sometimes when i ride my bike home from yoga, my lungs feel huge. expansive, actually. like i could breathe in the whole city in one breath.
i felt that way the other day.
it was the first warm night in a long time, and the buildings were shooting up into the darkness and i could smell summer even though it isn’t here yet. i could feel all of my roots holding fast underneath this big city, which was good, because sometimes in the winter i think about packing a bag for california and never looking back.
it’ll make a poet out of you, that nighttime city view. a big, cheesy, blog-writing poet.
at school we’ve been talking a lot about revolutions and folk music and stuff that matters. history is rife with victories and tragedies and valiant attempts and all sorts of passionate people. sometimes i almost jump up and down talking about it, hoping something will catch fire in one of those little hearts now so the world can change later. but mostly the kids just want to know who’s a bad guy and who’s a good guy.
and wouldn’t that be the easiest, if everybody was either a villain or a hero?
sometimes i beat myself up pretty badly with that either/or measure. i’m good, until i forget to send that email or double-book myself for the fourteenth time this week or snap at a student. then i’m not good anymore. and it doesn’t matter how much good i do, because there isn’t any gray. it’s either black or white. one little misstep derails the whole train.
i do know that isn’t how the real world works. and it certainly isn’t how god works, thank goodness. but i look at things that way sometimes, because if i’m really honest i’m just like my students. i want the quick and easy answer. i want life and god to be small and comprehensible and human. i don’t want gray, because gray is slippery and scary and impossibly complicated.
but gray is all there is, really. and that’s what i’ve been thinking about on my nighttime bike rides - how delightfully gray the whole wide world is, how gray we all are, with all that good and bad swirling around in us all the time.
i can think of a lot of times not so very long ago when my black and white worldview probably made my words sharp and unkind to the hurting and foolish to the wise. i felt pretty confident in my rightness all of those times. and thinking back on it…that’s when i’m most grateful for the gray. because grace lives in the gray, and boy do i ever need it.
brevity is hard. i like words so i use lots of them. but that’s what good editors are for, right - trimming the fat and making things better and whatnot?
when i was writing for magazines i learned a lesson that i think about sometimes. i went out on a lot of funny little assignments to see comedy shows or check out new shops, and after one sort of unimpressive outing i asked my editor, “so…what happens if it was just kind of blah?”
and what she told me translates to pretty great life advice.
"we don’t waste space on negative reviews."
the thing is…we do, though. we do waste space. i do. i waste mental space and conversation space and sometimes internet space on negative reviews of all sorts of things. and why, you know? a waste is exactly what that is.
i’m not advocating for dishonesty - surely there are times when hard truths need to be told. but that little piece of magazine editor etiquette matched up just right with my grandma’s “if you can’t say something nice…” adage and i think i might live bit brighter if i followed those rules.
anyhow. that’s all! just a happy thinking / happy living post for our slow but sure swing towards spring. adios!
this winter has been forcefully introspective. i hear all sorts of people saying the same thing. there aren’t a lot of places to go when the windchill dips to negative fifty, you know? there’s a lot of time to sit, to think. so i have been.
i’ve been practicing my lettering a lot, too, and i went to my first class. sometimes i feel like i have so many ideas and plans swirling around in my head i might burst. and then i go online and wonder how, what with the internet and everything, anyone manages to have an original thought anymore. everything i think of exists somewhere already. there’s always somebody out there doing it better. it makes me tired.
one of my twenty-fourteen intentions was to be inspired rather than intimidated by all the creative goodness i find online. so i’m trying to cultivate some patience and tenacity. i’m trying to protect this little flickering hope that i can make something worth making someday, too. i’m counting all my goof-ups and ink smudges as steps in that direction. and there are a lot of ink smudges. you should see our coffee table.
matt is smart. he took me to the conservatory last weekend because he knew it would cheer me up. i was springtime-style giddy in there. no coats! green things growing! humid air that doesn’t make my nose bleed! there is a whole room full of incredible succulents like the ones pictured up top. i could’ve stayed there all day.
so, to january i say: goodbye, good riddance, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
to february i say: let’s get this over with, shall we?
to spring i say: don’t dawdle. just about all of chicago is on the struggle bus* at this point, and we’re getting awfully antsy.
*thanks, kate bell pederson, for that phrase. i’ve been it using on the daily ever since our fajita date a few weeks back. so perfect.
i was amen-ing out loud, reading along with rachel held evans the other day when i happened upon this new-to-me blog, tamára out loud. i’ll circle back to her seriously refreshing candor in a minute, but first…
you know, 2013 was kind of garbage. and i don’t mind saying so.
i managed to dig a few positive memories out of the heap for the sake of my sanity and our christmas card…but in general last year really was tough.
death, car wrecks, unemployment, anxiety attacks, long-lasting sickness, frozen pipes…if it didn’t happen to me directly it happened to someone i love and it was just too much.
and in addition to those real and really difficult things, one stupid thing tripped me up over and over again, all year long.
that thing is the internet.
in particular, the internet became a sort of spiritual stumbling block for me in a season when i really needed spiritual things to be safe and un-confusing.
[i’m about to get mid-level churchy right now, fair warning to you.]
what i mean is…i am pretty much a church-going, jesus-loving type of person. but the jesus i kept meeting on the internet - the way people were representing him in tweets and comments and status updates - it didn’t line up with the jesus i believe in.
i could use a lot of colorful language to describe what i read online and all the ways it made me angry, but that probably wouldn’t represent him very well either, so i’ll skip it and you can think what you will.
all i know is, i really need to wipe off the residue of 2013. really, really.
so. tamára out loud. i just want you to read what she said, because it is so beautiful, and so simple, and so much better than keyboard mud-slinging. mostly i love it. here you go:
"HOW IS GOD FOR YOU?"
"how is god for you?" my friend asked, but i read it wrong.
i didn’t see the “for you” and i said, flippant but honest, “i reckon god is good as ever. haven’t asked in a while.” and i guess maybe i read it right.
because it made me go and ask god, “how are you?” and i looked up to the ceiling when i prayed it, but that was wrong too. i tucked my head down to my chest, closed my eyes, asked again.
"how are you?" and i really wanted to know. because that’s how relationships between people work, and god is a person.
"i’m in love with you." the answer was instant. and god does that - responds to me faster than my brain can conjure, probably so i will really listen before i can get in my own way.
i took that in. that’s how god is? not happy, sad, okay, fine or the hundred other shifting ways we label our state of being - but in love. with me. that’s how god is.
“i want to be in love with you too,” i said it soft and close and i meant it.
hello from the couch! under the comforter! surrounded by mess and medications!
my annual winter break illness arrived in full force on friday like it tends to do. only this time, it’s the flu! and my fever is hanging out above 100 degrees. and so it goes.
the bright side:
i took my first bubble bath in years yesterday.
i’ve watched three seasons of the wonder years on netflix. that show! the soundtrack, the history, the adolescent struggle! solid gold. [and yes, netflix, for the fifteenth time…i AM still watching…so stop judging me.]
i’ve been reminded about a thousand times how nice matt is. he’s done all the dog walking and food buying and water bringing and temperature taking and…you get the picture. but he is nice and i love him and i’m lucky.
i think i sidestepped my beginning of break guilt. the first few days of break are always weird, because everything sort of comes to a screeching halt and the work inertia tends to make us feel like big lazy-faces. but the fever and body aches have pretty much glued me in place, and matt’s been busy enough taking care of me, so…we win? kind of? as much as you can win with crippling seasonal flu, i feel we’ve won.
now i just need to heal up in time to light the luminarias, eat chinese food, and sing silent night at church on christmas eve. so, if you don’t mind, i think i’ll get back to doing a whole lot of nothing now.
yes to this. yes and more yes. full life and the right now and a god who is for us and not against us. to the haters, sorry i’m not sorry, i love rob bell. he is courageous and honest and speaks to my heart.
new glarus, wisconsin is about three hours away from our house in chicago. i think i spent two-thirds of that time freaking out.
you always do this, matt said.
and he’s right, i do.
i sign up for something because it sounds great! and then right beforehand…i get nervous.
maybe this was a bad idea, i said.
it’s going to be so cold! what if i’m not okay. if i’m not okay, will you take me to a hotel? what if there are serial killers in the outhouse!
you always do this, matt said.
but, do you know? i wore long-johns and wool sweaters and threw hand warmers in my sleeping bag and it was fine. i used an outhouse and did not die, via serial killer or otherwise. it was really fun, actually! well, the outhouse wasn’t fun. but you get the picture.
we went with our friends the toonens, who are wonderful and originally from minnesota, currently from pilsen. they like cold weather. they also know how to make breakfast hash with bacon and yams over a campfire. and they brought a box of wine. so.
after the breakfast hash we went for a hike, and then we went to the brewery. strawberry rhubarb beer, people! have you tried it? TRY IT. we walked through all seven of the shops in new glarus, including the cheese and chocolate haus, and ended up admiring the wood paneling at the glarner stube over dinner.
…not sure there’s a better place eat a reuben and drink a pitcher of spotted cow.
i think we really were stinky at that point, too, because the waitress asked us if we’d been at a campfire. whoops. but it turns out there is a strange freedom in being a stinky camper and not caring.
very soon after all of that, monday happened.
so we’re back to reality and running water and five-year-olds hopped up on halloween candy. i hope it’s a happy, sugary one for you, too!
actually, we’re on our sixth week, come to think of it.
already i can feel the tension building in my muscles. i wake up and before i know it the sun is fading and it’s time for bed again. all those good hours meant for life-living are getting away from me.
over the summer i read a book for the second time. it’s called “a million miles in a thousand years” and it’s by donald miller. i like donald miller. the way he writes, it’s like we’re having coffee and he’s thinking out loud.
in the book he says living life is a lot like writing a story, and that we are each a character of sorts. some of us live good stories, a lot of us live boring stories, but we’re all living a story, like it or not.
i wonder a lot if i am living a good story.
somewhere in the middle of july i realized i’d become a character who listened to news radio and rode her bike to yoga class. that probably doesn’t sound out of the ordinary, and it isn’t, but i felt proud of it. on my bike i felt like i was interacting with the city instead of just passing through it, and i liked that.
one day i rode my bike 75 miles with some friends, and suddenly my story felt exciting.
it probably sounds silly, but i felt like tectonic shifting happened in my mind that day. before we left i was pretty sure i would be the brick around my friends’ ankles, slowing them down. i’d never biked that far before. but it didn’t turn out that way at all, and i wondered if i hadn’t been operating inside a bunch of limits that weren’t even real. like, maybe the character in my story was capable of a lot more than i gave her credit for…or something like that.
afterwards i spent a lot of time thinking about what else i could write into my story. maybe i could hike machu picchu like donald miller. maybe i could be a real writer again. a lot of things felt possible.
but that season was punctuated by a very big sadness, followed by the first day of school, and suddenly my to-do lists had grown into multi-page documents.
i was making a lot of promises, because i wanted to do a lot of things, but i was finding it harder and harder to follow through.
so, in light of all that, i’ve been thinking a lot about balance. how does anyone manage it? how does anyone figure out when to promise and when to pass? how does anyone write a good story without keeling over, exhausted? or is that what makes a story good?
anyhow. i’m not sure about any of it. i wish i was - i like to feel like i’ve wrapped up my thoughts before i post them here. but i doubt this will resolve anytime soon, so consider it a mental work in progress.
in case you’d like to mull all of this over with me, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
"people love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. but joy costs pain."
"the character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and the fear, otherwise the story will never happen."
"perhaps one of the reasons i’ve avoided having a clear ambition is that the second you stand up and point toward a horizon, you realize how much there is to lose."
"and once you live a good story, you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time."
"the reward you get from your story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you’d imagined. the point of the story is never about the ending, remember."
i’m not sure how much time i get to keep publishing sadness here before everyone tires of it, but assuming that time hasn’t run out yet, i do have one more thing to say…
matt ryd wrote songs about a lot of things, a lot of people. and he wrote a song for me one time. even when he was still here the song broke my heart. i remember the first time he played it for me and told me it was mine. he wrote it about a time when our friendship shifted and we had grown apart a little. it was a hard time for both of us, i think. i remember wishing my song had come from a happier place, but now i think it’s actually the best gift he could’ve left me. it’s almost eery how perfectly it gives voice to the way i’ll forever feel remembering him. listen to it here, read the lyrics below.
another day goes by,
slips right before my eyes,
and i keep trying to separate the tiny truths
from all the lies.
and now i’m counting sheep,
desperate to fall asleep,
desperate to hide from all the promises
i’d ever thought we’d keep.
'cause i can still hear you
in a crowded room.
i can still see your face
in all the things i went through.
i know who you are,
i know who you are,
and i never thought it all would change.
i watch the stars all fade,
and i quietly hide away,
watching everything just fall
like it’s some terrible mistake.
then i see your face
sitting in a picture frame,
a frozen moment of a time
i could never replace.
'cause i can still hear you
in a crowded room.
i can still see your face
in all the things i went through.
i know who you are,
i know who you are,
and i never thought it all would change.
i am not a singer - not even a little bit. but sometimes i liked to try to sing along with matt, because he had that effect on people. he swept people up in whatever tune he was singing that day, in the literal and the figurative sense. he used to get such a kick out of me trying to sing along, because he said i always harmonized by mistake. and i got a kick out of making him smile, even if it was accidental. i hope he can hear all my accidental harmonies from heaven, and i hope it still makes him smile.
most people who read this blog with any regularity already know that this week has been terrible. i had a friend who played a starring role in 10+ years of my memories, from high school through college and then some. after years of battling depression, anxiety and eating disorder, he took his own life this week. i wrote this the day i found out.
* * * * *
today i drove slow in the left lane.
there wasn’t any traffic. it was dark.
i kept my hands at ten and two. i stepped on the gas half-heartedly. i stared at the road, but in that hazy way, do you know? everything is a little out of focus - you’re looking but you’re not.
after a few miles i noticed the cars riding my bumper, passing me angrily on the right, flashing their brights.
and i realized i could go slow but i couldn’t slow things down. i couldn’t gather up all the angry drivers passing me to explain that i really hate slow left lane drivers, and that in real life i’m not one. in real life, i pass on the right and get mad about it, too.
it’s just that today i found out my friend died, and i don’t know how to do things right anymore. this doesn’t feel like real life so i can’t drive the right way, i can’t focus my eyes, i can’t find the words that usually come easy to me.
my friend died. my friend who walked with me right through adolescence and into adulthood. one of my very best friends.
it turns out that when very sad things happen - things that knock the wind out of you and kick you hard while you’re gasping - the world still turns for everybody else. people still cut in line at the deli counter and flip each other off on the highway.
when i got home i told matt the same things over and over and over, and he was kind and didn’t point it out. i dropped both lids to my contacts case three times trying to screw them on. i walked in and out of rooms and forgot what i was looking for in the first place. i sat down and when i looked at the clock so much time had passed and i hadn’t moved or blinked. but i didn’t cry.
and i hated that i didn’t cry. all day on the phone i had listened to people slowly falling apart under the weight of the news they were hearing. they felt it.
but not me. i felt like a shell of myself. i feel that way now. my hands shake over the keyboard if i stop typing, so i don’t stop.
a lot of friends are good and loyal and all of that. but this friend. he helped shape my worldview with his kindness and humor and all the fight in him. i really, really loved him. i still do.
so tonight i’ll go to sleep, i guess. i’ll wake up and scrub my house from top to bottom until my skin stings and smells like bleach. i’ll take out the trash. i’ll bake cookies and put food on plates. i’ll invite old friends over and we’ll tell all our favorite stories about this person who is somehow gone from us.
and later when they go home i’ll lay in the dark, and maybe then i’ll feel the very big sadness starting to come down. and my mind will scream all the things it’s been screaming - things like no, no, no and it isn’t true and this is just some horrible game of playing pretend.
but in my heart i’ll know and i’ll be resigned to it - to the big sad that is waiting for me after everything is clean and there aren’t any more cookies to bake. i’ll have to face it eventually.
and i just wish, friend, that you would come back before then. i just wish that you would reappear before i have to acknowledge this weighty gray that i can feel hovering above me. because i am so afraid of it. i am so afraid that it will settle on me and i’ll be lost in it, looking to make some sense of a tragedy that will never make sense to any of us. not in this life anyway. mostly i just wish that you would come back so we could have you again. you with your bouncing gait and your stack of bracelets and your smile that hid so much and too well. mostly, friend…i just miss you.
* * * * *
so. this has been very hard. the other day i got to read the very last things my friend wanted to say to me, and that broke all the numbness off pretty quick. if you’re the praying type, you could pray. you could pray for me and for all his friends, but most of all pray for his family, who i saw him love with his whole heart. death is a murky, mysterious thing…sometimes even a peaceful release if you believe good things about the afterlife. but being left behind…there’s nothing mysterious about it. it’s just dark and sad and lonely.
the last twenty-some minutes of that drive, they always get me. especially in the dark.
we passed an airport landing strip, all lit up like a christmas tree. i counted the street lights as we passed under them - one, two, three - and watched the buildings on the horizon grow bigger, closer.
maybe no one else hears it? but for me, every minute, every city light adds to this hum. this buzz. and it builds into a wild rhythm, like the city is breathing and singing and groaning all at once. in my head it sounds like bongos and car horns, and it keeps step with my heartbeat.
the sky was full of those big, low, thin clouds that move so fast. the ones that settle on the skyline and hang like smoke between the buildings. and just as we rounded that very last bend on I-90 it began to rain. big, fat drops on the windshield. we didn’t mind. we rolled the windows down and let the heavy, wet air inside.
woven in between those low clouds, the city was staggering.
it looks like gotham city, matt said.
it looks like my whole heart, i thought.
we kept the windows down the rest of the way home. the underpasses in the loop smelled like a chocolate factory and a gas station bathroom. i breathed deep anyway.
on the highway we had passed this billboard with a picture of some place out west - maybe the grand canyon. “awe is such a small word,” it said. and i thought maybe i didn’t have to travel so very far at all to understand just what they meant.
i was driving home in the dark, thinking about all of the things i could’ve done. i could’ve gone for a walk in the park. i could’ve sat out in the sun for a bit. i could’ve gotten much more work done.
woulda, coulda, shoulda. i’m good at that game.
i guess i was thinking about the trade-off. because you really can’t have it all. everyone says that, and it’s the worst, but it’s true. you can’t. there are only so many hours, only so much energy. there are limits.
i wrestle with it the most in the summer, i think - the constant trading. fork after fork after fork in the road. a finite amount of days and an endless list of worthy ways to spend them.
i have a tendency to apologize for things that aren’t the way i wish they were. our house. our dog’s [mis]behavior. the way i use [or misuse] my time. because i’m always trying to do and have and be it all.
it’s exhausting, really. and pointless. why live life constantly apologizing?
so, i’ve been trying to retrace my steps back to each “fork” moment, and remember why i chose what i chose.
like today. today is gray and drizzly and not warm like july ought to be. so i’m at a table in a little coffee shop and i’m working on three things and nothing all at once. and that is what it is what it is. no need to weigh it against every other thing. it just is. i’m just here.
or like, our house, for example. it is old and weird and full of quirks…many of which are expensive to fix. but it’s ours, and it’s in a great spot, and every month it looks a little better. i can feel it becoming a home. it has enough space for people to come and stay. and that alone makes it worth it.
or our jobs. we don’t go on fancy vacations. we don’t eat at every awesome restaurant. we don’t have a lot of free time, most of the time. but, tiny people! they are the best. and even the worst day at school is better than the best day in a cubicle, if you ask me. the general level of joy in and around me is just way, way higher here.
so, i don’t know. i guess when i look at the alternatives - where we’d be if we’d gone the other direction, towards all that other stuff - i feel good about what we chose. i know this isn’t true for everybody, but for me, the things we have are worth more in the long run. even if they do go hand-in-hand with a leaky first floor bathroom and a wonky work/life balance.
i’m working on remembering all of that. on making choices and being content with them. on facing forward.
teaching is a refiner’s fire kind of job. a carbon-to-diamond kind of deal. over the last two years, work has fine-tuned some of the traits i already had, and it’s developed some brand new ones, too.
patience. quick-thinking. a crippling caffeine addiction.
coffee and i are on a need-it-every-day basis at this point. ahem. sometimes twice a day.
fortunately, i found the best iced coffee recipe last summer. it makes mondo batches, so i only brew it every two weeks or so. coarse grounds are key, otherwise you end up with a lot of sediment at the bottom, which…yuck.
we’re of the full-fat, full-sugar persuasion over here, so i add half and half and some sweetened condensed milk. french vanilla half and half is good too, if you’re impatient - the condensed milk takes a minute to mix in. but, whoa…worth the wait, if you ask me.
i’ll be sipping one [or two] of these on the porch all the way through august, thank you very much. three cheers for summer.