what freedom might be

It’s alleged that Robert Frost once said, when asked what freedom was, that it was “being easy in your harness.” I remember the cold tiles under my feet in the room where we had poetry class, that winter my junior year of high school. We huddled over words that we were almost too young to encounter, but just old enough to know what we were meeting was – must be – a kind of scarce beauty. My hand curled over the page to scribble title, words, the stray phrase that I memorized by the repetition of the pen along the thin blue lines and empty white spaces.

We were working on villanelles, difficult poems with difficult rhythm, a scheme of lines repeating, tumbling over each other. At first, we were tasked with repeating the lines exactly, no flourish or artistry. I remember how our feet and eyes shuffled at the apparent strain on our creative spirits. “But,” I remember thinking, “how will my poem be free if I have to repeat all these lines, over and over? Isn’t that why they call it free verse?”

My teacher knew my question and answered it aloud. “Robert Frost said, ‘Freedom is being easy in your harness.’ The villanelle, this week, is your harness. Our task is to learn to be easy in it.”

I am thinking these days about what it might mean to be free. I suppose most specifically I think about this in the strange intersection I am often in, between school and motherhood and my own writing, in the spaces where I most often feel constrained by my life. I always want to stretch an hour to be just a bit longer; I always want just fifteen more minutes for the thing I am doing now or the thing I know I need to be doing later. More than once this week I caught myself checking the time while my son slowly, deliberately rolled his blue plastic ball towards me, grinning wildly. I was thinking about how to make the afternoon last just a bit longer, because there was laundry and there was reading and there was some other thing that I had written on a list somewhere that felt much more important than my son and his blue plastic ball.

I wonder if I have filled my head with so many boxes to check as a way to stave off the possibility that it might be as simple as riding a bit easier in the constraints of my life. It might be as simple as laughing and rolling the ball back towards my son.

The week of the villanelles in poetry class I struggled to write a single word. Each one felt too insignificant to bear repeating; nothing felt worthy of being written down so many times. I deleted so many sentences. I ripped pages out of notebooks. I very nearly turned in a blank sheet of paper.

I just began a ballet class. On Monday nights I leave behind the hum of the world and enter a hum of concentration, beginning in my feet and tracing its way up my back and along my arms and up into my head with its flyaway hairs caught in a headband. We are asked at the end of each barre exercise to go into sous-sus and often to then bring one leg up into coupée or passée. All of this is in a delicate few seconds where we suspend our bodies on the balls of our feet, lifting ourselves farther and farther up. “Find your balance” the teacher tells us. Some days I never find it, my hand hovering over the barre and grasping it too quickly, afraid I will fall. Some days I feel it instantly, the living wire of tension holding me up suddenly lights up and I can even smile as I feel myself aloft.

But most days it is a few, hard-won seconds of balance, a few, hard-won seconds of that perfect hum of tension, that feeling of having suddenly reached a point where it is easy, where the limits of head and feet, of arm and leg are met fully and somehow this produces balance. In those few seconds, I am free. And then most often I tremble, my foot shifts just slightly, and gravity pulls me back.

Ballet and a villanelle, and wasn’t this a post about freedom? Perhaps it still is. Perhaps Robert Frost was not wrong to tell us that freedom is being easy in your harness. Perhaps freedom is exploring the limits of the repeating lines of a poem and the few seconds of balancing yourself on one leg. Perhaps freedom is most often a few, hard-won seconds, a few hard-won lines of beautiful words. Perhaps there is no good way to describe it, and my longing for achieving freedom (as if it could be grasped, as if it could be possessed once forever) too often leaves me without it.

I did write a villanelle. It was the hardest I have ever worked on a poem in my life. It was the first time I heard my voice peeking through my words. A few, hard-won seconds of freedom – it was still the birth of something beautiful.

in the land of the living

I keep thinking about prayer. I keep wanting pray in this space, to tell you something, to lean over and bend knees and heart with you. 

This is what I pray over us, we who live and move in the ragged tumble towards heaven, on the outskirts of certainty, we who have thrown off the confidence we used to wear so timidly – 

I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. – Psalm 27.13

In the land of the living. The goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, the present, the here and now that builds and begins and springs forth under our feet. I cry it out in between stoplights, as I cross under the highway in the middle of fearing that I will never know the goodness of the Lord because I am not enough. 

I pray this wildly over us, abandoning for a moment the usual lilting words, the customary blog post format, the worries that you’ll think less or differently of me – 

I pray that King Jesus, in whom we are more than conquerors, will cast forth from you all that keeps you from the hope of the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 

I pray that Jesus will show up, right in the middle of wherever you are, disrupt the everyday where we become so good at avoiding him, and remind you that nothing in this world and nothing to come, nothing in heaven or on earth, can separate you from Him: 

not exams nor papers written late into the night

not a messy house nor a missed deadline

not a broken heart nor a mending one

not what you have nor what you don’t 

not fighting nor going silent nor raging nor the thing you shouldn’t have said but you did nor the thing you meant to say and forgot nor the misunderstanding nor the awkward afternoon nor the time wasted or well spent…

None of it can separate you from the love of God in Jesus.  

I would have lost heart tonight between stoplights. I would have lost heart in the beginning of doing a new thing and being so afraid of failing at it – I would have lost heart in the promises of God, right there three blocks away from home –

But I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 

We will see this goodness, this year, this month, this week, because we are in the land of the living and we are walking with a God who covenants with a people the promise of His presence. We are in the midst of God, of the goodness of God, of the love of God. I believe you will see it stretched wide and loud over your life. I believe you will find that God comes into the midst of you, disrupting the comfortable patterns, the way you think at stoplights or when you’re folding laundry, the quiet despair that creeps into our days that what we do is not enough. 

I believe the goodness of the Lord will be seen in this land of the living.

I pray that we stumble into this believing until it has nestled between our bones. I pray that we call out to God to keep His promises to us. I pray that we get on our knees often, preaching the power of the love of God, preaching the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 

I believe it tonight; that I will see this goodness. I’m whispering it over us.

Love,
hilary

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

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

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

what breaks does not shatter

I write the words slow, the way that I used to in pages, pink pen pressed hard against the fake parchment paper of the Harry Potter journal. I am trying to learn that sometimes just because the words can come quickly doesn’t mean they’re the right ones, so I type slower than normal into the blank screen.

I’m sitting cross-legged on my bed while I do this. I’m sitting with journals scattered around me, the old stories of my young self, the evidence of a thousand nights of anguish softened now by time and the half-finished tea by my bed. I’m rereading, because when you move away from home, when you get married, there is this exquisite sadness of leaving your room. There is this old self who you think will slink away, a shadow you couldn’t sew on tightly enough, and she’ll keep pace through the house, while you sleep and wake in a strange, new home.

It hits me this way, when I am looking for my self among the things I am choosing to leave behind, that I have been preaching a story with my life that I do not believe enough. Isn’t that funny? This young self – stirrup pants and crooked front teeth in sixth grade in the hallway when the boy didn’t like her back, or the self in the ill-fitting American Eagle jeans at the mailbox with three crisp rejection letters, or the self in college who lay on her back one winter night after falling on the ice and spilling hot chocolate down her coat not once, but twice –

this is the self who has been preaching the truth to me, and I have not been listening.

And this is the truth she is speaking: even what breaks does not shatter.

I can revive at a moment’s notice the stories, the humid June air or the night that I pressed my address written in sharpie on an index card and said “write to me”, thinking it was the beginning of something. I can sit on that bed and I can relive the bar and the dress and the anger I wore so badly, draped over me like the sheets I pretended were wedding gowns years before. I can tell you the song that was playing in my head the days after I didn’t get in or the day I realized the friendship had changed, I can have the conversation over and over again in the safe aftermath of my car, crumple my fist against the steering wheel and make my heart swell again with everything that went wrong, everything that hurt, everything I remember about being broken.

But this is the living proof – for the me that can remember the breaking is not, herself, broken.

No, she is alive, and gloriously alive, and she is sitting typing deliberately on her bed, pressing these words into her heart. Not everything that breaks shatters. And even just the breathing, in, and out, of those words, those pressed deliberate words, starts  to build up this wearied heart. And the worry, that I can’t do this, can’t leave this home this room these old journals, that I can’t go off and be brave –

the worry quiets.

It is all too easy for me to hold on to the memories of being broken, the familiar pieces of hurt, the way that he said or she looked. It’s too easy for me to see myself as not complete, or still recovering, to imagine myself frail or small or unable, incapable. It’s easy to say that to myself when I am weary-hearted and the mountains keep rising up before me, and I think, I’m still broken, that still hurts me.

But my younger self has been the living reply.

I am widened by the months and years of work running my fingers along the frayed edges of her couch cushions, trying to put words to the counseling questions, to make a space where I hear my own self.

I am widened by the quietest moment in the morning when he only kisses me hello, no words, catches me up in his arms and in that gesture promises forever, promises us, in this, promises that he is the kind of man who will keep his promises.

I am widened and changed and made bolder and braver by writing out into the spaces where you see me, pink penning these words over us both: we are not shattered. we are alive.

Maybe it’s the beginning of brave – a belief that you have, all along, been braver than you know.

Love,
hilary

 

when you say yes

Maybe you’ve heard a time or two from this blog post or that Facebook status update or a tweet or two, that I’m getting married and moving to Texas. Maybe you’ve heard something about graduate school, about me and philosophy and these three little letters that will (Lord willing) go after my name in about five years, letters that symbolize the working and wondering and the mind-boggling amounts of reading I’m going to try and do in those years.

But here is the thing, the thing I never knew I would be writing: before I said yes to Baylor, before I said yes to learning how to properly say, “Sic ‘Em, Bears” (it’s more complicated than you think) – I said a different yes.

I said yes in a library of love letters.

I said yes in the haze of an August afternoon, in the haze of falling into love, realizing ourselves already in it, maybe some of you who read all those letters were wondering about it, yourselves.

I said yes to this, the ache and ark of marriage (that’s Denise Levertov, in a poem called, “The Ache of Marriage”).

It was the best yes: that day, moment after moment of driving along a highway and to the grocery store, of kissing him in the parking lot, thinking, you’re it, you’re my fiancé now, you’re the person while we looked around helplessly, chose strawberries, I think, feeling our way through the rest of the day the way that the blind trace the edges and shapes of the world and so see it better.

Saying yes to Preston, now almost seven months ago – that was my best yes.

It was the best yes, and no, I don’t mean that in the way of comparing one person’s choosing, moment, realization of God’s calling loud and bright in their life versus another. Because God calls as God calls, and for me, in this season, the lesson is that the calling is presented only to you. Others may confirm it, see it, strengthen it, slow it down –

but God is calling you. You are the hearer, you are the listener. You are the called.

We are so quick to worry and to wonder if God is speaking, but I keep thinking these days, He must be speaking all the time but I have no ears, or no time, or no patience enough to sit still and hear. I run up to God’s door this Lent, over and over, begging for a word and God looks at me:

Hilary Joan, have I not been singing over your life? Have I not been calling you, August haze to March frost?

Am I so quick to forget how loudly God is singing, whether or not there are big moments of yes or no, big choices, big afternoons with big promises?

God is still singing after I say yes to Baylor, God is still singing after I said yes to Preston, after the big moments and the big decisions and the feeling of momentum and moving forward with things.

God has always been singing out over us, over these waters we walk on, calling out to us to come a little closer.

Love,
hilary