Letters From Abroad – 24 JUN

Dear Family,

Can we talk about pain?

That sounds excessively dramatic, and it probably is. Maybe I should begin this the way I began every childhood letter…

Dear Family,

How are you? I am fine.

Today we trekked up to the castle, ventured out to a museum, found lunch on a cold and blustery day belonging more to March than June. Today was going to be a full, lovely Saturday, stuffed with things to be seen and experienced. Today was begun and ended and muddled in the middle with simple, ordinary pain.

How are you? I am fine, but I’d like to talk to you about pain: physical pain, specifically. And I need to be honest. Because pain tells many, many lies, and maybe putting them down on paper will make the black and white between truth and falsehood a little more clear. Because pain siphons away worth when the group trundles along the street at a faster pace than you can manage; pain taunts your inadequate muscles when the stairs are just too difficult to climb today; pain blots its dreaded inkspots into the agenda of the coming day; pain whispers of a lesser life when your mind is cloudy and your hands shake and your speech stutters in unfamiliar ways. Even those things that you once did or planned to do are not untouched, like the phantom pain of a lost limb. I know it’s something any retiree can tell you: your sleep will become a privilege, clarity of mind a rarity, and even your feet will betray you and keep you where you do not wish to be and lead you where you do not desire to go. I’ve been told that I’m in my prime of life, but pain speaks its classic lie to me as it does to any age: it says that I am not truly living, that I am experiencing less, drifting more, whittled down to joints and muscles and neurons that are all rusting too soon.

I’ve questioned myself: is it my will that is not strong enough? After all, I’m a walking antithesis of every sports t-shirt and self-help slogan: Just Do It, or some other unhelpful phrase. When do I say “I think I can!”, and when do I roll over and take a nap? When do I relinquish the backpack to someone else’s shoulders, and when do I muscle through on my own? When do I stop deciding my day based on the physical factors, and when do I start? When and how do I do both?

Today this was the part of pain that I struggled with: the lie of less. That this different sort of life is somehow less. That this is less when I watch the world from a window and leave my running shoes at the bottom of my suitcase. That this is less as one blissful day of wander and wonder steals the stamina from the next three days. I know it’s a lie. I know that I’m not alone or different or special. You live life tired, live with your own creaks and aches, live with your breath stolen in its own way. Physical pain is universally experienced and individually endured.

I just wish I knew when it was lying to me. Someday maybe I will be able to speak better of pain as a gift, not a lie. Maybe I will be able speak of how it shapes my relationship with the Lord, or how I am living differently–not less–for staying at the bottom of the stairs or handing off the water bottle for someone else to open. I’m not yet ready to declare those with confidence. But in the midst of the lie of less is the first step that I need: wisdom. The physical and the spiritual are not battles I have learned to fight together. Days like today remind me that James’ plea for wisdom is not simply for better spiritual sight or to gain a sort of ephemeral wisdom that takes me to a higher plane of piety. The struggle to know when to push forward and when to stay back is exactly the sort of wisdom I crave, the same wisdom that can recognize the quality of life in the midst of a quantity of pain. There are a million decisions and small struggles for which I am unequipped, but James speaks of confidence before God: that when I bend these knees before the throne in prayer, the Lord gives generously to all without reproach. He does not look at me less because I know so little of how to live like this. He gives as one who intimately knows my every need, who knows the spiritual bent of my soul and the physical bent of my body. He walked here, too. He who gives wisdom knows even the requests to which I cannot give voice.

And the wisdom He is giving in these moments is also what reminds me that my pain is not so bad. There is thankfulness in all things and new mercies every morning. There is the ordinary joy of another day spent travelling in places I never thought possible. There is the simple joy of breakfast at a kitchen table, pressed down and shaken together by the fellowship that does not care that we are eating differently. There is the biting joy of weather I cannot control, sharp with the reminder of the extraordinary Creator who sent it. There is the unacknowledged joy of freedom and taking steps to new places on ground that is steadier than it once was. There are the unrecognized joys of sight and sound and smell and touch and taste, countless unrehearsed joys for the journey. There is the expectant joy of Scripture that speaks truth when all I hear are lies. And there are those who have walked years far beyond mine, who look at these little things with eyes and hearts full of wisdom that has been asked for and granted in undeserved measure.

Like you.

Maybe missing you,

~Rae

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Letters From Tour – 31 MAY

Dear Family,

I’d like to tell you a story. A story of colors and first things. This tour has been full of firsts, but last week’s wasn’t my favorite: an ambulance ride.

Prologue: it wasn’t my favorite night, but there were still good things about it. We were in Gypsy’s hometown, she and Lady did everything, her mother drove, we were at a church with a very gracious nurse, I was able to go home that night…many good things. Many less than, though; and to be honest, I don’t entirely remember everything from that night. Mostly pieces and colors. Here they are, disparate and disassembled.

Black: I wore my Chorale dress the whole night. I tried to sing the first set (ha), came off for the second, and tried again for the third. The last song I had enough oxygen to sing was The Lord Bless You and Keep You, even though the world was already spinning by then (per usual). It’s a good song to end on.

Blue: I remember getting into Gypsy Mother’s car afterwards (being handed in, mostly), and being cold and it being very dark out. I thought it was funny that they always wheel you out in a wheelchair yet somehow expect you to get home alright. I also remember being annoyed at how much clothing I was wearing when Lady and Gypsy helped me get ready for bed.

Green: Green and blue and dirty-looking but almost overwhelming? There was too much already, so when I think of the color of the ER now, I’m glad it was muted to that side of the color wheel. My eyes and mind couldn’t really take much more. I wanted to sleep and couldn’t really and for a long time they didn’t want me to close my eyes, then they said I could, then I didn’t want to for the things that happen when you close your eyes without breath. Funny how an oxygen mask can’t convince you that you aren’t suffocating.

Red/Orange: I don’t remember the ambulance people, but their vests were orange and there were red things around. I still had people telling me to open my eyes when they came, or maybe it was after… I only remember the pricks of early tests and those slices of color and far, far too much noise that still sounded like it was coming from far, far away.

Pink: the color of the sky for the sunset I didn’t see. I think Nae Nae and Mountain Man had said it was beautiful, but by the time the concert ended I was heading out of daylight pretty fast. I wanted to catch my breath so I could go see the sunset, and I never found either.

Ivory and Brown: I think of Nae Nae in those colors, when the world went nope and turned into mud colors and went sideways. Her lap was soft and felt so safely unhurried when everything went very fast. I have never realized the measure of confidence one receives when one is heard and understood. Lady, Nae Nae, Gypsy…the Lord placed them under my head and around myself and somehow, they heard me and there was never a time when this highly verbal person did not feel like her voice was not heard through the fog.

White: the nurses and people with the cold and gooey EKG stickys and the one who kept telling me to look straight ahead when I was trying to leave and the world still wanted to tilt and I couldn’t squeeze his finger even when I tried. It’s amazing how frustrated you can be with the kindest of people when whom you are really frustrated with is yourself. I do recall the relief of leaning into someone and not having them push you away because at that point, you’ve returned to a body that feels as hollow and unfamiliar as a seed husk that was ground underfoot.

Gray: that’s the color I remember most of the night. Gray hands that didn’t work and were the sort of all-encompassing pain that made me forget everything else but that couldn’t be distracted away themselves like all the others; the sort of bewildering force that is almost too great to be responded to with something as little as tears. Gray lungs and body that folded up like creaky billows that get stuck and never quite open up for air. Gray self that spent itself like water wringing out of a towel and managed to hurt when there was nothing left to hurt. I was proud of this analogy that I said (and remembered!) from the ER: I am a juice box. One that is emptied out and all twisted up and can’t be undone yet. I’m still undoing it.

Epilogue: so there was my night, in the full spectrum of color. Except yellow and purple. Yellow was the color of Lady’s hair when she smiled at me and made the downhill slide feel not quite so fast. Purple wasn’t a color I remember, but maybe it’ll come later, like most of these pieces have.

I woke up sometime in the dark that night, still looking for that elusive breath, but the Lord, with His gentle hand that wastes nothing, taught me once more how to pray.

With all the dizziness of mind and disembodiment that comes with pain, somehow the thing that keeps me tethered to myself is this called prayer. I once would have said prayer is an ethereal thing; a paper crane that cannot fly. But when it is your soul and self that wants to fly away and make it stop, prayer is a tether strong enough to keep a kite in a hurricane. Is it the meeting of heaven and earth, the way prayer takes the physical self to the throne room of God and keeps your soul on its knees when the walls tumble down? Is it because it doesn’t matter whether or not the trembling walls are the skin that holds us together or the soul that shakes us apart?

When we return to these husks and hollows of ourselves and find that the muscles and mind and lungs don’t work like they should, prayer draws in the lines that should be there, returning the loose cotton to these empty cloth dolls, knitting soul and body together with prayer and breath, holding our fragile seed husks with hands we cannot see that work better than our own.

I remember my father’s hand, so large and heavy, and the way it felt to pick it up and draw his arm around my shoulders. That night, prayer began without the strength to pick up the Father’s great hand and place His arm around me..but in that yawning nothingness of my own strength, I found, underneath, the everlasting arms.

In the shifting prisms of graying color and the ungrounded firsts of that night, that was all I needed.

~Rae

Letters From An MBI Student – 3/2

Dear Family,

Welcome to the caffeinated ponderings of this week: being tired. I think there are levels, because tired is not an unequivocal thing. To say “I’m tired” can mean one of sundry stages. Here are mine.

Stage One: I’m tired, but I haven’t really considered that yet. I am, but it’s white noise at this point, like walking the halls on Doane 3 and hearing music but not reflecting on it until asked. An annoying trickle of tiredness that I know is always there but don’t bother with. The coffee I hold in my hand is most likely out of habit, and I don’t know you well, so I will say: “Outstanding,” when asked.

Stage Two: I’m tired, and I know it, and it is habitually ordinary. I will add a dose of caffeine to my afternoon and look with far less enthusiasm at things that have no deadline, like the dishes in my sink. Homework will happen, because panic is still an effective motivator. The coffee in my hand is most likely my second cup, and I don’t know you well, so I will say: “Going,” when asked.

Stage Three: I’m tired, and I feel it. I become a minimalist in all things, whittling away at evening plans and extraneous conversations. My caffeine consumption takes the mug form of an IV line, with a dose before every class. The coffee in my hand is most likely my third cup, and I don’t know you well, so I will say: “Surviving,” when asked.

Stage Four: I’m tired, and I don’t know anything else. I’m counting the hours until I can crawl into a corner, and I’m in glasses and probably the clothes I wore yesterday. Classes will happen, fueled by countless unquestioned cups of coffee interspersed with unsuccessful doses of Earl Grey. The coffee in my hand is not working, and I don’t know you well, so I will say: “Here,” when asked.

Stage Five: Nope.

I don’t actually say, “I’m tired.” Not anymore. I asked Lady to hold me accountable on that, because, please note, there is no Stage Zero. We live this life tired.
The closer I am to Stage Five, the more blurry my perspective on life. It is far too easy to be tired of being tired and far too simple to make that my identity and not an adjective. After a week of wavering between Four and Five, getting back to Stage One will be the closest I get to some sort of ‘not tired.’ So I say other words instead, which sort of mean the same thing, but maybe can encompass other things, too.
For example, to say I’m “Outstanding” means that I’m thinking of you, Father Time, and your persistent slogan of my childhood: “Outstanding and Improving!” It doesn’t mean that I’m not tired, but it makes a little room for the other things in life; like delighting in the lazy snow, engrossed in the class reading, or enriched by unexpected conversation. I’m not not tired, but I’m not just tired. I’m other things, too.

Like maybe missing you,

~Rae

Letters From An MBI Student – 1/20

Dear Family,

I don’t think I have ever been so glad to see a Friday. Oh, glorious Friday, you came. Or the end-of- Friday, at least. You wonderful end-of-Friday you.

Brief recap: tour was great and fairly chill (but a little weird). But this whopping version of the flu started around right before tour, picked up a few new members on the bus, and settled in my lap on the ride home.

Yay. It’s been a dandy, with a cough that eats up your insides and the fever wobbling between 101 and 103 for four days. I managed to do the baby amounts of homework for each class the day before, so I wasn’t actually late on anything. And Lady was a champ, even if her reactions were totally different than mine.

I got ready for class Tuesday morning and lay down again instead of going. All Lady said was, “Good.”

I went to work, made it 2.5 hours, and went back to sleep. Lady didn’t wake me up in time for Chorale.

Wednesday I didn’t even bother doing anything. Lady brought me Perrier.

Thursday morning I decided I was going to go to class. I got everything together, made it to the bathroom, and had a rather embarrassing episode of needing to poop, puke, and pass out all at the same time and having trouble deciding which was most important. I may or may not have still had a fever and was a little delusion. Lady woke up in the midst of this little crisis, picked me up off the floor, and helped me decide my priorities, which included this insightful gem: “I don’t think you’re going to class today.”

I didn’t, but after sleeping, getting fed and babied all day by Lady, and finally kicking the fever into normal territory, I toddled my way to Chorale that afternoon and found a friendly chair for an hour and a half, because you can’t fall over if you’re already sitting down.

Today I went to class for the first time this week. In fact, I made it to work, to class, to sleep, to class, to a class that was cancelled which was glorious because I could sleep again, to work, and now heading back to glorious, wonderful sleep. Thank you, end-of-Friday.

Tomorrow I intend to do nothing. Except, maybe, the mountain of homework since I did almost none of it this week. And laundry. And cleaning. And things that living human beings do. On the other hand, I could just sleep, because the living do that, too, and that’s what I think will make me most feel alive.

Cheers, family. If you need me, I’ll be sleeping.

~Rae

P.S. One silver lining to all of this? I think my weight loss has finally reached the realm of “impressive.” Considering that this is my fourth time getting the flu in the last six months, it’s about time.

Letters From An MBI Student – 12/5

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Dear Family,

Today has been brought to you by four cups of coffee.

1: Measured and scooped and pressed and brewed in the hurried five minutes before Lady and I left for class. We walked across the slush leftover from yesterday’s snow and I wore my old work boots and G3 sweatshirt and missed a different lifetime but the smell and taste of my hasty Lavazza got me to class and back again.

2: Drained from the dregs of the unexpected dispenser in my second classroom. I walked in with sleep marks on my face and not enough wakefulness to make it through the next two hours, but those using that room during chapel hour had left their coffee totes and tea and bagels and popcorn and I sat in the back with warm coffee and stayed awake enough to take notes.

3: Watched and made and weighed and poured with thoughtfulness and infinite detail by small hands that love with coffee very well. I sat and looked and smelled and carried to class a cup of coffee tasting of brightness and care.

4: Brought unexpectedly at the end of the day, a light roast enjoyed with a dear friend next to the Christmas tree. I sipped and enjoyed and found second words and second breath for the small mountains of tonight.

This weekend was completely beautiful and mostly exhausting and today I was simply too tired to try to put the pieces back together. So today happened with four cups of artificial strength and countless amounts of tangible kindness.

Maybe missing you,

~Rae

Letters From An MBI Student – 10/22

Dear Family,

You’re the ones who listen to me when I’m rambling, right? That’s what family is for, right? Well, that and being the voice of reason on the other side of the table?

Because today I’m going to ramble. Here’s the brain dump, all under the verbose subtitle of “Thoughts On Being Sunshine When I Am Not.”

Our family was never big on nicknames, were we? Not when I was young, anyway, because I remember being inordinately proud of “Sunshine” and all that it entailed. Grandpa started it, I think, and I was always a little jealous if I ever heard him call someone else that name. It was special, it was mine (in my eyes), and it felt unique in our family of formalities (until Babes and her litany came along and the rest of us dissolved into the shortest versions possible, right? Heh.).

The new one is “Rae” here at school, unless you’re the dude at the counter at Joe’s last night who saw my ID and said my full name and threw me for a loop because only Lady and Nae really do that. I reintroduced my shortened self so it wouldn’t be awkward, which it was anyway. It was a bit of a jump, a blip in the day, a bumpy precursor to what happened today.

Something about a name…funny how a name wraps you up in a brand new wardrobe that you maybe used to wear. I’m my full name in certain workplaces, sometimes at home, and in a lot of old memories–some wonderful, some darkly less than that. Sometimes that name feels like a homecoming, sometimes it feels like an inside joke, but more often it feels far older than I am; something other than myself and what life is now.

I like “Rae,” though. I like being “Rae” at school and at home and at my new job. I like a new version to occupy, because so much of me feels new. Whether that is through the renewal of God or my own poor choices is still being sorted through.

But “Sunshine”…that is the old standby, the old spelling, the OG. The first other name I can remember that I wanted as mine. But sometimes it feels like the farthest thing from who I am now than I have ever been. I remember times when it was a glorious pinpoint of identity: times in middle school and early high school when someone else applied that designator without any idea of what it meant to me. But the flip side of that coin have been the times when that name was–is–dredged up like an old photograph: a toothless child, a version of me 50 lbs ago, myself in a tracksuit in garish 90s colors. I’ve never had a mirror quite like that name – a recalcitrant, encouraging, reflective, combative, warped, airbrushed, far-seeing mirror. A mirror that speaks back to me of pasts joys and past sins, present statuses and present failings, future possibilities and future impossibilities. I love and hate and don’t always want the expectation and promise and lingering of a name that doesn’t feel entirely mine but I can’t actually let go.

Sorry, I told you it was a ramble. Here’s the pb&j version, the 411, the juddering in my day after yesterday’s brief tremor: I was introduced to my replacement at a job. A lovely, lovely person: an older newlywed, new believer, excellent conversationalist, good listener, and already a friend (in the “I-just-met-you-today” sort of way). I was my work self, which means I can be chatty, laughing, engaging…all of those proper things that were made easier by her honest and friendly response. [Side note: I just realized that I have truly have the best sort of people to train. People who do my job far better than I and who allow me to exit with peace that the job will be done well, regardless of whether that means my way or not.] We laughed, talked, and will probably meet for coffee outside of our two Saturdays together, because her interests and mine converge in a way that can’t be explored when we’re talking about investments and securities.

Half an hour into the morning, after introductions and wheres and whys, she asked, “Is your family Christian?” –I nodded and smiled [and by the grace of God in your lives and mine, Parentals, I was able to be proud]–“because you have such joy.” The conversation blinked into something else and that comment didn’t initially register. Not until we left at the same time, after only two hours together, and walked out to see her husband waiting for her. She eagerly wanted to introduce me and in the quick, muddled conversation that happens in unexpected introductions, she said: “She’s such a ray of sunshine!”

And I returned the compliment–genuinely, because I’m looking forward to a longer time with her–and walked down my little alleyway to the train that takes me back to my home here in the city where I’m “Rae,” which she didn’t know, 520 miles away from where I used to be “Sunshine,” which no one here knows, where I’m not “[full name],” where I’m a version of myself that feels like all of those don’t coexist. I can’t describe to you what it feels like to have someone ignorantly, instantly apply those names to you as if they are the most natural thing in the world and of course these three iterations of myself are all the same person. Of course what’s on my birth certificate and what was my childhood and what is myself now are all the same person. Of course. Of course.

Funny how saying that doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile. Because I’m not “Sunshine,” and I haven’t been in a long, long while. I’m functioning in endless variations of different worlds: one where God is so, so good; the other where He is so, so incomprehensible. The former is external, my lexicon, the world of “Sunshine,” the world of Moody speech and Moody expectation, the world of conversation and pat answers, the world where I’m drawing from the words of faith that I have existed in for as long as I have been alive. The latter is the internal, the heart language, the world where names attack and answers falter and words feel as useless as paper promises that never become real.

Yeah, I should have probably warned you that this is not a brain dump; this is a heart dump, too. Someday I’ll write to you of the faithfulness of God that is continually and graciously walking me from the words of His goodness to the truth of it. Today I heard all of the names I have ever wanted for myself and today I heard all of the names I have that used to be myself and today I heard all of the names that are not myself. And they were all the same.

Final thought [Side note: if this letter were in ink you’d never receive it because the postage for this book would put me in the red]: I am not any of those names. I am not the name on birth certificate, I am not the name first written on a whiteboard inside a welding cell, I am not the nickname heard while smelling lacquer and sawdust. All of those are mine, but they are not always me. And I cannot return or embody all of the history and assumption that each of those names create.

I have to untie those threads of expectation, I have to acknowledge those old photographs, I have to confess those good and dark memories, but I do not have to occupy their paths, because they aren’t me. They’re part, not the whole, and not the fault of the label or the labeler; they exist and mean something but not everything and sometimes I forget that.

Sigh, sorry, I think this is actually the end of my ramble: Today I was jarred by the realization that I am not what I would like to be, but what I would like to be is not who I was. Today I was grabbed by an old and present and future self and saw my warped reflection in an unexpected mirror. Today I needed my God for the simple reason that I needed to be known better than anyone else has ever known me. Today all I wanted was to be named by the He Who calls me His. Today I needed to know that who I truly, truly am is a wavering sinner rescued by unwavering grace. Today I needed Isaiah 41.

 

“But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.'”

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.”

“Since you were precious in My sight,
You have been honored,
And I have loved you;”

“Everyone who is called by My name,
Whom I have created for My glory;
I have formed him, yes, I have made him.”

Maybe missing you and realizing again that you love me a little like Him,

~

Letters From An MBI Student – 9/15

Dear Family,

Out of all the things that I thought I might have trouble with at school, words was not one of them. But then I have a day with the same words that aren’t the same words and my brain seizes them and says: “Yay! Words! Let’s overthink them!” and a field day ensues because what has been said out loud is only half of it. I really need to get that fixed, but in the meantime, try these four on for size:

 

Boss 1: Where are you going?

Brain: Huh? The stairs? Wait, was I in trouble? Did she think I was going someplace I shouldn’t? I was just walking down the stairs. IT’S JUST STAIRS. Maybe I go sneak off and sit in a corner and text? Wait, maybe it was small talk. Dang, I hate small talk. Sound convincing.

Me: My office?

 

Coworker: Where are you going?

Brain: Context. Context. Does my life have to be interesting all the time? If I say “nowhere” am I boring? Or is that sarcasm? Context. What were we talking about? I don’t remember. ABORT! Talk about something safe!

Me: I intend to do nothing but sleep.

 

Boss 2: Where are you going?

Brain: Say you aren’t, because you aren’t.

Brain: But if I say I’m not, will I have to work instead? Will they ask for extra? Must. Do. Laundry.

Brain: Say you are, even if you aren’t. Gone, not doing laundry. Laundry is a lame excuse.

Brain: But where?

Brain: Just be occupied somewhere with something! Interesting! Someone? Just don’t say homework or laundry.

Me: A homework meeting? And then I have to do laundry. And…stuff.

 

Student: Where are you going?

Brain: I don’t even remember. Just somewhere. Do I have to tell you? I’m going to be a hermit and climb my small mountain of homework and read alone for hours and hours and enjoy it. Let’s not say that. Be vague. And occupied.

Me: Joe’s.

*Bonus Question: Can I come with?

Brain: Say no. You won’t get anything done. You will talk all the times because you like this person and haven’t seen them today. She will talk all the times because she does. Say no. Be bold!

Me: Sure!

 

[disclaimer: yes, most of them have to do with the 5-car pileup between an introvert and an expectation. Such is life.]

 

And at the bottom of it all are things like this that keep me sane.

Lady: Where are you going?

Brain: Homework. Somewhere. Laundry. Probably. Sleep. Please. Silence. Yes. Food. Again. Homework. Always.

Me: I don’t know.

Lady: Okay.

 

Maybe missing you and your own version of sanity,

~Rae