a story about learning

I was on my way out of the classroom on a Thursday when he handed back my paper. In it, he told me he had been honest, as I had asked. And then, as I kicked gravel under my Puma sneakers in the hazy fall sun, I read his comments.

He told me that I was a better writer than what I had produced. That I had, in my gleeful mistaken assumptions about the author, the text, the implications of the words on the page, taken offense to the author of the text. I could have done much better, he wrote. 

I cried about it hysterically on the car ride home, one of those few days when I was picked up alone by my Dad and we got donuts from Dunks on our way back to our old red house, the home of what I thought was my list of ceaseless triumphs. I am a good girl ever being re-formed back into a whole self, and in high school, I ran myself hard in marathons of expectations and disappointments, the weight of each heavy in my heart. 

There is something about being new to graduate school that, if you’re new or old there, or new or old in any kind of work, big or small, apparent or hidden, that keeps making me think of that high school version of me. 

I was so unwilling to allow for wrong. I was so unwilling to believe that some things are learned by slow osmosis. By a silence that enters and changes us, by a year upon year returning to the same question the same text the same author the same gracious God who is over and through and in all. No, I would tell myself in the walk between buildings, you must learn immediately and remember forever. You must never make the same mistake twice. You must never relearn something you should have known or were already taught. 

It was true for me in French class, loathing my forgetfulness of the conditionnel passé. It was true in theater, forgetting a line or a gesture that was all-important in the scene that we had already rehearsed. It was true in friendship. It was true in faith. 

So by the time I was a senior hearing my favorite teacher tell me that I was, in fact, a better writer than what I had turned in, I cried hysterically on the way home because his words meant I had to relearn something. I had to go back. I had to try again. I had to revisit something I believed I should have already mastered. And that must mean, I thought, that I was never capable of knowing it at all. That I was never going to be smart enough. That I was never going to see the light or come to a good conclusion or write a better paper. If I couldn’t do it perfectly now I could never do it. 

Eventually, I realized God was there. 

I don’t mean footsteps, or whispers in fire or rain or wind. I mean the slow awakening, that itself is the result of practice, of grace received, of many mistakes. And ours is not a God who believes in instant mastery. 

There is no lesson that is not to be relearned. There is nothing to be either good at (and capable of) or bad at (and incapable of) in the most important works we do. There is natural gifting, yes, but how gracious and wild and freeing is it that even those with abundant gifts are given the same tasks to work at, again and again? 

That we are all taught to trust God over the whole of life – each season, each event, each uncertainty – and that such relearning is not for the faint of heart only but also for the strong? 

That we are tasked to revise, reimagine, recreate, relearn the most glorious things about God in the most mundane and everyday ways? 

Because there is nothing new under the sun and that makes everything new. 

I can’t do it – faith, graduate school, philosophy, creating a family, learning to cook, teaching – any of it, perfectly, and I don’t serve a God who sees me as a failed marathon runner in expectation and disappointment. 

I serve a God who retaught His disciples the same things about the kingdom of heaven in many parables. I serve a God who reteaches the people Israel the meaning of trust in Him, in manna, in the stories of Abraham and all the faithful, in the prophets. I serve a God who is unafraid to teach me again the things I couldn’t understand, didn’t do right or perfectly or well, the first time. 

Maybe in all of us there is a hidden high-school self that is asking us why we can’t just wake up and not need to relearn all the things we keep needing to relearn. Maybe in the work you do, wherever you are, there is a self asking why you think you can do it at all since you couldn’t the first time, the thirtieth time, the hundredth time. 

To that voice, in as much love as I can muster, I say: there, in the repetition, in the almost-giving-up, is the God who leaves us breathless with how He loves to teach us the same things for the thousandth time. 

We don’t need to be afraid to re-learn. 


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?

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.


for when love is desperate

I woke up in the haze of the night, that space where the sunrise is slowly bleeding into the day, where rain casts an enormous shadow, where there are things like jury duty and immediate deadlines and the last plane ride of the man back to Texas.

Sitting in the eerie, half empty room with the other wanderers with their bleary-eyed coffee, their newspapers and knitting, their snuck-in granola bars eaten quietly, it struck me that this journey is almost over – well, perhaps, almost begun. Or both.

I can’t tell you why, but when they dismissed us – justice reached between the hallways and the bank of elevators – and I was driving back in to work, to meet that deadline, it hit me: this is the man I’m marrying.

This is him.

I started to laugh, but at the same time I started to cry. I was laughing and crying along a 10 mile stretch of road that I have never seen before, with small clumps of pansies blooming in the median boxes, the rain still hesitantly pounding the windshield, and two UPS trucks turning left and right and me in between them. I was laughing at myself, at this beautiful world, at the fact that in that moment I realized it:

I’m marrying the person I always and never imagined.

I had to tell myself that I was still driving, that this is the middle of the workday, that the world is racing past me and there are places to go and deadlines to meet, because in a moment, I am a heap of tears and shaky breathing and laughter, so much laughter it seemed to rebound off the walls and windows, carrying me.

I think this must be what it is like to fall desperately in love.

Not a hurricane, no, but the steady second, third, hundredth time falling into love. This is the we’ve been engaged for a long while now, the we know who does the dishes and sets the table, the ordinary missed words and not missed eye-rolls, who loves hummus and who loves sea urchin, where she always forgets her glasses and where he always puts down the car keys. This is the falling in love again with all the familiar, with all the still-surprising, with the way that love turns out to be eating leftovers on the floor or walking to the pond when the sun finally comes out and warms the earth.

I always imagined that it would be as simple as that, the person as inevitable as breathing. I never imagined it would be so good, goodness essential as breathing.

This isn’t the post where I can say anything profound about love, other than I didn’t realize how much you keep falling into it. How you fall into it, again and again, when you realize that this person still thinks you’re the best thing that has ever happened when you oversleep and mess up plans and forget things. How the fact that he knows how much I love hummus and steak makes me cry. Or how he never lets a day go by where he says, “Hello, beautiful,” and there I am, hopelessly falling into love.

This is the post where I say that I spent that drive laughing and crying because I’m getting married to Preston. Because it’s the hundredth time I’ve fallen in love with him, and love it wild, and sometimes I could cry with how extraordinary it is. And laugh.


to the girls in my zumba class

Dear girls in my Zumba class,

Dear you who is willing to jump up and down to music we don’t really know the words to, you who is willing to do the moves with more energy after 50 minutes than I think I have in my whole body, who laughs at our blurred reflections in the mirror,

you are what makes me brave.

I’ve been up and down the mountains and hills for a little while now, with this question about food and how to eat and the fact that sometimes I don’t know how to finish a bagel in the morning, I’m so nervous that it will upend my life. I’ve been in the thicket of the thoughts about mirrors and beauty and whether the scars on my stomach from the time I had my gallbladder removed are moments of skin knit together, moments of pride that my body is always doing a healing work on itself, or if I should be embarrassed and try to hide the thin pink line that dances near my belly button.

I’ve thought about writing and not writing, I’ve written and deleted, and in the end of every day I don’t write a blog post about this journey up and down the mountains of that question – am I beautiful? 

you are the people I see at the other end.

You jumping up and down in the aerobic studio to Pitbull and Lil’ Jon. You in old T-shirts and yoga pants and running shorts and neon sneakers and bare feet. You, afraid and unafraid, because we are all a little of both if we are honest. I can’t describe how much courage you breathe into my lungs just being in that second row with you.

And yes, you know, it is courage to shake my hips and courage to swing them in something that I think might someday look like a circle. And yes, it is courage to keep dancing at minute 50.

But it is also courage to be.

You give me courage to be, without walls, without the tap tap tap of the prison guard of my mind that says I should eat less run more be more do more perfect more. In Zumba, there is no better and no best, there is just us and the courageous being of us.

If I could tell you anything it is that yesterday at the end of class I walked out and realized that I think you are all, each, singly, remarkably, beautiful. I realized that I know this in my bones, that you are beautiful, that you are courageous.

And maybe it’s time I walked out of a class and thought of me alongside you, as one of those beautiful and bright courageous beings. Maybe it’s time I walked out of class and let the lessons you are teaching me sink into my bones.

I wish I could paint this for you, write the way you have built my courage from my pink sneakers to my heart, how you have changed me beyond what I had imagined could change. You, with every routine and every sigh and laugh you are rebuilding my idea of what it could mean for me to be beautiful. To be courageous. To be whole.

Gratitude is not measured in a word count, so I will only say, again, you have done infinitely more than you know. And this girl, she is learning beautiful from you.

Love, hilary

dear hilary: the shape of your grief

This one, friends, doesn’t have a letter in front of it. This one, since Preston told me to write the hard thing, is the letter just for me.

Dear Hilary,

It is always weeks after you think it will arrive that grief finally, politely, knocks on your door. It isn’t in the moment you make the bed in the house that is emptied or bake dozens of cookies and do the dishes over, and over, worrying that there won’t be enough bowls when the rest of the mourners arrive. It isn’t when you finally lie on the bed at home after the flights, after the funeral, after the tears you knew would come when you realize your engagement ring is the exact color of the suit she was buried in, or when your brothers cry next to you, or when you spend an hour playing around the world in basketball in the concrete driveway even though you can’t move past the first place, because you don’t really know how to play basketball.

But one afternoon, a weekend, when you’ve done the errands and dropped off the dry cleaning, when you’ve had tea and coffee and not worried about the whipped cream you put in the coffee, when you’re settled adding street names and numbers to a spreadsheet for your wedding, and you suddenly realize it: everything she never saw.

You didn’t show her the binder you made, the colors of your bridesmaid dresses or the way your dress fits you, just right. You didn’t show her the ring, in person, you didn’t exclaim the way he holds your hand or how much he loves to cook for you – and you know she would tell you you are lucky and you and your mom, you don’t deserve these men who cook for you. She didn’t know that he makes you laugh, even at yourself, or the way you look in a picture together, or your plans for five children, and how your mother thinks it’ll be all boys.

And you will sit, binder in hand, on your bed and realize with a start that you are getting married and you can’t give her a corsage and you can’t hug her and you can’t take a picture with her, with all the women in all their wedding jewelry all together, those pinterest pictures everyone tags can never be yours.

The shape of grief is ever-moving, the heart is the hammer that molds it, beat by beat, the well-loved driftwood on a beach after winter, shaped by the movement of wave after wave, slowly sanded smooth, gentle, even. 

This is the shape of your grief, Hilary: an absence physical as presence, while you bake cookies and organize flights and make the world move in the right times and places, the grief waits for you. It waits for your heartto hammer it smooth again, beat by beat.

The shape of your grief: softening, still.


so i write today

I am sitting on my bed in the chaos of Preston’s departure, unwilling, unable, maybe, to really bring myself to the zumba youtube video workout or the making of dinner or the folding of laundry that’s overdue in a corner of the room. It’s a hard thing, long distance, because the stillness is lost in the miles logged, the yet-another-plane-ticket, the counting up and down the days and hours until you can be next to each other again. 

I am thinking about Momastery tonight. I’m not sure why, an article on Relevant that people have been sharing on facebook that made me think of something of hers I read once and so I go to Glennon’s blog, because Sarah Bessey links to it and I see that under the Relevant article, and I find myself paging through and reading those good words and thinking about writing and good words and spaces with nice colors and clean CSS coding. And I think about how I have so often wanted to have a big space like that, and those thoughts have a something, I don’t know if it’s a bitterness or just a wistfulness, or somewhere between them, about writing and me and the wide gap between what I think it should be and what I think it is.

Her Ted Talk link is in a corner. I click, lean against the pillows. She is only a few minutes in when I start to cry. 

I want to be someone telling the world to take off its superhero cape. I want to tell you my story of emerging, how I have learned the shape of kindness can be the word no and the shape of grace can be in an ending. I want to tell you, especially, that I never thought I’d ever be a writer because I assigned the role to someone else in my poetry class that first year and I pretended I didn’t want it so that it couldn’t hurt me if it didn’t happen, and I want to tell the world that sometimes the song about freedom has stanzas in it for whatever cage you’ve lived in. I want to be someone like Glennon, I think, and 17 minutes later I’m still on my bed in the same leggings avoiding the same zumba video with the same hole in my heart. 

There is a part of me that thinks in this moment about the fact that I don’t have my own domain name and I don’t know how to code CSS, that asks me who I think I am, writing like this, 23 years old and still not sure if she knows how to make pancakes right. 

But I am still writing today. I am still wanting to add some stanzas to that song about freedom and I still want to say to you that if you and me together in this watch these women – who write brave books and who speak brave Ted talks and who keep shouting about things like daring greatly and carrying on, warrior and being a jesus feminist and how mothers are superheroes – if you and me together watch them, 

I think we’ll start to tell each other. We’ll whisper carry on, warrior in the supermarkets and down the corridors and into all the small places of our lives. We will tell you the new mom as we hug you during the peace in church that you are a superhero. We will learn how to write cards and notes to girls who wonder about how to be brave and dare greatly. And we will tell them yes, you can. And we will tell them yes, you are brave and beautiful and good and let’s be in this together. 

And so I write today. 


when it was a year about light

I am 22 in this picture I paint of myself for you, looping the words over us like so much leftover Christmas ribbon. I am achingly frustrated and desperately unsure of myself. I am sitting, as I usually do, on my bed with the blankets still unmade from when I woke up. I am living in the in-between, in a place I know so well – so much better, really, than I wish I knew it. I wanted to be somewhere new, I say to myself as the New Year’s night lingers on. I wanted to be in DC, I wanted to be in France, I wanted to have done something or gone somewhere, and yet I feel as I type that the word of the year must be light. 

It is meant to be a year of light. 

I expect this will mean the utter brilliance of day. I expect that God will hear this prayer of a word and turn my shadows into sunlight. I expect that when I wake up in the newness of the year, I will be different. I go to bed in that messy pile of blankets and I am ready to be transformed. Perhaps I even smile a little as I sleep. 

God turns out all the lights. 

The months pass and there is less clarity than ever before. I do not know where to find God even in all the usual places I go looking for him. I am still in the same place and I walk into the same building at work and feel as though I must have prayed it wrong, said it wrong, chosen the wrong word. Because in the wintering of the year I am wandering through nothing but shadows and all that I think I know of me is gone. I sit in Tenebrae, the service of the lengthening shadows at the end of Lent, and even there, though I hear Jesus say to me “You will flee, and I will go to be offered up for you,” I cannot find a window to open for the light to come into my heart. I must be praying some angry prayers in this year, too, prayers that tell God just what I think of this silence, this darkness, this apparent failing of my hope for light. 

But it is the wonder of the world that the shadows reveal the light more brilliantly. It is the wonder of knowing God that we are given a glimpse of how God loves us through praying a word like light and walking through shadows. It is the wonder of a year where I moved from thinking there was an easy way towards the light to despairing about shadows to meeting God again and new for the first time – 

it is the wonder that to be still before God with a trembling self one year ago is to pray a wild prayer. It is the wonder that God hears such prayers, that God is close to such prayers. That God so tenderly answers them.