Any Day Your Heart Could Break

It’s the unspoken but inherent risk we take by living: Any day your heart could break.

The body’s intricate infrastructure is inevitably infirm. The invisible bonds knitting us together are capable of unraveling. The castles constructed by the work of our hands are as temporary as held breath. Loss or injury to any single part affects the wellbeing of the whole.

Everything beautiful is breakable.

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Any day your heart could break

…on some ordinary weeknight, as you empty brown paper bags to unload the groceries. Left simmering too long, your blood can thicken. While you stack silver soup cans, it strains through narrowed passages hardened by everyday erosion. Twisting the faucet to pour a glass of water, your own rerouted flow slows to a trickle. Inside your pipes, relentless pulsing pushes miniscule sediment into a dam. The broad bank between your shoulders swells. Tingling fingers hang heavy at your sides. Your head floats in the thinning air. You’ll clutch your clenched chest, blinking to wipe away tears as your vision blurs and fades.

Any day your heart could break

…shattered by the impact of a high-pitched cell phone ping! alerting you to nonsensical text you’ll read again and again. Someone’s fingertips can crush your unsuspecting brain. Disaster reverberates through invisible wires somewhere above your head, the ones linking life to life. Electric surges sizzle your nerves. Tremors seize the atmosphere in upside-down earthquakes. Aftershocks knock you down. A handful of letters can shift your trajectory, careening you into an unimagined future. One simple message can interrupt the orbit of routine revolutions, upset internal balance, and introduce chaos. One blow can take down the entire system and leave us all in the dark.

Any day your heart could break

… blown by the breath of the wind, washed away by tears from the clouds. Handmade masterpieces shatter in silence. Like a weary spider at sunrise, you’ll mourn the erased evidence of your late-night labor. Connections woven with sparkling threads can collapse in an instant: strung up by starlight only to be weighed down with thick morning dew. Destroyed by distance when stretched too thin. Brushed aside by sleepwalking giants, the delicate remains left sticking to some stranger’s skin. Utterly undone, you will be forced to await the evening to begin the cycle of creation anew.

*

Any day, reality may shift and leave us stunned.

The breaking unmakes and reshapes us.

Disorientation forces us to regroup. Dawn awakens as night shatters. We take time to let our eyes and our understanding adjust. Waves peak and crumble into stillness. We emerge from below the bubbling foam and gasp, grateful for breath, and start treading water. Shaken by circumstances, our quivering voices falter to reveal vulnerability. We reconnect, bound by love, until we are once again renewed.

 

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the dragonfly eye

I stepped outside into the calm of the retreat center grounds. The calendar had announced spring’s arrival a few days earlier. Though the world was slow to wake, everything felt possible in the glow of the morning sun. The neon green of emerging grass contrasted with the dull bark on naked trees and the litter left by last year’s leaves. No chlorophyll canopy covered the bordering woods, so I still could see deep within. I remembered: resurrection begins at ground level, then rises. I descended to sit next to some small shrubs lining the walkway.

The ground chilled me through the seat of my jeans. I considered how silly I must look, a grown woman seated on the sidewalk, toy in hand. Luckily, here, few people would pass and notice. The birds don’t laugh, and even if they did, their teasing doesn’t translate. It sounds like music to my ears. Their high-pitched chirps and trills swallowed my senses. I looked around, wondering where to begin.

I brought with me a borrowed “dragonfly eye” that promised new views of the world. This bell-shaped instrument in birch casing survived many moves and Goodwill purges to maintain its place on my friend’s bookshelf. I’d unplugged from the world for a fresh perspective and a little worshipful play.  This tiny telescope made me feel like an explorer.

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IMG_20170324_113910877I pressed the narrow end of the dragonfly eye up to my face and pointed it toward the ground. The beveled glass lens manipulated a spiky sweetgum ball resting in the rocky soil. Magnified and replicated, the image filled my entire visual field. Browns and grays poked at my eyes with their sharp edges.

I aimed the tool upward to find some branches of the little tree not yet adorned with blossoms. Thin lines crisscrossed into knots. All I could see was chaos, a tangled mess. Then, with another half turn, I struck gold. Star-shaped forsythia illuminated each tiny window. Its delicate yellow flowers exploded and sparked surprise.

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I rotated and reflected until I’d lost all sense of time. Any one angle was incomplete. The fleeting glimpses didn’t form a cohesive whole. Pinhole snapshots made vision a piecemeal process. My mind couldn’t hold them all. I spun the glass eye until my head dizzied. Before I attempted to stand, I chose a single spot and focused in order to restore my equilibrium.

***

The name of the toy intrigued me, lingering in my brain long after I left. Through the dragonfly eye, the world around me shrank into manageable pieces. My view was the opposite of panoramic: myopic wallpaper. Mere scratches on the surface that never widened to unite with the whole.

I wondered: how can the dragonfly navigate the world or orient itself within it with such limited vision? (For that matter, how can I?)

***

Curiosity drove me to find the facts. I learned that eighty percent of the dragonfly’s brainpower is dedicated to its sight. Wide, multifaceted lenses allow it to see in all directions simultaneously, giving it a 360 degree view. Thirty thousand pixel-like facets cover most of its head.

In addition, the dragonfly displays an almost-human capacity for selective attention. Its ability to zoom in and focus enables it to capture and eat prey, as well as to mate while in flight. This incredible creature is present to the full reality of its surroundings: alert, responsive, and nimble.

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The dragonfly’s iridescent body reflects different colors depending on varying angles and polarization of light. Its lithe core dances and paper-thin wings shimmer as it flies. Not only does it possess the ability to see a wider and deeper reality, its very being stretches the vision of those who encounter it.

***

The disconnect between this new information and my experience prompted me to consider: perhaps the limitation lies not in the toy but in the viewer. When overused, my selective attention becomes a disability.

An hour after I went to bed one night this week, I laid awake, filled with anxiety. Unsure as to why, I reviewed the details of my day. I’d spent hours taking in news and stories. Podcasts about weighty topics. Audiobooks with heavy themes. Facebook updates and tweets linking me to upsetting world events. NPR alerts about an elementary school shooting in California. Threats of war on the evening news. My porous eyes had soaked too much in through a dark and limited lens. When I closed them at the end of the day, I started to drown.

The next morning, the state of my soul showed on my sleepy face. “I wish everything would just bloom already!” I said with a half-hearted smile to an acquaintance who inquired about my irritated eyes.  I blamed my appearance on allergies because I was too weary to explain. The truth was too complex.

That next day, I made some changes. Filled my ears with poetry and music instead of incessant talk. Read only that which inspires. Rehearsed truth and offered honest prayers. Connected with the people around me instead of merely observing the whole world from a distance. Adjusted my sensory input to ease my soul back into balance.

When my gaze is fixed only on the broken, it colors my vision and leaves me unsettled, lacking hope, on edge. My view is limited. Focus matters. I need to rotate the lens to take in the just-as-real beauty all around. With each small turn, I let the light fall on me anew.

still waters make clean mirrors

Beneath the glassy surface, upside-down branches doubled as desperate roots. The puddle painted a bizarre image, prompting me to do a doubletake. When I looked down,  I saw the sky lying among the submerged clumps of fallen leaves. Sunlight pierced the clustered January clouds. My eye was drawn to this unusual reflection formed in the remains of unseasonable rain.

At first glance, the emptiness was masked by fullness. Dead leaves reattached to naked branches. Decomposition regenerated before my eyes. I wondered what the trees were thinking. If they bought the beautiful illusion or looked deeper to confess the truth about their current state.

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In the midst of a tangled mess, still waters make the cleanest mirrors.

Nature whispered: Be still. Lean in. Look closer. Stand in the light. Pay attention.

This tableau embodied the state of our nation and of my own heart. Muddled and messy, layered with confusion. Dead leaves obscure the view. In this brave new world where lies dress up as alternative facts, the emperor has no clothes – and we the people see ourselves with broken mirrors as well.

We see what we want to see.

This image made me consider the mirrors we use: how they reflect, if we notice them, what we see in them, which ones show us our true selves. I’m afraid I see what I want to see more than what’s really there. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

I project my expectations onto my reflected self and the world around me. I’ve almost completely weeded out my social network of offending opinions, wrapping me in a bubble of comfort. I often filter the daily news through political humor which points out the irony with precision and wit, allowing me to digest it without indigestion. Some days, I throw a blanket over the glass because I just can’t look anymore.

I need a mirror that doesn’t change and doesn’t lie to me to feed my ego. One that shows me plainly the plank stuck in my eye so I can take care of it before I try to help another with the speck in theirs. One that doubles as a prescriptive lens – correcting my vision as I untangle the truth of this confusing season and allowing me to see others for who they really are.

It must begin with stillness. It’s time for a long, hard look in the mirror.

The true state of our hearts is reflected into the world. Our deeply rooted beliefs take shape when we exhale them into words. If we don’t pause and reflect on the truth of what is in us, we buy the illusions. Cracks in our mirrors formed by our projected fear, pain, and selfishness warp our self-image and allow us to drift farther from reality. Confession is good for the soul, freeing us to receive forgiveness and begin again. When we get out of our own way, God gets to work.

I don’t pretend to know how to bridge the divide in this country or how to best make a difference. But I know enough to start bridging the divide in my own soul, by coming back to what matters most: love. Galatians 5:14 reminds me: …the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I spent time today meditating on the definition:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice, but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)

Without love, nothing matters. Without love, our well-chosen words become annoying noise. Our knowledge, understanding, and faith are hollow. Our pious behavior, sacrifices, and good deeds gain us nothing.

No matter what I say, what I know or believe, or what I do – it’s all worthless without love. Love seeks the good of the other person first. Love starts with listening. Without love, it’s all about me, me, me. The “me” that is capable of self-deception, and yet is deeply loved in all my mess. Just like everyone else. I need to see the complete picture.

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.

If you claim to be religious but you don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:22-27)

Today I will reflect and choose stillness. Connect with the Creator whose understanding far exceeds my own. Choose to listen before I speak. Care for the vulnerable and hurting in my path. Err on the side of love. Refuse to mirror back chaos and hatred when I encounter it. Breathe in the perfect love that God has for us. Believe it’s working to transform me from the inside out.

my three-dimensional focus for 2017

My “one word” focus for the new year arrived as a gift on a silver necklace pendant wrapped inside a small box. The engraved quote by Maya Angelou reads: “Be present in all things and thankful for all things.” This message is written in tiny cursive letters I must squint to see clearly. I have to concentrate to focus. That’s the point, I realized. In order to cultivate gratitude and happiness, I must start by paying attention. Being PRESENT.

img_20170104_110007338The word danced around in my brain before settling down to make itself at home. PRESENT. The more time I spent with it, the more my fondness for the concept grew. It blossomed until it revealed its distinct three-dimensional shape which embodies the wholeness I seek.

Present (ˈprez(ə)nt) is a noun meaning either a gift or the current moment. Present is an adjective that describes one who is attentive, conscious, and actively existing. And present (prəˈzent) is a verb that denotes the act of offering a gift of words to others.

I knew it was the “one word” for me when I felt a simultaneous urge to embrace and to escape it. While PRESENT extends a hand to usher me into a deeper, more connected and meaningful life, it also requires a lot from me.

Temptations for escape from PRESENT abound. Digital distractions, endless chores and errands, to-do checklists, and upsetting news headlines all add noise to my inner world. When I’m tired, bored, or overwhelmed, the last thing I want is to be fully conscious. I hide behind a screen, choosing entertainment over reality. Or I double down and plow through tasks, whizzing through my days, avoiding the present in the blur of constant motion. Or I line up all my ducks in tidy rows, reining in my worries with organizational muscle. Meanwhile, the gifts to be enjoyed now get ignored. The words I can offer are crossed out and drowned out; they never make it to the page or through my lips. I’m too busy thinking about what’s next to engage with the life right in front of me.

A little dictionary noodling landed me at etymonline.com, where I read that present has its roots in an Old French term meaning “existing at the time, evident, at hand, and within reach.”

The phrase “at hand” reminded me of Jesus, who proclaimed “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) His initial sermon included this simple invitation.

Jesus had entered the scene: present, in the flesh. The Greek word for repent (metanoia) means “a transformative change of heart” or “to change one’s mind.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) To change direction, to make an about-face, to think new thoughts and act accordingly: that sounds like a fresh start to me. Suitable for a new year’s resolution.

The presence of Jesus inspires me to see everything in a different light. God is within img_20170104_105828219reach. PRESENT. But I will only encounter and experience God if I, too, am present.

Like any relationship, it’s interactive and alive, an ongoing sharing of moments. I must stay present to recognize God’s presence, to notice the gifts and hopefully to become one.

My goal for 2017 is to wake up each day expectant. I’ll be praying that this little word will come to define me. PRESENT: counting the gifts, offering my words to others, and living awake in each moment.

unexpected encounter

It was one of those mornings when I had to will myself to open the door and step outside for a run. Thick clouds erased all color from the sky. Once vibrant high-flying leaves now laid in various stages of decay along the path through the woods behind my house. The magic and mystery of the scene had vanished. All that was left were the bare bones of naked trees and the messy piles of clothing they’d discarded. I bundled up and faced the cold, unwelcoming air.

After tightening my laces, I inserted my earbuds, pressed play, and hit the button to start my stopwatch. As my pace increased, my presence sparked alarm in the surrounding trees. Birds darted in front of me at eye level, crossing the path, flitting from one branch to another. Even over the podcast voices, I could hear their frenzied chirps and trills. The new leafless reality left nowhere for them to hide. I glanced up and noticed empty nests in the treetops, wondering if these homes had been abandoned due to the change in season.

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I exited the woods and left behind these thoughts. On the roadside path, I concentrated on my own footfalls until I found my rhythm. Plodding along the pavement, my mind wandered into the stories pouring into my ears. I managed to maintain a consistent pace, running on autopilot. A half hour later, I rounded the corner and accelerated back toward the woods on my home stretch.

That’s when I saw her. Her bright red coat stood in stark contrast to the barren gray landscape. Other than an occasional passing car, I hadn’t yet encountered another soul on my three-mile loop. As I approached, she came into focus. The puppy at the end of her leash stood sniffing something on the ground. I rose my gloved hand in a friendly wave and smiled. I kept running, heading back into the woods toward an imaginary finish line, ready to stop the timer on my watch when I’d met my goal.

With my mission complete, I slowed to a walk. My heart rate relaxed and my breathing deepened. The talking heads in my ears rambled on at the edge of my consciousness, competing now with the increased volume of the leaves crunching beneath my feet. The earthy musk permeated my senses and put me in my place: small and yet fully alive.

Suddenly, sunbeams pierced the stubborn sky like spotlights, illuminating the path in front of me. Amidst the leaves, something small glimmered and shone.

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I bent down to investigate and found not just one but many tiny ruby-colored plastic orbs. I picked one up and rolled it between my fingers, trying to identify what it was. The inner parts of a broken toy, perhaps? Remnants of a kaleidoscope dropped and spilled by a child? This odd sight wiggled around in my imagination, sparking curiosity.

As I rose to my feet, there she was again: the neighbor walking her dog. I greeted her warmly. As we made eye contact, I noticed hers were puffy and tired. One gentle question unlocked the door to her heart. Through tears, she told me of her recent loss and the grief she carried. As I listened, I tried to be subtle as I reached up below my winter hat to remove my earbuds. I didn’t bother to press stop, letting the recording ramble on unheard so I could give her my full attention.

After eleven years of living a block apart, we recognized one another but hadn’t ever progressed beyond pleasant hellos, quick waves, and annual trick-or-treat porch visits. I knew few details about who she was: a grandma living with her daughter’s family, an immigrant whose accent I couldn’t identify, a white poodle owner, a beige sedan driver. She knew a few about me: dark-haired husband, black cockapoo, and two children she’d watched grow over the years from afar. We didn’t even know one another’s names.

We had stumbled into a thin space. Worn out from my run, I had been emptied of my own agenda. Exhausted from her grief, she lacked energy to maintain the facade that she was fine. What might have been small talk dove deep, sparking empathy and connection.

In the middle of the empty woods, we met one another for the first time.

My anonymous neighbor now had a name. And so did I.

I’d set out on a routine run without enthusiasm. In the post-election American Twilight Zone that’s become our new reality, I’ve felt numb. Sad. Confused. Grieving what was revealed by our ballots, fearful of the hostile cultural climate, and skeptical about the difference my life can make. That very week I’d researched volunteer opportunities to mentor refugee families, burdened by the awareness that people from other lands who came seeking safety and hope are feeling neither of those things now. I’d been discouraged by logistical limitations. And then I ran into a woman from another country living right in my own neighborhood.

God used our honest conversation to transform us. Once strangers, we became friends.

She offered vulnerability. I loaned my listening ears. Before we parted ways, we embraced and I felt a surge of love pass between us. This divine encounter left us both a little less alone.

 

The Labyrinth’s Invitation

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My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I do not do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Expectant, I approach the labyrinth, wondering how long it will take to complete. It isn’t what I imagined it would be. I envisioned tall, thick hedges trapping me in a maze where I am a mouse feeling its way to the cheese prize. Instead, a map stamped into the concrete courtyard of the retreat center is laid out in plain sight. Its concentric swirling rows remind me of a Celtic knot. Unable to untangle the pattern, I look down and plant one worn-out running shoe in front of the other. I begin: heel-toe, heel-toe, embarking on my quest to reach the center.

The morning air vibrates with pulsing crickets, punctuated by intermittent chirps from overhead birds. The surrounding woods provide a buffer, absorbing the angry grumbles of accelerating trucks on distant roads. Sunlight pierces through the trees, illuminating patches on the ground and leaving others covered by shadows. With each tick of the clock closer to mid-day, the sun continues its ascent. We seekers are increasingly exposed to its penetrating heat.

I am the obedient pencil, tracing this puzzle with each willed movement, staying inside the lines. I enter into the flow, picking up my pace on straight stretches, curious and eager. Then the winding footpaths bend, forcing me to change direction and return to the border of the circle. Momentarily disoriented, I grow restless, discouraged by illusions, uncertain of my coordinates, doubting my progress. These temporary setbacks slow and humble me. I’m relieved when the path reverses, pointing me back toward the goal.

Along the way, I encounter other travelers, fellow participants on this retreat. A sideways shift of my shoulders and a brief step out of bounds allow us both room to pass. Exchanging knowing looks, we remain silent, walking alone together on the journey.

Delicate leaves dangle above on weeping branches, then descend to join their fallen brothers crunching beneath my feet. I move through the tears of a changing season waiting to be wiped away. The other side of this winding path is clear, as if a custodian left the job half-done. The smooth portion is guarded by evergreens holding tight to their bristling needles. I traverse the divide, unwittingly wandering from one into the other and back again,  as I follow the course.

I am free to exit the path at any time by breaking the ‘rules,’ stepping on cracks, and forging my own way. But the labyrinth whispers an invitation: Come. Follow. Seek. Find.

There is no way to get lost. I need only to take the next step and trust.

I keep my eyes fixed on the ground so when I arrive at the spacious center, I’m surprised. Admiring the intricate pattern, I grieve that it’s over too soon. “Teach me to number my days aright, that I might gain a heart of wisdom. “  Psalms echo in my quiet soul, wrapping words around my grateful heart. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  

New Mercies

Light leaked through the vertical cracks on either side of the picture window into my three-and-a-half year old’s room. Her bedtime hadn’t changed, but Daylight Savings Time made her daddy and I look bad. Even the blackout shade couldn’t hide the fact that the day wasn’t over, so just-one-more requests and existential questions often escalated into meltdowns. Our sleepy girl resisted rest; she hated missing out.

“Is he in there? I don’t want him to be in there!” she whispered. Her doe eyes widened, swallowing up even more of her face than usual.

“No, honey, it’s not like that. He’s not physically inside your heart,” I backpedaled.

“I don’t want anybody in me!” she persisted, whimpering. “I wanna go see Jesus in heaven now, not have him come here.”

“We have to wait for that, honey. We don’t get to do that until we die.”

“Die? Am I going to die? When?”

“Oh, Becca… not for a long, long time, sweetheart. Why don’t we talk about this tomorrow? Where’s Little? Let’s get you tucked in.”

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Bedtime Comfort (Before the Paci Fairy’s Visit)

I searched along the space where her big-girl bed met the wall, digging through the pile of stuffed animals for her beloved teddy bear. She grabbed “Little” from my hand, whisking him close and breathing in his familiar sticky-sweet smell. Her just-washed honey-colored hair fell across her face as she soothed herself with her lovey. He was all she had now, since we’d broken her addiction to pacifiers a couple of months earlier. They disappeared from her bed, collected by the Paci Fairy to send to newborn babies and left a  tricycle as her consolation prize. She suffered withdrawal for a week of bedtimes before moving through the stages of grief to arrive at acceptance.

With her innocent questions, Becca had deconstructed the evangelical lexicon that served as supporting framework to my understanding of faith. “Asking Jesus into your heart” was a phrase I’d heard so many times over the years that it slid off my tongue. I’d prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and crossed the threshold long before she was born. But I’d been a teenager, able to absorb and apply abstract thought.

My little girl still lived in the borderland between fantasy and reality. She wandered in and out of the world of make-believe, unsure of its boundaries. Jesus was someone we sang about about at church, an invisible person we talked to at bedtime and before meals. It baffled her that Mommy and Daddy acknowledged Jesus’ presence, yet couldn’t see her imaginary friends or hear the chatter of her stuffed animals. Her longing to see Jesus with her own eyes reminded me that faith begins with and is sustained by love.

As much as I longed for her to achieve fluency in a faith of her own, this misunderstanding was a speed bump, a wake-up call telling me that her path might follow a different course. Language that resonated with fifteen-year-old me might not speak to her at age three. I couldn’t reduce the mystery to a formula to ease my own conscience. I shouldn’t shove concepts she can’t pronounce down her throat. I wouldn’t be able to pave over the potholes that will rattle her along the way. The God who created her is more than able to reveal Himself in ways she can understand.

My effort to introduce her to faith backfired when I collided into her age-appropriate concrete thinking.  Afterward, all I could do was gently guide her away from the wreckage and try to help her feel safe again.

“Lie down, sweetheart. Here are your blankies. You’ve got Little. It’s time to sleep.”

She sunk her head into the bubble-gum pink pillow and spread out onto her tummy, clutching her matted teddy bear. I rubbed her back and began to sing our nightly blessing, praying silently that God would save her from my blunders and draw her to Himself.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, new every morning. Great is Thy faithfulness, O Lord. Great is Thy faithfulness.”

I kissed her cheek and rose to leave. Closing the door to her bedroom, I headed down the hallway to my own, hanging on to the promise of those same mercies.