myself, twenty two

I wake up earlier than I wanted to – it’s humid here, and there is a humming in the air itself, weightier. I think about coffee, about putting on the Nashville Cast soundtrack (yes, I think about that), about lying there for a while longer. With a groan only the Holy Spirit and I know about, I pull my sneakers out from the box in my closet and a pile of other shoes tumble to the ground. I groan again.

By this time, I thought to myself last year, I’d be one of those people who are more faithful with running. I said to someone in January I would run a marathon this year – and now the prospect of the 4.5 mile loop almost sends me back to bed. I meet my not-met expectations on these runs some mornings. They lope along next to me, commenting, “Gee, I thought by 22 you’d know more about what you believe.” “You’d know how to do a lot more than boil water and not catch yourself on fire while standing next to the grill.” “You’d write more letters.” “You’d have something published.” “You’d figure out what the HECK to do with lipstick.” “You’d do one of those spring cleanings with your closet.”

22 sounded like all those things to me last year.

But this morning, I just start to talk.

I talk and talk as I run, a stream of words as busy as the streams by my house. I talk to drown out the silence of the morning, and I talk because talking is reintroduction to the pattern of being with God, the pattern of knowing Him. I talk until I can’t talk anymore, and sweat drips down my back.

I tell God that the ducks swimming in the pond are beautiful and that the morning is beautiful and there is one thing more I must do, according to the Miss Rumphius book, and that is make the world more beautiful, and boy do I hope, Father, that you have some ideas for me. Because I’ll sow lupine seeds like Miss Rumphius or I’ll write papers about Lonergan’s philosophy of education or I’ll listen for hours to the stories – such good stories – of the people You allow me to know. I’ll do anything, I tell Him, only let me stay near to the beauty of You?

And I talk and spread my hands, all the way down the long hill, until, abruptly, the words stop. God enters.

Quiet your heart. I am speaking. 

I bite my lip – there is always one more question and before I can stop it, it trips off my tongue, and God, I think He laughs.

Quiet your heart. I am speaking. 

To stay in the beautiful a little longer. To linger, gently, in the morning, heart quieted against the fast-fading ideas of what I thought I would be. To hear the silence, again, that stillness that shouts His presence, to be steadfast to it above the noise.

I want to scatter lupine seeds across the plains of this widening world.



be, still.

Tonight I walked back to the chapel, after the black caps and gowns had paraded past, had gone out to dinner, had found their way to celebrations and shouting and the I-can’t-believe-it’s-here that was my own just a year ago. I walked, and walked, feeling the blisters where my shoes don’t quite fit my feet, feeling the dip and pull of my shoulders after carrying the day, feeling the weight of my body pulled towards the earth.

Maybe my knees knew where they wanted to go before my heart did.

I sat alone in the chapel, in a back pew. I stared at the empty chairs, the empty, echoing room. There were only a few chandeliers lazy and lit, swaying almost as an afterthought of wind. We breathed, the room and I. We waited each other out. I waited, what felt like an age in the sweetly dimming sunlight, for God or maybe just for some sense of something out there, some echo of yes, we see you, from the pews and benches, from the hymnals flung in piles or the ferns beckoning me with their long green fingers.

Oh, God, love is hard.

It is hard to want a thing so delicate, so very unsayable, that our words gesture at it almost helplessly. It is hard to walk in a thing that I barely know. It is hard to widen my heart past the length of the day and the ache in my feet and the steady drumbeat in my left temple. I slid off my shoes – a reflex – and I folded in on myself.

God, love is hard.

I sat and sat and sat and sat. And nothing changed. No whisper in the breeze through the single open window. No flame of hope or joy streaming over me. No promises or reminders resounding in the empty room. I could hear the fans whir themselves to sleep. I could hear a clock keep its time. I could almost hear the slight shake in my hands against the edge of the pew in front of me. But the house of worship was quiet.

I’m the girl who always wants the voice from heaven reassurance. I’m the girl who expects Him to say it loud and say it obvious, a gold star on my forehead at the end of each day, an answer when I worry. And the stillness echoed so loud I was afraid I might drown in it. Be still and know… I’ve never know how to do that. Be still.

My mother knows how to make silence with the littlest ones on Sunday mornings. With them, she weaves stillness through their hands and toes and flailing elbows and anxious knees. The youngest learn to listen to the silence, the hollow widened space where God walks. Again, they must teach me. Again, I know so little, sitting alone in the chapel in the middle of the sunset chasing away the afternoon. I know so little about a world hollowed and lit by silence. I know so little about how God sounds; I wonder how much I have lost in not listening.

But it was still in the chapel tonight.

Maybe that was Him.


in the church parking lot

“They don’t tell you that being brave also means hurt.” God and I are back in my car on a Sunday morning. It’s before anything has happened in the day, but I’m dreading going in. “I don’t want to talk to you. Just so you know.”

We sit in silence, and I imagine He is waiting next to me. He isn’t impatient but we both know the clock moves its way forward and that soon, I have to hold sticky hands and smile.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” I begin again, but God is a bit too gentle this morning for me to keep my posture. “How could you do this to me? After all of it? How could you ask me to give that up? How could you ask so much of me all the time? It’s too hard. I can’t. And I know you say you’re Alpha and Omega, that in you my heart is safe and all of that. But where have you taken me?”

God frightens me out of talking. The silence in the car is so absolute I might have stopped breathing. My heartbeat has quieted to a dim metronome. The cars on the highway don’t notice, but I wonder if the trees in front of me have softened their blossoming, just for a moment, to eavesdrop.

“I told you it would be costly, Hilary Joan.” That voice. Always, that voice.

I turn in my seat, knock my glasses off and begin to wail.

“But where are we? Where am I?”

As if knowing that God and I have gone up to a mountaintop to look out over my life wasn’t clear enough, he offers me the metaphor. I type this and the silence deafen.


I keep typing, deciding that I will make this blog post about being brave and how it hurts, that I will make it about what I am doing, learning, how I have grown the wings and can fly now. I turn the radio on, and the sun creeps through the windows.


I pause in my typing, close my eyes.

“Remain in my love.”

I keep my eyes closed. The light tickles my eyelids and the birds have taken up a chorus about the coming morning.

But nothing more comes. The voice is gone.

remain in my love.

I sit still.


when it is all quiet

I never really know what to do about writing. There were weeks this year when it felt like the light shone and the world just opened itself up to being written down. There were weeks when I thought, there aren’t enough minutes in the day for all the things I want to say, for the draft blog posts and the poems and the maybe someday play.

And then I hit the hard.

I hit the twenty-something ache, the weeks of working with tired eyes and outdated eyeshadow. The weeks of missed Skype dates with friends far away and picking at limp salads at lunch and worrying again about the same laundry lists of things, repeating conversations I’ve already had with myself too many times to count. I wore the clothes I love without loving my body in them. I put on the CD in the car called, “You are a Girl on Fire” but I was never listening. I heard people talk and laugh, and I talked and laughed, but I wasn’t really listening. I didn’t lean in towards their story, close my eyes over the wine and imagine all that they were saying behind what they were saying. I didn’t listen.

When you don’t listen, you can’t write.

You cannot tell us how the car sounds scrambling over the rocky leftover snow on a Tuesday morning when you are late. You cannot tell us how it feels to shrug on yet another cardigan because you’re yet again worried that you don’t know how to dress yourself and you’re close to being almost 23, for gosh sakes, and you still fight these old battles with your body and heart and mind.

You cannot tell the story of discovering there are at least five poems that you want to work on, how you realize it in a rush while checking your email in a crowded room at the National Press Club that one of the things that you want most is to work on those five poems.

You cannot put a pen to the page when you aren’t listening. Because writing is more about listening than it is about writing.

That’s why playwrights eavesdrop; so that they can capture the sound of characters in rush hour on the green line, or the silence that lingers when a couple stops arguing to order matching lattes in the hipster coffeeshop. That’s why poets talk about how birds holler through sycamores, or how love is shaped in clinking spoons nestled in their drawer next to the steak knives. That’s why all of us who blog, who scribble on napkins, who try to breathe life into syllables and consonants have our ears to the ground and the sky.

So it has been quiet, because in my haste and frustration, I stopped listening.


And in my haste, frustration, not-hearing, I realized how much I love to write. How not writing is an ache that fills me, seeps in the crevices of my Saturday nights and my Thursday afternoons.

And the ache is about love. And the ache is about calling.

And the ache says, light another candle along the road.

And the ache says, listen.


for when it isn’t time yet

I’ve been thinking about those big dreams we have. Sometimes people call them “the God-sized dreams.” Sometimes we call them wild. Sometimes we call them brave or reckless or even the dumbest thing we’ve ever thought. At some point, I’m guessing you’ve heard yours call out to you, and you’ve said all these things and more about it.

But the moment that we have this dream, even while we resist it and we run away from it? We also start to expect it to arrive. Immediately.

We want progress towards the goal, we want to start running, we want to see the fruits of this big dream we can hardly dare to dream, and all right away.

When we move across the country or the world, when we start the new program or job, when we give up the things that were familiar and safe because we have this dream of becoming something really unexpected and delightful, we unload our bags and think, “Where are you, dream?”

Where is the fullness? Where is the business I’ve successfully started, the website with 3,000 views a day, the advanced degree with a specialization in metabolomics? Where is the person I’ve come to become? I’ve asked this almost every day since I graduated and set off to chase a big dream of writing, a dream of higher education, a dream of wild love. I drive along the same roads piled with melting snow and look at the same sunrise spilling through the black fingers of the trees, and I want to know, Why haven’t I gotten my big dream yet?

Do you think the answer might be, it isn’t quite time?

We weren’t ever promised that we would receive in full what we envision at first. We weren’t ever told that the dream would be anything but a hard, unknown, journey through the deep dark woods and bright fires and sunrises and years.

Rumi says, “When I am silent, there is thunder hidden within me.”

Just because the dream you dream hasn’t come true yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t live and roar inside you. Just because you must walk through the many years of not knowing how it will come true doesn’t mean that you were wrong about it.

It just means that now is the time for your silence. It just means that now is the time for the thunder to be hidden within you.

Maybe you see people around you who are thundering their dream to the world. Maybe they have the pageviews, the degree, the family, the words, the settledness you crave and envy. Maybe you wonder if that is ever going to be you.

You, too, have thunder hidden within you.

You, too, have a big dream that is worth a thousand years of walking without knowing where.

You, too, with your suitcases and uncertainty, with your waiting and your silence, are in pursuit of a bold, wild kind of dream.

Now is the time for silence as you take shape. Now is the time for listening to your roommates and friends and parents.  Now is the time to make midnight grocery store runs or watching a full season of The West Wing. Now is the time to pray in your car and slam the brakes for a turtle crossing the road.

And when your thunderous dream bursts forth, and you step into the midst of it, it will roar all the brighter.


stay, American baby

“I brought this for you.” “Oh.” The blue plastic jewel case, the flecks of car dust from where it sat in the glove compartment, the smudged playlist taped to the front of the case. “I thought – I mean, I owed you one.” He smiled, sheepish. My hands felt the edges of the kitchen table, tracing the chips and cracks from years of family and screeching joy and frustration at each other. He held it out to me, pushing the hair out of his eyes.

They were such brown eyes. I’ll never forget that – like all the things he hid from the world he stored up in that one, tender look. And I promised myself in my journals that year that I was the one he was saving those looks for, I was the one who caught the secrets hiding in his dilating pupils. So I held the CD case, suddenly more thoughtful than I wanted to be. I wanted to be anxious, heart racing inside its cage. I wanted to feel all that in-love-with-his-brown-eyes-and-secret-sweetness feeling. I wanted to be back to the girl of weeks before, who had declared in the girl’s bathroom while poking at her eyelid with a pencil that I liked him. And I was going to tell him.

The light was pink outside the window; it had rained earlier. And I sat, calm and quiet, holding his blue plastic CD case. I was still as we laughed about Carrie Underwood, played a song on my new iPod, sat on the fraying couch in the living room, as we pulled on spring coats and walked to the pond.

“It’s not a real pond. I mean, it’s just the second bridge from our house.” We scuffed at the broken winter pavement, chasing the bits of asphalt with our eyes as we walked. “Yeah, no, that’s cool.” More silence, more strange calm. I asked him something about college; he asked me something about debate. We answered past each other, eyes fixed ahead. Past the horse farm – “I’ve always wanted to ride,” I said. “Oh, really?” he looked at me – the sudden, sweet tenderness. “Yes.” Past the houses of best friends and lost friends, of dogs who barked at bikes and the neighbors who refuse to take down Christmas decorations until March. Past the first bridge, the reeds waving at us from their hibernation. Past the Girl Scout camp, the hidden bend in the road where the cops hid their cars at night to catch speeding teenagers and the haggard father racing home.

“So this is it.” We sat down, feet dangling, a bit of sun offering itself to us on the water. We squinted at it. We looked for the beavers, or a fish biting. “So, Hils…” and still, that calm. “I know what you want to say.” “You do?” I did?

“It’s okay.” This became the mantra, the refrain – it’s okay. It’s all okay. The prayer, the angry shout, the promise – “it’s okay,” I said. I nodded a lot, he nodded some, too – just to keep moving, to keep from being still enough to hear the world shifting between us. We threw sticks into the pond, catching them on the last bit of ice.

We walked back to the house, to the world before it had shifted, before we had said nothing and too much, before the admission that this was it, the point beyond tenderness.

He shrugged into his coat, tucked his hands into his sleeves to keep the cold out. I rubbed my arms, hopping up and down in the driveway as I waited for him to say goodbye. But he just looked at me, with that sweet tenderness I’d never see again, and said – “You’ll like the first track. On the CD, I mean. It’s DMB.” And then he got into his car, smiled, and backed out the driveway.

I put the CD on in silence, sat on my bed, closed my eyes. “Stay, beautiful, baby.” I sounded the words in my head as Dave began to sing. “Stay, American baby.” I let the world shift. This was his real secret, hidden in those brown eyes – that despite all of the things we imagine, we remain fixed as ourselves in a turning world. That, despite our wildness, the wonder is not in getting what we thought.

It is in the gifts that go beyond the moment: the Dave Matthews song we played in the car and learned to love, apart from him. The gift of memory turned story, softened by time into something like beauty. The gift of silence in the midst of noise. The gift of holding fast and setting free.

The gift of a CD on a March afternoon, a walk to the pond.

Stay, American baby.

Isn’t it all gift?

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