“Tell me,” Mary Oliver writes, “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” I tell her, “I don’t know.” I tell her about dreams. I tell her about post-its and piles of books. I tell her about quiet apartments, quiet moments, quiet gaps in faith. I tell her you can only find so much symbolism in driving around with the menacing yellow light hovering next to the “E.” Sooner or later, you have to stop for gas, wait in the line, even if it’s a long one. Sooner or later, you develop something like patience. What is it you plan to do. What is it I plan to do? I plan to go on until my body won’t let me. I plan to wake up every morning and find a reason to be glad that I’m still here. Last week, I skipped town and carelessly, deliberately left my plants at home to freeze. When I returned, there they were, green and unblaming, as if to say, We understand. Sometimes, the need for water is just one need too much.
I remember, as a child, being astonished to learn that polar bears had black skin beneath their white fur, that a hummingbird could beat its wings up to 70 times per second, that a California barking spider was not a real arachnid, but rather, one my father invented to disguise the fact that he’d farted. Later, I learned other things: that it was possible for the temperature to be too cold for snow, that duct tape over a bathtub drain could suffice as a stopper, that my natural way of speaking made it difficult for some to detect whether or not I was being sincere. Even later, I learned other things still: that losing a parent rips out a child’s center of gravity (no matter how old that child is), that stress can wreak incalculable havoc on a body, that no amount of guilt can make me head down a path I know in my marrow I am not meant to walk. What I would still like to learn: what it means to let go, what it means to hold on, what it means to have a God who can bind up the tattered pieces and untie all the knots.
Winter came quickly this year. It’s not yet three p.m., not yet December, and already, the light is leaking out of the sky. Somewhere, someone is dying. Someone is always dying now, and you’ve reached a point where you wonder how you have, thus far, been spared. But of course, you haven’t been—death has come close, stolen into your home, and made off with your father, your grandmothers. It’s circled like a vulture around countless friends and relatives. Maybe it’s even circled around you. And there it is: survivor’s guilt. Why should you be spared? Why should you be allowed to wake up and breathe and move through the world unhindered by decay or disease? Of what use are you, really? These questions that seep in on long winter nights, these questions no one can answer. “I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing,” Agatha Christie once said. You try to believe her. You go on a walk before the sun sinks behind the hills. You thank God you can still feel its warmth on your face, though the cold snaps through your coat. At night, you crawl beneath a thousand blankets and intone a line from Gina Ochsner’s “Unfinished Business”: “We are here, we are here, we know that we know.” You slip a hand under your shirt, shut your eyes, and feel your heart—beating, beating. Alive, alive.
I’ve been teaching myself to do handstands, after years of being afraid of them. After years of recovering from one injury after another, when just please let me keep doing this one thing superseded all thoughts of doing something more. It’s been two months since I started kicking my legs up over my head and forcing myself to stay there for five breaths, seven, ten. I still need the wall to support me, but I can feel myself getting stronger—in the moments of inversion, yes, but more so in the others. When my neck no longer arbitrarily throws itself out of whack. When I can lift and pull and reach for things without tweaking my shoulder. When I’m in plank for the ten thousandth time in fifteen years of practicing yoga, and suddenly, it’s bearable. It’s true physically, and it’s true metaphorically: nothing beats learning to hold your own weight. I have spent most of my life feeling like a glass that’s overflowing, spilling needs and wants and neuroses all over the floor. I have teetered between the belief that being “fixed” means I won’t feel this way anymore and that being “fixed” is not precisely possible. But in fifteen months of working from home and living alone and spending the bulk of my time with Jesus, I’ve come to understand neither of those are true. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:1. Freedom, to me, means space. It means making room for God to come in and say, “Actually, you are just who I made you to be. Now, let me show you how to be who you are and have all your brokenness bound up in Me.” It means sanity—not the sterilized, medicated, gray-eyed sanity the world offers, but the fierce, enveloping, whole-person sanity of Jesus. It means what Paul writes in II Timothy 1:7, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” It means approaching my well-worn patterns with courage and asking, “Why am I eating this, why am I doing this, is this book really finished?” and not becoming undone when I discover things in need of mending. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. It means hoisting myself upside down, day after day, and settling into the uncomfortable but wonderful truth that what I’ve been conditioned to accept as a given is actually capable of change.
“Be joyful,” Wendell Berry says, “though you have considered all the facts.” Though you have considered all the reasons the Lord may choose not to bless you: there are people starving, you dropped an f-bomb in traffic, and of course, not everyone gets what she wants. But is it that? Is it that you can’t reconcile sovereignty and suffering? Is it that you believe God stands ready to slap you the moment you screw up? Or is it that trusting Him doesn’t feel safe? That’s it, isn’t it? It’s that wanting something so badly is so hard, and holding it pressed to your chest without fully letting Him near it seems like a better idea. A more reasonable plan. A backup, a contingency, a “I’m going to ask for this, God, but not with everything I have.” Because it’ll hurt too much if you ask, and He denies you, right? But doesn’t it hurt already, what you’re doing? Trying to convince yourself you don’t want this blessing as badly as you do? “Be joyful,” you tell yourself, “though you have considered all the facts.” Be happy, though there is a hole in your heart that could swallow the sun. Be content, though God has told you He will fill that hole to overflowing—give you Himself, give you His joy, in all the ways He manifests His kingdom in the here and now. But you choose to let your pulse grow thin and thready and say, “I can still love God if this is as good as it gets.” But is that loving God? Or is that your pride trying to prove you don’t need anything from anyone, not even Him? You need everything from God. Whether you choose to ask Him for the big, bold heartbeats does not change the fact that you need Him even for the breath you’re breathing in this moment. So why not take Him at His word? Why not ask and seek and knock and actually expect an answer? Why not trust that a good Father gives good gifts to His children, though you’ve seen this a thousand times over? Why not consider that, by giving Him all the facts, He will give you joy? And not the sad, sorry, human joy you’ve been trying to muscle yourself into. But actual joy. Spirit-filled, pouring-over, bright, beautiful, God-throbbing joy. What if He wants to bless you because He loves you? Have you ever considered that?
Because I needed to remind myself why I live the way I do, I went searching for a line I love by Wendell Berry: “Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts.” And because reading that line alone was not enough of a reminder, I read the whole poem from which it’s taken: “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And because I realized I can’t be the only one who needs to be reminded of the things Berry challenges us to do in this poem, I recorded myself reading it aloud. You can click the player embedded below to listen. I hope it revives you, wherever you are.
When I gave you up for good, I bled for ten straight days. Had I told you, you would’ve said this was impossible, but believe it or not, I know my body better than you do. I know how it responds when I let go: how muscle knots untighten, how dislocated bones slide back into their sockets. How griefs and wants and yearnings I’ve piled up in organs find ways of getting out. Think of the blood like a cough that lingers for weeks after the flu—the body knows when something’s still not right. When I gave you up for good, my body dug into the recesses of my memories, pulled out iron-coated, dripping blocks of “no,” and flung them out the window, the way a lesser woman might’ve hurled your underwear onto the lawn, had you left any in the house. My body is a house. In fact, my body is a temple, and if my God says there is no room for you inside of it, then well, there is no room. Out you go with the blood. How long had I held onto you? Years and years and years. How long had you clung to the walls of me? Why did it take me so long to understand, to make you let go, I had to let go myself? “Yield, and God yields,” Charles Spurgeon writes. It is a truth I’ve known for years, yet I’ve only begun to apply it to myself. My body, my temple, my house. When I gave you up for good, I heard God sigh and say, “Well done.” I bled for ten straight days, and I swear, you don’t echo as loudly as you used to. There’s so much more room between the walls.
When I was twenty-two, I had Hebrews 11:1 tattooed on my back. It was the first verse I’d ever underlined in my Bible. I called it my “life verse,” even though, at the time, I don’t think I understood what that phrase meant. In fact, I’m sure I underlined the verse because I didn’t understand it either. But I wanted to. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” That’s how it reads in the NIV translation of the Bible I’ve had since I was nine, the Bible I still use in my morning devotionals, the Bible that now has countless verses underlined and is literally falling apart at the seams. In King James, the verse reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Neither of these was particularly clear to me, but both held something precious enough I deemed it worth tattooing on my body. Both held a truth I wanted to grab hold of, enter into, understand. Last year, I added to the tattoo: a butterfly and an array of cherry blossoms. Two things I love for how they remind me of the way God moves in nature. How He works through process. How things that seem to have died can be brought to life again. I was pressing closer to the truth of this verse, that it has something to do with believing in God’s sovereignty and being certain that the only way life can be birthed out of seasonal and cyclical death is by the breath of God. But I was still missing a component. Today in church, my pastor quoted Calvin, who said, “Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us.” I have always had trouble believing in the goodness of God, not because my life has been an endless torment, but because, to me, it’s seemed safer to believe in the certainty of the bad than the possibility of the good. But worshipping a God who isn’t good to us is madness, at best. We can bow down and serve an angry God out of fear, but worship means surrender, adoration, devotion. It means love. And faith, in turn, means, not only knowing, but trusting the One in whom we believe. It doesn’t mean strong-arming ourselves into the false notion that life will be nothing but butterflies and flowers. It does mean remembering that “the ultimate law,” as C.S. Lewis calls it, always has the last word. That God’s design in everything is for His glory and our good, and even when things don’t go the way we want them to, or when tragedy rages in, or when we flail in confusion, or when we screw up, He still loves us and is for us and will redeem us. This is the ultimate law. Caterpillars morph into butterflies. Flowers break out of bare branches. Faith is being certain of the goodness of God.
I am not a gardener. I made a brief but ill-fated attempt at cultivating a succulent garden in third grade, but ever since, I’ve left the landscape maintenance to whoever I happened to be living with at the time, or in recent years, to whoever the landlord hires. The only reason my few houseplants survive is because I am a creature of habit, and therefore, can remember to drop ice cubes and sprinkles of water on them every two weeks. And maybe it’s because I’ve been spending more time at home, or maybe it’s because certain things just start to bother me at certain times, but the other day, I found myself climbing through the ivy and pulling out dozens of dead ferns. A few days later, I chopped the blackened branches off a shrub that had been struggling to sprout. New ferns grew up to replace the old ones within a matter of days, and sprigs of green are beginning to creep onto the shrub. There’s something to removing the dead things—in nature, as well as in our spirits—in order to make way for new life, and this is ultimately what I love about spring: I love to see how things can change, to be reminded that life can still find a way, but sometimes, it needs someone to help it along.