Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Happiest Place on Earth

I wrote this post for the Olive Tree Blog at work, and I'm sharing it here.

I don’t travel to new places very often; I love being at home. A couple weeks ago I broke the mold and traveled to southern California to spend time with my sister, and we spent a Saturday at Disneyland. The day was a happy whirl of rides, lines, ice cream, and warm sunshine, but around 3:30 that afternoon, when the park was at its most busy and we couldn’t walk without bumping into someone, I began to feel the effects of the crowds. As a child, I might have pitched a fit. But as such tantrums are not tolerated with adults (however much we might want to), I agreed with my sister that a half hour break in the car would be good for both of us. I recognized unmistakable symptoms of being overtired, irritable, and, in this new environment with so many unknown faces, a little fragile, too.

The next day, my sister and I visited my grandma who had recently suffered a minor stroke. My sister and I helped her from her wheelchair to the hospital bed, and she lay there helplessly, unable to use her arms to prop herself up on the bed. My sister and the nurse hoisted her up, and we stood over her, looking down.  She grabbed our hands, hers still surprisingly firm and strong, and said to us, “I’m sorry you have to see me at my worst.” I smiled at her and squeezed her hand, but my insides wrinkled uncomfortably as I recalled the day before, overwhelmed in the happiest place on earth, ready to burst into tears like a petulant child. My grandma’s worst didn’t seem that much different than my worst.

Two weeks later, I sat in the Ash Wednesday service at church and listened to the words of invitation to the observance of Lent:

“Friends in Christ, every year at the time of the Christian Passover, we celebrate our redemption through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration and to renew our life in the paschal mystery. We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes. This ancient sign speaks of the frailty and uncertainty of human life and marks the penitence of this community.”

As the sign of the cross was marked on my forehead with ashes, I was struck by the troubling paradox in the words of invitation, new life and frailty in the same breath. It’s like Lent itself, a season marked by penitence and fasting, which is puzzlingly placed at the time of year when the created world is bursting into new life. The grass becomes green again, the trees straighten towards the light, and flowers emerge from the cold ground.

I realized as I felt the ash on my forehead that my grandma and I both represented the paradox of Lent. My grandma, whose earthly body is failing, is headed for the new life that awaits us in heaven, where the earthly wear and tear fades away forever. While still young and healthy, I have my own frailty in wrestling with the sin and brokenness that are inherent to human life. And yet, the promise of new life still extends to me in the culmination of Lent, that glorious triumph of the cross of Christ. I like Disneyland and all, but surely living in the light of new life, even with the shadow of death, is the happiest place on earth.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Beauty of Words

I've spent the last couple months tangled up in the beauty and excitement of language. This emergent theme in the last couple months prompted me to take a three-pronged approach to adding language to my life during this Lenten season instead of fasting like I've done in recent years. January and February were rich months of taking in words through reading, but I haven't been pouring words back out through writing. I've recently had an itch to write, so here are my Lenten goals:

  1. Journal for 15 minutes each day. No less time, but perhaps more time if I feel lead.
  2. Blog once a week.
  3. Memorize Psalm 139 and a yet-to-be selected poem.
Writing has always been a helpful way for me to think through life, and I felt uncomfortable with my lack of discipline in writing the more I read. A couple things I read (or listened to) made me particularly sensitive to my lack of discipline. The first was that I started getting the Spokesman Review, albeit a recycled version. I mentioned to my mentor that I missed reading the paper every day. No sooner had I said it than we had worked out a plan. She would get the paper from her neighbors every morning, read it, and then put the papers in a plastic bag outside her door, so I could pick them up (usually several at a time) on my way home from work. It's great to read the paper as a whole, but I've particularly enjoyed the poems that are included in the paper each Sunday, chosen by a former U.S. poet laureate. There's something about poetry--some magic, perhaps--that conjures the love of words.

The second is a little embarrassing to admit, but fun, too. I listen to a lot of music at work while I type at a computer all day. Back in December, I saw the movie 'Frozen' and spent a couple weeks at work listening to the soundtrack. The sophistication of the lyrics caught my attention along with the heartfelt vocals. I started a Pandora station with songs from Disney movies and Broadway musicals, anything from 'Annie Get Your Gun' to 'Mary Poppins.' Lyrics catch my attention because so many of the songs tell a story and use the classic pairing of words and music to explore the meaning of life. Listening to these songs gave the week-in-week-out routine of work and home a new context. Life is full of adventure, humor, sorrow, and routine and words put to music give life poignancy. You can even sing to people instead of talking to them, like I did with my housemate when she bought a new car. She'd been thinking about it for a while, so when she finally drove the car into the driveway, I sang to her: "You did it! You did it! You said that you would do it, and indeed you did" (from My Fair Lady). She only thought me half-crazy.

The third concerns the two books I read for my Sunday School book discussion class. In January and part of February, we read 'Cry, The Beloved Country' by Alan Paton, a novel about South Africa in the 1940s. In March and April, we're reading a non-fiction book called 'Letters from the Land of Cancer' by Walter Wangerin, a series of letters the author writes as he's experiencing cancer. The written words on the page are beautiful, but the beauty of the words and stories also extends to the discussions we enjoy in class each week. Our conversations allow us to question what we don't understand, extend the stories to our lives, and share the phrases in the books that challenged, encouraged, and moved us. The language of the stories allows us breathing room to discuss subjects that are challenging--sorrow, justice, death, and love. These subjects need the flesh and blood of stories to come alive and move us.

All these experiences led me to miss the process of reflection that comes with thoughtful writing. Here's my attempt, if only for the Lenten season, to move the words from inside my head and heart to the page, paper or computer screen, and to put flesh and blood on my own story.