when this is my anxious heart

My heart is the cave of fearful wonders, a lion made of sand, of endless what-ifs and ideas, and I am Aladdin trying to fly free of the fire, when everything I touch seems to make only more fear. Don’t worry, be free of fear, but I’m not free of fear and that means I should try harder and I’m still worried about the original thing which is whether or not I am capable of doing something or excelling at something and now that I think about it I have to manage to give everyone the impression that I’ve cured myself from all these anxieties that circle me and I have to prove myself a good woman who can be wise and be unafraid and who leaves the troubles of tomorrow for tomorrow.

The cave always collapses at the slightest touch, swirls around me the moment I touch the question of how something will happen or work out or be okay. And some days I look around, trapped in the middle of the sea of my anxiety, waiting on a magic carpet to rescue me.

They say that there is a kind of knowledge we don’t access as often anymore, the knowledge by analogy. If I tell you what it’s like some days in my heart, how it sometimes builds like a hurricane at sea, and I’m battening down whatever hatches I can find, but the storm is still coming, maybe I can give you a glimpse, a recognition.

This knowledge requires a deep imagination, they say. I think it requires more than that. I think it requires a kind of courage, to enter with one another into the shape of their world, into the cave of wonders.

So I have said that my anxious heart is like the cave of wonders, but I could tell you, too, that it is like a baby bird, edging to the blue sky beyond the nest. The sky beyond the nest of my worries, the safety of woven fears, is so beautiful. The sky there is an indigo, the kind of sky early in the evening where the world has settled into itself again, where it has turned and will keep turning, and the nights are full of stars and strange beautiful new things and so I am a baby bird edging to get a little closer. There are days when the nest feels safer than surrendering myself to the radical trust in God. There are days when I stretch my wings against the winds of the Spirit and imagine myself flying, free of worry, free of the endless uncertainty of myself or my surroundings or my success or my status or my standing. And some days I take off and the wind lifts under me and I am made alive again.

A cave of wonders. A baby bird. A hurricane. They are all true. Maybe the wondrous thing about the heart is that it can be like so many things at once. It can be known better by the stories we would tell about it than the clinical words we might use to describe it.

Maybe kindness to one another is practiced in this: that we imagine by analogy the landscape of our hearts. That we see the baby bird and the hurricane, we see the boat anchored in the deep and the Montana skyline and the quiet river and the chorus of crickets and the countless other thousand things that could be our hearts at any moment.

Maybe kindness to myself is in this, too: that I tell stories about my anxious heart more than dwelling only on the word anxious. Maybe I tell God my analogies and hear God say back to me the analogies that God writes and knows and sees in that same heart.

Because God sees a new creation in that hurricane baby bird cave of wonders.

And God sees a new creation in yours, too.

Love,
hilary

the first month of gratitude

When this is a month of gratitude.

That sounded like a good way to title this post, but truthfully I don’t know what to call it.

It’s been a month and a day since I married Preston.

And in a month I didn’t know you could learn so much thankfulness that it seems foolish to try and contain it in words in an online space, seems almost laughable, but then words are cherished vessels, and sometimes, they’re what we have, and the writing is a most needed remembering.

I didn’t know you would be grateful for the noise of the coffee grinder because it means he lets you stay in bed longer. Or the way that taking out the trash when he’s running another errand would mean so much. I didn’t know you could learn to revel in doing small things like unloading the dishwasher or folding laundry while watching a show together, how that could be the most romantic afternoon. I didn’t know about the joy of takeout or the joy of leftovers that become something new and beautiful tasting under his watchful eye. I didn’t know about the Splendid Table podcast or how to share in things that you are new to loving with the one that you love. I didn’t know your heart could be taught again and again the meaning of the word, “thank you” when it’s dinner or dish washing or keeping track of the ways to use up the vegetables from the farmer’s market. How saying thank you would be a thing that he would teach me, day by day, gesture by gesture.

I didn’t know that sometimes I would need the discipline of writing down the gratitudes, the way that you must ask of yourself the work of remembering, of thankfulness, because even the deepest love becomes accustomed to itself sometimes and even the thing that was and is and will keep being so wondrous, like making a home with your best friend, asks to be remembered among the work of building it.

He has told me more than one about the importance of telling stories, so that things will not be forgotten. He told me again on a drive into the city, my feet in their customary position tucked up under me and my eyes half-closed against the sun. I didn’t say anything in the moment, and I should have. He has a wise heart. I should have said that, should have said then and there that he is teaching me the work of remembering and telling the stories, the love stories, the ordinary grace stories, the extraordinary provision stories, the stories that we will write on doorposts in our house that the generation to come might yet praise the Lord.

I should have told him the story again of the drive home from the airport the first time, when everything was so new and I didn’t know how to lace my fingers through his, when we knew and didn’t know how we knew, on that walk leaning late into the hazy rain of June.

It is a month of gratitude, the thousand thanks Ann teaches, spilling out over our days. We must do the work of remembering the blessings, tell again and again the story of manna coming down from heaven and the way that we are provided for, the way that we are loved. We must tell the stories of love at first meeting and the way we build love, gesture  by gesture.

This is my first month of gratitude.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: building the gates

Dear Hilary,

You seem to be pretty guarded online, while your husband isn’t. This has me asking questions of what I, newly married myself, think about putting my life on the Internet. How do you or you and your husband think about those boundaries? So much of your own relationship, from what I have witnessed, is thanks to the Internet. So, yay Internet! But what about the danger zones or the places where you have to set boundaries?

Sincerely, Newly married and lost in the borderlands

Dear Newlywed,

I was nine years old. I was walking through fields in the south of England, by myself for the first time, on the lanes immediately surrounding my grandparents’ house. In England, when you come to a break in the path and it continues onto someone’s pasture, there is a high gate that you usually have to climb up a few steps, unhook the gate from the other side, climb over and then rehook the gate after you.

I thought I could scale the fence.

In my purple (probably stolen) sweater and boots that were a little too big for me and these polka dot leggings and let me tell you there were also ruffles on my socks. It was a complete outfit – there I was, trying to clamber up over the fence without any pretense.

It didn’t go that well. I got caught on part of the fence and I came dangerously close to ripping said sweater and came very near to losing my balance into a ripe pile of mud and cow pie. I finally gave in and pushed up the heavy iron ring that keeps one post of the fence closed against the other, and proceeded down the other side and on my way to the playground.

What is it about fences?

We try so hard to scale them, Newlywed. We try to be the confidant, the one who is in the know, the person with the most in-depth analysis and interpretation and information. And in a world where so much information is available, is possible to find and have and be the possessor of, I think we take to scaling fences.

It’s not all bad. It’s not all out of malice or wrong intent. Often I think we find something we love and so, in our eagerness, seek to know everything we can about it. And we usually don’t stop long enough to think about whether or not it’s something we ought to know.

And in the world of the internet, where a Google search can find you someone’s high school photos, it’s so easy to start wandering through the middle of the field without thinking too much about where we are walking.

And so my husband and I have worked on our fences. We sat down on car rides or lazy afternoons on the porch while the fall wind ruffled the trees and hammered out where the gates would be. Our blogs – what kind of path of our life did they open to the general public? What kind of personal details do we include in our storytelling along the way? What about Facebook, or Instagram or Twitter?

And we built them slow, and we build them still in the midst of learning about each other, because marriages are living things and so when we meet something new, we ask ourselves: what should go through the gate? What shouldn’t? What can shed light and laughter along someone’s walk in the woods and what is just ours?

We met because we are writers, because we love the way words sound and feel on a page, because of the ache and promise of them. But for every word that’s in the public binary code turned HTML turned text you read on your iPhone screen, there is more to it. There are the thousand things unspoken between us, there are the things spoken only in the whispers across the couch or the front seats of the car, there are the things we remember with and for each other that we keep to ourselves.

The beautiful thing about building fences and gates is that the gate is the gesture of welcome, the fence the gesture of protection, and those two things – welcome, and protection – live together in harmony. Building one doesn’t mean that you need to abandon the other.

We need each other’s stories along this long and winding road. And we need each other’s fences to protect for each other the things that should belong only to a few.

So, Newlywedded, I don’t think you’re lost in the borderlands: I think you’re right where you are, in your plot of land, and you’ve got some timber and some time with your spouse. Start to build.

We’ll love the paths you make for us to walk around in.

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

dear hilary: the solitary inch

Dear Hilary,

I’m sorry. I say I’m sorry probably approximately 218 times per day. I say it to basically anyone about basically anything. It’s my catchall, my secret weapon. Say I’m sorry and then the conflict can end, right? But lately I’ve started to hate the word sorry. I use it when I don’t think I mean it. I use it when I’m just tired and want to not be having the conversation anymore, when the explanations for myself run dry or I don’t know how to justify being sad or being angry or being any of the emotions I’ve spent my whole life putting in the, “THIS IS DANGEROUS LOCK IT IN A BOX” category of my heart. I don’t know what to do. I am mad at myself for being mad at myself, or sorry about how often I say sorry. Help?

Love,
I’m sorry for even asking this

Dear I’m Sorry,

Hey love.

Been a little while since you’ve let all that out, eh?

Or maybe just a few days, if you’re like me, and you sit in the counselor’s office and say the same things week after week, that you don’t know how to build a person who believes in herself as herself because the habits run deep, habits of denial and apology and habits of self-deprecation and self-doubt, habits of keeping those emotions at bay so that now they loom out at you in the night and  you really didn’t feel like you had to apologize about that thing you said or worried about or over-thought, but you did and now you don’t know how to take it back and you think you’ll always be like that, always the one in the wrong, even though yes you know that it’s supposed to be shared and aren’t you just a failure for not sharing it better, eh?

Sound familiar?

It’s an agonizing discernment, when we’ve done wrong. We avoid it, all of us. All. Of. Us. You included. Yes, I bet you didn’t see that coming. I didn’t either. I assumed for the longest time that I was the only person in the world who was able to be accurate about what was her fault – everything. Every fight. Every misunderstanding. Every agony.

And in doing that, I built the safest protection of all: protection from the truth.

Because here it is, the uglier truth: by apologizing for everything when you know perfectly well not everything is actually your fault, you’ve excused yourself from really owning your wrongs. You’ve allowed yourself to think that there isn’t really anything wrong with you except the deliciously dramatic EVERYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE and so by doing that, you’re keeping the real work, the work of looking at a fight and saying, “that was ugly and fierce and mean” at bay. You try to take the whole thing into yourself and in doing so you sneakily get your fix of absolution. You get the control back. You get the safe feeling back.

Let’s be free of that, shall we?

You will have done some things very wrong in this life. You will have done some things very right. Sometimes you will fight a good fight and at the end you will both cry and rage and not be sure how you made it through but you did. And sometimes you will stay in the same place and some times you will need to gather your courage like a fur coat around you and plunge into the winter of being risky and vulnerable and not say sorry as a way to escape the fight but only say it after you’ve fought longer and harder than you want to know the truth, to live the truth.

Most days it will be only one single solitary inch of work. Most days it will seem like nothing, like you’re still doing what you’ve always done, falling back into saying “sorry” as a way to make it all better or make it all go away (or make it all belong to you). Most days being in a fight will still terrify the living crap out of you and you will think, I am going to die. But you are not. You are going to live.

You are going to live more gloriously, too. With every solitary inch of work. With every moment of saying, “Am I sorry? Is this mine?” you move. You move that inch and that inch is full of glory.

I’ve long given up the ghost on becoming “perfect” at not being a perfectionist. I am one, and it moves and lives, and the solitary inch has to be full of glory because most of the time that is just what we can do. It is glory-full, even when it isn’t done exactly right or you still apologize too much or you’re still kind of controlling.

Every solitary inch of work we do is glory-full.

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

the gift is given

It’s a slow morning, the kind that you take a long time to wake up fully, not sure if your dream has shifted into sunlight or if you’re still in the midst of it. There is a quiet to this kind of morning and an unrest, too, and the heart is full, always, achingly, full.

I’ve been trying to sit with the Bible more lately. I’m a lover of the liturgy, prayer book guidance to the Word. I’m more likely to trust what someone else appoints for me to read than I am to trust my gut telling me where I need to go. So when I sit, alone for a few moments, on the familiar porch, and God says, read about washing the disciples’ feet, I’m almost too quick to resist it.

Isn’t that always the giveaway? We find a reason not to, a reason it’s out of order or our sermon series has us meditating on something else, we must consult a calendar and a guide to be in the Word the right way?

So I slink towards John, chapter 13.

And Jesus got up from the table.

He got up from the table and took off his outer robe and took a basin and knelt and washed their feet. These, whom he loved until the end, these, whom he cherished. These, who knew so little about what they had seen. These scattered sheep. He washed their feet.

“You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

I am only the first few steps along the cracked cement of understanding, and I’m holding my arms out to balance myself as I read out loud these words.

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 

Is there anything more beautiful?

Is there anything more precious than this? That we were taught by his way of living. That we were known in the washing of our feet, and this morning I need Jesus to wash my feet again.

I need Jesus to show me how he will come into the midst of everything that is still a mess inside me and he will hold it tenderly, he will change it, he will do this wild act of grace on my heart and set me free. I need Jesus to make the lesson alive in the doing of it, not just the thinking or the idea-making or the understanding-seeking that so often and so quickly becomes misunderstanding. It wasn’t about the prayer book appointed reading today, it was about Jesus coming to me and taking off his robe and washing my feet.

And I do not understand one thing about this love but that it is gift and it has been given to me.

These mornings I go to the Word because the Word is life because the Word is a lifeline in the days where the joy meets the ache and it collides in my heart. These mornings I sit and shrink away but I keep going back because I am sold out to this Jesus, who washes the disciples’ feet, who tells us again and again to love as he loved us, we whom he calls friends, not servants. I go back, again and again, to King Jesus because King Jesus is life, because he is freedom, because he is the fullness of beauty, because he knows me.

And I do not understand one thing about Jesus’ love but that it is gift, it is washing my feet, it is meeting me on my familiar porch, with such tenderness, with such freedom. It is gift, and it has been given.

Love,
hilary