Sitting in It

Darkness itself isn’t daunting. Rather, people fear what they don’t know, what they can’t see. We’re afraid of what lies outside of our control. We’re afraid of how the darkness disarms us.

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Twin Cities author, Addie Zierman speak a bit about her new memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in Darkness, and I left truly thinking about darkness in ways I’ve never had before. The way Addie puts it, we are so afraid of being apart from light, apart from sight and goodness and everything else light typically stands for, that we too often create our own artificial ways to eliminate the darkness around and in us. And at the end of it all, our artificial light is just distraction from what we don’t want to face.

If you look at the physical make-up of the world for five minutes you realize that darkness is a crucial element. It passes but it never really ends. The night gives way to daylight and the winter will eventually melt into summer, and though there is a season for everything, nobody claims that seasons are a one-time thing. They always cycle back. And just as cities full of blinding artificial light pollute the air, so do our attempts to block out the night pollute our ability to truly see and understand.

In the months after my cousin’s suicide, part of me is tempted to ignore, well, everything. It’s easier to ignore the poetry on my shelf and watch Netflix, it’s easier to avoid friends and people and bury myself in school work, it’s easier to surround yourself with whatever dulls the feeling, distracts, keeps your thoughts from where you don’t want them to go.

But even though it can feel easier, it’s the last thing we really want. Though paradoxical, I think we ache for the reality of what makes us ache. We crave vulnerability and authenticity and lives capable of genuine thought and feeling. We want stories of depth–even if the depths are the deepest and darkest places we can go.

Last week in my poetry class, the professor assigned each of us terms that we were to define and present on in front of the class. Now, I’ve had two years worth of poetry classes and feel fairly knowledgeable in that kind of thing. But while everyone else gets terms like metaphor and personification, I get a John Keats concept I’ve hardly ever heard of before. Great.

And when I come to the professor’s office for help, she looks at me and says that’s right, I gave you a hard one because I thought you’d be able to handle it. 

The term Negative Capability in poetry is described as the ability to stay in a point of suspension without reaching after logic or reason. It’s being in a place of discomfort or confusion or even a place that makes no rational sense, but not avoiding or fleeing that state.

And now that I’ve looked into the concept, I can’t stop thinking about it in my writing or in my life. Where I am in my life is a place that I don’t necessarily have answers or explanation for. I’m in an extended place of doubt and difficulty. I’m in a place that not many can reach me in. But I know that the best thing I can do for myself is to just sit in it.

I will stay in the darkness because I am called to be in the depths. I can be suspended in darkness because it is shaping me to not rely on the perception of control that fails me. I’m staying in with the grief and the tears and the counseling and the poetry because I don’t want want to fear feeling–whether it be joy or pain.

I’m sitting in it because it’s the only way to fully experience the light.

 

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On the Crest of the Wave

Today I finally got over to the Como conservatory like I’ve been wanting to do all winter, utterly ready for an emergency dose of green and warmth and whatever serenity I was hoping to find. Unfortunately for my introverted self, I was nothing short of disappointed to find the complete chaos I had walked straight into, warmish Sunday afternoons apparently being the most popular time to haul in strollers full of babbling children eager to pull off mittens they’ve been wrestled into all winter.

So I shifted my focus into full fledged people watching. And trying not to step on any oblivious toddlers.

If you’re like every other Twin Cities dweller and have been to Como, you know that one of the first sights you see when you enter the massive greenhouse gardens is the Crest of The Wave fountain centered in its own little courtyard, the barefooted statue of a woman seeming to leap into the density of trees scraping the glass walls. I want to spend the whole afternoon gazing at her, taking mental notes for the poem I want to revolve around her. Pulling a dingy 1976 penny out of my coin purse, I flick it off my thumbnail into the fountain’s top tier with a wet plink, wishing my feet were as light as the dark figure carved into such bliss.

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On the wooden bench to my left sits a small woman reading, her black hair rocking along with the baby she holds. She seems alone, and I think of how this is the place I would sit if I found myself that way. Through the automatic doors race two small hispanic girls, pressing themselves against the low bowl collecting what streams off the statue’s feet. The bigger girl bends her torso over the lip, raking her fingers through the clear water, letting it pour over over her palm. With no hesitation, she cups her hand, avoids the penny’s glinting at the bottom, and scoops the water into her mouth. She is oblivious to my or anyone else’s shock, and looks confused when her frazzled mother grabs her by the ear and pulls her away.

In the sunken garden, pendant flowers and lillypads float on the narrow pond, and my eyes are actually dizzy from the pink freckled lilies, violet pansies, and white roses so perfect they unfold like pearl kaleidoscopes.The crystal like walls slope into a glass Taj Mahal, slender coniferous trees trimmed liked manicured fingers line the interior as columns.  A woman with a camera around her neck and white hair walks in and exclaims, “Why, doesn’t it smell delicious in here?” and as weird as it sounds, it does.

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A two year old with brown, curly pigtails steps with one foot only on the shallow steps that lead up out of the garden as she and her dad count aloud 1, 2, 3, 4. When she trips, her arm goes taught in her father’s thick hand, her knees never scraping the stone. She points at the electric orange koi fish with their Fu Manchu mustaches, their rubbery, tunnel lips blowing kisses above the water.

And all around people are peeling off coats like old skins, shedding the cold and gray February slushed they tracked in. I cross my legs on the bench and watch them, the change in the air making them perk like the plants in their water mist, me feeling restored  from just observing it all. I lean into a ballet-slipper pink flower I don’t know the name of, the smell of raw honey and jasmine in my lungs.

I’m content here among this life that’s being tricked into blooming. The plants that have no idea of the environment they’re beating or the cold that presses up against the sun-soaked windows. They have no idea of all that is working in their favor, they only put down roots and stretch themselves as far as they can reach. As they are meant to.

As I think I am meant to. As I find the place that allows me to bloom just the same.

 

After the Fact

On the aisle side of a middle pew, feeling small inside a breathtaking, originally Catholic church building, I am sitting with a open journal on my lap, not paying as much attention to the sermon as I should be. All around me, dark wooden beams scale white walls, curving into high domed ceilings, light suspended in lanterns, fixed on metal chains leading upward.

Chopin rings from the classical piano being played in the front of the church. Near the piano an original painting, a 7ft. canvas framed with the color of canyon red dirt, holding a depiction of the woman Jesus met at the well. She is crouching, low on her heels, back bent, her hair the same color as the dirt. But her arm is reaching upward. A delicate hand holding her clay jug like an offering, tilting it back until water rushes forward, nearly spilling over, ready to wash over this lowly figure in the dust.

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The last month and a half since my cousin’s suicide have been some of the toughest weeks of my life. At this point in time, I can feel some of the heaviness, the pressure of it ease off me in ways that I couldn’t afford before. But there are also days, more like moments, when something just hits for no remarkable or explainable reason and all of a sudden I’m crying in class, at lunch, in the middle of my professor’s office.

And after these last few weeks of tears and writing and phone calls and prayers and frustrating, emotional conversations, this is what I’ve learned about grief. And that is that there is absolutely nothing that can quiet the pain and the sadness, and there is nothing to make it go away. There is no remedy, there is no treatment, there is no cure.

But there is healing.

The only, only thing that can heal what so thoroughly breaks us is the knowledge, the realization that we are not alone.

When the same professor that I break down into tears in front of takes the time nearly every day to ask how I’m actually doing, I am not alone.

When the school councilor I’ve been seeing goes out of his way on a Saturday to email me a blog post he found about grief, I am not alone.

When I read poetry, when I read others’ intimate experiences, when I can feel what I don’t have to sum up into coherent sentences, I am not alone.

When a dear friend takes me out to dinner at India Palace, and over curry chicken listens to everything I could possible say, willingly enters into my story without fear or hesitation, holds every jagged, broken piece of me, I am not alone.

And when I am sitting in church this morning, and the light is igniting the stained glass ivory and gold, producing warmth I can’t feel, I read among the azure and the ruby laced window, a scroll inscribed with Blessed are the poor in spirit.

When the people stand and pour out Aleluia, I actually have the breath to join them. And with those words, my skin feels lighter and less like my own, and again, I am crying, but I try not to get caught up in mopping them with my sleeve. When I just let them leak out of closed eyes, let them wash away all that I’ve been holding on to, let this warmth, this light, this voice wrap around me, there is healing.

There is the realization, the reminder. I am not alone.

 

 

Coming Home

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. My college, my dorm room, even the beautiful city surrounding me is not my home. Because my college, as wonderful as it usually is, will only be my college another year. My room that holds my homemade quilt and desk full of sticky notes will be empty by May. My roommates who share that room with me, the girls I call two of my closest friends, will eventually move out, get married, live their own lives just as I hope to.

Ultimately, I refuse to refer to my current address as my home because I refuse to let my home be temporary or conditional. And I don’t think I understood that until I realized how much I ached for the rest and stability that only comes with the place that my family is.

Here’s what my home looks like.

My home looks like my mother driving an eight hour round trip to bring me back with her. Me crying thinking of the Winne the Pooh quotes and yellow balloons she mailed me last week. Her taking me back to a green-roofed farm house with a dog and cat waiting between the white columns of the front porch she’s always wanted.

It looks little sisters jumping out from behind the couch to surprise me when I walk through the front door, the rough glitter from their cards collecting under my fingernails, my brother letting loose the comebacks and witty insults he’s been saving up for this exact opportunity.

It looks like pushing me and my sister’s twin beds together so we can watch Netflix under her flannel blanket and me rolling on top of her in her Batman onesie to wake her up in the morning, her groaning and whining and laughing all at the same time.

It looks like me riding shotgun in my dad’s pickup, the two of us driving through the trails behind the house, searching bare, blurring trees through the open windows, not even minding the country air hushing in. He parks the truck when he reaches the back corner of our 60 acre, snow-sodden meadow. When he slides out, I follow. He is walking, studying the slender dips in the snow left by deer, and I am close behind. Carefully placing my own boots to echo the manure stained prints his have left.

We don’t speak. There is only the rough scratching of his carhartt coat and the crinkle of wild grass being crushed further beneath our feet. The pine and January air making breaths sharper in my nose. We don’t hurry. We just take in the openness that, for now, is our own. The uninterrupted sky that’s started to dim, this overlooked landscape that has kept its stillness for decades.

This here is our moment. This land is our land. And in this place, in this time–everything about it is my home.

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Photo: Emma Sweere

What We Find When We Go Looking

So I realize that it’s been two weeks since the start of 2016, and we’re all pretty much done talking about it. Trust me, I get it. So forgive me for not acknowledging that and throwing in my own two cents anyway.

In all honesty, I’m kinda ritualistic about the new year. Other people flock the gyms, but as for me, January is the month I pull out all the journals and desperately try to make sense of what I’m doing with my life. It’s a big, sometimes stressful task even though I personally think that the new year has unrealistic pressures and expectations already. It looks kinda like this:

I make the cliche resolutions list about the reading I want to spend time on and my handshake I want to improve. I set goals about the writing I want to get published and the internship I want to get. I even write up a yearly bucket list of the crazy wonderful things I hope will finally happen like Europe and road trips and whatever else I dream up. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting, and for some bizarre reason I get resolution and healing from that sort of process, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The one habit I would recommend is really the only  thing I want to talk to you about in this post. See, being an English major, I like finding words for stuff. I like words in general and what they mean and what they represent. I like finding the right word. So not surprisingly, I do that for each year. For the last three years, I’ve selected a word that I want to make significant in the following months. It gives me time to focus on it and engage with it. It helps me to pay greater attention, which is the larger goal in the first place.

The word I chose is actually kind of anticlimactic, which is disappointing since I’m all about that flair and romantic drama. But the more I thought about it, the more no other word seemed to fit.

So that’s why 2016 is the year I choose to seek.

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You hear this word almost always in relation to a thing, an object. Seek advice, seek wisdom, seek beauty, seek the kingdom, seek something. I chose the word seek because I want to seek out all of it.

I don’t want to merely wait and accept what finds its way to me. Though I believe much of what is significant or meaningful to us seems to “find us” in a way, it’s much easier for illumination and discovery to stumble into you if you are also out looking for it.

I want to seek out the projects, the essays, the writing assignments that intimidate me me so I can better realize my own potential. I want to seek out the rough, unanswerable questions that can’t be summed up in Christian cliches and the ideas that can’t be simplified into bullet pointed sermon notes. I’m seeking for peace and a better sense of self after feeling like a part of me was buried in frozen ground with my 19-year-old cousin’s casket.

I suppose I’m searching for what we all are, to some degree. Seeking for what truly matters in the world and what I’m supposed to make matter in return. Looking for what makes me come alive and what that is supposed to do for the people around me. Hunting for the most vital, which is also the most terrifying. So I guess my greatest hope for myself, for all of us, is that may learn to seek without being afraid of what we might find.

 

“I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.”                                                                   Vincent Van Goh

 

The Eternal Heart

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…”              ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

It’s painful for me to say that this post, in addition to this last week in general, has held nothing that I would have even dared to expect, and somehow, though I would rather write about anything else, nothing else seems acceptable to address.

Over Christmas, my family experienced incredible tragedy in the form of my cousin’s death. For the sake of our family’s privacy, I will not go into details, and I’m here to say not only that this post is not that story, but also that it is not my story to tell. I can only tell my own. And this happens to be part of it.

Until Christmas morning, I had never had to face death in this degree of closeness. Never had to experience grief in those circumstances or to that level. I’m afraid I’ve even caught myself in the past saying that I doubted whether I had experienced enough, known enough darkness to pursue the world of writing. Was this what I was asking for?

Shock is an emotion (if you can call it an emotion) that dulls and blurs all others. My mind has been thick with it and has left little room for me to feel anything else. I feel pressure to mourn, to grieve, to undergo a process that acknowledges these things, but I am utterly lost in what such things look like, let alone how to go about them. It’s easier for me to act strong for others, whether siblings, parents, or friends, ask how they are, but not nearly as willing to seek an answer for myself. I’m not always sure how to respond, and as a result, I’m learning my own process for coping. And it turns out that all I know to do is what I’ve done for the majority of my life, and that is to write it down.

So here I am. Two poured-over journals, fifteen pages of handwritten scrawls, an open Bible, and four hours in the loft of the town coffee shop have gotten me to this point, though I’m still not sure exactly what that is.

The first few days proceeding the news, the same thoughts kept replaying in my head, over and over again.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

I kept repeating them with some hope that they would tie me to reality, make the truth of it stop hovering in the air and sink beneath my skin, keep me from drifting off into the world inside my own mind. When I felt myself slipping into normalcy, and saw how easy it is to do even in the midst of such turmoil and tragedy, I kept snapping myself back, trying to force something I don’t understand.

But I’m beginning to realize that seasons run together even more than we expect. Not only do we have seasons of weeping and seasons of laughter, but we experience them together, despite how unnaturally they feel. I am learning to mourn death and loss, but also allowing myself to laugh at my sister dancing around our room in her Batman pajamas. I will give myself these opportunities to reflect and grieve, to spend hours journaling by myself, to cry with close friends, but also appreciate the moments of my family gathered around the living room, making fun of the old Star Wars special effects. Treasuring the life, the moments, the continual and constant support and empathy around me.

I’m witnessing first hand that our souls hold more than we can measure, and our hearts are capable of greater suffering and greater joy that could ever be imagined or contained. Even the depths of suffering tend to make room to hold an even deeper love and a greater degree of life. We are creatures with eternity placed in our hearts, and like death, like anything of great permanence, we do not know how to understand it, but the thing is that we don’t really need to.

I may not know how or what to feel at times such as this, but I am determined to continue feeling despite my lack of understanding. We continue to live in the presence of death. We continue to laugh in spite of tears. We allow ourselves sorrow, and we make room for joy. We love in a broken world because the broken does not take away from the beautiful. And it is the encounters with the beautiful that I keep my heart open for.

Wide Eyed

Growing up, I always remember being told to close your eyes. At bedtime, in games, in church. I also remember doing my best to defy such a command like I did with most other childhood rules.

When I was eight, my parents brought home a discounted Target trampoline, which nearly filled our entire backyard and was the envy of the whole South Minneapolis neighborhood block. Kids flocked to our house, and my siblings and I were adored for our summer birthday parties and sleepovers.

Our favorite game was “dead man,” and it consisted of one kid playing dead in the middle while the rest of us jumped around him chanting, “Dead man, dead man, come alive, when I count to the number five.” After we miraculously raised the blind, zombie kid to life, the first victim to get caught would take his place.

The problem was I always cheated. When I got to my feet, I’d slit my eyes open just enough to make out shapes, but not wide enough to be noticeable. I don’t think I ever got caught anyway. Though I was always overly competitive as a child (I made my siblings cry from foosball of all things), I don’t remember cheating just to win. I do remember absolutely hating not knowing what was going on. I still do. I hated being “it” because I wanted to be a part of things, and stumbling around blind just wasn’t doing it for me.

For me, seeing often means remembering, and remembering is something I’m dedicated to. I always got so mad because I rarely remembered my dreams at night. Right before I’d wake up, the whole scene would be so clear, but as my eyes opened, it all slipped away like the darkness. In tenth grade I read and memorized some of T. E. Lawrence, who claimed, “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

So I learned to daydream instead.

Car rides were/are a great opportunity to get lost in my own mind. Staring out the window, I zone out for hours and erect scenes and thoughts I could live in, hold onto, replay over and over. I could easily get lost in my mind, but I also know how to lose myself in the world. Bring myself nearer to it.

For similar reasons, I hardly ever close my eyes when I pray. I know that’s kind of seen as disrespectful or distracting, but I’ve learned to depend on sight. It keeps me grounded, connects me to the place and people around me, reminds me where I am and what I’m doing in that moment. I tend to watch people during that time. I want to see how their mouth moves and if they look like they know that they’re talking to God and if a person’s expression changes when someone pleads on their behalf. I want to see God in their faces.

I want to be a part of the world I’m in, not close my eyes to it. I want to notice things—everything. And I want to remember it. This is what this blog is about, really. Living with open eyes. I just happen to be looking through my own, and for the moment, so are you. And what I see is a world begging to be seen, whether it’s the person in the corner of Starbucks or a footprint in the snow.

So sometimes I think its ok to cheat the blindness. To go through life wide-eyed and observant of the things we’ve learned to look away from. It’s ok to be amazed at what we see.