Circles

Writing feels useless. And stupid. And lonely. 

But I hate disappointing people, or even feeling like I might have disappointed someone. And I hate to quit. Well, I hate being a quitter. At least I’m stubborn. At least I have that going for me.

So in the hopes that this will end up being something sort of meaningful to somebody, maybe somebody I don’t even know (which feels even more lonely than anything I’ve said so far), I’m going to talk about circles.

Last weekend I spent a long weekend at my brother’s, with his girlfriend and my boyfriend, so we could see the total eclipse. Macon was experiencing a 95% eclipse, but for just 4 hours of driving, I could see my brother and introduce our respective significant others, and see a bright circle in the sky. The circle I’m referring to is the corona, the white circle of the sun’s atmosphere visible around the moon in the three minutes of a total solar eclipse. There is no corona at 95%, in Macon. I had only ever seen photos, and the Heroes TV show logo, and I wanted to see the sun’s corona for myself. I’ve talked before about how much I love space, and after three terrible weeks at work on top of three incredibly busy weeks in my personal life, and after a week of being sick, I wanted my boyfriend and my brother and interesting space things to all be in the same place at the same time. 

However, much as the moon and the sun only seemed to occupy the same space at the same time during the eclipse, my weekend didn’t go to plan. Not just because I was exhausted and recovering from a bad cold, but because of unmet expectations and my inability, especially while so drained, to recognize how my supine personality was working against me. When this happens, I find myself struggling with the same things I’ve struggled with in the past. You’d think what I learned would have stuck better than that. I look through past journals and prayers and blog posts and constantly tick off a box in my head for lessons I must now relearn. 

I thought of this phenomenon first on the drive to my brother’s as I told Tyler about the movie “Letters to Juliet.” It used to be one of my favorites, but I noticed a pattern. I would watch it, enjoy it thoroughly, and hate my life afterwards. It’s a movie about traveling, and writing, and love, and each time I watched it (the last of which was two years ago), I was pining for all three. I wanted to be traveling but wasn’t. I wanted to be writing but was struggling to finish anything. And I wanted to be in love but had never been. As I told Tyler this, I had to force back tears. I wish it was because I was so thankful for him, and that after so many years of learning to be lonely but happy I felt the gravity of the blessing of being in love and happy. No, I fought tears because once again I am not traveling and not writing.

I don’t need to see the movie again to see the circles I’ve drawn in my life. Just as I knew two years ago when I last watched two people fall in love on a road trip to a Tuscan Winery with Vanessa Redgrave, I know that this is a wholly unrealistic situation. I also know it prompts me to make an equally fictitious summation of my life. There are so many things I love about my life, including the fact that I have traveled. A lot. And written a lot. And loved many, many people. I knew this two years ago, and the year before that, and every second I have let myself lie about my life. I know these thoughts are based in fear, including my old nemesis the fear of missing out, and not in fact. I struggled, even as Tyler sat beside me and held my hand, to relearn the lesson and view my life more frankly.

You know it’s bad when a more frank perspective of yourself would be more compassionate of you.

Since the three minutes I saw the corona, I’ve wanted to write about the eclipse. I enjoyed telling my co-workers what I saw, how the air felt, and inadvertently convinced my boss that he should travel to experience the total solar eclipse in 2024. Yet to write it down, when we are inundated with images and accounts from countless other people, what can I say? What use could it be? And how can I encompass my experience of those three minutes? Three minutes which I regretted being gone the moment the diamond of light appeared at the cusp of the moon’s top right quadrant. Three minutes which I now want desperately to experience again in 2024.

What can I write that hasn’t been written before? What can I say that will mean anything to anyone anywhere? Ageless questions, ones I used to spurn as being from those who had not committed, or fully committed if I was being charitable, to the life of writing. And now I’m asking these very questions. I’ve circled back.

Here’s to breaking a circle. Even if it’s stupid and useless and lonely.

The corona was “a ring of pure and endless light.” More pure than anything I’ve ever seen. It was easy to forget that there’s the moon between the sun and me, easy to forget that this isn’t science fiction. With the sunset in every direction, a loop of gold around our dimness, and with the purple and blue and pink thunderheads on our periphery, it was easy to feel both chosen and insignificant. In the dim, identifying planets and noting planes, we looked at the white-silver atmosphere of the star that keeps us alive. How little light was needed for the world to seem normal. And now normal was gone, replaced in the sky with this unearthly beauty. And silence. I felt like angels should be singing arias around us and over us and through us. But there was nothing.

Well, not nothing. There were the crickets, and the birds swooping to their nests, and all the summer sounds of twilight that were out of place in this dim not-night. People we couldn’t see shouted, and I think we did too, at the moment of totality. People on a sandbar in the river behind us, people in the apartment complex’s pool, people on their balconies, people with lawn chairs in the parking lot. If it weren’t for those shouts, it would have been easy to believe it was only happening to us. And in those shouts I felt the tremble of alarm and surprise echoing backwards and forwards throughout human existence. We knew it was coming. We’d seen photos of past eclipses and live videos of this same eclipse experienced in Oregon and Kentucky, and still we shouted when the lid closed on the jar and we were in darkness.

The moment of totality should have been as gradual as the rest of the eclipse, but it wasn’t. The streetlamp came on beside us, a disorienting LED surge at the moment of dark.

Though, it wasn’t dark exactly. It wasn’t like night. It wasn’t like twilight. It was like the pantyhose filter used to film “The Fiddler on the Roof” had been dropped over the world. Or, I suppose, it was like an Instagram filter. Everything we could see was dingier, a kind of brown, except for the sky.

Three solar flares were stretching our yellow sun’s atmosphere in pure white shoots. Nothing appeared yellow about our sun in that moment. Nothing appeared familiar. No feature of our moon was visible. It’s dark side was absolute and temporary. I wanted to watch the corona for hours. I wanted to see the solar flares change the corona’s shape. I wanted to look into the vivid sky, wave at Jupiter and Venus, and peer 360 degrees around me at the strong sunset.

I took four photos quickly, immediately, including one selfie. I used my Sky Map app to identify the star and planets we saw. We noted a drone and some planes. The frenzy of all that newness began to subside. I said I wanted to look at the corona for hours. I glanced at the tree below the streetlight where we’d looked at tiny sun crescents earlier.

“It’s ending!” my brother’s girlfriend cried and my soul shouted “No!” Frenzy took me. I looked up, and the diamond on the ring of light was growing. I couldn’t see the flare shapes in the corona anymore and my eyes stung. One percent of the sun reemerged and we fumbled for our eclipse glasses. Even one percent was too much to try to look at without protection. The frenzy was chased by disbelief, regret, and finally resignation.

I would have liked to have stayed there, watching the crescent sun grow back into the disc I’ve always known, but my life’s cares had rushed back with it’s single percent of light. We wanted to get ahead of as much traffic as we could. We stood up, walked back inside. Tyler and I shouldered our last bags and tucked our eclipse glasses inside my writing notebook. I drove the four hours back to Macon thinking about circles and regret and how my next chance to see the corona will be in 2024, I considered how much farther away than a four-hour drive the totality path will be, and how I’ll need to take more than one day off work so I can spend more time with the eclipsing moon and inconstant sun.

I hope I can. It’d be a good circle.

(Photo courtesy of NASA)

Be Still and Know

Recently, a favorite song has been The Fray’s “Be Still.”

It begins, “Be still and know that I’m with you. Be still and know that I am here,” seemingly referencing Psalm 46:10: Be still, and know that I am God. I’ve listened to this song dozens of times in the past month, often dozens of times a day, and find it playing in my head in quiet moments.

Mellow and emotive, the song carries the listener through a variety of situations, following these descriptions with the simple assurance of the speaker’s presence. In the second stanza, he also promises to “say your name”. Then, in the third, encourages the listening to “Remember all the words I said.”

The situations are moderated by either “when” or “if”. The two “when” instances are:
-“When darkness comes upon you and covers you with fear and shame”
-“And when you go through the valley and shadow comes down from the hill”.

These things will happen. “Darkness” and “the valley”—presumably of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4)—will enter our lives. We will feel “fear and shame” and “shadow.” We will be threatened by them. We will have to face them. And when we do, we should “Be still and know that I’m with you.” That exact phrasing is repeated four times, “Be still and know I am” twice, “Be still and know” twice, “Be still and know I’m here” once, “Be still” once. The effect is lullaby-like, as a parent soothing a crying child. The lyrics don’t make it clear whether the speaker is a parent, a friend, a lover, or God, but the words effuse safety, reassurance, and love.

Wisdom is also obvious in the inclusion of four “if” statements:
-“If terror falls upon your bed and sleep no longer comes”
-“If morning never comes to be”
-“If you forget the way to go and lose where you came from”
-“If no one is standing beside you.”

Extreme fear, despair, losing oneself, and feeling utterly alone may not ever happen to the listener, but if they do, the promise is the same: I’m with you. So are the instructions: be still and know.

Don’t lose faith, the lyrics seem to say. Don’t let the world or your feelings lie to you, telling you that you have no one. You will always have me. I will always be with you. Even if nightmares or fear of the future keep you awake at night, you will have these instructions to sustain you: “be still” and “know”.

The singer infuses his voice with simple, straightforward sincerity. His voice edges in pain when he sings of fear, death, and abandonment the listener may and will face. He does not want this person to suffer. He loves this person. He is devoted. And he has no qualms about how difficult and painful and mean and bitter the world can be. It will be painful; when. It may be horrible; if.

Depending on my mood and what else has happened in the day, I imagine a parent singing these words, a spouse, a sibling. I imagine myself as the singer or recipient of these promises. But most often, I listen like I do a psalm addressed from God to God’s creation (to me): be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I’m with you. Be still and know I am.

There is one more assurance I want to point out. After noting that darkness will come and fear and shame will be felt, after giving the “be still and know” instructions, the speaker sings, “And I will say your name.”

In the Bible, names describe a person’s essence, who they are in a real and important way. Every time a person experiences a name change—by choice or divine decree—they are saying their character is no longer the same. Jacob (thief) became Israel (wrestles with God). Naomi (pleasant) becomes Mara (bitter). Simon (he has heard) becomes Peter (rock). Saul (prayed for) becomes Paul (humble). That last one has the additional layer of a person known by a Hebrew name becoming known by a Latin one as his ministry transitions from focusing on reaching Jewish people to Gentile people.

Asking for things in prayer by “Jesus’ name” is doing as Jesus instructed: If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it (John 14:14). But with this understanding of the use of “name” in the Bible, we can see that praying in Jesus’ name can mean praying in accordance with Jesus’ character. For example, if you ask for healing, you are appealing to Christ as healer, knowing Christ did heal many and loves people, so it is in his character to heal.

When we look at the phrases around the one I just quoted, we see shades of this: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). For God’s glory, not our preferred baseball team or convenience in the carpool line, will God grant prayers. And neither did Jesus act or speak except to bring glory to God. That is very much in Christ’s character.

As is restraint. Jesus did not save himself. He may not save you or your loved one like you hope. Even calling on Christ to save a life or to protect from harm—though fulfilling these requests would be consistent with his character—does not guarantee that Jesus will actually intervene as you’ve asked. Scores of books and sermons have analyzed the meaning and ramifications of “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). I am by no means equal to them, but can attest that it feels awfully selfish of God—or at least feels like cold abandonment—to not receive the healing or help in my situation that I know another person received in their situation.

The singer promising to speak the listener’s name is an intimate and powerful action. Through this biblical lens, “I will say your name” becomes “I will remind you who you are.” And that, at least for me, is powerful encouragement.

On Mary Magdelene at the Tomb

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). —John 20:11-16

Mary had been at the cross. She was there until the very end, most likely. (As was John.) She may well have been one of the people who saw Jesus’ body go into the tomb. She may have had an hour or more with her dead friend and teacher as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus arranged for the body to be given to them and dress for the tomb. They had to transport his body.

No wonder it’s hard for her to picture Jesus as anything but dead.

And Mary has spent her Sabbath thinking about and preparing for her Sunday morning trip to the tomb to anoint his body. When you expect something so hard you don’t even imagine another possibility, of course any deviation is hard to comprehend. Especially your dead friend alive and speaking with you.

His body missing was devastating, but this isn’t a hard assumption to make. Christ was dead. His body isn’t where she last knew it to be. Therefore, someone must have taken it. Someone took it benevolently (the gardener) or someone took it malevolently (a robber or enemy). These are the possibilities in her mind, and they are evidence of her mind in crisis mode.

Mary is practical, maybe even a pragmatist. John wasn’t at the tomb at daybreak to care of Christ’s body as they hadn’t had time to on Friday evening. He’s not even there to support Mary and the others who are going, or to help move the stone for them. No one is there to offer this practical help, save Mary.

She came to care for her dead friend’s body. His body is missing. Someone must have taken it. But where, and why?

The fact that Mary seems to share this plea to the supposed gardener so quickly suggests to me that Mary has been thinking it through. Yes, she is grieving. Yes, she is devastated, gutted anew by Jesus’ missing body. But she is also working on the problem. Where could his body be? Is there any hope of getting it back? To the gardener, Mary offers to carry Jesus’ body away. I think she intended to move him herself, one way or another, despite the smell and loose limbs, both of which she’d prepared herself for on her long, mournful Sabbath. How beautiful, this willingness, this yearning to care for and to restore.

Caring and restoring. That sounds a lot like Christ.

Maybe Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus because he was kind of unearthly looking. Maybe he was still a ways off. Maybe Mary couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Maybe the new day’s sun was in her eyes. Maybe Mary still expecting death so much she simply could not recognize life. Maybe, like the disciples Jesus travels with on the road to Emmaus, Mary senses something is different. Something is good in a fundamental way, but she hasn’t yet figure out what. Maybe she stumbles on in spite of this feeling. Maybe she thinks this feeling, this heart-quickening leap, is hope that Christ’s body is not stolen forever.

The best, best news awaits her. The best revelation. And it comes with her name.