mourning with those who mourn

It’s Sunday. And because it is Sunday I go to walk. To think and to pray about my week while searching for shards of beauty illuminated by the sunrise. It has been a week of goodness and grace and sorrow. I have found myself lately so often doing the work that Christians refer to as mourning with those who mourn. I find myself sitting with those who are facing and enduring loss of life or health, loved one, hope, or self. Visiting enough hospital rooms that I am tempted to create a ranking of their accommodations. Weeping with the broken-hearted. Praying for strangers far away whose lives have been devastated by hate and violence. I have long felt it to be the kind of work that epitomizes my faith. I’m never so certain that I am where I belong than when I am sitting with someone walking through deep sorrow.

Frosty Sabbath Morning |
Frosty Sabbath at Sunrise

And yet. There is still a part of me that wonders. Wonders what good it could possibly do. Certainly I do not fix anything simply by showing up. Much less by thinking about people far away.  I’m not a doctor, a nurse or a relief worker. I don’t grow food or raise livestock to feed the desperate hungry. I get perplexed and frustrated by the social media reactions that seem to say “I’m sad too!” while offering nothing that I can see of substance.

And there is always someone new. Tragedy every day in subtle and dramatic ways. I am sometimes convinced that deep inside us each is some anguish so raw we feel if it were revealed the world would convulse in shared grief. The lights of mourning would be lit for us alone. There is always someone suffering.

Autumn at the bridge |
Autumn at the bridge

So if you are like me and committed to showing up to mourn with those who mourn, maybe you are like me and also sometimes overwhelmed at the task and searching for its meaning. What I don’t understand about it all could fill the universe, but this is the illumination I found myself holding onto this morning:

1 – No one ought to feel they have to face their hardest days alone. While a simple visit feels inadequate to us it remains utterly necessary. And failing the ability to do that, maybe, just maybe, something as small and symbolic as a Facebook post can provide someone a sense that their sorrow is not invisible.

2 – If we find ourselves mourning with those who mourn and we do not allow that experience to change us, we have failed ourselves and those we serve. Do we pray and then do or do we merely pray? Do we allow the experience to soften us? Let it help us glimpse the shared humanity of someone who seems impossibly unlike us? Do we give of our resources out of our comfort to ease the desperation of strangers? Do we allow ourselves to find our own humility in the face of others’ refining fires?

3 – There is grace. There is always grace. And if we can allow it to manifest through us, so much the better.

One of my favorite songs is Go In Peace. I like to play it on my guitar in the evenings as a kind of lullaby hymn. Written by Sam Baker, himself a survivor of a terrorist attack, I think it offers the kind of soothing peace a week like this requires. It’s short, so I recommend you listen at least twice:

Go in peace, go in kindness
Go in love, go in faith

Leave the day, the day behind us
Day is done, go in grace

Let us go into the dark
Not afraid, not alone

Let us hope, by some good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

Let us hope, by some good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

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even if I fail

Colonial Beach TriI have a lot of reasons, good and not so good, that my blog was largely neglected in 2014. Some wrapped up in the picture here.

I read Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly last year.  It was a fascinating and inspiring read. One sentence that I returned to over and over again is this:

“What’s worth doing even if I fail?”

I signed up for a Sprint Triathlon in July. It was out of my comfort zone. Way out of my comfort zone. I was physically prepared, but not quite mentally prepared. I panicked in the open water and was unable to finish my swim. The race rules allowed me to go ahead and do the bike and run. As I crossed the starting line on my bike my first thought was ‘Dammit! Now even if I hate the rest of this experience I still have to try again.’

Colonial Beach TriI went home and tried swimming laps in my regular pool. And I panicked. I swam six days a week all summer and panicked. I put myself in that water as often as possible. My trainer tortured drilled me in the water. And I panicked. (‘Becky, there’s no crying in swimming.’ ‘I’m all wet anyway, how do you expect to tell?’) My friends consented to getting up at unholy hours on Saturdays to go open water swimming with me. I panicked.

At one point during the summer it occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to try again. I had nothing to prove. And yet the choice had been made. It was my choice. But to me it was the only choice. I was going to try again. I just wanted to know I could push past the fear.

The Saturday before my second race I had the hardest swim of the summer. I panicked at the edge of the beach. Attempting over and over to get in and just unable to force myself to do so. Finally I was able to do a short swim and then my friend and I drove home.

That afternoon I watched my trainer cross the finish line of his Ironman race. It was pretty impossible not to compare the failure of my tiny workout to the success of his grueling accomplishment. I was incredibly discouraged. He told me to rent a wetsuit and that it would be enough. I had done enough.

My September race was cold enough for that wetsuit rental. And held at a lake with no current. So I knew I had two factors making my second attempt easier than my first. When the horn for my wave went off I did as I was trained and counted to 10 for the bulk of the pack to get ahead of me before I started my swim. A moment later I realized with a shock that I would need to start passing people. This I had not trained for. I loved the buoyancy of the wetsuit. The calmness of the water. I felt stronger than I expected. And I came out of the water several minutes before I thought I would.

I made several mistakes in the rest of the race, costing me those minutes back. But all I wanted to do was to finish. And I did.

What’s worth doing even if I fail? I’m still not always certain what the answer to that question is. I think my July race was worth doing. It may even have been worth doing even if I had stopped there and never tried again, never succeeded in finishing a race.

What I do think is that I prefer to measure my success in becoming rather than in doing. Have I become during this process? Have I grown in the right direction even while I failed? That I call success.

And in this case, my becoming depended at least in part on my failure. The work I put in afterward and the results of the second race gave me a trust in my abilities that I would not have gained if I had been able to finish the first race. What that becoming may be for I do not yet know. I’ll attempt the race in July again. We’ll see how I handle the waves and no wetsuit.

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a little grace

Sometimes I’ll try to do a portrait shoot for family or friends. I don’t like to do it often. I don’t have the training or gear to do it right. And my ratio of photographs taken to usable images produced is pretty sad. Sometimes, though, I manage to get to something I love.

My niece says that the next time I take her photo she wants to be on a warm beach
My niece says that the next time I take her photo she wants to be on a warm beach
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2014 books I’m mostly glad I read

I had a goal of thirty books for 2014. I hit 33. In 2015 I’m aiming for 36. I’m also going to try to consciously balance between literary fiction, light fiction, nonfiction, and devotional reading. Maybe a little poetry. Too much of 2014 was light fiction (the Maisie Dobbs or the  Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series). Or pop-cultural literacy reading (The Divergent series – I can’t recommend it). If I’m going to put the time in to read, I’d like to make sure more of it is worthwhile.

My friend Katie recently sent me a few questions on my recent reading. At her suggestion, I’m sharing the answers here:

Last Book You Read that you would Recommend:
Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by the Arbinger Institute. The principles are powerful and important. The writing style not so much. I think what the book has to offer is worth plugging your nose and just reading past the bad storytelling. And it’s a really quick read.

Book that Made You Laugh
Any of the compilations of Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading column in The Believer. Right now I’m reading through Ten Years in the Tub. The writing makes me laugh out loud. The chapters are quick and stand alone so it’s easy to pick up when you have only a few minutes. And the bonus is getting to the end and having a long list of new books you now want to read.

Book You Didn’t Finish
Oh, lots. I’m trying to break myself of the habit of reading a chapter or two into a book and then putting it down for months or years. A book I kind of wish I hadn’t bothered to finish:The London Train by Tessa Hadley. Critically acclaimed, yadda, yadda. Not worth the effort – just meh. Compare, say, to The Goldfinch which I actively disliked but still don’t regret finishing since its gorgeous prose made the trip worthwhile.

Best Non-fiction Read
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown. I read this with a group of friends, slowly. We discussed a chapter or two at a time and met only monthly. I can’t recommend this method highly enough. Talk about feeling accountable to the things I’ve learned – both through the book and through my friends as we discussed it. I’ll have to write more about this experience and our study group.

Favorite Religious/Mormon Book:
I still need to finish The God Who Weeps and Letters to a Young Mormon but have loved both so far. Oh, and 2015 is the year I’m finally going to finish The Four Standard Works, a Scripture commentary my great-grandmother wrote that is very much of her time but definitely deserves my attention, if only so I can get to know her better.

Book that made you appreciate your life
Hmmm, most years I would go with something like Snowflower and the Secret Fan because I end up reading so many books that remind me how grateful I am as a woman that I live in a time and place that offers me independence and opportunity. But this year for some reason I didn’t read anything like that so I’ll go with It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single because it helps me have perspective on my involuntarily single status.

Book You think everyone should read
Gileadof course. I don’t think there is a better novel for teaching us how to live religion in our daily lives. I focus on something new every time I read it but fundamentally I think this book is about mercy. And it is so beautifully written. I think I have read it something like six times. There will be more.

Also (somewhat less profoundly, and not actually a book I read in 2014) I think everyone should read The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything Else. I’d like to wander around with copies of this or The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by the same author and hand them out every time I hear someone say something like “I wish I could ______ but I’m not naturally ______ so I can’t.” Not everyone has to be a world champion, award-winning, professional ______ but everyone can learn how to learn better and stop giving excuses as to why they aren’t doing what they wish they could do.

What about you? Did you read anything that left an impression in 2014?

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an evening sketch gone digital

What sketching I’ve done lately has been digital. I’ve had the app Paper by FiftyThree on my iPad at the recommendation of a friend since I got my first tablet two and a half years ago. I thought it was fun but not my style. So it surprises me that recently I find myself reaching for it fairly often. Often enough that I’m considering the expensive stylus that will let me explore the apps possibilities even more. This is one of my most recent creations.

three pears
Pear Trio


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books I’m glad I read – Lila

Lila (Gilead, #3) My desert island novel is Gilead. If you told me I would have to give up all novels but one, I would not even hesitate to choose to spend the rest of my fiction life reading and rereading the story of the Reverend John Ames. It is a quiet book. And powerful. It at once sweeps me away and soothes me. When my faith and my life seem to fail to reconcile, reading Gilead calms my anxieties and reminds me that not all questions need answers.

Luckily, I don’t have to choose just one novel. And when I heard that Marilynne Robinson was writing Lila, which serves as a prequel of sorts to Gilead, I pre-ordered a copy and eagerly awaited the day of publication. Lila tells much of the stories of Gilead from the Reverend Ames’ wife’s point of view. It is the story of her life, their relationship – an unconventional one in any assessment – and her struggles to understand the faith and God that is so central to his existence. Lila has not been exposed to the concepts of religion. And she has not lived a life that has taught her to believe in mercy or love.

It took me about 40 pages to find myself caught up in Lila. I don’t know if that was me or the book. But once I did, the writing did for me what the writing in Gilead does – draw me into a place of peace and reflection I find remarkably healing. The story is devastating in places. Heartbreaking and unflinching. And completely beautiful. I can’t describe the plot because the plot is nearly incidental to the book. This is a story about a broken heart beginning to heal.

I’d like to hear more from Lila. I’d like to know her reaction to some of the later events and stories in Gilead. And how she experiences life after the end of that book. Maybe Marilynne Robinson will share that with us someday.

The night after I finished Lila I picked up Gilead to read it for the sixth or seventh time. It’s as good as it ever was. When I grow up I hope I can write like Marilynne Robinson

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a quick update

What to do if you’ve neglected a blog for ages? Why, start a new one, of course!

I’ve launched a cooking blog: A Savory Plate. There are only a few recipes so far, but more to come.

my debut cooking post

I don’t know if anyone still watches this space but I do have more plans for it. I’ve been busy and have had a bit of writer’s block. I could probably start a blog called On Becoming an Athlete and it would reflect a bit more of my focus these days. But the good news (for me anyway) is that writing on A Savory Plate has knocked some of the writer’s block out and I have a few posts in the mental queue.


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file under books I’m not so sure I’m glad I read

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

There is the story. And then there is the way the story is written. Generally it is the way a story is written that makes me impatient with it. I find myself wanting take a red pen to the page to cross out modifiers or even whole sentences. Making notes in the margins to the author (“You already said this!”) all the while wondering why oh why I didn’t even consider selecting editing as a career path back when I was pondering my future life’s work.
This book is not that way. It is beautifully written. I would have to reread sentences, thinking “She made me feel that! How did she make me feel that?” As a reader who loves words and phrases for their own sake, I was charmed by the writing in The Goldfinch.

But I was exhausted by reading it. It was an act of will to finish. I won’t get into the recent arguments about whether a book can be good if its main character is unlikeable but if an author insists on giving me a protagonist who is as unsympathetic as Theo Decker then I need her to offer me another reason to slog through 784 pages with him (784!). I found myself resenting the first person narrative as I wanted to be inside the head of any other character but Theo (I would love to have known what Hobie was thinking). Theo’s choices made no sense to me at all. He was relentlessly self-destructive and yet somehow some really decent people stepped in to take care of him. (Again, Hobie. Poor Hobie!)

Arriving at the ending of this book (which felt wholely unearned) reminded me of my promise to myself I would stop forcing myself to finish books just because I started them. And yet, this book was beautiful.

There was motion and stillness, stillness and modulation, and all the charge and magic of a great painting. Ten seconds, eternity. It was all a circle back to her. You could grasp it in an instant, you could live in it forever; she existed only in the mirror, inside the space of the frame, and though she wasn’t alive, not exactly, she wasn’t dead either because she wasn’t yet born, and yet never not born – as somehow, oddly, neither was I. And I knew that she could tell me anything I wanted to know (life, death, past, future) even though it was already there, in her smile, the answer to all questions, the before-Christmas smile of someone with a secret too wonderful to let slip, just yet: well, you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?

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