Running into Story

My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.

It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.

Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.

I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.

But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.

running selfie
My favorite selfies are the ones that bookend my runs.

More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.

But I was always finding things too.

Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.

sunrise
A sunrise so beautiful that even an iPhone photo does it justice.

I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.

Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark {a review & giveaway}

Me and the book

How do you know God is real?

Because you’ve felt him.

Until you don’t anymore.

Addie Zierman’s second book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, officially came into the world one week ago Tuesday. It arrived on my doorstep that night, and as I absorbed myself into it, I found myself within its pages. Like her first book, When We Were On Fire, it took me to familiar places, hard places, true places.

Like Addie’s debut, Night Driving is a memoir. This one chronicles a spontaneous road trip she took two winters ago with her two young boys, to escape the darkness of her even-colder-than-usual Minnesota home for Florida light … to escape the darkness and emptiness inside her to maybe, just maybe, find a Light she could take back with her.

The book flits between past and present, and I was carried along on interstates and into strangers’ homes. I was carried to beaches of yesteryear where fire lit the sky, lit the heart, and to beaches where the rain thundered down, where nothing was as simple as it used to be. Night Driving is achingly beautiful; Night Driving is achingly real.

It seems fitting to be writing about this book in the cold of a Colorado blizzard, in the darkness of Holy Week, in the sparseness of my own soul.

The morning after I finished the book, I found myself flipping back, a few chapters at first and then all the way to the beginning, filling three pages deep with quote after quote. I was going to share a few of my favorites, interspersed with reflections on why these particular words are meaningful to me … but then I realized that you don’t need my words right now, that what you need are Addie’s words, full stop. And so, here they are:

“In the dark kitchen, I feel as if my eyes are finally beginning to adjust. And I’d forgotten that this is how sight works. We move from someplace very bright to someplace very dark, and for several minutes it’s very hard to see. But then the pupil expands and the rod cells engage, and the whole eye is flooded with rhodopsin, and we can finally absorb photos, perceive light. I’d forgotten that we are made like this. We are equipped to see not only in the light … but also in the darkness. It just takes time to switch between the two.

And maybe this has all been nothing more than part of the natural process of things. I spent the formative years of my life, my faith, looking straight into the Light. It only makes sense that it would take my eyes a while to heal from that burning and to adjust to a world that so often is dark. But now I’m sitting at the kitchen table, blinking in the darkness, and God’s presence doesn’t feel at all like fog lights or romance or smoke or fire. It is as steady and commonplace as the wooden farm table between us, at the floor my feet brush against, the slant of the oven light barely illuminating the table. It’s almost pitch-black. I’ve never seen so clearly.”

Night Driving, pages 195-196

“I feel like I’ve spent the last several years twisting and turning the puzzle pieces of my faith, trying to get them to plug up that ‘God-shaped hole’ that is still throbbing like an abscess in my heart. But it never seems to go away – no matter how long I sit there, Bible in my lap, staring out the patio door of my kitchen, waiting. … ‘All sins are attempts to fill voids,’ Simone Weil said, and at some crucial point that I can’t actually remember, I figured out that burning down your own life felt strikingly similar to being on fire. That if I couldn’t shoot the gap via that bridge which is the empty cross, at least I could pour wine down into it. Such an easy shortcut. Such a simply fix to get tipsy on cheap cabernet and smile at some guy on some street and feel myself float to the top of that gaping, empty space in me – at least for a little while.”

Night Driving, pages 126-127

“It’s like this: Once upon a time, I learned that God came like light. I spent a long time, head against the window, peering into the darkness, praying for God to come like a spotlight, like a fire, like some wild laser show in the pitch-black sky. I learned to fear the darkness, and when it came, I struck myself against everything around me trying to make sparks.”

Night Driving, page 208

“I hadn’t understood, then, that love doesn’t always look like romance and faith doesn’t look like fire and light doesn’t always look like the sun – and that this matters.”

Night Driving, page 209

You can find out more Addie and her book at addiezierman.com, and you can find Night Driving on Amazon (or wherever you buy books).

Also, a GIVEAWAY! I have a copy of Night Driving that I’d like to give to one of you. If this book sounds like it’s for you, simply post a comment on this blog post, and you will be entered in the giveaway. On Easter Monday, I will randomly select one winner (so make sure you include your email address in your comment, so I can contact you if you win).

UPDATE: The giveaway has ended. Thank you to everyone who participated!

When You Miss the Darkness

dark church
Photo by n3wjack on Flickr’s creative commons

Is it strange that I miss the darkness that sucker-punched my soul?

This was four years ago. I was living overseas, six months split between two continents, saturated in Christian community that was young and fiery and expectant. I was young and fearful and depressed, but this was my chance. This could be my cure.

One day, we left our drafty English manor with its roast dinners and familiar faces and small groups for the Midlands, for Coventry, for Evangelism Week.

During the day, we threw ourselves into creative evangelism and indirect evangelism and woo-woo evangelism. At night, friends and strangers slept beside me on the carpeted church sanctuary floor, but I couldn’t sleep.

Do I really believe what I’m trying to get everyone else to believe?

The door was opened, and oh what blew in! I lay on my half of the air mattress and tried to keep my breathing steady and my body silent. For the first time ever, I was seriously considering walking away from Christianity. And my soul gaped and gasped and trembled as it realized what all that would mean. This wasn’t a drill.

At the time, I would’ve given anything to close that door.

Now, I want to open it again.

The darkness was wild and terrifying and bleak, but it also blew away illusions and assumptions and meaningless hypotheticals, at least for a time. I learned how to be honest with myself and others, how to be awake to my own soul. What I learned in the dark, I carried with me into the light. The darkness was fierce, but so was the light, and I wonder if they needed each other.

Today, I’m so tired. The darkness is not a sucker punch to my gut anymore, but rather weights on my chest that keep getting heavier and making it harder to breath.

Every so often, something breaks through the fog. Every so often, a Lenten hymn or a line in the Creed will catch in my throat, catch on something inside me, and I won’t feel quite so tired that evening. But all too soon, I’m drifting off again, and it’s getting harder and harder for anything to rouse me.

The loop starts again, that cynical loop, whenever anyone bumps the “Play” button. But by now I’m bored by the sound of my own voice. I’m dragging, dragging, dragging, and experience tells me that nothing will happen unless I can somehow make it happen. Someone asks me if it’s faith or fear that keeps me here, and I don’t know, it’s all tangled together. I’m too tired to try anymore.

This is not the darkness that blows open doors and knocks me flat, for good or ill. Rather, this is the darkness of closed doors and stale air. Maybe one day I will find good in this too, but I can’t help but think that the door needs to open again, whatever may lie behind it now, even if it scares me. Even if I die a sort of death in the process.

Who knows what the morning will bring, or the evening.

 

This post is a part of Addie Zierman’s synchroblog to celebrate the release of her new book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. Read other entries here.

The Unraveling

I am unraveling.

The illusion is broken: I can’t always trust myself. Sinking deep into the beats and even the palpitations of my own heart was always my saving grace, my peace and my candle and my anchor.

Maybe it’s just that I haven’t had enough time to sift and plunge into the clamoring silence with my bare hands. Maybe I didn’t go deep enough, maybe my eyes weren’t clear enough, maybe I wanted it too little, or too much. Or maybe not. Maybe it was always going to implode, no matter what I did or didn’t do.

I’m always trying to convince everyone, myself included, that I’ve got this. I don’t need you, at least not in the way a dripping, panting person needs water, the way a purple, choking person needs the Heimlich. No, I only need you in the way the organizer of the world’s largest bake sale needs another plate of cookies: “Sure, if you want to fill that tiny corner of the table, go right ahead, but by all means don’t trouble yourself, we’re really fine with what we’ve got. But while you’re here, can I interest you in a macaroon?”

cerus scarf
“Cerus scarf” by Tony & Wayne (Flickr’s creative commons)

I am unraveling because I’m realizing that taking every feeling and sticking it under a magnifying glass, or carrying it headlong through all the corners of my mind, or simply staring it down in a confined space, sometimes muddies the waters instead of clearing them.

I’m unraveling because I’ve run out of road.

I’m unraveling because I’m considering the very real possibility that I have fewer inner resources than I thought I did to combat everything that is kicking me from the inside out. And, horror of horrors, maybe those “inner resources” are taking a few swings at me too.

What do you do when you’re afraid to lean heavy on anyone’s shoulder, but you also can’t lean on your own anymore?

This is where faith comes in, they say, I’ve said. You can lean on God’s shoulder. He will “never leave you nor forsake you.”

The tree
“L’arbre – The tree” by Gustave Deghilage (Flickr’s creative commons)

I’ve held onto the slim trunk of a water tree with one hand, straining and reaching out with the outstretched fingers of my other hand. I’ve turned full into the wind and let it flatten my face, let it sting my eyes, let it enter my lungs. I’ve cried and prayed and written thousands upon thousands of words. But after a while, my eyes dried up and my pen dried out and though I didn’t give up, exactly, I didn’t know how to sustain such desperate hope. Especially when I couldn’t hear anything certain coming back to me across the gap except my own voice, thinner on the return.

All I know to do in times like these is shut my eyes when everything else is dark, and open them again when light returns. I find ways to stay warm and I look for that which nourishes me. And I try not to spend too much or too little time with only myself for company.

How quickly light can turn to shadow. How sudden seems the unraveling.

 

 

 

 

Staying Attuned {an Advent reflection}

Mbale, Uganda
Mbale, Uganda

Dear Uganda,

We will be meeting each other soon, and forming first impressions. The sun we both know will shine on us at the same time, and in the short hours I have with you I pray I will be straining to see.

I’ve been writing to two of your children, a boy and a girl, and I know a little bit about you – about climate and crops and family life – but not nearly as much as I should.

I know there is violence and poverty, illiteracy and corruption. I know there is beauty and I know there is pain.

And I know that I often see the nations of Africa with bleary, blurry eyes, until all I can make out is a giant swirl in the shape of a continent.

Today I’m writing at Annie Rim’s blog, for her series on Advent. My first guest blog! Join me there to read the rest of this post.

Listen to the Longing

Travel is lovely; travel is lonely.

I know loneliness very well … both the loneliness of a crowded room and the loneliness of my own room. I know the loneliness of being the only one and the every one.

I know longing too.

Many words are associated with these four weeks before Christmas, these four weeks they call Advent: Expectation. Anticipation. Hope. Waiting. Arrival. Come. Longing.

Longing.

One quarter of December I will spend simply getting from one place to another. Another two quarters, roughly, I will spend being in those other places. And this doesn’t count all the time spent preparing and recovering, the prologue and the epilogue.

This month, I will be spending a lot of time with the new and the old and the in-between. I don’t know if this will make the longing heavier or lighter than if I were to pass the time in my new home, in my new normal.

The longing that unites us Christians is the longing for Christ, the longing for all to be made right in a shitty world. I think of these words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

But there are other longings: For that to end which has plagued us for far too long. For that to begin which has evaded us for far too long. For grace in the long, long middle. For purpose. For peace. For love. For knowing deeply and being known.

The season of Advent is the first season of the church calendar. It is a beginning, of sorts, but it also meets us in the messy middle. Whatever longings we’re carrying when we light that first candle and sink into the cold and the light, the invitation is the same: To name it and sit with it. To not hurry past it or push it down or change its name, but to say, “This is what I’m desperate for. This is what I’m feeling around for in the dark. This is my ache.”

At least, that’s the invitation I hear, when I slow down enough to listen.

And after all the preparing and the packing, once travel is underway and there is little to do but wait and sit and be carried to distant lands, if you let yourself, time will slow down. You may find in yourself someone other than a list-maker, a doer, a blur among other blurs. You may find longing again.

And that longing, it is lonely, and it is lovely.

Gratitude & Asia & Colorado

Asia group
Some of my Asia people (Photo by Gonzalo Santillan, 2012).

I once lived in Asia. I remember the night we arrived, how we all trooped into the first apartment at midnight, how we took in every bright and dusty and unusual detail. How we had a few names and phone numbers, but we didn’t know anyone, not really, and we didn’t know this city.

Three months later, we didn’t just have our favorite restaurants and transportation success stories and the ability to navigate any dish with a pair of chopsticks; we also had friends. We wrote down the names of these people, the ones we spent time with in living rooms and cafeterias and zoos, the people we ate chicken feet and watermelon and birds-on-a-stick with, the people we invited over and out, the people who understood a little of what we said and those who understood a lot. We filled three sheets of paper with their names. We had them, and we had each other.

So much can happen between spring and summer.

So much can happen between one winter and the next.

I now live in Colorado. I remember the day I arrived, driving all the way up that narrow street and then tiptoeing around the patches of ice, how I lay on the floor and stared at the wood paneling of my ceiling. How I had a few names and phone numbers, but I didn’t know anyone, not really, and I didn’t know this city.

I think I will remember this first year in Colorado as I remember those three months in Asia, as a time bursting with color.

Not that there weren’t blue-tinged weeks. Not that there weren’t red-faced days and wet-faced days. But there were also more names than I expected. I wrote down the names of these people, the ones I have spent time with in living rooms and coffee shops and on city streets, the people I prayed with and played games with and had hours-long conversations with. The people I saw, and who saw me.

Even though I am so very much a work in progress, even though there are a thousand ways I can and have attached narratives of separation and disconnection to my interactions with other humans, I am grateful when my stubborn eyes are clear enough to see the good as well as the bad.

For those of you who made room for others this year, who decided that your lives weren’t too full to admit another, who were generous with your smiles and invitations and hearts: Thank you!

And for those of you who have been searching for your people, for a place at the table, for someone who will listen: Don’t give up. Please don’t give up. There are more of us out there than you know. Maybe we will find each other.

Some of my Colorado people
Some of my Colorado people (2015).

Advent of Restlessness

mountains
Photo by james j8246 on Flickr’s creative commons.

I have a bit of a crush on Advent.

I buy things for Advent and I daydream about Advent and I want to spend as much time with Advent as possible.

And every year, I am disappointed. This isn’t because Advent stands me up, however, but because I make Advent stand in the snow, and put a Santa hat on her head, and fill her arms with enough books and music and art and calendars to make anyone topple.*

When will I learn that Advent is more about letting go and listening than strapping as many things to my body as I can?

Maybe this will be the year I fall all the way in love with Advent.

After all, I can relate more to Advent longing than Christmas joy. Give me poetry that makes me ache, give me songs that make me cry. Give me silence and take away the color and let us sweat and climb together. Maybe the sun will come out from behind the clouds for a moment, maybe we will glimpse the shore across the channel, maybe we will catch an earful of birdsong before we have to pull our hoods up and turn our bodies away from the wind.

I am restless. I am always restless. Even on my happiest days, I am restless.

I look for people who will take away my restlessness. I try to make something of myself. I cannot stop moving, but I know I must stop moving.

I think of St. Augustine’s words and I know, deep down, that I’m looking for God, somehow:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

I’m looking, but I have not found. At times, I think I glimpse something out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn, nothing is there.

The sky is overcast and I am so cold.

But I can breathe.

Maybe the real God is not who I expect. Maybe the real God doesn’t want to take me off my lonely mountain and stick me in a room where the windows are shut tight and all the furnishings are from a certain decade, a certain century, a certain school of thought. Maybe the real God is breathing the same air I am and likes the mountain as much as I do.

I pull hope into my lungs, hope fills my ears and streams from my eyes, hope dances with me in the darkness, hope sits with me in the pain. And this is what I love about Advent.

 

*Not that Advent books and music and art and calendars are unhelpful. Quite the contrary. I just tend to imbibe too many at once. This year, I will be sitting with my friend Cara Strickland‘s devotional calendars, a bit of music, and perhaps a book of poetry (any suggestions?).

Choosing the Freefall

freefall
Photo by Toma Toshi on Flickr’s creative commons.

Choosing to be brave is choosing the freefall.

It is the moment when you sheepishly return to the party you left 20 minutes ago, the one where you hardly knew anyone, the one where you stayed your usual amount of time and then slipped away. When the door closed behind you, though, you realized you didn’t actually want to go home, that you weren’t tired, that you weren’t quite done, but you kept walking because you had made your choice and that was that, right? But then, halfway home, you turned the car around and changed your story.

It is the moment when you say, “Yes, I do have something to say, can we talk?” to the person who intimidates you, or the person you might disappoint, or the person who would rather not hear what you have to say.

It is the moment when you pull your car to the side of the road and call the friend you just said goodnight to, the friend you’ve never prayed with before, and ask her if you can maybe come over and pray.

I didn’t plan for any of these moments, but they all found me over the space of two weeks. And as the same scenario seemed to unfold again and again with different players and different stages, I felt the deja vu and I saw my agency, pressed against the glass of my mind’s eye, neglected for so long. Would I keep doing things the way I’d always done them? Would I keep avoiding conflict and fearing what people might think and staying in the safe zone? Or would I take the risk to find out what would happen if I kept the curtains open and stayed on the stage longer than I’d ever done before?

In almost every one of those stories, I landed on my feet almost immediately. My face was flushed and my heart was racing, or I felt foolish and awkward, or I was afraid of disappointing people, but soon, very soon, my feet were on sure ground again, and the new landscape was bright and welcoming, and I was happier, and I felt braver.

And then I did not land on my feet. The fall was longer and the wind made my eyes squint and water. I slammed into the ground and I came away bloody. I still felt like a fool and I still felt afraid, and this time I wanted to take it all back, and this time I needed bandages, and this time I was not happier and I did not feel braver.

But I was still brave.

Bravery looks different for everyone. For me, though, it almost always looks like speaking up or turning around when it would be easier not to. It looks like finding my voice and using it. And it sometimes looks like trembling hands and clumsy words and misapplied shame.

Whether you are standing on the edge with shaky knees, or standing in the victory of a safe landing, or barely standing with dripping wounds, take heart. It will get easier, and it will get harder, and it will be worth it, even if you can’t see it now.

Live Coals and Broken Places

a multitude of candles

When a live coal sits atop a piece of wood, powered by breath and prodded by sticks, the wood eventually becomes a coal too. And with enough time, the heat begins to chip away at the wood.

The fire and I, we made a bowl yesterday.

A few hours before, I was sitting in my car, vaguely aware of a headline, picturing a building or a street corner or another place surrounded by police tape and contained. Then I switched on the radio and learned the truth: of a restaurant and a stadium and a concert hall, of AK-47s and explosives, of death and fear that could not be contained.

I’ve never been to Paris, but I could easily picture myself there, out on the town on a Friday night. I have been to concerts and sporting events and restaurants. I have walked the streets of cities glittering with history and beauty.

I turned up the volume to catch every word spoken in French accents. Between Centennial and Arvada, my world expanded with the weight of grief.

And then I got out of my car and met four others standing around a fire, and for two hours, my world shrunk to the size of a smoking piece of wood.

In this slow work of making something, in the conversations that ebbed and flowed, in the smoke that filled my hair and the breath that left my mouth, I found one of the simplest, most natural pleasures of life.

After the coals had done their work, we took tools to the glowing black, scraping and shaping with stones and curved metal, until it was the right depth and width, until it was smooth to the touch.

My feet were cold when we finished, examining our creations by firelight.

“You have some coal dust on your face,” Megan said.

We laughed and I smiled for the camera without running my sleeve across my face.

But when I was alone again, it all came back to me, this most unnatural destruction of life thousands of miles away.

In a car that now smelled like smoke, my grimy face felt like more than a mark of achievement. I thought of Ash Wednesday and lament, of sackcloth and ashes, of mourning and solidarity.

The night could not end here.

I am not a person who jumps at the chance to pray with people. I am not a person who prays much at all, honestly. But tonight was different, so I pulled to the side of the road and made a call and changed my destination.

Over hot drinks, we shared what we knew and settled in on the couch. We had no candles, and the Old English words of Scripture felt unwieldy on our tongues, but it was right, somehow, to speak aloud our hopes and our once-removed grief, to let the words stream from our lips and run circles around us.

But as the night wore on, a new question percolated in me:

Why was tonight so different?

I haven’t felt this strongly for those in Syria or Iraq, South Sudan or Burundi. I haven’t lit candles for the victims of sex trafficking and hate crimes, racism and oppression, starvation and natural disasters.

Maybe because my world looks more like Paris than the broken places in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia. I can more easily picture a world that is safe, safe, safe, then suddenly, horribly, not safe, than one trapped in an undertow of violence. My walls don’t shake from bombs falling two streets over. I do not wonder if my family and I will survive another day. I am not faced with the choice of whether or not to risk death by fleeing from death. I always know where my next meal will come from.

We are praying for Paris, and rightly so.

But may our hearts be split open for those living in constant violence, as well as for those to whom it comes like a scream in the stillness. May we light candles and fall to our knees and be moved to action wherever life is being destroyed.

Sometimes the work of justice and shalom and love is a consuming fire, but more often, I think, it is slow work. It is one page, one cup, one word, one coal at a time.

But when a live coal sits atop a piece of wood, powered by breath and prodded by sticks, the wood eventually becomes a coal too. And with enough time, the heat begins to chip away at the wood.

The fire and I, we are making something.