The Finisher

light

Along Washington DC’s New York Avenue,  February 2014

 

And the story has only begun. . . .

— “Glorious Unfolding,” Stephen Curtis Chapman (2013)

 

There’s a white Honda parked outside my apartment building, and it sports a back windshield decal that proclaims

And They Lived Happily . . . Ever After

Today I’ll ignore the egregious ellipsis error, ignore also questions about how such a large, flourishy sticker doesn’t obscure views of oncoming rear traffic, and I’ll move quickly through the assumption that all English-literate individuals can identify the source of that phrase and why it might appear on a car in the parking lot of newlywed student housing. I’m not sure which of my neighbors are Mr. and Mrs. White Honda. I don’t feel quite comfortable with spying through slats of window blinds just to see who gets into and out of that car each day. But whoever they are, I sure hope that they’re not at the point in their marriage that that sticker implies.

Happily ever after comes right before The End in traditional stories, and though I doubt that’s meant to indicate that Cinderella and Snow White and the other members of the Happy Ending Storybook Club filed for divorce just as soon as they finished their rides into the sunset, it does seem to signal that there’s nothing more worth telling. We’ve covered it all, folks. Nothing more to see here. They’ve reached the peak, and will hereafter plateau in perpetual pleasure. They’ve overcome all obstacles, beaten all odds, conquered and triumphed and now all that’s left is to bask in their love until the end of time, but we’ve seen enough of that to get the picture. The rest is old news, now. Just more of the same.

Now, I admit that weddings do celebrate a happy ending, of sorts. Dating stinks, in all candor, so when a guy finds a girl he can feel confident with, and when a girl finds a guy who helps her feel safe and strong, they grasp each other’s hands and hang on and bid an unsentimental farewell to the Friday night uncertainties and ambiguous texts and breakups and pits in the stomach. When the couple walks away from the altar, new rings glimmering on their left hands, they’ve gotten to the end of singlehood and move forward as a team, and if that’s not a joy worth celebrating with cake, then I’m pretty sure nothing is.

But I don’t like emphasizing the endness of marriage, which is why I have a beef with the Honda. And lest you think I’m assuming too much about the link between the happily ever after phrase and the story’s conclusion, consider this too: As I’ve pounded out ideas for this essay, a friend of mine was tagged in a Facebook wedding photo album by his new mother-in-law, and she captioned the pictures “And they lived happily ever after, the end.”

So soon? But they only just started. Is it already time to shut the book, flick off the light, tuck in bed, and call it a day?

If lovers were the only ones claiming these premature stopping points in their stories, we’d cut them some slack; love makes people loopy, so they get byes for all sorts of junk. But they’re not alone. They stand side by side with everyone who’s ever claimed that a baptism or a “coming to Jesus” or a prayer or a trip to the temple has changed who they are and they’ll never look back. In the group too are those who land their dream job and assert that they’ve “made it.” And the folks who forget that graduation commencement means start instead of conclusion. And the people who prepare for their first big race and then quit running the next day. And the newly-elected government officials who get too comfy in office and forget their campaign promises.

In short, we humans get real excited about certain milestones, we work and dream and sweat and sacrifice so we can reach them, and then we do and we think we’ve arrived. We consider it done.

But maybe the milestones aren’t ends in themselves—just checkpoints somewhere in the middle.

Nathan and I have been married for almost five months, which means we know nothing. But we’re gathering clues, and each day something hints that we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. Every day there are new plotlines in our story. The earliest (not even twelve hours after the wedding) was the rental car fiasco in the San Francisco airport; the latest was discovering that some punk helped himself to the contents of our own car the other day. The most serious was watching our grad school plans dissolve, leaving us with a painful decision to hash out; the most frivolous was losing ourselves not once but twice on a local school’s campus on the way to rehearsals.

And the stories we could tell you about each of those incidents! The growth we’ve seen! The funny quotes we’ve collected (on yellow sticky notes on the inside of a kitchen cupboard—most of them are from Nathan)! It feels like we’re even farther today from The End than we were on January 16th when we took our marriage license and glimmering rings and pounding hearts to the altar.

Same, too, for how life has gone since my baptism, or my mission, or graduating college. I’ve never “made it” anywhere—there’s still so far to go, and I keep going each day.

I think the Germans had the right idea about how to wrap up fairy tales. I’m not sure who crafted the phrase that we use in English, but it’s a pretty far cry from the traditional ending in our favorite stories’ native language. The German version mentions nothing about ongoing happiness—nothing, actually, about happiness at all. After marching through the plots we’re familiar with, German storytellers say:

Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.

Literally: “And if they haven’t died, then they’re living still today.”

They’re living still. They’re in the present tense.

Their stories are ongoing.

I love the way Tolstoy expressed these thoughts in Anna Karenina. Konstantin Levin spends the entire novel (all 817 pages of it) seeking “arrival points” that will change his life wholesale. He thinks it’ll come when he marries the “perfect woman” he’s loved for so long—then they marry and he not only discovers that nobody (not even Kitty Scherbatskaya) is perfect but that his life isn’t suddenly perfect either. He thinks it’ll come when his son is born—then little Mitya arrives and Levin is repulsed at first to see the squirming wrinkled red child, though he feels inexplicably proud to hear the baby’s first sneeze. He even thinks it’ll come when (spoiler alert) he lets God into his life in a beautiful conversion at the end of the book—and just moments afterwards, he snaps at a servant.

“I expected more,” Levin says, describing his feelings when Mitya was born, but also accounting for his experience in the whole of the novel. “I expected that a new, pleasant feeling would blossom in me like a surprise.” But he realizes that in each case, “. . . This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed. . . . I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”[1]

That’s the end of the novel, guys. The next words are The End, but it’s clear that for Levin, the road will keep going.

For all of us, the road will keep going, up and down and left and right and backwards sometimes but that’s OK, we can reorient and find forward again. There’s unquestionable meaning in each of our lives. We’re empowered to do oh so much good. For as long as we live—may it be ever so long—the Father Who cradled us onto this earth has given us all that we need to endure. He wove tenacity into our spirits, then set us on a path with a solid rod to clutch, no matter how dark things might get, and He whispers to us not to let go, not to stop moving, not even to quit once we’ve tasted a bite of the fruit at the bright Tree of Life, but to start up again and make the round one more time so we can take another bite, and then do it again (see 1 Nephi 8).

Somewhere, at some time, in some beautiful place, God will let us know when we’ve arrived at the only true happily ever after any of us can hope and work for. He’ll hug us tight to His chest, we’ll sob into His shoulder, and He’ll stroke our heads as He whispers, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant . . . enter thou into the joy of thy [L]ord” (Matthew 25:21).

Until that day, though, we’re not at the end—no matter the baptism or mission or wedding or job. Until that day, we’ll take the scriptures’ advice, so fitting for an essay about stories and ends:

“Wherefore, . . . let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2, emphasis added).

 

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[1] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 814, 817.

This My Hymn

peak winter

For the beauty of the earth, especially for the way You built it, crafting elements around a core so liquid hot and dense that every so often over billions of years it’s burst and rocks have jutted up and layered and combined to form the peaks I love to watch the sun rise over. For rainfall. For trees and rocks and textures. For the River Cam and the Dnepr, for Lake Helena and the Black Sea. For the fields and forests where You and I have carried out some of our most private, most important conversations, like how in the world was I supposed to survive high school when ninth grade and depression left me and my GPA shattered, or like how incomprehensibly happy I felt and feel that You healed my emotions and got me into BYU in spite of a poor GPA and a late application submission. For columbine and yellow roses, and for the crocuses that wake me from winter into spring. For the miracle of aspen trees and their whisper. For breezes and for frost. For the lovely death of trees in autumn and the resurrection that follows it, which You only just recently taught me to see as a fiery symbol of the resilience of the human spirit, which is really, then, a fiery symbol of the link that keeps us tied to You, the Sire of Spirits, and to Your Son, Who made resurrection possible in a world swallowed up in death.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

For the beauty of each hour, of the day—when it’s light out, and thus I can see, and thus I feel like things make sense and I can move forward with confidence—and of the night—when, in darkness, I cling to the stars You made to remind us that no darkness need ever be total, and thus I can still move forward, even if I have to work on the confidence part a bit. For the beauty of each hour You and I have spent in heart-to-heart contact, and oh those hours are many indeed. For the beauty of the hours that come just as the sun rises or sets, when the heavens are set on holy fire. For the beauty of the hours that come after a good, hearty cry, and everything is still, and You’re there.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of human love. For the fact that You’ve poured over me so much more of that joy and love than anyone could ever deserve, least of all me. For each of my five brothers, who tease me and whom I tease, and for each of my five sisters, who counsel me and whom I counsel. For parents who do everything for me. For all the times they forgave me after I brought them heartbreak or concern. For their insistence that I go to DC and to Cambridge, because they knew I needed to stretch in ways that couldn’t happen in comfort. For the utter lack of fitting things to say about my dear parents, as I sit here bemoaning the hollowness of every sentence I try to structure in their honor, because how could words repay twenty-five years of life? For the opportunity to live my love for them, even if writing it is impossible. For the sisterhood of Apartment 210. For a best friend who lets me spam her phone with cross-country texts, because Virginia is too plumb far away from Utah. For mission presidents and their wise wives, who kept me upright under the weight of Ukraine, and who keep me upright under the weight of post-mission decisions. For the musical mathematician you led into my life at exactly the right moment, which seemed like exactly the wrong moment at first, as You are well aware after all those nights when I worried about the timing of it all, and begged You for enlightenment or knowledge or something more concrete than just the beautiful mounting calm You used to still my worries and direct my heart. For the something terribly concrete that came just hours before he proposed. For his heart, which somehow hasn’t grown bitter in spite of all sorts of trials and disappointments, including the ones I’ve put him through. For his tenacity and patience. For his hands, which You taught him to use to craft beautiful things, like arrangements and algorithms. For the joy of this very human love, which is all the while a very heavenly matter as well. For the faith You gave us as we tiptoed and chose and guessed our way into romance, even though there were and are things we need to keep in mind and prepare for. For Your wisdom in all of these relationships, in making provisions for the fact that humans hurt each other sometimes, and nothing is ever as clear to us as it probably ought to be, from Your eternal perspective, and so no one really knows what on earth is going on in families and friendships and courtships, but we sure do feel closer to You as we stumble our way through them.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

 

 

*****

Based on text from “For the Beauty of the Earth,” by Folliott S. Pierpont (1835-1917). See LDS Hymns #92.

Disillusions of Love

'I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still, somehow, it's cloud illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all.' -- Joni Mitchell,

‘I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still, somehow, it’s cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all.’ — Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”

“For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives . . . a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.” – C. S. Lewis[1]

Throughout his role in Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin—like all human beings—had to work hard for love. And not just because of his awkward-shy-keep-to-himself personality, which always bodes poorly for fictional and actual love-seekers (take my word for it). Even when he finally breeched the barrier of bashfulness, mustering enough mettle to ask Kitty Scherbatsky to marry him, things didn’t go well. Kitty rejected him, having fallen for one of those typical romantic heroes—a guy whose wooing words and dashing looks made her heart flutter, even though he was actually a punk, like most guys are when they care more about wooing and dashing than about working for love (take my word for that too).

In short, Kitty broke Levin’s heart, and Levin sulked himself back home where he tried to drown his sorrows in farm work and exercise.

But then Mr. Romantic Punk shattered Kitty’s hopes, and after Kitty pieced herself back together, Levin got a second chance. And thus Count Tolstoy set the stage for literature’s awkwardest proposal and wedding sequence, which ends when Levin and Kitty ride off in a carriage toward their new home together in the countryside a few miles from Moscow.

Dream come true. Hard work paid off. Just deserts. What have you. Essentially, a happy end to years of righteous hopes. Levin’s desire for a perfect love to a perfect woman who would help him become manlier, patienter, kinder—well, for all intents and purposes, it looked like that desire had been fulfilled in his marriage to Kitty. Their love for one another was sincere, each looked up to the other, they’d conquered heartache, confusion, and fear.

But the Kitty-Konstantin wedding concludes on page 454 of a novel with 817 pages. And on page 479, Tolstoy gave readers one of the most important insights of the book:

Levin had been married for three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected. At every step he found disenchantment with his old dream and a new, unexpected enchantment. He was happy, but, having entered upon family life, he saw at every step that it was not what he had imagined. At every step he felt like a man who, after having admired a little boat going smoothly and happily on a lake, then got into this boat. He saw that it was not enough to sit straight without rocking; he also had to keep in mind, not forgetting for a minute, where he was going, that there was water underneath, that he had to row and his unaccustomed hands hurt, that it was easy only to look at, but doing it, while very joyful, was also very difficult.”[2]

In a word, disillusionment—the destruction of illusions, which are false ideas about something.[3] That’s what happened to Levin. He hadn’t erred when he worked so hard to marry Kitty, or even when he determined that marriage and family were goals worth his faith, time, and effort. No, Levin’s choices, desires, and actions were right, as Tolstoy explained for the remaining hundreds of pages in the novel.

It was Levin’s perceptions—his expectations—his illusions—that were wrong. He’d created a false idea about love. Marriage was harder than it seemed in his imagination. It took effort and energy. Bliss came only with blisters. It was worth it, but the fight wasn’t over just yet.

Having never been married, I can’t relate with Levin on a direct parallel. But I think I understand something about the process that eats away at illusions. And I think that I understand why that process isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

For example, four years ago today a mailman delivered to my house a large white envelope addressed to “Sister Greer Louise Bates” (full name means business), with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints listed in the top left corner as the sender. Mom and Dad drove down to pick me up from campus, and they let me hold the envelope in the car as we made our way home to be with family when I opened it. I squeezed the packet in my hands and squeezed the tears out of my eyes and felt joy shoot up my spine. Without knowing where God’s prophet had called me to serve a full-time mission, I already knew I would love the place and the people.

Five months later, including a three-month preparation in the Missionary Training Center, I stepped off a plane in Dnepropetrovsk—a metropolis in central-southernish Ukraine. Two days after that a bus drove me ten hours south to Simferopol, Crimea, where I spent the remaining fifteen months of my mission.

Fifteen months of the best kind of disillusionment.

Missionary work wasn’t what I had envisioned. So much of it was more mundane than I had anticipated. I was wimpier than I’d imagined, and I had to give myself pep talks (sometimes out loud) to get myself to talk to people, to invite them to church, to explain the Book of Mormon. There was no rousing soundtrack to keep me energized. Some people made rude comments. Some drunk men creeped me out. The winters froze my skin through multi-layer outfits, it rained and I didn’t have an umbrella, the streets smelled of exhaust from the marshrutky, the underground crosswalks smelled of something much worse.

And I had to work and trust and hope and pray and fight to keep on going.

I had to row and my unaccustomed hands hurt. Missionary work was easy only to look at.

But doing it, while very difficult, was also very joyful.

Because Ukraine and its people ceased to be mere illusions in my mind. Simferopol was a bustling humid loud populated reality—not just an idea or a vision, a mental scene to give backdrop to daydreams. It was real, and I really loved it. My ideas of “Ukrainians” broke down to become the Solodovniks, the Polyakovs, the Sichkarenkos, the Petrovs, Nadya, Lara, Svetlana, Nina, Zhenya, Gosha, Inna, Leonid the street peddler, Tatyana the half-paralyzed babushka. Real people. Real friends. Real, living, loving children of God.

Actualities, not just illusions.

It took work. It was hard. It was awkward and often heartbreaking. But my mission was real. And the people were too. I watched illusions die off and fade out and obscure. The result of this disillusionment was much more complex than the dream I’d cooked up when I first got my mission call. But I’d trade illusory love any day for the real, solid stuff that took shape in my heart and bound it to Ukraine.

Because illusions, you see, can’t love back.

Disillusion done right is letting go of false thoughts to make room for the real stuff that means so much more. It’s the process of loving the real kind of love—the kind built with “the tough fiber of the human heart” instead of “[the] texture of wine and dreams”[4]—the kind that peels back enchantment without losing hope, growing numb, giving up, drying out.[5] It demands that we examine “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:13), not just as we’d like them to be.

Sometimes it means loving when it love doesn’t come easy.

Sometimes it means progressing when we can’t see the way.

It takes faith, hope, and charity; it takes repentance and trust; it takes maturity, empathy, reason, and heart—things I can’t fully give, though I try to each day.

“For now,” Paul wrote, “we see through a glass, darkly,” filtered through false expectations, illusions, and figments (1 Corinthians 13:12). But Christ—the most important Reality—didn’t promise His followers fantasies, or mirages, or imagination, or dreams; He promised “the Spirit of truth,” the Comforter that speaks hope and healing (John 14:17, 26).

Disillusionment usually hurts. There’s a reason why we hang on to dreams, and why we sometimes build them back up when they crash. Perhaps using my mission experience was a poor authorial choice. After all, as hard as it was, I don’t regret my service, and I’d go again in an instant if I could! Some disappointments hurt an awful lot more—paralyzingly, on occasion. Even long after the fact. I’ve watched enough dreams become nightmarish real life that sometimes I despise disillusionment for the rude wake-up call that it is. Illusions are comfortable. Illusions don’t keep me up at night crying. Illusions are safe and they’re soft and they’re nice.

But illusions aren’t real, and they won’t ever be. And as long as there are real lives to experience, real blessings to see, real people to love—won’t that always matter more than even the pleasantest dreams?

At least, I suppose so. I’m still so young, so caught up in ideals, wishes, hopes, so afraid that those visions and dreams won’t come true.

“[So] for now [I] see through a glass, darkly; but [someday] face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known. [Until then] abideth faith, hope, [and] charity” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13).

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[1] From A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperOne. 686.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky). New York: Penguin Classics. 479-480.

[3] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/disillusion?s=t

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” in Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics. 176. The entire quote says: “Our friendships come to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fiber of the human heart.”

[5] See the above C. S. Lewis quotation.

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

 

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.

 

Roses and Religion

bush

Over the past few weeks I’ve learned to look at people in a new way. Call it creepy or call it empirical, it makes little difference. The fact is that I’ve found a glimmer of hope left in humanity. And so what if preserving that glimmer requires candid photos through curtains and glass?

The story begins at my desk—central station for all things gloomy. At least, that’s how it’s seemed the past little while. The bulk of the time I spend at my desk (a grand chunk of each twenty-four hour block) generally consists of my reading through documents linked to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Nazism, pogroms, etc. After all, it’s what I study. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to process emotionally. And when I need a quick break from homework I’ll pull up a tab on an Internet browser to see if new developments have broken in Ukraine or in Gaza.

Frankly, sometimes I’m not sure what’s more dismal—the past or the present.

Life can seem a tad dreary at times, despite all our best intentions to keep stiff upper lips or to whistle or sing. And although I’m not a naturally sad person, every now and then things just don’t look terribly hopeful—and perhaps my addiction to current events isn’t helping this prognosis.

It was on one of those bleak days that I saw a cliché come to life and my whole mood changed. I was chatting with someone online—a friend or a sibling, I can’t quite remember—when a shuffling old woman entered my view through the window at my desk. I watched her hobble along the sidewalk across the street from my hostel, and she kept up her slow pace until she reached the large rosebush that clings to the building on that side of the road.

She reached up a rheumatic hand, gently took hold of a flower, and drew it close to her face.

Yes, friends. That woman literally stopped and smelled the roses.

I can’t explain why, but that experience struck me deeply. Despite my normal aversion to all things trite, I really admired that woman and suddenly felt the urge to go up to that rosebush myself and take a big whiff of the scent God infused into His creation. The view from my window gained meaning, and the world seemed a little less gray.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a day or two later a group of four passersby took the liberty to do the same thing—to stop for a moment, put their journey on hold, and sniff at the yellow rose petals.

That’s when I lost all sense of propriety. Glancing at the digital camera near my laptop on the desk, I made an impulsive decision and snapped shots of the group in order to document that people really do enact the adage we’ve all heard too often.

first

It became a new hobby. Every day I would look up from my readings from time to time to see how people reacted to the rosebush as they passed. If they stopped, I whipped out my camera for the photo, proving to the world (or at least to myself) that there really is beauty left on the earth, and that there really are people who relish it. I started to trust humanity just a bit more than I have in the past. In each passing pedestrian I imagined a closet philosopher enraptured by aesthetics, or a budding theologian whose mind and soul rejoiced in the glories of God.

second

But one day the motion that caught my eye through the window surprised me. An older man trudged along to the steps of a porch near the rosebush. He slouched onto the cement and leaned his guitar against the handrail, then pulled a can out of a crumpled grocery bag and poured the fermented drink into a bottle.

I watched him down round after round of the stuff. His face flushed, and still he pulled out new cans to fill his bottle when the old tins were empty. One time he got up, staggered to the nearby dumpster, and proceeded to relieve himself publicly. I quickly looked away, feeling embarrassed on behalf of this man who had numbed himself past the ability to feel. Clearly he yearned for the comfort—no matter how transient—that can come only after all senses are dead. Soon he stumbled back to his spot on the steps and eventually lost consciousness for a time.

The sight jerked me out of my idealizing and forced me to remember reality. Right next to the rosebush—that symbol I’d invented to stand for hope and goodness—there lay a drunken beggar who not only could not take time to smell the flowers, but probably had too much pressing on his soul to even see them or care. The immediacies of hunger, of hatred, of loss, unemployment, divorce, destitution, depression—who knows—crowded out the roses. And I understand why.

For some reason, I felt that I needed to capture this image. After a moment’s hesitation, I took up my digital camera, climbed under my desk in order to lift the curtain for a clearer view, and clandestinely snapped a portrait of the person whose pain I’d been watching.

third (1)

I prayed for that man. There wasn’t much else I could do.

The next day he was back, and he sat on the porch even though it was raining and the steps had no awning to shield him from the drizzle. I ached for him—especially when he pulled out a can.

But this day turned out a bit differently than the previous one had. After about ten minutes or so, I saw a young woman approach the man. In one hand she grasped the handle of a mug covered in pink and red hearts; in the other she held a banana. She leaned over the man and insisted he take the fruit and coffee, then she stood for a while, chatting, laughing, smiling with the man who had set his beer can aside to make room for the gifts.

The two were so consumed with their conversation that I’m sure neither of them noticed the camera lens across the street, snatching the moment, preserving the scene of true love in action.

last

I’m not sure if the rosebush really is the symbol I’d made it out to be all those times that I watched people stop and observe it, or smell it, or touch it, or maybe just stand in its shade for a while. Sure, it’s beautiful, and I’m glad there are people who notice beauty in the world.

But there’s something more lovely than flowers.

Cliché and all, I think I’m in favor of the maxim to “stop and smell the roses,” just so long as we’re willing to notice the men who sit under the bushes. Just so long as we’re willing to grab our bananas and mugs and go stand in the rain for the sake of God’s sons and His daughters. That’s what makes this world beautiful–men and women and caring and love.

I’ll let you decide whether it’s wrong for a person to hide in her room taking pictures of strangers. But now, on those days when the present and past seem a little too heavy to handle, I’ve got proof that good people still walk on the earth—people who understand that “[p]ure religion and undefiled before God . . . is this[:] To visit [people] in their afflictions, and to keep [themselves] unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).