One: Living in Harmony with our Inner and Outer Lives

“Ah, not to be cut off,

not through the slightest partition

shut out from the law of the stars.

The inner–what is it?

if not intensified sky,

hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke (Ah, Not to be Cut Off)

I know urbanites who possess the soul of a farmer, stay-at-home mothers with the soul of a CEO, and 9 to 5’ers who dream of life as an artist. I know parents whose desires sit at odds with the act of parenting, pastors separated from the life of Christ, and families disconnected from the love that once bound them together. It seems many of us are living divided lives, detached from each other, our spirit, or our own desires.

At times, I find myself living in this same divided state–one in which the deepest desires, longings, and needs of my inner self are not expressed in the self that empties the dishwasher every the morning, teaches the technicalities of college writing, and fills  in the squares on the calendar with the same activities on endless repeat. I long for the serendipity of glancing in the mirror to find my inner and outer selves perfectly aligned.

For most of us, the divided self is the one that sings slightly off-key. We sense a dissonance in our life’s song, but we can’t quite find a way to connect the person we know ourselves to be on the inside, with the person we present on the outside. We wish for harmony between them, but we’re content to remain at odds with our very self. We think it’s either too hard, or too tiring, or it requires an upheaval of our structured lives to live in harmony.

And for some of us, this might be true. To live with congruence might mean letting a relationship go or encouraging the growth of a new one. Perhaps it means switching jobs, or homes, or towns. But, more than likely, it means simply dropping the pretense and allowing our dreams to be our dreams, our desires to be our desires, and our needs to be our needs.

It is living with what is, while carrying hope for what our lives could be. But where to begin? Most of us can’t and shouldn’t turn our lives upside-down overnight. So how do we begin to sing our divided self together?

We remember ourselves.

We take the memories of our younger self, or most whole self, and we allow them to remind us of who we are and what we love. We remember the way a story slid beneath our skin and sparked us alive, or how slipping into the cool water of a lake transformed us into a fish. We stop cutting ourselves off from the little version of our big selves, and we remember who we were meant to be before real life intervened.

We speak words that are congruent with our inner life. 

Which is to say, we speak the truth in love. We say the things we mean–our yes means yes and our no means no. We tell the truth about ourselves. We stop ruthlessly editing our lives for fear others won’t believe us, desire us, or understand us anymore. It is impossible to live a life of inner harmony, when we spend all of our energy worrying about pleasing other people. This requires a healthy dose of wisdom and maturity, and a reliance on the Holy Spirit. We aren’t here to make others comfortable. We are here to live out the fullness of Christ at work in our lives.

We grow to love our shadow selves.

An undivided life is one that embraces both the best and worst of ourselves. We accept that part of living a life of harmony and congruence means receiving our fears, wounds, and limitations. These are just as much a part of us as our strengths and potential. We recognize our woundedness and our limits as integral to the formation of our character, and we allow the shadows to become an expression of the light of Christ in our lives.

When we find our inner self and outer self at odds with one another, it’s time to listen to our life, and ask where do we hear harmony and where is there dissonance? We must envision what congruence looks like, and take a first step, however tentative, in its direction.

An Unlikely Friendship

We met when she still wore a thin gold band on her left ring finger. I sat next to her in the only seat available at the crowded table, not realizing from that point on, my life would be better because she was in it. As we sat in the restaurant surrounded by women who already knew one another, she told me her story.

Her husband had broken the vows he’d made on their wedding day, and now she found herself in the middle of an unexpected and unwanted end to their marriage. Life as she knew it was over. She had no children, and her ex-husband now lived in another country.

I was ten years younger, happily married, and in the thick of parenting two little ones…

Join me at (in)courage today to read the rest of the story on the unfolding of an unlikely friendship.

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Why We Need Each Other on the Broken Road

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”~ Albert Camus

Winter possesses its own spare beauty. Steep slopes of fresh white. Frosted windows. Steel skies. Sharp branches. It’s lovely in its own way, but few would choose to live in a Narnia of forever-cold days. Winter draws a curtain against the cicada’s song and summer’s lush gardens until our memory of summer fades.

We forget there is bounty and more beauty to come as we experience the longest nights and the darkest days of the year. We wonder if winter will ever evolve into spring. If the earth will once again offer us bouquets of peonies and roses and sweet russian sage.

Walking a broken road in the grip of grief feels like a journey through winter, a long walk on those steep slopes under steel skies. There is beauty, but it is the kind of beauty that requires a wounded heart in order to see it clearly.

I discovered beauty while walking my own hard road, and I found it sitting around my kitchen table with the people who care for me. I saw it in the familiar faces of dear friends who surrounded me as I wrestled with grief.

I discovered that the consolation of community gives me hope on the hard road.

Friends have borne witness to my pain, and rather than shy away from it, they embraced it as their own. They offered words of affirmation and sincere prayers on my behalf, but more than that, they offered the solace of their own sadness. They carried me down the broken road when I could not stand upright on my own two feet.

Those who bore witness alongside me, offered me grace for my grief and the promise of summer for my sadness. They believe the earth will once again bear fruit, and the garden will grow full and rich in color. They believe I will once again know delight.

In the midst of winter, I found an invincible summer in the place I least expected it–in the people who gather around my table, my friends.

The One Question I Ask Again and Again

“Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. They keep trying to perfect the one problem they were born to understand.” ~Alberto Moravia

For forty years, I’ve asked the same question, “What does it mean to belong?” I’ve “lived the questions”, as Rilke so lovingly suggests, and I still feel as if I’m hovering around the answer, searching for a place to land. Belonging is more than fitting into the shape of a place, but rather feeling at home in one’s body, mind, and spirit. It is belonging to a family. To a cause. To a community. To an ideal. To an art form. It is belonging in one’s skin, and being fully at home with one’s self, and this is a journey I continue to travel. Searching, circling, seeking a way in.

One of the great joys in life is discovering by what means we find a way in to the problem we’re meant to understand. Words are my way in, the means by which I seek understanding. I tie them like small scraps of string along the path to help me journey towards the problem, but also to find my way into the answers. So often, understanding comes not only from moving forward, but from making our way back. Back into our past relationships, seasons of life, and life experiences. Back to the familiar questions knocking at the door of our heart.

Moravia’s words have proven true not only in my life as a writer, but simply as a human being. One doesn’t need to be a writer or composer to identify and seek answers to the common themes in their life. I wish someone had told me to look for the threads tying my life together–look for the themes and questions that continued to knit their way into my soul. It took me nearly seven years of writing to discover what problem I’ve been trying to understand and a lifetime before that.

I’ve asked so many questions and spilled so much ink while asking myself what it means to belong, and yet I feel so far from perfecting an answer. I feel comforted by the fact that I’m not the only one who continues circling around the same idea–all of the great artists do. And the not-so-great artists. And the rest of us ordinary people too.

Every day I step out into the questions in faith, I grow closer. I tie my scraps of string, moving forward and back and forward once again. It’s a journey with paths that diverge and cross and lead to places of loss and also wonder. What a miracle it is to step into the mystery with my words as a guide, making peace with the fact that I may never find the answers, but perhaps the  answers will find me.

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What is the one problem/theme/idea you find yourself returning to again and again? What helps you understand?

What the Garden Teaches Us About Slow Growth

***I spent some time in the blog archives recently and discovered this post on growth and hope and belonging. I thought it was worth revisiting this spring as I wait for my garden and a few quiet corners of my life to bloom.

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We have a ridiculous number of flower beds around our house, which is wonderful when someone else is doing the work of maintaining them, but disheartening when I have to do it myself. I want the results of regular planting, watering, and weeding without all of the hard work. My husband and I have spent hours planning, dreaming, sketching, and wandering around green houses. Sometimes we stalk other people’s gardens, and come home to tell one another about our latest drive by viewing. But, when it comes to getting my hands dirty, to digging deep, pruning, and standing in the hot sun with a hose, I bail out. Give me all the flowers! Give me none of the work.

This past autumn, our third in this home, I slipped on my blue gardening gloves, grabbed a spade, and dug over a hundred holes in the cool earth. I placed a single bulb in each hole, planning carefully for waves of pink and purple in one corner of a bed, yellow and white in another. Cupped all winter by the frozen earth, I imagined a riot of color in the spring, when the garden shakes off its slumber and wakes up.

This is my year of restoration, and I want the garden to represent what could be when empty places are no longer left blank, when they are filled with the promise of life and fragrance and color. Driving around town, I see daffodils everywhere. Tulips bend in the breeze. Sweet grape hyacinths gossip in clusters beneath towering trees. And my garden is quiet. The bulbs are slow to grow this first year of their birth. They are just pushing through the soil, while my friends boast fists full of bright yellow heads cut from gardens of their own.

My husband says the first year is always the slowest and hardest–the bulbs are just learning how to grow here. Each year will be easier. They will expand and root themselves into the places we planted them. Reclaiming and restoring the garden takes longer than I expected. As spring arrives and then summer approaches, we will have to make choices about what stays and what goes. What is restored to life and health after a long winter, what needs pruning back, what needs moving.

I’ve come to expect this now, and as I enter the spring of this year, the year resting on my cornerstone word of “Restore“, I’m beginning to see the results of the effort I’ve planted along the way. Small growth, little buds of dark green, not baskets full of blooms yet. But something is stirring. There is growth, but it comes at a cost. It’s hard work, the hardest I’ve ever known, to pull up the things that no longer serve me, to release the past, the dead and rootless, and to water, water, water the life growing beneath the surface. The first year is the slowest and the hardest. I’m still learning how to grow here.

If you find yourself in a similar season of incremental growth, take heart. Life stirs beneath the surface. Water where you’re rooted. Plant new life, prune back the old. You are a garden, bursting with the potential for life.