when I find dirt on my wedding shoes

I had a plan for my wedding shoes, even before Preston proposed to me. I’d seen them in a magazine the previous Christmas and in so many wedding Pinterest pictures. They were the perfect color pink – ballet pink, the kind that’s gentle but strong and not too flashy but not too pale – made of what look like satin ribbons, flat but elegant. I’ve wanted to be graceful like a ballerina for a long time (far longer than I actually studied ballet, I should admit), and these were the shoes I imagined wearing.

They fit perfectly, and I kept them in their box without ever touching them or wearing them. I would show them off in hushed whispers, the tissue paper crinkling, slip them on for no more than ten minutes and always inside. I couldn’t imagine ever wearing them anywhere – they were the thing I thought would make me beautiful.

photo by Ebersole Photography
photo by Ebersole Photography

And today I was cleaning our closet on a whim listening to the rain outside and I tried on my wedding shoes again, just to see. I don’t know if any of us are very far from thinking beautiful things are magic, and so I stood amid the dust and the old scarves and the sweaters and I slipped them on.

They fit perfectly.

They’re covered in dirt.

I began a lament, half-formed the words on my tongue and half whispered them to the mirror, looking up and down and wondering where all this dirt had come from, if I should put them somewhere safer than in the midst of all my other ordinary shoes, as if they should be kept safe from my ordinary life, from my growing self.

But I couldn’t stop looking, noticing, and then I realized: the dirt makes them beautiful.

The dirt is the witness to the growing of a young marriage, the beginning, the glorious running through the world and the slowing down, the catching each other, the catching ourselves, the being constantly caught up in God. They’re bearing the marks of marriage: the almost five months, the honeymoon where we got tattoos and the wandering through the grounds of my high school where we got married, the scuffs of grass from down by the river where we walked in the haze of a Texas summer. I can squint and see the mystery green pen marks I tried to erase with a Tide pen now permanently etched at their edges. They’re wearing history now, a bit of rainwater, worn from being stamped in frustration or impatience. And they wear the history of love, how different and the same it is, how easy it is to forget that love is always moving in wild uncontrollable circles, bringing more people in, bringing you closer to the one you love, sealing the ark and the ache of marriage with every click of the lock and every first peek of sun too early in the morning.

We tell ourselves to make memories because time goes too fast, to take pictures, to Skype every detail back home lest we lose sight of who we are or were or could become.

But perhaps our lives are already bearing witness to it. Perhaps it is we who are too worried to notice that the rest of our ordinary is holding and bearing to us the story of us, of our marriage and jobs and moves and fights and triumphs. Perhaps our shoes, even those we were so afraid to touch, are beautiful when we let them wear and retell our stories.

Perhaps the dirt on my wedding shoes is a better storyteller of this hallowed beginning than I can hope to be.

And perhaps, I should stand still in the perfect pink shoes now flecked grey and brown and that funny hint of green in my closet on a Saturday and listen.

Photo by Ebersole Photography
Photo by Ebersole Photography

The story they tell is so beautiful.

Love,
hilary

when I am keeping a quieter vigil

I have a thousand stories that I haven’t told.

It’s snippets of moments of remembering, the way that our hearts remembering, outside of time, bending it back and forth hoping that the truth of it will illuminate in the quiet, heartfelt, wondering places. Last year I wrote some of the stories down, a flood of remembering, in the way that when something changes you want to put it back together, make it a new story so that you can understand why and how and if it even was the way you thought it would be.

I have stories of high school, stories of college and the first floodlit after-years. I have stories about midnight drives through the towns of my childhood and ones about walking the dog on a marsh field with my mother in the cold before winter, thinking about how I never imagined being able to grow up, only to turn around and find that it was happening all along.

I have stories about the poems I used to write and the ones I write now, how my poetry is a scattered collection of skeletons, ideas that I love because they show me who I was not so long ago.

When I think about blogging (and, dear friends, it’s been such a long time since I’ve written over here), I think of all the stories I’ve been telling: stories of confirmation and falling in love, stories of Easter vigils and long car rides home, stories of missing my grandmother and letters to others about how to be unafraid of the beautiful monsters in our closets.

But today, as I sit in the sunlit corner of the building where I do most of my reading and writing these days, I realize that I am keeping a quieter vigil. These are the days of collecting stories, gathering them around me like echoes of the Psalms, stories to rage and stories to pray, stories of God’s wonder and God’s silent watchfulness, stories of me, learning and unlearning the world. These are the days when the world lights and darkens, when I watch the fan above the bed in the early morning, when winter is coming, when the seasons gather us on their unrelenting way.

I wonder if we are too quick to think all the stories are for the telling of them, and not our own hearing. I wonder if I am too quick to worry that I have been quiet on my blog, that so much has happened in these last few months and I’ve said so little, my space gathering a bit of gentle dust.

And then I wonder if the stories won’t be better, when they are told, for having been kept a little longer in a quieter vigil?

So, perhaps it is not so terrible that I am gathering the stories in, that I’m out on the plains of my life caught up in the work and worry and awe of living, and perhaps it is, even, a great and mysterious thing to be silent and watch it unfold, so that when I find words for the stories, find movement in my heart to tell them, there will be a richness that might not have been otherwise.

In my quieter vigil, I might write here or there, and I’m collecting the stories in notebooks and napkins, and oh, how good it will be to bring them forward in the time that is right. Vigil-keeping, it is a practice, a work, but we are the better for it.

I will leave you with this, a bit of what I’m pondering in the back of my notebook, in scribbles and half finished thoughts:

The goodness is sitting on a swinging bench. The goodness is next to us, near us in from of us and so why do we cry out except because we hope for more than an intangible idea we hope for a weighty glory of sunlight and dirt and squirrels climbing trees. I am along on this bench writing in my journal which is really a supposedly philosophical notebook and my pen keeps smudging as I go I remember the freewrites and how they must have been more about freedom than writing more about light and air touched and sensed and the scratching pen and distant frisbee thrower and how here in Texas the sky is a different color blue. Here the trees have grateful roots in dry ground, rain is a surprise and so always remains a gift like the freedom in writing. How can we know the world without knowing its beauty? 

Love,
hilary

i write to keep believing

Someone once told me that my blogging personality was like sweetened, condensed milk. She said it perched on the edge of the swiveling chair just inside the office where I worked. It was late on a Thursday and I was working overtime, filling in for someone on maternity leave, half-distracted, half-exhausted, maybe less than half-hearted. She swiveled, proud of the declaration, or maybe just the uniqueness of her metaphor, I’m not sure which. I must have turned around in an angry kind of way, asked “What?” in that biting tone girls perfect for and against each other, and she stopped twirling, poised to defend her view. “It’s not really how it is with you, is it, the stories you tell on your blog? It’s just… sweeter.”

I think tiredness offered me a good reason to accept defeat on the point, so I just nodded and started to close up the office. We didn’t talk about it again, but it still lingers, that metaphor, that question – is that really how it is with you – that makes me wonder whether I’m really being honest with anyone who happens to read this. Wonder if, somehow, I’m lying to myself.

Preston, a few years ago – “You have opinions and thoughts. And you should put them out there. Your blog should be a place you explore those things. Edgier.” I don’t remember the order he said those things, or if he said all of them, or if some are my interpretation mixed with his words mixed with the fog that accompanies memories. I do remember he was Skyping me from his kitchen while he made lunch for a friend of his. I do remember that we were still trying to figure out what being friends would mean to two people who had been so entangled in not-realized-it-yet love letters. I do remember that I was drinking iced green tea with lemon that my mother buys every summer from a plastic cup.

I wrote a post in response saying that I couldn’t write an edgy post because that wasn’t me. Sweetened, condensed milk me.

I wonder still whether I should have written about my opinions of education reform.

My counselor and I in a late January evening, the night black and the stars few and far between. Her office is warm and well-light, which makes the night seem blacker as I stare determinedly out the window. “I don’t want to talk about it.” And her wisdom, always pouring through – “But does anything grow the eating disorder as much as silence? As much as pretending it isn’t there?”

And so I blog a few posts and whisper in them the fears that feed it, the fears of enough, the fears of how I look and what it means and whether I am beautiful. I don’t want to say much more, and I go back week after week saying that I didn’t write or I didn’t really talk about it, and my counselor, and her wisdom: “But you will know the right places to talk about it, and the right people to talk about it to, won’t you?”

So I go back to writing about Jesus and the ordinary aches of a heart growing up, I put my one word in front of the other in a steady parade of characters on the screen.

This afternoon, when I’ve despaired over enough of the workload I have to leave it behind for a few hours, I ask Preston for a writing prompt. He reads me something from Joan Didion, about truth and fact and writing and why she keeps journals and the words dance by me too fast. But I start to think about this blog. Why do I write?

I don’t write for sweetness. I don’t write to make the days drift by in a haze of vague hopefulness or nice feelings.

I don’t write for edge – I don’t think I would even know anymore what that would be, a raw honesty that forgets the truth that spaces are our responsibility, that something belonging to us means we answer for what we bring forth into the world in it.

I don’t write, even, to keep a journal of what I have and haven’t done and accomplished and worked through or where I have or haven’t failed or fled.

I write, I discover, to keep believing.

I write to fix my hope in the firmness of the Resurrection. I write to hear Jesus calling for me. I write to believe that Jesus is calling for me, to believe that there is a wild calling on my life in the days where I don’t believe it. I write so that, in saying it out loud, I can hear it. My heart has a quiet voice sometimes next to the girl in my head with her giant megaphone, and I write to hear over the noise of my life.

I write to believe, to keep believing.

O Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief. 

I don’t think I have ever told anyone that’s what I pray most of the time when I sit down to blog.

Except, now, you.

I don’t remember a word of the Joan Didion quote Preston read me. But maybe the point of it wasn’t to remember that, but to remember this: that writing is getting quiet enough to hear and believe in Jesus, writing is making my heart louder than my head. 

And writing is receiving: grace enough.

draw nearer and i will show you

I want to write, and I can’t think of anything, and I think I should tell a story. I think I should return into the past, back to a hill, to a late-night on the street outside the athletic complex, to the long looping drive to Great Neck in Ipswich, which is best at twilight when you have too much on your mind to sound it out. I think writing is this work of building a story out of what has happened, to explain in artful just-long-enough paragraphs the way he looked and she sighed, the way I knew then and there that I would remember that moment and it was a lesson. 

But the great work of remembering is not always good. 

It is tremendous effort to gather the scattered bits of a story from across our mind and resew it, present it back as a whole. This is the beginning – when I walked out the door, and here is the middle, when I was wearing old tennis shoes, and here the end, when I gather the wisdom as the door of my car clicks shut. And then this is the lesson of the story, the point where I see again the gracious goodness of God, where I see freedom beckoning, where I stand up for myself and the story is a triumph story and I retell it again and again remembering. 

Oh, I would like to believe it is always good to remember. 

I would like to live in my memories, recreating again and again the way that it went, exaggerating my innocence, their unfathomability, which I relive, claiming to seek understanding, but really, it’s just to comfort and rejustify the parts of it I suspect might yet need to be laid on the altar. I think to myself that if I keep the story closer, if I tell it to enough times, how I learned the wisdom or how I kept the faith… that will be the making of me. 

I have told some stories to myself far too many times. 

I have reveled in the revisit, conjuring up images brighter than the first of the summer blackberries glistening on their spidery branches – what I wore and just what I said, and how it happened next that this one song started playing, and when I hear the song this is what I go back to. 

I’d be happy to keep doing it if Jesus didn’t interrupt me almost constantly these days to ask questions. Hilary, he begins, as I start to hum the opening bars of the guitar chords of that song that was playing at the time that… Hilary. 

How does this honor me? 

What a question, Jesus, and I can hear the scoff in my voice as I think the words in my head. Isn’t the telling of these stories the point of it all? Look at the wisdom I have. Look at the understanding I have gained. Look, look, look at what I have been through and what it means and how I got through it in this glorious way. 

Yet the question remains. How does this honor me? 

I try to keep assembling the pieces of the stories, to keep my eyes fixed on that one time in high school and then that letter he wrote me at the end of a long summer and then that time she and I argued about whether God existed in a Starbucks when they still had the beautiful purple chair to sink into after a long day. 

The pieces crumple, like ash, like dust. I am trying so hard to remember the stories of how I was wronged and how I have been hurt and how I am so good at overcoming. But when have I told myself the stories of how only through Him am I more than a conqueror? Have I ever written the words on the doorposts of my house, on my forehead, on my heart, written the story that those to come might yet praise? Have I remembered the encounter with God on the drive home more than the two drinks and the heartbreak that came before it? How long, O Lord, have I been making the stories after my own desired image of myself, rehearsing my part pitch-perfect, lingering in the hallways of the past for the rush of the feeling? 

There is nowhere to hide from the question anymore, and as it catches up to me, I am afraid. Without these bits of dust, without these bits of the person I think I was and the way I want to remember myself to have been – what then? 

Jesus only says, Draw nearer to me, and I will show you. 

Love,
hilary

there is no safe gospel

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13.47-50)

I read this in a room full of light, warmth trickling across my palms on the table. I’m wearing a favorite grey dress. I’m in a circle of thoughtful and kind people, and we are bending our heads in morning prayer, coffee cups nearby, open notebooks. I’ve been asked to read the Gospel lesson.

I read that there will be a separating of the righteous and the evil, that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And the warmth seems to evaporate from me as I let the words spill forth, proclaimed into the spaces between our rolled up sleeves. The Word of the Lord is living and active, we say – and I speak and Jesus stops me, my comfortable dress, my comfortable coffee, my comfortable posture in a comfortable room full of light.

This is an uncomfortable parable.

I start to pray in something between a condescending and a wishful-thinking tone of voice, something he is unamused by. I tell myself I am just asking why he preaches to us in stories. But the truth is I’m asking, Why did I have to read that parable? Why couldn’t I have gotten to read the one about the pearl of great price or the mustard seed or the treasure in the field? 

It isn’t just that I wonder why he teaches in parables -

it’s that I don’t really want to proclaim the teachings that I don’t like or understand

that I don’t really want to be linked to something uncomfortable

that I don’t really want to be that close to some of the teachings because speaking them out makes me uncomfortable.

Jesus just looks back at me.

My junior year of college I memorized the first chapter of John in French, a project for a French class. I recited it in a brightly lit room in the morning, wearing a comfortable dress. If I close my eyes now, the words can sometimes still appear – my favorite sentence -

Le lendemain, il vit Jésus venant à lui, et il dit: Voici l’Agneau de Dieu, qui ôte le péché du monde. 

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

There is no safe Gospel. There is no encounter with the Word that will leave us comfortable. Comforted, perhaps, but only first through the upheaval of our worlds, the collapse of our presuppositions, the relinquishing of our desire to have the easiest story to tell. We cannot claim Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world if we are clinging to a tamer, easier version, without the uncomfortable parables or the uncertainties or the radical promises or the hardest questions. The power of the declaration is in how unsafe it is, how transforming, how world-shaking.

I cannot say, Voici l’Agneau de Dieu, qui ôte le péché du monde if I am always searching for a way to make Jesus safer, or find Gospel passages easier to read in a brightly lit room in morning prayer.

I have to give up my search for the safe Gospel.

I’m still wrestling the parable of the nets, still going back again and again for an explanation, for understanding, for the right way to read it.

And in the midst of that wrestling, not on the other side of it, not beyond it, not anywhere but the sweating tired mess of giving up the idea that I’ll wake up to a comfortable, non-radical Jesus, and trying to learn what it means to preach this unsafe and life-changing Gospel in my life, in my heart, in the world -

Voici, l’Agneau de Dieu, qui ôte le péché du monde. 

Behold.

Love,
hilary

when this is making a home

I was fourteen. The age where all your limbs are back to their newborn feeling, you’ve changed jeans sizes twice or three times, up and down as your body asserts sheer aliveness. I tripped over things all the time, and more than one well-placed odd brick in the familiar sidewalks in Newburyport were my undoing all summer.

Dread finds you like a slow drop of water dragging its way down your back. It slides over you, leaves a sticky trail behind in its wake. The international terminal at Logan airport, November, my newly teal and purple colored braces, an endless drip of details. My dad’s suitcase, borrowed for the occasion, in the back, and my backpack, forcibly begged a few nights before – white and blue, Jansport like the other girls, but mine was too new, too shiny. It didn’t look like I skied across open fields on the weekends with it. I tried to scuff it with my hands as I sat in the front seat, my mother chatting in the back of the van, my dad’s eyes keen on the road ahead of us.

“You’re going to have so much fun,” my mother told me, her voice almost singing. I nodded dumbly. “It’s not every day you get to go to France for a whole month!” I only half-hearted smiled, whispered, “Mais, oui,” before I stopped, almost in tears.

Departure is like dread. The airport was immediately close but traffic kept it ever-approaching, past the dog racing track exit and the two dangerous rotaries and the sixteen Dunkin’ Donuts, on both sides of the highway. We parked, we made our way to AirFrance check in. We saw my classmates. My mother, who is relentlessly kind and friendly, chatted with the teachers. My dad drank a small coffee quietly, patted me on the shoulder, smiled.

It was the first time I’d left home.

I used to think being a homebody means being someone afraid of change, someone who doesn’t adventure, the lack of curiosity. I am both, but they don’t mean each other. A homebody, I have learned, is more often the person who burrows deep into places, who scatters pieces of himself into the walls and floors and doorways and sidewalks, builds belonging with place. They’re the people who trace the same path on their morning run, not only out of habit, but out of love. They love home, but home is also the thing they know best how to make, everywhere.

I was a new twenty, in the city almost two months when my father came to visit. I met him at the Newseum cafeteria, coming all the way over from my internship site on the Metro, moving with the sure footing of my SmarTrip card and my work wardrobe. I took him to dinner at my favorite restaurant, loud as it was with the happy hour crowds drinking blueberry martinis while we had water and burgers and fries, and I told him the stories: Eastern Market, walking to the Metro, learning to cook a little on my own, the way that I never thought I would, the Baptist church I went to, the almost-tattoo in Adams Morgan.

“You’ve made a home here, Hil,” my father told me as we walked back towards Union Station under a still-warm sky, “It’s so good to see.”

Home is not about travel or return. Home is about widening spaces in the heart.

No one famous said that, I don’t think, but it sounded wise.

The day of my wedding, I saw my dad first when I was trying to move a box of bouquets into the room where I was getting ready with my bridesmaids. I saw my mom a little later, when I was trying to give my car keys to someone. She was wearing one of my favorite dresses she owns, a cornflower blue, and I remember she laughed. There was a remarkable kind of laughter that day, rich, full, the kind that bubbles over and makes you think you must gather it, the woman at the well first hearing of living water.

The kind of laughter you grow accustomed to over the years, the kind that fills you and fills you and gifts you the grace and courage to leave, to begin.

And this is how I have learned to begin to make a home, ten years after that first departure:

to fill the rooms with laughter.

Love,
hilary

bring back everything

I wander in the thousand winds
that you are churning,
and bring back everything I find.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours I, 55

God.

I pray in the cloisters of a thousand older prayers that I have to believe someone before me prayed, that I have to believe are already well worn, broken in shoe prayers.

I am wandering in the thousand winds.

You’ve brought me here to the beginnings of everything, and there are a thousand winds, each so full it seems it will take a lifetime for the words to catch it. How can I bring you back what I find?

I find my old shoes on new pavement, a Texas sun planting freckles on my shoulders, a bridge over an unhurried river, the smallest breeze lifting my hair off the back of my neck between red lights, almost as if you wanted the ordinary world to come a little closer to me. The air, the sweat of the morning, the silence.

How can I bring you what I find? Because he is next to me when I wake up in the morning and when I go to sleep, and there is suddenly, finally, and all at once, the ark of marriage, as much mystery as calling and covenant and courage. Oh, the courage it is to be married, to wake up next to each other with so much more than ever can be said between you, with so much fullness, and so much wonder? How, God? How can I bring you what I find?

You are churning these thousand winds, O Lord, and I am so small. How can I bring you what I find?

The question echoes along the corridors of my heart, walks with me into the grocery store, when we walk down the street to talk about our days, or what has surprised us, when it is morning and the words don’t seem to be there, for what it is that I want. But this is what I want: to bring back everything I find.

To be a gatherer of the scattered pieces of your goodness in the world, the smallest goodnesses of muscles that move me along that unhurried river and the goodness of the man who moves with such ease in the small kitchen, his smile betraying so much more joy, the goodness of the well-fought fight, of the bigness of Texas sky or the way a phone call will pour water on a thirsty heart, of Life of Pi read out loud one morning, of country music through speakers, of running out of words long enough to be asked to listen again.

This is what I want, God, to walk these cloistered prayers and to be in the churning winds and to bring you what I find.

I find your fullness in these thousand winds.

I want to bring back everything.

Amen.

Love,
hilary