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

myself, eighteen

I’m trapped in a heard of other freshmen in Boston all wearing matching tan tee-shirts with an orientation logo emblazoned on it, promising me that if anyone wanted to think I was a cool, sophisticated college student, they will see my t-shirt and sneakers and know better.

I hold my phone in the palm of my hand inside my pocket, sweating against the keys. I wait, and wait. I spend the first three weeks waiting.

It would have been better if I didn’t have the evidence that I had spent the last ten days in the middle of the woods in upstate New York telling a group of people I had never met before that this boy, he and I were a thing. A thing I couldn’t define, a thing I couldn’t quite pin down, one Starbucks lemonade and one impulsive kiss against a car door the afternoon before I left, but a thing. I was sure of it.

He doesn’t write back. I keep myself away from the ten digits I’m sure I’ve memorized in tracing them over and over in my pocket, because I don’t want to text him but I want to text him, and I promise I have to let one more hour go by where I’m silent, and the hour becomes two, becomes a week… and maybe I don’t know the ten digits as well anymore, was it 7-8 or 8-7 and was there a 9? But I imagine what I’d say, in my first-year indignant heart, it is rageful and spiteful and angry. And I start to spin the story.

I tell my roommate in hushed whispers at 4am while we’re eating cookie dough straight from the tube how much experience I have with boys. I laugh to the girls on my floor as one of them puts a 5 day Garnier hair dye in my hair about the fact that if you kiss someone in the middle of the night on a beach you’re going to find you are covered in sand, completely, the next morning. I proclaim that my love language is physical touch. And I wink.

God catches up to me on a walk around the quad right before first semester finals. I don’t notice Him at first, walking head bent to the concrete against the early-December drizzle. But I’m worn thin in trying to write that scene between Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Birmingham Jail and his wife. I’m thinking about stage directions when I realize God is there, too.

Do you want to talk about what happened?

I have said no a thousand times, I remind Him. I’ve told the story already. It’s better the way I tell it. It’s safer the way I tell it. I keep walking, repeating things about the Kings and the scene in the jail. I read over the words in my head.

Do you want to talk about what happened?

I still say no, but perhaps there is a crack, a pause, just small enough for a bit of the Spirit to slip inside my well-walled heart. I sit on a bench, damp from the rain that just stopped. I put my books next to me, not realizing until I hear the slap of paper on water that I put them in a puddle. I cringe, and put them on the wet concrete at my feet.

You cared for someone.

A pause.

He didn’t stay.

Another pause.

And this means something to your heart.

I start to cry. I’m eighteen and in college and I had a thing that wasn’t a thing and I told that group of people in the middle of the woods in New York that I had a thing that turned out not to be a thing, and now I’ve told everyone that I was pleased with myself, with all that I did and said and I made it this story, and that was going to make it feel better, was going to make it safe again, I was going to be safe inside the laughter and the knowing wink and the hair dying on the first floor bathroom.

It can’t be the kind of beautiful I want it to be, Hil, until you let it mean something in your heart. It can’t be restored to you if you keep it.

I stop crying.

Let Me have this story.

I don’t want to give it back, and my version is safer, steered clear of it meaning something. Of it hurting. Of it aching, and healing.

Let Me have it.

The rest of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, and counting, I watched Him make more of this story – more healing, more peace, more delight, more laughter – maybe even something like wisdom.

It began that first night. It began with the thing that wasn’t a thing, that became an entirely different and more beautiful thing. I gave Him back the story.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: pull up a chair

Dear Hilary,

I’m not a loud person. I don’t write op-eds or shout my thoughts during class. I don’t feel like I fit – I’m afraid to say something because, I might be wrong. But I admire people who give their opinion. Who have thoughts and opinions on things like infant baptism and an ideology that lines up with Hegel or Gadamer or St. Thomas Aquinas. But I don’t have something neat and I’m not confident my opinions are right. Where is there a table for me?

Sincerely,
Too Quiet

Dear Quiet,

When I lived on Capitol Hill I went to a Baptist church on Sunday mornings. It was a ten minute walk, easy to get to, and every Sunday they served free lunch to the starving intern and college student populations that flock to the city in search of a place at a table. They would pile lasagnas or pieces of chicken or ham sandwiches, and once I think I saw pizzas, their white boxes stacked unevenly in the serving window. At those lunches there was a table of excited students – some from my program, some from schools in the city, a few post-college interns – always talking and laughing, gesticulating wildly with whatever was on their fork. I would creep down the hall towards the room after standing too long by myself in the “book sale” section of the church next to books about the loneliness of single life and searching in vain for the remarkably good looking man who had once talked to me as we both walked out of the metro at Union Station.

But I never sat at the table. I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than a piece of celery once, standing in the back, and I think my roommate once insisted that we at least eat some bread and spaghetti. I still hovered anywhere but that table of smiling, confident people talking loudly about their view of resurrection and grace and the “political game.” I assumed that their table was for the people who knew where they stood and who they were. Who had it sorted out. Who had opinions. Who didn’t stand too long next to books on singleness waiting for the mystery man from the metro.

I wish I had asked your question out loud, by sitting down next to one of them.

The thing about tables is that they’re these places of invitation and acceptance, a give and take between each person there, across the plastic blue tablecloth or the fine linen, three chairs apart or bumping elbows. The table in the Baptist church might not have seen or recognized me – but I don’t think I made myself all that visible. It felt at the time that I wasn’t qualified, wasn’t a part of the crowd, but I think the harder, quieter truth is that I wasn’t really listening for their invitation. And I didn’t trust that there was something I was going to offer simply by my presence, elbow against elbow, passing the extra napkins or the brownies or the salt.

Where is there a table for you? You are needed and welcomed in surprising places.

You can’t be everywhere, sweet pea, and perhaps you cannot have dinner at every table you encounter. But you can, when you come across people who make you think, who you admire, who cherish good words and ideas – you can pull up a chair.

It will not always work. I’m scared to give you this advice because there are moments when the grace runs dry and the harshness runs wild, and you aren’t invited to draw nearer. I’m sorry in advance for those moments.

But I am on the side of trusting that you bringing yourself, even without your loud and confident opinions is something wondrous. I am on the side of thinking it is worth it to pull up the chair, to believe you have something to bring with you, because you are.

I am on the side of believing that tables are the beginnings of the truly beautiful between people.

There is a table, many, in fact, for you in this world. Somewhere, there is a beautiful waiting to begin.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: the leap

Dear Hilary,

I have loved the same boy for most of my life. We’ve been dating now for two months, and he’s crazy about me and I can tell, but he’s reluctant to get more serious in case there’s somebody else who is “The One” for me down the road. I don’t think there will be, but I don’t know how to tell him so he’ll believe me. I think this might be a forever kind of love. But when do we know for sure? When does it just become time to take the leap?

Love,
Cliff-Dweller

Dear Cliff-Dweller,

When I was 17, the movie Enchanted came to the big screen. A sweet movie, one that cleverly and wonderfully plays with other Disney stories, a redheaded heroine, the city of New York… I loved it.

At the very end of the movie Carrie Underwood sings this song, “Ever After.” I used to imagine (I’ll admit it, because this is a place to be real) that I was Carrie Underwood singing that song. I used to imagine that “The One” would sweep into my life and play opposite me in a slightly-more-but-not-that-much-more-realistic version of Enchanted. 

Haven’t we all done that, somehow? We wait for the sign. We wait for the marvelous, the extravagant, the moment when there is nothing for it but to burst into song in the middle of a crowded street and hand out roses. We all want a One, and we all want to know for sure. We think that finding “the one” will give us the permission to be extravagant with our love. To proclaim and sing it, Carrie-style.

But I wonder if we, in our waiting for the big sign, we end up more afraid than we should be. What if that wasn’t the sign? we ask ourselves driving along country roads. Or what if there is someone else, in a different state/country/zip code, in a different college, with a different life story… we write in our journals. I wonder if he or she is really everything I think I want. I wonder if I should be as committed to this as I want to be… I wonder, I wonder. 

We could wonder ourselves to death waiting for someone to come in with a pot and a wooden spoon, clanging away, “The one is approximately 2.4 miles and 3 months away!”

If you want to know anything, you have to leap.

You’ve entrusted a big thing to me – this question about love – and I don’t take it lightly. I don’t think we are meant to be thoughtless or hasty before we leap. I don’t want to tell you or your boyfriend to do that. Ask each other hard questions. Ponder together what this thing is between you, and what you think it might or could become. Fight, and laugh, and even spend some time worry and pleading and joking and explaining and listening… and a million verbs.

All the million verbs point to the bigger point, though: live it. 

That’s what the leap is about. You won’t know before you go whether this is “the one.” You won’t know what kind of gift you are to each other. You won’t know if it is a forever kind of love. I can’t promise you that.

But I can promise you that when it comes to love, the only learning is in living. I can promise you that if you leap, whether you are a forever love or a season of love, whatever the nature and shape of your story, it will be lived. We can wonder alone in a dark room with the “Enchanted” soundtrack playing, asking for the sign that will make us sure that we are right about who this person is and what they are meant to be. And I think there is a special kind of love I have for those days, in all of our stories.

But I wish the fullness of leaping for the two of you. I wish the hearts that you’ll help expand in each other. I wish the bigger story, the one of unknowns and discoveries and all those million lived verbs.

There is a glorious kind of life in the leap together – wherever you land.

Love,
hilary

you must be taught by your story

Everything can be a part of your becoming, if only you would allow it… I tell myself this as I sit at the computer, my face whitened by the empty page.

I type and delete, type and delete.

You don’t have to abandon those stories at the side of the road, the stories of running in between patches of late winter ice, the nights in crowds with loud music and unnecessary Guinness, and the waitress who had cowboy boots like yours, and the questions that leave a person making promises to the stars that aren’t really listening.

I type, and delete.

You can write your way into meaningfulness, tell your wonder and fear in characters who find themselves inside the clean glass of the hip bar on Dartmouth Street, discovering the hole in their jeans at the crease of their left knee, drinking something with gin and a sprig of rosemary in it. You can write the character as someone who wishes they knew why rosemary did anything to gin, but they don’t, and when they look out the window and realize they put their sweater on inside out, it is a realization of how far they have yet to go.

I type, and delete.

You can’t always write the stories that are at the forefront of your mind. You can’t always sit on the dusty floorboards with your pen and make something beautiful out of what is happening around you. It doesn’t make the stories untrue. It doesn’t make you less of a writer. It doesn’t mean you won’t someday celebrate the book’s birthday.

I type, and delete.

And the winds, and the spaces, and what was that phrase?
O, Zarathustra, you are not yet ripe for your fruit. The story is inside you, but you are not ready to write it.
The story belongs to you, but it is bigger than you. It hasn’t asked to be written.
The story is still in the winds,
in the spaces,
in between changing the sheets on your bed as the cold air leaks into the room
in between poetry, and the silence that comes after.

The story, the one that is not this one, is still too vast to be held in a small vase of words. It is the field, and you are the seedling.

I type, and then – I hear -

Sometimes you have to be taught by your story before you can write it. 

I am a student again.

Love,
hilary

though you are small (Advent 4 and Christmas)

It’s snowing here this morning. The flakes swirl just outside my window. It’s a lull before the cooking begins in earnest. It’s a quiet kind of snow. The kind that makes you quiet inside, listening to the Radiolab podcast while you bake peanut butter cookies for your family, while you give thanks. While you remember that Jesus is born today. The celebration is for something that un-theologically-complicated. For something that big contained within something so small.

On Sunday we talked about the prophecy in Micah – “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are of old, from ancient.” (Micah 5.2)

Though Bethlehem was small, though Mary was young, though the story was on its face all difficulty and pain and uncertain outcomes?

Out of that small story comes one who will be ruler over Israel.

As I looked at the small faces in the children’s service last night, wandering up the center aisle carrying sheep and shepherds, carrying an angel, carrying a star to the manger, I heard it again:

but to know me, Hilary, you must become like one of these little children. 

For it is in smallness that God sends might. In the lonely midst of winter that He sends life. And the children, in twirling reds and silvers, in matching shoes and headbands, in stiff collared shirts they want to trade for fuzzy pajamas – they lead the way to the manger. It is these children, squirming through the one hour service, who know Him in the unashamed deep ways we are so often afraid to know Him. They come to the stable unburdened by our shining theology, our complicated words and objections. They come, small ones to see another small one, in the small town in Israel.

Oh, dear friends, have we become too big for this story, with our nuance, with our questioning, with our yes, but…? Have we forgotten that this story does not bring logic, but love?

Because my small friends know. They know when they can’t sit still while we light, finally, the white candle. They know when they carry breakable Mary and Jesus to the manger with their brother and sister. They know when they gather around to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” loud and off-key in their parents’ ears. They lead the way this Christmas, to the small town and the small baby, to the Love come down bright and everlasting.

Don’t be too big for the story this Christmas. For though Bethlehem was small among the clans of Judah, from that smallness comes the great miracle.

Love, not logic, this Christmas. And the children lead me. 

Love, always, to bear you up and bring you nearer to the great story,
hilary

to the poets

Dear poets,

The house wasn’t big enough to hold me. It was late, later than I should have been up, and it was quiet. It wasn’t the leaving, I start to write. But I don’t want to write about it, don’t want words on paper about it. They feel small, cages for heart to fit into, one after another. The words tell me to feel better, become whole again, rebuild, make peace. The words and their empty, echoing spaces.

I was the reader leaning late and reading there, Wallace Stevens. I was the stillness, and the noise. I had all these questions. Why don’t we get what we want? Where do we end, and other person begins? And how can this be, that we are so strong and break so easily, the weight of just one question enough to undo us?

I remembered a line from a Kate Light poem – “and it flickered, and was frail, and smelled wonderful.” I found the book, smoothed out the crumpled blankets, set her pages up between the folds, and drank in her words.

I remembered Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

To sing is to be. Easy for a god.
But when do we simply be? When do we

become one with earth and stars?
It is not achieved, young friend, by being in love,
however vibrant that makes your voice.
I heard a line from Stephen Dobyns and another from Lisel Mueller and another from Pablo Neruda about the saddest song and the forgetting, and another, and another, until I could not breathe for all the words. I could not breathe for all the echoes.

The poets teach us how to live.

You plant words in us. You sing out a blazing, single flame of song, something about the ordinary mundane moment of watching a woman run for the train, something about winter, something about disappointment or the death of a butterfly on your windowsill. You write about Italy or fear or walking alone into the underworld (as Persephone who is Eurydice who is Psyche, who are all different and the same).

Perhaps you are always a bit lonely, your words departing you as children do, not ever really yours, always sent to you for the moment when you write them. Perhaps you sit at your computer and dare yourself to cut sentences apart, to watch each word like  glittering fish in a stream.

Perhaps this, too, is good. For if you do not write the poems that swirl through my head on the late night when I cannot write, if I could not hear you echo back to me that this world is capable, that we are capable, of making beautiful things despite ourselves, I might lose hope.

The poets give me hope.

It isn’t a sly hope, the kind we have when we already know all the possible outcomes. It isn’t a cynical hope, where we have given up. It isn’t a safe hope, either, a blind trust that things are good and will get better.

Poetry is reckless hope. It strips you bare and looks at you, at the story of you, at the empty room late at night and dares you to make something of it. To make something more of what happens to you. To make something, period.

You make me reckless, wild, afraid and impatient. You send out that single flame of song and in my room leaning late into the night, I catch fire.

Love,
hilary