the wild love

growing wings

for when the poem hurts your pride

This is for the poems that stand defiant on the other side of the fence from you, sure that they have evaded your grasp, and you are tired, limb-tired, arms hanging off your shoulders like skinny stockings, and you are too tired to understand them.

This is for the poems that read me better than I read them, aloud in my office in the eerie stillness of an evening working too late, my halfhearted defiance against the ordinary. The poems that sat contented to watch me struggle in pronunciation or in prayer, poems that I imagine laughed at my third or fourth reading where I adopted a British accent in the hope that would uncover the meaning in the page.

Poems are meant to hurt our pride.

They are bruising things to the tender fruit of our thinking ourselves wise or right or people with understanding. The poems tear down our defenses. The poems reveal and reveal past layers of skin and shards of interpretation to that quickening heart, the one that beats and beats and goes on beating even in the longest day.

When I wind my way home on an afternoon, when I am convinced that I will be weighted and measured by the accomplishments that gather dust in the old battered shoe boxes at the top of the creaking stairs in my house, there the poems arrive.

One after another they cling to me like stubborn water, in my hair, in the hollow spaces of my ears.

I can hear them even now, their echoes -

“so, through me, freedom and the sea” (here)

“He had cancer stenciled into his face” (here)

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall ” (here)

“Out on the flats, a heron still
as a hieroglyph carved
carved on the soft gray face of morning.”(here)

That’s Pablo Neruda meeting Edward Hirsch meeting Robert Frost meeting Leonard Nathan.

And still, they devastate me with the promise that I am not the accomplishments, I am nothing as neat as a checklist or a perfect score. I am nothing as simple as dotted i’s, for the space between a lowercase i, ee cummings, and the regal I of Margaret Atwood’s “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” – that is where  mystery begins.

If a poem was a graph, I think, I could map its meaning, plot it, make a line of best fit to zip the untidy grammar and preserve this idea that I can be known by what I do, and by that I mean you can know me by what I presume and present.

If a poem was a graph, but, then – a poem in the midst of the thought -

the small clustered army of empty boxes
marches across the white desert, line by starved blue line
awaiting the signal to scatter
plot, parabola, sharp V like the neat geese northbound
in June.

I can’t even write a post about poems without being taken up with the idea of one, the promise and peril of words on paper. These poems wound my pride until it sits meekly in the corner, finally, aware that there are a million acres of understanding between me and the poem, me and the poet, and those acres in an instant no distance at all.

This is for the poems that make me think I can never love poetry.

Those same poems preach in my worried heart that I wanted to be taught the wild love, and they are the unrepentant teachers.

These are the poems that will uncage us. These are the poems that call out our sweet, living flame.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: talk to me

Dear Hilary,

Finishing up my Freshmen year of college, I have found these last months to be consumed with the desire to fullfill a definition of beautiful and be the sort of person a boy would desire. Everyone around me seems to be speaking of identity and verses are continuing to declare God’s love and claim of worthiness on my life. Yet, I find my self so deeply desperate for the affection of a boy, for a romantic relationship. I have never had a boyfriend and I feel like I have no one pursing me in that way. 

So I’m really wondering, is it okay to dream of this man? Because I used to believe that God had that man for me, it was just a matter of waiting and loving him first. But now I wonder, that perhaps I am called to that single life or an early death or to not finding that guy until I’m in my 30s or to marry someone that is not like the man I have dreamed of. I just don’t feel like I am worthy of being loved in that sort of way or if it is even fair of me to dream of such a guy. How do I approach the Lord in prayer when I don’t even know if there is a guy? And can I dream of a guy with particular qualities or is that un-christ like and foolish because the only thing I should look for in a partner is his love for Christ?

Love,
Just Asking

Dear Just Asking,

I was driving home one weekend from college, in the midst of thinking about and wondering about this one guy who was in my microeconomics class. We sat next to each other, we passed notes about where the supply and demand lines met in the graph and whether that always determined the price. We occasionally saw each other outside the regular Monday, Wednesday, Friday clock. It’s funny how you can find yourself in a rhythm of thinking just like the other rhythms of your life. 4:30 on those days saw me turning my thoughts to the what if we dated and the why doesn’t he ask me out? and the ever-present am I worth that? There is a certain kind of ache in the rhythm, a certain all-too-familiar. I would overthink what I was going to wear to class that day, I would write those notes in the margins of my notebook and I would walk back to my dorm wondering everything you are wondering, about love and the person and whether Jesus was going to get around to giving me a person anytime soon.

And I could write a lot about how this remembering is a work of conviction in the heart but also the practice of grace, the realizing that our past selves are not to be condemned as the worst possible versions of ourselves, but to be loved and accepted as being the people that they were, knowing what they knew… but that is a different story.

I am driving home. That’s where we are. I am driving home and I am turning left, sneaking around the bend in the road a little fast than I should, and as I swung the car through the turn I found myself saying, “God, what is the deal?”

And God said, “I see you’ve decided to talk to Me.”

I promptly started to cry. I drove and cried and talked, spilled out the story into the empty car which is not empty because God and I are finally, really, talking. I said everything, the notes, the protests that what if I was not worthy, the questions about if he was ever going to ask me out. I said it, spoke it into being.

And that was the beginning of the change for me. Not when the boy dated someone else, or when the other boy and I ended things, or when Preston and I got together. The beginning of the change was this drive home, the fall whispering through the trees, promising winter, promising, further on, spring.

God, what is the deal? 

We do not always begin in a glamourous, beautiful, prayer. We do not always begin in the right words. But if we begin, then we begin. If we are willing to say something to God, then we open our hearts to be changed, to be molded, to be made more.

I will not tell you whether you should desire specific qualities in a guy or not, dear one - because I do not believe it is wrong to ask and imagine. I believe only that it is more dangerous when you are not honest with God. I mean gut-wrenchingly honest. I mean on your knees honest. I mean with your Bible open and your pen raging across the pages of God’s promises honest. I want you to get real with God so that you can get quiet and hear God.

We hear so many times that we should make our worthiness not about guys. Oh, have I heard this and preached this in the coffee shops and along the sidewalks. But can I tell you, across the wires of the Internet, something?

I think God is more willing to tell us our worthiness without us trying to make ourselves believe it without Him. 

I think God wants to tell you you are worthy. I think God wants you to get alone, to get rage-y, to get serious, to ask the question. I ask it, still. Only when we are willing to ask God, who alone can answer our questions with the fullness of His life, can we begin to feel the life moving in us.

The point of your life and my life and all the lives that scatter this beautiful world – the point is the real conversation with God. Not whether he wants you to love him before he gives you a guy. Not whether you’ll have an early death or be like Paul or find love in college or work 10 jobs or 1. Not whether you are a poet or a preacher or a physical plant manager.

The point is always Jesus, looking at us, looking at you, in the beautiful singularity that you are, and saying, “Talk to me.” When we start talking, and only then, do we start to make our hearts able to hear God. About boys. About college. About love. About worthiness. About the aches wrapping around our hearts.

“Talk to me.” This, my dear friend, this is our invitation.

Love,
hilary

on poetry (a guest post for Seth Haines)

Today I get to share over at the wonderful Seth Haines’s space about poetry. About why I love it, how I love it, why it makes me move and think and wonder. Join me over here?

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

Keep reading over at Seth’s place, and let’s celebrate poems and poets and the way that words make this world so beautiful.

Love,
hilary

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

- See more at: http://sethhaines.com/uncategorized/on-poetry-by-hilary-sherratt/#sthash.nHqJImSk.dpuf

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

- See more at: http://sethhaines.com/uncategorized/on-poetry-by-hilary-sherratt/#sthash.nHqJImSk.dpuf

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

- See more at: http://sethhaines.com/uncategorized/on-poetry-by-hilary-sherratt/#sthash.nHqJImSk.dpuf

to the girls in my zumba class

Dear girls in my Zumba class,

Dear you who is willing to jump up and down to music we don’t really know the words to, you who is willing to do the moves with more energy after 50 minutes than I think I have in my whole body, who laughs at our blurred reflections in the mirror,

you are what makes me brave.

I’ve been up and down the mountains and hills for a little while now, with this question about food and how to eat and the fact that sometimes I don’t know how to finish a bagel in the morning, I’m so nervous that it will upend my life. I’ve been in the thicket of the thoughts about mirrors and beauty and whether the scars on my stomach from the time I had my gallbladder removed are moments of skin knit together, moments of pride that my body is always doing a healing work on itself, or if I should be embarrassed and try to hide the thin pink line that dances near my belly button.

I’ve thought about writing and not writing, I’ve written and deleted, and in the end of every day I don’t write a blog post about this journey up and down the mountains of that question - am I beautiful? -

you are the people I see at the other end.

You jumping up and down in the aerobic studio to Pitbull and Lil’ Jon. You in old T-shirts and yoga pants and running shorts and neon sneakers and bare feet. You, afraid and unafraid, because we are all a little of both if we are honest. I can’t describe how much courage you breathe into my lungs just being in that second row with you.

And yes, you know, it is courage to shake my hips and courage to swing them in something that I think might someday look like a circle. And yes, it is courage to keep dancing at minute 50.

But it is also courage to be.

You give me courage to be, without walls, without the tap tap tap of the prison guard of my mind that says I should eat less run more be more do more perfect more. In Zumba, there is no better and no best, there is just us and the courageous being of us.

If I could tell you anything it is that yesterday at the end of class I walked out and realized that I think you are all, each, singly, remarkably, beautiful. I realized that I know this in my bones, that you are beautiful, that you are courageous.

And maybe it’s time I walked out of a class and thought of me alongside you, as one of those beautiful and bright courageous beings. Maybe it’s time I walked out of class and let the lessons you are teaching me sink into my bones.

I wish I could paint this for you, write the way you have built my courage from my pink sneakers to my heart, how you have changed me beyond what I had imagined could change. You, with every routine and every sigh and laugh you are rebuilding my idea of what it could mean for me to be beautiful. To be courageous. To be whole.

Gratitude is not measured in a word count, so I will only say, again, you have done infinitely more than you know. And this girl, she is learning beautiful from you.

Love, hilary

all I know how to do is read

“To write good poetry,” he said, that cold afternoon, the kind where the fall burns to winter, our bodies huddled in bulky sweaters, feet crammed into rain boots a bit too small for us, pens and pencils out and at the ready over the white spaces, “you must read good poetry.”

This was not the first time he said these words, not even the first time he had reminded us that most of the work of poetry is reading it.

We were ready to slice sentences like bread into fragments tripping over the page, to pair words the rhymed with precise, clean movements. We wanted the ease of the clicking consonants and the sticky slow rhythm of iambic pentameter. We were ready to be poets – but perhaps most of us thought poetry was the easiest art, since it had the most silence?

He told us to read.

It was Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda and Ellen Bass. It was Katha Pollitt and Tom Hennen and Donald Hall and Richard Wilbur and Linda Pastan and a hundred others who write into the vast world without our knowing, most of the time. Every day, a poem. Every day, a person who saw the world and who spoke it back, its absence, its presence, its earthy goodness, its salt.

He told us to read, and for the first time I became hungry for words, for the way they each sound and how they flow into one sound which is many which is one meaning which is many, again. I wanted to read as I had never read before, savor the pages of the thinnest books, not the hefty pages of great American novels and trying physics textbooks. No, give me the lightest touch of pen to paper, the silence of Emily Dickinson’s dashes and the desperate yawning chasm of Edward Hirsch’s “Self-Portrait as Eurydice”. There is something deep in the words, something I would start to grasp just as I finally let the book slip from my fingers, and with it, the memorized neatness and the words and all that was left was the impression that I had met something, been asked a question, been gifted a bit of living fire.

He told us to read, and I have been reading.

And not just the books in the old poetry bookshop down the side street in the heat of summer when I am falling in love with Preston, not just the poetry I find and write and make, no, I have begun to read the world.

I have begun to see the way the sun rises slow in the April and too fast in fall, how there is a dance to rain against a windshield, a hypnotic, unending chaos that draws you in. I have begun to read the steps between home and the pond, the wind like Braille against my fingertips, hands moving like scissors as I run. I have begun to believe that to read the world like this is, indeed, to love the world, as it is, as it must be, as it yearns to be.

It is this way with the man who shovels snow too early in the morning to talk back to the silent trees. It is this way with the woman I see making her way nervously, heels-clicking, down the sidewalk towards the post office on Saturday, the way it is with the bird chatter or the dog and his patient tail thumping the song of our mornings.

All I know how to do is read, for poetry does not teach you to write, only to see everything new through the ache between your eyes and your pen, between the word you must delete despite your love of it, its syllables and sounds, because the poem itself does not need the word. I know how to read and, if I am patient even with myself, the world who is patient with me still will read me, open me up like the well-worn copy of Farmer Boy that I watched my father open, night after night, years ago.

This is the most brazen command of and to the poet - read. 

Love,
hilary

what breaks does not shatter

I write the words slow, the way that I used to in pages, pink pen pressed hard against the fake parchment paper of the Harry Potter journal. I am trying to learn that sometimes just because the words can come quickly doesn’t mean they’re the right ones, so I type slower than normal into the blank screen.

I’m sitting cross-legged on my bed while I do this. I’m sitting with journals scattered around me, the old stories of my young self, the evidence of a thousand nights of anguish softened now by time and the half-finished tea by my bed. I’m rereading, because when you move away from home, when you get married, there is this exquisite sadness of leaving your room. There is this old self who you think will slink away, a shadow you couldn’t sew on tightly enough, and she’ll keep pace through the house, while you sleep and wake in a strange, new home.

It hits me this way, when I am looking for my self among the things I am choosing to leave behind, that I have been preaching a story with my life that I do not believe enough. Isn’t that funny? This young self – stirrup pants and crooked front teeth in sixth grade in the hallway when the boy didn’t like her back, or the self in the ill-fitting American Eagle jeans at the mailbox with three crisp rejection letters, or the self in college who lay on her back one winter night after falling on the ice and spilling hot chocolate down her coat not once, but twice -

this is the self who has been preaching the truth to me, and I have not been listening.

And this is the truth she is speaking: even what breaks does not shatter.

I can revive at a moment’s notice the stories, the humid June air or the night that I pressed my address written in sharpie on an index card and said “write to me”, thinking it was the beginning of something. I can sit on that bed and I can relive the bar and the dress and the anger I wore so badly, draped over me like the sheets I pretended were wedding gowns years before. I can tell you the song that was playing in my head the days after I didn’t get in or the day I realized the friendship had changed, I can have the conversation over and over again in the safe aftermath of my car, crumple my fist against the steering wheel and make my heart swell again with everything that went wrong, everything that hurt, everything I remember about being broken.

But this is the living proof – for the me that can remember the breaking is not, herself, broken.

No, she is alive, and gloriously alive, and she is sitting typing deliberately on her bed, pressing these words into her heart. Not everything that breaks shatters. And even just the breathing, in, and out, of those words, those pressed deliberate words, starts  to build up this wearied heart. And the worry, that I can’t do this, can’t leave this home this room these old journals, that I can’t go off and be brave -

the worry quiets.

It is all too easy for me to hold on to the memories of being broken, the familiar pieces of hurt, the way that he said or she looked. It’s too easy for me to see myself as not complete, or still recovering, to imagine myself frail or small or unable, incapable. It’s easy to say that to myself when I am weary-hearted and the mountains keep rising up before me, and I think, I’m still broken, that still hurts me.

But my younger self has been the living reply.

I am widened by the months and years of work running my fingers along the frayed edges of her couch cushions, trying to put words to the counseling questions, to make a space where I hear my own self.

I am widened by the quietest moment in the morning when he only kisses me hello, no words, catches me up in his arms and in that gesture promises forever, promises us, in this, promises that he is the kind of man who will keep his promises.

I am widened and changed and made bolder and braver by writing out into the spaces where you see me, pink penning these words over us both: we are not shattered. we are alive.

Maybe it’s the beginning of brave – a belief that you have, all along, been braver than you know.

Love,
hilary

 

where are you speaking

“It is the Hebraic intuition that God is capable of all speech acts except that of monologue which has generated our arts of reply, of questioning and counter-creation.” – George Steiner

Dear God,

Pause.

So, God.

Pause, again, take more time, roll the name off your tongue, honeyed and sweet but sharp and knifing its way through the air.

God.

Pause.

This is how I pray. I lose the words as quickly as they come, and for me, the word-smith, the hammerer of syllables, who watches words like owls at dusk, eyeing the next feast, the next shadow spilling over the ground. This is how I pray, stops and pauses, distracted by the name God, by the question of if I pray too much with “He” or “Father” because I’m listening too much to the sound of my own voice than I am to the silence where God speaks and sings. I pause and hear myself, preen my feathers in the righteousness of a bright sadness of Lent, which is a phrase from Alexander Schmemann in a book that I haven’t been reading but said I would read this Lent, a fact I haven’t told God in the midst of my pleased-self-reflection as I pray.

God does not monologue; where did I learn it?

In the hazy heat of the summers I stayed home and ran through my sprinklers, forgetting the provisions of the creation? In the midst of the chaos of the weeks that roll through my several synced calendars? Where did I learn the prayers of run-on sentences that begin and end with me and all the words are blurred not like poetry but like the overachieving grasp at something good to say to God breathless and always trying to beat my self at my own sense of piety?

God does not monologue. Pause, the phrase on the page, alone, before these italicized words are added. 

God.

Where are you speaking?

Because God does not monologue, I can use the second person, the “you” that in French has taught me formal and informal, friendship and lover and austere other, in those three letters looping through the prayer. Another pause, I’ve been writing and writing but the truth is I don’t know anything more about prayer after writing this, even these very words I crave and love.

If God does not monologue, God must want us to talk with him. He must like conversations, even the ones like this, the ones that are me pausing and asking myself if I know how to pray, the ones admitting, God, I don’t know how to pray and I’m talking and talking and writing and the words have lost me.

Where are you speaking, O God my God?

I will claim you in the second person, human being to Creator.

Where are you speaking, God?

I will talk back to you, this intuition of what you must desire and ask of us, in the depths of the silence that is your speech.

And I will fall silent too, to un-learn my monologues.

Amen. 

Love,
hilary

when you say yes

Maybe you’ve heard a time or two from this blog post or that Facebook status update or a tweet or two, that I’m getting married and moving to Texas. Maybe you’ve heard something about graduate school, about me and philosophy and these three little letters that will (Lord willing) go after my name in about five years, letters that symbolize the working and wondering and the mind-boggling amounts of reading I’m going to try and do in those years.

But here is the thing, the thing I never knew I would be writing: before I said yes to Baylor, before I said yes to learning how to properly say, “Sic ‘Em, Bears” (it’s more complicated than you think) – I said a different yes.

I said yes in a library of love letters.

I said yes in the haze of an August afternoon, in the haze of falling into love, realizing ourselves already in it, maybe some of you who read all those letters were wondering about it, yourselves.

I said yes to this, the ache and ark of marriage (that’s Denise Levertov, in a poem called, “The Ache of Marriage”).

It was the best yes: that day, moment after moment of driving along a highway and to the grocery store, of kissing him in the parking lot, thinking, you’re it, you’re my fiancé now, you’re the person while we looked around helplessly, chose strawberries, I think, feeling our way through the rest of the day the way that the blind trace the edges and shapes of the world and so see it better.

Saying yes to Preston, now almost seven months ago – that was my best yes.

It was the best yes, and no, I don’t mean that in the way of comparing one person’s choosing, moment, realization of God’s calling loud and bright in their life versus another. Because God calls as God calls, and for me, in this season, the lesson is that the calling is presented only to you. Others may confirm it, see it, strengthen it, slow it down -

but God is calling you. You are the hearer, you are the listener. You are the called.

We are so quick to worry and to wonder if God is speaking, but I keep thinking these days, He must be speaking all the time but I have no ears, or no time, or no patience enough to sit still and hear. I run up to God’s door this Lent, over and over, begging for a word and God looks at me:

Hilary Joan, have I not been singing over your life? Have I not been calling you, August haze to March frost?

Am I so quick to forget how loudly God is singing, whether or not there are big moments of yes or no, big choices, big afternoons with big promises?

God is still singing after I say yes to Baylor, God is still singing after I said yes to Preston, after the big moments and the big decisions and the feeling of momentum and moving forward with things.

God has always been singing out over us, over these waters we walk on, calling out to us to come a little closer.

Love,
hilary

next to Jesus

Most of the time I don’t walk next to Jesus.

I walk sideways the opposite direction, smile frozen in place so if he happened to look over, there I would be, right prayers right charitable giving right causes right theology. And when I think he isn’t watching I inch away. You’ll find me pressed into a corner of the big family room of the faith, probably with a drink and my idea of a superior opinion in hand, watching nervously to see if anyone is watching me, if I look as good at this as the next one of us as the next one of us as the one over there who actually reads the Bible more than once in a fiery moon in summer. I’m a hideaway in the habits of this faith.

I walk past him in cities: head down, headphones in, insulated against the cold and against the winter and against the possibility that this banner of believer calls you to something more than just Sunday morning. I walked past him once outside a Starbucks in DC and was so sure I had missed Jesus that I went back with coffee and a sandwich and he only took the coffee, we never really spoke, I left the sandwich on the edge of a slab of concrete. I turn up my collar against the wind and wonder what I did, signing up for a lifetime with a lover of souls and a freer of captives, because someone like that takes you to captives, to lost and hungry and bleeding souls, to hospitals and corners and back alleys.

In the Ash Wednesday service the Gospel is about the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying. I’m an acolyte, a torch bearer, and so I’m close to the Gospel when it’s read, the words loud and the incense sticky against my face. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” I tell God in my head at that exact moment that it is a good thing I’m not like the Pharisee – that I don’t talk to him like that, that I know the moral of this story.

Jesus doesn’t say anything but I know he heard me. It’s the silence of him as I hear my own prayer said back, still in the words of the Gospel. “that I am not like that tax collector…” That I am not like that Pharisee.

Jesus looks back at me in the final words, reads me quiet and certain and the condemnation seeps into my heart and the incense is still clinging to my robes: “Truly I tell you, whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Nothing is safe with Jesus, it turns out.

You can’t keep your life, the habits of your heart, the way you expect the world to read you like a book, to be what you need, to offer itself to you for your easy understanding. You can’t keep that superior opinion in the corner of the room and you can’t walk past the corner and you can’t, oh, how you can’t pretend to Jesus that you’re doing it right.

He who would save his life? What was it? Will lose it. 

I forget that part.

It’s too quiet here, now, in the after of Ash Wednesday, we’re entering a bright sadness, as the Orthodox would say. It’s too quiet so I can hear myself, hear how little of what I think I am and what I think I know I am allowed to keep if I’m going to be someone who loves Jesus.

But this Lent, me, the Pharisee with the incense sticking to her robes and the old habits of her life sticking to her heart, I want to walk next to Jesus. I want the bright sadness before the Easter morning. I want Jesus. Whatever I must lose to find him.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: that impossible brightness

Dear Hilary,

My question concerns (as most questions seem to) fear and love. For a long time, I was afraid to love, and then I was brave and fell deep into it, and then what I was most afraid of happened: I was too much, or I wasn’t enough. The end of it was confusing and tangled and I got hurt again and again, but I held on, thinking that I wanted to show him grace and love and forgiveness. The problem is, I didn’t show any of those things to myself, and now I’m so embarrassed and afraid of how hurt I got, how long I held on, and how badly I was willing to be treated. The question is, how do I forgive myself for that? How do I move through the fear of love ending and fall in love again, now that I know how the ending burns? How do I get over the fear of never falling in love again, which is partly what motivated me to hold on to the love I found for so long after it hurt me?

Love,
The Edge of Hope

Dear The Edge,

“It is not the critic who counts.” Can I ask you to go look this up? I won’t say more, but I will say click beyond Goodreads, beyond the quote itself (I’ll give it away – it’s Teddy Roosevelt), and down towards the bottom will be this name, Brene Brown, and if I say nothing to you in this, it’s just that you remind me of her mantra. This letter, this act of describing your question, this being willing to be you here in this space – that is what she calls daring greatly.

Today all I can think about is this time that Preston asked me something that flipped me upside down. “Are you,” he said, pausing over the words and over the rim of his mug (we were sitting in the living room), “always this unkind to yourself?” We were drinking coffee and going through my applications to graduate school and I was telling him with a lot of confidence that I was NOT going to get in and I should NEVER try and I should just quit and not be a philosopher or anything because everyone would find out I was a fraud and… then he asked that question. “Are you always this unkind to yourself?”

I got mad. I don’t really know why. Maybe because the truth doesn’t set you free before it royally pisses you off and arrives at the most inconvenient time and screw up all the plans you had for avoiding it. I hated the question, though, for what it pointed to in me: that my unkindness wasn’t towards others in that instance. It was towards me. It was shame and regret and hurt I piled on and on as a way to protect myself from potentially being rejected. “Who am I to apply to school X? Smart people apply there” or “Who am I to have loved so wildly? Only fools don’t realize what it costs…” or my personal favorite, “Who do I think I am to be enjoying such a good life? It won’t last!”  Unkindness asks that question, tries to protect us in a cocoon of doubt and embarrassment, tries to keep us from making what we think will be a mistake.

The cocoon is not where it is at. I mean, we all go there, we all build one, but maybe specifically here, when it comes to love and fear, I want to put up a big warning sign that says, BE KIND TO YOURSELF. I want to stamp it across every sign you see today. You do not need a cocoon of doubt or fear or embarrassment or shame. Because actually, in fact, I believe you are already stronger than the cocoon. I believe you are stronger without it.

Here, in love, the critic in you does not count. At all. In any way. You loved, and it ended, and it was terrifying and beautiful and tangled and ugly and hurt like hell and probably still does on some mornings (I have those days too). But the forgiving of yourself begins in a kindness to yourself. A basic, gut level kindness. A kindness that says, “I dared greatly. And now it hurts.” A kindness that says, “I was brave. I believed in love. It disappointed me that time.” A kindness that does not hide the truth – the real truth – which is not that you should be embarrassed or ashamed of loving, but the truth which is that you dared and even so it is complicated, and no blame or unkindness will clarify that paradox.

There is an impossible brightness to love: that paradox of daring and fear, of deep connection and also things not working out every time. That kind of love, falling in it, falling out of it, that is where you tell me you learned things about grace and forgiveness and love. I believe you did learn about those things. I believe now is the time to hold them in your hands and offer them back to yourself, not as warning for what not to do, not as judgment for how long you stayed or what you were or were not willing to do for this person, but as the gifts of that time. As the gifts of daring greatly. As the gifts of the impossible brightness of love.

You are already out here in the brightness, love. You don’t need the cocoon. You’re far too strong.

Love,
hilary

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