Again.

“‘Here I am,’ I whispered, and I waited in the dark. The answer was a sword that came down hard upon my heart. Holy is the Lord, and the Lord I will obey. Lord, help me, I don’t know the way.” 

I had an MRI scheduled for December 30, 2014, six months out from my first brain surgery. Two months before that, I started having headaches — mild ones I wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t still on high alert from the first time all this happened.

I put off calling the doctor until most everyone in my life was nagging me to do so on a daily basis. When I called, he suggested bumping the MRI up to November — just for peace of mind.

At my consult, following the MRI, he told me in plain language that the tumor was back. Exponentially smaller, but then, it had only had four months to grow. I would need surgery again, then radiation following that.

So now, I’m trying to push aside the tinny headaches and the nausea that clouds around me on trains, on elevators, in unexpected moments…again.

On December 9, a little more than five months after the first time this all happened, I will tie the strings of my hospital gown, and breathe in and count backward from 100. I will not get past 97 (I never do), but my hands will be cold, because I am afraid of surgery — every time, no matter how many I have.

I’ll wake up later and it won’t feel like hours or minutes, it’ll just feel like no time at all, like time that never existed. They will tell me to lie down on the MRI table, and I will be frustrated with that through the fog — don’t they know my head hurts? 

It’ll all come again, the first night after surgery, the days practicing putting on socks and walking up stairs, the steroids, the attempts to wash my hair around the incision — and the times I mess up and the water sears in anyway.

I will learn again to work around the little deficiencies — losing sentences in midstream, forgetting how to back out of a parking space, my hands not working when I tell them to.

And as it all happens, God will be good…again.

I have been listening to this song over and over again. It’s the story of the binding of Isaac from Abraham’s perspective — if you’re not familiar with the Bible, this is a time when God asked Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Just before he did, God made another way.

I keep thinking about the way God sometimes asks us to take what is most precious to us and place it in His hands. To trust. To obey.

This is what is precious to me right now. My health. My recovery, which I fought for inch by inch, memory by memory. My life, my normal days, work and dinners with friends and my quiet life in this one-bedroom apartment.

I will give it. I am praying over and over that I will give it willingly, with joy. Because I know — bone-deep — that I will experience His holiness in this.

And that is worth it to me.

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Snow Stories

It feels, this fall, like the snow has started everywhere but here. Even my South Carolina hometown, where the average temperature is vaguely reminiscent of a tropical rainforest or an oven, has gotten a few flakes.

But after going to college in the mountains, a few hours and a world away from the rest of North Carolina, snow stories live in my mind, and the slightest bite of cold can draw them out.

***

My first brush with mountain snow: It was late September, maybe early October, and the temperatures dipped fast. I could count my previous experiences with snow on one hand. Growing up, most of the kids in my neighborhood didn’t own gloves – when it snowed, once a year if we were lucky, we yanked socks onto our hands.

As the temperatures made their plunge that fall, I realized I was equipped with a pricey winter jacket and almost nothing else. I didn’t even own a scarf — I don’t think I ever had.

I trekked to the K-Mart in town for a few supplementals: a pink fleece hat and matching scarf; a pair of striped, sweater-knit mittens that would, ultimately, do little more than soak straight through and fill my 8×8 dorm, for hours, with the pungent smell of wet wool.

Transaction completed, I waited at a roadside bus stop, plastic bag crumpled in my pocket and new purchases wrapped around my throat and hands and head. And it started: fresh flakes, the fine-grained film that comes when it’s barely cold enough to snow in the first place. Backlit with the lights of town, they looked like glitter.

And not for the first time, but maybe for the strongest, I realized I was in a different place entirely, with who knew what ahead. It felt like magic.

***

Two weeks after that bus-stop glitter, we got our first real snow — big enough to blanket parking lots and roads, big enough to sink in past your ankles (but not, as it turned out, big enough to cancel class).

It was nighttime, again, when the flakes started falling, fatter and faster than any I’d ever seen. I let myself get swept up in the crowd of girls pouring out of my dorm, pulling on paisley-printed rain boots and the K-Mart scarf and hat.

We lived right next to the stadium, so that’s where we went. Hopped fences. Made snow angels. Then trooped back up to our floor, crowded into the bathroom, took hot showers that stung cold skin. We didn’t know we shouldn’t, almost all of us being new to this world of froth falling from the sky.

I was still so nervous then, so unsure of my reactions, convinced I was saying all the wrong things. That didn’t keep me from thinking, as the shower spray needled into my shoulders, that this was the kind of night you remember.

***

A few years later, when college was still sweet, but more worn-in, there was snow on the ground for a solid four months.

Snow blanketed the ground sometime in mid-fall, and didn’t melt entirely until mid-spring, late March or early April. (When it did melt, we all paraded out onto green hills and spread out blankets over the mud and, giddy with warmth, laid there for hours).

I visited home sometime in the middle of it, went for pizza with my parents, and begged them to eat outside. It was freezing cold and the patio was empty, but I sat there anyway, scraping my shoes back and forth to feel the clear pavement beneath them, head tilted back, eyes squinting up at the sun.

***

I went to college for five years. In the fifth, I lived with three roommates in a house outside town and worked an assortment of minimum-wage jobs — waitressing, handing out copies of lost dorm keys, punching tickets in a campus parking deck.

The first thick, October snow of that year, I realized I was growing up — and I realized I didn’t much like it. We didn’t live on campus or close to it, so there was no trooping through snow to fill up on “provisions” (this had never referred to anything practical, we usually meant frozen burritos and terrible movies from the campus library). I needed to pick up shifts at work, but at the time I drove a Toyota Camry that was totally unequipped to coast down four miles of ice-coated road.

We were stuck in the house, and I was worried about paying a rent bill that now seems laughably cheap, and this was adulthood and it all felt awfully grim — so disconnected from the snow days that came before, and from their magic.

***

Of course, as with all things, you settle in. You get used to being grown up, and the responsibilities stop feeling like individual, personal affronts. You learn how to keep whatever magic you can, to take it wherever you can find it, and to be — this is the trick, I think — to be a happy person who looks like an adult but has a child inside them.

Some things change, some things don’t. I still see pictures of parking-lot snow angels and ache for college snow days, but I don’t long to go back to that time in my life. I am here, not there, and I don’t want to regress.

If you’re still in that stage, though, when your snow days — any of your days – can be closed down to the world…

You should breathe it in. You should savor it. These days won’t come again.

Beautiful things I’ve read lately

The ceaseless labor is the freedom of play:

“I am 79. I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.” (New York Times: Old Masters at the Top of Their Game)

A world that shone so brightly: 

“Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colors will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.” (New Yorker Poetry: Japanese Maple)

If you’re good at it, people only see the shiny outcome: 

“‘She made a solid point: If you’re good at it, people only see the shiny outcome. They see the trick that you have performed and they don’t see the hours and work that go into it, and that means you’ve done a good job.’ A journalist is rarely going to admit they got a great idea from a press release. Someone who downloads an app or attends an event usually won’t pause to think, ‘How did I hear about this?’ We only notice PR work when it goes horribly awry.” (New York Magazine: Why Do We Treat PR Like a Pink Ghetto?)

The perpetually flowing quest to the horizon…next: 

“The Fountain of Youth, whatever it is, would feel like justice. Time is a liquid — it flows, unfairly, through us and past us; we ingest it without effort, without chewing — so it only makes sense that we would look for a liquid to save us. A liquid cure to a liquid curse. Generation after generation, like the mythical Ponce, has chased eternity in liquid form: the patent formula, the fish oil, the coconut water, the juice fast, the wheatgrass, the lotions. Twenty-first-century science promises to chase this myth into the very liquids of our bodies: nanocures that will flow in our blood and restore the fluid inside our cells. Ponce’s quest rages on, and perhaps this is the fountain he was pointing to: the perpetually flowing quest to the horizon — the next, next, next, next. We turn to look where he was pointing, and then suddenly we are gone. Next.” (NYT Magazine: Searching for the Fountain of Youth)

Insta-Lately

Quick car update: Turns out the timing belt snapped. It’ll be a pricey fix, but it’s a long way from “your car is ruined” — so I’m feeling cautiously better.

Also, my total lack of car knowledge is obviously written on my face, because every dad in my life is giving me advice about this situation. My own dad, yes, but also just everyone I know who happens to be a dad. If you are also a dad, please feel free to give me advice.

Now, on to an Instagram update and some happier things.

As mentioned, I spent last weekend up in western North Carolina with my best friend, Hannah. I’ve been dying for fall in the mountains, and 48 hours of tangy-sweet air and crackling leaves were enough to tide me over.

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Something I remember from living in the mountains, right in the heart of fall color and glory, was a strange kind of hurt the whole season. I knew it was going to go fastfastfast, so I tried the whole time to grab on and soak up “enough.” I spent every fall feeling glutted and hungry at the same time.

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We spent Saturday wandering around downtown Asheville, and it was everything you want a day of exploring to be. Leaning shelves in dusty bookstores, the weirdest assortment of people crowding the street, a chocolate lounge with fresh pumpkin ice cream and chocolate snickerdoodles, vegan food with a view of waving yellow trees. Atlanta has neighborhoods like this, but in Asheville it’s the whole city.

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Before I stop talking about leaves, I’ll slip in really quickly that I spent a few days in Athens for work last week and spotted this barely-turned tree against a gorgeous fall sky. I’ve been to UGA a few times before and wasn’t particularly blown away, but it was so much prettier in fall. Plus, all my previous visits were in summer, and I don’t think you can overstate the injection of life that comes with all those students wandering around.

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These pals came to Atlanta for a weekend recently (as usual). We went to the aquarium in the morning, but it was the day of the Outkast concert, so as soon as we were done with the fish it felt like time to get away from Downtown. We spent Saturday wandering around downtown Decatur and then Phipps Plaza (for some Real Housewives-style people watching), and Sunday in a food coma at Flying Biscuit, as tradition dictates.

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Mostly, lately, I’ve been soaking up little things (and counting gifts).

Like this hot sunset streaming in through my train window

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And a coffee-shop porch overflowing with gorgeous green things

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And a quiet night with a stack of things to read and a caramel apple spice. (Side note: that issue of Harper’s has a really good piece on feminism and credibility called Cassandra Among the Creeps. It’s hard-paywalled online, so you should get to a bookstore and drop the $5. Worth it, I promise.)

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And then a few scattered things…

1. I’ve been running! Pretty frequently, too. This is a big development since, until recently, I was actively avoiding exercise whenever possible. Here’s a Greenway view from a handful of weeks ago.

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2. My apartment is covered in baby pumpkins and I don’t even know how to stop.

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AND 3. I got glasses! It turns out my right eye is damaged from my surgery. Overall not the worst side effect because I got to pick these out, and I’m pretty sure they make me look a little older, which is basically the goal over here.

The girl at the eye doctor was a master salesperson — I told her I wanted the cheapest pair she had and left with these, which are Lilly Pullitzer. But I love them & I don’t even care.

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SO that’s more or less it. I’ll be back in a month or so with another stack of pictures :)

So let go, my soul, and trust in Him.

“Far be it from me to not believe, even when my eyes can’t see — this mountain that’s in front of me will be thrown into the midst of the sea. So let go, my soul, and trust in Him — the waves and wind still know His name.” (Bethel Music, It is Well)

“Take the old prophets as your mentors. They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. … God cares, cares right down to the last detail.” (James 5:11 MSG, partial)

I’ve got some free time to write this afternoon, because I’m sitting at a McDonald’s in a small Georgia town I didn’t know existed, waving lazy flies away and waiting for a ride to deliver me back to Atlanta.

A few hours ago, I was careening down to Georgia in my pea-green Subaru Outback (which, in retrospect, was beautiful and wonderful and should have been pampered and appreciated). Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, said Subaru started emitting an oh-god-what-is-that chunking sound, flashed every warning light possible on the dash, and swiftly, agreeably guided me to an all-out stop on the shoulder of I-85.

One sweltering wait, two truck rides, and one whistle-stop McDonald’s later, I’m still not sure what’s wrong with my car…but the driver of the aforementioned tow truck mumbled extensively under his breath about shot transmissions, so I’ve got a quaking, healthy fear about what happens next.

Prior to that, this was the kind of weekend that made it uncommonly easy to recognize and roll and revel in God’s goodness. I spent two days in beautiful western North Carolina with my best friend, having long indulgent talks over vegan food and walking the streets of Asheville, which are blissfully clogged, this time of year, with cheerful pedestrians and dusty bookstores and leaves that are absolutely incandescent.

I believe God wants to hear our praise when we’re riding down twisting mountain roads and eating pumpkin ice cream and drinking blueberry punch. But the real time for praise, my heart can’t seem to stop believing, is when you’re sitting by the side of the road soaked in sweat, calling friends and Googling bus passes.

God’s goodness shows up as I’m wiping sweat and dirt out of my eyes, wondering if the car is totally shot and if I need a new one and, if so, what sky that money’s going to fall from.

It also shows up when I look toward the immediate future and my stomach twists, when I make the mistake of Googling “radiation symptoms,” when I convince myself I can feel black tumor creeping back into my brain, ready to be discovered at my January scan.

God is in this stuff. He’s of it, not outside of it.

God, may I be flooded with gratitude for dirty roadsides and creaking cars and MRIs, and may I see the grace in every moment.

These words make my heart soar.

Romans 8 has always been one of my favorite chapters of the Bible. (By “always,” I mean “in the relatively recent period of time since the Bible started seeming like something alive, instead of a dusty book from my childhood.”)

It is lovely in the NIV and the other translations I read frequently growing up, but it takes on a new, wing-sprouting, soul-soaring life in The Message. If you’re not familiar with the translation, Bono (of all people) summed it up pretty beautifully in an interview with Rolling Stone:

“There’s a translation of the Scriptures — the New Testament and the Books of Wisdom– that this guy Eugene Peterson has undertaken. It has been a great strength to me. He’s a poet and a scholar, and he’s brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written.” (x)

Below is the Message translation of Romans 8:12-29, with some (bolded) emphasis of my own.

There is joy beyond anything I can describe in this new life, adventurous life, free of grave-tending and expectant before God.

There is more in these verses than I can comprehend –every time I read them, something new rises to the top. And I’m moved — moved like a revolution, not like a Hallmark card. I read these words and something shifts in me. Living and active.

“So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent? There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go! 

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us — an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him.

That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. 

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. 

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored.

None of my words could follow that up. Glory.

mountains, cities, glory

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It’s fall, but the leaves only burst into color, into fire, into flame in the mountains. I’d forgotten that was true.

The trees outside my apartment started turning and a small, hill-bound piece of my heart recoiled and said — there’s something wrong with them, right? The leaves all turned the same color of rusty yellow-brown, and crumpled, and fell.

Sometimes I have a perverse desire to take people by the shoulders and yell. You don’t understand, I’ll tell them, the day that fantasies become real. I lived in the most beautiful place in the world. Do you understand? 

I don’t know how to describe it, but Halloween is a good time to try, because it helps to draw on some October imagery. The southern Appalachians have a magic hold on me, a witch’s-cauldron hold, a sorcerer’s.

I got to have them for six years, to chase after them and find, over and over again, in a thousand little aches, that they couldn’t be grasped. There is none of that in Atlanta, no leaves glowing gold, no mountain laurel making the air smell like earth and laundry.

But. In the mountains, I never got to crane my neck and strain my eyes and feel, pressing down on me, the power of a human race that manages to stack buildings toward the sky. The mountains don’t glitter with the lights from workaholics’ windows as dusk falls down.

Here, I walk through markets, streets, parks, paths, cataloging everyone around me, making up names and stories for all the faces I see. There’s no exhausting the supply of things to explore, no need for new to give way to familiar.

I walk until my calves ache; I run my hands along brick walls, knowing I should be hand-sanitizing like crazy but not caring at all. I burst through days feeling, quietly, the surge of energy that comes from drawing a paycheck, and doing what I love, in the same place.

My heart is split in half, between places, between people. It’s an embarrassment of riches, an outpouring of grace, this getting to love so much that I’m always missing somewhere and somebody.

And I didn’t deserve any of it.

And I don’t believe in accidents.

Glory.

Currently…

…in the best freaking mood because it’s a three-day weekend and I have absolutely nothing on my plate but wandering around Atlanta all weekend.

But I’m these things, too!

Reading Peachtree Road by Anne Rivers Siddons. In the mornings, the She Reads Truth “This is the Gospel” study and the book of Exodus.

Watching Parks & Rec reruns still.

Trying to walk more, to ask more questions instead of pretending to know, to be thoughtful without wanting “credit” for it.

Eating nada, but I had pizza for dinner which is embarrassing because the last time I wrote one of these, I’d also just had pizza.

Pinning quotes about faith, a thing or two for work, cool cities.

Tweeting politics, cities, nostalgia.

Going to find somewhere cool along the Chattahoochee to take a walk tomorrow!

Loving Exploring. Music. Change.

Discovering that I need to slooooow down and make decisions that aren’t based on ego.

Enjoying anywhere I can shop or eat outside, YA fiction, and a three-day weekend.

Thinking about said three-day weekend and the song I’m listening to.

Feeling wonderful. And a little chilly.

Hoping for wisdom to make the changes I need to make, and growing friendships.

Listening to so much Outkast it’s ridiculous.

Thanking God for the sweet, slow glory of walking with Him. Who am I to be blessed with You?!

What I’m learning lately

I’m learning to ask for virtues instead of things. For so much of my life, I’ve made prayer a wish list: God, give me money. God, give me health. But the book of James says we should ask for wisdom — “boldly, believingly” — so, slowly and grudgingly as always, I’ve started doing that.

I have such a mean streak, so I pray and ask for love.

I’m embarrassingly quick to slam my hand on the horn of my car, or roll my eyes and shove past slow walkers, so I pray and ask for patience.

And steadily, those gifts of wisdom have piled onto me, heavy, and they’re better than health and money. It’s the kind of thing I’d normally say because it sounds good, but this time I’m saying it because it’s all over my life. It’s true.

I’m learning that there’s time. I want so badly to live in the heart of everything, to walk or take the train everywhere, to (yes) live in a cool neighborhood.

But I can’t afford it. And there are people in every cool, walkable, middle-of-everything neighborhood who couldn’t afford any better than the ‘burbs when they were 24.

I’m doing what I can. And I’m lucky. And there’s time.

I’m learning that “people are complicated” does not translate to “stay away from people.” Even though I’m such an introvert that I search for reasons to wall people off. Things they messed up. Things I messed up.

But that’s so wrong-headed, I’m learning, because if you wait for people who fit the criteria in your head, or hold out for the exact behavior you want from yourself, you will end up with no one.

And we weren’t meant to live like that.

Octobers

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I walked outside tonight and smelled food grilling, mixed with October air. The first one’s not unusual; my neighbors always have fresh tortillas and vegetables and all manner of deliciousness on the grill. Nothing, on the other hand, smells quite like October.

That smell (sap, chill, crumbling leaves) brings me back to Halloweens and church carnivals. In the deep South, where I grew up, it heralded the first chill strong enough for a sweatshirt; in the mountains, it often brought the first snow.

When I try to break down the source of October’s scent, I ruin it a little…but I’m willing to pose a theory on why October itself is so lovely.

I think it’s because it’s so distinct.

The particulars of October are lovely on their own; they’d probably retain some of their thrill if they were more common. But I think our joy in Octobers (and our allegiance to them, spawning soliloquies like this and this) is found in their uniqueness.

The end of April and the beginning of May feel more or less alike. As soon as November pulls itself out of the gray-rain doldrums, it’s not dissimilar from December. Late July and early August? Please.

But what other month has frost in the air, but not so much you need a jacket, has the festivity of a childish holiday, but not so much you’re sick with stress?

Only October. So much is reserved — only for October. So by virtue of distinctness, we can clearly link the first frosty air and the first pumpkin-ed porch to all the Octobers of the past.

We need those links to leaves crunching under kid-sized light-up sneakers, and college football games in terrible costumes, and (horrible) clunking our chins on cheap metal bins as we attempt to bite apples out of bobbing water.

Our memories need enough strength to grab us, to get in front of us in the same air, the same sappy smell. We are built on the past.

We are built, in a way, on Octobers.

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