28 December 2008


Sometimes the days seem dark. I can’t catch my breath, feel like I'm walking into a fierce wind, feel like my heart is constricting with cold and lack of a vision; heavy with an ache that is more desperate than pesky.

I like to think about how stories work. We usually don’t want to watch a movie about a beautiful girl who does everything perfectly and wins the pageant with no struggle or effort. A good story starts when things don't go the way they are expected to go. If the hero of the story is buff and amazingly strong, suffers no injuries while not saving the world (cause it doesn't need to be saved); if he does everything easily with his superpowers, has no flaws, there are no glitches, and everyone is spared total annihilation with plenty of time to spare...that would be a terrible story. No conflict, no character development, no resolution.

I spent a lot of time recently watching the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish. I was completely taken in by the story. All odds are against the hobbits. They are the unlikely heroes. They have to be exhausted and terrified and in places where they see no hope of ever completing the journey. They have to be in danger to find out that they are brave.

This is kind of an obvious point, I know, but sometimes we want our lives to be the most perfect, most boring script ever written. We want to avoid the things that end up being some of the best parts of the story—the fear, the suspense, ache, drama, yearning, beauty, mourning, disappointment, waiting. Stories are not really complete if they are too perfect. Things come together too neatly and there is not much to hold our attention.


Recently I went for a hike in my favorite near-woods. I think the hobbit journey made me crave it, subconsciously. These woods are close to a highway, they are mapped out with trails and fences. There are train tracks running right through the park, and the trains came through three times on my hike. Long trains, car after car, piled high with heaps of coal. They lumbered through my favorite hiking spot in half hour intervals during the coldest day of the year so far.

This being the case, these woods are only near-woods, not the the true wilderness you really crave when you hear the metro announcement from your dining room table every 15 minutes. But being a city girl, I must settle for this two hour trip rather than wait in vain to hike in the mountains of New Zealand.


Sometimes I ask God for signs. I know it’s kind of dumb (rationally--but what about faith is rational, anyway?); I know it’s an unfair demand--not that God can’t do any sign he wanted to, but that my belief in his goodness could or would be founded in his meeting my expectations? This habit of mine is pretty ridiculous--knowing all of the things he does to prove his faithfulness and care. But sometimes I lose sight of that, and the darkness makes things feel more hopeless than....like...sad, nihilistic French movie hopeless. I mean things feel really hopeless. This is the part of the story I want to avoid—the part where you get so low and desperate that you have to ask for help, have to ask for a sign. I really would rather avoid it all together.

So I was driving way out to the woods on this really cold day last week thinking: man, I just need to see a deer or something. The first part of the trail I was hiking is one long gravely hill up to a mile or so of path that winds along the top of the bluffs, overlooking the river. Below the bluffs are bare branched trees and the wide brown river that was icy along its banks but was still flowing swiftly.

Starting up the trail, everything was brown and frozen and wet piles of leaves. No real indication that two months ago the path was blazing with green, orange, yellow, and red and humming with bugs and critters and birds. That day it was desolate, one of the coldest days we’ve had in years.

I was trudging, and I was tired, and I knew I was looking for something by driving all the way out to these woods to walk up this long hill. It was just one of those weeks where you are uncomfortable in your own skin, where you feel terrified and dark and anxious and angry. I was walking with my head down and when I looked up on the hill above the trail, there were three deer nosing around the leaves on the forest floor about twenty feet from me. I stopped, somewhat perplexed, and met eyes with them. They took turns looking at me with their big brown eyes but didn’t run away. They stood eating and meandering. They ever so slowly wandered away up over a hill and I stayed there still on the trail, realizing when they were finally out of sight that I had been holding by breath.

After that as I kept walking it seemed like there were signs all around. There were finches and robins tussling about in the leaves, there was a cardinal swooping down across the path. There was a flock of geese camped out in the open field, stopping to rest like they were posed for a painting. The clouds cleared away and there was blue sky and winter sun coming down in streaks. There were blackbirds sitting high in the tops of the trees and taking flight over us all, swooping in the midst of the trees and singing with each other.

Somehow this happens a lot. I think it is meant to be part of the story...that things get desperate, and we ask for a sign and feel stupid asking for a sign. The reality is we need to see beyond ourselves and our limited perspectives and small lives and remember that the Creator of the universe calls us each by name. Too many times now the sign has been what I was sort of hoping for...something just out of the ordinary enough that it isn't coincidental, and it manages to take my breath away.

I am reminded that there are surprises left in my story, even when I don't have the faith to hope for them.


Blogger Lisa said...

I feel like "The Blessings" by Dar Williams is a song all about this.

9:20 AM  

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