for when the poem makes promises

I’m a haphazard writer, at best. These days I turn to the keyboard and I find that I have little to say, that everything coming to the surface is about the waiting, this endless waiting, or about the hurry-up-and-slow-down dance we’ve been doing. I keep thinking that I have nothing new, that there is nothing new under the sun, to gift or to give, and I want to sigh like Anne of Green Gables, exhale all the sorrows of the ages into the world, breathe in the goodness, breathe out the worry, begin again.

My wordpress dashboard tells me that this day two years ago we began here, a wild love for people and God and words and the way those things are in each other and through each other. Two years. The two years of agony and wonder that only a life lived full can bring at the same time.

And there, the silver thread running through, the minnow in the shining water, is poetry.

It is the beginning of every metaphor I have given in the past two years, the end of every sentence. It is the heart behind the heart I present, the asked unasked question that shivers in the dark. It is the stolen moments at work when I type to remember how to write at all, to stitch limbs with words like so much dissolvable surgical thread, hoping the body, the poetry, will heal itself. It is itself, too, spurning my company in an instant for the sticky sweetness of the afterword, the last punctuation, the ghost in the air.

I started this blog with the idea that love is wild, and maybe that is the prayer which is the poem which is not either thing, but I want it to be so I can be writing about poetry, so that I can be a poet, a prayer. Love is wild. Is it?

The poems command me to say yes, that it is an untamed thing, living like fire, the other breath in our lungs. Love is basic, built from what builds our bodies and yet, like our bodies, beyond its elements. Love is hormones firing in the brain and then pushing out into the kiss, the skin cells meeting, the silent late night sorting of the recycling. Love is basic, built up from the periodic tables we live in, then reaching so far away from us it takes a poem to pull it back in, takes words, takes the Spirit’s speaking. And a listening ear.

Poetry is that listening ear against the galaxy, against the spinning chaos, against the noise that becomes the music that still is chaos.

Poetry is my surgical thread, the minnow I imagine at the bottom of the pond that most days looks too ordinary to notice, poetry what turns my gaze back towards the world in horror and awe.

Poetry pulls the wild love out of me, of you, makes more of us wherever it is, sitting in dusty chapbooks abandoned by the world.

Day by day, stitching us whole.


when I crawl back into the word

“What do I possibly have to say about that.” – my response to a thoughtful prompt by my ever-thoughtful fiance when I complained I had nothing to write about.

He is too patient with me to say anything to my complaining, to the whine he must hear in my voice through the typed messages. He reminds me that I could write nothing. But how do I explain that I want to be writing, that my heart is restless and I must do something, put something on paper to feel again the way that I feel most alive, that after being quiet here I want to be loud, even if just for a moment? That I want to have something to say.

Maybe that’s what we all want, scattered in our various lives. We want to have something to say – to the post office lady or the checker in the long grocery store line, to the question over coffee and the quizzical look in passing the peace in church. If I say nothing, how do I know I still have a voice? If I say nothing, am I still here?

So I open this blank screen and I start to type and it sounds furious because a part of me is furious, furious that words are what the are, furious that you cannot control them and sometimes you have nothing to say and furious even more because the voice that I haven’t been listening to is telling me, “You haven’t been listening.”

I already know it. I haven’t  been. I haven’t found God in prayer and I haven’t sought God in church and I haven’t gone into God’s word like the woman I am, the one who was at the well, her thirst wrapping around her like a veil.

Because wasn’t it the Word that was water to her soul? And didn’t he say to us, meditate on this day and night?

So when she prays in her email that the word would be bound to my forehead and around my wrists,

when he is patient with my raging about how little I have to say,

when the only thing I hear in church is that I have not been in Word, and Hilary? That’s why you feel apart from me,

then, I crawl back into it.

I open Isaiah and read, slow, deliberate, and the words are loud with God’s wild anger and desolation over the beloved chosen people, who have all gone astray, and how there is nothing anymore that gives honor and glory, and Isaiah asks, at the very end, “How long, O Lord?”

I crawl closer.

I want to hear God’s answer.


dear hilary: stay at the table

This is a new kind of dear hilary question – but one that I care a lot about, and I’m excited to share.

Dear Hilary,

As Christians, what, if anything, do we stand to gain from political disputes?  Should we just throw up our hands and agree to disagree, even on emotionally charged issues that matter deeply to us?  Or should we dive in headfirst and fight the good fight, even when it starts to poison our relationships and hurt our ability to love those with whom we disagree?

Or is there a third option?

Sincerely, Swing State of Mind

Dear Swing State,

When I lived in the bright chaos of DC, I remember wondering how people “did it” without losing their minds. The mantra of “it’s who you know, it’s the connections you have,” or the walk along K Street with the power houses and the promise-makers-and-breakers was a lot to take in. And it seemed like the longer I spent time there, the more I realized the immense complexity of political life. The process of getting a bill to the floor alone is long enough and complicated enough to want to throw up your hands. And sometimes, when you hear one more report on the 7 o’clock news or one more newspaper headline about gridlock and insider Washington and the stalemate of government and this or that filibuster fight – you think this can’t be what it is meant to be. 

And I don’t think it is. I don’t think we are intended to sit at tables and yell at each other over nicely arranged water pitchers and smoothly swiveling chairs. I don’t think political conversation is meant to be so defensive and so positional that everything we hear the so-called “other side” saying we treat as an attack we must vigilantly rebuff.

But here is the thing. A conversation only dissolves when people leave it. It might be a loud cacophony right now, it might sound like chaos, it might make us want to give up – but it still has life in it. If we withdraw, if we become so dissatisfied that we simply cease to participate, we might send a signal of our dissatisfaction, but we won’t have a better conversation. We won’t get to be agents of that change.

I don’t want Christians to be in politics simply because we represent an important philosophical perspective on matters of political and community significance. That’s true. We care a lot about highly charged issues and our reflections can add a lot to policy-making. I want us to be there because we are fundamentally people of peace and justice. I want us to be there because, if we claim Christ, then we claim a kind of approach to politics, to conversations, to decisions about our common life, with the fiercest kind of commitment to listening. Peacemaking has to begin with listening. Justice has to begin with listening. If we leave the table, how will we hear?

That means if we sit at the table, if we model for others and for each other (because we need that, too) we can make the conversation itself, the very way we go about deciding these things and weighing different opinions, one that is peaceful rather than punishing. We can ask questions and sincerely listen. And yes, maybe the philosophical opinion on one policy issue won’t become law the way that some of us in this wild knit-together family wanted. Maybe it will be less than our original vision.

But we can be a people who don’t retreat into a silo of the like-minded. We can be a people who disagree within themselves, but who know that to do this common life, we have to listen. You say that sometimes our opinions hurt our relationships and makes it difficult to love those with whom we disagree? But whether it’s in politics or families or workplaces or third-grade classrooms this was the charge we were given by Christ. We were told to love. So we have to get down in the dirt with each other and practice it. Couldn’t it be, in fact, that participating in this political life is a part of how we learn to love?

Can we imagine together that this politics thing doesn’t have to be fighting the good fight and hurting those we love? We do that no matter what, so we’ll bring it to politics. But can we imagine that politics could be the kind of chasing after justice with our whole participation at the table, disagreeing with care and attention, being the first to stay at the table when it gets difficult, being a people who listen?

If we leave the table, how will we hear?



a poem is still

There was no reason for me to fall in love with poetry that first semester in high school. We sat around a fireplace, notebooks ready, pens hopeful. But we didn’t write anything right away.  Charles told us that to write poetry you must read good poetry. He told us to read poems twice, once for sound, once for meaning, that the better question is always, how does this poem mean? and not the elusive “what” or “why” that the poet so often slides by you, unconscious as water, so that it isn’t until you read the poem years later that you realize it must have meant something about faith, or something about how humans hide from each other, and in hiding, are revealed. Charles told us we would read much more than we would write that semester, that to be a poet you must be a listener to the beauty and weight of words.

Oh, I want to be a poet.

Preston sends me prompts in the morning, ideas and quotes and snippets of things he must have overheard or imagined while he drinks a dry cappuccino before work. He doesn’t give me more than a sentence, a moment, a question, but he tells me quiet in the afternoon where we sit side by side in the ordinary, he says, you are a poet, Hilary Joan. 

But being a poet is stillness incarnate, wild enough to sing freedom to a shuttered heart, soft enough to whisper over you in the desperation of another morning of unknown. Being a poet is love. Being a poet is listening.

I’ve been trying to write this post for so long, to confess the dream, that I want to be a poet -

and maybe I need the stillness first.

Maybe being quiet here, on this blog, is about learning to listen again for the good words of others. Maybe it is not just the poems that must be still -

maybe it must be me.

So I will write – words on the page like this – and pray.

Childhood Friend,

It was a happenstance morning
looking out my window
while coffee dripped behind me.
My husband slept to the quick
rhythm of water. You ran
past – a ghost? A memory.

I am no longer young enough
to drink from the well in your backyard,
to prance in white dresses, splash pink flowered
selves along a sloping hill behind your house,

but remember with me once
how we whispered to each other
clutching teacups in the forbidden living room,
grownup ladies dressed as children,
children dressed as they someday dreamed.

You wore lace before
we knew its name.
Our friendship grew barefoot and wild,
your mother planted roses the year
we forgot.

Seeing you again, out my window
as it rained, your figure cutting through
the road, the morning,
no longer young.

I’ll be listening. I’ll be still.



be, still.

Tonight I walked back to the chapel, after the black caps and gowns had paraded past, had gone out to dinner, had found their way to celebrations and shouting and the I-can’t-believe-it’s-here that was my own just a year ago. I walked, and walked, feeling the blisters where my shoes don’t quite fit my feet, feeling the dip and pull of my shoulders after carrying the day, feeling the weight of my body pulled towards the earth.

Maybe my knees knew where they wanted to go before my heart did.

I sat alone in the chapel, in a back pew. I stared at the empty chairs, the empty, echoing room. There were only a few chandeliers lazy and lit, swaying almost as an afterthought of wind. We breathed, the room and I. We waited each other out. I waited, what felt like an age in the sweetly dimming sunlight, for God or maybe just for some sense of something out there, some echo of yes, we see you, from the pews and benches, from the hymnals flung in piles or the ferns beckoning me with their long green fingers.

Oh, God, love is hard.

It is hard to want a thing so delicate, so very unsayable, that our words gesture at it almost helplessly. It is hard to walk in a thing that I barely know. It is hard to widen my heart past the length of the day and the ache in my feet and the steady drumbeat in my left temple. I slid off my shoes – a reflex – and I folded in on myself.

God, love is hard.

I sat and sat and sat and sat. And nothing changed. No whisper in the breeze through the single open window. No flame of hope or joy streaming over me. No promises or reminders resounding in the empty room. I could hear the fans whir themselves to sleep. I could hear a clock keep its time. I could almost hear the slight shake in my hands against the edge of the pew in front of me. But the house of worship was quiet.

I’m the girl who always wants the voice from heaven reassurance. I’m the girl who expects Him to say it loud and say it obvious, a gold star on my forehead at the end of each day, an answer when I worry. And the stillness echoed so loud I was afraid I might drown in it. Be still and know… I’ve never know how to do that. Be still.

My mother knows how to make silence with the littlest ones on Sunday mornings. With them, she weaves stillness through their hands and toes and flailing elbows and anxious knees. The youngest learn to listen to the silence, the hollow widened space where God walks. Again, they must teach me. Again, I know so little, sitting alone in the chapel in the middle of the sunset chasing away the afternoon. I know so little about a world hollowed and lit by silence. I know so little about how God sounds; I wonder how much I have lost in not listening.

But it was still in the chapel tonight.

Maybe that was Him.


dear hilary: why we pray

Dear Hilary,

If God is other, if God is something inconceivable and beyond, why would we pray? Why should we pray? How do we even know if he hears or cares, if there is anything real about the Person you say you get on your knees in front of? I don’t want to pray anymore. And why should I?

The Challenger

Dear The Challenger,

I’m torn between telling you that I believe in intercession, in prayer, in the agonizing work of getting on our knees because of something about St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, and this one man who lives in rural Mississippi who I met last year on a trip down to see my mentor – and telling you that I’m not sure I always do believe it, but I pray anyway. Both are honest, in different hours of the same day, in different seasons of the same year. And the reasons behind our prayers are mysterious, I think, and somehow beyond words, but I’ll try.

I pray because of things like, well, the fact that God’s otherness has been brought so near to us in the image of God we bear, in how the Incarnation has flung all our ideas of “cosmic distance” out the window. I haven’t ever known what to say to the red shift and the rate of expansion of galaxies, other than to ask whether the Incarnation shouldn’t shatter any idea that we have about what love is, and what it contains?

And when I get on my knees in my office and bend my head and close my eyes against the too-bright office light, I’m not sure I know how to believe Him against the black holes, the waves and vibrations of shadows and shuddering dimensions, the unknowns. And call me a fool, but I remember a love so particular He knows my name, cares where I work, who I befriend… a love so particular, He came to earth to save me.


God is inconceivable; but it’s His movement that mystifies me more than His being. The fact of them: the fact of this Redeeming, the fact of this messy, sweaty, bloodied birth and life and death; the fact of his loving, not just in the hypothetical, but in the lived. I can say, “I pray because God has commanded me to,” and there is something in that all on its own.

I pray because God Himself cut the covenant. God saved Israel. God wandered with His people, through the years of disobedience and the agony of distance and all in the movement towards this pivotal mystery: the Word made Flesh.

And whether we want to, or not, doesn’t really seem the question you’re asking. I think if you waited a little longer, you might ask that question differently. I think you’d be asking whether you can trust the work of prayer. Whether it means something.

And that answer is a terrifying yes.

You can trust the work of prayer, of speaking words too big for your head and your heart, of interceding for a person you love.

I can’t pretend to really know why. My logical and theological arguments begin to fade at the moment when I face the real question – can we trust this – and I don’t know how to tell you yes. But yes.

God is inconceivable, beyond comprehension, the creator of the dimensions we know nothing about. And He is wondrously close to us. And His love is particular for you and me. And a love that particular is listening.


when it is all quiet

I never really know what to do about writing. There were weeks this year when it felt like the light shone and the world just opened itself up to being written down. There were weeks when I thought, there aren’t enough minutes in the day for all the things I want to say, for the draft blog posts and the poems and the maybe someday play.

And then I hit the hard.

I hit the twenty-something ache, the weeks of working with tired eyes and outdated eyeshadow. The weeks of missed Skype dates with friends far away and picking at limp salads at lunch and worrying again about the same laundry lists of things, repeating conversations I’ve already had with myself too many times to count. I wore the clothes I love without loving my body in them. I put on the CD in the car called, “You are a Girl on Fire” but I was never listening. I heard people talk and laugh, and I talked and laughed, but I wasn’t really listening. I didn’t lean in towards their story, close my eyes over the wine and imagine all that they were saying behind what they were saying. I didn’t listen.

When you don’t listen, you can’t write.

You cannot tell us how the car sounds scrambling over the rocky leftover snow on a Tuesday morning when you are late. You cannot tell us how it feels to shrug on yet another cardigan because you’re yet again worried that you don’t know how to dress yourself and you’re close to being almost 23, for gosh sakes, and you still fight these old battles with your body and heart and mind.

You cannot tell the story of discovering there are at least five poems that you want to work on, how you realize it in a rush while checking your email in a crowded room at the National Press Club that one of the things that you want most is to work on those five poems.

You cannot put a pen to the page when you aren’t listening. Because writing is more about listening than it is about writing.

That’s why playwrights eavesdrop; so that they can capture the sound of characters in rush hour on the green line, or the silence that lingers when a couple stops arguing to order matching lattes in the hipster coffeeshop. That’s why poets talk about how birds holler through sycamores, or how love is shaped in clinking spoons nestled in their drawer next to the steak knives. That’s why all of us who blog, who scribble on napkins, who try to breathe life into syllables and consonants have our ears to the ground and the sky.

So it has been quiet, because in my haste and frustration, I stopped listening.


And in my haste, frustration, not-hearing, I realized how much I love to write. How not writing is an ache that fills me, seeps in the crevices of my Saturday nights and my Thursday afternoons.

And the ache is about love. And the ache is about calling.

And the ache says, light another candle along the road.

And the ache says, listen.


dear hilary: make something beautiful

Dear Hilary,

I don’t know what to do. I love people with this fierce love. I love their stories, coffee with them, wine with them, crying and laughing with them. I love how terrible they are, and how miraculous. But you can’t make a career of that, can you? I don’t think it’s counseling, exactly. I don’t think it’s social work or psychology. I don’t fit in the traditional higher education boxes. I’m not quite philosophical enough or theological enough to do that kind of work. When you ask me what I’m working on for 10,000 hours, ask me what I want to be an “expert” in – I tell you it’s listening. It’s watching. It’s carving out spaces and times for others. I want to spend 100,000 hours listening. But who does that for a career? No one.

Out of the Box

Dear Out of the Box,

The other day I did something thoughtless. I pushed my way into a conversation where I very, very clearly did not belong. I did it because of a bunch of things that are only half relevant to the situation: jealousy and desire and insecurity and the laundry list we always list for each other and ourselves. And, so very graciously, I was reminded of that.

But something miraculous happened when I did that. Something that I have to tell you, Out of the Box, makes me believe that you are in the right place, wherever you are, doing the right thing, whatever it is. The miraculous thing is that I learned something from it.

Out of that awkward situation, and the careful grace of the people who reminded and called me to account, I learned something about boundaries. I learned about what my jealousy/desire/insecurity can yield. I saw lived out in front of me the reality of our careless movement in the world being chaos and hurt to others.

It shook me up. It worried me. It gave me the knot in my stomach, the one I get when I fear that I am, after all, just a disappointment. But I learned. And this is the kind of miraculous, mysterious, beautiful alchemy that happens when we take what happens to and around us, and we build with it. We expand on the inside. We build bridges. We are opened wider and, as a consequence, we are filled with more. And, as a consequence of that, we pour out more.

So. You say this is what you want to do? You say this is your 10,000 or 100,000 or 10 million hours. This listening. This alchemy. This making beautiful the things that happen to people. I say, Love, what are you afraid of? 

You are in the right place. Because that is a big freaking dream. Because it isn’t a dream that you achieve by graduate schools or meetings or promotions or raises. It isn’t a dream that has a ladder.

You will only begin to realize that dream if you live out everything in front of you so forcefully, so laughingly, so achingly wrong and right and wrong again, that you learn from it. You will live inside this dream only if you expand on the inside. You will live inside this dream only if you make beautiful things of your stories.

Spend 10,000 hours listening, yes. But spend it listening to yourself, alongside all those others. Spend it striking out in an attempt to write down these beautiful things and failing miserably. Spend it watching the world and telling us what you see. You have to practice this work inside yourself if you want to pour out for others. You must take that stupid thing you did and accept it inside yourself and listen to it. You must take that situation you refuse to acknowledge is happening and accept it into yourself and love it, and listen to it.

To make a life of this (because it’s a life you want, not a career), you must be willing to do it for yourself. To offer a candle to others, to share your vision of all that could be, of all that might be, you have to have that kind of vision for yourself. Stop worrying about the ladders and labels, the unknowing, the strikeouts of what you are and are not and what jobs and what cities and what barely-paying-the-rent stories you live. And go make something beautiful of it. 

When, and only when, you are willing to believe that this very story you are living in is right, because it is yours, because it is bigger than you: then you will live inside that dream. Oh, and how we will be blessed.


dear hilary: hormones and love

Dear Hilary,

First of all, what is the deal with our hormones? I feel like a hostage sometimes in this crazy pattern of attraction and sex drive and then I have other moments where I wonder what on earth is going on. And then I think, what’s the right way to do this, anyway? Is there one? A right way to be young and have hormones and be attracted and want others to be attracted back to me, all without going overboard?

Hormones + Love?

Dear Hormones + Love?,

First of all, the deal is that it is actually quite normal to have hormones. We’re supposed to have them. They do a bunch of things for us besides signal somewhere deep in our gut that the man or woman across the aisle in the airplane is oh-so-fine. They help our growth, our metabolism (giving us energy), reproduction, the sexual function, our mood… they are powerful chemical messengers, traveling through our bodies (released, I just learned, by major endocrine glands like the thyroid and the pituitary). All of this, aside from making me very, very interested in biology, tells me that your hormones are not alien invaders. They aren’t holding you hostage. They’re actually a part of you.

Maybe it’s our culture or our background or our religious beliefs or just our general fear of the body (powerful yet feeble thing that it is), but we must get past the idea that our bodies desiring other bodies is a strange plot twist. They’re designed that way, love. We experience powerful attraction to that oh-so-fine man/woman in seat 12E because we are sexual beings. We experience it instinctively. I think it might be that simple.

Like all feelings, realizing that you are wondering about sex and your sex drive and if you should or can or will or might someday want to have it is kind of terrifying. Some of this is fun – I look really hot in this dress! - and some of it is fearful – What if they don’t think so, or do I really want that to be what they are thinking about when we have a conversation about politics? - and all of it is new.

You don’t have to have answers. You don’t even have to write a letter to me asking for them. I think my advice in your situation, at the beginning of grappling with these questions is to begin to pay attention. Listen to yourself. What do you respond to? What worries you? Where do you feel a disconnect? Pay attention to your answers. Pay attention to how you understand your body, your sexuality, your heart and your mind. You are you, made up of all these things and more, and you stand closest to it all.

You ask me for a right way to do this, a right way to enjoy being young and yet not go overboard. I don’t know that there is any way to begin to know “the right way” except by listening. Really listen, though. Your letter tells me that you want more than just a quick answer. You don’t want to be told that it’s okay to make out, but not get undressed, or that you can kiss someone who you aren’t dating, but not more. You don’t want the highlighted rules, do you?

You want a framework. You want a way to make these decisions so that they echo you: authentic, beautiful, young, nervous you. Lists of rules aren’t helpful, in the end, because they don’t bring a bigger picture with them. They don’t help you see the purpose behind the decisions you make.

Give yourself some space to listen. Be brave and go first and ask your close friends about how they might answer the question – and listen to them. Begin to ask yourself, “What do these feelings mean? How do I want to express attraction? What do I want to do with my feelings? How do I want to live fully and well?”

That’s the best place I know to begin in almost everything in life. Including us and all those wonderful crazy hormones.