My lovely friend Heather Caliri dreamed up a beautiful series on Mentoring this week. Like many churchy terms, this one has some baggage for me. But it tugs, too, at some of my long-held desires and hopes. After all, there is something so beautiful about someone a little farther along in their journey who takes the time to turn around, look back, see you, stay.
I was 14, maybe 15, when I gathered up all of my courage, walked up to the pastor’s wife in the church foyer, and asked her if maybe she would consider mentoring me.
She was tall and beautiful with a kind smile and platinum blonde hair that she wore swept up into a Grace-Kelly-style bun. Every week she sat in the second row, stage left, while her husband preached the morning message.
Those were the years when I flared like a Roman Candle, aflame with love for Jesus and, simultaneously, for an high school senior with Big Missionary Dreams. He was the kind of boy that people followed, and I was no exception. His faith was charismatic and his smile was easy, and I imagined that I would wait for him forever, follow him to the ends of the unsaved world.
I can’t remember why, exactly, I asked the pastor’s wife of all people. Certainly I thought she was lovely; probably I revered her in some vague and glowing way. But the most likely reason is that I imagined that I would be her someday. I thought I would follow The Boy to some far off place, and that someday, it would be me, sitting in the second row, stage left, while he preached the morning message at the front. I wanted to know how to be that girl.
“You can hold back from the suffering of the world, that is something you are free to do and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” ~ Franz Kafka
This week, I was up in Duluth – my favorite writing getaway location – when the world fell apart.
From the balcony of my hotel room, overlooking Lake Superior, I read about ISIS and their senseless murder of Christians in Iraq. I read about the death of Mike Brown and followed the subsequent protests in Ferguson, smoky with fear and tear-gas, loud with pain and rage.
Robin Williams lost his battle with Depression, and my Facebook feed bloomed with sadness and solidarity and photos and quotations.
I’d intended this week to completely unplug from the Internet and to focus, instead, on the quiet, lonely work of writing. But the world was falling apart, and it seemed disrespectful and selfish to look away. So I read the tweets and the articles and the posts, and then I sat for a long time and looked at the still, silent lake.
I thought about a phrase that I once read about Lake Superior – how she never gives up her dead. The water is so cold that the bacterial action is slowed and bodies remain sunk deep in the heart of her. I suppose this is creepy, but as I thought of those who were taken too soon from the crumbling world this week, it seemed exactly right.
I don’t want to give up the dead either.
On Tuesday, I rented a paddle board from a nice family at the tip of the Duluth inlet, and I planted my feet on top of the waves, working my way toward the end of my sightline.
I like paddle boarding because it makes me feel strong, and I don’t often feel that way. Most of the time, I feel like I’m carrying too much, like I’m about to drop the ball any second.
But there’s something about the way my arms feel when I’m propelling myself through the water with only one long oar. The water is heavy, and the wind is making wild waves underneath me, but I’m strong enough.
On the paddle board, I don’t listen to my powerlessness, I believe in my strength. I feel the muscles in my arms burn as I push forward against the wind. It’s slow work, but I make it up to the place where the shoreline turns and disappears, and then, more impressively, I make it back.
“It’s a good day to come a little more awake,” my wise friend Esther Emery said on Twitter that morning, and I think about that as I paddle, the water splashing against my legs, the oar rubbing a blister into the palm of my hand. Sea gulls circle and fall against the water with careless grace. A small plane with a red-checkered tail is practicing taking off and landing.
That morning on the balcony, I’d read a 2010 interview that Robin Williams did with The Guardian, where he talked about his recent relapse with alcohol and the thing that caused it. Fear. “It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.”
I think about my own senseless anxiety, regulated by the small pill I take every night before bed. And then I think about the other types of fear that govern my choices: the fear of failure that keeps me paralyzed at the blank page. The fear of loss and pain and the fear for my children in a world that is completely terrifying in so many ways. Fear of that which I don’t understand which isolates me from others.
It’s a good day to come a little more awake.
That night, I go alone to a 9:20 movie in downtown Duluth, the storefronts darkly lit, the restaurant neon blazing. On the streets, black boys in sideways caps and too-big Jersey shirts walk in packs, laughing.
It’s a good day to come a little more awake.
The world is falling apart, and there’s not much I can do about any of it. I can’t rescue the displaced Christians in Iraq or stand by the protesters in Ferguson or bring back Robin Williams.
But I can notice the feeling in my body as I walk alone on the dark street. I can choose to reject the narrative of fear that I’ve been given – not in words, but in the subtext of a lifetime spent in the white-dominated suburbs.
I can choose to believe that it is true that perfect love casts out all fear. The fear of depression and suicide and war. The fear of those whose lives and culture I don’t understand. Perfect love casts it out, the Bible says, and my arms are strong. I can let go of fear. I can hang on to love.
Tonight, my arms are tired and sore from a day of paddling against the wind…but in a good way.
Around me the boys laugh, and the moon is almost full. The lake below is glimmering in the starlight, holding close the dead, and it is a good day to come a little more awake.
Thanks to my friend Esther Emery for the words that fueled this post. If you’re not reading her blog, start now.
Now that I’m back (more-or-less) to the blogging world, I’m excited to introduce to you a few more new voices. Anita Mathias is a truly beautiful writer, and I’m so honored to have her over here today to share! Please welcome her.
I read the Gospels, I hear them preached, and tap, tap, tap, go my jubilant feet.
The Gospels tell me lovely things I wanted to believe but feared were not true; that fellow Christians often suggested were not true, by their deeds, if not their words; and that our world definitely believes are not true. I read the Gospels and sense everything sad coming untrue, as Sam Gamgee exclaims in his delight.
What only fools gather and heap into barns? And see here: He says, it’s safe to forgive and bless even our pesky enemies, for he has our affairs in hand. And–look, he says prayer can move mountains, lame feet, dead bodies, anything… And look, I am commanded not to worry, but to live free as a bird–commanded, I tell you.
Tap, tap, tap, my toes beat at the Gospel’s jazz rhythm of hope.
“Oh yes!” I resolve as Rilke did when faced with the sheer beauty of the Archaic Torso of Apollo, “I will revise my life.”
I have decided to follow Jesus, my heart sings. I will forever live in the waterfall, the force field of God’s power.
* * *
And then, I go out into the world, where not everyone in the stands is a cheerleader and I am sometimes cheated; where my prayers are not instantly answered and my words are plagiarized.
What I resolved when I was on fire on the mountain-top, I will rre-read in the damp-squibby valley.
I have a sheet of “epiphanies and resolutions” in my prayer journal. I resolutely pray through each desire of my heart, a page or so a day, and when I come to that page, I resolve again.
And I resume revising my life.
* * *
In the long run, failure does not matter. Getting side-tracked doesn’t matter. All that matters is beginning again. And again. The simple glory of persisting.
Yes, I will eat more veggies and walk more because my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and I want to keep it fit and strong. Yes, I will run an orderly house for the sake of my own mental health and happiness and for the peace of its inhabitants. Yes, “there is nothing but love,”–so help me God, I will remember that “all is small save love, for love is all in all.” Yes, I will wake early. And writing, oh yes, writing! I will write faithfully as a bird sings, for that is what I’ve been created to do.
“The essential thing in heaven and in earth is that there should be long obedience in the same direction. There thereby results, and has always resulted something which has made life worth living: virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality– anything whatever that is transfiguring, refined, foolish, or divine,” Nietzche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” Thoreau observed.
And I read my resolves, and I re-resolve, and by persisting with the help of invisible friends—the Lord Jesus himself; God my Father; the Holy Spirit my Comforter; and the protective angelic hosts sent at my prayers – I will more than conquer those invisible enemies of my soul, the birds of distraction, the sun of discouragement, the thorns of hassles and the temptation to earn more than necessary.
And, God willing, my heart through constant amendments with the sun of grace, the water of the word and the compost of Christian community will become good soil, in which those beautiful seeds of the gospel, seeds of mercy, kindness, gentleness and love will be fruitful–ever so fruitful.
Anita Mathias is the author of Wandering Between Two Worlds (Benediction Classics, 2007). She has won a writing fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts & her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The London Magazine, Commonweal, America, The Christian Century, and The Best Spiritual Writing anthologies. She recently visited Cambodia as a Tearfund blogger.
Let me say, first of all, that July is a terrible time to try to write a book.
I took this month off from The Internet in order to focus on my second book. I didn’t blog. I barely tweeted or Facebook-ed, and I only Pinterested recreationally.
I carved out time to write. I made hefty goals. I booked a hotel room alone for a night to work, and I spent lots of mornings at Caribou and Panera and my favorite local coffee shop/wine bar, The Bean. And it all would have totally worked had it not been for, you know, sunshine. And the river. And sidewalk chalk and afternoon matinees and parades and road-trips and beach days.
It wasn’t that I didn’t write this month: I did. Almost every day. And yet, the world that I inhabited in these last weeks wasn’t the ethereal world of memoir. I meant to spend the month looking through a telescope at the universe that is The Past. I meant to focus in and out and then back in again until I began to see light I hadn’t noticed before. I meant to get something done.
What I learned is that it’s a little impossible to fully inhabit the interior world of memoir when the world of Minnesota July is happening all around you.
Word-count wise, the month was a little frustrating. But also, everywhere around me, the world was awash with light and water and sprinklers making rainbows in the grass. Every night, my sons smelled like sweat and earth and had came in with dirt streaked across their faces. When I washed them down in the bathtub, the whole thing became grimy with sand.
So, all in all, I think I’m gonna call it a win.
What I’ve Been Reading
Half-Price Books is located right next to one of my favorite writing spots, and this summer, they’ve made me deviate from my Summer Reading List in unexpected ways. I picked up a copy of Prep there at the beginning of the month because I’d heard good things about Curtis Sittenfeld. I bought The Round House because I’d heard even better things about Louise Erdrich, and because she’s Minnesotan, so it’s like we’re kin.
Both books were well-written, though I found Prep to be a little depressing and disconcerting. I kept wanting to shake the main character. She was so withdrawn, so self-isolating, constantly standing in her own way. Never taking a chance. It was only after I finished reading the book that I realized that probably it elicited such a reaction from me because I was so much like her in high school. If I hadn’t been a Jesus Freak, this might have been how it went for me. Which was sobering.
The Round House was brilliant in ways I still can’t quite figure out. (Some of the best books I’ve read this year feel a little over my head, a little out of my reach. I kind of wish I could go back to class and have a brilliant professor help me uncover the nuances.) Still, it was also a bit depressing.
So then I read about Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour, a young adult book that was light and fun and well-suited for summer. No, I don’t need any English professor to help me with it. And yes, that was a bit of a relief in the middle of July.
I finally read CapotesBreakfast at Tiffany’s…and then I took some high school girls from my church to see it downtown in the park. They all wore black dresses and pearls, and I brought pretend champagne and plastic flutes, and we sat on a blanket and watched Audrey Hepburn embody Holly Golightly. The movie keeps whole pages of text exactly as is…but introduces some major changes. Including the ending. And the romance factor. In the end, I love both the book and the movie for different reasons…though they are far from the same story.
I read Shauna Niequist’s Bread & Wine, which inspired me to try my first risotto and to throw spontaneous a wine and cheese party for my 31st birthday. After falling in love with Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World, I burned through Learning to Walk in the Dark…I found to be extremely insightful and interesting. I’ll be unpacking some of the things that I underlined there, I think, for a long time.
Not pictured here is my friend Liz Bolz Ranfeld’s unpublished manuscript Teen Maniac, which I read on my phone in the dark at my parents’ house while I waited for my kids to fall asleep.I met Liz in a strange coincidence outside one of the sessions at the Festival of Faith and Writing, where we bonded quickly over Teen Mania experiences that overlapped in really strange ways.
When she told me she’d written a manuscript about her experience, I asked if she’d let me read it. She did, and it was beautifully written and powerful for me in ways I didn’t expect. There was something about seeing my experience mirrored in someone else’s, hearing the words that she spoke so similar to the language I used in those years. It got me digging through some of my Teen Mania baggage again, and I’ll probably be revisiting some of the language I internalized there (Ladyin Waiting, Guard Your Heart, Revival, Sinner’s Prayer, etc.) over the next months.
What I’ve Been Listening To
It’s been a big Sleeping at Last month for me. I downloaded both their Yearbook project and their Atlas project, and it’s been a source of inspiration and grace to me as I’ve been writing and thinking and untangling this next volume of my story.
Andrew and I also saw Begin Again with Kiera Knightly and Adam Levine this month and really liked it. I downloaded a couple of songs from the movie and have been quite smitten with them as well.
What I’ve Been Watching
Desperate Housewives. I meant to only watch one season. Now I’m somehow on Season 7. I blame the laundry. And the dishes.
Seriously though. THIS CLIP. Lynette is my favorite.
We’ve also been watching Master Chef. That plus Bread and Wine make me want to cook all the things. All the time. And use things like shallots and smoked paprika. Instead of, you know, Velveeta.
Other Things I’ve Been Up to This Month
Another year at the Andover FunFest parade…another giant bucket of candy, most of which I’ll end up throwing out. Ahh America.
Fireworks. We (tried to) keep the kids up late and walk over to the fireworks for the first time. Dane did great. Liam slept through the entire thing, including the grand finale, even though we were so close to the action that we could actually see the big pile of explosives they were setting off.
The real question here is, how can he sleep through that but not through his mother quietly creeping down the stairs first thing in the morning and sitting down at the table? Mom Radar. It’s a real thing.
River tubing. We figured bought some river tubes and went down the nearby Rum River for the first time every. And then the second. And then the third. It has officially ruined me for any waterpark lazy river ever. Heavenly.
A week in Chicago with the kids so that I could get some writing in while they did VBS with their Grandma. While we were there, we also got to swim in my favorite neighborhood pool and visit the Butterfly Garden at the Chicago Botanical Gardens.
Hanging out on our awesome new patio with my husband.
Two beautiful weddings. During one of the receptions, I may or may not have jumped into the nearby lake for a late night swim. Because JULY.
Blog & Writing
I’m officially back to blogging…though I may not be quite as prolific as usual. There’s still a lot of writing to do on the book, and I can already feel the crazy energy of August mounting around here. School! Deadlines! Emails!
I’m getting a late start going through all of the beautiful posts you linked to in the Celebration of Blogging last month, but I’m loving every piece I read. Sorry about the lack of timeliness, but I will read every single one…eventually.
I’m making progress on the book, but it’s S-L-O-W. At this point, I think I’ve deleted at least twice as many words as I’ve kept. Possibly three times. Sigh.
I’m linking up with my lovely friend Leigh Kramer as usual. Did you know she just started a brand new Enneagram Coaching business? I’m SO EXCITED for her and planning to schedule some sessions later this year to figure out more about what my enneagram type means for my spiritual, writing, and mothering journeys.