Archive for God’s Gifts

The Melancholy Necessity of Autumn

Today I’m feeling a bit off. It’s November, which seems odd, and my body thinks it’s one hour later than my phone says it is due to the ridiculousness that is Daylight Saving. That means this week I’ll be hungry when I shouldn’t be and tired when I ought not be. Well, okay, to be fair I’m pretty much always tired (that’s the lot of an insomniac) so I can’t blame DST. Perhaps it’s more  a general sense of ennui after the busy pace of Halloween week. Too much work on the computer. Not enough reading. Or maybe it’s my cynical self doubting my district will flip, which will dishearten me yet again.

There is something a bit melancholy about this time of year that speaks to my soul. Perhaps that’s why Autumn is my favorite season, why Halloween speaks to me, why I feel most myself this time of year. Spring is beautiful, full of life and promise and hope in a way that is bound to disappoint. Then summer bleaches everything, and I melt in the too-bright sun. Winter where I live is all cold and no snow, little rain, just more cold, windy, sunny days. But Autumn – Autumn is crisp and cinnamon tea-scented, the time to dig fire logs out of the garage and boots out of the closet. It is a reminder that things can become the most beautiful in their last days, that the value of things can increase when we know they are short-lived.

Working with GriefShare this past year, and remembering the many losses of my life, has death on my mind these days. Not in a bad way, but in a “it’s going to happen to us all, to everyone we know and love” way. I am from a culture that does not handle death well. We don’t handle it at all, mostly, which does not work. For us, death is always a surprise, like we expect a different conclusion. We take care of our elderly until we can’t, then place them in homes where someone else handles death as it approaches. We have funerals as soon as possible, then expect the grieving to suck it up and move on quickly and quietly. We have little to no context for lament. We do not know the meaning of the word “keen” and we feel forever awkward with wailing.

Some cultures have assigned periods of time where the family wears all black, ceases work, where mourners weep over the open casket. Others have long parades alternating from joyous celebration of the lost one’s life to loud, communal sobbing. Some allow families to remember the lost ones once a year, every year, with photos, favorite mementos, food, and music. In some places, the entire town will show up at the local pub for the wake, telling stories for hours and hours, crying and laughing and drinking together.

But my culture is very orderly and clinical. People, if it can be helped at all, die in hospitals and care facilities. We have memorial services in churches with no casket present. We go back to work as soon as we are able because we can’t bear the free time, can’t be with our thoughts. There are no arm bands to mark the family so everyone knows. Black clothes are no longer required.

I think this is why I’ve always loved Halloween and have been fascinated by Dia de los Muertos since Ray Bradbury introduced it to me as a child. The thought that death is so close to life was somehow freeing, the idea that there can be days when we look death and darkness in the eyes and come out the other side alive and smiling.

I had a professor at university who taught about the human fascination with monsters that transcends cultures, and the psychology behind it. We must face death and darkness, evil and uncertainty, in stories so we can process these very real, very scary things behind the fictional ones from the safety of a book’s pages, which we can close, or a screen, which we can shut off.

G.K. Chesterton said “fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

In “Coraline,” Neil Gaiman puts it this way, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

For me, Autumn provides a kind of sacred space for this processing. Halloween pushes us up closer to death and darkness than the rest of the year. The beautiful, yet ephemeral, turning of the leaves from green to yellow and red before they fall, leaving branches bare and skeletal inevitably leads the mind to think on the passing of time and the temporary nature of all living things.

Autumn is a thoughtful season, well-suited for pondering over large cups of tea and quiet conversations by the fire. It is subtle, and if purposefully ignored, easy to pass through untouched. But, if we stop and take it all in, if we allow ourselves to dwell in the melancholy just for a short while, we will come out all the better for it.

Jane Austen highlighted the sensibilities that only this season of Autumn can bring, as she writes about Anne Elliot, our heroine of “Persuasion.” Anne, the single old maid (thought not at all old), has no beau to walk with. Austen tells us, “her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, some lines of feeling.”

So these are my lines of feeling, meant to draw attention to that influence Autumn has “on the mind of taste and tenderness.” These are my lines to encourage you to lean into the melancholy, just a little bit, just enough to be reminded that true beauty is worthy of appreciation, death will come to all, and that Christ is our St. George – he has slain the dragon for us, so we no longer need to fear death.

Scattered Thoughts for September

I’ve been feeling a bit scattered, which is normal for the first couple weeks of the school year. That’s my excuse for missing last week’s blog. And for this week’s disjointed list. I’ve been doing a bit too much.

I have been experiencing more joy and less cynicism these past two years since actively adjusting my priorities to this new phase of my life. Philippians 4:8-9 is endlessly helpful in this endeavor. In it, Paul tells the church, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

In keeping with this, today’s blog post will be dedicated to a few of the moments of joy experienced by The Awkward Spinster this month, as I pretend autumn is here:

(I actually prefer chai lattes.)

Spending an afternoon at The Original Farmers Market in LA with mum, as we have done my whole life. Eating BBQ pork sandwiches from Bryan’s Pit Barbecue, checking out the toys at Kip’s Toyland, and stocking up on fall things from World Market.

Meeting with 5 other women of God to pray for our broken world, our broken country, over tea and cake. Sick of summer, we turned up the AC slightly, got out scarves for everyone, lit autumnal candles, and switched from iced tea to our favorite hot tea.

Participating in many theological and political discussions with intelligent, godly, and compassionate family and friends as we try to sort through what the heck is going on in modern evangelicalism. Finding comfort in the fact that there are others who are not happy with the latest attack against social justice creating a false dichotomy with the gospel.

Completing a complete inventory of both the elementary and middle school libraries and realizing our migration to the new computer system went more smoothly than we’d hoped.

Swinging by the comic book store on new comic Wednesday to pick up the newest journey into Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Universe with “The Dreaming.”

Night swimming in a friend of a friend’s pool, all by myself, as I was house-sitting.

Wiping away the tears of a little boy who could not find a book he wanted to read that was at his level, when his friends were mostly in higher ranges. Seeing his face light up with glee as I handed him just the right book for both his range and tastes.

Eating adorable and delicious peach gummy candy shaped like hedgehog paw pads that my sis-in-law brought back from her trip to the Japanese market.

Starting up a new session of GriefShare as co-leader, with some old and new participants who are courageous enough to be vulnerable in the midst of their grief. Seeing God’s word pour out comfort and hope even after just a couple of weeks. Having these dear souls allow me to sit with them in the toughest of times.

Feasting on a delicious dinner with old friends and acquaintances becoming friends in West LA at Farmshop, where one of my besties is the brilliant pastry chef. Going from 103 temperatures to 68 degrees and foggy for the night made it finally feel like fall.

(Oops, wrong Foggy.)

Hearing the joyous cry of “Auntie Fawn!” as my little 5-year-old nephew came to visit me in my library. Helping his mom pick out two incredible children’s books to relish: Frederick by Leo Lionni and Chrysanthemum by Kevin Hankes.

Finally getting a Skype date with one of my Colorado cousins to talk about transitioning back to life stateside one year after her return from L’Abri, and two years after mine.

Twirling, my fall-colored kimono puffed out from the flurry of movement, as my 4-year-old niece danced circles around me in her slightly-too-small pink ballet slippers. My sister, her mother, watching us from the couch, laughing.

Helping my friend in Malawi apply for grad school in the States by toggling back and forth between Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and the school’s website on our respective smartphones across the world from each other. Getting to praise the Lord with him before he headed out to church and I drifted off to sleep.

Receiving photos of my Russian friend’s new baby daughter, also via WhatsApp.

Sleeping in on the weekend to recover from my insomniac self’s lack of sleep now that school has started up again. Looking down to the foot of my bed to see my little westie curled up there, keeping me company.

Teaching myself how to program Google Docs to automatically insert an em dash when I want it to—thank you, Interwebs!

(Respect, from one Dash to another.)

And that’s just September so far.

What moments have brought you joy so far this month?

On Cousins and Capitals

I wasn’t expecting to like Washington DC as much as I did. I mean, I’m no fan of the current administration, and thought it was a little sad that this is the first time I’d see the capital. I’ve always struggled with patriotism because my love of country is not a blind love; I am all too aware of the bodies we left behind and continue to break in the name of power. Yet there I was, wandering around the city with my mum, uncle, and cousin and enjoying every bit of it (and not just because the Library of Congress is my little librarian heart’s national home).

Everywhere we turned there were great buildings inscribed with noble, courageous, and beautiful quotes reminding me that some of the dreams this country was built on were beautiful. It’s been hard to remember that lately. In a time with Truth is NOT Truth, it’s easy to get more and more jaded about America.

There are also reminders of some of the worst our country had and has to offer. Exhibits in various Smithsonian museums revealing our poverty, racism, sexism, and cruelty. Memorials and monuments honoring brave men and women who sacrificed their own lives for mine.

But also memorials and monuments to some pretty vicious, violent, selfish people as well.

Portraits of presidents both good and bad, but mostly men with mixtures of both; all men, no women, all white, save one. Somehow, this district manages to be inspiring and sobering simultaneously.

It was in this environment that I got to know my cousin, who I had only met once before when I was 11 and she was 17. I was worried it would be awkward, but instead it felt like we’d always known each other. I consider this smart, kind, kick-ass single mom yet another answer to my prayer for family made 2 years ago.

As we wandered around DC and then various cities in Virginia, chatting and laughing together, there were so many moments when we realized how many things we have in common which must either be genetic or from the fact that my mum and her dad grew up together and therefore raised us with some commonalities. Gringo tacos. A love of Bob Ross and his happy little trees and clouds. A passion for reading. Wanderlust. A Puritan work ethic. Shared memories of our grandparents.

I’m sorry it took me so long to visit DC, and even more sorry it took so many years to get to know my cousin. But God is good and it wasn’t too late. I flew back to my beloved LA with more hope for my country and my family. With the reminder that the current president is not (yet) a dictator and my voice of dissent can still be expressed (for now). With the conviction that I must not stop praying and marching and voting and calling and caring. With the joy of knowing my cousin, new-to-me, is just a text away.

God is good; I’m working on remembering this, praying to grow in faith, hope, and love.

How to be Single, Celibate, and Happily Turn 40 – Recognize Celibacy as Worship

When I started reassessing my life, I realized I needed to give up some of my previous dreams in order to make room for new ones. One of those dreams was that of marriage and children. I’m not saying I won’t ever marry if God chooses to introduce a man into my life who loves me and who I love back, but that I no longer see this as a requirement for my joy or God’s glory. Instead, I have come to a new appreciation for the celibate life.

Tip 3: Recognize Celibacy as Worship

Rather than looking at my singleness, lack of sex life, loss of motherhood, and nonexistent partner in life as a hardship to be endured, more and more I am able to see it as a gift from God (1 Corinthians 7:7). Whereas before, when I was younger, I could accept it more easily as a temporary gift, I am now able to view it as an opportunity to worship God daily through living a celibate life to honor him.

Romans 12:1 and 1 Samuel 15:22 both introduce the idea that living lives of obedience to the Lord, even with our very bodies, is our spiritual worship. I know a 40 year old virgin can be viewed with mockery and disdain – as if I’m somehow less mature or more naive than everyone else, there must be something incredibly wrong with me.

I know many Christians at this point in their extended singleness throw celibacy out the window, seeing it as unrealistic or unfair. I can understand that. The “gift of singleness” in my life doesn’t mean God took away my desire for men, for a partner in life, for sex, or for children. I still have all of those desires. Anyone who tells you those with the “gift of singleness” will have these desires removed by God is the naive one.

But what he has done is make my desire to worship him in all I do, with my very body even, greater than these others. It doesn’t mean it’s not a struggle, but it’s a worthy one when I know that each day I recommit to a celibate life, I am honoring the true love my life, God.

I’m also not buying into the modern western world’s obsession with sexuality being one of the most important markers in our identity, nor the modern Christian church’s obsession with marriage and children as the main goal for a woman’s life.

I am so much more than my sexual identity. God’s plans for me are perfect, so if you look at life without a spouse and kids as lacking, you are not seeing it clearly. We are brainwashed by culture, even or perhaps especially Christian culture, to view marriage as the ultimate relationship, when it is meant to be a beautiful metaphor of Christ’s love for the church. A single Christian’s celibate commitment to loving God body and soul is also sacrificially beautiful and should not be discounted.

ProTip:

If you’re getting older and God still hasn’t brought the love of your life into it, look into the beauty and fulfillment that can be found in worshiping God through celibacy.

Swing by the Awkward Spinster tomorrow for the next tip in the How to be Single, Celibate, and Happily Turn 40 series.

Independence Day: a Treatise on Being Happily Single

I am happily single. I wasn’t always quite so happy about my unchanging relationship status, but I’ve grown into it and it fits me comfortably like my favorite pair of old jeans. And, oddly, the more my contentment has grown recently, the more I struggle to write about it.

This weekend at my writer’s group (who never let me get away with any excuses) I realized that my current joy in my single status makes me feel almost unqualified to write about singleness. Many of the men and women I talk to who are my age or younger and still single are struggling with it immensely; for some, this is the battle of their lives. And I’ve been there. I lived there for quite some time. But, by the grace of God, I’m not there anymore.

Yes, I still get pangs every once in awhile while watching a romcom or at a friend’s wedding, that lingering desire to be desired, to have a partner, to be loved like that. But, more frequently of late, I find myself having thoughts of gratefulness to God that I’m not married. And, in counseling, I’ve noticed that this isn’t something many single people who’d rather not be single like to hear.

I am their worst nightmare. They don’t want God to grow them into contentment in their singleness, they want God to bring them a spouse. They don’t want me to tell them that there is a possibility they’ll never marry, but it’s okay because God still has plans in that for their good and his glory. They want to hear tales of people who met the man or woman of their dreams the minute they “stopped looking,” about the friend of a friend who married at 40, or of the newest dating app that’s somehow better than the last 5 they tried. They yearn for promises that God will bring them the desire of their heart instead of the truth that they may need to ask God for new desires.

Many a pastor, singles group leader, or self-help guru sees me as their worst nightmare as well. You see, I do not believe the pinnacle of Christian life is to be a wife or husband, a mother or a father. I believe these are incredibly good things to be, gifts and examples of Christ in our world. But I also believe, like the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7), that singleness is a gift as well, and that single people are a blessing to the world and the church in unique valuable ways.

Parents of still-single adult children can join in the chorus against contentment in singleness too. The cry of “when am I going to have grandchildren?” or “if you just lost some weight, I’m sure you’d find a man!” has been heard by singles the world over. They do not always want their children to find deep joy and contentment in this state, because they see it as a lesser existence. They sometimes purposefully add to the discontentment of their children in the hopes it will spur them on to marriage. The idea that marriage may actually not be best for them isn’t an option.

Yet here I am, happily deleting e-mails from dating apps trying to woo me back after a couple years’ hiatus. I’ve embraced the idea that singleness is the life God has planned for me, and have even told him in prayer that if he does want me to marry someday, he’s going to have to bring the man to my doorstep and make it pretty darn obvious, because at this time it’s not even on my radar.

I’ve grieved not having a husband, not having children. I’ve gone through years of intense yearning for things I could not have. I’ve wept with friends, counselors, and God over this. I’ve torn myself down for not being good enough for a spouse, and fed other lies like this. I’ve averted my eyes at friends’ weddings as their fathers walked them down the aisle or danced with them, knowing I would never have that moment. I’ve silently and internally grieved the loss of potential motherhood.

So for my friends and counselees who are in the midst of this grief and pain, I understand. I’ve been there. For a couple decades even. The pain and loss are real, and it is good to recognize it. But, for those of you who don’t end up with the romcom ending, there is such joy to be found in embracing the permanently single life. There is confidence in loving your independence and letting the parents, pastors, and friends who are not content with you being single know that this is what God has for you and it is good.

When Moses went up to Mount Sinai for God to rewrite the 10 Commandments and renew his covenant with Israel, the Lord spoke to Moses about himself. “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’” (Exodus 34:6). This is the reality of who our God is. Our Lord is merciful and gracious, so the gift of singleness in our lives, whether temporary or permanent, is part of his mercy and grace toward us. He is slow to anger – there is no punishment in our singleness. He is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness meaning he is the love of our lives and we are the love of his.

Married readers, ask yourself if you are helping your single friends find contentment or are you adding to their pain? Single readers, I pray you will find contentment in your independence no matter how long it lasts. I know the heartbreak that can come with it, but I also know that deep joy and peace are possible.