when i meet my ghosts

The ghosts cling to me, thin and cobwebbed. They trail behind me. I don’t notice them for 1,000 days and then I play a song, five minutes of praise and the ghosts crowd the car, clamoring for my attention. They all want to hold my hand. They all want to remind me, to whisper their moment back into life.

There are 43 days of ghosts and then there are 180 days of ghosts that surround them and there are moments that stretch too far forwards and backwards to count.

They are ghosts dressed in scrubs and halogen lights. They are ghosts that use hand sanitizer and take off all jewelry below the elbow. They are ghosts of footsteps and clipboards and bedsides.

I tell myself we have moved farther out on the water. I tell myself that me and God, we are so much farther out, we are finally okay together again, we can talk.

But when I sing that the grave cannot hold what your grace has justified, when I try to sing that this is the day that the Lord has made, and I will rejoice and be glad in it then I am a living ghost, driving the old roads by the Waco airport, praying, believing for a miracle that became 43 days and two surgeries and 7,000 cotton tipped applicators and 104 trach changes and two nights where only the ghost of my heart kept beating and only the ghost of my lungs kept breathing as we suctioned and prayed and ran out of oxygen and drove to the hospital.

What should I do with these ghosts? One moment I declare that they should be banished, for there is no use for them here where we are all living. And then I feel my daughter moving inside me and I see my son moving outside me and I realize that I do not want to give them up to the God whose name I sometimes cannot really speak. I do not want to know how frail my own arms are. I do not want to keep going in pursuit of him. I imagine that Peter’s sinking was not just because he doubted, no, it was also weariness, because the days are long and the nights can be longer, living with the mystery of the Son of God. I imagine that the work of faith to keep your feet afloat was too much for him – how often it is too much for me. How far away Jesus must have seemed on that dark water. How far away Jesus seems to me when the ghosts remember for me how very deep and dark is the sea.

This is not a story of banishing those ghosts, this is not a story of dismissing them with the fierce words of promise or the declarations of Zephaniah spread over me like a shield. This is not a story of taking respite from the storm in the Word because here the Word is in the storm, and the Word is troubled waters, in the very midst of them, not just a peaceful bridge over.

But the Word of God is not a ghost.

No, the Word of God is living and active, and sharper than a sword… and it pierces past my memories and the clouds of tears in the Target parking lot. There is no easy resolution. But there is encounter. Among the waves, in the water itself, there Jesus comes to meet me.

It’s been almost two years since I walked the hallways of the NICU. And there are songs that call up those footsteps and Subway still tastes like waiting for a surgeon’s call – but now I see Jesus walking next to me. We haven’t talked much about those days.

But we somehow have been in them together.

Love,
hilary

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when this is making a home

I was fourteen. The age where all your limbs are back to their newborn feeling, you’ve changed jeans sizes twice or three times, up and down as your body asserts sheer aliveness. I tripped over things all the time, and more than one well-placed odd brick in the familiar sidewalks in Newburyport were my undoing all summer.

Dread finds you like a slow drop of water dragging its way down your back. It slides over you, leaves a sticky trail behind in its wake. The international terminal at Logan airport, November, my newly teal and purple colored braces, an endless drip of details. My dad’s suitcase, borrowed for the occasion, in the back, and my backpack, forcibly begged a few nights before – white and blue, Jansport like the other girls, but mine was too new, too shiny. It didn’t look like I skied across open fields on the weekends with it. I tried to scuff it with my hands as I sat in the front seat, my mother chatting in the back of the van, my dad’s eyes keen on the road ahead of us.

“You’re going to have so much fun,” my mother told me, her voice almost singing. I nodded dumbly. “It’s not every day you get to go to France for a whole month!” I only half-hearted smiled, whispered, “Mais, oui,” before I stopped, almost in tears.

Departure is like dread. The airport was immediately close but traffic kept it ever-approaching, past the dog racing track exit and the two dangerous rotaries and the sixteen Dunkin’ Donuts, on both sides of the highway. We parked, we made our way to AirFrance check in. We saw my classmates. My mother, who is relentlessly kind and friendly, chatted with the teachers. My dad drank a small coffee quietly, patted me on the shoulder, smiled.

It was the first time I’d left home.

I used to think being a homebody means being someone afraid of change, someone who doesn’t adventure, the lack of curiosity. I am both, but they don’t mean each other. A homebody, I have learned, is more often the person who burrows deep into places, who scatters pieces of himself into the walls and floors and doorways and sidewalks, builds belonging with place. They’re the people who trace the same path on their morning run, not only out of habit, but out of love. They love home, but home is also the thing they know best how to make, everywhere.

I was a new twenty, in the city almost two months when my father came to visit. I met him at the Newseum cafeteria, coming all the way over from my internship site on the Metro, moving with the sure footing of my SmarTrip card and my work wardrobe. I took him to dinner at my favorite restaurant, loud as it was with the happy hour crowds drinking blueberry martinis while we had water and burgers and fries, and I told him the stories: Eastern Market, walking to the Metro, learning to cook a little on my own, the way that I never thought I would, the Baptist church I went to, the almost-tattoo in Adams Morgan.

“You’ve made a home here, Hil,” my father told me as we walked back towards Union Station under a still-warm sky, “It’s so good to see.”

Home is not about travel or return. Home is about widening spaces in the heart.

No one famous said that, I don’t think, but it sounded wise.

The day of my wedding, I saw my dad first when I was trying to move a box of bouquets into the room where I was getting ready with my bridesmaids. I saw my mom a little later, when I was trying to give my car keys to someone. She was wearing one of my favorite dresses she owns, a cornflower blue, and I remember she laughed. There was a remarkable kind of laughter that day, rich, full, the kind that bubbles over and makes you think you must gather it, the woman at the well first hearing of living water.

The kind of laughter you grow accustomed to over the years, the kind that fills you and fills you and gifts you the grace and courage to leave, to begin.

And this is how I have learned to begin to make a home, ten years after that first departure:

to fill the rooms with laughter.

Love,
hilary

the airport

I was scared out of my mind in the ten minutes before I met you in that airport. I paced in and out of one of those news stands that sells magazines I know I shouldn’t buy but almost always do when I’m in airports on my way somewhere, that sells packages of peanut M&Ms and gum. Once I bought a pair of headphones for way too much money because I couldn’t imagine flying all the way to Baltimore and then taking the train to DC without a soundtrack (I almost always imagine my life to a soundtrack, as if somewhere someone wants to capture scenes of me with my head against a train window listening to The Civil Wars). I paced in and out of it, over and over, running one hand over my shoulders in that gesture of comfort you’ve now seen a half dozen times and through my hair, which wouldn’t be tamed no matter what I did, thinking about what I would do? The possibility of you, walking toward me in that airport terminal, the possibility of really seeing you…  I was so scared and so excited, and I paced in between packages of peanut M&Ms and People hoping that I’d figure out how to hide from you that my heart was beating a thousand times a minute, because I’d been waiting. And if I had known it, I’d have played “Dust to Dust” on repeat as I waited.

Sometimes I think we’re afraid of the beautiful.

The airport is this place I’d always imagined I’d meet you. In between a few of the times I imagined flying to Scotland in March or driving to Texas (I imagined sitting in my car outside your driveway and just hoping you’d be curious who I was, that you’d walk outside barefoot or your garage door would be open and I would walk in, halfway, and you’d be there painting) – I’ve always kind of hoped it would be the airport. It carries the ache of leaving and the joy of arriving, the familiar and the new. Somehow, in the long hallways and the too-bright lights, in the incessant announcements of delays and baggage claim carousel numbers, that’s where I always find myself again. It is the place where I cried about my sister getting married while eating a bagel from Dunkin’ Donuts. It is where I first left home – flying on Air France as an awkward and gangly 9th grader. It is where I first came home – England and Boston, oh, how I remember sobbing my way home from DC in the Baltimore airport at 6am realizing that I left, no certainty, no promise of return to that place.

The airport is where I meet that beautiful I am afraid of.

That beautiful is living in the carry-on bags courtesy of Virgin Atlantic they used to make for us with crayons and coloring books of airplanes who had friendly faces, in eating too many Twizzlers looking at a bridal magazine in a Houston terminal. The beautiful is in how I pace waiting for you in the basement baggage claim, how I check my phone so often, how I played Horse Feathers in July and country in August, how I used to fly to DC on a whim because something in me was aching for friends and cupcakes and the memory of me, there, and how I would come home, confused and remade.

The beautiful is here. Isn’t that the point of this long winding post? That the beautiful is arriving, is closer than we think?

That first time I found you running with my phone half out of my hand and losing track of the people I ran into on the way, searching for you in the crowds of late afternoon tourists and umbrellas, that was the beautiful.

And now, I anchor myself to it again – the beautiful is close to us.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: a gradual slope

Dear Hilary,

There was a boy, a wild and free and brave boy who did the best he could to hurt me as little as possible. and he really made me braver, trusting God more, and less selfish than i thought possible. regardless of whether or not i would’ve chosen him as husband – i, undoubtedly, still love him. essentially, though, he had to say ‘i like you, alot. but not always.’ and now that we’ve both had about a month off work, we’re back in the same office – not simply completing the same tasks in separate cubicles, but a part of the same ministry – planting and growing the Word, in a community that’s washing each other’s feet kind of family. we’re not afforded the opportunity to ‘have space.’

How do i help my heart mend, not simply from being hurt, but from being hurt that his eyes are light and as sparkling as ever; he talks to me without regret or sadness, and that seems to have been the case from day one. i’m learning to let go, but what do i do about the lump in my throat that comes when i see how easily his fingers let loose?

Love,
I still notice it

Dear I still notice,

It must have been winter, because there was ice on the sidewalk during our three minute meander to the theater. It must have been almost spring though, too, because I almost fell once or twice as the ice melted under our feet, a hopeful kind of melting, as if the ground itself wanted to be free of the long months of February and March. I’d known him more than a year. I’d passed notes for a few months. Once I tied one with some blue ribbon I found in an unused classroom during lunch and I impulsively wrote, “love hilary” on the outside of the note, creased it again and again in my pocket before I gave it to him.

So it must have been the end of winter when he told me that “he liked me too much” to have ever wanted a relationship. He told me almost laughing, a joke we were sharing that I couldn’t catch the punchline of. I remember vaguely that he wore the same jacket to school every day, a brown frayed corduroy one that made me wonder if he was cold walking to and from his car every morning across the frozen parking lot. He said so many things in that walk to theater, his laughter moving so swiftly to confusion and then something that sounded like pity. Because he liked me too much, we’d make an amazing power couple, but you see, as friends.

I saw him at school every day for the next four months. We had lunch in a group together every week, his brown corduroy jacket and his old sneakers and all I could think when it was happening was how could he laugh like that, tell stories about his guitar or the rival high school debate team, how could he be so whole, while I sat and thought my life would surely end and it could never be the same and it was never and always and everything, and I was heartbroken.

So I wanted to tell you and me both, me that girl not all that long ago, who longed for him to long for her, who wondered (and still wonders) about the wholeness we think we understand in other people – I wanted to tell us that hearts mend on a gradual slope. You walk through each day and notice one hundred things. You walk through the next, and perhaps you only notice 97, perhaps there are three things, the way he holds a coffee cup, the laugh he has when he heard something that makes him nervous as well as happy, the sound of his fingers against a keyboard, that somehow fade. And the next day, maybe something comes back, and something else leaves, and time is the healer not because time makes anyone less the wonder that you always knew them to be, but because we move in the slow swirl of the months and days, and we are freed by the movement. 

You don’t know how he is healing – and I say it in the present tense because even if he ended things, he must also heal, mend, build back together his self from the threads and pieces of what’s come before. How he moves along the gradual slope is hidden from you. How he heals in the midst of seeing your lovely self, and all the hundred small things he knows about you – how you hold a coffee cup and laugh in the morning and sign your name on an office birthday card – is his. Yours is yours. If you can, try not to compare how it looks like he feels to how you know yourself to feel.

You mend by moving in the swirl of those months, by sharing the space you must share but not looking too long or too worried in his direction at the conference table.

We are freed by the movement. We are freed by the way time so gently journeys us back and away and yes, at the pace it must be, you will find yourself looking again – and you have let go.

Love,
hilary

you free my heart, 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,

We’re sitting in a Starbucks together, alternating putting our hands to our faces in excitement or frustration, as we try to shape our words just so, keep them honest and true, write theses and personal statements, work out this life in the way we have for so long – in the syllables sounded out silently by the reader, heard again and always for the first time.

Your last letter to me. Can I say any more – but we both know it was something wondrous and I’ll leave it at that.

But your being is a better letter to me, always was and is – the way you look at people when you think I can’t see you, when you smile at them gently, when you rage in the car about all the things but you soften, always, and you remember out loud for us both that there is good and we are to seek it.

You’re a seeing, and a seeking, man.

You teach me. When you write to me, and I smile at you and we lock eyes over the screens and the white noise of this Starbucks, you ask me what it is, and I shake my head, and I tilt it just so and take a sip of my coffee and you return to your words, and me to this letter, and I know that you know I am still smiling over you – it’s that you’re teaching me something about the best story that we’ve been told that makes me want to tell it better. The way you tell our love story is the way we should all be telling His – fearless and free.

You’re a seeking, and a seeing, man.

When I was in France the last time, just before senior year of high school, we had this one day at the musée Rodin, my favorite museum in Paris. We had a picnic, I think (there is a picture of us all in the grass, me in this grey and white striped shirt with sunglasses perched awkwardly on my head) before we spent time in front of the Bourgeois de Calais and were sent into the museum to draw. There is this sculpture there, The Kiss, and I remember walking by it, over and over, too afraid to stop in front of it for too long, because there was love deep and wild and true, there was love alive in the stone, as if Rodin had freed something, his creating work a work of revelation more than conjuring. Sharna drew it – she was always good at art – but I was too afraid to put my pencil to the paper. I drew instead a sculpture in the same room, called the Hand of God, and my shading was, as it always is, not true to life, and my pencil wobbled and so it’s mangled on the page. I wasn’t brave enough to draw The Kiss, to be near that kind of love (because it’s there, alive, a gesture I think, towards the wildest love of all) but I longed to be Sharna that day, sitting at the feet of that moment writing it over and over as my pencil traced along a moleskin journal page.

I’ve thought about that afternoon a lot in the space here, where we are together. I think if I were to find myself there, I would be brave enough to draw it. I would sit down at the feet of that sculpture, look at how the two lovers grow up from the stone itself. I would let my pencil hit the page and tilt, scratch the shadows and lines in the way I learned but never mastered, because though I will never draw like Sharna did, you free my heart to be in the midst of love like that. You free my heart to see it and to seek it.

You’re a seeking and a seeing man, and you’re freeing me to see, and to seek, those things which years ago in a museum in Paris I learned I wanted, and was afraid to know.

“Mais cette transposition de ma restitus ne fait rien à mon amour car je t’aime à minuit comme à midi ; les heures, les jours, les mois, les années glissent sur lui sans le ralentir ni l’amoindrir. Au contraire, chaque minute qui s’écoule est un siècle d’amour de plus pour l’éternité, c’est ainsi que mon cœur thésaurise depuis le premier moment où il t’a aimé.” – Juliette Drouet à Victor Hugo, 1 décembre 1860.

Love, always,
hilary

so. we got engaged.
so. we got engaged.

i offer us a memory, 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,

Do you remember our first Skype conversation two years ago? You had said it would be good to meet, I ran 7 miles I was so nervous, down the winding road we walked down a little ways your first afternoon here, two years later. You had said it was probably about time we met, given all that we had already shared, all the words that had tumbled out between us, that very long analogy I’d given you about my friends as doctors in a hospital (I still don’t think we know what I am, actually, maybe that’s something to ponder), the lists of books…

Before I got on Skype to talk to you, I listened to “Tonight, Tonight” by Hot Chelle Rae. Yes. It’s true. It had been a song of the summer up in the office where I worked, the way we cheered ourselves up for a long afternoon of answering questions about Orientation, the size of the mattresses from frantic moms in Target holding two different sets of sheets. I listened to it in my car loud on the way home sometimes, and something about it made me feel, for a second, foolish and completely unselfconscious. So I played it three times after that long run and then you called.

We already know this story, but I think memory has a funny and beautiful way of moving between people, passed back and forth, and it is never quite the same memory. Maybe that means it always hid more than we thought it did. Each telling changes what it was; it isn’t the same story. I don’t know if you listened to music or if you ordered a special kind of coffee to impress me (I was drinking iced tea out of a plastic cup, so, nothing too fancy for me). And the details that we labor over as writers, the things we aim to pin down with our words – things like, the night here was a deeper blue than it normally is, the kind that inks the spaces between the stars, tracing their outlines in the sky 

maybe those are the things that escape us on purpose.

Maybe as writers, we have to be bested by our stories, work as hard as we can to capture them on paper only to realize that they are already away, laughing a little as they tear up and off, into the field, into the future, into the retellings that we don’t know how to enter just yet.

I think when I am asked in a kitchen somewhere, with faces and eyes that are widened in surprise that I ever lived a different life than the one I’ll be wrapped up in, when they (the crowd of them, whoever they are, whatever they are named) ask me, I will tell a new story. Every time. And it will be new to me in the telling and the retelling.

Writing is good for us, Preston, probably more because of what it teaches us we know nothing about and cannot say and we have spun this tale around and around and around again, how it is good because it brings us nearer a better silence. But I think about it with memory – that memory of listening to “Tonight, Tonight” in my bedroom before that first Skype call, now as we round our way towards what must be dozens (dare I say it, hundreds? it feels like that), even now –

the memory is a new story.

I think about the Law God gave, how much was about the work of remembrance. Establish this as a memorial, He declares, knowing that in an old memory is new life.

All of this because the song played on the radio, and I remembered two years and a handful of days ago. All this, because I think we must be a people who practice the work of remembrance, who make things new by their retelling, who are bested by the stories more alive than we think them.

Love, always,
hilary

myself, eighteen

I’m trapped in a heard of other freshmen in Boston all wearing matching tan tee-shirts with an orientation logo emblazoned on it, promising me that if anyone wanted to think I was a cool, sophisticated college student, they will see my t-shirt and sneakers and know better.

I hold my phone in the palm of my hand inside my pocket, sweating against the keys. I wait, and wait. I spend the first three weeks waiting.

It would have been better if I didn’t have the evidence that I had spent the last ten days in the middle of the woods in upstate New York telling a group of people I had never met before that this boy, he and I were a thing. A thing I couldn’t define, a thing I couldn’t quite pin down, one Starbucks lemonade and one impulsive kiss against a car door the afternoon before I left, but a thing. I was sure of it.

He doesn’t write back. I keep myself away from the ten digits I’m sure I’ve memorized in tracing them over and over in my pocket, because I don’t want to text him but I want to text him, and I promise I have to let one more hour go by where I’m silent, and the hour becomes two, becomes a week… and maybe I don’t know the ten digits as well anymore, was it 7-8 or 8-7 and was there a 9? But I imagine what I’d say, in my first-year indignant heart, it is rageful and spiteful and angry. And I start to spin the story.

I tell my roommate in hushed whispers at 4am while we’re eating cookie dough straight from the tube how much experience I have with boys. I laugh to the girls on my floor as one of them puts a 5 day Garnier hair dye in my hair about the fact that if you kiss someone in the middle of the night on a beach you’re going to find you are covered in sand, completely, the next morning. I proclaim that my love language is physical touch. And I wink.

God catches up to me on a walk around the quad right before first semester finals. I don’t notice Him at first, walking head bent to the concrete against the early-December drizzle. But I’m worn thin in trying to write that scene between Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Birmingham Jail and his wife. I’m thinking about stage directions when I realize God is there, too.

Do you want to talk about what happened?

I have said no a thousand times, I remind Him. I’ve told the story already. It’s better the way I tell it. It’s safer the way I tell it. I keep walking, repeating things about the Kings and the scene in the jail. I read over the words in my head.

Do you want to talk about what happened?

I still say no, but perhaps there is a crack, a pause, just small enough for a bit of the Spirit to slip inside my well-walled heart. I sit on a bench, damp from the rain that just stopped. I put my books next to me, not realizing until I hear the slap of paper on water that I put them in a puddle. I cringe, and put them on the wet concrete at my feet.

You cared for someone.

A pause.

He didn’t stay.

Another pause.

And this means something to your heart.

I start to cry. I’m eighteen and in college and I had a thing that wasn’t a thing and I told that group of people in the middle of the woods in New York that I had a thing that turned out not to be a thing, and now I’ve told everyone that I was pleased with myself, with all that I did and said and I made it this story, and that was going to make it feel better, was going to make it safe again, I was going to be safe inside the laughter and the knowing wink and the hair dying on the first floor bathroom.

It can’t be the kind of beautiful I want it to be, Hil, until you let it mean something in your heart. It can’t be restored to you if you keep it.

I stop crying.

Let Me have this story.

I don’t want to give it back, and my version is safer, steered clear of it meaning something. Of it hurting. Of it aching, and healing.

Let Me have it.

The rest of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, and counting, I watched Him make more of this story – more healing, more peace, more delight, more laughter – maybe even something like wisdom.

It began that first night. It began with the thing that wasn’t a thing, that became an entirely different and more beautiful thing. I gave Him back the story.

Love,
hilary