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.


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.


go free, prisoner

I find myself looking at Jesus out the window of the borrowed Highlander in the midst of Waco.

He is there clearly in my mind, maybe car windows can be like the iconostasis some days, that piercing window into heaven, that stirring up of your spirit to meet the Spirit.

It’s just a few days before Pentecost.

I have been in the midst of telling Jesus that I am trapped in my mind, lost in the sea of obligations. I have been telling Jesus with the bold and arrogant assumption more often made by the accustomed Christian that Jesus is mild-mannered and so tolerating this rant, and that eventually the emotions will subside and I’ll go on, and Jesus will go on, both of us mostly unchanged.

Let me tell you something: that is not Jesus.

Instead I hear the thought ripple – no, that’s too gentle – rip into my mind, hurricane wind, not just a little bit of fire in the voice. I am telling you, go free, prisoner. 

I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jesus, the easiest lie, the lie of pretended incomprehension, because a God that we say is so beyond our knowing surely cannot be speaking so clearly to us, to me, as I stare out the car window hoping against hope that I can find my way around the words.

I am telling you, go free, prisoner. 

It takes nothing less than the Spirit to shake us out of our assumed ignorance back into the obvious truths, the who we are before and afters. Because I am so much of the time a prisoner rattling the iron walls when the door behind me is swinging open and it is Jesus who stands there, arms open, waiting. I am the too busy noticing my own struggles to see that the shackles are at my feet, that the sun through the window is the first day of the week and I’m living in the time of the resurrection.

I do this with the story of how eating became harder, or how I don’t know how to stand up for myself, or how I am too people pleasing or too quick to worry or how I don’t know when to allow myself to feel grace because I worry that if I give myself room to not be perfect I’ll collapse altogether. I rattle the walls of the prison of I should be better or I should do more or I am not good enough at 

and then there is Jesus, calling for me – go free. 

Me, in that car, driving through Waco, and there is Jesus, caring so much more than I imagine he does. Not mild-mannered, not indifferent, not unconcerned. No, I meet Jesus who says, Go free, prisoner, and who keeps calling out to me, who is relentless in the message that my heart is no longer bound anymore, but freed. That there is no need to rattle the walls because the door is opened, because life is beginning.

Just a few days before Pentecost I hear again the old story, the Gospel of the radical concerned grace of God – that God will not be mild-mannered or indifferent with us, but come to us, driving through Waco or when we are in front leading worship or as we glance back at the iconostasis, and Jesus will keep saying, go free, prisoner. I have loved you, I have freed you, you are urgent and important to me, you belong to me. 

Oh, how the Gospel needs preaching again and again to this tired heart.

And oh, how good God is, to still come shout it over me.


dear hilary: honor is not in a tan line

Dear Hilary,

Beach season is a self-conscious time for most girls, but sometimes as a Christian I find it especially stressful.  On the one hand, I have society and the media telling me that my body is hideous and that I’ll never be considered attractive unless I can live up to an unreachable standard.  On the other hand, I have church culture telling me that as a girl, my body is TOO attractive, to the point where I need to be ashamed of it and keep it covered up at all costs to “protect” the men folk, and I get raised eyebrows from church friends when I say that I’m thinking about buying a bikini for the first time this summer.  As a Christian, how can I learn to be comfortable in my own skin without being improper?  And how can I shut out the noise long enough to just relax and enjoy a summer day by the ocean?

Modestly Perplexed

Dear Modestly Perplexed,

I love you in the midst of this question. I love how you grapple with it, the wonder about the line that doesn’t really exist in the ways we want it to – the line between feeling not attractive enough about ourselves and feeling too attractive towards other people. I want to tell you loud and bright in the midst of this, if I can put my two cents in, since you’ve asked?

buy the bikini.

don’t forget sunscreen (my upper back will testify to the pain that comes with sunburn…), and take a book from the library with its crinkling plastic protector that creaks slightly as you turn the pages.

I don’t tell you because buying or wearing a bikini is the only stamp of approval or a self who sees her self well. I don’t tell you because I think everyone should, or because I think that by putting it on you will answer the question about modesty and attraction and the whole mess of expectations and cultural norms that come with them. Modesty is about honor, not tan lines.  Modesty is about an attitude towards your body and others, not about a mystery ledger of rules that say, hemlines of this length or longer or shirts of this material but not that, or dresses that swivel with your hips slightly, but not extremely…

So truthfully, I think our choices about what to wear follow from our other choices about how we want to walk through the day, how we want to approach one another, how we want to see one another. We can’t buy a bikini and hope that it will make us brave or fearless on its own – we have to choose the brave and fearless when we’re wearing two sweaters and a pair of jeans. And we can’t hope those two sweaters and a pair of jeans will make us magically modest – we have to choose the attitude of modesty and honor when we’re wearing the bikini.

Maybe it’s a wild hope of mine that we can gather back from the stray corners of this or that book or blog post or church conversation or pinup calendar a better sense of what it means to live inside these beautiful bones. Maybe it’s wishful thinking that you and I can take the questions tumbling from you about being free and beautiful and alive, and lay them next to questions about being thoughtful and attentive and sensitive – and do that free of the chaos of voices with loud opinions and tape measures.

But I’m going to hope for that. I’m going to go ahead and say you won’t come up with the same answers that I will, or that your next-door neighbor will, because we live and move with different communities and so our choices, in seeking to honor others and ourselves, will be different. We needn’t fear that. We need to listen to each other. If the girl in the pew next to you makes different choices about modesty and her body, listen first. Why does she choose that? And listen without feeling that her choice is a secret expectation on you to choose the same – honor is in listening and upholding one another in how we learn to live out these questions in our own skin.

I can see you wanting to run along the ocean at the turn of the tide,  build a sandcastle in the middle of the afternoon for hours, turrets and a moat and a driftwood drawbridge, chase after the joy of summer and let the sun warm your shoulders.

Buy the bikini. I know it’s beautiful.


dear hilary: the love equation

Dear Hilary,

I have another question for you. This year, boys have been a huge distraction.

When I decided I like a boy, it begins to consume my thoughts and actions. I change the direction I walk to class just to “accidentally” run into them, I scheme ways to end up in situations with them, I make sure to get to math class early just so I can find a seat beside them. I do irrational things all the time. Maybe it’s infatuation or lust, but then why does it feel so real then? It just seems impossible to shake this frame of mind. I want to stop obsessing, but at the same time I like obsessing. Is any of this natural? Is it unhealthy? Or maybe it goes deeper, and I am just desperate to be loved and treasured. Even so, my heart is aching from these boys- this is something that seems so silly but has such a legitimate weight on my heart.

A little obsessed

Dear A little obsessed,

You know what I can’t stand, really, truly, cross my heart shoot me ten times before you make me … ? Settlers of Catan type games. I’m terrible at them. I lack all the strategy. And that makes me mad. And then I do something stupid, I don’t want to admit it, or I do, and I basically just end up feeling pissy. Not a fun time. I like cards, I like charades, I like 20 questions that I turn into 20,000 questions, I like Mafia and a thousand other ones. But make me settle villages and stuff, and I’m sunk.

So last year this boy that I really liked brought me to a friend’s house on the water, and a funny group of us – maybe five or six people – sit down to play … yep, you guessed it, one of those bridge-building farm settling monasteries and something about blocking other people’s castles games. I wasn’t jazzed about it, but I played the whole game.

And not because that’s the polite thing to do, though my mother did raise me to be polite. I did it to impress the boy. I did it to keep his attention. I did it with some well-timed doe-eyed looks in his direction, a wink or two. I can only imagine if I could see myself I would laugh – here I am, making faces at the game in my head, and then whenever he makes eye contact, holding on for dear life to those brown eyes and hoping he’d look just a bit longer.

In the love equation in my head, playing this game + batting my eyelashes + walking by his office by the mailroom in my work outfit + some well placed comments about German philosophy + drinking a second cider at the bar on a Thursday night x my hope squared = LOVE.

I think most of us do this, just as you describe your own love equation to me – if you sit here in math class + walk past them and if you use the Pythagorean theorem to calculate just where they might get coffee after school that day… maybe that’s how you get them to see you. Maybe that will = LOVE.

I want to separate out how real your feelings are from whether your changing seats in math class or walking in a different direction has a tangible effect on a relationship. Your feelings are real; you are attracted and interested, and honestly I’m going to hazard a guess that some of it is infatuation, some of it is exploration, some of it is longing, some of it is that delightful butterfly feeling when you recognize how wonderful and lovely someone is, and there is a whole lot more feeling that can be easily categorized. That will all be real no matter what you do or don’t do on a given day of the week or a given Saturday night game night.

And yes, honey, I think some of it is maybe a little bit much. I liked the feeling of liking someone so much I wound up playing games I didn’t like and changing how I walked and what I wore and what I talked about (though I love German philosophy). When the excitement of adventuring into romantic feelings becomes the trump card in your (even small) decisions, I think it’s good to take a step back. Changing your behavior won’t make anyone like you more or notice you more – it won’t satisfy those longings to be treasured and appreciated and loved, it won’t do much of anything.

Remember Sugar real love moves freely in both directions.

Love moves freely. It moves when not constrained by constantly monitoring behavior, input and output, looking for an equation that will finally work. It moves when your longing to be more of who you are meant to be, your longing to lean into the true and beautiful and good of your life, equations abandoned, is where all your energy is going.

Resist the temptation to take my words and make them another voice in your head that calculates the way towards those boys or that kind of love, dear one. You can’t force contentment and the growing wings as a way to get those boys to notice you. You can’t ask your heart to long for the good/true/beautiful so that the boy in math class sees you – that’s no different from calculating which seat.

Instead open up your hands and heart and start asking the question – what are those lupine seeds I’m going to scatter today (thanks, Miss Rumphius)? How can I do one more thing to make this world a little more beautiful? Who are the people right here, right next to me? How do I make their world a little more beautiful? 

We don’t have to play Settlers of Catan. We don’t have to change seats. Real love is on the move already. You and me, together, we can just open towards it.


dear hilary: the other side of the door

Dear Hilary,

I have a question. And it is this: how do you know when it’s time to move on? To give up? I said I wasn’t like anyone else. That I wasn’t going anywhere. And I don’t want to. What if the deep quiet love with a wild and crazy illogical side is the true love. I’m sure I could meet someone new some day and fall in love with them, have a passionate romance, what have you. But what if this is my only chance for that deep true sitting quietly by your side not saying a word just being there love? What if he is the person i could spend the rest of my life with, just like he was terrified of? How do I know whether to let go because clearly he isn’t ready to admit anything yet? If he even actually feels the same at all? and because i don’t need this back and forth pushing me away and pulling me back nonsense? Or whether to just be patient and hold on, because the wild quiet love is worth waiting for?

Steadfast and confused.

Dear Steadfast,

I pondered your letter the whole time I was away, driving along the autobahn or standing in museums looking at bits of five hundred year old German script or taking pictures in front of statues of Martin Luther outside churches. I pondered while I ate cake and drank black coffee – what do I possibly say?

Your letter asks the question I answer two ways and then ten and then back to one, and then wrap myself in a knot trying to sort out. I don’t have a clean answer; I can only tell you a bit about what other, wiser people have told me, and tell you a bit of a story, and hope that spreads a little glow on your path as you go.

Not too long ago, there was a guy – I’ll call him Mr. W – that I was firmly, steadfastly convinced that I would be in a romantic relationship with. We hadn’t had one up to that point, but we had the glimmering possibility of one. We had long conversations about what felt like everything on the planet, we liked a lot of the same books, we liked ideas, we liked to sit in bars over wine or gin and argue. There was chemistry, no doubt about it, and there were sparks flying, and I was sure that this was the love you talk about: wild and quiet and passionate and steadfast all at once.

But. That little word, every so often, would pop up – in conversations about Mr. W with my friends, or with myself. But. There was the irreproachable fact that we weren’t in the relationship I saw a glimmering possibility for. We weren’t together on the couch after a long day of work. We weren’t writing the letters, making the picnics, holding hands, telling our friends. I knew that possibility was there; but it hadn’t been made true.

So, Steadfast, I asked, point-blank, not in pretty words but in true ones. I put on makeup and thought about what I’d wear and ate half a grilled cheese in my brother’s truck beforehand because I was so nervous. And the answer was no.

Before the story gets too long-winded, I want to bring you with me, if you will, to an afternoon just before I asked Mr. W for the last time about the glimmering possibility of us. I am sitting on a couch in a brightly lit office, and my counselor, wise woman that she is, asks me how I feel about the prospect of having this confrontation. The words, awful, terrible, please don’t make me do this please please please come to mind. But there, clanging like an iron bell (thank you, Sugar), are the words I speak:

“The truth has already arrived, though, hasn’t it? I’m just going to open the door for it now.”

She looks at me in surprise, and I mirror the same expression back to her. Yes, she says, smiling. Yes.

Steadfast, I think the truth has arrived. I think you know this, from the letter you sent me, and I think you are now peeking at it from behind the door of your heart, and you have to decide if you open the door. Opening the door to the truth won’t mean you get special knowledge of what the future holds. But from everything you tell me, this guy, he is saying no, and that’s the truth standing at your door. The other things you know about him or his life situation, they aren’t knocking. They aren’t here. When all has been laid out on the table before you, and the answer is no, then no is knocking at your door.

My counselor told me over and over in the year before I opened the door that it takes the time it takes. No more and no less. So I’ll echo that to you, too. It takes the time it takes. You are allowed to be steadfast and confused before you open the door and walk outside and meet this guy’s answer and grapple with what it offers you and what it denies.

But eventually, I think, that’s where you must go. You must open the door. You must look that answer in the eyes and listen to it, and let it ache, and let it roam around, and let it lead you. Because the truth will always lead you somewhere. His no will journey you to a new place. Mr. W’s no took me somewhere completely unexpected. The truth does that.

And here is the other thing, for your fear (and my fear) about whether there will ever be any love like the one you express in your letter – the truth also always leads towards fullness. The guy in your letter, he doesn’t sound like he leads there. His no will not bring an end to the fullest love that you can imagine – it will bring only an end to one possibility, glimmering and beautiful though it was.

There is fullness and joy on the other side of the door. I promise this. And in the acceptable time, I have all kinds of confidence you’ll fling that door open.


if we were having coffee

I sometimes think about the girls I don’t know. I think about their upturned faces against a May sky, their heavy backpacks and sense of responsibility. I think about everything that’s hidden in their hearts (treasures and dangers alike). I think about the way we begin to become ourselves.

I want to take you all out to coffee. I want to buy you something with a lot of sugar in it, take the table by the window with the sunlight streaming through it something fierce. I want to ask you some advice about boys, about being a true friend, about how to swim in the water of who you are when everyone else seems like they have a better idea. (I know, by the way, that you know a lot about all these things.) I want to lean in close, smile at you with a little hint of rebellion and tell you that there is more to you than meets the eye.

Maybe you would ask me how I know this. Maybe you would lean back in your chair and drain your cup, look out the window at the striped tee shirts and cutoff jean shorts passing by, at the busy cars and the haggard shopkeeper sweeping outside her polished blue door. Maybe you would lock eyes with me, and tell me in your most honest voice that you’re not so sure, some days.

Me too. Because I’ve heard a lot lately about the question of “enough.” Are we, how could we be, what if my blog isn’t, or is, what if my leadership isn’t, my co-curricular extra-curricular, award-seeking-or-receiving or my friendships… I’d get serious right about here, push my glasses on top of my head, bend my whole posture forward, across the table, across the divide of what we believe about ourselves and this world – and say:

Enough of the word enough.

I don’t know how to tell this any other way. I don’t know how to bullet point it for you in logical argument, how to write you a story that carries this message like a pearl inside its oyster shell. I don’t know how to cajole you or argue with you or do much of anything, but sound the same old few lines as often as possible here, and where you are, at coffee and at lunch and always, always, when I get on my knees for you: hearts are too beautiful to spend on a word like enough, on a measurement, on a tangled illusion.

I spent high school and college being enough which wasn’t enough which was never good or beautiful or sexy or gracious or holy or poised or funny… enough. I did the ache in my closet among my mismatched shoes. I did the late nights skipping dinner, the later night disappointments. I did the look of dismay at myself over a less than perfect grade or comment or conversation.

And I say, enough of that.

If we were having coffee, you and I, I’d want to tell you that. I want to shore it up in us. I want to wedge it so firmly our ribcages that we walk around singing a freedom-song so loud we can’t catch our breath. Free of the worry that comes with enough. Free of the fear. So gloriously free.

I come back here and I write to you and I write to us and I write to all the people who never hear me, and all the ones who do, that hearts are too extraordinary to be measured. Yours is beyond enough. It is bigger than enough. It is so much more than enough.

Maybe at the end of the coffee, when we’ve each had a brownie or three and it’s time to go, I will hang on just one second longer, and catch your eye one more time. And I would lean in (because I always do) and I would smile. Your heart is far too extraordinary to live trapped in a word like enough.

I’m right here. I’m singing next to you. Together, we’ll have done with enough.