Auburn and Augustine

window

This weekend I was back in Auburn, Alabama, seeing friends and watching our football team be terrible. Since graduation I’ve been back a few times, mostly for short visits — a wedding or engagement party or tailgate. But they’ve always been quick trips, a stop on the way to the beach or a rushed 24 hour window between flights.

This weekend, however, was different. There was no schedule, no event we came to town for. We didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything. We just got to enjoy. Watch football, see old friends and old crushes, catch up over tailgate food, and drink beer in the middle of the day. I saw sorority sisters and old professors. Tailgated with friends from grad school and laughed about how much we all hate accounting. Ate lunch with my friends on Samford lawn and griped about football and the bar they turned into a pizzeria.

I felt a piercing mix of sweetness and nostalgia, a little bit of tragedy, and a thankfulness for what was and what no longer is. Tears sat just under my eyes all weekend.

Sunday morning, I went to church at the same Presbyterian church I attended back then. They’ve built a new sanctuary since I graduated. It’s bigger and has white walls with stained glass windows sitting reverently in a row. The pews filled quickly — some families and a few older couples that I recognized, but mostly college students. Boys that looked like they just woke up and girls that spent too much time on their hair. Little gaggles sitting together and trying to save seats for their friends. I felt sad and a little out-of-place. But grateful too, for the pews that held us all together, the pews that held me together not that long ago.

There’s a new pastor now; ours left a while back to lead a church in Chattanooga. He led us through the service — the preparation and call to worship, a few hymns and the declaration of faith, the corporate confession of sins and the promise of the gospel, a prayer, a sermon, and a final hymn in response.


As I drove out of Auburn last night, I wondered what it was that makes going back so wonderfully lovely.

I thought of myself in the church pew that morning. I saw myself sitting there quietly, standing to sing, sitting back down to listen, weaving in and out of two distinct, yet intermixing versions of myself. The one of that morning — wearing black jeans and a ponytail, feeling old and a little out-of-place — and the one from five years ago — wearing a dress borrowed from my roommate, surrounded by friends, and younger, thinner, a little less sure of myself.

And what struck me as I thought of this, as I floated between these two versions, was how easily I floated between them, how much it didn’t feel like two versions at all.

There are differences of course: I wasn’t distracted by how much I needed to study, I didn’t confess my sins while sitting with the friends I committed them with, and the boy I loved was not leading worship.

But the rest of it, the other elements of moving through the service, felt strikingly the same:

I tried to force myself to focus through the call to worship.
I sang hymns quietly and off tune, but earnestly and with closed eyes.
I declared faith, the same faith, using the same words we used to use.
I confessed sins, different sins, but rooted in the same idolatry that plagued me back then.
And I heard the promise of the gospel. The same promise. The same hope. And begged God to help me believe it.
I prayed, listened, and sang in response.
And then I fought traffic in the parking lot and cried over all of this sameness.


Going back lets you see what all has changed, but also reminds you that some things don’t. Old friends still know you, even if you’re different now. Old homes still feel like home, even if they change a good bar into a crappy pizza place. And hope remains true, even if believing it looks differently than it did at 23.

The gospel hits differently today than it did back then. But its offering is wholly the same.

And as I don’t know how to close (much like the Auburn football team), I leave you with this:

“In the Eternal…nothing passes away, but the whole is simultaneously present. But no temporal process is wholly simultaneous…all time past is forced to move on by the incoming future…all the future follows from the past; and that all, past and future, is created and issues out of that which is forever present. Who will hold the heart of man that it may stand still and see how the eternity which always stands still is itself neither future nor past but expresses itself in the times that are future and past?” Augustine.

Gig Harbor, Washington

Cloiuds

I’ve spent the last few weeks just outside of Seattle in Gig Harbor, Washington. It’s just me and two 1-year old labs named Percy and Earl. Also a cat but we haven’t been very interested in one another during this trip.

I write for a living and work from home so I have the flexibility to travel. I joined a house sitting website so I can stay anywhere for free in exchange for keeping someone’s plants or pets alive. In this case, it’s two dogs, a cat, and an orchid (though the latter isn’t going very well).

The homeowners are in Chile running a 136-mile race through the desert.
I am in their home wearing sweatpants and taking full advantage of the private access beach.

It’s been one hell of a year, and I came to Gig Harbor with a lot of questions. I’ve always struggled with feeling entitled to understanding. As if the world or God or someone owes me an explanation for everything that happens. I know it’s ridiculous, explicitly refuted in scripture even (lean not on your own understanding), but I struggle nonetheless. And so I unpacked my laptop, favorite sweatshirt and the few books I brought, and waited for the hit my knees and cry moment of understanding to come.

The house is stunning. It sits on the side of a mountain just off the shoreline and the back wall is made entirely of windows, looking over ferry boats and trees that have already redressed for fall. It’s directly across the harbor from Mt. Rainier and the view is pretty remarkable.

They have a deck in the back yard with a table and chairs and room for the dogs to snooze in the afternoon. I’ve spent most of my time on this deck, writing and watching the ferry go back and forth, studying the shapes and grooves of the mountain. I took a hundred pictures but could never get it right.

This morning the water and trees and cloudy mask overlaying the mountain were all the same color. As if an artist created the perfect shade —  a soft, milky mix of greys and blues — and loved it so much he used it all on one morning of monochromatic loveliness. Yet despite the beauty of everything in view, this morning, like all those before it, drew my attention ever upward to the mountain.

Some mornings, the mountain was perfectly clear — elegant but strikingly powerful in its size and the promise of its force. These mornings were infrequent, as clear skies aren’t a staple of Seattle. But they were memorable. The beauty was paralyzing.

Other mornings, the mountain was hidden. Completely covered by a thick fog that filled the air like foam. But it whispered hints of its presence. Lurking there behind the clouds, like some slow-moving thing beneath dark waters, unseen but somehow palpable.

And still other mornings, like this morning, it was something in between. The mountain seen only in glimpses, dressed in lacy streaks of clouds. The dark ridges of its expanse stretching feverishly through them like veins on ashy skin. The subtlety more striking than the stature. The hope of the unseen.

This was the setting for my time in the Pacific Northwest. And for the mornings and evenings spent standing on the deck or the shoreline waiting for understanding that surely, surely belonged to me. I waited to hit my knees and cry when it came.

This morning I stood on the deck indignantly, again. I held a cup of coffee in my hands and tried to focus. To cash in whatever spiritual equity I thought I had that might buy me some clarity. To quiet myself, to listen. At some point I guess I weaved out of consciousness. And then apparently started thinking about whether or not I should spend money on a manicure this weekend because when I weaved back in this is where I found myself. Not listening. Not communing with the Most High. Certainly not cashing anything in. Just considering my need for a polish change.

I went inside and put on tennis shoes. I took the dogs for a long run. It was drizzling a little but it felt good. Earl ran in front, per usual, and Percy trailed behind. Like body guards. I ended our run at the beach so they could play off leash for a while. Immediately, they ran towards the water and started hunting for sticks. I found a bench to sit on and tried to catch my breath.

I looked up at the mountain. Veins on skin. Lace and subtlety.

The drizzle stretched into rain and two things decidedly did not happen: I did not hit my knees and I did not cry. But my heart twitched in the tiniest way and I knew it meant something.

I came to Seattle abrasively— demanding answers, explanations. Instead, I got a varying view of a mountain and the tiny twitch of a silent thought: isn’t that a little like God.

At times, perfectly clear, powerful, paralyzing beauty.
At times, hidden, completely covered, whispering his presence in the dark.
But most of the time, something in between, striking subtlety, elegant glimpses, the hope of the unseen.

I did not hit my knees and I did not cry. I will leave here on Wednesday with no real answers, no understanding, still a lot of questions and a lot of clouds.

But as I swallowed my entitlement, a wind came. And though it did not clear the clouds, it shifted them a little. And I saw the veins of God in the midst of one hell of a storm. And I knew it meant something. A tiny twitch. The hope of the unseen.

Finally Fall – Mindfulness and Motif

Autumn

It was Saturday morning, mid-September and I was sitting with my oldest friend on a picnic table by the lake. We’d gone for coffee but took a detour on the way home and ended up there – feet from the water’s edge, covered by trees that kept precariously dropping acorns, 10am. We’d brought the New York Times crossword and had it splayed out on the table, weighed down by my car keys and a coffee cup to protect it from the wind. The breeze was steady and with it came the very first hints of fall.

I tucked my knees in for warmth and turned my face to the wind. There aren’t quite words to describe it, but fall seems to smell exactly the same each year – sort of sweet, but a little dusty. Like a sweater stored in a cedar chest all year or the pages of a book left on the shelf for too long. I sat there as he tried to figure out Port near Kilauea, 4-letters (on which I’d given up completely) and tried to breathe in that smell, taste it even. It was all the right kinds of familiar and nostalgic, and as I felt the rush of excitement for fall weather and all it brings with it, I wondered what it is about this season we all love so much.

I thought of the pumpkin patches and cider beers we’d soon see advertised all over the city. The 1,000 Anne of Green Gables posts about how glad we all are to live in a world with Octobers. The unclever and overdone internet parodies of pumpkin spice lattes and white girls in Ugg boots. And the cozy parade of sweaters, tweed jackets, and damnit the pumpkin spice lattes we’d inevitably all soon be marching in.

We love the fall. It seems (at least from my millennial, internet-driven view point) universal. And I can’t help but wonder: why?

Theory A: Mindfulness. I think fall, more than any other season, stirs a sense of mindfulness if you let it. There’s something about a cool breeze after months of endless heat that makes you want to stop and savor it a little. The allure of the other seasons – the excitement of summer, the holiday festiveness of winter, the relief and promise of spring – seems to wear off rather quickly. After a few weeks it’s just plain hot. Or way too cold. Or way too allergy-inducing (respectively).

But fall is different. Its enticement sticks with you, invites you outside, gently commands your attention.

And so, mindfulness, for me, is the very simple process of actively noticing new things. When you actively notice new things that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context. As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging. And it turns out, after a lot of research, that we find that it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.” Ellen Langer, Social Psychologist

The mindfulness of fall – the noticing of new colors in the leaves, new shades of rust you didn’t know existed, that dusty, sweet smell I can’t explain, an unassuming nostalgia. It’s enlivening. And maybe that’s why we love it.

Theory B: Motif. Seasons are often used as motifs in literature. They add a certain element to a story, a feeling the author wants you to have.  Spring is used for new life or a dawn of some kind. Summer for vitality of life, passion, romance. Winter for death, sometimes sadness, or despair. But fall is a little harder to define. It’s sometimes used as a season of harvest, though not very commonly. More often it’s just tossed lazily in with winter, as if the foreword for death, the leaves falling from the trees and all that.

You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light.” Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

But I wonder (humbly, Mr. Hemingway) if we don’t miss something when we lump them in together like that. Perhaps the motif of fall is that there isn’t really one, that it’s simply a transition from one season to the next. Not so it can be absorbed into the motif of winter in want of other options, but so we will notice its absence, and pay attention to the lack of definition.

Are there any phases of life that don’t in some way feel like transition periods? Wouldn’t our rhetoric suggest that we’re all just transitioning from one thing to the next, adjusting, getting settled (as if to say that the state of being settled is attainable)?

You go from one grade in school to the next, trying to find yourself in each of them, and then you’re adjusting to college and redefining yourself there, and then you’re getting settled into that new job/town/marriage, transitioning to adulthood, getting used to it all. You’re in the lag between marriage and kids, waiting for the kids to be out of the Terrible Two’s, out of middle school, off to college. You’re empty nesting, maybe divorcing, maybe settling into the sunset years. Transitioning from one thing to the next, endlessly changing.

Does it ever just feel like we’ve made it somewhere and we’ll stay for a while? Is it ever not the foreword for something else?

Maybe sometimes. But it seems more often than not it all feels like transition. There is always a lack of certainty, lack of definition, lack of motif. And maybe (albeit, subconsciously) that’s a little bit of why we’re so drawn to this season. Maybe we’re designed to love the fall, to have heightened sensitivities to a season of transition, a season equal parts undefined and beautiful, so that its goodness – its colors and breezes and lattes and sweaters – reminds us that transition can (and should) be enjoyed. Pointing us to a larger motif, one for every migratory, undefined stage: the delightfulness of the indefinite, the pleasure of transition.

…..

Neither theory may be true. Or perhaps both are in some way. Regardless, I can’t help but feel like there’s a reason we share this affinity for fall, a part of its design that makes it a little easier to be a human for a while. Be it colors and crisp air, mindfulness and motif, or simply gentle mornings by the lake with that bronze, familiar smell.

I thought of these things that morning but couldn’t quite put them into words. Instead, I warmed my hands against my cup of coffee and watched him write “H-I-L-O” in small, blocky letters. Port near Kilauea, 4 letters.

Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are falling and they’re falling like they’re in love with the ground.” Andrea Gibson

A Fear of Fig Trees

Swim

I was in Sylacauga, Alabama a few weeks ago visiting my grandparents. It’s a tiny town with not much to do but it’s one of my favorite places for the company and the nostalgia. My granddaddy and I take walks when I visit. The house is too small for the whole family and it gets too noisy to talk. But walking gets us away from all that, and I get him all to myself.

He doesn’t always talk a lot but when he does it makes my heart sore. We walk around this little track by the elementary school and we talk about whatever comes up. This particular visit we talked a lot about life. And how it doesn’t give you any warning when it’s about to change and then suddenly you look back and it’s all already happened.

He didn’t seem too sad about that.

But it terrifies me.

“I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.” – Virginia Woolf

I read recently something Maria Papova wrote about essayist Meghan Daum and her thoughts on “nostalgia, aging, and why we romanticize our younger selves.” I’ve included some of my favorite passages in this post but you can read the full article HERE.

A big part of what Daum writes is an imaginary conversation between her older self and younger self, and it will pierce your soul.

“At first, Younger Self is frightened and irritated (Older Self speaks harshly to her) but a feeling of calm quickly sets in over the encounter. Younger Self sits there rapt, as though receiving the wisdom of Yoda or of some musician she idolizes, such as Joni Mitchell. But Older Self is no Yoda. Older Self is stern and sharp…Older Self begins her sentences with “Listen” and “Look.” She says, “Listen, what you’re into right now isn’t working for you.” She says, “Look, do yourself a favor and get out of this situation right now. All of it. The whole situation. Leave this college. Forget about this boy you’re sleeping with but not actually dating. Stop pretending you did the reading for your Chaucer seminar when you didn’t and never will.”

To which Younger Self will ask, “Okay, then what should I do?” And of course Older Self has no answer, because Older Self did not leave the college, did not drop the boy, did not stop pretending to have read Chaucer. And the cumulative effect of all those failures (or missed opportunities, blown chances, fuckups, whatever) is sitting right here, administering a tongue-lashing to her younger self (which is to say herself) about actions or inactions that were never going to be anything other than what they were.”

Haunting, right?

My favorite book in all of creation is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I am well acquainted with the feeling of being the vulnerable writer – I feel it every time I write anything, even an email. But never before The Bell Jar did I know the feeling of being the vulnerable reader. Reading it was like Plath slowly telling me the intricacies of my soul while being both sympathetic and ruthless as she exploited them.

There is a part about a fig tree that eats at me. It’s beautiful (and is the inspiration for my next tattoo #edgy).

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – The Bell Jar

Even retyping it makes me cry.

I can’t help but wonder if Daum was struck by that image too as her writing so closely reflects those sentiments.

Today, the best posts / articles / blogs use a lot of bullet points and bold words to try to keep the reader’s attention. Long text makes us bored now, they say. And it’s horribly sad but a little true. But in spite of that, and at the risk of losing you here, read how Daum continues. It will not bore you, I promise.

“Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage. It’s the destination that never gets any closer even as our life histories pile up behind us in the rearview mirror. It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something. It is why I hope that if I make it to eighty-something I have the good sense not to pull out those old CDs. My heart, by then, surely would not be able to keep from imploding. My heart, back then, stayed in one piece only because, as bursting with anticipation as it was, it had not yet been strained by nostalgia. It had not yet figured out that life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.”

Her reflections are piercing. And terrifying.

But the problem is that they are just that – reflections. She has passed the point of the fig tree. She is now on some limb somewhere, looking back at the starving little girl in the crook of it. So while her points are unsettling in their precision – as if she’s watched my mind and mouth and pen over the past 5 years or so – they are in many ways hollow, offering no advice for me, the girl in the tree, the girl that didn’t leave college or drop the boy soon enough or even read Chaucer in the first place.

Can we be both? Can we feel the anticipation of nothing having started and the misery of the past casting shadows over the future?

And what do we do with that? Pick a branch and accept the others as casualties? Try to convince ourselves that the tree metaphor is too binary and re-read the Garden of Forking paths to feel better? Or stay a while longer in the crook of the tree – hoping the choice becomes clearer, the metaphor more definite, or at least that not eating makes us a little skinnier?

I’m not big on rhetorical questions in writing but these are the questions that keep me up at night. And make me feel isolated and crazy. It’s like I go for a run or stay a while in a coffee shop or have dinner with friends and find myself looking around frantically like, “What are we all doing here? How can you eat bruschetta at a time like this? Do yall even know about the fig tree??”

Maybe that feeling will never go away. Or maybe it goes away when you become the reflective Older Self – walking around a tiny track in a tiny city, nostalgic and content, knowing the one sure thing is the step you’re taking right then and there on that pavement. Maybe we’re not promised direction or answers or comforting metaphors. Maybe we’re not even promised figs.

I know this is usually the part where I wrap it all up nicely and offer a hopeful, sing-songy conclusion. But I don’t have one this time. I have all of the questions and none of the answers and not much in-between.

But I have a granddaddy who loves me and takes walks with me. And I have a fresh pot of coffee brewing. And I have these words out here in the universe so maybe someone will tell me the answer. Or at least share the fear with me. I guess for now that will do.

Ugly Loveliness

Jane

We seem to be particularly fond of loveliness these days. Everywhere I look there is a picture of something lovely. An ad for hand-scripted words and simple phrase or a picture of some delicate, pastel something. Instagram, Pinterest, Etsy, Squarespace are covered in that which is modest and pretty. Even fashion is trending this way. Neutral colors, flowy fabrics, relaxed and messy hairstyles. We love simplicity and serenity. We call it loveliness. And we love it.

We are drawn to these images. They soothe us. For a moment we rest there; we see a hand-written verse or an unassuming vase of hydrangeas and remember once again that our lungs work. Loveliness is a respite for the wanderer. And though often undeclared, we are most certainly all wanderers.

I love loveliness, too. It is good and gentle and a gift. But I fear there’s another side to it. And I wonder if we’re aware.

The rhetoric of the “happy person” is to slow down. No one ever tells you to add more to your plate. No coffee mugs display the benefits of a faster-paced life. No counselor or preacher or friend or trendy blogger tells you to wake up and forget the flowers. Instead, we’re told to slow down. Breathe deeply. Do yoga. Keep calm.

So we do. Or we try. Or we try for a bit and then remember that our proposal is due on Friday and we still haven’t RSVP’d to that shower and if we drive three more miles without getting the oil changed the car actually might explode. There isn’t enough time in the day to work out and get anything done at the office and actually cook real food for dinner and for heaven’s sake call grandma. And that doesn’t even factor in time spent wondering if you are even in the right profession or if your relationship is a bust or if you have any idea what you’re doing with your life.

It’s a big, scary spiral. Constant chaos. Constant noise and complexity. If not in your surroundings then certainly in your mind (but most often both) and all anyone can tell you is to slow down? To find the loveliness around you. To let fresh herbs and quiet mornings and utkatasana be your solace.

I get it. I get what they’re trying to say. If we can do those things, if we can really slow down and keep calm and notice the dew on the grass in the mornings, the chaos does go away for a minute. Your feet do feel a little more settled on the ground. It does look a little simpler around you. And that can be good and gentle and a gift.

But it doesn’t change the fact that there is still chaos. It doesn’t change the constant questioning or the heavy uncertainty we carry around with us. So I wonder how helpful it is to just preach our need to escape it.

If a child has under-developed social skills, doctors don’t remove him/her from other children. If someone struggles with fear and anxiety, they aren’t told to hide in their room away from anything scary. And if an issue arises with a friend or a coworker, wise counsel doesn’t tell you to just sweep it under the rug.

We are told to confront these things. Immersed completely in that which makes us uncomfortable. We are pushed – taught to fight, taught to be strong, taught to be fearless.

I love loveliness. And I do not think it wrong to seek it as comfort amidst the chaos. But I do wonder if there is another way, too. Or if we even need an escape at all. I wonder if the chaos could be lovely. If maybe when we can’t slow down or smell the flowers or answer the scary, existential crisis-esque questions, we still find that life is good and gentle and a gift.

Maybe we are calmed by the wonder of the wildness. Maybe that’s the wild air Emerson meant for you to drink. And maybe that’s better than an escape.

Scripty words and cable-knit blankets and pretty little pictures with lots of natural light are beautiful and charming and lovely.

But maybe chaos and uncertainty and complexity is too and we’ve just been thinking of it wrong.

A Call to Observe

LookI keep a notebook in my purse for when I encounter something really lovely. I like to write those things down. Be it a song lyric or a line in a book or just a thought about a line in a book that I might one day write. I like to keep a record of them all. And look back through them on days when loveliness seems like a myth.

The inspiration for the notebook is some mix between my favorite childhood movie, Harriet the Spy, and one of my favorite authors, Anne Lammot. Both believe in the power of writing things down. And both, perhaps, for the sake of kindling child-like curiosity and the beauty of observation.

“There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness.” – Anne Lammot

I used to keep these thoughts and lines on the notes app on my phone. But then my phone was stolen off a Starbucks table my junior year of college and I felt like someone had a piece of my soul out there. So now I write in a little black notebook, the smallest kind Moleskin makes, and hope no one ever steals my purse.

Each day we get to choose whether we want to live actively or passively. Whether we want to be awake and see and smell and taste what’s going on around us, or just to float through the low-hanging clouds of average, normal lives.

Observing things, writing them down and taking them in and keeping them close for the moments in which breathing is just a little harder than usual, feels like choosing the former. And I like that. In fact, I need it. Passivity in my soul looks a lot like apathy – which looks a lot like depression.

The problem, however, is that it’s very hard to observe things in this way and not be affected by them. Observation lends itself to conclusions and shapes the way we draw them. You become vulnerable to the world. Malleable, if only a little, to the beauty and the terror over which you have no control. Observation makes you think. And often, if we’re honest, we don’t want to think. We don’t like to be faced with the realities of a broken, struggling world. It’s so much easier just to pick an outfit for the day and a song for the commute and a restaurant for dinner, rinse, repeat.

I used to think it was lame to actually like things. Maybe I watched too much Daria in high school but I somehow came to believe that it was much more fashionable to be critical or cynical or even aloof than to show any sign of positive emotion. Even the things I liked were about things that were negative. Melodramatic music, dark (even Russian) literature, sad and twisty movies.

It wasn’t until much later in life (though to date it is still a struggle) that I could express. albeit sheepishly, the enjoyment of anything pleasant. To say how beautiful something was. To be kind and encouraging and ernest. To want to share the loveliness of something, its poignancy or elegance, without some uninspired quip to curb the fear of sounding cheesy.

Maria Popova, a Bulgarian writer that I’m mildly obsessed with, said recently, “critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety.”

And she nailed it.

It’s easy to be a cynic. Even easier to be numb. But to see and to think and to hope – especially in that order, especially out loud – is a feat both difficult and worthy.

We have to be actively awake to observe. We have to observe to think critically. And we have to think critically to offer hope. I believe this to be part of the role we play as humans – existing with and around billions of other humans with their own fears and struggles and heartaches. We must become students of knowledge and beauty. Catalysts of wonder and awe. To see in everything the essence of some holiness and to steward its hope accordingly.

“I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man…”  William Wordsworth

Yogis and Stogies

bird

Forgive the rhyming title. I just couldn’t help myself.

My dear friend Leigh and I are yoga studio shopping.  We’re buying groupons and bouncing around places until we find one we like.  There are approximately eight billion yoga studios in Dallas so this is no small effort.  But she’s certified and owns a lot more Lululemon than I do so I’m really just following her lead.

We tried one yesterday in an east dallas neighborhood and I really loved it. The room was warm and smelled like lavender. The ceiling was padded for insulation but had a handful of skylights peaking through that furthered my stance that savasana is the best pose there is.

The instructor was tiny and wore all black. She was covered in tattoos and played Lana Del Rey mid-class so I think we could be friends. It was a good class – difficult but grounding. The kind that makes you feel just a little more aware of your body and your mind without having been inundated with weird yogi speak that borders on creepy.

We left relaxed and sweaty, walking to the car with good posture and mats folded under our arms. I saw a girl from our class get into the car next to us. She had short hair and a half-sleeve over biceps that screamed chaturanga. I felt this weird connection with her. As if in a different life I was some version of her. Petite enough to pull off the pixie cut and cool enough to pull of the tattoos. I figured she probably recycled and was a vegan, too.

And then she lit up a cigarette. Which I certainly take no objection with. But it was just this jarring moment of reality for me. The grungy vegan tattooed yogi was smoking a cigarette in her Honda on her way home. It didn’t seem to fit somehow. (Maybe they were American Spirits?)

Earlier this week I went to a friend’s house for dinner and opened his door without knocking. He was sitting on his bed, listening (loudly) to rap music and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in gym clothes. He likes video games and watches stupid shows like South Park but also records every episode of Jeopardy on his DVR and gets 90% of the questions right. He’s brilliant. Remarkably so. And listens to Flo Rida at 5:30 on a Tuesday.

On my commute today I thought of the two of them. I was wearing my favorite black jeans and no makeup because its Friday.  I had a Freakonomics podcast on and caught myself trying to picture Steven Dubner doing something normal like going to the grocery store.

But I couldn’t. Because surely Steven Dubner just walks around with a notebook making interesting observations and interviewing brilliant people. Surely the woman with the one-handed tree pose doesn’t smoke cigarettes in the middle of the afternoon. And surely a crossword puzzle phenom wouldn’t debase himself to something like a video game when there’s so much to be learned in the world.

I think our generation wants to celebrate creativity. But we’ve assigned to it this archetype telling us what it’s supposed to look like. I can’t describe it exactly but I’m pretty sure it involves craft beer and pour-over coffee. Flowy, neutral-colored clothes and a profile picture of a candid shot with a light leak in the back. An instagram account with clever captions and something called a “personal brand.” Artistic friends to do artistic things with. Probably a Nikon hanging around your neck, too.

lightleak

There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. In fact, I’m a big fan of most of them. I don’t own a camera and my instagram isn’t very clever but coffee and beer and baggy clothing are some of my closest companions. The problem is when we limit creativity to this kind of life. When we celebrate not creativity, but the image of creativity which pinterest and blogs and real simple has convinced us of. We love the photographer and her boyfriend jeans and trendy husband more than we love the photograph. We love the designer and the pictures of her well-dressed kids and urban apartment more than we love her simple, sobering designs. We love the image of a writer in a coffee shop downtown more than the words she writes in that space. (I am the chief of all sinners).

In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes the creeks beside the house like this:

The creeks … are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.

I want to celebrate the active mystery in the otherwise normal, un-mysterious lives. The cigarette smoking yogi and stunningly brilliant 28-year old gamer. The brief moments of providence (and maybe even luck) that allow ordinary people to use their bodies or their words or their cameras to create something tiny and beautiful. Not because they have the lifestyle or the etsy shop to back it up. But because in that moment, their otherwise ordinary life nudged the world a little.

Creativity is a gift and often a sweet surprise. Not something we wear or flaunt or fit into. It’s the tiny skylight on a padded ceiling that whispers of something bigger. The mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies.