Emptiness and What Fills It

I dumped out my letter box the other day. I gently discarded its dear content on the floor, and took to the task of throwing away the things I no longer needed.

The box itself had been a birthday gift. Some friends of mine found it at an antique mall and told the cashier who offered to clean the dust off of it to “leave it on there please – it’s part of the story.” It’s painted dark green and has a creaking handle and sighing hinges. It used to be a tool box. Now, it houses memories and lessons learned and pieces of hearts given and taken and a collection of leaves I pressed two autumns ago. I looked at it now that it housed nothing but that ancient dust and I felt its nakedness and hollowness, and I stroked its side to comfort it – and myself. It mourned what had filled it before and I whispered that I would fill it soon again, and I would fill it with only what it needed. Then, I turned to its inside.

I read each article that had been placed, for whatever reason, in that box – I felt their weight, their good, deep weight. And I rejoiced and I lamented and I pondered and I turned from the empty box and its full contents and I sighed. A good sigh.

And God gently turned me upside down and spilled my dear contents all over the floor. He looked at me and felt the nakedness and hollowness, and he stroked my hair to comfort me. I mourned what had filled me before and he whispered that he would fill me soon again, and only with what I needed.

And then came Autumn. Autumn that gets inside a person.  That burrows deep down and unsettles that ancient dust called to life so long ago.

I’ve been reading again.

I went for far too long without reading. And its return and the passion for words and life and truth that it brought leads me to believe that reading is essential to my well being. And I don’t simply say that to be poetic. I am more alive when I read. And Christ did not come to set me free to a half-life, or even a nine-tenth life. He came to set me free to a full and then some life, bursting, recreating – a blazing trail through the settled confusion of night, a wild creek, the crescendo of the symphony where your soul cannot take in the beauty and you weep. So, I read, I am read to, I soak in, soak up, and let the words get into my soul like autumn does.

We’re hungry beings, humans.  We ache to. just. be. filled. And then we are filled, we think that we have finally reached the depths of that restless, moaning hunger, and we sigh – content.

But it deepens. It’s endless. And that, my friends, is the beauty. That impatient ache is Eternity waiting for the day it can be fully revealed.  Eternity cannot fit inside of our finite minds and hearts and souls – yet it is there. God himself put it there. He put it there because he knew it would be restless. He knew Autumn would get inside of us. He knew reading would bring us to more life.

And he knew that if we were quenched, we would stop looking for the wonder.

We would stop asking the questions that tear against humanity as we know it – humanity as the world has defined it so deeply for so long. He knew we would stop running in the night, though we could not see and our lungs were fire. He knew we would end our ravenous search for that thing for which we so ache. He knew Sunday would become enough for us. He knew following Christ’s teaching would become deep enough. He knew we would become satisfied with our 4 or so dimensions.

He knew we would stop seeking. And we would stop finding.

And we would miss the passionate Romance calling to us. That Love that digs into you with Autumn’s fire and crisp air and stirs that ancient dust of hunger deeper still. That Love that gently turns you upside down and empties your dear contents onto the floor and holds you tight as you scream and curse and flail. That Love that then lets you go – lets you have what you want. And stands, heart-broken for you, as you try to replace the contents you think you need – a child, a mess. Hair in tangled, tear-soaked array covers your face as you cradle the things you thought would fill. The things you thought would silence Eternity. Eternity that you wanted to silence because Eternity that was so good before, now aches to the marrow of your bones – aches when you taste what is Good and you can’t touch it, can’t hold it, can’t see its face. And all you long to do is see its face, hear its voice, feel its breath, know its love. And the things, as you clutch them, don’t silence like they did before. And you curse the Love that ruined them for you, and you hurl them, desperate, and cry.

And Love cries with you. For you. And brushes the hair out of your face and holds you. And you know it. Though you can’t see It, can’t feel It, you know. And it’s okay. Though Eternity still aches in its terrible beauty, it’s okay. You have a promise, “I will fill you soon again, only with what you need.”

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I’ve been reading again.

I’ve felt rather lost and uncertain as of late. I’ve used the word “floundering” to describe how I feel so many times, the word makes my stomach hurt. It’s not that I stopped being Maggie, it’s just that I forgot who Maggie was. I knew bits and pieces. I could repeat the truth of it to myself – you’re Beloved, you’re daughter, you’re important to the Kingdom, you’re a bright, lovely creature because He said so, you are a writer – but when your heart is sick, though you know the truth, your sick heart coughs it up.

When your heart is sick, pieces of you that you thought were so deeply woven they could never come undone, disappear. They slip into the ocean inside of you and kick and splash and they’re gone. And at first, you row around on your makeshift raft and ravenously search the endless waters for the good that slipped into unknown. But time wears, and your raft hits a land you’ve never before encountered, and you count those good things forever lost. You don’t lose hope, though. Not really. You find a way to live on this new land of yours – you make the best of things (the way that you do) and this land that is only somewhat you, is okay. Even if your heart is sick.

Sometimes, sometimes in the night, you wake with a start and the stars seem brighter than usual and the air tastes sweet and ancient and sharp, and you swell. Something glimmers on a distant wave and you don’t dare breathe, because there – just beyond your reach – is the piece of you that you lost. The piece you need so desperately, that without it, you are left to repeat the truth to your fevered heart and watch it be retched up. Again and again.

I kept reading the writing of others – my pastor, my mom, my dad, my friends – and I would ache, deep inside ache, because I know I am I writer. But my writing felt stiff and foreign, an unloved thing. You are a writer – heaved up.

Here’s the profound thing – because I could not believe one truth about myself, I could not believe any of them. Because I could not remember that I really am a writer, I could not see myself as Beloved daughter, I could not see how important I am to the Kingdom. I crumbled. I stopped.

Some days ag0, Mom hid a letter she wrote to me in my bible. It took me until Friday to find it. Her words of love for me reminded me I once wrote from a deep well.  My heart seized. I found her and cried out words that didn’t express what I meant. I cried out words that expressed what I didn’t mean. She hugged me, and set a work of fiction on my desk.

The book swallowed me whole. It ran to my heart, ran right to the sickest part of it, and sank in deep. And my heart kept it. My heart took it in with great gulps. Slowly, slowly, I remembered. I remembered the promise of a book. I remembered how I loved words and loved how words sounded and tasted, and how you can, with the greatest care, caress words into death-taking, life-bringing things. I remembered how precious story is. I remembered how quickly I love people. I remembered how quickly I hate the evil. I remembered the well of story inside of me.

I jumped off the land, jumped off the make-shift raft and drank in sea water with hungry lungs.

Here’s the profound thing – when my heart knew that one truth about myself, it could take in all of them. Because I know I am a writer, I can feel the Father’s pleasure, I can see Kingdom life springing up around me. And I won’t stop.

Whispers

The leaves here whisper and call through the windows. Wind came three nights ago and tried to carry the leaves and their unearthly words away, but it could not prevail. They are stubborn for dying things. I think if I were that close to dead and the wind came to take me away, I’d go – even if I didn’t want to, I’d go. They’re dipped in bronze too – the leaves that talk in tongues. And they shine and whisper to me from outside the kitchen window as I peel sweet potatoes. I smile at their whisperings for a second and keep peeling – gentle scraping the earthy skin off. Then I cut them. In the near silence, my mind digs and winds in circles.

I think of slavery, of how it’s still happening, of how girls are swept up, deteriorated, and never really put back.

And I cut deeper.

I think of myself, of how strange it is to suddenly not know who you are, of how long it takes to remember – and relearn.

Push harder.

I think of how I thought things would look. And how they really look. And how different the two are.

To break the potato into pieces small enough to cook down and consume.

I think of orphans and how much it must hurt to be alone like that. How much it must hurt to not know the beautiful truth of who you really are.

The knife smacks the cutting board and the sound echoes – hard.

I retrace conversations. Retrace the words I spoke and didn’t speak. The words they spoke.

Music is playing in the next room. And it fills me, like the hard echo of the knife. Fills me from deep down, and I feel like crying. But I don’t.

I think of how the Israelites had to relearn how to live.

I take an onion from counter and work the knife through that – it glides, easy. The onion’s potency stings my eyes and a single tear forces its way through the stinging to remedy it. And it feels good from the same deep down that the music fills, as it falls.

I finish the potatoes and onions and move to the room where the music plays. I let the swirling, filled-ness, overwhelm, overtake me. And I rest in its beauty. Its torn. Its heavy. Its promise.

We gather around the table, hold hands, thank God, and eat. Forks clink. We sigh in contentment. And I thank God again. And again. In the smiling stillness, the whispering leaves can be heard, “this is good.”

I realized the other day that I’m broken. And it’s okay that I don’t really know who I am right now – even if I did know before. It’s okay because Jesus came. He came and lived and was real and touchable and smellable and spoke with sometimes-breaking human voice, like me. So he could teach me how to live.

And then he died. So the curtain could be torn, and he could hold me and I could see him, he died.

Right before he died, he set meals aside for knowing. So we can taste the bitter. And we can know him the way a wife knows a husband. Because the invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood, is an invitation  to know his pain – an invitation of deepest intimacy. When you love someone, and you can clearly see they ache, deeply, purely ache, don’t you want to know that ache with them – for them? Don’t you want to understand? Communion – the bread, the wine, or, the left over Challah, the water – is knowing that ache.

And then he rose.

He laughs, Jesus. I forget that he’s a joyful being. I forget that when music fills me and though it’s joyful, it hurts and wakens, that it’s good.  Until I eat and drink and I feel him – here, right here. He made meals for remembering. For knowing, and remembering.

Remembering, that he rose so I could get better. So my soul could stop its relentless coughing and sputtering. So the fever could break, and my thought could be clear and pure. And I could be whole.  And be swept up into the joy that is Father, Son, and Spirit here, right here. And so we could walk together. And so as we walk together, we could make others better too; because he came – he was fleshed out and here, right here.

And when his flesh went home – to our home, the one he’s getting ready for me – he left his spirit, to remind me.  He left his spirit to fill up meals and make them deep communion, where we know one another’s hurt. He left his spirit to shake the leaves of precious metal that wouldn’t be taken by the wind to remind me that “this is good.” When it’s hard and the cut won’t come quick enough, and I don’t want it anyway, “this is good.” When the break is smooth, but leaves me raw, “this is good.”

I’m in my room now, my window is open, and my curtain dances in the wind, pushes up against me as if to invite me into the wild adventure it knows. Then it breathes gently, whispering with the leaves, “this is good. because I am good.”

Pushing Back the Darkness

Andrew Peterson – musician, author, artist, and general extraordinaire – has this Christmas concert. It’s a culmination of a great many things of wonderment and beauty and it comes annually to a mediumish church in Milford, Ohio (amongst many other places.) The Christmas season officially begins when, and only when, we have attended said concert in Milford, Ohio and taken part in the wonderment and beauty. I hold Andrew Peterson in a slightly exalted place where he resides with a soft halo around his head, music ever playing around him and pen ever moving gracefully across the Moleskin I personally and hypothetically placed in his hands. And yes, I realize that’s slightly unhealthy – he’s simply the kind of person you really just want to be. So, when, two years ago my family and I loitered in the building until he came out from “backstage” (which, being in a church, was probably just some small room behind the “stage” – an elevated area with mics and a piano) to talk with us, his emphatic, ever-so-slightly-worshipping fans, I had a small conniption fit of glee and jumped on the chance to speak with him, half-dragging my family along behind me. We had a lovely conversation, he and my family and I , about writing – because that’s something, much to my pleasure, we all have in common. I informed him that’s had written him a letter, which he said he remembered reading and would respond to as soon as he found time, this brought on a slightly more contained conniption fit of glee. He also suggested two books for our benefit and pleasure, etc.

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
Bird by Bird – Anne Lammot

My mom, being the wonderful woman she is, bought the books for my dad for Christmas, breaking “don’t buy the spouse anything” rule that is in place for no apparent reason other than to be broken. She justified this rule breaking by signing the tag “Andrew Peterson,” claiming that the gift was essentially from him. We relished those books – still relish those books. They were like some strange connection to the story-telling, music-making man – he had read those words, been impacted by them, and they were in my house. They are brilliance.

Admittedly, I’ve never read either of the books. My mom and dad have both read The War of Art and at least half of Bird by Bird and I have done no more than peer lovingly at the covers of either of them. My mom has, however, passed on to me two invaluable concepts from these two books. One is a charming anecdote about Anne Lammot’s three year old and some toy keys and some choice words. I will leave you to ponder at that or read the book for yourself (or buy the book and let it sit in your house and hope that it will seep into your brain while you sleep like I so often do – that’s why there is a constant stack of books beside my bed – it has yet to prove itself as an actual method of learning things.) The second is from The War of Art and it finds its way into most of what I do most of the time. It is more a concept than a said quote or story – it may sound familiar due to the fact that I reference it from time to time on here, or it may sound familiar due to the fact that it’s a desire and a truth placed deep down inside all of us.
Pushing back the darkness.

It even sounds hopeful and brave and inviting. The idea is this: Steven Pressfield has identified this “force” in the universe. He refers to it throughout his book (of which I have now read a few pages in order to find the quote I’m looking for and be sure that I actually know what I’m talking about before I proclaim it to you, my rather smallish blogging audience who deserves the truth in spite of your unimpressive size) as The Resistance. He says this about it

Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease… To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and we’re born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declares Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed us with our own unique genius.

I really would like to insert the entirety of the book above because after reading several pages past what I actually needed, I came to the realization that I should’ve read this book long ago. Though, please know before you buy it and gather up all of your children or friends or family around your feet and read to them “this fantastic book this random, rather goodish blogger suggested,” that it is not exactly G, or even really PG rated as to language and such… It may actually be close to R – but it’s a great book nonetheless. That aside. The point is that we are created to fight against this Resistance. We are created to be brilliant and glorious and to, by our words and our actions and our dancing and singing and music writing and instrument playing and whatever else, “push back the darkness” – fight against the Resistance by being what we are. It creates this beautiful image of warfare with what we love, with finding and creating beauty in the everyday places, with realizing we hold powerful, powerful weapons in our hands and realizing that God is bigger and deeper than only revivals and church meetings and giving statements and mission trips and youth groups. He is in paintings and poems and movies and songs and books, even books with questionable wording – he is not to be boxed in and he is calling us to let him infiltrate all of ourselves, and through that to join him in the war against The Resistance – that thing that keeps us from being who we are. It’s beautiful. Truly beautiful.

Yes, this is a reoccurring theme. It’s kind of my passion – get over it. Redundancy is not at all bad.

Emily Dickinson and I walked into Starbucks

It’s a funny thing, Starbucks. It claims to be a coffeehouse. It greets you upon your entering with the deep, earthy, buzzing smell that boasts of a coffeehouse. It looks somewhat like a coffeehouse. In rare slow hours it sounds like a coffeehouse with its slow jazz or recently “discovered” musician drifting lazily over the scream of the espresso machines and the drone of contemplative people. And yet, there is something very different between Starbucks and a true coffeehouse. The furniture matches, the espresso is so-so, and the merchandise is pushed as much as the atmosphere, all of these contributing factors in the nearly undefinable gap between real coffee and Starbucks, still, there is something more than this. Starbucks is a place for business meetings and social gatherings. Starbucks buzzes, coffeehouses hum. The sacred air that coffeehouses hold which causes their visitors to keep an unspoken vow of library-like reverence is sorely missing from Starbucks and in its place, boisterous life. All of this, of course, is not bad. No, I quite like Starbucks thank you very much, I merely feel that is important to recognize that difference – the difference between that local haven of artists, students, philosophers, musicians, bibliophiles, dancers, and writers alike and that local meeting place of philanthropists, CEO’s, social beings, stay at home moms, and small business owners – the difference between the place of staying and pontificating, and the place of in and out as quickly as possible, unless otherwise planned. I had planned otherwise. I am not an “in and out” kind of person. I like to sit and soak in the atmosphere so that when I emerge, I carry with me the wafting scent and idea of the place I’ve left behind.  There truly is a lovely thing about the life bubbling throughout Starbucks this morning, spilling from person to person. There is a tragic something empty about it too – like a jazz song rippling through the steadily marching morning with only a brass harmony, and no strings or real melody; only pieces of a complex and beautiful puzzle. I thought about this for a while and came again to the conclusion that we are tragically beautiful people, who, with Jesus alone are whole and full and a meaningful harmony.
~
Emily Dickinson and my sister are my companions. My sister sits in a far off chair, sipping her coffee and writing in her journal, feeling and looking very grown up and important. I’m left to smile at the thought of her and her lovely mind and turn to Emily for companionship. She’s good, thought-provoking company, Emily Dickinson. I’ve read the first 15 or so poems in her book at least 5 times a piece and still they are lovely little puzzles – riddles to be pondered and unwoven until they lay plainly in front of you with at least a hundred different possibilities and answers. Reading Emily’s poems is peeking into the mind of one who sees the world as entirely not the same as everyone else – a wonderful, story-ful, sparkling, sorrowful, and entirely real place. Peering into this mind, I feel both very alive and very hopeless. Hopelessness comes from the wonderment at how one could see everything so poetically, capture it so beautifully. I feel that even she doesn’t know how she does it; it’s simply Emily and there is no rhyme, reason, or pattern to follow. I think Emily would frequent both Starbucks and coffeehouses; the former for writing, the latter for observing the world and its people through that lovely lens of hers. I have this philosophy that were I to sit with her amongst coffeehouses and Starbucks’ and parks and some splendid old house, those wonderful pieces of her that fall into her poems with such ease would seep from her to me. This is why Emily Dickinson and I walked into Starbucks this morning.