Some days I fear I have lost myself: the creative, the explorer, the treasure-hunter, the one who savors my days. In more solitary, slower-paced seasons of life, I paid attention to the inner workings of my being, found words for the process, and named themes in my seasons. But the last months have gone fast, too fast to ground myself in truth for this day. Now here I am: a stranger to myself, speaking a language I do not recognize.
I have entered new worlds these last months, each governed by its own language—a spirit-empowered church, a discipleship house, a graduate social work program, a homeless shelter for people living with mental illness, an urban missions training organization, and a drug and alcohol treatment center. I have loved each one individually but none have become home; I stand at an axis point where these conflicting worlds and conflicting words converge.
As I operate in each realm, language is my passport and credentials; if I do not know the language, I will forever be a stranger in the land. Although I have done my best to be a student of the language, my words still come halting and labored. I speak borrowed words, words I have not yet fully understood or inhabited. I find myself speaking not lies but untruths, words I do not mean, cheater words, words that taste stale on my tongue.
When I think of past seasons, I think of words with intricate three-dimensional meanings, words like extravagance and terror, grace and beauty, intentionality and ownership. But when I speak or hear these words in this valley, the meaning flattens out. Take, for example, the word community, a word that has traditionally elicited sweet memories of laughter, meandering conversation, shared meals, spontaneity, discovery, and beautiful stretches of unstructured time, as well as some heartache and tears. In my present life, this word has lost its sacredness and become common, meaning everything from a geographic neighborhood, ethnic heritage, field of study, rules and regulations, the inconvenience of sharing space and bathrooms, obligation, and/or a large web of people who know each other’s names but do not know each other.
Why is this a problem? Because the way we define and use words set our perspective, determine our reality, and influence our values. A culture that does not realize that the choice to use one word is a choice to not use another does not understand intentionality. A culture that does not value the search for the precise word does not understand nuance. A culture that uses dichotomous or hastily judgmental language cannot understand ambiguity. A culture that does not savor words cannot rest.
The sentimental and commercialized language of this valley makes it hard to live sincerely and creatively here. The words we use in this valley reveal that we are too busy for the things that take time: friendship, conversation, and art. We are too busy for beauty. We have bought into this culture which fears the real and values entertainment over encounter. And for all that I value about my new career path of social work, I see a sinister lie trying to weave its way into my life: that poverty and injustice are too real and important to waste time on “useless” endeavors such as creative expression or savoring the beauty of each day.
A month or two ago, K asked me, “How is your soul?” I did not understand her question then, but now I see that I have been feeding my spirit, sharpening my mind, and taking care of my body, but neglecting my heart and my soul. The real issue, though, is not that I am wasting away from lack of beauty and creativity. No, the real issue goes far beyond that: I have forgotten how to love with a pure and free love. I have forgotten how to receive all things as beautiful and worthy of love.
It is easy for me to say that my present life is poor and dull in comparison to my past, but, really, all that has changed is my heart. I remember how a tree or a certain shade of blue in the sky or the roar of the Santa Anas sent me into raptures all day long. I remember sitting at my window for hours watching the light change. I woke early and came home late, walking all day to see what I could see. I answered the pull of adventure on my heart and traveled to foreign countries when no one would come with me. I ran in the rain and climbed trees and sang from hilltop to hilltop. And when Rilke asked, “In the most silent hour of your night, must you write?,” I answered with a simple but imperative, “Yes.”
See: when I approached each morning with love, all things were transformed, and nothing was dull or mundane. This world, each blade of grass, each person burned with golden light. And I know: that same brilliance is waiting for me today. So I am opening my heart to love again, my eyes to see, my hands to receive, for when love is the starting place, nothing is too poor and nothing is wasted. I am no mere product of my environment; I am the actor, the wordsmith, the curator of my life. I am the one who chooses what good, what beauty, and what love will fill the empty galleries of my days.