vignette  (vɪˈnjɛt)  –
a small illustration placed at the beginning or end of a book or chapter

A lot has happened in my life since I last posted seriously on my blog (and by seriously I mean “about anything other than anime,” haha).  I’ve been trying to figure out how to write it all down, and how to make sense of the abundant changes that have taken place for me so unexpectedly and so quickly throughout the last months.  Little did I know when I wrote “On October” what was headed my way.  This has been an important time that I want to remember clearly and that I long to understand, because each circumstance and each change has taught me so much about God and about myself.  But I haven’t been able to find the right way to frame the experience, nor the right words to describe all that I’ve been feeling and thinking about.

After beginning many unsuccessful posts, each now relegated to the Trash, I came to a few realizations:  1)  I can’t write it all down.  It would take a much lengthier endeavor than a blog post to describe the history, the intricacies, and the implications of these recent months.  2)  I cannot now make sense of it all, and I should not expect quickly or easily to come to an understanding of all that has happened.  I most certainly shouldn’t abuse the act of writing it down as an attempt to force clarity and peace (neither of which are things that come by force anyhow).  As with all of life, it simply takes time to understand just why things happened in one certain way, as opposed to any other.  3)  If I focus too much on either the particularities and details of events, or on the big picture panorama of how these events fit into the rest of my life, I lose sight of the events themselves, and of the beauty and presence of the moment.

And so, at length, I’ve decided merely to describe some of the moments that characterize my life right now, and I hope that these vignettes will preserve for my memory this mixed-up time of change and hope and loss and joy.  So here, in a few short illustrations, is the end of one chapter of my life, and the beginning of another.

1)  On Humility

It was an unseasonably warm day in mid-to-late October.  The backyard at the Smiths’ home slopes gently towards a little pond surrounded by trees, and the wind followed the slope of the grassy ground, breezing through our hair and across our cheeks so gently that it seemed more like the breath of a child tumbling in a somersault down the hill than the steady blowing of an autumn current.

Kids our age are notoriously pretentious.  We’re making our way and defining ourselves, and these things always seem to require a certain measure of self-assurance and assertiveness, whether it makes itself known in boisterous condescension or in the sneaking pride of self-effacement.  But there were no pretensions that afternoon.

We twenty or so twenty-somethings neglected to care for our Sunday clothes as we planted ourselves on the ground in a circle, facing each other without disdain and without avoidance.  We smiled at the awkwardness as our steady hands held fast to plain-white printer paper, stained with ink in the shape of Scripture, and our unsteady, unaccompanied voices began to rise together in the shape of a song.  Trained and confident melodies proceeded from some, from others there came forth timorous attempts at harmony, and still others sang out unashamedly with voices untouched by cold skill or instruction.  Still, in all this diversity there was unity, as each voice took its place with humbleness, and no one voice sought to do damage to the words it formed by raising itself against the others or seeking to power over them.

In gentle submission we sang the words of the Psalms, which we would have had no right to do were it not for Christ’s redemption and the Spirit’s guidance enabling our understanding of the words and hindering us from pronouncing them as though we deserved to do so.  We had long suspected that the singing of those words would be significant, but that day we felt the importance of the practice.  There was scare less joy among us in those moments than what was reflected across the lake by the rays of the glorious midday sun.  What peace comes with humility!

2)  On Home

It’s been awhile since I lived on my own.  I had forgotten how much I love it.  When I open the door to my cozy two-bedroom apartment, I am utterly and gloriously free.  If I want to cook or bathe or read or watch television, I can do so, without hindrance, and without interruption.  If I need silence, I have it.  Everything is always exactly where I left it.  I can come and go as I please.

But such freedom quickly reveals selfishness and insidious laziness.  My dishes pile up for days, and I leave them there, dirty and disorganized.  Clothes are strewn across my bedroom floor.  I begin to feel as though “my” time really is just that — mine.  I watch television, and then I watch some more, and even more.  I neglect the chairs in my guest room where I might find company in a book.  I neglect my newfound freedom to take better care of myself with healthier food and exercise.

But once or twice in the course of each week, I am reminded of exactly why I am most thankful to be living alone.  Namely, I can have people over, whenever I want to, or whenever they need it.  I’m not really much of a socialite — I tend to shy away from large groups, and (as I’ve mentioned) I often prefer to be by myself.  But I’ve found that the only thing that really gives meaning to living alone is hospitality — that is the freedom I’m most thankful for right now.  I can drop anything and go pick up a friend if she needs to talk, and I don’t have to worry about privacy or about being in anyone’s way.  I can host large groups for lunch on Sunday afternoons, and they can stay as long as they’d like, because no one is being inconvenienced by their presence.

And these times refuel me, and give me a little bit of energy to overcome the doldrums of my otherwise selfishly-focused life.  They give me a reason to clean up my messes (both literal and metaphorical), and they endow my alone times with the significance of contrast — they give purpose to my rest.  My little apartment becomes home to a life outside my own, and thereby my life becomes more full and happy as well.

3)  On Frenzy

There is a searing, shooting pain that sparks like electricity through the base of my skull.  There is a throbbing in my temples that never goes away, and an unending tense and knotted feeling of asymmetry in my shoulders, neck, and jaws.  There are dull, stiff, persistent aches nestled snugly into their chosen abodes at each of my joints.  I can feel the length of each of my muscles, as though I’ve stretched them overmuch, and every inch of my frame is painful to the slightest touch.

There is a fog behind my eyes that presses forward into my vision and jumbles my thoughts behind a veil of haze as thick and disorienting as an overactive smoke machine at a drug-laden rock concert; the slightest sound, when greeting my ears, often seems as loud as the resounding drums and the cheers of the crowd; the lights that should bring clarity and joy often glare against the fog, sharply piercing my vision like the colored flood-lights that flash all-too-quickly as they keep time with the hectic melodies of life.

There is a gasping, squeezing tightness in my right side, and it radiates throughout my abdomen and up my lower back, until it stops to hide behind my right shoulder blade.  It doesn’t do a very good job of hiding. The pain gives it away.  It keeps company with constant nausea, which in its intensity is capable of producing an inexplicable paradox — it at once destroys every ounce of appetite while it also makes my appetite all the more ravenous.  The better something tastes, the worse the nausea becomes.  Yet the nausea destroys any inclination to eat the less destructive foods that taste less pleasant.  And hunger inclines me to consume what satisfies my taste buds rather than what may or may not appease the violent, grumpy organ that resides beneath my liver.

There are a million things to do.  There is no time to cook healthy food anyhow.  There are bills to pay.  There are groceries to buy.  There are address changes and craigslist searches and dirty dishes.  I have to rush.  Something compels me to hurry.  I cannot slow down, not for a moment.  I cannot catch my breath.  As more and more tasks arise, my spare time seems to shrink.  One part of my mind tells me that there is still plenty of time, that it would be better to sip some tea, to sit quietly for a moment, to stop worrying about getting everything accomplished.  But pain creates all sorts of urgencies, and the other part of my mind races, rages, refuses to be still.  It seems that every second I waste on responsibilities is a second of rest I lose forever.  There can never be enough rest.  There can never be enough sleep.  I am always tired.

There are a myriad of daily discomforts.  Discomfort is one of the defining factors of my life.  When I stand for any length of time, my blood grows sluggish, and it concentrates in my extremities, causing my hands and feet to mimic sunburn in both their color and in their itching, burning sensations.  No chair is capable of keeping my knees or my shoulders from revolting against me, and they cry out to be rearranged again and again.  I cannot sit still for long.  Even my clothes sometimes seem to be alive, and it feels as though they tug at my limbs.  I tug back, to no avail.  Every tag or seam or button is like the edge of a knife in their torturous hands.  I feel pain, head to toe, without ceasing, no matter what.  I have felt pain, head to toe, without ceasing, for as long as I can remember.  You would think it would feel normal now.  Somehow, I never get used to it.

I want to be comfortable.

4)  On Friendship and Family

I walked through the rickety front gate and down the concrete path leading up to the house where I’d lived for such a long time, or for such a short time — I can’t decide which it was.  My family lives there, or my friends live there.  My memories live there, too.  Sometimes it feels as though it were all a dream.  Even now, when I walk through that front door, I feel as though I were always a visitor in many ways.  I know that I really did live there — that I climbed those stairs every day, that I cooked in that kitchen, that I know every inch of that house.  It’s strange to feel as though that all happened so long ago, and to imagine the whole thing as a beautiful visit.  But, yes, it was a lovely, dreadful, wonderful, challenging visit, those two life-changing years.

I hug my friends, and as I reach out my arms to their little boy, he recognizes me and smiles and laughs.  I snuggle him up to me and try to steal a kiss.  He’s too fidgety.  He’s getting so big!  He crawls and toddles around and smiles — he’s always smiling.  We all catch up, and I leave.  My heart wants to burst with gratitude for the friendship that remains, but all the same I walk back to my car fully realizing that some things will never be the same.

Some things will always be the same, and I smile as I drive away and think of my family.  I think of my Dad being dragged through Wal-Mart with a shopping cart, letting me toss in whatever I need for my new apartment, and never once complaining at the register.  I think of my Mom driving all the way to Lynchburg and surviving an automobile accident all because she wanted to see my new home and to bring me some end tables and lamps.  I think of my little brother, much bigger than me, really, sending me silly Facebook messages and making me smile.  I thank God for His Providence in blessing me so richly.  These things are still the same, thank God, after so many changes in the rest of my life.

5)  On Work

I remember walking out of Yellow Branch Elementary School for the last time, after having received a giant-sized hug from one of my favorite students, after having made sure that the velcro schedules were in order.  I remember my last hug from DJ before I left his house on my last day of work with him.  I sit at my desk, behind a pane of glass, and I remember these things as I stare out into the parking lot.

I miss substitute teaching, and I miss my very dear friends in special education.  I had anticipated that I would.  But, it’s a different kind of missing than I’d expected.  I miss it, but I miss it fondly, not painfully.  I think it isn’t painful because I’m happy — I love my new job, and I love the people I work with.

I had forgotten how much I love administrative work, silly as that may seem.  I love to make copies, to send emails, to answer phones, and to check items off of lists.  I love feeling capable, and I love figuring out how to do things that I don’t already know how to do.  (I also love having a steady paycheck and stable hours.)

I am surprised by how many kind people there are in the world.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a job where I just didn’t like the people I worked with.  Maybe it’s like Elwood P. Dowd said, “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”  But I think there is something special about CSE, Inc. and the people there.  I am glad to be getting to know them, and I am thankful for the work they’ve provided for me.

It is good to have fulfilling work, because otherwise I’m often incapable of working through my chronic pain.  I am thankful for the last year of subbing, because it was fulfilling and encouraging in ways I’d never have experienced had I not done that work.  And I’m thankful for the years ahead, and for the work I’m doing now.

6)  On Worship

My heart began to beat a little faster as the last song started and I realized what was happening.  I stood up, got in line, and held out my hand.  “This is the body of Christ, given for you, Nancy.”  I hadn’t taken communion in months, while hopping from church to church, looking for a place to settle.  And here I was, settled at last.  It was my first communion in my new church.  I was becoming a member, I was being re-membered, as I remembered Christ and His sacrifice.  I had found a home, and the thought of it shook me almost to the point of tears.  I choked the tears back as I walked to my seat, gazing around at the people with whom I’d just covenanted myself.  I hardly knew them.  In fact, I hadn’t even met most of them, but I knew that God had placed them in my life.  I sat down, bowed my head, and prayed the only words that would come, “Thank you, Lord.  Thank you.”  And then I asked that I might love them as He has loved me.

7)  On Grace

Some have said that everyone has a twin out there somewhere.  I saw it in a crazy movie once when I was a child.  I’m beginning to think they’re right.  We may not look exactly alike, but I believe I’ve happened upon a “soul twin” of sorts.  Sometimes, as we sit and chat and drink tea, we pause in one of our mutual awkward silences, and we laugh at how much we have in common.  We even have the same name.

It’s delightful not to have to explain yourself to someone, nor to justify the way you think or how you’ve drawn conclusions.  It’s refreshing for someone just to “get it.”  It’s been a long time since I’ve had a friend like that — indeed, it’s been a long time since I’ve had any close female friends.  And though I’m so, so thankful for the dear brothers in Christ who’ve been my friends throughout the last few years, I knew that I needed a sister, and God in His infinite grace has given me one.

It’s the first time in years and years that I know there’s someone I can call if I need to talk, someone I can invite if I have a whim to go on a day trip to the VMFA in Richmond, someone who wants to watch the old movies and stuff that I like.  When I started looking for a church about six or so months ago, I said that I wanted to find a place where I could connect with people my age, because sometimes I just need to have fun, and sometimes I just need a friend.  I have found that place, and I have found many friends in it.  And I count it as a particularly blessed grace that God has given me a close friend and a sister from among them.

8)  On Gratitude

I feel as though I could never be properly or adequately thankful for the faithfulness of God in my life.  Yet I hope that in my feeble attempts at gratitude I will learn to be ever more humble and joyful in the presence of such a great love.

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

– Lamentations 3:19-26