For the Long Haul

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Lately I’ve been writing. But it’s different this time. In the midst of the six-page papers and the frequent (or not-so-frequent) blog posts, I have finally started a novel. The story’s almost complete, though I still need several tens of thousands of words more to make it long enough. That’s okay though. Writing stories takes time.

The story started out as a brief image–the final scene. Then it became a short story. The original final scene was retained in spirit, but its form was less blatant. After that, some friends work-shopped it in class and gave me some helpful suggestions. They didn’t really care for the ending as it stood, so I changed it again, making it more subdued. But the story wasn’t right yet. Too short. Not enough detail. My main character begged for more time, more pages to make his case and tell his story. So I prepared to make a long project of his story.

Fortunately for me, my school allows literature majors to get credit for things like this. All I needed to do was put together a proposal and find myself a published author who was willing to read my story and help me improve it. Sounds simple enough. But after weeks of stress and dead ends, I thought I’d never finish the paperwork and actually start my story. I mean, I was coming up with ideas for my story off and on during the paperwork phase, but I couldn’t devote the proper time to it.

When I finally had time to write the story itself, I thought I was going to basically copy and paste the short story into a new Word document and augment what I already had. Imagine my surprise when that didn’t work! In fact, at this point I have stopped looking at my short story entirely and am simply trying to write the longer version. Only one or two paragraphs from my original document have made it into my new version–and those paragraphs have had some alterations. What I’ve discovered is that writing a short story is very different from expanding to the next level–not quite a novella, but long enough to be entirely unpublishable as a short story. The style of writing is much more like a novel. My characters and my narration are more introspective and less action driven. They wonder. They plod. But since I haven’t reached novel length yet, I suspect the language of my story will change even more.

Maybe you’re wondering if that’s frustrating–to have poured hours into creating, sharing, and editing a short story only to reject it almost in its entirety. Oh–and I wrote the final scene for my longer story (though I don’t have all the middling parts yet). It’s completely different in spirit from any ending I’ve written so far, though it does occur in roughly the same location with the same main idea. Even so, I am enjoying this process. I have created two unique stories so far–stories that interact with one another, that draw out different aspects of my characters, that create a fuller world for those characters to live in. I only hope that one day, when I finally coax this story to unburden its whole weight into a complete novel–I only hope that these shorter stories will be incorporated, not necessarily in their language, but in their insights. Because that is the purpose of writing, I think: to expose the light and the darkness of the world and to find the truth waiting there.

So, as I continue writing this story, I hope it will grow into a garden instead of a monstrosity. For that reason, I am grateful to my mentor, who is gracious but firm in her critiques. She gives me room to disagree and grow as a writer, but she also brings in the heritage of years of writing her successfully published novels. Writing this story has been a struggle–a greater burden than I imagined. Sometimes I reread my ending and find myself surprised at where my story finished–even though I knew where it was headed from the moment I started typing. But I am surrounded by friends and guided by a mentor who will not let me fail. This may not be the best story I’ve ever written (yet), but I’m on my way. I’m in it for the long haul.

At the Table

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There is something holy about sitting on the floor in a dorm, with only the strings of Christmas light illuminating the room. And there is something holy about sitting there across from your best friend, splitting two cupcakes left over from the birthday celebration earlier in the week.

Maybe it’s all the Romantics I’ve been reading, but I couldn’t help considering the holiness of the moment–the place of God in this seemingly simple snack.

I recall another shared meal, a couple thousand years ago. A meal shared by close friends in their own small space. A meal of simple foods, preparing to remember a day of deliverance thousands of years prior. A meal where the Greatest of Friends began a tradition which has lasted through the centuries, a tradition of breaking bread that reminds us of what that Friend did in the following hours.

I think about the frequent meals that began just a few weeks after that ancient one. The meals where men and women fearing for their lives would huddle around a table, sit on the floor with their backs against the walls, or stand wherever there was space and pass around the bread and the cup of wine. The meals since then that have been held in grand cathedrals with gold adorning the altar. The meal shared among a group of teenagers who had just abstained from food for 30 hours in order to raise awareness for the plight of the countless starving around the world. The meal silently given from hand to hand in dark basements, in brightly-lit chapels, in school buildings, and out in the open, surrounded by nature.

But I do not only think of the strictly holy meal–that which is known as Communion, The Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist. I also think of a meal shared with my youth pastor nearly 8 years ago as we talked about the significance of sharing meals in the Church–the community that happens over plates of burgers and potato salad at church picnics. There is something holy about baking cookies and sharing them with the group of girls that come over to study the Bible every week.

I remember the tradition a friend and I established around the time we went to college. Neither of us are good at making detailed plans, so when we found something we liked, we stuck to it. Now, every time we get back home and hang out, we meet up at our favorite pasta place and talk for a while before heading over to get ice cream at a fast food joint down the road. There is something holy about savoring the last bites of pasta while rehashing the joys, fears, and hopes of the past semester. There is something holy about admitting to pain and reveling in excitement.

Perhaps what makes the table so holy is the honesty that is available there. We are surrounded by the bounty of unmerited favor–a delicious meal prepared by our hands or by someone else’s. We typically eat with those people whom we trust the most. There is something holy about that trust. We feel–if not comfortable–less frightened of removing our masks during a meal. After all, how do you get a helping of chocolate cake when you’re busy holding a mask in front of your mouth? Something in the holy setting of a meal requires us to become more ourselves. Perhaps that is why America has become the fast-food nation. We are so terrified of sitting down and looking across the table at someone that we pull up in our cars, shove our debit cards at the kid in the drive-thru window, and reach for the greasy bags of food handed to us–all without looking a single person in the eye. We drive home, kids in the back seat munching on French fries and–for the first time that day!–being blessedly silent. But that is for another time.

The table requires us to become more ourselves. And in those brief holy moments, we see a glimpse of who we are, of who the person next to us is, and–perhaps–of who God is. At the table, we commune with the souls surrounding us. We reject isolation and refute loneliness. If only we will sit at the table.

The Little Church

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Sometime in early November, I switched churches. I returned to a church that I visited my freshman year of college. Now my roommate and I attend there, along with many of our peers in the literature major, every Sunday at 10 AM. We drive out to a school building and huddle in the auditorium with our church.

The little church with its passionate worship and honest sermons. Where the little kids squirm through worship before bounding off to Sunday school. Where the babies coo or cry, safely wrapped in Daddy’s arms while Mommy smiles at the scene. Where the big sister tries to act just like Mommy, fussing over her baby doll and raising her hands in worships.

The little church with its realistic outlook. They’ve been through a lot since right before I came to college, and this small body is shaken. But our God is strong, and the people around me know that to be true. They don’t shy away from the pain and pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead, these radically honest people pick up the pieces of shattered hearts and carry their friends to Jesus.

The little church with its radical commitment to being the Body of Christ. Even when the heater doesn’t seem to be warming up the auditorium. Or when everyone’s so tired that the pastor isn’t sure we’re hearing him speak. Or when somebody’s new and lonely and a little afraid of what this church thing will mean for them.

This is my church. And while we have our faults–after all, we’re still human–this little community of believers reminds me of what I’ve been painstakingly translating from Greek this past week. Luke writes in his account of the early church: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). That’s what my little church in the public school auditorium does. We read the Scriptures and, though we don’t have the apostles to stand on stage and preach directly to us, we study their words under the instruction of men who have studied the Bible diligently, men who continue to study and grow and lead us. We sing and talk and laugh together. We share in communion every week, and–what’s more–we have bagels and donuts and fruit every week after church. And I haven’t even mentioned the church meals they host periodically. And we pray together. Sometimes we split into small groups and pray. Every week we pray as a whole congregation–multiple times in our service. Often I see someone off to the side before or after service, praying with another person from our little congregation.

We may not be large or perfect or even typical. But we are a little cluster of the Church, sharing in life together and bearing each others’ burdens. And that’s pretty cool.

Lonely

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I’m about to get real. So real I can’t believe I’m writing this for anyone to read. But here’s the raw truth, or at least part of it. Since coming back to the US, I have been desperately lonely. I don’t know how to really interact with people. I don’t usually say the right things in conversation (as noted in last week’s post). I put up walls and talk really loud and laugh a lot. I have an opinion on everything. But I am drowning in the deep dark oceans of reverse culture shock. My college, being very new still, does not have a study-abroad program. Several students have been overseas, but there is no easy way to connect with these students about our frustrations. It requires a lot of vulnerability, and to be honest, I don’t think we can handle it. I think we’re too scared to be the first to say, “I feel alone. I am broken.”

What makes it harder is that most of us who have been overseas for any length of time were doing missions work. We’re supposed to have had this great experience of God and feel all sorts of pity for those poor people in other countries who live without daily Starbucks and consistent internet. So if we don’t feel those things, what are we supposed to do?

Because let me tell you: I don’t feel that way. Sure, I experienced God in amazing ways this summer. Of course I saw Him work. Yes, I was moved to tears at times. But the truth is, I don’t pity my friends in Mexico. If anything, I envy them. I wish I could spend all my time hugging little kids and having deeper talks with teens. Yes, they come from bad situations. Of course I wish that these things had never happened to them. But what I have learned is this: God can take every broken heart, every tear-stained face, every bitter child, and He can give them a home. A home that, while not perfect, will shelter them from abuse and will fill them up with good things. Guardians who will teach them what’s important in life. And these children can–and not uncommonly do–grow up and come back to the home so they can invest in the broken, angry, tired children who come after them. They grow up to live full lives. Sure, they might not get their daily Starbucks, but what’s that matter? Those kids LIVE.

I’m not sure this post went where I intended it to, but I guess I’ll end with this: I”m lonely. I’m broken. I’m not perfectly all right yet. And that’s okay. My summer has changed me a great deal. I’ve not processed everything yet. I’m not entirely sure what it all means. But as I sit in the dimly lit chapel on campus and listen to my peers sing, I am reminded that there truly is no one like our God. I know that the God who hears the frightened child in an abusive home at night also hears a confused young woman in a college chapel. I know that He hears me and that He care.

So I may be lonely and confused and angry for a time, but the God who was too big for death is the same God who cares about every frustrated tear I cry.

And that is enough to make me write.

How Are You?

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It’s a simple question, and one I get asked at least a dozen times a day. And I’m an extrovert, so that means I have at least a hundred things to say in any given moment, right? Wrong. Among the many things that have changed or become more pronounced since my return to the US, I have found this seemingly simple social convention incredibly difficult to respond to. It’s not that people didn’t ask me how I was in Mexico. It’s just that when someone asked me that question in English we were usually going deeper than casual conversation. We were discussing spiritual health and culture shock and living in a house with 16 kids from incredibly difficult backgrounds. Suddenly I’m back in the States, and even after months to get used to it, I still struggle to form an acceptable response.

Sometimes I can get it right the first time: “Doing well. How are you?” But usually I stare blankly at the person, stutter out a few words, and only much later in the conversation remember that I should have asked how they’re doing as well. Again, it’s not that these pleasantries aren’t exchanged in Mexico. I don’t know entirely what’s fueling this faux pas. I recognize it’s horribly impolite. I’m sure that my mother and grandmothers are reading this and cringing (sorry). But something in my mind cannot respond when someone asks how I’m doing.

I want to tell you that I’m doing great, that classes are fine, that life is busy. But while all that is true, I’m also at a loss for words.

How am I?

Well, I’m still a bit overwhelmed by this whole readjustment thing. I guess I haven’t yet had time to process, so I just sort of jumped back into life and tried to pretend everything was normal. But–who’d’ve thunk?–nothing is normal. I spent my summer living with a very different normal than I grew up with. I spent my summer experiencing a very different normal than I’ve been living at school. In fact, I spent my summer breathing in an atmosphere that is almost as foreign to most people as the moon is. How often in your life do you live down the hall from several girls, all of whom speak your second language and all of whom have been abused? Is it really all that normal to refer to someone 6 years older than you as “Mom” in some sense? Are there that many people out there who have sat on a twin-sized bed in a pint-sized room with a half-dozen preteen girls (who come from unspeakable situations) talking about how no matter what hurt life brings–and no matter how hard it is to understand–God is always with us, and He always cares? And how many of us get to share our suffering with those kids, so that just maybe those hurting girls can see that we know God stands beside us, instead of just hearing that?

So life is not normal, and I don’t always know how I am.

Because I can switch gears in a moment. Sitting in a church service, listening to the music, I am suddenly swept away to a different service or to the mountain air or to my house’s crowded van. Eating in the dining hall with friends, I blink and reopen my eyes to see a table filled with 12-year-olds laughing and whining and asking for seconds. And when someone asks me how I am, I guess I find myself greeting kids as they burst out of the school doors: “How was your day?” “What did you learn?” Did you have fun?”

So instead of letting my mouth respond automatically, my brain is overloaded with faces and sounds and laughter. It’s too much to process all at once, and when I come back to myself, I realize that my friends are still standing in front of me, waiting for a response and looking a little concerned.

So, here’s my response, in case you’re stuck there waiting: I’m doing great. Life is full, and that is good. How are you?

Semester of Silence

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Sometimes the ideas we wrestle with are too strange and bulky to examine in our own minds. For most writers, this is no problem. But what happens when you run headlong into something–a idea, perhaps, but not exactly–something that you cannot express in the written word. What happens when you are so changed that you can no longer express what you think or feel or intuit? What happens when writing and speaking suddenly are no more useful than recording nonsense syllables and hoping to play back some helpful advice? When every big thought you have is too big–too complicated and dangerous to explore. When pushing your mind to consider anything meaningful is like poking the proverbial hibernating bear.

What happens when, as a writer, words become meaningless?

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but more often than not, that’s how I felt. Every time I tried to explain how I was feeling or what I was thinking or why something suddenly mattered so much more than it did before–every single time I fell short. There were no words to explain to anybody else what was going on in my head. For that matter, I didn’t really understand why I felt the way I did.

As I pushed forward through the early days of reverse culture shock (for me, reacclimating to the US), I thought that keeping busy was the solution. All the advice I read said to do things with friends, to tell stories but not overdo it, to create new experiences. So I started an 18-credit semester with a brand-new job and threw myself into everything. After only being back in the US for a week.

Far from home and far from my Mexican family, I had work to do. If I could just concentrate, maybe the whole culture shock thing would go away. But instead, it festered. I got angry at people easier. Little things set me off. I was bothered by the gross indifference of Americans, especially those who wanted to change the world. And even with all of my reading about culture shock and my discussions with someone who had experience in this area, I was totally unprepared. I look back and can catch glimpses of the stories I read playing out in my own life. But up until this moment–literally months later–I couldn’t see that.

So I’ve spent a semester trying to write and failing. Writing but refusing to press “publish.” Typing and scribbling and letting my pencil trace random shapes across countless pages of notes. Months of forcing myself to sit and write and hating what I’d written. Poetry and prose and random words dancing across pages. But all my words sounded clunky. And forced. And ugly.

I pounded my mattress and banged my head against walls and cried on friends’ shoulders and wondered what in the world I was missing. After spending some of the best days of my life in Mexico, I had to wonder why I couldn’t enjoy the friends and life I had at school. Every moment of happiness was dulled by the constant pounding of thudding thoughts that I couldn’t understand.

And to be honest, I still don’t understand everything that’s been happening in me since I stepped onto that Mexico-bound plane in May. I don’t know all of what God has done and is doing in my life. And I don’t like not knowing. But as I spoke to a couple different youth groups recently, I remembered all the faces of my family in Mexico–and I remembered all the faces of my friends who provided me with the financial means to get there, the faces of everyone who prayed for me and read about my travels and cared about what was going on. I got to meet a bunch of teenagers who were excited to send me to Mexico, long before they ever met me or knew any of the Mexican kids’ names.

Just a few days ago, I was sharing some of these frustrations with a minister from my church back home. Based on his and his wife’s experiences, he encouraged me to stop hitting the delete button. Instead, he recommended that I write, let it sit, and edit. So that’s what I’m doing. I’ve ignored this post for several weeks now, but finally I’m hitting publish.

No more deleting. I’m going to start writing again. I can’t promise that it will be pretty or even make sense all the time, but I’m going to stop dumping countless words into the virtual trash bins and start exploring who I am and what this reverse culture shock thing is doing in my life.

Wordless

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I have been positively dreadful about writing since I returned to the States. Truth be told, I have a lot of things to say and no words to say them with. I’ve begun several posts since returning, none of which have been published. I’ve spoken in a relatively informal setting–as well as in countless casual conversations–about my time this summer. I’ve told story after story. I’m full of short vignettes I still wish to share with you and with the world. I’m overflowing with thoughts and tears and smiles and wonders. But, perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m at a loss for words. I have no way to adequately express what I’ve experienced, how I feel, or what I want you to know. I pound on my keyboard, I scrawl ideas in the margins of my notebooks, I gracefully arch cursive letters in journals. Even so, nothing feels right. If I write something that expresses who I am right now and what my summer was like, the piece is clunky. If I artfully craft a literary (minor) masterpiece, it’s vapid and useless–I can’t find its life!

I guess that’s because my summer was very real and earthy and life-like. And sometimes life doesn’t make for good story. We stutter in conversation. We have dull moments of no great action. Sometimes there is no happy ending because we haven’t truly reached the end. Sometimes there are just inexplicable tears or unfair goodbyes or senseless anger. Sometimes there are beautiful faces or whimsical jokes or quiet moments of peace. But to mash those things all together, to smush them into a coherent story that somebody actually might want to read someday… That is nearly impossible. Because life is messy and doesn’t follow a nice plot line. And language has limits that fall far short of full life. And God is bigger and stronger and more terrifying and more wonderful than we ever imagined–more than we ever can imagine.

And no matter what I do, I can’t find the words. So my keyboard clacks along, hoping I’ll produce something of value before she wears out. And I slam my shaking fingers against the keys I memorized back in middle school. And I hope that somehow my words will suddenly be publishable and worthy of expressing who I am and what you need to hear. But I finish writing, and I save the draft, and I let it sit for a few hours. Then I read what I’ve written, and I hate what I’ve written, and I give up for a few days. When I finally return, fresh idea pressing through the fog and eager to jump from my fingers, I find that the keyboard and computer screen (or the pen and notebook page) have suddenly sucked all creativity and language from my mind. The instant my fingers touch the medium through which I will produce, all my ideas–every word I’ve ever learned–ooze from my brain into my hands and through my hands into the computer–not producing truth or beauty but instead fueling the glaring light that illuminates the empty page. And I write nonsense for a half hour. And the process has repeated for 2 months now.

Which brings me to yesterday. My roommate and I have recently begun spending time studying off-campus on occasion. It’s nice to get away from the pace of future politicians and find a cozy corner to curl up in. Which is what we did yesterday. We drove to a popular bakery-restaurant and settled into a corner with cups of coffee and a light breakfast. We edited our peers’ creative pieces and studied for a midterm and enjoyed the leisurely pace. We didn’t worry about being brilliant. We didn’t worry about being perfect. Instead, we sat across from each other and took in the background noise. We chatted with families who were trying to corral several children in a crowded dining room. We listened to the rain that dribbled down the wall of windows. We took in the coming of fall and the cooling of the air whilst sipping coffee and tea and slurping rich soup around lunchtime.

As I stowed away my laptop and prepared to spend the last few moments of our adventure simply enjoying conversation, I thought of the history of students of literature, the heritage of writers and wordsmiths. I meditated on Lewis and the Inkwells in a pub. I considered the professors and friends who–like our forebearers–sip on tea (and, during late nights and early mornings, perhaps coffee as well). I wondered how many authors and poets and playwrights had been inspired by the rain tapping on the windows and the presence of a good friend. As I savored the touch of hot tomato soup to my tongue, I rested in the blessings of a rich meal with a dear friend in a warm room as the wind gusted and the rain trickled outside.

Some blessings are beyond words.