dear hilary: keep a vigil

Dear Hilary,

How do you love your friends when something happens – something hard or scary or sad or all of the above? How do you say something when everything is unsayable? When you’re thrown for a loop, when someone moves and the other stays, when someone is changing and it all seems to go so fast you can’t get your mind to wrap around it, and it feels like everything is on the brink of being lost? How do you love them when you don’t even know yourself what it is you should say, or all the words dry up like sawdust in your mouth the second you think to speak them?

A worried friend

Dear A worried friend,

A friend loves at all times. That’s Proverbs. I heard it first on a promotional video at a conference full of women older than me, women with children and husbands and dreams I sometimes had trouble understanding, we were in such different places. I heard it, the words lilting out over a full audience while I held a seven month old girl as she whimpered for her mother, who was the one speaking those words, her South African accent adding a dip and pull to the syllables. I stored it up, those words in her voice in that crowded hotel ballroom, stored it up for a moment like yours, when the telephone lines of friendship get tangled and we fear, desperately, that we have lost a connection.

A friend loves at all times.

You have to keep a vigil now. It is a deep and difficult practice, one that will test your ability to forgive and be the forgiven. You have to walk the long road in the middle of the night, the daily work of loving in the midst of change, the daily work of accepting that perhaps you do not understand but you love, and understanding is not needed before we love, it is a gift we receive in the midst of love.

You have to keep a vigil, because when we are fragile creatures of bones and skin and heart muscle beating out of time with itself and when we live in a world where everything that we thought we knew we did not know, and all that we assumed we could never face until we were grown up we face today. Keep a vigil over this friend, from whatever distance or proximity, from whatever time of day or night.

The same night I heard that message I remember not sleeping. It might have been the pullout couch mattress in the hotel room, or it just might have been my heart, sore and tired from asking those hungry and impatient questions. I crept out of bed, and into the tiny hotel bathroom, and stared at myself in the mirror. My face was pale, my freckles like tiny stars sprinkled over the bridge of my nose. I was so tired, and I wanted to sleep, and I stood with the cold bathroom tile against my feet and then I lay down on the floor, curled into a ball, and cried and cried and cried. I stopped only to worry that I was waking the woman sleeping peaceful in her bed next to me. I stopped to listen for the baby, and her steady breathing. But oh, how I cried that night, that hotel bathroom in Hershey, Pennsylvania keeping watch over me and the people I was holding onto and the people who, I knew, I must set free.

That was a vigil.

It’s sometimes like that.

Be unafraid to keep it messy. Be unafraid to have days when you don’t want to watch, when you run and your hands brush your face and you wonder why you have been called to this. Be unafraid of how your heart is fragile and is breaking, always breaking, because in breaking it is freed again and again for that refrain, which I know you can hear echoing – a friend loves at all times.

Keep a vigil over it. And look out over the night – can you see us all, our thousand tiny flames lit beside you? You are not alone.



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?

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.


burst with joy

I got a phone call yesterday – a rush of California wind in the background, a rush of shouting and laughter and I caught a few tears, too.

They told me in hurried voices that they were engaged, that on Saturday something marvelous and beautiful had just come true and they couldn’t hardly believe it, but it was real, and they loved each other and couldn’t wait to celebrate and could I mark off space in the calendar for a big celebration soon?

And in a rush of California wind blown through my grey New England heart, I heard real joy.

It sounds like two people who have set out on a long road holding hands against the challenge and leaning into the blessing.

It sounds like her red dress in the vineyard, his hand fingering the ring in his pocket. It sounds like their smiles, saved only for each other, saved only for this day.

It sounds like the way that I know they’ll carry each other, through long mornings and church services and drives with coffee in travel mugs, in being apart only to be drawn closer together, in the best kind of yearning and yielding, independence and oneness. It sounds like the way that she and I drove along the highway back once from dinner with a friend, and the headlights trickled past us as we went north, and I told her that they have it. Whatever it was, and is, and will become.

So these people whom I love are engaged, and in their hurried phone call on Sunday, they offered an invitation: to be part of their joy. To burst with it just as they are bursting with it. To make my own heart glad for the Saturday afternoon in the vineyard and the word “yes” and the question that preceded it.

And even though I don’t always know how, I want to burst with joy for them. Even though their story meets mine in a different in-between, in the midst of my own questions and worries and late-night lying in bed awake so confused that I just put a song on my iPhone and play it through the tiny speakers to the ceiling?

Even though I don’t know a thousand things about love?

I still want to burst with their joy. The Kingdom is built on our hearts being grateful for all the blessing we hear rushing past us, no matter when or how or to whom. The Kingdom is built on bursting with joy because two people are going to become one.

Jesus said, Remain in my love

Jesus said, Love one another as I have loved you.

As branches of the same Vine, we remain in His love. And with His love, we burst with joy.

Because two will soon become one, because love is brave and persists and says yes, because blessings come on Saturday afternoons in vineyards, because there is nothing for it but to smile and screech with joy that this good thing has come to be.


dear hilary: your person

Dear Hilary,

You know that thing about “Meredith and Cristina”? You know, the person who you go to with the weird problems that you don’t want to tell anyone else about? The person who laughs at your not so funny stories? The person you trust with the secret from eighth grade and from eighty-eight? I want to know how you find someone like that. How do you create that kind of world for and with someone else?


Dear Meredith,

When I was in fifth grade I had a best friend. We drank tea together on picnic blankets in my backyard and played in the forbidden living room in her house with the real tea cups her mother collected from England. We made up games on the playground at recess – rode horses in our minds and saved the world. We swapped secrets, bad haircuts. I modeled my Anglican first communion after her Catholic one, and when she bought a bright white dress splashed with pink roses, I had to have one, too. I can’t tell you how many years it was that we rode bikes or walked or begged for rides just down the street – how many times we both wished for a dog, how many boys we first began to like, how many things we imagined together. How we swore we’d be best friends forever.

So in fifth grade, when I got onto the bus in October to ride home from school, and this best friend, her hair now in one of those sparkly silver scrunchies that the junior cheerleaders wore, and her tight jeans from the Limited Too or somewhere in the mall I didn’t shop, she didn’t sit with me? The world shook.

She sat two seats behind me, with another girl. She looked at me when I looked back with a look of spite or satisfaction, seeing me in my homemade hat quaking at the sight of her in the back with the cheerleaders and junior football players. She laughed as the girl whispered in her ear. I turned around, bright red. Suddenly everything felt wrong: my hand-me-down sneakers and stirrup pants (yes, I still wore those), my homemade things, my old backpack, my lack of cheerleading, my recorder stuck into my backpack for the private lessons that I longed for and pretended not to want…

And all because of that hope that lives inside us (inside you, too) that we will find kindred spirits and homes for our hearts in the people we love.

So when you ask me how to find that person, I want to tell the oh-so-obvious-but-nonetheless-true thing: you must be that person. Not always in your daily living with them (you can’t be a Cristina to everyone, nor can everyone be a Meredith to you) – but in making your heart a little deeper, your arms a little wider, the space around you an invitation.

Don’t be swayed by the people who are so dazzling and lovely sitting in the back of the bus. Don’t be tempted by the promises of great pictures of you having such a fabulous time that everyone who sees them will wish they were you, having that fabulous time if those people aren’t truly warm, loving, anxious to know you. Don’t worry about hand-me-downs on you or on the girl two bus seats ahead of you.

Instead, listen close to the people around you. Practice love in your conversations with them – practice courage in sharing with them. Let the whole of you be poured into creating space around you that is full of love (yes, that also means full of frustration and wonder and sadness and loneliness and sitting in the midst of crappy situations and not knowing answering but being asked anyway).

Fill the space around you with deep love. And then, you’ll find, what makes Cristina and Meredith special isn’t rare like the AB- blood type: it’s rare because it’s not always practiced. It’s not always chased after in friendship. But we could: and, in beautiful moments, we do.

You sound like you want to chase after it, Meredith. I think you won’t have to go too far before you find it.


dear hilary: lights across the ocean

This week, dear readers, I want to really, truly, formally, in-the-oh-so-nerve-wracking-way, to journey with me for a bit. Would you think about a question, something you want to ponder with me? Something that you wonder about in your life, something you want to sit down and talk about over peppermint mochas? And would you think about sending it my way? I’m trying to practice this big dream of mine, and I would love your help.

Dear Hilary,

This note is long overdue and I would much prefer a conversation over coffee, but seeing that that isn’t possible… I want to write, I do, someday maybe even teach, but I never know how much of my life to share and how much to keep private. Hilary, how much do people want to know? How do we make sense of past suffering when it is oh so private but oh so part of who we are today? I don’t know.

Privacy Settings?

Dear Privacy?,

I’ve been thinking about your question this week. It came during a time in the week where I happened to be thinking about giving up talking about boys for Advent. In the weeks where we prepare for Christmas, I thought that it might be a good idea to fast from the long, wandering conversations I have with myself about my singleness and whether that boy likes me or whether I like them. I have shared it with too many people at this point anyway, I thought to myself as I drank orange juice at 10:15 while sitting at my office desk. Not everyone needs to know what you long for. Not everyone wants to know that you wonder whether you’ll ever get married. It’d be better to keep it private.

Those thoughts rolled around in my head, and then I got your beautiful question, and I wanted to write to you (and to me, since both of us are in this together), and in some way tell you (and me too) that we should share more.

An immediate caveat: sharing doesn’t mean that everyone needs every detail. This isn’t all or nothing, where to open the door to a personal conversation means you are required to reveal everything that ever happened. You are allowed to choose how you tell this story.

We are tempted to think that if we keep some details from some people, we have somehow cheated the system. Whether you draw a detailed penciled sketch of the story, or only a rough outline, is up to you. And you know the story best; you’ll know the details that aren’t needed and the ones that are. You’ll practice this discernment each time you go to tell a story. You’ll get better at it. When you are a teacher and a writer you will practice it with each word. You will ask yourself, “why do I want/need/feel in my gut that it is right to say this?” Let that voice be a guiding star. 

After all, you want to share the story for a bigger purpose than getting it off your chest. You want to share your suffering, your triumph, your loss and your gain, for the bigger purpose of sharing your self.  You want to give people a window into you. You ask me how much people want to know? I will tell you what I have found: people worth revealing yourself to are the people who care about the story because you’re in it, not because it’s juicy or difficult or there’s a great twist at the end. The people who will love your story best will be eager to make as much space for your story as you want it to take up. They will be patient as you unfold it slowly before them. They will love what you share and what you keep private.

But the bigger purpose of being known by others, of letting them in on how you have become who you are?That is always worth doing. We aren’t here to keep the wonder of who we are hidden away. We aren’t here to remain apart from each other. We aren’t supposed to sail out onto a dark ocean utterly alone. No, Privacy, I think we’re supposed to do the opposite. I think we are supposed to shine beacons of light to each other with our stories. You know that feeling, too? We can say to each other as we lament about our singleness or our lack of work or our student’s inability to write a research paper. You aren’t alone. I’m here, too.

Together, sharing our selves, our lights will blink back and forth across this vast ocean of living: a promise, and a hope. 


to the newlyweds

While Preston and I are on sabbatical for the summer in our letter writing, I thought I would keep up with letters. These, though, are letters with a bit more of my imagined, someday life, and a little bit less of the every day. I wanted to store them up, these daydreams, because even though we should live in the present, there is something to every once in a while glancing out and imagining the horizon.

Dear newlyweds,

I saw your pictures on Facebook the other day, pictures of rings against flowers and book pages, pictures of you staring in amazement at each other, pictures of pinwheels and cakes and dances between you and the hundreds of people who gathered around you to love you.

I saw your pictures and I thought about you. About the work that this is. About the wonder that this is. About how you might be wondering and fearing and rejoicing all at once. I don’t know very much about the world, not now, probably not for many years. I don’t know a thing about marriage except that it is beautiful and difficult and rich with blessings.

Sometimes the blessings feel heavy. Sometimes we don’t know how to be ourselves. We don’t know how to be ourselves AND be one with another person. We don’t know if we can surrender that much, trust that much, stay faithful when we desperately wish to run away. We don’t know what the big step was, exactly, only that together there is more than when we are alone, and together you are something new. Between the showers and the barbeques, between standing in line at the DMV to change your name, between hoping you don’t trip down the aisle or lose the rings or forget the dance steps you both practiced diligently… I wanted to say that what we see, from our pews and from walking down the aisle in borrowed shoes and stiff hair?

We see miraculous love.

We see promises made right on the edge, the edge of who we are and who we are called to become.

We don’t worry about whether your napkins are the right shade of coral or if you missed the double spin. We don’t second guess your choice of cake or how you made the seating chart. We are too caught up in rejoicing that you love this boldly. That you live with a wild love for each other.

I wanted to tell you this because maybe after it all settled down, you still feel the strange surreal heaviness of this new life you’re making together. Maybe after you came home to your apartment or your house, to your boxes and leftover spaghetti, you wondered what we all witnessed, what it is that happened.

We saw the joy, raw, palpable, spilling out of you. My friends and I sometimes joke that there is a flood on facebook of weddings, of matching dresses and clinking glasses. Sometimes we are jealous of you, jealous of what we worry we won’t find, hopeful and fearful all at once. But the secret is that even in that we recognize the heart of what you have done. We love it. We feel the raw joy spilling out over the megapixels and crackling phone lines and from pew to pew.

I am touched and changed because I get to see how you love.

I learn about love because I get to celebrate with you.

Your new marriage, the baby bird of it, helps us remember the feeling of leaping into the unknown and being caught in the wonder of it.

So I pause in my day, in between emails and grant proposals and puzzling out the new work before me to whisper to you: remember that your baby bird marriage is a beacon of love. You shine bright.

Be unafraid of the big work ahead. There is more grace than you can imagine in store for you. Be unafraid of where you go, what you eat, how you burn brownies and fight over jobs or church or money. Be unafraid of it all.
The secret of that big leap is that grace always catches us.



dear hilary: only a glimpse

Every once in a while, I want to share with you something from my former blog (you can visit it over here). Today this letter to myself struck me, and I wanted to share it with you, and remember together the long kind of patience.

Dear Hilary,

I hit a wall in a friendship with someone not long ago. I wanted to connect, to reach out beyond myself and towards them. I wanted to make them feel at home in my heart, and I wanted to know the real answer, the messy and uncertain answer, that lies beyond what they say to just anyone. But they didn’t let me in. They held me at arm’s length, kept me at a distance. They were quiet. And now I’m at a loss – I want to know them, really know them. I want to be a part of their beautiful story. But I don’t know how to enter that space. Can you help me, Hilary? How do you coax someone out from behind their walls?


Eager to be friends


Dear Eager to be friends,

The short answer to your question is: you wait. The long answer to your question is: you wait. The middle sized answer is, yes, you know this – wait.

It’s that simple, and that difficult. Since we’ve done the simple, maybe we should talk for a brief, fleeting moment about the difficult. What’s difficult about this waiting, this sitting outside someone’s heart and wondering if they’re going to emerge, or if the doors and windows are locked tight? What makes the “no” they gave you sting so much?

I think there are probably a thousand answers to this dilemma of yours, and I can’t pretend that mine are the wisest or the most beautiful, the most elegant or the gentlest. But I empathize with you, with our hearts and minds colliding with other people’s locked doors and windows, with an eagerness to be near to someone meeting a hesitation on the other side. It’s difficult because you’re eager, sweetheart. It’s difficult because what you’re impatient for is a good thing.

You’ve recognized something in them, something beautiful, something true. You’ve been compelled by their mind or their heart or both, you went on a walk around Coy Pond and imagined being friends – really, truly friends – with them and holding their stories in your suitcase heart. You caught a glimpse of their glow and you want to be close to them. 

That’s a good thing, love. It means you’re paying attention to what is miraculous about people. Your eager heart is anxious to invite everyone inside. It’s wild love. It’s good. But at the same time it is good, it might not be time. And in love, timing is everything.

I don’t mean timing as in – can you stay friends long distance, or you just met three seconds ago and you’re leaving so it’s all over, or you’re moving to Antarctica or something. No, I mean the timing of our hearts. When we’re ready to be vulnerable, to draw near to each other. When we feel the tug together. When we are willing and able to unlock doors and windows, to let our glow, well… glow.

You can’t rush people into being ready to share their glow with you. You can’t demand that they reveal the hidden treasures of their heart. You can’t force someone you care deeply about to care at the same time, in the same way, in the same place… The “no” and the distance is difficult because your heart is hanging on the end of the line. The “no” is difficult because you see what it lovely in them and you want to rejoice in it. The “no” is difficult because you worry that it means you’re not worthy enough or deep enough to contain the glow they carry inside them.

But can I tell you something, Eager? It is not a question of whether you could carry their heart. It is a question of whether or not you are meant to carry their heart right now. And you can’t force or rush the answer to that question. 

The answer is “wait.” Let the glow emerge in its own time, in the time that is right for who you are and who you want to become. Don’t try to persuade or sweet talk them into letting those walls down – let time and wind and rain and laughter bring them down all on their own. Concentrate on loving what you do know about them, enjoying the wild gift of them… and make your heart warmer.



Wait, love. And while you’re waiting to discover what you’re going to be, whether you are going to be friends or lovers or simply two strangers who smile at each other? Give thanks for the glimpses of the glow.

Always, give thanks for the glimpses.