the ache is still beautiful, a letter to preston

Do y’all remember when Preston and I were writing all those letters last year, Tuesdays and Thursdays, writing out this ramble through faith and life and coffee late at night and Gossip Girl and all the rest? And how, those letters, they were the beginning of something wondrous? We are beginning again, new and the same, our selves familiar and not. You can read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

I will never, ever, ever, EVER do long-distance.

Was that what I said? Did I say that to you once, in a conversation, in passing, probably tilting my head the way I do when I’m not sure what I’m saying is true, but I want to convince you that I’m being really thoughtful? I imagine you were painting in your garage at the time, and I could hear the paint hit the canvas with some kind of fierceness that I didn’t understand. You paint forcefully, and sometimes I think maybe that’s the way of making beauty; a little forceful, the way that brightness asks for strength to bear it. Sometimes, when we’re on Skype and you can’t see me, I close my eyes, and listen to you painting, and the silence says more than my words will.

But me and that long distance. My vehemence when I said those words seems to grow in my memory, a defiance to it I’m not sure was there, but makes a story somehow wilder, so I tell it that way. I was stamping my feet against the old hardwood of my bedroom floor, or something like that, insisting that the way of love must be just something daily, something clear and easy and full of Friday nights barefoot on a beach or along a boardwalk somewhere and that attempting to build across miles and continents and time changes was the worst idea, ever.

Never mind the stories I have been told my whole life. Never mind the long walk through the woods behind campus that sunlit afternoon when my dear friend told me that our choices weren’t ever about distance, but about steadfastness in the face of it. That distance could be agonizingly hard but that the space created between those two distinct places, and those two distinct people, would be nearer and closer, a mystery closed to those who watch it. And of course that afternoon, when my mother opened the pages of her own writing to me, the binding frayed and worn by love and how she, like me, said she’d never do long distance.

But I knew the ache already, I said. I knew the work. I knew the uncertainty. I would never give it a try.

I knew so little, P. I knew so little of the ache.

Because this? This ache is beautiful.

This is the ache of remembering how we sit side by side at that kitchen table and make worlds with our words, offering each other living water for the journey. This is the ache of how I can hear how you laugh with me, almost falling off your chair, how I can feel your hand brush the small of my back as we go up for Eucharist, how I remember the way you look at me sometimes, this look of wonder that just takes my breath away.

This is the ache of how our hearts whisper loud across time zones but gentle when we’re in the same room. This is the ache of wanting to tell you when I burst in the door out of breath from running with God that I realized, just then, the radical grace that is when God and I are quiet, together, how I can feel Him running with me but how sometimes, when I complain to Him (like I did the other day) that He feels far away His words are sharp and quick about the reason He runs with me (love, and sanctification, and my feeble heart). I’m longing to tell you, not in messages or typed words, but in the look on my face and the unspoken question I know you’ll ask me, and how I will answer just by nodding and smiling. And we will have said a thousand things without saying them.

I knew nothing about the wild love of long distance. I knew nothing about how the bridges it builds withstand the longest days and heaviest hearts, how the spaces of Skype and these two blogs and how you write my name on an envelope, they are spaces that are gifts, too. And I am the first to say, to you, to whoever might read this, that the distance aches and hurts and the dip and sway of it sometimes knocks me over.

But I’d not be me if I didn’t admit to you, that more truly, I knew so little of this, how beautiful it is. How wondrous they seem now, the people I thought foolish for trying something I called impossible. How beautiful, how brave. How I now want to call each of them up and say, “I need you to know I see your courage and your strength, how you wove the threads that kept you, cocooned in love.” How I want to tell them that the ache is agonizing and how I miss you,

but how their ache, and ours, is still beautiful.

Love, always,
hilary

Advertisements

the world rights itself, a letter to preston

Dear Preston,

I started this letter as a blog post a couple of weeks ago, thinking I’d be able to somehow manage to make it work, say what I want it to say. But you got on a plane yesterday and my words keep tangling themselves up in the ache of leaving. So I’m just going to let my mind wander next to yours for a while, okay?

“I feel weird, God.” I crack open the prayer, feet finding their stride. Three minutes later there is a line of sweat down my spine, the sun has climbed high in the afternoon and I am nowhere closer to knowing what to say. “I feel out of place, standing here, wanting to be in the story that is not mine, wanting to be a part of things, always, a part of the center of things. What’s wrong, Lord? Why can’t I pray?”

I kick at the ground and achieve a magnificent spray of gravel.

When I was in England a few years ago, I remember suddenly, I walked across long empty fields in the afternoons. I have never quite understood what it was I kept looking for in the silences – perhaps it was simply the feeling of not being alone with my small muddied boots and big troubled heart. Or perhaps it was a feeling of trust again, that the world, so terrible and so beautiful, was not against us. I walked and walked, preaching myself a sermon for Palm Sunday about how deeply human the story is – how we can each, in every moment, shift our posture to Pilate, to Peter, to Mary. (I know I told you this story, on Skype, but bear with me)

I don’t know how to bear the distance other than to keep praying that somehow the field years ago in England is not so far away from the field where you were sophomore year of college in a late afternoon when you weren’t sure what you were becoming or how. I don’t know how to understand the separation other than to think of me running last week with the world tilting on its axis, Madeleine L’Engle and missing you and a wish for more beautiful words all happening at once, and to think of you, wherever you are when you read this, if it’s in your kitchen or while you wait for coffee or somewhere else… to think that such moments are us in one big field and perhaps that is the secret to love reaching always across the miles –

time and a meadow,

a field somewhere and when before we knew each other,

somehow, through the telling and retelling of our stories,

in the chaos of arranging tables on Saturday and the quiet of driving home, holding hands the way we do now,

when I was preaching a sermon to myself in England and you were in a field in Texas,

and when a little boy of seven gives me free pink lemonade on my way home in the afternoon, the world rights itself.

For a moment, a thin place on the backroads in the haze of summer: and again, the still, small voice, the one that whispers, calm your heart, that day He says, all shall be well.

That’s as much as my words can hold, I think. All shall be well. And perhaps time and distance are not such fearsome things as I once thought.

Love, always,
hilary

the greater work, a letter to preston

Do y’all remember when Preston and I were writing all those letters last year, Tuesdays and Thursdays, writing out this ramble through faith and life and coffee late at night and Gossip Girland all the rest? And how, those letters, they were the beginning of something wondrous? We are beginning again, new and the same, our selves familiar and not. You can read his last letter to me here

Dear Preston,

She asked me while the rest of the congregation was singing the third verse of the hymn, which I can’t remember in this moment, why I was so nice. She smiled up at me as she said it, flung her arms around my neck and hugged me as if she might never see me again. Her hair was in two braids, which she proudly swung from side to side to show me – “do you like my braids? Mommy did them!” And I held her close, feeling the small weight that is somehow cosmic, that in this small person there are more wonders than in all the world, because she is fearfully made, because she is. That wonder of being – that you talk about in your letter, that simple and terrifying complicated wonder of being. She is, and as I hold her, and she says, in her outdoor voice, “I love you so much!” I close my eyes.

But before I really pray, before I really get to the moment of something deep and beautiful whispered over her, before any of that, she crawls off my lap and runs back to her pew, flings her arms around her brother and waves to me, before they both take each other’s hands and go to Sunday School.

I think that’s the way of the world, Preston, the way that I have trouble with – that what we cherish we must somehow release.

I got to hold her for a few minutes, but as she wriggled free and tumbled off my lap and ran back to her family, her lavender dress billowing from the fan and the wind that always moves through the sanctuary, I remembered that the act of holding is, must be, an act of release.

I want to hold onto her forever. I want to hold onto people and places, hold the whole wide world in my hands (I played that for you on the backroads, your hand in mine). I used to think that was the great work: to hold fast, to hold people secure in your heart and your arms and your thoughts about them. I used to think it was the great work to stay close with your arms encircled and your eyes closed, praying over the little girl while she nestled against you.

But the truth is the greater work is to hold one another, hold this world that we want, as you say, through the threaded grace of wanting it because of God, who is the first mover and the first lover of the world – hold all that, and then release it.

And I think about the Cross, how those arms outstretched are at the same moment holding us close to the heart of a God who is too terrifying to be understood, and releasing us into the water that flows from the right side of the temple, releasing us into the life that He came to give fully, releasing us from the embrace of the world into the embrace of God. Offering and release. They’re connected, I think.

If we close our selves, even around the things we love most, arms encircled around the little girl and her braids or around the best friend or around even the moments of walking through fields of shocking red and purple in Southern France –

if we hold them too closely, we cannot make the gesture of offering. Our bodies which mirror our hearts cannot do the greater work: the work of loving so fiercely and so wildly that we do, in fact, release our hold on that which we love – 

if we hold them too closely, we lose the moment to see them as gift, to offer back praise to the Giver – 

if we hold them too closely, we miss the greater work of love. 

Love, always, 
hilary

 

praise is calling, a letter to preston

Do y’all remember when Preston and I were writing all those letters last year, Tuesdays and Thursdays, writing out this ramble through faith and life and coffee late at night and Gossip Girl and all the rest? And how, those letters, they were the beginning of something wondrous? We are beginning again, new and the same, our selves familiar and not. This is the first of the new letters – but you can read Preston’s last one, from last October, here. (And just so you know, he is unlike anyone I have met before. In all those amazing ways that words fail to capture. I’m amazed and awed and all the rest by him)

Dear Preston,

“You know what I think? I think maybe I’m finding it. You know, the THING.” I cradle the phone lovingly, just the way I used to when she and I would talk the miles between New York and Massachusetts in our college years. I remember how we didn’t know who we even might want to begin to be, how then, everything was new and she taught me to joy in that, rather than to fear. I remember how the not knowing used to send me running for some comfort somewhere, for books or academic sounding research projects, but she said I had a calling different than that – something about writing, about telling stories.

“I think I’m finding it.”

Do you remember me telling you about this conversation? Did I tell you about it? Sometimes, I think you and I have talked about everything, but I’m back to wondering if I can put words to what is going on in my heart and mind. I’m thinking about this again, this morning, in the long stretch of the day and the longer stretch of the summer, thinking about calling, thinking about what I’m hungry for.

We use the word vocation all the time. Is it because we almost never know the real word? What do you call it – the hunger that somehow feeds you? What do you call it – the thing you must do, as dear Rilke would say, the thing that calls forth from inside you and outside you and that will not relent? What do you call it – the way of being?

What I’m after, anyway, is a way of being. What I am longing for, anyway, is to wander without being lost, to ramble with a pattern, to… something. I can’t quite figure out what.

The words trip their way out of my mouth, always a little ahead of my thoughts – “I’m called to praise.”

But we all are, aren’t we?

What would be special or different about that calling?

Doesn’t God have a more unique purpose than that? (the questions begin, a slight trembling of my bright horizon line, and I blink a few times as I continue to pace the pathways of the old, familiar campus)

We live in a difficult time to talk about calling  – the emphasis has landed so heavily on our uniqueness, on our gifting, on how God has specifically called each of us to each particular, discreet, place and time and conversation, that we have forgotten how much of our calling is universal, even, dare I name it, ordinary. We spend time seeking the very thing only we can do, imagining that calling must be there, where deep gladness and deep hunger meet (I kept the napkin with that Buechner quote from a three years ago) but also where they meet and I am unique there, a pioneer.

“I’m called to praise.”

That’s what I can’t shake off. I think about the way that words can sing out from one person to another, can Name (you know, like Meg?) things as real, can breathe love. I think about how maybe my life can be flamed with praise. How maybe I can sing in the kitchen to children in the future that we should praise the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation. I think about the world, lit by praise, the hard work of perceiving what is true so that it can be mirrored and imagined and understood.

I don’t know what it holds, exactly, but you know me with things like this – I just can’t get over it. The calling to praise. Perhaps now I am just to listen closer. To the world, to people – and maybe listening is where we can begin.

Love, always,
hilary

the wondrous offering, a letter to preston

Dear Preston,

I know, we sort of stopped doing these letters for a season, and I know that we’ll talk about this, on Skype or when you are here, in my kitchen, in not so many days, but we made these letters to write our way towards the true and the beautiful. And when I saw something in church today, I wanted to tell you. I wanted to write it here, first, in this our place of beginning.

Behind our altar there is an icon of the crucified Christ. I see it every week, I’m almost blind to his face, until that moment I get on my knees and I’m asking for the Body, and for the Blood, asking Christ to enter me, asking Him to be with me in the deepest mystery. Then, I look at that icon and it is like the Orthodox say – it is a window. I feel the air move differently, a wind coming from the icon, from the altar, from the outstretched arms of that crucified Savior. I feel the air touch me as the priest’s robes swing by, the steady gesture of offering.

Today I saw something else, too. This is what I have to tell you, the moment that stopped me.

Today, I watched as the priest made the gesture of offering during the Memorial Acclamation – the final doxology where we pray, my eyes leaking a few stray tears at the steadfastness of this faith in the face of my own wavering heart, this Church who breaks and breaks and by breaking keeps us whole…

 “By him, and
with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor
and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and for ever.”

And the priest lifts the bread and wine above, and in this gesture upwards, I realized: the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ icon are still visible. 

You can see Him pinned to the cross behind the priest praying that this mystery would take place in the unity of His spirit. You can see, not his face, but his arms, stretched in offering, in love. I have never known if I can possibly understand the Cross – and the questions swirl and dip in my stomach some days – is this penal substitutionary atonement or the Moltmann suffering Christ or the cosmic redemption – (and you know how much I trip over theology)

but Preston? The outstretched arms are visible behind our offering. 

What does that tell us? What does it promise? I don’t know. But I know my heart has been stopped, that I can go no further, and though the words are tentative and tremulous I know I have seen something wondrous this morning and I wanted to tell you, I had to tell you.

Is it that Christ, to whom we offer, is visible because we are offering what already is His? We are making our offering in response to the offering already made, our sacrifice a poor remembering and reechoing through the world that we know who has stretched His arms out, once for all, and every moment? Can we see and hear the air change and move as we gesture upwards, and just behind the gesture, is the Person to whom we make the offering, who was Himself first offered?

Do you remember the scene in Gilead, the one with the baby and the girl, the leaf and the river? When they go back to the car, it says, “Glory said, ‘I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.'” That is how it feels now. I have seen something wondrous like the child and her mother kneeling in the cool clear of a stream and learning the world by sight and touch, and I do not understand one thing about it.

Christ’s arms behind our offering. Christ to whom we make the offering. Christ, invisible yet poured out in the mystery of remembering Him. Today I realized that I have sold the idea of this Eucharist is memorial so desperately short. I have thought that was not the fullest way to imagine it, not when there are mysteries of presence and participation.

But we must not make light of the remembering. Christ commanded a memorial. In remembrance of Him – almost as if He commanded that we see His arms behind each gesture of offering. That when we get on our knees to receive, we come into the memory of Jesus outstretched, offering Himself for us.

I do not understand one thing about this world. I do not understand one thing, but I wonder at each thing, holding onto it like the child with the leaf. And perhaps it is enough to know that the offering is wondrous, and beautiful, and fearsome to behold.

Love, from my heart which is wondering,
hilary

on car rides and kate rusby (a letter to preston)

Some of you know that last year, my friend Preston and I started pondering theology out loud in letters. He writes on Tuesdays, I write on Thursdays, and we wander through Gossip Girl and workloads and grace and mystery and espresso. Won’t you join us? You can read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

Thank you for your letter this week. I’m glad for the PhD, the active cooking life, the moments where you pause and realize you are in graduate school in theology, doing many of the things you once claimed on your front porch you believed you would do. I’m glad, too, that you are keeping the doors open and allowing the Holy Spirit to move freely.   You write about writing in a way that reminds me of Rilke, and all the many voices that I imagine whispering that if you see beauty, you must share it somehow. Perhaps it’s through writing or a good martini. Perhaps it’s through volunteer hours in the nursery, or long walks with friends. But we are called to share what we have been given. And I’m glad you share so generously with us.

I have been sick this week, a cold rambling through, and today I slept and listened to Kate Rusby and watched Gossip Girl (I cannot make up my mind about Blair and Chuck and Blair and Dan). And as I was listening to Kate, it rained outside, and I drank tea and remembered.

I remembered how my dad and I used to listen to her. My high school was half an hour away, near to where he worked, and so in the mornings through the year we left the house at 7:01 am. I’m a horrible morning person, silent and wrathful at being dragged out of bed, and at first we drove in with NPR Morning Edition. When Dad’s friend introduced him to Kate and her beautiful, haunting voice in form of the CD Ten (a compilation of her most popular songs), we abandoned the news to travel to England. We learned the words, and learned the space. We bought her other CDs, had specific songs that we skipped and others that got a second play.

We stopped at the same Dunkin’ Donuts every day for coffee and two doughnuts, one for him, one for me. We would sit with the car on in the parking lot, and the whole first year of middle school I would make him wait until 7:35 to pull away for the last ten minutes of the car ride. I was scared. I loved it, breathed it, believed in it, but I was also scared of it. School wasn’t home. I didn’t know how to be me. I didn’t know how to trust others or myself.

I wanted to stay close to my dad, in that silence, the car and Kate Rusby. That space helped me carry home with me when I slammed the car door and walked into math class. Her singing, and his quick hug each morning are among the greatest treasures of all those years at my beloved school.

I think this makes me a homebody. I want to steady the world, for myself and for others. I want the sweetness of routines. I want Kate Rusby in the car every morning driving to school, skipping track 11 as we round the last 3 minutes and trying to time it exactly. I want the space Dad and I made for each other with her singing and our coffee and doughnuts. I want to carry that kind of space with me, offer quick hugs and regular coffee and familiar music, my hands held out to steady others.

I think that might also be why I haven’t written about the edgier things on this blog. Part of me really wants to, wants to write about women and work, write about politics or controversial theological problems, and I find myself writing about the steadier things. The things of home, of steady hands. I remember when Anne of Green Gables is talking to Gilbert, and she says, “But I went looking for my ideals outside of myself, I discovered it’s not what the world holds for you, it’s what you bring to it.” I think I often do this – go looking for ideals outside of myself. But my ideals are the things of home, of car rides and Kate Rusby, of stillness and steadiness. And I think, for the first time, I’m beginning to love that.

Love,
hilary

when there are no words (a letter to preston)

Some of you know that last year, my friend Preston and I started pondering theology out loud in letters. He writes on Tuesdays, I write on Thursdays, and we wander through Gossip Girl and workloads and grace and mystery and espresso. Won’t you join us? You can read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

I think not long ago we were talking about writing, why we do it, and I rambled off something to you about silence – that we write to get to the better, fuller silence. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote you, only that I kept wondering the question, turning it over in my mind.

Why do we do this, this gut wrenching work, this turning our selves inside out and displaying it? I freeze every time I hover over the publish button. I think about being too revealing and being too closed off. I wonder if books are safer (are they?) because they’re bound beautiful and the words have chapters and categories, instead of spilling out all over the same website in no real order. 

Why do you, Preston? Why do you write?

Rilke keeps asking me this week: must you? Is it the thing you cannot live without? And this week my answer is such a tentative, restless yes. It’s a yes of impatience, a yes with a no lurking under it, and then a deeper, more reluctant yes lurking under that. I must write. I can’t help writing.

Some days I wish I could stop. Some days, when I close my eyes and think about the weight of this world, the ruins of St. Mary’s Cathedral you mentioned before, that one sculpture I’m desperate to see again in the Musée Rodin, the passage in Atonement that makes me cry when I read it (and I read to help myself cry in my real life sometimes, too) – I just want to stop all the words.

I want to sit in silence. I want a small punctuation mark, the comma or period, and then, that lingering space.

The pause,

The pause.

I am tired of seeing how little I’m really capable of saying well. I am tired of the tug of words on my hands, saying, “come, write the world, everything you see, never cease your amazement and sorrow and awe.” Sometimes I want to stop feeling amazed and sorrowful and awed and just feel that silence.

Do you feel that too, sitting in front of your blog or your books, wondering about the way you see the world and how much you see in it? Your post from yesterday – about the old sadness, and the hope, and the Light that breaks forth? It made me want to stop all the words, except for Pablo Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke (because in the midst of my silence I hear, not their words, but the space their words create), and have the world sit in silence.

The pause before the storm resumes. The pause when even the wind will cease howling for a moment and listen to the greater stillness that hovers over the land.

Maybe the purpose of all these words is just to reach for that silence. Maybe we are supposed to write our way there, and people everywhere sing or paint or train for marathons or bake bread or build homes or families in the unsteady journey to the greater stillness I can almost hear hovering over the land.

I’m going to leave us both with Neruda, and the deep space of his words and the swell of the ocean I imagine lived in his heart, whether he could taste and see it every day or not. I imagine that we’ll someday, somehow, live inside the stillness.

Let us look for secret things
somewhere in the world,
on the blue shore of silence
or where the storm has passed,
rampaging like a train.
There the faint signs are left,
coins of time and water,
debris, celestial ash
and the irreplaceable rapture
of sharing in the labour
of solitude and the sand. – Pablo Neruda, from On the Blue Shore of Silence

Love,
hilary