Stupid Flowers

wick

Stupid flowers. Don’t you know it’s February?
The sun peeks out, tickles the ground,
and you start shoving your heads through soil
to blossom three weeks early
when any night a frost might come
and pierce your stems and buds—
the shoots you left exposed when you decided
warmth meant safety.

It doesn’t.
It means lies,
false hope,
winter disguised as promise.

Or maybe it means drought
and now you’ve stretched up to the light
only to plunge your roots deep in the desert with
no rain.

In either case, you’ll die.
And I don’t want to watch you wither.

Stay down—trust me.
Wait just a bit until
you’re sure it’s safe and you
won’t harm yourselves
by trusting light and sunshine.

Stay down, because
without a guarantee of hope
you might lose the life you thought
the light would give you.

 

* * * * *

 

Silly girl. Don’t you feel it’s springtime?
Your months and weeks are just a scheme
you’ve thought up, you’ve imagined
just to give yourself control
when what really matters is the sun—
the life that lifts our heads out of the ground
although we can’t know what will happen
once we make ourselves exposed.

Maybe warmth
means risks,
new prospects,
spring wrapped in potential.

Or maybe it means love
and so we must stretch up toward light
through darkness even when the soil
is dry.

In either case, we’ll live.
And life is so much more than safety.

It’s time—trust us.
Although a frost might come
or we might thirst and wither,
even still, one day of sun and beauty
is worth the chance.

It’s time, because
hope has no guarantees
except the promise that no life,
no love is wasted.

daffodil

 

Advertisements

Hole-Heartedly

Echocardiogram image from one of my childhood cardio check-ups. October 1996

Echocardiogram image from one of my heart check-ups. October 1996.

“Two are better than one . . . For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.”Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Mom and Dad learned about my broken heart when a doctor’s stethoscope picked up on the murmur pulsing in my newborn chest. After putting me through a round of EKGs, sonograms, and x-rays, a cardiologist at Primary Children’s declared the diagnosis:

A stenosis obstructs my aorta. An artery is AWOL. And in the tissue dividing the two chambers there’s a hole.

A hole in my heart.

My mind still can’t fully grasp that. My heart is missing pieces. The organ that’s supposed to keep me living, breathing, running, jumping, hiking, thinking, feeling, loving—it’s incomplete, defective. That’s not to say it can’t function. In fact, for the most part, my life has gone on as if nothing were wrong. Sure, there were all those check-ups with the cardiologist when I was growing up. I still remember the cold electrodes nurses plastered on my thorax, and the goopey gel they smeared on me for ultrasounds. I remember having to gulp down four ginormous pills before going to the dentist (even though no one bothered to explain to me exactly why I had to protect my heart from my teeth). I remember disbelieving the technicians as they swore the black-and-gray blob beating on the monitor—an image that, for the record, looked nothing like the shapes my teachers used to decorate their classrooms for Valentine’s Day—was what hearts actually look like in real life.

But I also remember the way Dr. Judd shrugged her shoulders at the end of each check-up as she explained to my parents, “The stenosis hasn’t grown, and the hole isn’t expanding. We’ll keep watching her though. See you next year.”

In the meantime I played defense on soccer teams, climbed the Wasatch Mountains, took folk dance classes, and even tried gymnastics at a summer camp. No symptoms. No hindrance. When I stopped getting taller Dr. Judd explained that there wasn’t much chance for the defects to worsen. And since I’d made it that far without problems, she said I was free to go—no return appointment.

Life went on. My heart kept pushing blood through my veins, getting oxygen to my brain as I ran 5K races, squeezing soft rhythms as I dreamed, thumping out quick excitement as I stood at the thresholds of those dreams coming true in reality.

But I guess at some point I picked up a nasty hubris as I realized that my broken heart kept beating on its own, no intervention, medicine, or observation necessary. If it works for physical defects, I reasoned, then that must be true for less concrete conditions too. So year by year I shaped a personality that reached toward an idealized concept of strength. I wanted to be tough enough to plough through sorrow, heartache, stress, and fear without a sign of cracks or breakage. I wanted to make it on my own, without leaning on or burdening or getting in the way of anybody else.

Turns out that kind of cocky strength can only carry me so far.

Once during an especially difficult spread of time I was sitting at my desk editing papers, clutching to my cardinal rules for coping with emotional distress: 1—keep busy, 2—keep to myself. By throwing my energy into school and work, I could neglect my aching heart and justify the disregard. And lest I fall into a spot of weakness, I preferred solitude so that no one would see my strong, unflappable façade melting away, exposing all the hurts and fears I’d worked so hard to keep concealed.

At some point, for some reason, one of my roommates walked in and struck up a conversation. I can’t quite remember how it all started, or what path it took, or how I let it get this far. But I do remember the wave of emotion that caught me by surprise, reminding me of everything that gnawed at my numbed feelings. Glancing up at the pictures on the shelf above my desk, I kept quiet for a moment and tried to swallow back the choke. When I opened my mouth to continue our conversation, though, something cracked—my will, my resolve, the shell I’d built around my heart to hide its breaking.

I pressed the fingertips of my left hand against my forehead as I clenched my eyes and felt hot tears rush out. I heard Megan kneel down, and soon she’d wrapped me in a hug, allowing me to sob against her shoulder.

As my body shook with uneven breaths, I chided myself for the breakdown. Oh come on—snap out of it! Megan’s got her own problems to deal with, and here you are, all selfish, making her help you with yours. Oh please. Just cut it out already.

To a certain extent, my line of thinking was not unfounded—Megan did have plenty to deal with on her own at that moment. In fact, our lives had been paralleling in some unpleasant ways, so I knew full well that her heart had pains, uncertainties, and fears enough to hash through on its own. I felt ashamed for demanding her support when she was hurting too.

But something kept me crying—almost as if against my will. It felt good to let it all stream out in sighs and sobs and sniffling. And instead of guilt for burdening a friend, my heart felt stillness seeping in to fill the gaps and breaks.

Megan waited as I had a good cry, then she listened as I finally peeled back a corner of the thick defense I’d draped over my feelings. I let my roommate see my heart. I pointed out its holes and flaws. Remarkably, she showed me hers, and we sat for a while talking out all the aches we’d amassed and held back as we’d each worked our way through despair.

By the end of the conversation our hearts were still just as broken as they’d been at the start—but with one important difference: There was someone who knew. There was someone who shared. There was one other heart that felt for and felt with.

It was a strength that depended on two shattered people uniting to bolster each other. And to access that strength, we each had to reveal the weak spots—the holes—that kept dragging us down.

Now, of course there are times when it’s best just to join in on soccer games, hikes, or races, pressing forward with life as if nothing were wrong. The earth keeps turning, the sun keeps rising, our hearts keep beating. Life goes on.

But there’s something special about the energy that comes when hearts expose their defects to each other. And every heart has defects. Everybody’s broken—that’s what happens when we live.

Sometimes life means breaking up or breaking down or both (and in that order). It means discovering the holes and missing pieces that we just can’t fill—the fragments of heart we’ve never had, or the parts we’ve lost through trial and disillusionment. Life’s the series of decisions we make as we find people we can share our incompletion with. It’s the steps we take to bind ourselves to friends, confidants, lovers, and families. It’s the hope that together we can compensate for all those bits of soul we lack.

Learning to live is learning to recognize that opening up will never happen naturally, but rather through a healthy humble desperation that stems from yearning both to love and to be loved. It’s the conscious tenacity that makes us choose to share our hearts—our broken-but-still-beating cores—although it might seem dangerous, unwelcome, and irrational to do so.

That’s what living’s all about.

And that’s where love steps in.

If we were whole, we wouldn’t need each other. If we were strong enough alone, we’d never need to learn to look for love, nor how to give it. So God lets us live with broken hearts to teach us to reach beyond ourselves—to teach us to accept that help when it finds us as well.

I guess it’s always been this way, even at the genesis of life.

In the Garden of Eden God saw the trees and fruits and animals, and He was pleased. He made a man to till the ground, to act as lord and master. He gave the man a body that was strong and solid and unbreakable in Paradise, where nothing could cause pain or death.

But God did not call Adam good—not yet. Instead, God caused the man to sleep through one last phase of the Creation. Then He snapped a rib from Adam’s side to make the heart just that much more exposed—to make a hole just large enough for someone to slip her heart inside and bind up the two beating lives.

God broke Adam, then gave him Eve and taught them to commit to love to make each other whole.

 

On Value and Hope

 

St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, UK, August 2014

St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, UK, August 2014

Through years of art ventures I’ve learned that although I’ll never be as creative, daring, or talented as most of my peers, I can do value like nobody’s business. Sometimes that’s all I’ve got going for me—my compositions generally seem pretty bland and poorly-executed next to the canvases and sketch pads of others. But man is my shading fine. And I love doing it too. I love smudging charcoal all over a page, rubbing my fingertips around the contours of shapes my mind projects onto the paper. There’s something therapeutic about tapping the point of a Sharpie to a silent rhythm, stippling thousands of dots to make a face or a flower emerge from the shadows. Blending Prismacolors to fit the perfect shades in bright and dark patches is like pressing two puzzle pieces together and watching them lock into place. And don’t even get me started on crosshatch.

My love of value affects how I look at the world. – Or, perhaps the way I look at the world led to my love of value. I’m not really sure which came first. All I can say is there’s something special about the way Rock Canyon looks at around 5 PM in late August, or the way leaves turn translucent from indirect sunlight. Try watching a cloud’s shadow cross a field. Then try chasing it. It’s exciting to see how glow and shade interact, how two opposite forces collaborate to define the forms and textures of God’s handiwork.

That’s where I see beauty—in contrasts between light and darkness. I’m not sure why artists took to calling it value, but I think it’s a fitting title. In my eyes, sunrays glinting off the lake, or breaching a barrier of clouds, or marking ridges on the mountains—all of this adds meaning to the world and to life. It adds clarity to vision. It adds focus and understanding.

It adds value.

* * * * *

The things in my life that matter most—the things of the greatest value to me—exhibit both light and darkness. Take my family, for instance. Together we’ve gone through the best and the worst. Our love brings happiness, peace, support, hope, and excitement. But that love can also lead to pain as we suffer with and because of and on behalf of each other. Bright and dim. Joy and sorrow.

I’ve also observed this in the process of getting an education. Learning enlightens my mind and heightens my perception, and I cherish the memories of falling in love with linguistics during second grade, of my tenth-grade decision to pursue historical studies, of college lectures that have brought me to tears at the beauty and purpose of knowledge. But I’ll never forget the late nights, the anxiety, and the breakdowns that have punctuated my path toward greater understanding. They’re inseparable; the toil spawns the payoff, the work adds the meaning.

My eighteen-month mission was like that as well. Nothing’s more poignant than watching a spark in people’s faces the moment they feel God’s love for the very first time. There’s a beauty in seeing miracles unfold in the lives of post-Soviet atheists who’ve used vodka to deafen themselves to their fears, but who then come to realize there’s more to the world. But along with the joys of missionary service, I had to endure pains much deeper than any I’d felt up to that time. I saw poverty, drug addictions, rape victims, abuse. I heard gunshots and watched men brawling in the streets. I had to prevent a suicide once. I faced rejection dozens of times every day. My friends and family and companions suffered, and I suffered with them. And—perhaps hardest of all—I became more familiar with my faults and my need for some hard-core repentance. Then I walked through the pains of struggling to make changes stick.

In everything of value, shine and shadow collide.

* * * * *

I can handle dark spots when there’s light around too. I’ve always been tough—I can grit my way through disappointment and misunderstanding and pain, clenching my fists and setting my jaw and keeping watch for glints flashing out in the black. After all, that’s where beauty is, right? In the contrasts of shading.

But every now and again there are pretty big blotches of time when the paint smears together, no value in sight.

I remember one evening about thirteen months into my missionary service in Ukraine, and about six months into a deepening funk that had sapped me of energy and excitement and hope. Things had been pretty hard for me and my companion. It seemed that no one cared about us or our message, and we’d faced some fouler-than-usual rejection. I was shouldering the brunt of our responsibilities, since I’d been in the city the longest and my Russian was more advanced. Plus, things had been hard for my companion, and I didn’t want to compound that.

But I needed support. There were problems back home, and they got worse every time I read the once-a-week emails from my family. There were problems inside me, and those worsened too as I grappled with anger, despair, and shortcomings.

And there was no one I could talk to about any of it.

More than anything else, I just wanted a change. I wanted something to be different—I wanted something to hope for. I wanted to feel happy again, to find something to look forward to, to get out of the rut. For weeks I hadn’t heard anyone comment on seeing a light in my face. And who could blame them? I knew full well that there wasn’t any light to be seen. Not in me. Not the way I was feeling.

All of these thoughts occupied my mind as my companion and I sat on the edge of an old dried-up fountain in an open-air market near our apartment. We had just bought Georgian khachapuri for dinner, but after tearing off a corner of the cheese-filled bread, I realized that I wasn’t hungry. There was too much weighing down on me—too much to do, and no drive to do it. I have to call Svetlana before it gets too late, and maybe Nina and Zhenya can meet out in Sevastopol. And I’ll call Olya to see if she can help out on Friday. And when can we meet with Inna and Gosha? If I call them today, then maybe—

My brain cut off right then as my throat tightened and water collected at the rims of my eyes. My companion was saying something, but I couldn’t process her words. I stared straight ahead, fixing my eyes on the buses and cars that crowded the street.

Otche, my mind whispered to Heaven. Then in English I prayed, Father, I’m sorry. I just can’t anymore.

God and I shared a silence. For several minutes I let my heart pound in mourning for the righteous desires that had dissolved over months of disappointment and strain. I faced the death of my hopes, the reality of the darkness that blocked out any light.

* * * * *

Don’t expect a nice wrap-up to this story. There wasn’t one. It panned out the way most things do in my life. I just had to keep going, despite the despair. Phone calls kept piling up, rejections kept dragging us down, and my personal and family concerns kept refusing to resolve. A month or so after that evening prayer by the fountain, changes did start to come—but the cure they brought wasn’t sudden or wholesale. In fact, there are entries in my mission journal that I still avoid reading, even two years later. I’ve moved on and healed, but the scar tissue still aches when I look back on some of those dark, hopeless days.

But I guess that’s the miracle: Life goes on. Healing comes. Light returns. No matter how dark things get, God’s world is governed by value, which means that there must be a contrast somewhere.

Because even at night there are usually pricks of light forming constellations, or streaking the sky with the galaxy’s arm. And even in winter, when snow clouds and inversions obscure the atmosphere, we know that someday April will come—longer days, warmer air, clearer skies, brighter stars. If not in April, then in May, June, July. Sometime things will be different. Sometime things will change. There’s still hope, even when nights are longest and darkest. There’s still hope that we’ll see the sun rise one more time.

And perhaps it will seem all the more glorious then. As we watch dark and light embrace at the golden-orange border between night and day, we understand why artists call it value. If only just for that moment, the darkness was worth it. If only right then, we remember the way God sustained us as we waited in the pitch of midnight, praying for something to hope for and live for again.

Paul reminds us: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Romans 8:24-25).

So we keep waiting for light to come back, even when we can’t see in the darkness. It will come. It must come. After all, the Light of the World promised that He “will not leave [us] comfortless” (John 14:18), but He’ll come to restore hope and healing.

He will come to restore the value to our lives.

And the contrast will be beautiful.