put on a little emmylou (a letter to preston)

Dear Preston,

It’s the one-month-mark today, here at the end of the winding road, the one that will so soon become that impossible stretch of green grass between us, aisle to union to marriage on the other side.

Tonight, I’m playing songs on a playlist I made called, “h&p” – with everything that’s indie and everything that’s country and everything that’s the way that these last days make me feel. I’m cleaning the almost emptied room, looking at the bags packed, the dresser drawers that creak with their once full life, their own sort of sweet goodbye.

I’m playing the first dance song from J&E’s wedding last weekend, the one that made me cry, the one where I was leaning against you, feeling your chest rise and fall with the steadiness that belongs to just you, that’s more than oxygen entering and leaving, but the very tenderness of being next to each other.

I wanted to write you a marriage letter early, the way Seth and Amber have written those, calling out on the waters of these blogs something, I don’t even really know what, but something, some echo of the impossible hope that I feel building in my chest when I look over at you, after more than a year, awestruck and comforted all at once.

But we aren’t quite yet married, and for all its ache, there is something about being engaged that I felt like I had to remember, now at its closing days. So, Preston, here – a last-month-of-engagement letter.

Put on a little Emmylou with me?

We will move slow across the room, just a sway like that other time, and the time before that, when the work was too much and for a moment we shrank the world to the small steps across the ancient wood floors. We will move in the sticky rhythms of a second summer together, make our way around her voice laughter tickling our ears.

Put on a little Emmylou with me, and I will press my hand into yours, we can drink lemonade along the water and you can steal more than one kiss before I duck my head, blushing, as the teenagers walk past in their colorful struts. I will wear your favorite dress and ask you a thousand questions about your favorite kind of pie and whether you think you’d ever live in the South of France.

Put on a little Emmylou, Preston, and we will reread our story in the pages of graduate school applications and gall bladder surgery recovery, in wedding menus and Pinterest pages, in my grandmother’s lost and now found ruby ring that I’ll wear in a month and again, in the smallest whispers across a French 75 or a morning cup of coffee or a birthday present and a made bed. We will remember how we build this, and I’ll make a joke that you laugh at and roll your eyes, and I’ll make that face and you will laugh again.

Put on a little Emmylou, darling, and I will start singing the way you like me to, unafraid, my feet up against the dashboard on the long drives, and I will promise you again and again, there is nothing quite as wondrous as stumbling on another way you’ve loved me – the boxes you’ve saved to open together or the the way you remember how much I love the Trader Joe’s twizzlers or the way you relentlessly force my hand with Jesus, day after day, so sure that the only way to heal my heart is to ask me to open it again to God. Again, and again, I will sing it out, one year and two and ten and sixty-five, how it wasn’t just happenstance, this love, but whole, and maybe even, holy.

I’m singing with Green River Ordinance, now, again that line, put on a little emmylou, and we’ll dance into the night, singing hold my loving arms, my loving arms are for you. 

And I remember how much love was singing at their wedding, in this song, in this dance, and so, my not just yet husband,

put on a little emmylou,

and slow, in the softness of these last days -

hold me. My loving arms are yours.


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

an unnecessary letter of love

Dear you,

These are the long days, aren’t they? These ones at the beginning of another month of winter, whatever the groundhog says with his ancient conversation partner, the shadow. This year, I don’t know what he told us. It was a Sunday and I was late for church, and I arrived in this half breathing whirlwind clutching car keys but wondering if I had remembered to drive with my license in my wallet. I know you must have those days too, days of too much forgetting, days that you tell the wall that it cannot go on like this as you throw clean socks into a dirty laundry basket just so that you can see the floor again.

I don’t know what made me think of it tonight, maybe the feeling that this blog was always supposed to be about love, and the lingering squint-eyed gaze in the dance studio mirror tonight at my hip shaking body made me realize it had been a while since I offered some love unbidden and unnecessary and unbounded by a reason.

I’m playing Nashville Cast music on Spotify right now. I’m singing it to the screen as I type. This, too, unbidden and unbounded.

We don’t spend our words on each other enough. I’m so sad about that, when I let myself. I’m so sad that there are millions of words flung into the ecosystem of us and not nearly enough of them have been about this work of loving each other. Not nearly enough for you. We’ve spent ourselves on the theology on the policy on the philosophy on the worry on the big church and the small and the medium-sized and what we think and must think and should not think about it all. We’ve spent words like water on all the ideas, thin bridges in the storm, stretched across the miles.

What do I even think the work is? But there I go, almost writing about what I think about the work, almost spending more words trying to describe what I want the work to be or how I think maybe this letter is the work. I don’t really know, to tell you the truth. I stared in that dance studio mirror and I thought, I want to tell someone the stray thought. I want a bridge of words towards another person’s heart tonight, however thin it feels against the storms. I come to the empty screen and I start to write. What do I tell you? What do I say?

I’m singing “Believing.” This song. I’m singing about how you keep me believing. And it’s true. That simple. Writing to you keeps me near to King Jesus, as my dad has been teaching me to call him, and I’m crying while I write it and I’m trying to sing at the same time. Unbidden, and maybe only a little bounded.

I don’t know if you know how much I love to sing. It’s the kind of love I have for writing some days, the good days, where it is the doing of it, the creation of sound and the way I imagine my voice moving through the air, how it might look or feel if you came across it. Do you have something you love that much? Would you tell me about it? Do you sing, too?

I was telling you something, I think, about loving and words and this letter. But maybe, unbidden and unbounded and unnecessary though these words seem in the moment when I’m playing the song again – it’s all just that loving this, the words, the hope that maybe when you read this you feel like someone saw you today and wanted you to know it, maybe that’s the letter.

And the love.


dear heart, love hilary

Dear little one,

I already lost count of the ways I love you. Mom sent me pictures of how you grew inside her, for months and months, we waited for those brief glimpses of the two of you together, and I would yell every time and stop what I’m doing and stare at the two of you (because that’s the funny thing about pregnancy – a picture of Mom is also a picture of you for nine months). Your mom is a gently beautiful person, full of joy, full of life, and now that you are here, I know that flows into you too, with the physical life she offers. She gave you a special kind of life from her heart and her body these long nine months, and now, you are here. We are beyond excited – we are out in the field of wild joy. We are out dancing in our kitchen and we are outside under the bright summer sun, laughing and praying and trying to find the right days and times to fly out to meet you.

When your parents got married I fell down the stairs at the reception. Not all the way, not dangerously, just in enough of a way to be completely embarrassed and wish that I was safe from the memory. But we are a long remembering family, and so your uncles on our side and your parents and grandparents won’t let me forget it – and trust me, your soon-to-be Uncle Preston won’t let me forget either (he’ll love telling you all kinds of stories about me). But their wedding day was a day about your parents, about two becoming one, about love. And these are the roots of love you grow from. I can promise you, little one, they are deep roots. You will grow in a richer love than you know.

That day, the reading was from 1 John 4 – about how we love because He first loved us. How we know love at all because it has been shown to us by another, by He who is love. You will be fed on love that is rooted in His love. You will be loved, in the midnights and the hurried mornings, in the laughter and the snow, in the every moment, by parents whose love is anchored and rooted to God’s love.

And I remember that day knowing your mom – my sister – and your dad, my brother-in-law, became a family. And now you are here, and you are a part of our family, and we are jumping up and down with joy over it and I might fall down a hallway or an airport or an escalator as I run towards you when I meet you.

But we anchor each other in a deeper love.

We will – this whole family of yours, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents – promise in our own ways and times, to love you wild and deep and forever. There is so much I don’t know about you, dear one, so much I cannot wait to discover. But I promise you a deep and wild and forever love in this family.

I promise you all of my love, too. I promise you all of it, anchored in His.

Aunt Hilary

you free my heart, a letter to preston

Do y’all remember when Preston and I were writing all those letters last year, Tuesdays and Thursdays, writing out this ramble through faith and life and coffee late at night and Gossip Girl and all the rest? And how, those letters, they were the beginning of something wondrous? We are beginning again, new and the same, our selves familiar and not. You can read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

We’re sitting in a Starbucks together, alternating putting our hands to our faces in excitement or frustration, as we try to shape our words just so, keep them honest and true, write theses and personal statements, work out this life in the way we have for so long – in the syllables sounded out silently by the reader, heard again and always for the first time.

Your last letter to me. Can I say any more – but we both know it was something wondrous and I’ll leave it at that.

But your being is a better letter to me, always was and is – the way you look at people when you think I can’t see you, when you smile at them gently, when you rage in the car about all the things but you soften, always, and you remember out loud for us both that there is good and we are to seek it.

You’re a seeing, and a seeking, man.

You teach me. When you write to me, and I smile at you and we lock eyes over the screens and the white noise of this Starbucks, you ask me what it is, and I shake my head, and I tilt it just so and take a sip of my coffee and you return to your words, and me to this letter, and I know that you know I am still smiling over you – it’s that you’re teaching me something about the best story that we’ve been told that makes me want to tell it better. The way you tell our love story is the way we should all be telling His – fearless and free.

You’re a seeking, and a seeing, man.

When I was in France the last time, just before senior year of high school, we had this one day at the musée Rodin, my favorite museum in Paris. We had a picnic, I think (there is a picture of us all in the grass, me in this grey and white striped shirt with sunglasses perched awkwardly on my head) before we spent time in front of the Bourgeois de Calais and were sent into the museum to draw. There is this sculpture there, The Kiss, and I remember walking by it, over and over, too afraid to stop in front of it for too long, because there was love deep and wild and true, there was love alive in the stone, as if Rodin had freed something, his creating work a work of revelation more than conjuring. Sharna drew it – she was always good at art – but I was too afraid to put my pencil to the paper. I drew instead a sculpture in the same room, called the Hand of God, and my shading was, as it always is, not true to life, and my pencil wobbled and so it’s mangled on the page. I wasn’t brave enough to draw The Kiss, to be near that kind of love (because it’s there, alive, a gesture I think, towards the wildest love of all) but I longed to be Sharna that day, sitting at the feet of that moment writing it over and over as my pencil traced along a moleskin journal page.

I’ve thought about that afternoon a lot in the space here, where we are together. I think if I were to find myself there, I would be brave enough to draw it. I would sit down at the feet of that sculpture, look at how the two lovers grow up from the stone itself. I would let my pencil hit the page and tilt, scratch the shadows and lines in the way I learned but never mastered, because though I will never draw like Sharna did, you free my heart to be in the midst of love like that. You free my heart to see it and to seek it.

You’re a seeking and a seeing man, and you’re freeing me to see, and to seek, those things which years ago in a museum in Paris I learned I wanted, and was afraid to know.

“Mais cette transposition de ma restitus ne fait rien à mon amour car je t’aime à minuit comme à midi ; les heures, les jours, les mois, les années glissent sur lui sans le ralentir ni l’amoindrir. Au contraire, chaque minute qui s’écoule est un siècle d’amour de plus pour l’éternité, c’est ainsi que mon cœur thésaurise depuis le premier moment où il t’a aimé.” – Juliette Drouet à Victor Hugo, 1 décembre 1860.

Love, always,

so. we got engaged.

so. we got engaged.

one year ago (to my sister)

Dear sister,

A year ago, right now, we were standing in the hot summer Colorado sun, standing and posing and laughing and trying to jump in the air while not landing badly on three inch silver heels (and yes, I managed to still trip in them, but at least it wasn’t while walking down the aisle). We were in the midst of this good day that God had made, our hair neatly curled and our makeup spotless, and when you walked outside in that dress I knew no one had ever looked that beautiful before.

You have always been the one to go first, the one with braces first and a car first, the one who got to be in a marching band and the one who went to school dances and proms. I remember sneaking into your room when you weren’t around during your senior year of high school and trying on the dress from your junior prom. Do you remember it – you’d gotten it from Filene’s, I think, and I had seen you come out of the dressing room and I had thought, no one was as beautiful. I never had a prom; but I remember sitting in the cramped auditorium seats that year to watch you walk across the stage – the Grand March, they called it – my face eager for just a glimpse of you.

And I remember the time that Mom and Dad traveled away, and the boys went with them – to England, I think – and it was just you and me at home. You picked me up from school and we ate dinner together at the kitchen table and then went to Starbucks (something we wish we could do more than we do now), and I told you about the boy I liked, and you smiled at me and told me to wait and see, that God would bring the best thing at the right time. You told me that boys are complicated. You told me that hearts hurt but that they also heal. I still think about that now.

And then I remember, smiling and laughing as I write this, that phone call when he proposed, and it was midnight our time but I waited up for you. We crowded in the hallway just by the linen closet between my room and our parents’, and we could all hear how your joy spilled over the phone line and time change, how surprised you were, how good it was. I carry that memory with me, too, and I can remember the feel of the floorboards creaking as I paced back and forth, listening to the story, overwhelmed and overjoyed.

And then last year, when I walked down the aisle before you, when I turned, finally at my place, and saw you and Dad walking together, I thought then, too, that no one was as beautiful as you were. And then you married the man whose heart is wide and honest and faithful. You married the man who makes you laugh and smile quiet, the man who builds a home with you and prays with you and loves you.

One year ago, we were in the middle of your wedding day, silver shoes and a blue dress, and I carry those memories with me as I sit in a Starbucks in Texas, while the afternoon rolls on and the sky outside is the same blue as that Colorado sky.

You teach me the way of love is a long journey, a daily obeying, a moment by moment cherishing. You teach me that there is more to it than high school boys and the Friday nights without someone to take us to the movies. You teach me that it is built in the ordinary, in the every day, in all the small things that turn beautiful in their time.

You were the most beautiful bride I have ever seen, one year ago -

but you are more beautiful now,

and every year forward, because you keep teaching us to love. Because you keep loving.

your sister

the ache is still beautiful, a letter to preston

Do y’all remember when Preston and I were writing all those letters last year, Tuesdays and Thursdays, writing out this ramble through faith and life and coffee late at night and Gossip Girl and all the rest? And how, those letters, they were the beginning of something wondrous? We are beginning again, new and the same, our selves familiar and not. You can read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

I will never, ever, ever, EVER do long-distance.

Was that what I said? Did I say that to you once, in a conversation, in passing, probably tilting my head the way I do when I’m not sure what I’m saying is true, but I want to convince you that I’m being really thoughtful? I imagine you were painting in your garage at the time, and I could hear the paint hit the canvas with some kind of fierceness that I didn’t understand. You paint forcefully, and sometimes I think maybe that’s the way of making beauty; a little forceful, the way that brightness asks for strength to bear it. Sometimes, when we’re on Skype and you can’t see me, I close my eyes, and listen to you painting, and the silence says more than my words will.

But me and that long distance. My vehemence when I said those words seems to grow in my memory, a defiance to it I’m not sure was there, but makes a story somehow wilder, so I tell it that way. I was stamping my feet against the old hardwood of my bedroom floor, or something like that, insisting that the way of love must be just something daily, something clear and easy and full of Friday nights barefoot on a beach or along a boardwalk somewhere and that attempting to build across miles and continents and time changes was the worst idea, ever.

Never mind the stories I have been told my whole life. Never mind the long walk through the woods behind campus that sunlit afternoon when my dear friend told me that our choices weren’t ever about distance, but about steadfastness in the face of it. That distance could be agonizingly hard but that the space created between those two distinct places, and those two distinct people, would be nearer and closer, a mystery closed to those who watch it. And of course that afternoon, when my mother opened the pages of her own writing to me, the binding frayed and worn by love and how she, like me, said she’d never do long distance.

But I knew the ache already, I said. I knew the work. I knew the uncertainty. I would never give it a try.

I knew so little, P. I knew so little of the ache.

Because this? This ache is beautiful.

This is the ache of remembering how we sit side by side at that kitchen table and make worlds with our words, offering each other living water for the journey. This is the ache of how I can hear how you laugh with me, almost falling off your chair, how I can feel your hand brush the small of my back as we go up for Eucharist, how I remember the way you look at me sometimes, this look of wonder that just takes my breath away.

This is the ache of how our hearts whisper loud across time zones but gentle when we’re in the same room. This is the ache of wanting to tell you when I burst in the door out of breath from running with God that I realized, just then, the radical grace that is when God and I are quiet, together, how I can feel Him running with me but how sometimes, when I complain to Him (like I did the other day) that He feels far away His words are sharp and quick about the reason He runs with me (love, and sanctification, and my feeble heart). I’m longing to tell you, not in messages or typed words, but in the look on my face and the unspoken question I know you’ll ask me, and how I will answer just by nodding and smiling. And we will have said a thousand things without saying them.

I knew nothing about the wild love of long distance. I knew nothing about how the bridges it builds withstand the longest days and heaviest hearts, how the spaces of Skype and these two blogs and how you write my name on an envelope, they are spaces that are gifts, too. And I am the first to say, to you, to whoever might read this, that the distance aches and hurts and the dip and sway of it sometimes knocks me over.

But I’d not be me if I didn’t admit to you, that more truly, I knew so little of this, how beautiful it is. How wondrous they seem now, the people I thought foolish for trying something I called impossible. How beautiful, how brave. How I now want to call each of them up and say, “I need you to know I see your courage and your strength, how you wove the threads that kept you, cocooned in love.” How I want to tell them that the ache is agonizing and how I miss you,

but how their ache, and ours, is still beautiful.

Love, always,

the world rights itself, a letter to preston

Dear Preston,

I started this letter as a blog post a couple of weeks ago, thinking I’d be able to somehow manage to make it work, say what I want it to say. But you got on a plane yesterday and my words keep tangling themselves up in the ache of leaving. So I’m just going to let my mind wander next to yours for a while, okay?

“I feel weird, God.” I crack open the prayer, feet finding their stride. Three minutes later there is a line of sweat down my spine, the sun has climbed high in the afternoon and I am nowhere closer to knowing what to say. “I feel out of place, standing here, wanting to be in the story that is not mine, wanting to be a part of things, always, a part of the center of things. What’s wrong, Lord? Why can’t I pray?”

I kick at the ground and achieve a magnificent spray of gravel.

When I was in England a few years ago, I remember suddenly, I walked across long empty fields in the afternoons. I have never quite understood what it was I kept looking for in the silences – perhaps it was simply the feeling of not being alone with my small muddied boots and big troubled heart. Or perhaps it was a feeling of trust again, that the world, so terrible and so beautiful, was not against us. I walked and walked, preaching myself a sermon for Palm Sunday about how deeply human the story is – how we can each, in every moment, shift our posture to Pilate, to Peter, to Mary. (I know I told you this story, on Skype, but bear with me)

I don’t know how to bear the distance other than to keep praying that somehow the field years ago in England is not so far away from the field where you were sophomore year of college in a late afternoon when you weren’t sure what you were becoming or how. I don’t know how to understand the separation other than to think of me running last week with the world tilting on its axis, Madeleine L’Engle and missing you and a wish for more beautiful words all happening at once, and to think of you, wherever you are when you read this, if it’s in your kitchen or while you wait for coffee or somewhere else… to think that such moments are us in one big field and perhaps that is the secret to love reaching always across the miles -

time and a meadow,

a field somewhere and when before we knew each other,

somehow, through the telling and retelling of our stories,

in the chaos of arranging tables on Saturday and the quiet of driving home, holding hands the way we do now,

when I was preaching a sermon to myself in England and you were in a field in Texas,

and when a little boy of seven gives me free pink lemonade on my way home in the afternoon, the world rights itself.

For a moment, a thin place on the backroads in the haze of summer: and again, the still, small voice, the one that whispers, calm your heart, that day He says, all shall be well.

That’s as much as my words can hold, I think. All shall be well. And perhaps time and distance are not such fearsome things as I once thought.

Love, always,

i offer us a memory, a letter to preston

Do y’all remember when Preston and I were writing all those letters last year, Tuesdays and Thursdays, writing out this ramble through faith and life and coffee late at night and Gossip Girland all the rest? And how, those letters, they were the beginning of something wondrous? We are beginning again, new and the same, our selves familiar and not. You can read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

Do you remember our first Skype conversation two years ago? You had said it would be good to meet, I ran 7 miles I was so nervous, down the winding road we walked down a little ways your first afternoon here, two years later. You had said it was probably about time we met, given all that we had already shared, all the words that had tumbled out between us, that very long analogy I’d given you about my friends as doctors in a hospital (I still don’t think we know what I am, actually, maybe that’s something to ponder), the lists of books…

Before I got on Skype to talk to you, I listened to “Tonight, Tonight” by Hot Chelle Rae. Yes. It’s true. It had been a song of the summer up in the office where I worked, the way we cheered ourselves up for a long afternoon of answering questions about Orientation, the size of the mattresses from frantic moms in Target holding two different sets of sheets. I listened to it in my car loud on the way home sometimes, and something about it made me feel, for a second, foolish and completely unselfconscious. So I played it three times after that long run and then you called.

We already know this story, but I think memory has a funny and beautiful way of moving between people, passed back and forth, and it is never quite the same memory. Maybe that means it always hid more than we thought it did. Each telling changes what it was; it isn’t the same story. I don’t know if you listened to music or if you ordered a special kind of coffee to impress me (I was drinking iced tea out of a plastic cup, so, nothing too fancy for me). And the details that we labor over as writers, the things we aim to pin down with our words – things like, the night here was a deeper blue than it normally is, the kind that inks the spaces between the stars, tracing their outlines in the sky 

maybe those are the things that escape us on purpose.

Maybe as writers, we have to be bested by our stories, work as hard as we can to capture them on paper only to realize that they are already away, laughing a little as they tear up and off, into the field, into the future, into the retellings that we don’t know how to enter just yet.

I think when I am asked in a kitchen somewhere, with faces and eyes that are widened in surprise that I ever lived a different life than the one I’ll be wrapped up in, when they (the crowd of them, whoever they are, whatever they are named) ask me, I will tell a new story. Every time. And it will be new to me in the telling and the retelling.

Writing is good for us, Preston, probably more because of what it teaches us we know nothing about and cannot say and we have spun this tale around and around and around again, how it is good because it brings us nearer a better silence. But I think about it with memory – that memory of listening to “Tonight, Tonight” in my bedroom before that first Skype call, now as we round our way towards what must be dozens (dare I say it, hundreds? it feels like that), even now -

the memory is a new story.

I think about the Law God gave, how much was about the work of remembrance. Establish this as a memorial, He declares, knowing that in an old memory is new life.

All of this because the song played on the radio, and I remembered two years and a handful of days ago. All this, because I think we must be a people who practice the work of remembrance, who make things new by their retelling, who are bested by the stories more alive than we think them.

Love, always,

dear hilary: honor is not in a tan line

Dear Hilary,

Beach season is a self-conscious time for most girls, but sometimes as a Christian I find it especially stressful.  On the one hand, I have society and the media telling me that my body is hideous and that I’ll never be considered attractive unless I can live up to an unreachable standard.  On the other hand, I have church culture telling me that as a girl, my body is TOO attractive, to the point where I need to be ashamed of it and keep it covered up at all costs to “protect” the men folk, and I get raised eyebrows from church friends when I say that I’m thinking about buying a bikini for the first time this summer.  As a Christian, how can I learn to be comfortable in my own skin without being improper?  And how can I shut out the noise long enough to just relax and enjoy a summer day by the ocean?

Modestly Perplexed

Dear Modestly Perplexed,

I love you in the midst of this question. I love how you grapple with it, the wonder about the line that doesn’t really exist in the ways we want it to – the line between feeling not attractive enough about ourselves and feeling too attractive towards other people. I want to tell you loud and bright in the midst of this, if I can put my two cents in, since you’ve asked?

buy the bikini.

don’t forget sunscreen (my upper back will testify to the pain that comes with sunburn…), and take a book from the library with its crinkling plastic protector that creaks slightly as you turn the pages.

I don’t tell you because buying or wearing a bikini is the only stamp of approval or a self who sees her self well. I don’t tell you because I think everyone should, or because I think that by putting it on you will answer the question about modesty and attraction and the whole mess of expectations and cultural norms that come with them. Modesty is about honor, not tan lines.  Modesty is about an attitude towards your body and others, not about a mystery ledger of rules that say, hemlines of this length or longer or shirts of this material but not that, or dresses that swivel with your hips slightly, but not extremely…

So truthfully, I think our choices about what to wear follow from our other choices about how we want to walk through the day, how we want to approach one another, how we want to see one another. We can’t buy a bikini and hope that it will make us brave or fearless on its own – we have to choose the brave and fearless when we’re wearing two sweaters and a pair of jeans. And we can’t hope those two sweaters and a pair of jeans will make us magically modest – we have to choose the attitude of modesty and honor when we’re wearing the bikini.

Maybe it’s a wild hope of mine that we can gather back from the stray corners of this or that book or blog post or church conversation or pinup calendar a better sense of what it means to live inside these beautiful bones. Maybe it’s wishful thinking that you and I can take the questions tumbling from you about being free and beautiful and alive, and lay them next to questions about being thoughtful and attentive and sensitive – and do that free of the chaos of voices with loud opinions and tape measures.

But I’m going to hope for that. I’m going to go ahead and say you won’t come up with the same answers that I will, or that your next-door neighbor will, because we live and move with different communities and so our choices, in seeking to honor others and ourselves, will be different. We needn’t fear that. We need to listen to each other. If the girl in the pew next to you makes different choices about modesty and her body, listen first. Why does she choose that? And listen without feeling that her choice is a secret expectation on you to choose the same – honor is in listening and upholding one another in how we learn to live out these questions in our own skin.

I can see you wanting to run along the ocean at the turn of the tide,  build a sandcastle in the middle of the afternoon for hours, turrets and a moat and a driftwood drawbridge, chase after the joy of summer and let the sun warm your shoulders.

Buy the bikini. I know it’s beautiful.