The Big Questions

In March of this year I happened on an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Empty Religions of Instagram.” The subtitle was telling “How did influencers become our moral authorities?” I am not from the demographic that this piece was written for, but I found myself nodding along as I read, struck by the author’s insight into what I’ve seen, what I’ve perhaps feared. As is often the case when you are nodding along thinking “yeah! people need to read this!” I found a mirror held up to my own life. How often do I go to social media for my soul, not even realizing that’s what I’m doing? How often do I get my own dopamine rush and look to my online crowd that I sometimes, and perhaps wrongly, call my “community” to console, praise, and approve of me.

I urge you to take a look at the article, but let me quote a couple of paragraphs to frame why I am writing about this today.

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.”

It was about two months later when I began reading a completely different genre than a newspaper article in George Saunders new book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. This book is like taking a graduate school course in literature, something I have longed for but never had the time to do. Saunders references other big questions in his introduction: “How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He talks about the process of writing as a way of “training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiousity.” Saunders then takes us through several essays/short stories written by Russian authors with exercises and commentary mixed in between. It is a wonderful book.

But both these writers who come from completely different places and generations have me thinking about some changes I need to make so that I too can connect to those big questions in life, so that my writing doesn’t stem from a desire to please, but instead stems from a desire to challenge, to encourage, and to chase beauty. Why? Because my own observations are that those three things are lacking in our online discourse.

Quite frankly, I have become a lazy writer. I have become too reliant on quick responses and feedback that are abundantly supplied online, instead of pursuing the rigors of writing longer pieces with substantive content. And that is not fair to those of you who read or to myself. I sell both and all of us short.

So I am announcing, in an effort at accountability, that I am heading off of social media. While I won’t be deleting my accounts, and while this blog will automatically post to my facebook page, I will be heading away for an indefinite time. It’s time. I find myself increasingly cynical, discouraged, and dishonest as I observe my own interactions on social media. As much as I want to be a presence for the good and the beautiful, I fear I too often follow the crowd.

My real life communities and friends are where I can have the most lasting impact. My neighbors and coworkers, whom I adore, get less of me when my focus is on my next post. My family gets only half of me when I am focusing instead on those who don’t know me, yet ironically, I seem to care deeply what these strangers think.

I’m writing this as I sit in our cottage in Rockport. In the midst of all the beauty that is Rockport, I feel tired and I feel scared. It’s not only the writing piece. It’s also the significant challenges our family has faced this past year. Challenges that largely go unshared on social media. If I’m looking at the big questions, I find my mind worrying about the small questions: What if I lose the small audience I have? What if I just get distracted by something else? What do I hope will happen? I don’t know. I only know that the questions I ask are a minute fraction of what really matters, and the questions that both Leigh Stein and George Saunders ask are questions worth asking again and again….and again.

It’s time to delve deeper into the big questions. I hope you will come along for the journey.

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

Leigh Stein

If you would like to keep up with my writing or communicate, please feel free to subscribe to the blog, email me at communicatingblog@gmail.com or through messenger.

Sudden Storms

Earlier this week there was a high wind advisory in our area. It was well warranted. The winds raged from 44 to 50 miles an hour and shook everything around. Though it must have been predicted, for me it was sudden.

We happened to be in Rockport at the time and our entire condo quivered and shivered throughout the night. Beyond the whistling sounds typical of high winds were the sounds of shutters and vents banging, branches hitting the outside walls, and overall ghost-like moans of the storm.

I lay in bed unable to sleep for a long time. The storm felt insurmountable. When would it end? Would the electricity go off, taking with it the heat and hot water? Would there be damage to the condo? So many questions. I fell into an uneasy sleep only to wake again to the seemingly never-ending storm.

The storm reflects my life right now. A sudden storm of events brought with it howling winds and shaking circumstances. The questions too were similar. When would it end and what damage would it do? These questions crowd my mind as I fall into an uneasy sleep.

But the actual physical storm did end. The electricity didn’t go off. There is no damage. There is no evidence of the violent winds that ripped through the area. Today came and with it sunlight reflected through every window. Beauty and light after a storm.

And with the sun came a quiet hope for the life storm, a tiny capsule of rest and redemption. In this light I begin to believe that someday this will all be redeemed.

The Hope that Kills You

Picture Credit – NPR

Note – Spoiler Alert

I just finished watching the Apple TV show, Ted Lasso. For the uninitiated, this show is about an American football coach who is recruited to coach a failing British football team – the sport known as soccer in the United States. The show is delightful. While the language is salty and my eyes rolled at some of the innuendo (mainly because both feel lazy) you have this truly good man who is thrown into an impossible situation. He knows nothing about football that is not American (ie soccer),he knows nothing about the UK and their ardent and tumultous love of football, and he is clueless that he is being exploited and used. Despite that, he goes into the situation with optimistic joy. He has this ability to make everyone he meets feel a little bit better about life and about themselves. Even the most cynical character is changed by meeting Ted Lasso.

Very little in the show is predictable. While we humans love a story line of the underdog becoming a hero or the losing team suddenly winning, this is not a story that follows those feel good predictable narratives. Instead, it does something far better: It gives the viewer a sense that no matter how bad things get, it really is okay, that resilience is not developed by overcoming a flatline, but by coping with mountains, valleys, and flatlines. That’s the magic of the show.

A marriage fails, an aging soccer star hangs up his jersey, a scorned woman continues to be completely mocked by her ghastly ex-husband, and a team does not win. But despite all of that, the players, the coach, the assistant coach, the locker room assistant – even an arrogant journalist – all become better people.

The players learn to play as a team. The locker room assistant learns that his observations are worthwhile. The arrogant journalist learns to give someone grace instead of maligning them. The scorned ex-wife/owner of the team learns to apologize and really mean it.

It is remarkable.

The last episode of the season is called “The Hope that Kills You” and it is one of the only times when you see Ted Lasso angry. He’s angry about the phrase. His philosophy is not about winning, it’s about playing – specifically, playing well, playing as a team, and having fun. But this last game is against a significant rival and has far-reaching implications for the team. Over and over he’s told “Hope will kill you.” It’s a phrase that grew out of a downtrodden people and team; a phrase that spoke of hope deferred over and over and over until it was no longer viable. Hope is a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. This, for Ted Lasso, is unbearable. He can handle multiple insults coming from every side, he can handle outright and subtle ridicule, but he cannot bear watching people dismiss hope.

This is where Ted Lasso and the current state of the Pandemic world collide. Hope within this pandemic has died. It’s a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. We are daily given doses of why we can’t hope, why we must be cautious, why nothing will ever get back to “normal.”

It’s exhausting to have so many voices telling us that hope is going to kill us. And I for one, am done. Not only does the pessimism exhaust me, it defeats every thought, every dream, and every plan. It’s not just a disaster, it’s a fatality.

So I’m going to go all Ted Lasso on you – I’m going to loudly proclaim that hope is not what will kill you, it’s the opposite. No – hope won’t kill you – it will help you live.

Hope, my friends, will help you live. Sometimes it’s all we have.

Somehow in our world we give gold stars to sophisticated cynicism and educated skepticism. Those with hope are audaciously childish and need to be put in their place. So we put them in their place. We put them in their place with statistics and data, with charts and graphs, with “that will never work” and snide side glances. And if that doesn’t work, we put them in their place with mockery and ridicule. Just like the crowds in Ted Lasso.

He responds with unrelenting optimism, with tireless goodwill, with determined effort to see the good in each human being and situation he encounters, and it drives some people crazy. But he keeps it up.

I want to be like that. And if it’s put on my tombstone “Above all, she had Hope” then what a grace.

What a grace indeed.

“The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible…..They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.”

Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

[Picture Credit https://www.npr.org/2020/11/10/933599086/how-ted-lassoed-his-way-into-our-hearts%5D

Therapy in a Hair Salon

I feel something oddly comforting as I walk into the hair salon. It smells of conditioner and peroxide, of hair color and shampoo. Everything is black, grey,and chrome. Sleek black chairs with chrome swiveled bases, black framed mirrors, grey baskets on black shelves, shiny black sinks with chrome fixtures, silver sprayed plants, and a vintage grey metal trunk serving as a resting place for a plant and magazines. The look is sophisticated and sleek, luring me in with a vision of all that I am not.

For I am neither sleek or sophisticated and, though I should feel out of place in this space, I don’t.

A lovely young woman with shiny dark hair and smiling brown eyes greets me, laughing as I confess that I look a fright.

“When I saw myself on a video chat the other day, I was so puzzled. I thought my grandmother had come back from the dead only to greet me through 21st century technology, and then I realized it was me!” I said shaking my older than middle aged head.

“Ahh! We’ll get you fixed up in no time,” She said leading me to a chair.

As she expertly worked my hair we chatted and my sad, busy week suddenly felt not so bad, not so sad.

We talked about the pandemic, about masks, about the vaccine hesitation in different communities. We talked about family and loneliness, about fear of others and the sadness of loss. We talked about long summer beach days and picnics on the sand, about her favorite television show centered on Persians in Los Angeles.

None of us has made it through this past year unscathed. Instead, we bear the wounds of disconnection and the discomfort of fraught friendships. We hold this tension in our bodies and our souls. We are more desperate than we know.

We are created for each other, for community, for the kindness and conversation of both strangers and friends. The stylist may never realize the impact she had, the therapy she gave on that black and chrome chair, but in the comforting conversation of a stranger I found myself relaxing. I left more whole, more thoughtful, and less of a fright.

Thanks be to God.


Image by bigpromoter from Pixabay

Masked Mourners & Bagpipes

Across the street from our house stands an old Catholic church, its magestic steeple reaching far into the sky. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the church rings out the hours on bells that echo across Charlestown. During this time of year, along with the bells are old Christmas Carols – “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are all treats for the ears during this season. The carols start at the beginning of Advent and go through Epiphany on January 7th.

It is also a church that holds a lot of funerals. Almost weekly, parking signs will appear warning us not to park across the street by the church. The unspoken message is for us to give honor to those attending the funeral by giving up our hard fought parking spaces, for it is a city, and fights landing people in jail have happened over parking spaces. Most of us willingly give up our spots, our contribution to what is already a grief-filled time for those who attend.

In recent months the most common scene at the church has been masked mourners, the most common funeral sound bagpipes, their melancholic sounds echoing through the neighborhood. It has brought me to tears more than once. Could there be an instrument more mournful? I don’t think so.

Whenever I hear the bagpipes I know that a hearse is not far behind.

Though I feel sad, I also feel hope with these funerals. People are gathering. They are mourning together. As a family that has gone through profound grief alone, postponing a memorial service for months following a death, I delight in seeing these masked mourners gather. They are bearing witness to grief and in doing so showing the strength of community.

As I think of the regular occurrence of funerals across the street, and the millions of other deaths and subsequent funerals from this past year, I think of the words of Psalm 139, a Psalm that I have been reading and rereading during these first couple of days of the New Year.

More than any other Psalm or words in scripture, this one gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us. The words “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” are a powerful reminder that God knows the number of our days. He knows when the masked mourners and bagpipes or their equivalent will be played for each person.

But the Psalm is so much more than just knowing our days. The messages are profoundly comforting: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen clearly, known fully, and loved extravagantly, would I not rest easier? Would I not be more secure? It’s something I’ve struggled with for possibly my entire life.

The Psalmist, because he is human, seems to understand the disconnect. Indeed, he admits his own inability to understand saying that it is too much and too wonderful to understand.

Our world offers a lot of substitutes for the truths in Psalm 139, and many of them feel quite real, but the past year has shown that they are fleeting at best. Our security in health, jobs, travel, friendships, and safety is an illusion. While the “enemy” used to be something that the West thought they could keep out with high fences and strong borders, an invisible virus has broken through all of those illusions, making us servants to fear and grasping and gasping for hope.

What better time then, to lean in hard to these truths of being seen, known, and loved, for the more I lean in, the more aware I am of false substitutes and the more I find rest in God’s safety net.

All things find refreshing calm and peace when they have found their center.

Based on writings from St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain written in verse by Scott Cairns in Endless Life

The Blessing

The Lord Bless You

The Lord bless you, and keep you.

It’s grey outside, a day marked by fog and sadness. It is a holiday weekend in the United States. It feels far from celebratory. But this year it feels right to be lost in a fog.

Make His face shine upon you, be gracious to you.

Maybe you are feeling like I am these days – that life and the world feel weighty. I hear and read bad news and evil on every page and around every turn. From too many deaths in the Black community to second waves of COVID-19 to division about both, our news is flooded with opinion and voices. It all feels like too much. It is too much.

The Lord turn His face toward you, and give you peace.

And then I pause for a moment, and I watch “The Blessing” for what feels like the thousandth time. This song (based on several different Bible verses and written co-written by Steven Furtick and Chris Brown and with musical artists Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) began in the UK in early May. Since then, my husband and I have watched renditions from India, the Arab world, Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Sweden, Spain, France, Turkey, Cyprus, Qatar…too many to list and too many to count.

May his favor be upon you and a thousand generations.

The words and music fill my soul and I feel my eyesight and my heart healing. There on my screen are people of every beautiful color and hair of every amazing texture, from every country imagineable, singing a blessing. A blessing that is thousands of years old, originally penned by writers of books in the Old Testament.

And your family, and your children, and their children, and their children

And I know that this story, this story God is writing is bigger than our immediate crises, it is holier and more beautiful than any response to injustice that humans are capable of, it is more powerful than any imperfect government or political party.

May His presence go before you And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you, He is with you, He is with you

The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. It is far bigger than superpowers, politics, political parties, and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

In the morning, in the evening, in your coming, in your going, in your weeping and rejoicing, His for you, He is for you.

It is a story that makes us laugh and weep, bow down and rise up. It is a story that sustains and delivers, that breaks the conscience and demands that we act. It is a story that convicts and comforts, that holds us and heals us. Because this God of the universe, who created us, who loves us, who transforms us – he is for us.

He is for you, He is for you, He is for you, He is for youHe is for you, He is for you

And when we believe this in our bones, than we are changed.

Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

So if you are feeling like I’m feeling, stop for a moment. Take a listen. And know that He is for you.

Dry Seasons

Photo credit: Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

The sounds of summer rain and thunder add music to my afternoon. We have had some glorious days of blue sky and perfect temperatures, days that dead poets used to write about, but last night rain came to water our earth. Then today, torrential rain has come while thunder booms in the background. Downtown Boston, visible from our upstairs guest room and my office, is grey with fog and mist.

I am a lover of sunshine and all things bright. I love yellows and golds, white lights and golden glows, sunshine that takes over the shadows. But in this area, rain is critical. The grass has been like straw and dust comes up from the ground as we walk on it.

Since I was a little girl, I have heard the Biblical metaphor of Jesus being the “living water.” I grew up singing a bright, bubbly song “Drinking at the springs of living water, happy now am I, my soul is satisfied…” While the tune was catchy, the song gave a false illusion of happiness – like it was something you conjured up and could keep forever just by drinking at those streams.

The song also neglected to describe what dry feels like. A throat parched, longing for water. Skin dry and flaky. Eyes burning and dehydration drying up all tears. Feet kicking up dust everywhere you walk. I have lived in several deserts around the world and I know dry. I know what my skin and nose feel like. I know that when it rains it floods because the earth is so hard the water cannot sink in. I know how the land looks and how my body feels.

Dry. Bone dry. So dry in fact, that you begin to see mirages of water everywhere – a trick of the mind to give hope to the one dying of thirst.

When you are bone dry, water in any form is a blessed relief.

The land is not the only thing that has been dry. My heart and life have been dry – bone dry and longing for respite. As much as I believe that Jesus is living water, I have also come to believe that there are seasons of dry in our lives; that no matter how much we drink at those springs, we may still feel dry and parched.

There are times when it helps to analyze feelings,  when evaluating what is going on and how I feel is important and necessary. There are other times when no matter how much I evaluate, no matter what I change, I still have the same feelings. So I continue to walk through the dry days and times, pressing ahead, knowing that seasons pass, new seasons come, and the dry will someday change to a cool, refreshing respite.

Rain– sweet, redemptive rain to water the earth and bring relief to dry, parched land. Faith – to believe that even in seasons of drought, Jesus is still here- offering water to thirsty souls.

This is my world and this is my heart today.