every poster on the side of a bus, highway overhang banner, and prime time commercial. It’s something that many women tend to believe about themselves anyway. It’s knitted into our culture and it can often be woven into our psyches. So we don’t need to hear it from people whose stated goal is to encourage and inspire. What’s more, the principle behind the idea isn’t even true.

I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who didn’t want to be the best version of their self. Most of us are actively working at this in smaller or greater measure in various ways. For many of us, this ‘best possible version’ includes looking after our bodies and expressing our personalities through the way we present our faces and bodies to the world. I like wearing makeup. I like cute dresses. I like spending a little time on my hair of a morning. It makes me feel ready for life, like the cheeriest, most confident version of myself. A bright lip colour and tamed hair and suddenly I am Joan of Arc. It would be certainly be cool if my personal version of beauty caught someone's eye. But that isn't why I do it.

And in many ways it’s irrelevant anyway because no matter how much effort I put into my personal attractiveness, no matter how much effort you put into yours, there's still going to be an arbitrary line in the critical sand of our culture which has beautiful people on one side, and those who fall short on the other.

I was born with a slight physical disability. It’s only a minor one as far as they go but it means I have some impressive scars and my attempts to learn how to jog keep getting pulled up by injury. I have weird feet and I’ll never be able to wear sexy heels. This is certainly a mark against me in what begins to seem like a high-stakes attractiveness contest. Add to this mark the flaws that I could correct with surgery if I had the money (which I don’t) and I believed I could justify it (which I also don't). Then of course there are all the basics: nose too big, eyes too small, skin too flawed, and twenty-five other things I’d be able to list off because we all get so good at recognising where we fail to come up to snuff.

There is nothing unique about me in this respect. Most of us could rattle off a list of our own remarkable failures to be beautiful. But vague hand-wavy ideas like “be more attractive” imply that with just a little more effort anyone can achieve the nirvana of beauty and finally catch the eye of a passing gentleman. And when people say “be more attractive”, we believe it to be true. If I could pull together all my components and recompose myself into my picture of the ideal externally beautiful woman, I would be tall, slim, elegant, and graceful. I would have narrow shoulders, sleek straight hair, and devastating cheekbones. My skin would be flawless, my hands small and strong. I would be athletic without really trying. But the thing is, I know girls exactly like this. What is more, their inner beauty is just as powerful and profound as their luminous external beauty. Yet they, too, are wondering, “What’s wrong with me? What do I need to do?”

The standard for physical beauty is ridiculously subjective. It is trend-driven and culturally specific. It also has a tendency to be wealth-privileged, ageist, ableist, and exclusionary. Some of us, no matter how much effort we put in, will never be typically beautifully. And that is okay. Every single one of us is far more than our face or our breasts or our waistline. And it’s a little beside the point that I am hoping to make but perhaps it’s worth a reminder: ugly people get married. Awkward people get married. Overweight people get married. Flawed people get married.

One commenter on the post illustrates why telling women to “be more attractive and boys will like you” is an unhelpful mindset:
“I've never ever been asked out over the entire course of my life, and neither have either of my two sisters. We all love Jesus and are very active in our church(es), and we are all perfectly fit (run marathons). We look attractive (well, maybe I'm not, but my sisters are both super cute in my opinion). We are also employed (or studying to be employed) in meaningful ways (medicine, actuarial science, and/or music). We all have hobbies that we are really good at and enjoy. We all would like to be committed, godly wives and mothers someday. We may be a bit reserved in public/around people we don't know well, but in reality, we've got to be the funniest, most hilarious bunch of girls on the planet (in my opinion). We live in a fairly large town near one of the largest cities in our state.

But, I'm trying to remind myself that there's always room for improvement. Maybe what I need is to improve my looks. Or could it be that I don't think of anything to crack a joke over during the 10 minutes of coffee hour after church (this period of time is always truncated for me because I'm either playing a postlude on the organ or teaching Sunday school--sometimes I don't even show up at coffee hour at all!)? Could it be our academic/professional interests that put people off? Could it be that we're Asian?? Could it be that we were homeschooled? Anyway, I'm trying not to think that we all happen to have the gift of singleness...although, of course, it is possible."
This commenter sounds like an awesome, well-rounded, fascinating person. And her first paragraph asserts that. However, she moves from these confident observations -- I am a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman who has a full and creative life -- to the almost apologetic confession that ‘there’s always room for improvement.’ And in one sense she is right: all of us can be better. We can all grow. That’s one of the things that makes life so interesting and the Christian walk so challenging. But the standard imposed upon her by this blog post has it wrong: the assumption is that because no man has asked her out, then there must be room for improvement.

When someone says “What is wrong with me?” to my mind it rarely arises out of personal conviction and a passion for growth. Rather, it’s steeped in despair and shame. People who force us to ask “what is wrong with me?” are not being helpful; they’re being bullies. “How can I be a better person?” is getting closer to the mark. But “How can I be a better person so I attract the attention of a man?” is so far off-base.

Taking care of oneself is good for the soul. It enhances the lives of those we care about because we are happier and healthier as a result. It gives us courage and personal freedom. It sets us loose to more freely care for others. It allows us to be our authentic selves.

So be healthy for you and for the people you already love. Be healthy because your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Be your own form of beautiful because your creativity reflects the splendour of the creator’s hand. Don’t strive to reinvent yourself in order to attract the eye of every possible good guy who passes you by. If your personal brand of beauty is bohemian layers and hippie hair, do that. If it’s farm girl chic with dungarees, boots, and a bare face, do that. If you believe external details are mere periphery in a world where people are hungry and dying, then act on that. Be your own form of beautiful because to do so for any other reason is illusory and transient and it might work -- but it might not work, too.

Be your best you. But be it for you, for the one who made you, and for the people who already love you. If that fails to capture someone's attention, it says less about you than you think. Be great, but be great because life is now, not because it will begin once someone notices how truly lovely you are. The world doesn't magically move out of black and white with true love’s first kiss. Life is already happening and it’s in full colour. Shine bright.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A hug for the third wheels:

One of the challenges of extended singleness that’s not often discussed is the idea that you are no one’s special person.

I realise, even as I write, that this seems glaringly obvious.

But there is a subtlety to this idea that I’ve not seen explored in the singleness discussions that I’ve encountered. There can be a loneliness to being alone, sure. That much is obvious. But there is a unique, entirely other kind of loneliness to being alone when everyone around you has their one person – that person who is their responsibility, their care, their focus. It's the one they check in with, the one whose opinion they will defer to, the one whose schedule they will shape their lives around.

It is lonely to have nobody, but it is another kind of loneliness to be nobody’s somebody.

As nobody’s somebody, you become the dispensable variable in relational equations. It is you who might have to change your intended meetup time to fit better with what your girlfriend’s boyfriend wants. Your sister might need to pause in the middle of a deep and meaningful conversation with you to take a call from her husband at work. Your plans with a friend will fall through because her toddler is teething. If you don’t know your guy friend’s new love interest, chances are you won’t know your guy friend for much longer, either. You will grow accustomed to being the third person, or fifth, or seventh in gatherings where all the other attendees are pairs.

All of this is good and fine. It’s healthy, even. It’s sanctifying and humanising to be reminded that our own needs are not paramount. It is good to be adaptable, and to learn to hold things loosely. It’s good to know that others’ lives don’t carry the same freedoms that singleness does.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt to be reminded that everybody you care about most is aligning their lives closely to another person’s, moulding their days and hours and moments to fit another’s, but that person is not you. You are loved by many but not at the top of anyone’s priority list.

Is it selfish to mourn that a little? Is it greedy to even notice? I don’t think so. It is a genuinely difficult thing to be nobody’s main priority and to have a multiplicity of primary priorities yourself. It’s even harder to talk or write about it without seeming small-minded and petulant. But the sorrow is real, I think, and it is okay to acknowledge its existence.

What’s more important, though, is to acknowledge how significantly you (me, we) are loved in spite of the fact that we aren’t anybody’s significant other. We are surrounded by people who care, and if their care must be broken into pieces and scheduled around parents and children and spouses, that does not make the love any less genuine; it just makes it real.

And in reverse, we can treasure the opportunity to pour our own unfettered love into the lives of others, with all the freedom and creativity that the unattached life gives. It brings its own challenges, this season, but there are also some very cool pluses. We need to remember those in the moments when the other stuff aches.
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