Wednesday, June 30, 2010


A lovely anecdote for us to begin: Having recently returned to Phoenix after my adventure in the Midwest, I attended Mass at my former time and location. There I met a friend with whom I had taught youth ministry. Since our last meeting, he had grown a beard, changed his earrings and gotten a tan. I thought that was all.

“Hello Brian,” I said, striving for conversation so as not to appear standoffish in my seat. He greeted me as well. Then I said, “How’re the wedding plans coming?” He and his fiancĂ©e had gotten engaged sometime around September last year; I figured they must have at least set a date if not been on the verge of matrimony.

“You mean for Andrew?” he asked, a bit taken aback. I glanced at his finger, wondering if I had missed the date already and should be congratulating him rather than interrogating him. But his ring finger was naked, and I then realized something was wrong. Where was his promise ring, the one he had been wearing since before the engagement itself?

In a bit more muted tones, I replied, “No. Yours.”

Confusion. Silence. Then, in attempt at cheery banter, “Oh, that? Naw, that’s been postponed. Indefinitely.”

His mom, sitting behind me, chimed in, “He’s enjoying his youth.” She, unlike Brian, looked serene about the decision. Brian maintained his composure and said something about what he was doing with his time now, but I could see his disappointment and wounds openly on his face. When he moved away from me shortly thereafter, I couldn’t help but pray that I hadn’t made fresh lesions upon his delicately healing heart.

This lovely experience got me to thinking. The woman (and writer) that I am, I began to list all sorts of plot twists that could have made their story go awry. A difference in lifestyle? A difference in faith? Another man? An admitted lie? Growing up? Growing apart? Growing scared?

As I knelt at my seat and, later, as I lay in bed, I began to wonder if Brian had fallen prey to the same bear I’ve been mauled by times innumerable: the hopeless romantic. Had he, too, been entranced with the story and disregarded the life? I have something near twenty journals chalked full of mental tirades against God for disrupting my stories. Something happens in life and I focus on it through the lens of the narrator, creating my voiceover of explanations until the plot seems to completely align with my desires. Then, when the realities take their own course, I revolt. Anyone else on this train?

Of late, though, I’ve been meditating on living in the realities and leaving expectations to the novels and chick flicks. I wish that this meditation could have been spurred by a new-found maturity. I wish I could say I woke up and recalled all the times heretofore that my desires have not shaped my reality and so became present to the moment’s experiences. I wish I could say nothing spurred my realization that I do not control the world.

But no. After a heart-to-heart with someone I love, I realized that no amount of hoped-for endings will change the natural path of life. We are not in control, no matter how much we insulate ourselves from tragedy or strife. Dictating the circumstances of our lives will not dictate anything apart from our own interpretation of events. We do not get to change the story just by willing it so. We are not God.

And thanks be to God for that.

Buddhists believe that our attachments are what cause rebirth, because we cling too much to our desires and wills to see life for what it is: suffering. Pessimism aside, how brilliant! We cling to our own desires, get blinded by them, and suffer for our blindness. Absolutely! We try to write our own “happy” endings instead of seeing the happy endings revealed to us by living life.

Disappointments, prolific as they are, are not the cause of our suffering. We are. We place our hope in our own devices and are angry when our hope is dashed. But are we hoping in the right things? In his letter to his best friend, St. Paul wrote “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men.” Fixed our hope on the living God. We do not hope for things in this moment; we wish for them. We hope for God, or at least we should.

God only knows how we may become a people of hope fixed on God. Perhaps that is why God allows us to suffer, to show us where we’ve falsely placed our hope. We are not to allow ourselves to become too attached here. We are not to allow ourselves to write our own stories. We are to experience our lives, active in bringing about the good God has intended, yes, but passive too, content when God’s plan for our actions take on a life of its own. We must rejoice in how God is writing our stories, rejoicing with the fervor of a people who know they do not hope in vain.

Perhaps if we manage this supernatural feat, we will find that the stories we would write pale in comparison to the story God has written for us. I don't know what will happen to Brian. I don't know what will happen to me. But I must trust, and trust completely, that God is the maker of good promises. The maker of good stories. Nothing I could pen would be as good as life has been thus far. Why not stay the course and see where it leads. I'm hoping, I'm sure, it'll be great.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


“Anyone who attacks individual charity,” I began, “attacks human nature and casts contempt on personal dignity. But the organization of ‘public charity’ and the problem of individual freedom are two distinct questions, and not mutually exclusive. Individual kindness will always remain, because it is an individual impulse, the living impulse of one personality to exert a direct influence upon another…. How can you tell, Bahmutov, what significance such and association of one personality with another may have on the destiny of those associated?”

“Can you imagine any of our own major novelists allowing a character to say stuff like this (not, mind you, just a hypocritical bombast so that some ironic hero can stick a pin in it, but as part of a ten page monologue by somebody trying to decide whether to commit suicide)? The reason you can’t is the reason he wouldn’t: such a novelist would be, by our lights, pretentious and overwrought and silly. The straight presentation of such a speech in a Serious Novel today would provoke not outrage or invective, but worse—one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile. Maybe, if the novelist was really major, a dry bit of mockery in The New Yorker. The novelist would be (and this is our own age’s truest vision of hell) laughed out of town.
“So he — we, fiction writers — won’t (can’t) dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies. The project would be like Menard’s Quixote. People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this (and it is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How — for a writer today, even a talented writer today — to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulas or guarantees. There are, however, models….”
— David Foster Wallace from “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” in Consider the Lobster. Above quote in text from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

I don't know if I even want to try. Steinbeck said a writer would have to be crazy to attempt to articulate the Truth of humanity. Add to that DFW's accurate portrayal of that person's reception, and I just can't quite find it in me today to hope that it's possible. To write Beauty. To be removed from the chains of a cultural smugness dictating what's acceptable to believe. To embrace the spaces between the words — between the beats of a heart — between the breaths of an infant.... Who can attempt it? Who is crazy enough?

Thursday, April 22, 2010


While procrastination is something I struggle to avoid, I cannot help but enjoy the fact that I’ve procrastinated phenomenally well the past two days. Not that I’ve done a good job procrastinating (though that is true), but that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time I’ve spent procrastinating because I’ve spent it so well. I’ve been devouring the works of the best essayist I’ve ever read: David Foster Wallace, a man whose wit and insight meld to form explications that both make me ache and rejoice in the gross capacity of the human person to digest truths about the world. The most recent essay, “Authority and American Usage (or, ‘Politics and the English Language’ Is Redundant)” makes the-Shelley-who-publicized-The-Chicago-Manual-of-Style-on-Facebook-as-“Favorite-Books” side of me verifiably glow. I woke up at 6:45 today with the goal of writing. Instead, I’ve been reading from this 62 page essay for the past two hours, and I cannot find an ounce of remorse. Foster Wallace’s humility, humor, and sheer brilliance bite and tickle and make me want to be a better woman. There. I’ve said it. It’s plain and simple love.

I don’t expound on DFW’s mind-boggling talent because it delights me (though it does) but rather because it presents a good introduction for the rest of my point. I must begin with an apology. Yes, I’ve been away. And though I flatter myself to think that you have missed my endless self-indulgences (“too long,” I believe was the term I recently heard), I do want to explain. I’ve been spending the past few weeks weighing some very serious options. As many of you know, I have been examining my potential futures. Having applied for graduate school, I’ve been touring the programs that decided to send me a large envelope instead of a small one. This process, though not as extensive as it could have been, has been a relatively exhausting. Planes, trains, and automobiles as well as couch surfing and map gazing have all been employed. With a singular result.

I’ve been writing since I was seven. The first novel—an illustrated tale of love set against the hyperbolic drama of a Disneyland inferno—was the hit of acid that recurs on me and drives me back to the keyboard. There was the story of the alien disguised as a king/coral snake with wicked intentions for planet Earth, the hopelessly romantic translation of Sleeping Beauty, the tale of what happened to the countryside after Cinderella and Prince Charming married, the unfinished collection of letters written to a non-existent granddaughter. Fictions, all of them, and written with varying degrees of plot/character development/voice/description. Basing my self-evaluation upon those imaginings, I always assumed that I was a fiction writer.

It’s only recently been brought to my attention that I’m actually a non-fiction addict. Yes, I sat down to create those fancies, but the preambles and post-scripts to those dalliances with my imagination were letters, journal entries, running internal notations of life. We all do these kinds of things, and for this reason I posit that there’s a non-fiction writer in each of us. Mine just puts thought to page.

Armed with collections of these rambles about reality (pun not intended but embraced), I finally put my head on the chopping block and sent applications out for a Master’s in Fine Arts degree for creative non-fiction. See, I’ve been trying to pursue an MFA in creative writing for over a decade—since I first learned of its existence. Many trials and tribulations have interrupted this course (tales of which I’ll spare you as this essay is already getting too long), but it has finally progressed, and has finally culminated in some success.

Decision in hand, I have slowly begun to realize the full ramifications of acceptance: expectation of success. Who do these programs think I am? I mean, this blog notwithstanding, I don’t have the best track record of delivering on writing projects. (In fact, I actually started this blog out of a desperate need for a shame factor to force me to sit down to write.) Beyond the blessed terror of producing something on demand, I’m also now facing the queasy realization that they’ve accepted me with the assumption that I’ll actually create something good. I’ve just returned from a professional writers’ conference which has only further demonstrated how ill-prepared I am to accomplish that task. And while the Two Antagonists are not (at present) gnawing furiously, I’m all-too-aware that I am torn between a great longing to write and a great dread of the prospect. Every other project imaginable (woodworking!) has come to mind, but hope for actually achieving something deserving an MFA has flitted away. I have become a twat.

Which is what makes the beloved DFW so outraging. He, perhaps single-handedly, brought the essay back into fashion simply by being SO GOOD. Literally. He’s been dead (at the age of 46) for two years, but his legacy is enough to get an entire panel’s discussion at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference (no small feat). Because of his exquisite ability to ply humor and rhetoric and concision and style so effortlessly—and because he’s bred stream-of-consciousness with occasional graphical explication—he bars identification. Is he a humorist? A realist? A philosopher? Avant-garde? Classical? Cynic? Optimist? David Foster Wallace’s lens shows the breadth and depth of an entire genre. And we, the readers, are left with wonder and excitement at being human (I dare you to prove me wrong).

Who am I to follow where he tread?

I’m sorry if my digressions today have left you with anger at your procrastination. Leave me off and read DFW instead. Consider the Lobster is an objectively fine introduction. And if you’re wondering where I determined to go next fall, I’ll say it was an obvious choice (though not for the obvious reason): David Foster Wallace’s alma mater: the University of Arizona.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Ed and I don’t exactly know when our anniversary is. The night we met? The day of our first conversation (and therefore the beginning of our long distance relationship)? The night of our State of the Relationship Address? Our first “date” shared over the phone? Our first reunion? Kiss? Decision to become exclusive? Mostly we just happenstancely celebrate whichever one we remember, embracing for a moment the occasions of ritual supposedly significant to a relationship. Considering how blurry they are, they can’t exactly be monumental. But they are monuments.

Certainly anniversaries are significant if for no other reason than they offer us a moment to pause and remember where we’ve been, where we are, where we hope to go. They are the recycling of time seen through a lens of recollection and prediction. We pause, see, evaluate, and—often—give thanks. In their singularity we may celebrate the passing of time. The transformation of years. The transformation of ourselves.

I’ve been thinking of anniversaries a lot this week as I have celebrated a rather significant one this past Thursday: Ten years ago March 25, I became a Christian. A decade. Nearly half my life. My decennial.

Catholics don’t usually observe their re-birthday. Catholics usually don’t have one. Traditionally, when we celebrate anniversaries in faith, we celebrate those sanctioned by the Church. Baptisms, weddings, ordinations. We even structure our liturgical year around important anniversaries: consider the annunciation, assumption, Christmas, Easter. Our conversions generally take the form of a gradual realization of Truth, a transformation that can take weeks, months, a lifetime.

Yet, for some of us, rebirth happens in an instant.

In my case, in the throws of adolescent suspicion, I had long been toying with the premise that Jesus was simply seeking the celebrity. At the time, I was the exact, living replication of Mean Girls’ Cady Heron: A hippie-school-implant-to-public-education, who had effectively hogged the spotlight enough to reach school president and, therefore, the celebrity status of assembly director. With this eighth-grade fame, I had no problem juxtaposing my self-centeredness with Jesus’ social status. I mean, assembly director is good, but to claim Godhood… the man must have been epic!

It wasn’t until I saw a reenactment of Christ’s passion that I suddenly gained perspective. The two-man show I saw that Saturday night used no props, no scenery, no special effects. Simply a spotlight, a solitary pianist, and a man with the intensity of a martyr. As the actor gave expression to each individual role and scene of the 24 hours leading up to Jesus’ death, I suddenly considered something new: Jesus suffered. The sweating of blood particularly struck me: during Jesus’ agony in the garden, he prayed with such fervor that the capillaries nearest his skin actually exploded from physical and emotional stress. His blood vessels exploded. Exploded.

That was the beginning of the end. The actor went on to describe the shards of shell and iron that were tied to leather straps and used to whip Jesus’ flesh over and over and over; to describe the way his back was flayed and then tied against a knotted piece of wood; to describe the nine inch long nails rammed through his wrists; to describe his process of breathing while standing up on the nail impaled through his feet; to describe the accumulation of saliva that would trickle down his throat until he drowned in it. With each impassioned description, I kept returning to the thought that Jesus had the opportunity to deny everything. He could have ended that pain at any moment. He could have come down from that cross. But he didn’t.

He wasn’t doing it for the celebrity.

The veil of the sanctuary wasn’t the only thing torn in two from top to bottom. Everything about my life suddenly seemed shallow, hollow, insignificant. Right there, on a pew lined with my peers, I wept myself dry. I may not have sweat blood, but I exploded with the excruciating tears of humiliation. Of humility. If Jesus wasn’t doing it for celebrity, what could his motivation have been except, perhaps, perhaps, love.

From the fertile soil of my humiliated heart grew out a realization that such a good individual had died for such a wretched one as me. I began to barter my life for his, if only to redeem the years of good deed doing he sacrificed for my sake. Over time, that bartering became a steady pursuit of the good for the sake of who Jesus had been and his divine call to goodness. Religious conviction blossomed, as did the knowledge that I was loved regardless of what good deeds I did—or bad ones I avoided. Nothing I could do would ever take back the need for that cross and that death, but I could live joyfully, invigorated by God’s great love for me.

Years later, when I read C.S. Lewis’ deduction of “Lunatic, Liar, Lord,” I suddenly realized that before all other experiences, that argument had been the one that had transformed my life. He could have been a lunatic, but no lunatic could say or do what he had. He could have been a liar—as I had always supposed— but the cross broke that line of thought. So he had to be Lord. And he is. I celebrate the ten years in which I have experienced that Truth. And I look to the next ten years I can shine in the light of God’s great and unending goodness.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


When I was a little kid, I used to pray fervently, fervently that our house wouldn’t burn down. I had this quilt on my bed that my great-grandmother had made and a couple of dolls that my dad had played with when he was a kid, the history of which incited an urgent sense of responsibility should a fire strike. I actually had a plan that if our house should be burning, I’d open my first-floor bedroom window, kick out the screen, grab the pillow atop which rested those most prized stuffed animals, throw them out the window, pull the invaluable quilt off my bed, and jump out the window with it. The greatest fear, though, was that the impending inferno would strike while I was out of the house. So I traveled with an entourage of stuffed animals and blankets.

When I got older, the possessiveness translated to family members. They couldn’t die. Couldn’t. Should God decide to take anyone of my loved ones, God would be answerable to me. I never once missed a prayer on their behalf, pleading that God would be nice and not kill anyone I loved, because I couldn’t live without any of them. It simply would not be possible. I forewent praying for anything I wanted materially because I couldn’t lose some of my credit reserved for my family members’ safety. It was my sole responsibility.

Come college, things began to take a different spin. I realized that my prayers to God were not good prayers simply because they were for others—I needed to actually have a relationship with God, one based on trust and one that understood that whatever happened to my family or friends, God loved them more than I did and God would take care of them. I had to let go of my sense of responsibility and let God take over. And I had to trust the fact that God is always good. It was the most relieving experience of my life when I finally gave God that power over the fates of the people I protected. I still remember the moment of liberation that came when I gave up my control. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted.

Then came the heartbreak. I didn’t lose anyone to death—thank God—but I lost someone to the general course of life. So much of my heart and intellect had been invested in this person, and as I watched him slip away from me, I lost all sense of up. No one else in life mattered anymore. Neither did food, school, art. I was simply a leaky balloon barely able to stay at equilibrium most days. God was a burden, but one I couldn’t completely disown. Instead, I resented God, resented the fact that God had taken this person away from me. How could it happen? How could this God, whom I had trusted so fully, renege on our deal?

I spiraled down into the muck of self-pity. God had betrayed me. Nevermind that my family and friends were all still alive and healthy, the fact that I had lost such a significant relationship was absolute betrayal. Benedict Arnold? Brutus? Judas? Piddens.

It’s taken me years to recognize the providence in that loss and the beautiful growth God has fostered through my suffering. On the far side of pain, I can give thanks for what I’ve experienced, hellish though it may have been. And my suffering was hardly a betrayal. It was simply God utilizing God’s right to turn my possessiveness on its head.

I have been considering these experiences a lot lately as I have begun to become possessive to a fault again. Somehow I never learned my lesson. And it means that I’m constantly living in fear. I’ve left too much happiness to the authority of God. What if there is this divine “gotcha” and I’m left empty-handed? What if all that I have begun to appreciate is simply castles of sand?

The best coaching I can give myself is that no matter how often I think otherwise, God really is in control. And God loves me beyond belief. If those two assumptions prove true—as they always have before—what use is there in my bartering or plying or begging for favors? What merits are there in making God an object I can control if I pray fervently enough? All I’m left with is egg on my face when the divine plan changes the course of my predicted life. And while egg-on-the-face is no fun, it’s far worse to have everything go according to our narrow-minded plans. We’re made for more than that.

Job lost everything only to be given ten times more in return. When we give up our control and feelings of entitlement, we find that everything becomes a present to be enjoyed for however long it’s in our possession. If we can train our minds to be accustomed to the unpredictability of blessing, and can rejoice even when things are no longer what we dreamed, then all matter of good fortunes will come our way. Because when our minds are formed to thank God for even the air that we breathe, then each and every breath becomes a gift. And that’s something no amount of possessiveness can ever quench.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


On a day like many of the others this winter, the horizon melted into the dismal gray of old snow. Whether it was run off from the warming ice or fresh flakes that liquefied on the road, the highway itself matched the wet, wilted world of the Middle West in February. I drove from Indiana back to Nebraska alone and silent. Through the windshield, my white car’s grimy exterior mirrored the hills and sky. A haze coated the world. My eyes blurred. My heart sank. This winter had extended too long.

In an effort for something, anything, to clarify the view, I pushed the button to activate my windshield wipers and fluid. There was little chance of an improvement with my broken wipers. Yet, with the sudden stream of cleaning fluid and the staccato of my hardened wipers stuttering across the glass came a miracle: the view truly cleared. The horizon still faded into oblivion, and my car was still stained. But I could suddenly differentiate so much of the scene, could suddenly tell that I had been staring through a mucky window expecting it to be clean. Before I had hindsight to explain my situation, I had thought I had seen clearly. Then, I clearly saw.

How often in life do we discover the truth in this metaphorical experience? I know for my part I have spent hours, days, weeks, dare I say years considering myself an enlightened viewer only to be sideswiped by a sudden onslaught of clarity. These moments burn because they cauterize wounds we didn’t realize we had. Initially we feel robbed even though the universe never promised us anything at all. We may be angry, dejected, disillusioned. Almost universally we are disappointed.

I have been reflecting a lot on broken plans and hindsight. When I was in elementary and high school, I expected to be a writer. Tirelessly I typed away, generating new takes on classic fairytales and semi-autobiographical works built around my adolescent fantasies. I went to college for writing, applied for a competitive major in writing, received affirmation after affirmation for this chosen path. And yet, when the crucial moment came, I had to walk away. Leaving behind writing broke my heart—even if I walked away with the peace of a prayerful soul. I just had no idea how God could be working through the roadblock.

Yet, God has. In hindsight I discover how many innumerable and beloved experiences I have gained through the abandonment of my past dreams. In hindsight I realize what foolish and shallow hopes I used to hold—hopes that now appear incomplete, immature, and downright dull. Why I spent so long crying over the changes in the course of the river or the digressions over unappealing terrain I do not know. Why I seemed incapable of considering everything with perspective, I cannot explain. Yet now, as I stand at a new fork in my road and contemplate all the quirky sidesteps that have led me to where I am, I cannot bemoan any of the seemingly counterproductive experiences I’ve weathered. Everything has led me to this point, and whether I can make sense of the past or no, I am thankful for it all.

I guess that is the solution for all the momentary inconveniences or smashed dreams we experience: thankfulness. On the other side of our heartbreaks we meet the beauties we never saw coming. If we can recognize these blessings, if we can embrace these revisions to our dreams of yore, we find there is no other option but to be thankful. And in our thankfulness we discover a renewed sense of trust in the path ahead. I do not know what will become of me, whether I will leap for joy or rent my garments, but I am peaceful about all that is approaching. Blind as I may be in this journey, I know I’ll see everything through 20/20 eyes, in hindsight.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Obedience, part I

One of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises is a meditation on duty—or obedience. He doesn’t exactly put it in those terms, but he challenges his practitioners to consider the request of a great king. The divinely-appointed king approaches a citizen and asks this person to serve for the sake of the kingdom. The king is just and will be laboring alongside the citizen, will share in the toil and share also in the success. St. Ignatius claims that everyone who is approached by such a king would feel an unavoidable sense of duty, and would be crazy not to accept the charge. In turn, St. Ignatius equates the same impetus for serving an earthly king as the rationale for serving a divine king. The citizen of God’s kingdom would feel an unavoidable sense of duty, and would be crazy not to accept the charge of serving alongside God. Right?

I found myself pausing over St. Ignatius’ self-evident claim. Perhaps as an American, or simply as an innate rebel, I have little interest in duty. I’ll hide behind the sins of my country to claim indifference towards patriotism, and I’ll hide behind the affronts of our leaders to validate discounting civil service. From the safety of the outside I criticize those within. And I am irreproachable because I am uninvolved.

There is a safety in this outsider’s position. We can abandon ship whenever necessary because we’re not beholden to its weathering the storm. And we can rebel without conscience when it fits our mood. The leadership says something we disapprove of, we ignore it. Perhaps, if we’re perfectionists, we’ll toe the line for the sake of keeping out of trouble, but in the end we won’t take the authority’s word to heart because that authority doesn’t truly represent us. In a word, we’re irreverent.

Does this irreverence translate to other points in our lives? St. Ignatius seemed to think that personal allegiance towards an earthly leader would necessarily predispose an individual to personal allegiance towards a heavenly leader. If that’s the case, then does personal irreverence for an earthly leader necessarily predispose me to irreverence for a heavenly leader? And if that’s the case, is the fact that I occasionally take issue with God and God’s declarations—especially those voiced in the church—indicative of God being behind the times or me simply being a dissident?

Unfortunately, I’m inclined to think the latter. The ramifications of this realization, though, I’ll save for the next entry. Stay tuned.