February 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
Matt and I went for a hike last weekend. He took me to the Ceasetown Dam and we tromped through the woods, sliding like little kids on the ice that lay under the deep shadowed trees, squishing through the muddy water where the sun had worked its invisible magic. It was one of those rare winter days in Pennsylvania where the air is a dance of contradiction, warm in the light and still chilly in the shadows. It was a day made for the sound of creeks rushing over little rocks and the lush scent of dead and rotting leaves. We took our time as we walked down the trail towards the lake. I climbed a half-fallen tree but didn’t get very far. The lichen was damp and gave my sneakers no purchase on the slanted trunk. He found a long, thin stick and we had a mock sword-fight, with little bits of bark flying every time our branches clashed. He showed me his favorite fishing spot: a giant boulder, spearing sharply up out of the water, steep and granite-cold. We sat there for a while as the wind blew. The tops of evergreen trees make a unique noise in the wind that sweeps off a frozen lake and into them, have you ever paid attention to it? It sounds like murmurs; it speaks of peace.
We stood on the rocks at the very edge of the frozen water, looking out across a green and gray horizon. The sunlight glowed in the air and then shattered off the ice into a glorious profusion of gold and silver and white. Every shade of blue in the world glinted in front of me. The colors were right at my fingertips, they were grace made visible, they shone like a benediction. And I thought: let my joy rise like incense before You, my God.
February 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
For my 30th birthday, I wrote a little story.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (I’ve always wanted to say that!)
She wasn’t exactly the person I would have chosen to sit next to at the bar, but when you’re competing for an open stool with about fifty other Saturday night partiers and a casual acquaintance waves you in next to them, the least you can do is say hello, how’ve you been.
We’re not close friends, this girl and me, despite knowing each other for basically ever. We just haven’t spent a lot of time together and besides, I feel like we live really different lives. She’s kind of a loner, and I’m not happy unless I’ve got eight different friends bouncing around me.
But that’s a lame excuse for not really getting to know someone and I realized as much, as we sat next to each other at the bar and made small talk about our lives. I’m going to actually get to know her tonight, I thought suddenly. It might not work, but lately I’d been trying to talk less about myself and listen more to other people’s stories. You’d be surprised how many times you can hijack a conversation by relating everything the other person says to something you’ve experienced. I discovered that sometimes just listening is much more interesting.
The bartender slid a Blue Moon in front of me and gave her another whiskey on the rocks. As she took a sip, I noticed her lipstick was the exact shade of raspberry I’d been trying to find for ages, and I complimented her on it.
She gave me a strange look. “Thanks,” she said, a little hesitantly. “You really like it?”
“Yeah, I do!” I almost started rambling about my Estee Lauder Siren Red lipstick that had been discontinued and how that exact hue of pinkish-red had apparently never been duplicated despite there being literally thousands of other lipsticks out there… but then I remembered my promise from before and I stopped.
“You always have on great makeup.” I said instead, which was the honest truth, I swear, not just some ritual girly compliment. I certainly didn’t think it would have the effect it did, though.
Her eyes filled up with tears and I thought she was angry before she looked down at her drink. “Do you know, I almost didn’t wear any makeup tonight? What difference would it make? It never does any good.”
“I… well, yeah sometimes it is a hassle but…” I trailed off, and she instantly filled in the gap.
“I’m sorry. I’m just having a really bad few weeks. I was going out with this guy, and I thought he really liked me, but of course he didn’t. So I came in here to have a drink to relax and wouldn’t you know, he’s over in the corner with some leggy blonde bitch.”
Being a rather leggy blonde myself, I kept my mouth closed and waited.
“It’s always the same,” she laughed harshly. “I can’t get past my own insecurities. I’m never good enough for myself. I know that guy isn’t worth my regret but in my mind, it’s just another case of me not being enough.”
I spoke cautiously, not wanting to hurt her more, but trying to understand. “Not being enough what? Pretty enough?” I was baffled for a second, but then I got it. “You don’t like the way you look. You don’t think you’re attractive, do you?”
Her eyes flashed as she laughed again, but I didn’t think the anger was directed at me anymore. This was a more internal hatred, a deep, festering wound. “No. I don’t. I hate the way I look. I deliberately avoid mirrors when I’m out in public. I’ve literally never taken a selfie. I hate my body. I hate my face.”
I sat quietly, listening to the bitterness in her voice. The bar was crowded and noisy but her low, loathing words seemed to echo in my ear.
“I bet you never hear a voice in your head. How could you? You’re tall and thin and pretty. Guys are always asking you out. How could you know what I hear, what goes on in my head? Every day, this horrible little mocking voice is in my ear, in my head, jeering, laughing, asking me why I even bother with a diet when it doesn’t help, why I would ever think a skirt looked good on me. Look at those rolls, the voice taunts me. You look so gross. Seriously, how could you think that dress was a good idea. Every day, a whispering, mocking, running soundtrack to my life.” She stopped talking abruptly, and then looked right at me. The anger was gone; only misery showed stark in her eyes.
“In over twenty years, I’ve never once looked in the mirror and been happy with what I saw.”
Her voice cracked with pain and I thought to myself, we are all so full of hurt, so burdened with the weight of our struggles. I didn’t know what to do, because to say the expected “You look fine! You’re beautiful!” would have been unbearably cliché. She would have shut me out instantly. And I realized, sometimes when the depth of someone’s pain is outside your skill to heal, you just have to spill your own guts as well. Sometimes only sorrow can comfort sorrow. So despite my earlier resolution, I set my glass down and said, “Do you want to know what my mocking voice says?”
“Sure,” she shrugged, staring down at her hands, still speaking quietly.
“You’re right,” I began, “I don’t hear a voice when I look in the mirror. I don’t hear it when I try on clothes at the mall or walk past the glossy magazines with their tall and slender models. Instead, I hear the mocking voice when I see wedding pictures on Facebook, or baby pictures on Instagram. The mocking voice scoffs and jeers at me, a nasty little companion inside my head. It says, “Ha ha ha, look at all these people who managed to do this one thing, this one simple thing. All these people were able to fall in love, and stay that way. All these girls had the man they loved say to them “I want you, forever”. How many people get married each year? How many have babies? It’s like the most common thing we do and you couldn’t even manage this. You couldn’t even manage this one simple thing. So many girls get pregnant that we have a law saying you can kill your baby if you don’t want it, that’s how often it happens. And you couldn’t even have a baby by the time you’re thirty, you complete loser. You have literally wanted to be married for your entire life and you couldn’t do that yet, either. You are thirty, and you are such a failure.”
I stopped there, because I was about to cry and heaven knew I’d spent enough time crying in public for the past two years. She turned and looked at me over our drinks, and I saw true friendship in her eyes for the first time. “I didn’t know you had a voice in your head too.”
We all have a mocking voice. We all hear the smirking scorch of its acid tongue behind our flaws and failings. You flunked another class, idiot. You quit another job. You got wasted and slept with another stranger, you slut. You can’t lose those fifteen pounds no matter how hard you try, fatty. You have something wrong with your brain, who would ever want you, crazy? You let so many people down this week. You’re too busy to be a good mother. You’re too lazy to build a career. You’re too dependent to be a strong woman. You’re too independent, it turns guys off. You don’t look like Karlie Kloss, you don’t sing like Taylor Swift, you can’t write like Hannah Brencher. You don’t have any best friends. Why do we torment ourselves so, girls? The voice mocks on: Another black-out wasted night. Another diet started only to be abandoned. Another one night stand, ‘just for fun’. Another drug or another pair of shoes or another gym class or another guy to text just so the loneliness doesn’t eat you alive at night. You suck. The mocking voice slithers into our heads and down into the pits of our stomachs, hissing contempt and disgust for all our vulnerability and mistakes.
There are always wounded pieces of our secret souls, even in those who seem to have everything we’ve ever wanted.
I turned to her- this unique, interesting, intelligent girl who had somehow deceived herself into thinking she was not good enough- and I said, “Listen to me. This is what I would make you know if I could: you are not alone. We are all missing pieces inside; we all hear those poisonous thoughts. But you can’t let the mocking voice win. You have to shout over it, drown it out with love and friendship and truth.”
“I don’t even know what truth is,” she said bitterly.
“Then keep looking for it. Keep searching. Look for it in the beauty of humanity, in the commonplace faces of your everyday life. Listen,” I said again. “A funny thing happens when you stop hating yourself because you don’t have the answers, when you start letting others in, letting them help you through the pain. You realize that love can silence hate, goodness can drown out contempt, that the world is full of simple, joyful voices. Our lives are songs, they’re stories written in sunlight and in shadow. Find what makes your voice sing. Find the words of your story; write it bold and bright or quiet and humble. It’s your voice. It’s your story to tell.”
She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and gave me a measuring look. “What does your other voice say?”
That made me laugh. I’d been trying to figure it out for so long. But I gave her the truth, because what else did I have?
“It says ‘Look at you! Your arms are not empty without a husband and child; they are full to bursting with relationships! They are overflowing with true friendship and love, spilling over with the joy of new faces and experiences!’ It says we are made for relationship, that God wants us to be in love with Him and with each other. It says love is sacrifice; it’s hard and gritty and real and when it breaks, it hurts like a knife in your heart, but forgiveness is the mightier sword. It says there are hidden gifts in every person and the purest joy lies in discovering them, in making known to someone that simply to be who they are is wonderful to you. It says there will always be a yearning in my heart, a longing for the strange ache of beauty, because we are restless by nature, strangers and sojourners in a land of light and darkness. We long for mystery and yet love to be steady. After 30 years, my other voice says we are not made merely for this world, we are made to make it better.”
I looked at her again, with her pretty lipstick and winged eyeliner and her dark eyes so full of pain, and I said “Love yourself. The world is a better place with your voice in it.”
I don’t think the mocking voice will ever be totally silenced. We are surrounded by voices and images all the time; we are sharing our lives and peeking in at others’ every day. It’s a habit-forming way to live. Comparison and envy become inevitable. I think the best way to combat them is to decide whose voice is most important to us. Do we have a healthy balance of images in our Instagram feed? If I’m beating myself up every time I see pictures of weddings and babies, why don’t I follow some amazing single women as well? Women who travel and share beautiful pictures of foreign lands, women who are serving others in the poorest neighborhoods, women who have time to do mission trips and rooftop yoga and late-night coffeehouse writing sessions, because they don’t have to worry about teething babies and a spouse’s recent lay-off and balancing motherhood and a career. Because while we are- none of us- free from the mocking voice, we all have so many other voices inside, just waiting to be heard.
February 16, 2016 § Leave a comment
“…for now, this is what I want to say, and it’s important, so pay attention: I’ve got the best friends in the entire world. I have sought and found the truth in faith, hope, and love. I’ve seen the sun rise over exotic shores and strange lands; I have realized my home is where my heart is. I’ve cried tears of joy at weddings and sobbed my guts out at a funeral.
I have learned that you can desire something with your heart and soul and the very weight of your bones and still lose it, and when you do, the loss of it will not kill you.
I’ve felt that peculiar ache that comes from yearning: I’ve felt it when I was outside in bitter cold winter air and heard the wild cries of Canadian geese flying far away above me, felt it when I rocked babies to sleep and wouldn’t put them down even though my arms were shaking, felt it in the living silence of Eucharistic Adoration as I knelt in the dim light before my God.
I’ve dreamed too small, drank too much, written midnight poetry, called my mom crying over boys, held my girlfriends as they cried, made dinner for the homeless, talked desperate people off terrible ledges, given money to gas-station strangers and car rides to meth addicts. I’ve looked for the beauty in commonplace scenes and discovered it in human souls. I’ve got hockey, hipster glasses, and a future in books and beautiful words.”
If I were to add anything further to this after another year, it would be about forgiveness, and the constancy of God’s mercy. I have expended so much effort searching for the ability to forgive, never realizing it has been inside of me all along. I have pursued it like a deer longing for water, thinking if I could only forgive, I could let go and live again.
But now I see more clearly than ever the paradox of love: we must die to truly live.
Forgiveness has often seemed to me to be a pearl just beyond my reach, a golden feeling I could not create within me. But I needed to “put away childish things” – this search for a feeling, this elusive, darting emotion. Forgiveness is already- always- within love, held by it, and strengthened with it. If my love is a true sacrifice of self, then forgiveness follows from it in a way utterly natural. To paraphrase Caryll Houselander: if you have hurt me, you have hurt Christ, who is within you. I see the wound in Christ, in you, and I reach out to comfort that wound, because He is in me also, and wounded. Therefore forgiving becomes not about me and my feelings, but about healing the wounds our sins have left on- in- the body of Christ. This is letting go, or rather dying to my own self, my own need. This is love, poured out like liquid gold refined in the fire of God’s grace.
Not I, but Christ who lives in me.
This is sometimes harder to apply to our own selves, whom we need to forgive just as often as we forgive others. Every sin I commit wounds Christ within me, and my sincere contrition for them gives me the opportunity to say to Him, “Let me comfort you.” I sometimes think of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, looking in agony at our sins and what He must suffer to expiate them. How He must have longed to hear those words of comfort from us as He prayed. My despair and anger wound the eternally loving heart of God, and after I realize this, I turn to Him inside me and repent. But forgiveness of self is still necessary after the repentance, or else I run the risk of denying God’s utter goodness and mercy. He forgives and we are cleansed, and our sin is made white as snow. This must be acknowledged by me. I cannot cling to my sorrow, wearing it like sackcloth and ashes. We fall, we repent, we rise. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is especially necessary at times when I cannot forgive myself. We call it “Confession”, a little nickname, but should not forget that a Reconciliation between ourselves and Christ occurs as well. We are not merely depositing our sins in a darkened room; we speak- we run, we press ourselves- to the Heart of Christ through His servant the priest, and He in turn absolves us, washes us, revives us. He heals the death of Himself in us. The tomb- the darkened room- is empty. He was dead but has risen.
We live the Resurrection of Christ within us every time we forgive.
If I could choose one thing to do better as I enter my thirties, it would be to spread the knowledge of the constancy of God’s mercy. Pick your head up, my friend. Let your heart be glad. The mercies of the Lord are renewed each morning, so great is His faithfulness. You do not need to search for Him; He is already waiting for you. Open wide the door; roll away the stone. Forgive yourself. We are all darkened tombs until we allow -for He will never force Himself- the life of Christ to shine through us. We were dead but now we live.