That Blessed Throb

People say that the only predictable thing about life is its unpredictability. Our lives do not stay the same, and out of necessity, neither do we. As we grow up, there are people who walk with us for only a little while, but their faces remain forever etched somewhere in the depths of our being. These are the folks who let us dance on their toes—the ones who said, “Grab my hand!” before crossing the street. They are the ones who pushed us on the swing at the playground, the ones who read us stories and tickled us. Others affirmed us in the classroom, at the piano, in the little crises of adolescence, or in the offices of the University. These are the ones who, through tears, gently unwrapped our hands from theirs and tiptoed away. We thought we were okay, until we felt a strange absence where something…someone once dwelt.

A hole in the physical heart could be catastrophic, but people live with holes in their emotional hearts every day. Surgery won’t stop the hurt over those who have moved on. In fact, nothing can really stop that throbbing which comes in the middle of class or late at night on the way to bed when we remember them. We don’t realize how hard we’ve been fighting that pain until the tears finally trickle down, and we must whisper to no one in particular, “I really miss you.”

I thank God for these moments of agony—for the reality that I have been so richly blessed with the kind of people worthy of my nostalgic heartache. Someone out there is trying hard to ignore the bruises and scars from someone who hurt them, but I have the privilege of that blessed throb—the one that only exists because an embrace which once sustained me has disappeared. This is the kind of gift that places me among the most fortunate individuals in the world. I know it well.

One of those unpredictable things about life is that we never really know when those special people must step back from us until it has happened. And as I said before, this so rocks the core of who we are that we can never resume the life we once lived. We may dwell in the richness of fabulous mentors and friends for a little while, but we must always remember that if we are to grow and change, we must be willing to face the pain of watching them step back. For awhile, we will only feel that terrible sting of abandonment, but later in those moments of melancholic reflection, we may see that the act was out of love and designed for our benefit. The love is in the release, and the gift is in that blessed throb. This is one pain I will forever cherish. 

 

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Wings

Below is the essay I will be getting published. So very excited to get something published in Caesura (IWU’s Literary magazine) as a freshman. Originally, I wrote this as an in-class essay. My prof liked it, I liked it, so I fixed it up and submitted it to Caesura. Yippee. If you care to read, here it is: 

Wings

 

            I love those quiet moments at the piano, when I can hear the swell and fall of my lungs inside my chest and feel the tickle in my ears from the buzzing lights above me. I come alive, finally and fully, as I hover over the glowing keys, dry the sweat from my clammy palms, and place my knowing fingers wherever they must go. I breathe deeply, so deeply that inside of me, something roars awake. That’s when the questions begin. Am I ready? I turn my head, searching for rescue, and when she nods at me, I know I am ready to leap again. I’ve seen that glow in her eyes before. She believes more than I do—she knows.  I smile. Swallow. Breathe again. Where is the air? And then the notes come dripping from my fingers. I can breathe again. I am flying.

            I could tell many stories about times when I stood on the edge, looking down at the distance I could fall and shakily turning back. I’ve been a coward many times, but not with music. I was trained to jump. There would always be someone to catch me. For many years of my life, that ‘someone’ was Mrs. Matthews. I remember my little white socks bouncing step by step on her squishy green carpet on the way to her big black piano. I remember how her warm hands would rest on mine, prompting me to surrender, to let her move for me. In this way, I learned how to draw a bow across a violin string. I learned how to “tickle” the piano keys instead of sputtering out of control in the way my arrogant little hands had done so many times. I remember how her gentle voice would lead me away from the keys, only to watch those same keys that I couldn’t tame stay close at her side, like a dog on a leash. I watched her sway like a flower in the wind when the music struck her hard. I watched her jump. And before long, I felt her push me off that cliff of mediocrity into an endless pit of excellence. She taught me as I fell, and before long, wings budded from my stiff shoulders, and I learned to fly.

            There was one thing a person never did with Mrs. Matthews, and that was give up. Her eyes got fiery and sparks went sputtering out and singed me each of the many times I used the phrase, “I can’t!” And when she placed Debussy’s Arabesque in front of me and bid me, “Read it.”, I was finally convinced that I’d found proof that she had gone mad—clearly she had fabricated the idea of even the faintest ability within me to play a piece which demanded such nuance and technique. Even so, we started off slowly. I would try, fail, try, fail, get sassy with her, complain, fail, and then…I was playing it! Instead of kicking and screaming all the way to the piano, I would go there willingly to look down at my pale hands and rub the purple scars from the shackles that were once there—bitter reminders of the insecurity and fear of failure which had always been my demons. Somewhere in the midst of the beastly chords on page three of the piece, I realized that this felt so good. With each terrifying trip to the piano, and with every “NOPE. Play that again!”, those scars began to fade, and musical muscle grew around them. I was ready for the State Competition.

            Remember how I said I like quiet moments? Well, I had one of those in the middle of March, 2008 at the piano in a competition room in Indianapolis. Mrs. Matthews wasn’t there this time. It was just me and my wings. I walked in wobbly—the whole time trying to dry the cold sweat on my sleek black dress pants. After I did that enough times, I found myself at the piano. There it was, staring at me daringly. I think I heard it say, “Are you going to jump?”, but it’s hard to be sure because the bass drum in my chest was echoing wildly in my ears. My pulse had to have been like a raging river inside me, but I turned ghostly white anyway. Many of the details of the room escape me. Maybe it’s because I rejected them as unnecessary. Maybe it’s because I have a bad memory, but I think the better reason is that all I saw in that room was another cliff to jump from. So when the judge told me to warm up, I turned into a robot and played the same scale Mrs. Matthews had made me play much more often than I had wanted to. Despite all the times I had protested ignorantly, I finally learned in that little room in March as the scale fell effortlessly from my fingers, that she had been right. I think the judge agreed because she smiled all too knowingly at me. Maybe she had made students do the same thing. Or, maybe she saw my wings and remembered being in my place. Either way, the room began to feel very empty. The judge seemed further away, and the piano grew, as if under a magnifying glass. If there had been anyone else in that room at that moment, they would have heard a rustle, and watched my hair go wooshing forward as my wings came out and I began to play. I surrendered to the many notes I had memorized months earlier. I offered my hands to them, and they helped me dance. And there I was, sitting there in all of my eighth grade awkwardness swirling and twirling from octave to octave. Breathing had never been easier as I leaned forward into arpeggios and drew back with the sweetness of musical nuances. When I stopped playing, it was ever so reluctantly. Was it over? I folded my wings back where they’d been, and walked from that class room knowing that if I’d fallen from that cliff of mediocrity, it had been gracefully.

            Every now and then, we discover that the scariest things are the most beautiful ones. The impossibilities that once kept us in chains become the birds outside our windows chirping loudly at dawn, beckoning us to jump out of bed and fall into excellence. At the piano that day in March, I may have been ignorant about many things—even things about myself—but I also realized how badly I wanted my wings. I learned that my heart had been beating all along for a chance to soar. That was the day my hands stopped sweating and latched on to the keys. I haven’t let go ever since.

 

The Boldness of Grace

I’ve made several bold moves lately, and I’m slowly realizing that the boldness comes after the decisions are made, not before. I’ve been trying to do homework all day and have gotten absolutely nowhere. I don’t want to use this word lightly, because I realize that paralysis is a serious, life-altering condition, but I feel paralyzed. I try to type and nothing comes! I try to open a book, and suffice it to say it would probably be better to just burn the book than put any real time into getting some use out of it. My perfectionism is at an all-time high, and it could not have come at a worse time–mostly thanks to my terribly whimsical decision-making process. Elaboration needed (passive voice!!!!)? Keep reading.

1. I just added a writing major a few days ago. I landed the best advisor with cool scarves that anyone could ask for. Writing compliments my other major quite well. English and Writing, English and Writing…doesn’t it have such a nice ring to it (It’s the education bit that lacks a bit in this respect)? I thought so until I sat down to try to write a paper today and could not write anything. The paragraph I finally sucked out of my brain is nothing but ordinary, and the before-writing-major Jessica did NOT write ordinary introduction paragraphs. Why then, do I have to get writer’s block when I should not only be celebrating my new major, but getting homework done? Curse you, perfectionism. Curse you. (I know; that probably didn’t change anything, but at least I actually wrote something.)

2. I received an email about an opportunity to interview some Chinese students and write a piece about them for the IWU nursing magazine. I read the email maybe two times (at a very early hour) before typing in response, “I’ll do it!” So, I have writer’s block, and I just volunteered to write something that will be published in a  magazine? Yes. Swell.

3. “Everyone” keeps telling me how great running is. And I’m gaining weight like a Sumo wrestler…so, I accidentally on purpose signed up for a 5 mile run at my old high school on June 8th. 5 miles. June 8th. That’s a lot of miles to run in not very much time. This is one of those, “Jessica, what in the world were you thinking!?” moments.

Perhaps now you understand why the boldness must come after the decision. It was not difficult to make those three choices. I love the thought of a writing major, a published piece with my name on it, and wiping sweat off my face after a 5 mile race. It’s easy to see that these are good, even great, but the difficulty (the boldness) lies within the follow-through.  And right now, I just don’t have it in me.

Moments ago, I had no idea how this blog post would end. My thoughts were negative, especially in light of the fact that I’m having trouble writing anything at all. For all I knew, it would stop whenever the words stopped. Thankfully, I got an idea. Growth. I suppose that is one of those words that is greatly overused in Christian circles (my time at a Christian university has assured me that there are many words that fall into this category. It’s a great thing we have a language full of an endless ways of articulating ideas so that we don’t have to nod off during chapel because we’re hearing the same thing we’ve heard a thousand times before!) So let’s say it in a different way. It is a bit of a frustrating word. It means waiting, struggling, sweating, crying, and grace. When we say growth, what we’re really trying to say it grace. Without grace, we’re doomed to stay stagnant forever. So when I think about the homework which lies in the shadows taunting and teasing my weary brain, I think, Huh. I cannot do this, but I can cling to grace. Because grace doesn’t mean perfection in the way I want it, but in a way previously unknown to me. Grace means I have to rely on a Strength outside of myself, which means I’m not the only one with a say in how this paper will turn out, whether or not the article is published, or whether or not I can run that race this summer. And thank God this is so! Because I say it will never happen, that it will hurt and defeat me, but He says He will never leave me. He says He’ll give me grace, so I guess He’s saying I will grow.

It is not the decision or the act which is bold, but grace.

Not quite a Zombie

To use a cliche, I’ve been a zombie these last few days. I’m continuing to enjoy my time here, and I’m learning so much that my brain is basically on the verge of explosion 78.45% of the time. I wish I had a coherent, concrete, and brilliant blog post for you to read, but I do not. If you’re in the mood for something gibberish, scattered,random (I can’t help thinking of squirrels as I type these words!) and possibly pointless, this might be exactly what you need. If not, I would suggest chocolate–it almost always helps me, even if it’s entirely unnecessary. 

“Chattery”

I stopped by my favorite professor’s office today to discuss my research paper outline. To my great relief, she didn’t completely demolish it, and actually said that what I have so far is pretty good. Unfortunately, the time of my visit just happened to be around 3:15, which means that I hadn’t eaten in a great long while…which means that’s about the time when I get shaky and say and do very strange things. I was trying to tell her that I act a little odd when I’m hungry, and as fate would have it, I said, “Yeah, sometimes I get a little ‘chattery’ when I’m super hungry.” Believe me, people with doctorates in creative writing don’t neglect to acknowledge their students’ use of words that don’t actually exist. After the embarrassment of my brain fart subsided, we pondered on the topic of awkwardness (because the entire encounter was beyond awkward up to this point). She said, “Well, awkward is the new adorable.” I think what I really meant to do was chuckle or shake my head in agreement, but instead I accidentally said, “Well, not really. I mean, I’m still single.” As I stood there in her doorway, I realized almost immediately that I had SO crossed the line. After the sting of my ill-spoken words subsided, I pittifully said, “…aaand I should not have said that…” Cue the blushing. This was worse than the time I couldn’t stop laughing about something sexual in a poem. I would have held my breath, but she just burst out laughing and said in all of her brilliance and intellectual-ness, “Case in point.” That was fun. I learned not to be so “chattery”. 

Not so Dainty fingers…

Pianists are supposed to have dainty fingers, right? Most people have this vision of smart looking lengthy nubs that can stretch across the expanse of all that black and white effortlessly. In fact, when I was a youngster, people often remarked on the length of my fingers after I would say all too sheepishly, “I play piano” (it wasn’t until recently that I actually believed I was pretty darn good!) But most of the time, my fingers don’t really fit into the over-generalization about pianists having nice long fingers. Most of the time, my hands are cold and sweaty. So, basically the opposite of nice. When you think of clammy hands, just trust me when I say that you are actually visualizing my hands–the epitome of all things clammy. Something I’m not very proud of. And as for my fingers…well, they are long, but they are no exception to the clamminess. They look pretty creepy–especially now with the addition of what appears to be the nest of a small alien, or slightly less likely, the start of a wart. And it’s right on my middle finger! So when I go cross-eyed to examine it, I’m almost always flipping someone off (or at least making people just a little nervous about how I’m bending my finga!). I guess my fingers aren’t so dainty after all. Better just invest in some gloves.

Pink Slip

After coming to terms with the reality of my singleness in my professor’s office, I ventured through the blustery chill of the wind and into the student center. I knew exactly what I was doing. This walk felt a lot like one I took not too long ago. As I climbed the stairs and sipped coffee, I remembered the feeling I had and that thumping in my chest as I wrote the words “English Education” on that slip of paper last semester. I said the words in my mind as I approached the door to that same office, I’d like to make a change to my major…no…that sounds weird…maybe I should say….

Well, apparently I didn’t change the wording at all, because the secretary pointed me to a pink slip on which I was to record any changes I wanted to make to my major. Beneath the words “English Education”, I scribbled in, “Writing”. All traces of my Spanish minor disappeared as I drew a line through that section of the pink slip. I walked out of the office smiling and sipping some more coffee. I thought something like, Apparently, I just changed my major. 

 

Maybe these musings show that I’m not quite the zombie I claimed to be, but it might also prove that I have been a little out of it. And I wouldn’t change that even if I wanted to. 

 

 

Oh, the pangs

Look down;

There are no eyes to meet yours anyway.

Walk slowly, slipping heavy feet along the crusty earth;

You have nowhere to be, having scratched today’s meetings from the planner.

Let the wind slap your skin while you retreat;

You can’t feel its chill anymore, though it wraps around you like an icy scarf.

You can’t feel anything; except…

Oh, the pangs.

 

Whisper in the dark to soothe that crippling numbness of living slumber;

The sting of silence which turns your heart cold…again. Does anybody hear you

Hum to yourself…some broken and ugly tune?

You’ll only forget the melody tomorrow.

Tossing and turning and whimpering you

Breathe deeply, and finally

You close your eyes—drifting away until they return anew;

 Oh, the pangs.

 

The morning curses you and tears trickle down from somewhere

The ghost in the glass nudges, “Rehearse your lines!”

“Memorize the ‘how do you dos’; enter the stage!”

Would you believe that voice was yours?

But there are no cheers, no ovations as you

Pretend your way off the stage and back to the to the questions of,

“Is there something more?”

You think there must be… “please be”…

But oh, the pangs.

 

A Silent Onlooker;

His Glowing eyes, soft hands

Trembling under your woes.

In agony He bends with you, falls with you, moans with you.

This Quiet Guest—reaching for you and

Nodding in agreement while you cry,

 His lips quiver,

“Oh, the pangs!”

 

He remembers that dark day on the hill,

Droplets of Mercy—Blood and tears joining as one.

He remembers the splinters, the spikes, the crown we gave Him;

The sweetness with which our names fell from His dying lips

Was that which called forth our pain to be His.

The eyes that twitched in the struggle to find you

Watch now as you fall to your knees; He whispers, “Give them to me”

Oh, the pangs for you.

 

 

 

Wrestling

I’ve been wrestling lately, and today…well, I’m not winning!

A few nights ago, Mallory thought I was having nightmares because I was moving around and moaning. I don’t really remember anything terrible going on in my dreams, but I do remember how I felt that night. I felt like I was drowning under the weight of my responsibilities  Every toss and every turn was an exposure of my inner attempt to fight back. 

Sunday afternoon. So many assignments sat before me. I could not move. My main priority: research paper. I finally just bundled up and went outside for a walk in the bitter winds. As I walked, I mumbled a mental outline for my paper under my breath. I fought hard to come up with what I have and where I’m trying to go. I was piecing things together, perhaps at places where a connection was impossible. I’m doing this all wrong, I thought. What else would my professors have me do? I can’t do this! Finally, it hit me. I was doing it right! They want me to wrestle with this stuff. I began to look around me and saw that no one else was doing that. Everyone was just living, go through the same weekend routines. I was one of the few wrestling. And while my professors certainly don’t want me to be consumed with my work, the whole point of all of this–the whole reason they are teaching at the university level–is to try to get us to take familiar ideas and bend them, stretch them, break them apart, and put them back together in a new way. Sometimes, the process is painful, awkward. Like wrestling. It’s easy to grow weary and discouraged. But soon it ends, and if we’ve fought back, the struggle changes us–hopefully for the better. 

Wrestling. I wiggled my way out of bed at 6:09 this morning, shuffled through the snow to the student center for some homework and alone time, and made it through a frustrating first class. And then–because nothing can just be simple–I decided to buy my professor some coffee and surprise her with it. But, I went to her office and someone else was in there. Awkward. So, to be awkward, I went out to the secretary and asked her, “What should I do!?” We decided that leaving it in her mailbox wasn’t the best choice. I left it with the secretary who agreed to apologize to her in advance in case the coffee tasted weird. Then, I walked early to my next class and…I got stuck in the door on my way in. Just for a second, but it was enough to make me smile and shake my head….Wrestling, I thought. Wrestling. 

Perfectionism: A Gift?

Perfectionism. It’s a curse, but oh, such a gift. I’m trying to remember this today, as I work on an amount of homework I don’t even care to describe right now. Suffice it to say I am in college, and we do homework here–basically all the time. I will share just a nugget of the fun I’m having this afternoon. In Approaches to Literary Analysis (a class in which my name is sometimes Jill, and my friend Abby sometimes makes an appearance as “Angie”. At least Jill actually exists in our class. So far, I don’t think Angie is a real person…) we are working on a perspective paper about “Barn Burning”. The instructions are lengthy and in-depth, but I’m still confused. As a writer, I absolutely hate having someone give me step-by-step instructions on what to include. It makes me feel trapped, but I suppose saying “I feel trapped!” won’t really get the paper done by Monday. I also suppose my writing woes isn’t something you care to hear about. BUT…just in case, I am planning on using the reader response strategy of analysis to demonstrate the virtue in the protagonist’s choice at the end of the story. At least, that is what I am planning on doing. Currently, I have an introduction written, and that’s about it. I’m realizing that it’s taking me FOREVER because I’m second and triple guessing everything I write. Then it occurred to me: Why am I assuming that what I’m writing is bad? What if it’s good? This is just kind of a side note to my point, but I just thought it was worth mentioning. I’m pretty sure not everything I do is bad, right? Perfectionism doesn’t assume everything is bad initially; it just considers that as a very likely possibility. 

Hours pass between the start and finish of a well written paper worthy of an A, and in the middle of those, I sometimes wonder why in the world I do this to myself. But it’s a gift! To me, it feels like a bit of a curse, but it’s not really about me. It’s a way to give something to my professors that is enjoyable to grade and makes them feel proud of their ability to teach me. I take my character very seriously, and I view the work I do in my classes as an extension of who I am. I refuse to turn something in that doesn’t accurately represent the crux of who I am and what I stand for–because that would be like giving someone an ugly gift. And we don’t do that.

Perfectionism, I guess you weren’t as bad as I thought.