Falling

Oct. 21, 2015

“By facing God, we also face our own inner chaos.”

— Henri Nouwen

It was a warm, fall, Michigan Sunday; what I knew would likely be our last for awhile. Twenty-some family members had just left my house, and the dishes were in the dishwasher, the floor was swept, and my husband wanted a couple of hours to laze and nap. I, on the contrary, had visions of a wistful walk through the woods as a family – basking in the fall colors. You know, something straight out of that Instagram or Facebook post that instantly makes it seem that other people have life figured out, and I can’t quite seem to get it together.

And so, I solicited volunteers – two boys (ages 3 and 6) – and we piled into the car and headed to the nearest nature center. I parked at the trailhead, and we were not more than 20 feet up the path when the oldest declared this walk “boring and stupid.” The youngest meandered and wandered and panicked whenever he dropped one of the 30 leaves that had haphazardly become his prized collection. What’s more, he didn’t even pick the best leaves, the ones I deemed prettiest, but seemed content with the browns and molded yellows.

img_5394

We slowly made our way as I tried to appreciate the beauty despite the whining, despite the fact that one son had now disappeared down another trail to sulk and the other would not stop talking (don’t the woods inspire silence?) and was now begging to be carried the rest of the way to the car. I took enough pictures to feel like I had record of the sunshine and something suitable to resemble a perfect family moment (or millisecond).  

Back at home, I walked through the door a bit more tired and a lot less energized than what I had gloriously envisioned when we left. As I stood in the kitchen, contemplating what to feed these boys in my house who had somehow managed to get hungry again, my husband came up behind me and tapped me gently on the shoulder, saying, “You try so hard.”

Trying is my thing: it has always been my thing. I come from a family of hard workers — farmers — who have taught me to get a move on, to get things accomplished, to not slow down (besides, we might fall asleep if we did). We don’t need rest. We have things to do. We are “yes” people. We must have something to show for our time.

But the problem with trying is just that — it’s a try. Trying is not foolproof. Effort alone does not always guarantee expectations are met.  Trying may earn occasional admiration for hard work and commitment, but it doesn’t get any of us across the finish line 100% of the time. Trying can earn us approval, but doesn’t often fulfill our purpose.

And, when we’re honest, we can admit that trying can also feel a whole lot like like bluffing, like pretending. It feels like trying to convince ourselves that we’ve got it under control, that we can do it all, that if we focus and work hard enough, we can fool people — or maybe ourselves — into believing we can keep the world — our at least our world — spinning.  

It can feel a bit like posting a picture of a beautiful walk in the woods when no one can see our kid’s scowl or our own frustration on the other side of the camera.

For a long time, I believed I needed to “let go, and let God,” which is one of those trite phrases that is easy to repeat and has had very little practical applicability in my life. This is mainly because I still envisioned that if I let go, God would make me soar, make me succeed, makes things turn out “right.” God would clean up the mess — rather than meet me in the mess and accept me there.

I’m realizing more and more, letting go looks more like falling than expecting everything to fall into place.  Letting go is acknowledging my shortcomings, acknowledging that trying will probably not be enough, and then accepting that. Maybe even celebrating that.

One of the problems with trying — with that pick-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps mentality — is that it isn’t truly compatible with grace, with undeserved and unconditional love. It’s like saying, “Well…I sorta need saving, but I’m doing pretty well on my own. I can handle most of it, God, if you can just help me out with the last 11% or so.” Trying too hard doesn’t truly leave room for grace because both hands never completely let go of the controls. We just lift a pinky at a time and then clench the rest of our fists harder.

And when I’m not ready to truly receive grace, it also becomes harder to dole out. Because if I’m hustling and working, everyone else should be, too. (And that starts to sounds like a lot like competition, doesn’t it?) I’ve heard grace referred to as a “simple act,” but that’s just not true. Grace is a whole lot harder and requires a whole lot more trust and faith than makes most of us comfortable.

The problem with trying, pushing, and hustling to prove our own worthiness is it doesn’t leave room for the messiness of grace, for the gift of rest, for the discomfort of understanding that I will not — cannot — get it all right because the world is broken, I am human, and there will always be more to do.  It doesn’t leave room to collect and celebrate those brown and yellow molded leaves. Or to accept that life rarely can be molded, manufactured, or pressed into perfection.  

img_5384

 

 

Guest Post: Poems and Process

Earlier this summer, I wrote about interviewing my grandma with my cousin, Sara Lamers Messink. A poet, a teacher, and one of my first friends, Sara and I grew up bridging the 80 miles that separated us with weekly letters exchanged back and forth. We eventually became college housemates and fellow English majors. We share a mutual understanding and appreciation for those things our family values most: the land, the table, stories. She has taught me to pay better attention to the world and words around me.

Sara and I (a few years ago) on Grandma's orchard.
Sara and I (a few years ago) on Grandma’s orchard.

Sara has graciously offered to share a few poems; below are a few that resonated with me, along with a Q&A about writing and her process.

——-

I phone to say

I’ll be there, Sunday dinner.
Grandma’s reply is wind,
the shudder of trees, birds’
bitter cries.  Like me she cares

little for idle talk, talk
too small to bridge the distance.
The shortening of days,
a chill breaking in.

She asks of a friend, expecting.
I tell the truth: she lost it.
Wait for a lament
that does not come,

just silence first, then a sigh
that shatters miles with bold truth –
It’s for the best.  It knows, the body.
Outside the first leaves begin to turn.

What inspires you to write? What makes you keep going? 

I’ve always felt compelled to write, I think because I have always loved to read and feel a strong urgency to read widely, deeply, and massively.  If I accomplish nothing else in my life except inhaling and digesting books, I’ll be satisfied.   That said, being able to contribute something to the vast amount of writing out there in the world is both an honor and is humbling.  I write to be a part of something a tiny bit bigger than me, in this way.

It’s a challenge to discover new ways to stretch my writing and that challenge is part of what keep me going.  I come from a family with a strong work ethic (yes, workaholics!) and feel guilty when I don’t write.  By this token, then, it can be deeply satisfied just to get some content down on paper, no matter how awful.  A wise instructor and mentor once told me “you’ll have the whole rest of your life to write good poems.”  To that end, focusing on generating material is a way to prevent the “it’s not any good” worries from stopping me from writing at all.

——

Blues on Sunday

You’re at it again,
crowded by peppers, herbs,
oils, pots steaming.
This time a soup:
rich heat, chipotle, cayenne,
this time blues on the stereo,
from room to room it wafts,
sultry pleas and to what
do I owe this pleasure
of staying in, January Sunday night,
snow splayed across the lawn
but no mind, we’re in here, this warmth, this
lovely heat, alive?

The knives you work
like a sleight of hand, garlic,
onion, thyme, tomatoes
diced down, tiniest forms.
I can’t do much but pour
the wine and raise a glass
to vines, black soil, hands that toil,
seared by sun to pluck
this swollen fruit piece by piece
and plunk into buckets
as the chicken stock, olive oil
commingle and scent the air,
flood it, the weight
of the heady voice, horns and sax, wailing
guitar and blustery sadness.
That certain loss.

The “he” who’s gone
and done wrong, left town
with money, with her battered
heart, rent past due,
kids all sick, boss out of line and here
in our small kitchen
the last yellow light of evening
goes and leaves us
warmer than we’ve ever been and
we sink into soup, the blues, its wail, its cradle
stunned with gratitude,
the purest joy we beg
to keep coming.

Can you talk a bit about your writing rhythm? Do you show up at the desk and play/experiment? Focus on a particular project? 

My process depends on whether I’m working in poetry or prose.  Poetry is much slower, but that’s what I gravitate toward.  When I sit down to write a poem, I first spend a large block of time (at least an hour) reading published poems.  This gets my head in the right place.  I like to have lots of uninterrupted, non-structured time for poetry, largely because it takes so long to enter into that mental and emotional space where poems come from.  Ideally, I’ll have four hours or more to oscillate between reading poems; generating new, rough material; revising poems-in-progress; and polishing or ‘picking at’ nearly-done drafts.  I work best when I am working on several poems that are in various stages of done-ness.  I always have lots of projects going at once so that I can bounce back and forth between them – when I run out of steam on one, I take up another.

I find that the more you know and learn and understand about writing, the harder it becomes to actually do it.  I don’t believe in waiting around for ‘inspiration’ to strike – you have to show up and force yourself to do the work.  (I have also been influenced by several writing teachers who have impressed this notion upon me).  With poetry, especially, I have carved out habits and patterns that help me to get the work going: I have to write in the writing room in my house (I can’t work on poems anywhere else) and I work by hand (as opposed to via a computer) throughout most of the process.  It’s not until very late in the game that poems find their way to the computer screen.

When it comes to essays and fiction, I’m less married to single process, though in both of these cases I need to complete an entire “messy” draft of the thing before I do any revision – I’m not a revise-as-you-go type.  Right now I’m working on a second novel and have borrowed a lot of ‘rules’ from the National Novel Writing Month (which takes place in November each year) guidelines: I set a target word count and don’t quit for the day until I’ve reached it.  I love being in the middle of many projects at once (all in various stages of complete-ness) because it prevents me from getting bored and helps me return to each project with refreshed vision.

——

I Never

got to see them kill the chickens,
my grandparents’ farm eighty-some miles

from home.  Though some summer days
I helped feed, the coop a gray half-dome

tin igloo, low and strange,
that bright tunnel all straw and sticks.

The water they drank floated in plastic jugs
sliced to halves, there was corn they’d jab at,

pounding wings that kicked up dust and straw.
Cousins told me of the killings, how some Saturdays

they’d do as many as half a dozen, hand out
fresh hens to aunts for Sunday dinner.

Grandma tearing feathers from hot bodies
like tangles from a comb.

It was the way the legs still ran after the head
was severed that amused my cousins most,

that panicked race-without-a-finish-line,
survival-of-the-fittest in reverse.

I never saw it but can see my grandparents,
hands careworn, easy with the blood,

the mess, the stench – none of it too crude
to manage, the picture as real to me as

our grandmother, those same summer months,
pressing milkweed to our hands as we walked

through orchards, tugging back the petals
down to the bumpy pod, saying Look:  

These could be fish if we really wanted
them to be.  And we never dreamed
of arguing.

 

How does the process and practice of writing impact you personally? Do you write for an audience? Is there a feeling or maybe even a word that describes what meets you as you write?

Well, I write for myself, primarily, and not for others.  I never once think about an audience or reader when I’m drafting.  I write because I have to do it and feel compelled to do it, and it is satisfying to (finally) do it well.  Publishing is not all that important to me, especially when it comes to poetry (it’s publish or perish in academia, so my motivation to publish there is mainly career-related).  I’d rather make effective art than publish it at all.  I do benefit, of course, from feedback from others – that’s a hugely essential part of the process.   I’ve not yet published any fiction, but do hope to.  My motivation here is to meet the challenge of producing effective writing.  If others read and enjoy it, that’s all the better, but I’m not dependent on a reader – or a reader’s approval – to keep going.  It sounds trite, I know, but it’s the intrinsic reward that pays off the most.

That said, writing – whether it’s poetry, fiction, or nonfiction – is a way to understand your world and to wrestle with the dissonances in your life.  It’s a way to work toward making sense of things that cannot be articulated in any other way.  Writing provides an opportunity to put the rest of life on pause, to step out of the endless, busy stream of life and to reflect and ruminate on the larger picture, on the important things.  It’s a way to record and also think through the various phases and stages of life, which I’m grateful for.  Making art is one of the most spiritual things you can do, at least this has been true for me.  It forces you to be honest, but also connects you to something bigger than yourself.  

Out of tune

 

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com, veeterzy.com
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com, veeterzy.com

I was in choirs when I was a kid. I loved to sing, and I thought I was pretty good at it.  Along with my cousins or youth group friends, I’d even perform “Special Music” (a phenomenon of 1990s West Michigan church culture) at night services, and was always among the first to try out for solos at school.

But sometime around the end of middle school, I realized that my performances weren’t so cute anymore. No one cringes at a slightly out-of-tune 3rd grader, but the judgement — or awareness of judgement — sets in around the age of 12, 13.  As I grew older and more self conscious, I quit all choirs, and started to sing quietly in church, making sure my voice wasn’t heard outside of the crowd, outside of the other muted voices.

During a recent Sunday morning during worship, an adult with some cognitive impairments stood a few rows behind me, singing over the crowd. Her voice was out of tune and out of rhythm — and beautiful. It was raw. It was real. With this voice behind me, I dared raise my own voice a bit. Add into the chorus the sounds of a baby babbling  nearby, and I really felt free to air my own imperfection.

Maybe this is more of what our churches need, more of what I need. We need to welcome more out-of-tune voices, more babies crying, more messes in the pews, and through the doors.

I recently had the chance to interview Gregg Taylor. Gregg is a friend of my church, and currently serves as the President of the Board of the National Association of Christian Recovery.  He’s also works with Houston reVision, an organization that helps gang-effected youth and kids on the edge to revise the stories of their lives toward a hope-filled future. Prior to joining reVision, Gregg was the pastor of Mercy Street, a church in Houston that creates a safe place for the hurt, the lost, and the seeking to experience  radical grace. 

Gregg told me the story of how he ended up working at Mercy Street after spending 17 years in campus ministry. The experience is best shared in his own words from an interview we did together:

I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. My dad was a child of an alcoholic. My mother was a child of alcoholic. Our family could be a case study. (Laughs.)

A friend of mine, the founding pastor of Mercy Street, was transitioning out, and he called to see if I would talk with him.  And I said no; I like it where I am. But he pushed and pushed, and I finally relented. He said, ‘Just talk?” And I said, ‘Fine. I’ll talk.”

I knew of Mercy Street, but I’d never been there. As I sat down in that service, I thought, ‘Wow. This is the kind of church where Jesus would show up.” It was raw, it was celebratory, it was broken, it was a mess. There was an energy of palpable grace and connection.

But the kicker for me…My dad passed away right before I accepted the job, and he was sick during this entire conversation. My dad was 10 years sober when he passed away, and those last 10 years had been great, lots of reconciliation. When I was explaining to my dad about the possibility of coming to Mercy Street, I said, “Dad, there’s a bunch of drunks in this church and people in AA.  And he goes, “That sounds like the kind of church I could go to.” And I said, “Yeah, dad, that’s the kind of church that would welcome you with open arms.”

You see, he grew up in a hellfire/damnation, shame-based, fear-filled church. His Dad made sure he was at church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights — every time the doors were open — but then at home, his dad would beat the hell out of him. And my grandfather would beat my grandmother. This spiritual toxicity had seeped into his soul, and he didn’t want anything to do with God. There was a lot of fear and shame; he was beat down, but AA helped him recover from that and return to himself and God. AA became his fellowship of faith. By the time he died, he was no longer atheist or agnostic, but the God of his understanding was compassionate, grace-filled, and loving. My sense was that if Jesus could show up at Mercy Street, and this was a place where my dad could show up and be welcomed with radical hospitality, I could say, “Yes.” And so I went.

Gregg went on to share stories with me — stories of a homeless woman with no teeth learning to serve and smile, stories of bringing his own son to rehab and feeling love and compassion rather than whispering gossip about a preacher’s kid who needed help.

Gregg said a church that welcomes recovery “creates a space where brokenness is not a problem — whatever brokenness we bring is actually a pathway to grace. God doesn’t turn his head to that, but it actually becomes the conduit to where compassion, restoration, and grace flow.”

The truth is that we’re all in recovery. We’re all dealing with junk. We’re all cracked and broken. And grace is available to all of us. But those who are willing to admit when they’re broken soak up that grace a little more easily.

As a rule-following, oldest child with a history of trying too hard, of trying to control situations and manage the people around me, I’m not always being very good at admitting when I need help or when things aren’t going well.

In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, Brennan Manning writes, “Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace. Our approach to the Christian life is as absurd as the enthusiastic young man who had just received his plumber’s license and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute and then said, ‘I think I can fix this.'”

Showing up real and vulnerable to God — or anyone else — is impossible when it becomes all about trying to have it all together, all about performing.  Especially because we’re out of tune much of the time.

I stopped singing loudly  for the same reason many people never want to step a foot through a church’s door again. It’s hard to pretend you’re good when you’re not. It’s hard to show up and be a mess. So often, we get very good at pretending or we shut up, we stay away. And too often, grace and love — radical hospitality — aren’t the first thing people feel when they walk inside a church.

We can learn a lot from our friends in recovery. We could learn a lot by admitting we all are in recovery. It isn’t a place for pretending to be perfect or whispering quietly  — it’s a place to be honest and broken enough to be fully present, fully known, and fully loved. It’s not only about showing radical hospitality, but accepting that gift, too.

Gregg Taylor blogs at meditate-this.org. Visit him there. You’ll be glad you did.

Photo courtesy of unsplash.com, by Geetanjal Khanna
Photo courtesy of unsplash.com, by Geetanjal Khanna