Free Hugs and The Art of Burning Like Fabulous Yellow Roman Candles

I’ve always been enamored by idealists, the dreamers. The mind-speakers. The norm challengers and status-quo re-writers. The people of second and 99th chances. The ones who stomp in puddles and sing in the rain while everyone else is inside dry, … Continue reading

A few telescopes, some friends, and plenty of stars.

Saturday, June 8th, Solider’s Delight Natural Environment Area:

“That doesn’t look like a swan,” someone in the group mutters aloud.

“Well, you have to have an imagination. Remember, when the Native Americans, Greeks, and Arabs named the stars, they could see them billions at a time; there was no light pollution to inhibit their view,” an astronomer whiz shares with us.

It’s late Saturday night, and some friends and I are at Soldier’s Delight for a stargazing night put on by the Westminster Astronomy Club. Volunteers set up their elaborate telescopes for the community to use the second Saturday evening of each month. And this month, some friends and I decide to not miss out on the opportunity to look up in wide-eyed wonder.

“That’s M21 out there, you see it, to the right?” our instructor, Skip, motions.

“No, but what’s M83?” I ask.

“One of the galaxies.”

“Oh.. it’s also the name of a great band,” I share, feeling some celestial connection of music and stars.

The stars elicit questions a mile long.

What was the transit of Venus all about? What was the most memorable stargazing experience you’ve ever had? What’s the difference between a red dwarf and a brown dwarf?

“How many satellites are in the sky on any given night?” I ask.

“Well, it depends, you might be seeing an in-tact satellite, or a glove falling from a satellite, or just general space junk…” Skip muses.

“Space junk, is that anything like Space Jam?” my friend Rajni asks. We all laugh from the ground, bodies sprawled out on grass and cement in wonder and gratitude.

It’s 10 PM, which segues into 11 PM, but time is put on hold for now, and I try to stay here in this moment, in this solitude, underneath this sky, with these friends that I yearned for when I moved to inner city Baltimore a couple of years ago, lonely, and wondering what the hell I was doing was with my life.

A warm gratitude relaxes my body, like a soothing cup of hot tea, and I lay my head onto the grass. It’s amazing how many satellites you can trace with your finger across the night sky if you sit down long enough to look up.

We take turns looking through high-tech telescopes, pointed at double stars, galaxies, and Saturn. I peer into the lens. Inside, a round, pale yellow circle enclosed by a thick ring stares back, a distant object the size of my pinky fingernail.

“Woah!”

“Wow.”

“Awesome.”

Each phrase becomes a prayer, connecting us to the universe around us, back to a Maker, a Creator, that larger presence that some of us don’t mind calling God.

I find hope, awe, wonder, humility, and faith looking into each telescope lens, scientific tools enabling us to learn and unlearn of a world we cannot understand, of a largeness and vastness that just keeps going and going and going to… where? I don’t know.

But up above our heads gracefully dangle bands of gas that have swirled together to sustain a planet light years away, light from something so far away that we’re merely looking back in time to what it was lightyears ago, a time-space continuum that baffles my mind, like Back to the Future, or traveling back in time, a perpetuity I’m half-scared and half-ecstatic to enter to into, wondering if you were catapult yourself into this space, what time would it actually be?

A few telescopes, some friends, and plenty of stars bring my mind into the past and the present and future all at once. My memories drift back to the night sky of Botswana, Africa in August 2007. My 20 year old self is sleeping under the African sky with a tent full of snoring “macoas” (white people) and crickets. Just on the edge of the horizon, The Southern Cross peers out, playing a peek-a-boo game with sky and Earth. Alas, in winter solstice, that’s all we see of it this night, though hardly a disappointment. There’s stars everywhere, and they shine like the smiles of each child I met over the past two weeks here, some in orphanages, some in villages, some walking back home from school, waving jovially.

I enter back into the stars of the present, my night at Soldier’s Delight with friends, my heart drenched in melancholy for Africa, a pining so emotive, I remind myself of the promise I made to myself: to return to Africa by the time I’m 30, and I re-commit to it with alacrity.

I guess that’s what the stars do to us: awaken our sense of curiosity and wonder, our desire to learn more ponderings of how we got here, and what does it all mean, and this can’t be it, right? A pep talk sans spoken word, just twinkling of molecules daring each of us to dream bigger and surround ourselves with people who will believe in you, who will nurture the restless adventurer inside who never ceases to explore, ready for another question, a brand new musing.

And so tonight it seems there is much to be thankful for. Friends, genuinely good people, the ones I’d been trying to find in this city for the previously lonely past couple years. My life feels rich and full and like it’s about to exciting, because these dreams in my mind refuse to stay quelled as a mere idea, no— they’re ready to leap out into daylight, into air, into existence in movement and dance. I want to see it all unfold. New visas. Plane tickets. A life of making merry and mess and saying what I want to say even if  my voice trembles. I want to experience a love sopping wet with life and adventure, disheveled wet drops pouring over two lovers who view everyday by asking, “How much fun can we create today?” One dream lending itself to another, another one birthing out of the completion of the former.

Alas, we drive home, but my mind is still creating new possibilities. I pay attention to car headlights meeting cement, occasionally glancing to the side to check for deer along the tree-filled roads. My friends and I talk quietly in the car, softly, sleepily, but my mind is somewhere else— Still grappling with the fact that the planet I learned about in middle school science class, drawn in a text book, not only hangs above us in the night sky, but is able to be viewed by our little eyes if only we stop to look. It’s in the sky, right now, as I type, as you read this; it’s so so far way away, appearing like a mere sticker through a 150 power telescope. But it’s out there.

Hope.

It’s out there.

Peace.

It’s out there, again and again, night after night after night after night; these sunsets, these stars, these planets, all hovering above us, never shouting, nor demanding our attention, but exuding a captivating pull, begging us into a story of wonder and awe.

I’m back at the house, eyes closed, trying to fall asleep. All I can see is the ingrained image of Saturn, an image I know will come back to me time and time again as I live out this next week. A soothing image massaging my shoulders, whispering a loving, “Don’t you worry, Child,” to all who ponder its mystery. “I won’t,” I promise back. Tomorrow, maybe, but for right now, I won’t worry. And if I’m lucky, Saturn’s image might come back in and speak that love song of serenity into my soul, into my toes, into my finger, oh I’ll live blown away…

Photo Credit: Wellington Astronomical Society

How I Spent The Holidays, 2012 Edition. ((aka Sex Ed with my Parents at Christmas Dinner, Sending a Message in a Bottle, and Creating Other Memories I Will Never, Ever Forget.))

The past ten days or so have been a total blur. I’m exhausted, elated, haven’t showered in three days, and for the life of me, can’t seem to remember what day it is and I’d have it no other way.

Something beautiful happened these holidays. Some of it, out of the ordinary. The rest of it, just simple moments treasured a little bit tighter and with a little more gratitude.

There was eating large handfuls of cookie dough, not worrying at all about the possibility of salmonella or the fact that we hadn’t eaten one vegetable that day.
There was a visit to The Peace House,where I was once again reminded that peace truly does exist in this world and all we need to do is create it. 

There was the pilgrimage to my parents house via Route 1 in which I sang along with Cat Stevens to “Peace Train” at the top of my lungs while simultaneously taking pictures of open fields and farms with one hand while driving with the other.

I watched Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies” Graceland documentary with my dad as we mused in gratitude at music’s ability to bring together two disparate cultures, calling attention to peace, friendship, and unity in the midst of apartheid’s evil. We sang along to the fast high-pitched choirs of The Gaza Sisters chanting, “I know what I know; I’ll sing what I said…”

I took long walks with old friends.

I talked on the phone for an hour with a dear friend about our goals for 2013 and dreamed something bigger.

I taught my 28 year old sister with Down Syndrome how to use a plunger after someone in the family—-no one will fess up as to who— clogged the toilet. “Smells like poop!” my sister observed. “Yes, but not for long!” I reminded, shoving the plunger deeper into the toilet.

I got yelled at by my dad and sister for still being asleep at 9:30 AM Christmas morning. When I didn’t then promptly rise out of bed one minute after the yelling ended, my sister came in my room, turned on all the lights and jumped on my bed. And I deserved it.

I signed up for my first half Ironman in Boulder, Colorado, August 4, 2013 and went on my first training run: a cold, slow, 2.5 miles spent envisioning months of grit-your-teeth workouts with surges of endorphins, reminding me I am alive and have breath and a body.

I asked my parents “inappropriate” questions during Christmas dinner. “What was sex ed like for you when you were in high school?” After some confused looks from my aunt and mom’s faces, I realize the more appropriate question would have been, “Did you have sex ed?” to which I would learn, “No.” My brother blurted out that the only thing he remembers from high school health class was that his health teacher showed “a 70 year old man’s dong” and was told that, “at this man’s age, his thing will still work. But hers— her’s won’t.” I haven’t heard my mom laugh that hard in years.

My family and I watched The Christmas Story on Broadway the next day, thanks to my dad. My sister ate a foot-long hot dog, to which a 10 year old girl wandering around the restaurant pointed, and exclaimed, “That’s a big hot dog!!”

I spoke out about my feelings of seeing skimpy Aerie model’s plastered on illuminated billboards in Times Square, posing in nothing but a bra and underwear and indignantly stated that this contributes to the continued portrayal of women in hyper-sexualized, objectified, imagery.  I vowed to call it out when I see it and to not look the other way when the world represents my gender with stereotypes that do nothing but perpetuate the association of women as sexual objects instead of strong, competent people, imbued to make part of my life mission be to encourage women to celebrate the alternatives of these messages to discover the unlimited possibilities of who they can be with their lives, minds, and souls. (For more on this topic, see “Why it Matters Whether A Toy is Thin and Sexy or Not.”)

I sipped peppermint mocha with a mentor and walked away inspired, grateful, ready to make changes, and considered myself lucky to have such an influence in my life.

I biked down 34th St., Baltimore’s premier street for the best Christmas lights in town, with 500 people on bicycles during December’s Baltimore Bike Party. Stuck behind cars full of kids sticking their heads out windows, oooh-ing and aaaah-ing over Christmas lights, I sang along with some bikers who played “Tiny Dancer” from the back of their pimped-out bicycle. “Blue jean baby, LA lady…” we sang, gazing upward at white Christmas lights strung across the street, connecting neighbor to neighbor (and apparently biker to biker).

I went to the BBP’s dance party afterwards at the Pratt St. Ale House and made new friends. I celebrated a recent friend’s invitation to a “small group for people who are sick of small groups,” as she described a group of friends who are reading a Quaker book right now and finding ways to grow in their faith outside of organized religion. I almost got teary eyed. These are some of the very people I’ve been waiting to meet. I just didn’t know how to find them.

I ate lots of chocolate, especially at unusual times, like breakfast, without feeling one hint of guilt.

I had multiple sleepovers with soul-to-soul conversations, staying up entirely way too late every single night and I didn’t care.

I came up with three book ideas and glanced heaven-ward, asking God for just one to come out of my mind and onto matte paper.

I went on a New Year’s Eve late afternoon hike with my boyfriend and chiseled out pieces of ice encrusted on the water bank’s edges. We smashed them against the frozen stream, each time shouting out a regret of the past year or a promise to ourselves for the new year. “I’ll find a new job I love!” I exclaimed, smashing ice against ice. “This is for every time I people-pleased this year!” Smash. “This is for having a sense of humor next year!” It was free therapy, like whack-a-mole at the board walk, or popping mailing bubblewrap, only slightly more aggressive and freeing.

We said, “Why not?” to stopping by a small group of people gathered in front of the War Memorial on our way home. We dashed to the steps, where about 25 people gathered for an inter-faith prayer vigil to honor the lives of the city’s 216 homicide victims this year. Muslim and Christian pastors offered prayers and together, reading aloud the names and ages of each victim. The names of several one-month-olds were called and each time this happened, the woman next to me and I both gasped. We put our arms around each other tightly for the remainder of the vigil while tears rolled down my cheeks and snot dripped onto my scarf from my frozen nose. When the names were finished being read, tealight candles forming the number “216” were lit and Brian and I thanked the people who spoke, especially Michael, the Muslim man who used his words to express the need for people of differing faiths to come together in the name of peace and our God of Love to work together to end violence. He gave me his email address. Looking Brian and I in the eye, he sincerely invited us to sit down over coffee. I can’t wait to email him and get to know someone who worships Allah, the same God, I believe, that I worship, just with a different name. We walked back to the car, moved, calmed, and in awe of the beauty that still exists in the midst of darkness.

Moving into the latter part of the night, we gathered together eating meatballs and cookies and lots of guacamole around a table of six friends. My friend Rajni and I brought up the topic of our 2013 bucklist. “Bucketlist?” our friend Sam asked. “Yeah. It’s like a list of things that we want to do with our life, only we’re going to do them by December 31, 2013.” “But bucketlist implies you’re going to die at the end of the next year. Is that what you really want to call it?” “Ok, so not a bucketlist.” “An…. action list?” Yes. An action list. So we went around the table, each sharing tokens of our newly-created 2013 Action Lists. “Visit an Indian reservation,” Rajni shared. “Develop my sense of humor and stop taking life so seriously,” I offered. “Run a 3 hour marathon,” Sam declared. “Grow an urban vegetable garden,” Brian stated. We toasted to each of these dreams, played “2012” one last time while still in the same year, and left the house for New Year’s Eve fireworks at the harbor.
We ooh-ed and aaahh-ed over each burst and slow fizzle of dissipating firework in the cold nighttime sky, celebrating each and every one until the last firework of the grand finale. “Encore, encore!” We pleaded. Shrugging it off, we decided our night had only just begun. The six of us rolled, somersaulted, and crab-walked down Federal Hill Park until we were so dizzy that we fell down when we stood up. We walked along the harbor promenade and finished off a bottle of wine on the dock, deciding to send a message in the bottle off into the cold harbor waters. So we each wrote a token of kindness, like “live love,” and “This is your sign! Follow your dreams!” while singing The Police’s “Message in Bottle” and signed it: January 1st, 2013 Baltimore, MD and video-recorded the ceremonious toss of the bottle into the harbor. We walked away from the pier while one member of our group (I’ll protect their anonymity) peed on The Ritz Carlton. The Ritz-Carlton residences at the inner harbor are lavish condominium homes to the rich. Very rich. I applauded this person for his work, deeming it a big, “f*ck you” you to the rich. I realize we should love all people. I swear I try. But I just wonder where these people, with their Ferraris in the garage and high rise condo overlooking the harbor, were, when those 216 homicides took place this year and if they ever bothered to listen to the story of someone who knows the reality of life on the streets.

Proceeding onward, we walked right into the send-off a wedding. People in dresses and tuxes lined in a row with sparklers pointed in the air cheered on a bride and groom hopping into an old-school black carriage-like car. We stood near the line in our jeans and winter coats cheering on the bride and groom, as if we fit right in and had been at the wedding the whole time, whooping and hollering and celebrating along with a bunch of strangers at the dawn of a new year.

We meandered closer toward our destination, as if to hope that walking slower would make time slow down too, and stopped at the sand volleyball courts, where we made sand castles and wrote “love” in the sand with fingers in mittens. Sean, arguably the most social of the group, asked a guy dosing off in a parked truck to come out and take our picture. So we jumped in the air and the camera flashed and we said a big “thank you” and “happy new year” to a kind, tired stranger, desperately trying to prevent the final grains of sand from slipping to the bottom of this night’s hourglass.

As we headed back home, Brian hopped on my shoulders unexpectedly for a piggy back ride, and a group of young women cheered us on saying, “You go woman. I know, that’s right.” I couldn’t help but smile (and pray my knees would hold up just another block longer) and wish for the night to slow down. We spent the rest of our stroll linked arm-in-arm as a group, protesting adulthood, swearing it off entirely, proudly proclaiming we’ll live forever young. We wished every single passer-by on the street a “Happy New Year!” and it’s as though for one night, the entire world was civil and kind, like amiable old friends.

Rajni slept over and we stayed up chatting until sometime after 3:30 AM, excited about life, pondering adulthood, and how to live out our dreams and nullify normalcy and regularity, trading it in instead for life and vibrancy and contraire adventures. I climbed into bed and whispered into the atmosphere a “thank you” to God, bidding him/her goodnight, grateful for every stupid, beautiful, outrageously alive memory newly stamped in my mind and fell fast asleep.

I share these memories because I don’t want to forget them—the constant laughter, the friendship. I share them to etch every detail into a place I can come back to so that I can remind myself one day of what 25 felt like. I’m sure you have those memories too. Those times in life where you didn’t have a camera to capture every laugh, or a piece of paper to jot down every funny quote someone said that night, but still, you remember these moments. And I wonder what it would look like if we shared these memories to each other, to the world. And how much more beautiful this place would be. And how you would inspire me. And perhaps I would inspire you. And together, each human would inspire every other human. I wonder what would happen if instead of feeling pressure to adhere to societal definitions of “success,” we created our own anti-conformity and raised our hands in the air or sang or danced or cartwheeled or rolled down hills and rejected all that we’ve been taught for instead, what we feel, what makes us truly come alive, what makes us experience the beauty and wonder of life in all of its fullness. Because it’s possible. It’s happening already. We’ve only just begun. 

January First.

1/1/13.

Let’s see each other 12/31/13 and share deep belly laughs or shed a few bittersweet tears together as we talk about where this year has taken us and how we traded in fear for fearlessness.

Yes.
I can’t wait to see what we do with the year.

Because there’s 364 days left. And it’s all uncharted…

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Thoughts on Grief ((Making Peace With Changing Friendships and Never Going to the Peace Corps))

I gave her several hugs this weekend and got choked up every time. Though we hadn’t been friends for long, I made friends with a gem for the past year and a half who’s now currently somewhere in the middle of the country driving back home to Texas. I didn’t think her departure would stir up so many emotions within me, but it did. And the biggest one was grief.

Grief is something I’d rather push through, fight, overlook, or ignore, immediately shifting my thoughts away from it as soon as I sense it coming. But I’m learning that doesn’t really help anything; in fact, it just makes it worse. Because in stuffing my feelings, I never get to experience God’s hand infiltrating those spots of hurt, loss, grief, and pain with his/her healing hand of hope, forgiveness, peace, and acceptance.

So I grieved this friend’s move and gave myself permission to start thinking about the other things in my life that I want to grieve but haven’t yet. I grieved the fact that I talked about going to Peace Corps incessantly throughout college, and then had plans in my head to move off to Colorado for grad school, thinking I’d have an adventurous, albeit challenging four years ahead of me after graduating college. This March, I’ll turn 26. And I’ll have done neither of those.

Funny how plans change. Circumstances change. How we can be so sure of something, only to discover that in the end, for a variety of inter-twined circumstances, you’re really not ready for this and there’s some rocks you need to take out of your shoes before you go on to do your next great thing?

So I cried. Right there in my room and there in my bed on Sunday night. It had been building up inside of me all day, like a sneeze, and after all those tears came out, I laid on my floor with my journal and candlelight, one again reminded of the definition of “a good cry.”

Because grief reminds me I’m human; I’m alive and have a pulse. If my goal was to go through life without experiencing pain, or grief, or loss, or tears, I’d be setting myself up for failure. It reminds me how much I need people around me, even though as an introvert, I don’t always actively seek out community. Throw that on top of a people-pleasing personality, and I have discovered what’s at the root of some of my lonely days and that it’s ok; we’re all uniquely made but we have to get outside of ourselves and experience the world through community. Relationships are messy; never clean cut. But that’s how we learn to forgive, where we learn all the ways that we’re annoying, but still accepted anyway; where we learn the definition of unconditional love, and that love can be hard sometimes, and maybe that’s why God talks over and over again about love, because S/He knew it would be hard for us. 

Grief reminds me that I have wonderful people in my life that are worth missing. And when you’re apart, it’s as though some fragment of you is still really with them, talking to them, doing handstands on a grassy open field with them. Because you’ve let this person into the parts of yourself that experience deep love and attachment. It reminds me to take some of what they taught me, some of the ways in which they showed me more of who God is, and turn it into something beautiful; a little bit of their imago dei rubbing up against your own.

Grief reminds me of the human tendency to run, run, run, trying to field off whatever painful experience or hurt we don’t really want to feel. But it always catches up to us in the end, anyway. And when I finally release those tears, I am in awe, experiencing all over again, so this is what freedom feels like... I’m in awe of what letting go does to my body physically- it releases, relaxes, and exhales, gripped fists now open palms.

Grief reminds me not to fear these feelings but instead reminds me that human beings are intricately wired in such a way that when a friendship dissipates, when someone dear moves away, or we see another senseless, violent tragedy impact a nation, we are each affected. A piece of our soul matches with another, and we perpetually realize in these soft moments our incessant need for each other and our God. If I didn’t experience these things, I wouldn’t be a human. Perhaps I might be a cold frog. But certainly not a human.

Grief reminds me that I have lived another day in this beautiful and broken world. It reminds me of my vision for life today (on Earth as it is in Heaven) and the acceptance to know that we won’t see it at its fullest fruition this side of Heaven. Grief helps me mourn losses in the many ways that I encounter it: loss of joy-filled friendship when I’ve settled in for people pleasing. Loss experienced through wasted opportunities spent discussing the ho-hum things of life instead of asking deep questions and learning one another’s insides. It helps me to experience peace with my family’s past and envision a more whole, intimate, and deeper future. Grief is every part as much of the human experience as eating and breathing and my choices are to either accept this with grace or to resist it with bitterness.

I will commit to choosing the former, but know I’ll need some help along the way. So as I sit here now, tears having been poured out; it’s as though there aren’t any more liquids inside for me to possibly cry with. I’m too tired to cry at this point, anyway. But my soul doesn’t feel empty. I think, if but for the moment, God has placed his hand print on my heart, healing the place that once contained nothing but grief. And grief is never a clean, one-and-done process. So maybe I’ll be back at it tomorrow. But I’m convinced now, more than ever, that this is a necessary emotion of life essential for our growth, healing, and ability to love and understand one another. Thank God we don’t have to do it alone. Thank God we have each other. I thank God for you.

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The ‘Stay Away, Come Close’ Paradox and How it Looks Something Like Letting Love In.

I was in the front seat of my friend’s car earlier today, wrapped up in one of those conversations where you don’t realize that you’ve been sitting there, in the dark, car in park, for an hour, together contemplating all of the idiosyncrasies of life. We mused about our relationships and the “come close, stay faraway” phenomenon that some people find themselves regrettably emulating at some point in their lives. Maybe you know that I’m talking about. That dynamic where you’re close with someone, and long to be even closer. So you let them in. And it’s beautiful. But there’s a part of you that’s scared, so scared, so you send “step back” signals.
I think there’s this component of our humanness that desperately craves closeness, intimacy, to be known, loved, and accepted, and for everything to be alright— even amazing, like waving your hands in the air, screaming, hair blown back by velocity on amusement park rides— that crashes into the part of ourselves that fights pain, fights changes, fights hurt and loss and namely, wants to protect ourselves from everything and anything scary, unknown, and potentially pain-inducing.
Have you ever witnessed that “come close, stay faraway” factor?

Bruce Springsteen ponders it in “Secret Garden.”

She’ll lead you down a path
There’ll be tenderness in the air
She’ll let you come just far enough
So you know she’s really there
She’ll look at you and smile
And her eyes will say
She’s got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Where everything you need
Will always stay
A million miles away.

Similarly, Goo Goo Dolls begs for the soul of another to open the door of their heart with love in “Let Love In:”
You’re the only one I ever believed in
The answer that could never be found
The moment you decided to let love in
Now I’m banging on the door of an angel
The end of fear is where we begin
The moment we decided to let love in.

U2 seemed to have similar sentiments in their 1993 hit “Stay (Faraway, So Close).” Bono created the song for the movie “Faraway, So Close,” sharing that “the film was about angels who want to be human and who want to be on Earth. But to do so they have to become mortal. That was a great image to play with – the impossibility of wanting something like this, and then the cost of having it.”1 I mirror that with the “stay close, don’t get too close” theme of love costing something: crossing into the unknown and in doing so, facing your own vulnerability. And that’s a scary thing.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

I think we’re all a little bit scared of letting one another in. Into all those little cracks and crevices of our soul that are properly seated in the classroom, hands clasped, praying not be called upon. Don’t get me wrong, boundaries have merit. We can’t let everything, or everyone, into our souls. Some influences aren’t the ones we need to grow. Some things in this world will defile and break down our souls. Like a peephole on a door, it’s healthy to choose your influences and who you will surround yourself with.
I just wonder about the times in which we pushed something or someone out when we should have brought them in.
I wonder how many times we missed out on love- any love- agape, romantic, friendship- because we were too scared of having our heart opened, exposed, fully letting in the light of another.
I wonder how many conversations we’ve accumulated in which we settled for safe by responding to “how are you?” with trite replies of “good” when every part of us knows we’re not good. So we quickly progress to stale topics, like the weather, all the while depriving our souls of deepness and wonder and intimacy.
I wonder how many of us will reach some ripe old age with questions about our families left unanswered because we were too afraid to ask about the skeletons in our closets or the dirty laundry or the elephants in the room or the mess that feels too knotty until, in our bravest moments, we gather the courage to unknot the tangles to realize that when we put the pieces back together again, it can be even more beautiful than when we first started.

So our souls fight to trust Him/Her and we take a chance here, go for a risk there, holding God’s hand, perhaps, I wonder, content with splashing around in the baby pool because even with swimmies, we’re too scared to try the big pool and so we’re splashing and getting our toes wet, all the while hearing the joyful, playful shouts of friends or strangers dunking each other in the big pool, diving and doing handstands and checking out the ocean… and while every thing in our soul shouts, “you’re big enough,” “you’re brave enough,” “go play,” “go try,” “there’s room out there for you too,” we resist it and lament in our kiddie pools, smiling when the jets pour in just a little more water for our ankles to become wet.

What are we so afraid of? Of getting hurt? Of getting let down? Sometimes, for me at least, yes. But what makes me think my feeble “stop sign” hand is what will protect me from the precarious position of human life and emotion? I’m beginning, more and more, to think that every time I hold out my hand to guard, to protect, to control the outcome or not get hurt or not experience pain or change, or actively contribute to my growth moving from the known into the unknown, I have to start to wonder if I’m doing more harm than good. Do we want to look back on life and realize that all of our guarded moments never actually protected us at all? Can we accept that living with your heart on your sleeve may get you hurt, but it’s the only way to truly live, to truly feel, to truly heal, to truly “be real” with another human being?

I know we’ve tasted the opposite, too. You know that soul-to-soul connection with that friend, with that lover, with that mentor? Where it’s you and them and the two of you realize there’s so much more going on here than we can fathom. And that by opening ourselves up to the truth, our questions, the things we’ve been wondering, we are greeted not in word or whisper but by a taste of the soul,  as if our hearts are whispering to each other, “See, isn’t this beautiful?”

I had one of those connections the other day with my dad. We were biking and I was talking to him about stuff from childhood, asking questions I never thought to ask, and learning things I never knew about our family. This is the beautiful connection that happens when we cross over and enter into each other’s stories, but not the finished part, rather the unexpurgated story that’s raw and real and human.

I don’t know what all this letting love in and being vulnerable stuff looks like, and I’m tempted to cast this whole thing off as being overly emotional as I once again stay up too late, writing this, pondering life and spirituality and the rings upon rings of circled skin that compose my fingerprint. But I think we’re onto something. Onto something with the whole letting-love-in-thing… starting with letting God’s love in and as that takes a hold of our heart over and over again, like the daily tide washing over the shore, we’ll discover the beauty and the holy ground that’s only possible when we, too, recognize that
the only way to see again
                            is to let love in.

Have you ever found yourself in the “Stay Away, Come Close” phenomenon? What was that experience like? How do these experiences intertwine spiritually, emotionally, in our relationships, in our friendships?

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stay_(Faraway,_So_Close!)

Look at the Birds.

I went to bed Sunday night knowing I made a memory I won’t forget for a long time.

It was an unseasonably warm November day- the kind of day that begs you to stop everything and make enjoying the moments before you your most important priority. To stop tinkering around with to-do lists and errands, leaving this beauty unnoticed; but rather, to let your eyes become sponges, absorbing beauty, light and Sabbath.

So I drove up Route 1 to meet a dear friend at a Northern Baltimore State Park to study for the GREs in the late autumn fields. I parked my car as the afternoon sun began to cascade into its hues of dusk; its finest colors coming alive. I walked around the parking lot, noticing families in matching outfits huddled together on the hilly field, trying to get the dog and the baby and each of the kids to smile at precisely the same moment, posing for holiday picture greeting cards that will adorn fireplaces in cozy homes all winter long.

Shortly after, my friend pulled into the parking lot. She’s a real gem, an old soul, one of those people with such a sincere, special spirit who seemed to have entered my life right when I needed a friend like that the most. Time spent with these kinds of people is treasured. You know before you even arrive that their soul will touch yours and that no matter where life takes you, this person painted a stroke of love over a piece of your heart to help you enjoy the journey.

One of her favorite places, she ushered me by the park’s wooded trails off to the left, then up a winding uphill path hugged by tall trees in the distance as grasses blew gently in the evening zephyrs. We walked, leisurely, musing on life and love and choices. We soon found our way beside some hay bales, inviting us up for a climb like a small child to a grandmother’s lap. I hopped on top of one, struck with halcyon breaths of serenity replacing the tension I bury in my eyebrows and chest with something heavenly, refreshing, whisking away the toxins of this world with the infusion of something higher, more lovely.

My friend pointed upward, toward the resplendent pink and orange sky. A band of birds migrating southbound flip-flapped their wings in unison. We stopped talking. I stopped thinking. Stopped worrying. Completely transfixed by these birds, I imagined how hard they must be working. Are they tired yet? Where will they stop to sleep tonight? How do they even know when to call it a night? Do they sing when they got bored, like the Seven Dwarfs, whistling while they worked (or flew)? Does one of them start humming as they play “name that tune” until a whole choir of them compose an acapella rendition of “Rockin’ Robin?” When do they stop for water breaks? With this many of them, where do they all go when it rains? I sat there below, watching these birds in awe of the journey they make each waning fall. No Googlemaps. No GPS. Just them, together, collectively united for their annual pilgrimage to some place warm. I wondered where they’d drop off. “So, Bob,” I imagine one saying to the other, “will it be Tampa this year, or Pensacola?” Will they gather again for New Year’s Eve in Northern Florida, or perhaps Miami, where ‘the heat is on, all night on the beach ’til the break of dawn?’ I don’t know. It’s amazing to watch something go so far, do something so significant without a stroke of human aid or handling. They were created to be able to fly miles and miles, above homes and seaports and land.

What else can I do but marvel? I’m at peace with the world, with my uncertainties about where I’m going and how I’ll get there. I’m still. I can’t stop watching. They keep coming, like scenes stitched together in a movie, entering from the right of the screen to the left side, over and over again, thousands of them, not one left behind, not one left to fly alone. Perhaps this is why Jesus encourages us to “look at the birds” (Matthew 6:26). Because whatever it is we’re trying to fix or change or figure out will all be just fine. That you’ll actually get more studying done if you stop once in a while and gain perspective on how big this world is and how much goes on, day in day out, without the touch of a human hand. And so maybe Saturday, I’ll go back to this field and we can marvel all over again at those birds. Just hope they won’t poop on my textbooks.

Photo: MO 2012

On Unspoken Goodbyes and New Hellos

I often find myself thinking about this twenty something stage of life and how, from a billion different angles, people, places, and things are changing rapidly, like the wind, and I feel like a little wishie dandelion in a big field wondering why I’m no longer yellow, hoping I don’t get mistaken for a weed, and also hoping my seeds won’t blow away all at once. But I am not a dandelion; I am a human being, capable of eating, sleeping, and breathing and reflecting on what’s going on inside these skin and bones.

Ready to journal some of these feelings, I climbed into bed one night recently for a little quiet time. And, as I do like so many nights, I quickly checked facebook and noticed an old friend’s status change from “in a relationship” to “engaged.” I laughed, thinking back on pages in prayer journals from a few years ago, acutely aware now of the answer to that prayer. And that’s when a twinge of melancholy flooded in. I realized that now that this friend was getting married, reality was I would never see him and his family again, and we never got to say “goodbye.”

In that moment, I saw the faces of other friends, mostly from college, swirl around in my mind. Friends I no longer see or spend time with, pining to experience that amity all over again in the present. I’m sure you have those people in your life. Those people who are simply unforgettable, perhaps because of the way imago dei emanates from their soul, overflowing with rivulets of life, life, life, incandescent and uninhibited life.

I thought about the last time I spent with each of these life-giving people and what I would have said or done differently had I known we were going to lose touch and this would be the last time we would see each other face to face.

These changes of lost relationships stung, a hurt not easily pacified, and for the first time, I allowed myself in that moment to grieve their end.

I didn’t know that my twenties would have many times of unspoken goodbyes, unintentional “see ya laters,” only the “laters” never came.

I didn’t know just how absolutely painful it can be to let go of people who have influenced your life in some way, shape or form, knowing that they left an everlasting impression, having influenced your journey into who you are today.

I didn’t know just how often some people will just slowly fade out, like a setting sun sinking beneath the covers of the horizon. You can watch that sun retract behind the silhouette of the city, moving almost imperceptibly, and then sure enough that ruby red ball of fire is visible no more, leaving you with the beckoning of night, the closing of a day, the sunset just a memory stored away in the cells of your brain. And much like those sunsets, those memories with old friends slowly dissipate; your only connection left to such people being their status updates on Facebook or their phone number that you used to text, now dormant in your cell phone contacts list.

I’m not really looking for people to leave my life. Baz Luhrmann* once said, “Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few, you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.”

Feeling imbued to move beyond grief, I promised myself that from that night on forward, I would start treasuring and hugging those precious few. And to the rest, I would tell them how much I appreciate their influence in my life, or share with them something they taught me, or say thank you for something they did. Though you may end up being friends forever, you also can’t guarantee that you too won’t have an unspoken goodbye and the people around you now may one day in the future, however near or far away that may be, a page you click on Facebook and smile at from a distance.

Looking back on the past and ahead to the future, we’re left with a choice for today. May we speak words of gratitude with the people right around us. To lift someone up. To say thank you. To say something you’ve always wanted to tell someone, but were too shy or scared to do so. This is the time. This is it. There are no second chances. This is the present. This is all we ever have. So may you make the most of it. May you risk feeling awkward or that the other person may think you’re emotional, because you just might touch their life, like they touched yours. May you love well. May you let go of whatever it is that needs to be let go of with peace and courage, a departing coda to a particular journey of seasons and reasons. May we bind up past regret and celebrate brave, unfettered surrenders as we are tied closer to new unforgettables: of friends, of love, of laughter, of glimpses of Heaven on Earth and the face of your Maker in the most unexpected of places. May we accept life’s fragility and the passing of time, treasuring past memories, and then, in turn, may we make many, many more, because life doesn’t stop when the picture is hung in the frame, but rather, needs to constantly be explored, trampled upon, danced upon, cart-wheeled upon, and “whooped up!” because the story is being written and I don’t want to read the same jejune pages, scratching my head, wondering, “gee, where was I all of those years?”

Surely we can learn to make peace with change.
We can trade in rote conversation for beatific communion.
We can be grateful for every single person God has brought into our lives. Even if you no longer talk anymore, you can deep down appreciate how they have shaped some part of who are.
We can learn to say the words we’ve always wanted to say, ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask, because we haven’t been offered unlimited chances and opportunities.

We can greet the cashier behind the counter by name, converse with the couple who just moved in, new to town, and we can actually listen to someone’s response when we ask, “how are you?” Much like Jesus with the woman at the well, we can take these seemingly ordinary tasks and interactions and recycle them for something better, something beautiful, something more compelling then the status quo.
And together, we can celebrate, that the God who brought such treasured people into our lives in the past can surely bring new community and deep relationships into our lives today.

So with unspoken goodbyes must also come new hellos. Today may you say, “hello” to the stranger who sits next to you on your morning commute and try to learn just one thing about them. May you say “hello” to new opportunities, to new friends, faces, fellow wanderers and travelers, to new risks, to new dreams, to something undiscovered, to something on your bucket list, to the deep end, to dares, to rolling down hills barefoot and unafraid…

Yes, get those hands waving hello, palms wide open, prepare those handshakes, click “register” for that race you’ve always wanted to do, get your camera out and take insanely beautiful pictures and as you do, may you smile with the morning dawn, grateful to be alive in no matter what season of life in which you find yourself.

*If you’ve never heard Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” I highly recommend it. I listen to it every couple months for wisdom and inspiration.