Sunday, May 15, 2011

Forgiveness and Goodbyes: A Tribute to Jane Austen

 One of the first things I do before writing a retrospective of a Jane Austen novel, is to sit down and search the internets for reasons why other people loved the book.  It's nice to see other people's perspectives and find solidarity in the opinions we have in common.  As I began researching various views of Persuasion, I came across this- "If you've ever felt your family didn't treat you the way they should; if you've ever been misunderstood, misled, or misguided in any way, then Persuasion will speak your language.  If you've ever yielded to the opinions of others over what your heart told you to do, if you've ever given up someone because you were told you had to, if you've ever wasted even a tiny bit of this short life holding on to resentment instead of opening up to forgiveness and love, then you will get your second chance to make things right with Persuasion." If that doesn't make you jump to pick up a copy immediately, I don't know what will.

This novel was Jane Austen's last.  She died before it was ever published.  The amount of beautiful and hopeful life truths packed into only a couple hundred pages is a testament not only to Jane's prowess for understanding human nature, but to how much a writer grows and matures throughout her career.  This a mature story- it has a quiet hopefulness only a woman who has lived, seen, and understood could write.  It's subtle, tragic, joyous, and all together wonderful.

That quote I mentioned before really gets to the essence of this book- it's about forgiveness and second chances.  Someone told me once, about an older couple so obviously in love, yet not without their struggles and imperfections.  This person told me, "he loved her because and despite of where she came from."  This woman wasn't easy- she was hurt and broken and ill used in her past.  She was withheld the love we all so much desire need as we are growing.  But this man, this loving and patient man, could see past her jagged edges and loved her in a way she had never experienced or thought possible- completely and unconditionally.

That was the real life love story I was thinking of while reading Persuasion.  Anne Elliot is over looked, mistreated and abused by her family.  Jane writes about it in such a way that it makes you heart break for Anne when she is dismissed time after time and made to feel insignificant and voiceless.  The man of her dreams- the wonderful and gentle Mr. Wentworth- stands before her, asking her to walk with him forever.  She is forced to say no.  She is so controlled by her family- her vain, judgmental, awful family that think Wentworth lacks both breeding and wealth  to marry an Elliot. This is where the real life example and the literature diverge. Mr. Wentworth- being young and passionate and human- leaves, hurt and confused beyond consolation.

It's here we get another life lesson from Mamma Jane.  Holding on to things- resentment, betrayal, anger sadness, hurt, and pain- does absolutely no one any good  When you do that, hold on to toxic things that spread and pollute, your perceptions of things will eventually become malignant.  You can so easily miss the forgiveness standing right in front of you, screaming and begging you to snatch it up and hold it close.

After many years, Mr. Wentworth and Anne are eventually reunited in true Jane fashion- through a series of coincidences.  He is now a captain in the Navy, just as handsome, and much more wealthy.  She is still under her family's abusive thumb and still desperately in love with Captain Wentworth.  Despite all logic and reason, she secretly hopes, in that palce where all woman hope for impossible things, that he will have forgiven her.  He hasn't.  Time has not healed all his wounds and his embitterment and resentment is palpable.  The only thing that hurts more than losing your first love is having their pain and hatred paraded in front of you over and over and over again.

I'm telling you, this story is seriously heart breaking.

But, thankfully, it's about forgiveness- no the lack-there-of.  And the all-to-relatable pain we witness Anne having to endure make her and Captain Wentworth's reconciliation all the more beautiful.  Wentworth writes Anne, inarguably, the greatest letter in the history of the post.  He is honest and apologetic and vulnerable- but more importantly, he finally forgives her.  He let's go of all that betrayal and ego.  Once his malignant perception of her is is cut away, he can finally see what's truly in front of him: a girl who was never given a chance or taught to fight for what she wants; a girl begging for love and respect; a girl he never stopped loving, not even for a minute.  And so, he loves her- because of and despite of where she came from.  That is the most miraculous kind of love, because it rests entirely in forgiveness.

I started this off telling you why someone else loves Persuasion.  Now let me tell you why I love it.  I love it because it's about a lonely girl who's misunderstood and undervalued.  It's about her chance to redeem all of that- to become bold and heard and loved.  It's about letting go so you can let someone in. It's about freeing yourself, about forgiving people- accepting the burden of pain they've placed on you and no longer blaming them for it.  This story is about Hope.

I could end this post with that- in fact, that was a right fine ending and I debated whether or not I should continue on.  But the authoress that has taught me so much deserves a few lines more.  This post isn't just about forgiveness and hope- it's about saying goodbye.  Persuasion may have taken me the longest to finish.  I would read only a few pages at a time- drinking in those final words the way you would with an ill friend during her last days.  Eventually I read that final sentence on the final page of her final novel, and my little hand was reluctantly pried away from her weathered, grandmotherly grasp.

Jane Austen fans are easy to poke fun at.  On the surface they we seem positively out of touch with reality.  But really, when you go through this experience, when you let Jane guide you through the murky waters of the human condition (armed with a subtle wit and a bonnet), something happens.  You are suddenly more in touch with your reality than you ever thought possible.  Looking back through my posts about Jane, I am amazed at the lessons I unearthed and the parts of myself I discovered.  And all of them so personally and providentially relevant- it creates quite the emotional response.  And, embarrassing as it is to admit, I am currently fighting back tears as I write this, surrounded by people in a coffee shop.  These tears, this emotion, is about loving a woman who lived decades before myself and yet somehow reached through the ether to touch my life now.  It's about saying goodbye to a friend and accepting the sadness that they will never speak new words into your life again.

Except, here's the amazing thing about the written word- the magic Jane and I both hold so dear- her words will never go away.  They are printed and permanent. I may never read anything new from Jane, but the messages she speaks into my life are and will be endless.  It's not really goodbye when her presence and influence are as infinite as I am.

I'll take this last bit of space to say thank you to you, Jane.  Thank you for teaching me, challenging me, entertaining me, and inspiring me.  Yours are not simple love stories- they are complex portraits of the fragile and diverse human spirit.  In part, it will be for you and what you stood for that I pour myself into observation and understanding.  It will be for you that I mix universal truths with clever wit and poetry.  It will be for you that I seek to inspire, encourage, and befriend with my words.  In short, it is because of you that I will write.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Peter Pan Complex, Jane Austen Style

For a little over a year, I've been reading Jane Austen novels and writing round-about life lessons that only sort of have something to do with the book.  This particular goal has been one of my most formidable- as odd as that might sound.  I learned about choosing reason over passion, choosing to be authentic in relationships, choosing to be vulnerable and take risks on people, and choosing to let go of those things in the past that can really hold back my present.  These are not small life lessons.  These are things that have shaped the way I look at myself and interact with the world.  I'm not saying I've mastered all or any of them.  I'm just saying, they're a big deal.

I thought Northanger Abby wasn't going to be such a big deal.  Austen wrote it to be a parody in response to the gothic novel- which was in vogue at the time- and to discuss the commercial aspect of marriage, which also happened to be in vogue.  Her heroine, Catherine, isn't exactly heroic.  The first line of the book reads, "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine."  Her family's a little crazy and over crowded, with a moderate income- neither destitute or wealthy.  There is nothing romantic about an average economic state.  Catherine herself "bloomed" later than her peers, led a sheltered adolescence, and reads books better than she reads people. And that is her tragic flaw.  She prefers imagination over reality.  So much so, she creates a story in her head, leading her to believe the father of the man she loves murdered his mother. This ends up being false and Catherine goes home feeling embarrassed and mourning the loss of love. (Don't worry, it's  Jane Austen novel, they end up together in the end).  

In my younger days, ages 16-21, I'd definitely say I could related to Catherine.  And I think that's why she's one of my favorite heroines. It's the same reason I unabashedly listen to Taylor Swift all the time occasionally.  It brings me back to those days when I actually thought life was like, well, a Taylor Swift song.  True, life seemed to be much more interesting back in my Catherine Morland days, but it was also much more disappointing.  As it turns out, unreal expectations hardly ever get met.  It's a lot like what I wrote after reading Sense and Sensibility- letting reason prevail over passion.

Catherine and I learned the same lesson- life isn't about drama.  And I don't mean the reality TV, screaming and fighting, sort of drama.  I'm talking about the romantic kind of drama- the kind that happens when you let your imagination trickle into your reality.  The kind where you think life is going to be like a romantic comedy, or that no one will notice if you suddenly start talking with a southern accent (yes, I was weird).  When Catherine learns this lesson it marks the end of her adolescence and the beginning of adulthood.  And after re-reading my previous post about choosing reason over passion I realized I, too, began to leave behind that wonderstruck, eternally optimistic, head in the clouds, girl behind.  I left her behind for a grown up realist whose mantra seems to be, "low expectations, no disappointment."  And that's just... kind of sad. So here we've reached the main point I'm taking away from this book- growing up really really sucks.  I quite miss believing my life was going to turn out like a best selling novel.  And there is a part of me that very much wants to ignore credit card bills, insurance companies and FAFSA applications, in favor of building a fort, turning on a flashlight and reading Charlotte's Web until I fall asleep.  

But there's a second part to this.  True, growing up can be truly awful, but it doesn't come without some redeeming factors.  Yes, I have obligations that I really don't want to deal with.  Yes, the "fantastical" part of my identity seems to be waning in favor of a realist with low expectations.  It seems to be easy to forget the tumultuous embarrassments and let downs I was subjected to when my imaginations seeped into my real life.  Because, like I said, high expectations rarely ever get met.  So redeeming factor number 1: a cooler head makes for less embarrassment and disappointment.

And let's not forget all the amazing things I get to do now that I am an "adult" (I still can't own that term completely)- things I dreamed of doing before this growth spurt.  I get to be independent.  I get to travel.  I get to spend my money on whatever I was (for better or for worse), and no one gets to tell me when to take a bath or what time to go to bed any more.  Adulthood is truly something else.

I really didn't want to write about this- the sadness of growing up.  At the end of Peter Pan, there's a line about the grown up Wendy that reads, "You need not be sorry for her. She was one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls."  I am not that girl.  I didn't want to write about this, because I really don't know where this leaves me, or anyone for that matter.  Growing up is not an option, it's a reality.  I can't change the fact that I have bills to pay, I don't want to go back to confusing fantasy with reality, and I'm certain I'll never be eight years old again. The best you can do is appreciate and acknowledge that person you used to be- that dreaming, optimistic girl that believed in fairies and world peace. You can accept that you are not that person anymore.  And most importantly, you can smile because you got to be that person for a while.  And maybe, you can build a fort out of pillows and blankets in your closet and read Charlotte's Web by flashlight- because you're an adult and no one can tell you not to. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Jackie - Big Question Marks

Ok, here we are, back into posting about actual goals. I suppose it's about time to dig into the spiritual goal. I started writing all of these a few months ago, so I just need to spruce them up a little and post them. I'm hoping to get through these pretty quickly. Here we go...

I felt a nagging, no, that's not quite the right word, it sounds too negative. I felt a tug back before the holidays. It was really soft at first, in fact, I almost missed it; it was tender and gentle and kind. A beckoning of my soul. And, it felt familiar.

I've had this spiritual goal on my list and I spent the better part of the year not addressing it, but over the holidays I answered that tug and got to have some really fascinating conversations. Here's a refresher on the goal: I have spiritual questions. Ones that cannot go unanswered any longer. I decided the book and church answers I can quote from memory weren't enough; I needed more. I wanted to hear first-hand experiences and thoughts. 

I chose a handful of people I respect and asked them for a cup of coffee. I got all scientific-like asking them the same questions, documenting their answers and will present these findings to you. I explained to them that I know the Bible passages and rote answers, but I want to hear their hearts and what made them choose, and continue to choose Christianity.

But before we get to their answers, I want to give you the questions for perspective.

[Wait, even before I get to that, I must apologize. It's going to take a handful of posts to get through this goal. I hope posting this all at once isn't tedious for you as a reader, but if it is I won't be offended if you skip a few and "save them for later."] 

Here's where I'm coming from. I am a Christian and I believe everything that goes along with that. I believe there is more to this life than meets the eye and I want to be a part of what's bigger. I love, depend on and need God. BUT... and you knew that was coming... sometimes have a hard time seeing the relevance in Christianity. It seems out of place; it's like doesn't fit. I suppose that makes sense with the self-sufficient, relationally-disconnected lifestyle we have modeled for us in America. Thus...

Question #1: What does it mean to be a Christian?

Each person choses faith for their own reasons - as they should. But to get a little background on the perspective of each interviewee, I wanted to know how they each made their decision to identify with Christianity. Thus...

Question #2: Why should I believe there's a God? Why should I care? Why does it matter if I believe in God?

Life is significant, or at least it should be. I believe it is. But is it really? And if so, what does that mean?... for my life? For the lives of those around me? For the world? And if we know the point of life, will that make a difference or change things? Thus...

Question #3: What's the point of life? What's our individual purpose? What is the point of God having a will if he gave us freedom of choice? Is it Satan who causes bad stuff because he sucks? Or God who causes bad stuff to happen because I'm not good enough?

Then I have to wonder how prayer fits into all of this. I don't always understand why God wants to spend time with us. We're supposed to be in some sort of relationship with him, but few people would continue to be in a relationship with someone who treats them as badly as we treat God. It feels almost like God is self-deprecating in the way it feels like he lets us walk all over him. Which brings me back to my point, why does God want to spend time with us? And why would we feel we have the right to ask anything of him? Thus... 

Question #4: Prayer: how do I approach it? How does it work? Does it work? How do I evaluate its effectiveness?

Then we get to the real crux of the matter... being a real-life Christian. I hate to say this, but I am more often embarrassed to call myself a Christian than I am proud. I am often bewildered that the faith system I belong to, whose focus is loving God who desires relationship, has become a place of judgment, selfishness, unloving and not accepting. It's beyond a matter of personal reputation. I hate that I feel I have to apologize for choosing to to be a follower of Christ. Thus...

Question #5: Why should I want to be a part of Christianity when it feels like it comes with a bad reputation or bad name? What does it look like to be an culturally-relevant, non-apologetic Christian? 

I think a lot of people can agree that during the hard times, when it seems there's nothing else to rely on, it's easy to have a relationship with God. Well, maybe "easy" isn't quite the right word. But, when the going is rough, there is an inherent need to have something bigger than this world to believe in, to lean on, to be carried by. How about when things are going well and everything seems to be holding itself together? What then? Thus...

Question #6: What does a relationship with God look like in the "normal" times?

And last, because each person's relationship with God is such an individual experience, I asked this final question. [Spoiler alert: This question might have something to do with one of my goals for next year.]

Question #7: Who is God to you? 

Looking over this list in hindsight, it feels like I asked some daunting questions... I supposed I did. 

The people who gracious shared their thoughts with me did an amazing job putting their faith into perspective. I'm excited to share their answers with you... stay tuned.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jackie - Unravelled

I did something that wasn't very nice. I didn't mean to do it... it just kind of happened. I try to be considerate of others, but sometimes when this brain of mine is trying to synthesize too many things all at once, everything ends up mashed together into one big heap of non-functioning jambalaya. So I wanted to start this blog with an apology for writing a disconcerting blog and then falling off the planet because that wasn't very nice of me.

Here's the deal... sometimes when you pull a little thread, the whole thing comes unravelled. That's kinda what happened. This year of Shake the Dust for me was about figuring out me, defining me. It feels a little narcissistic, so I haven't actually said it in this many words before now, but it was "the year of me." It was a year of picking apart what was shaping my life and putting everything back with intentionality. I looked at the people in my life, the stuff in my life, my finances, my creativity, my spirituality, my future goals and the little things in between -- taking things apart and putting them back together again. The hope was to come out on the other side feeling like a more holistic version of myself. And for the most part, that's what was happening.

Then we got to February. And there was this little thread. So I pulled it. But it just got a little bigger. So I pulled a little more. And that's about when things started falling apart. It's like I ripped out the entire seam. The whole story is much, much too long and complicated for a blog post at this point. But I can tell you I'm confident that when I get to the other side of this, I think I will be a more complete version of myself than I ever have been. 

But for now I'm in the middle -- between the seams -- and my heart is raw.

Here's the great part about being in the middle, with the seams in disarray: you have the unique capacity to know the love of those around you. A friend recently introduced me to the this quote: "Grief makes us more permeable, where we can get out of ourselves and others can get in. It changes the very shape of our soul." -Richard Rohr

And I have definitely been shaped.  

I could write a string of blogs on the ways I have been touched and shaped by those around me, but I'll get to the point. Sarah had the insight to see that while the point of this blog was to see what we could do in a year and be honest about what we did and didn't accomplish, sometimes it's more important to have grace with ourselves and finish well. I'm in Portland for the weekend and plan to visit some of my favorite coffee establishments and put into words how I've been shaking the dust. 

For the real this time... stay tuned.