Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In Pursuit of Making Something Beautiful

I stumbled on Prodigal Magazine’s prompt by chance: “What does it mean to live a good story?” Head over there now to read all the stories or submit your own…and become part of the “good story” conversation! 

I was knee-deep in Pinterest mania–after a weekend of asthmatic breathlessness, where my lungs hurt from sipping on narrow pipes of air, and there was nothing better than distracting myself with the semi-mindlessness of collecting little images for the literary timeline of my life.


In usual virtual synchronicity, all my pinterest collecting primed me to think about what makes a good story. I have spent my life reading them, envying them, aspiring to them, and believing I could never validly write them with the artfulness of those writers and livers I have loved. When I was very young I was worried nothing interesting would happen to me, that I would be the shy wallpaper character in the plot of someone’s better story. What I didn’t realize until retrospect kicked in was that my life (sometimes painfully and terribly) was not lacking in interesting–it was good, bad, terrible, painful, ecstatic, restless, vivid, relentless–but has it been “good”? I guess it depends on how a human being defines the word “good”.

A good plot is not necessarily a joyful story. A happy story does not always make a great plot.

And good in life could be seen as synonymous with interesting, or it could be seen as equal to moral, or it can just mean being imbued with grace. I think my life has had moments which fit all of the above, but as the hardships match the joys with increasing fury, I think the thing that has made the story good, for me, has been grace. And that has nothing to do with plot or craft or even something being interesting.


When I was a girl I read the story of Miss Rumphius. As a child she dreamed of traveling the world, going to faraway places, meeting interesting people and doing interesting things.

Her grandfather, whose interesting life she admired, told her she could travel the world and come home to live, like him, by the sea but there was one more thing she must do. “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” She didn’t know what that thing would be but she always remembered his words. She grew up and traveled the world. She went to faraway places and met fascinating people. She aged and decided to come home to live by the sea, as her grandfather had. She began to plant lupine flowers, which were her favorite. That winter she became ill and bedridden, but the air of the sea carried her seedlings for miles and lupines grew along the coast. When spring came and she felt better she began carrying the seedlings for lupines for miles and miles, into the countryside and along the coastline. She was soon surrounded by the blossoming beauty she had grown–and she knew she had created something beautiful.

When I was young l I understood this story as a sort of slowly unraveling mystery. I knew inside the imagery of exotic travel, the comfort of home, and the simplicity of carrying beauty into the world, there was some kind of greater truth. But there was no way to see it, like Miss Rumphius, through the eyes of a little girl. I was still enchanted by the idea of a great plot, and an exotic story. I had no idea what it meant to do something greater than just live a “good story”.

What I would learn, much later, is that it is much more important to “be good(ness) in the story.” The critical part of the stories which make up a life is doing something beautiful.


I don’t know if I am particularly wise for my years, but I feel like my body and spirit has been given more wear and tear than even my wildly colorful childhood imagination could have envisioned.

I lived through the death of my youngest baby brother in his 9th month in utero–his name was Christopher.

I lived through the family pact we made, after Christopher’s death, to help other children in his stead. I lived through our work with “Healing the Children” and the years we helped Oscar, Seuhedi, and Sabrina through multiple surgeries (for spina bifida) when they traveled away from their families and to our home from La Republica Dominicana. I sat with the babies at night during my early teens, using my adoptee Colombian face, familiar to them, and my mediocre middle school and high school Spanish to help them fall asleep.

I remember speaking to Seuhedi’s mother on the phone, in 9th grade, when no one else in my house new Spanish, telling her, as she wept, that I couldn’t help her get Seuhedi back into the country, and the organization had to approve it. She cried, “Ayuda me, mi nina es enferma. Por favor, su eres Americana.” That was the last year I studied Spanish. I remember searching for my birth mother after my 18th birthday when my records in Bogota, Colombia were unsealed. I remember when all the leads went dead and her trail went cold. I remember not really knowing who I was for a very long time.

I remember living through youthful rebellion and painful identity crisis–I remember being mad at my mom and mad at God and angry with the imperfections inherent in the humans in a human church who I felt were God’s poor ambassadors. I was sickened by things that felt more like judgement than love and I left God and the church I grew up in, in a huff of perfectionistic indignation.


I remember suffering through two sexual traumas in my late teens, one by someone I trusted more than I should have, and one by someone I didn’t know enough to trust.

I remember years where life went fuzzy and dark–there are vacant spaces where life, emotion, and passion for anything seemed to stall. I didn’t read, I didn’t write, and I left home not seeking adventure but wanting to leave a painful history behind.

I remember three years in Colorado, a really bad relationship, a few battered walls and broken dishes, and finally waking up. I remember the pain of waking up and nights spent alone on a bathroom floor after nightmares of my past came flooding back and as feeling returned to my life. I remember, for the first time, a visceral feeling that God was there–fighting with me, fighting for me, for many midnights on the bathroom floor.

I remember coming home, going back to school, and beginning to live again. I was rabid about life and learning and absorbing the world and feeling strong. I read literature (as an English major) and I regained strength in my-self (as a Womens’ Studies minor). I ran into the experience of living like I was on fire, stoked by every waking moment, never wanting to go numb again. Never wanting to be afraid again. I remember debating the Masters in English my Jane Austen professor was prompting me towards. I remember contemplating a job at the publishing house in lower Manhattan where I interned, and writing the novel that every copy writer and assistant there seemed to be writing.

I remember feeling I wanted to help and thinking, I can always write no matter what I do. I didn’t know how or who I would “help” but I wanted to take the caregiving I learned in childhood, and the blessing of healing I had experienced, and carry it outward to healing the lives of others. I remember applying to NYU’s School of Social Work, thinking it was beyond a long shot. I remember the bliss at getting in and then the panic at the thought of being a therapist, wondering what I would do. I remember getting my internship, hidden in an envelope we all got on the first day of school. I remember looking around at all the nervous faces, and could almost hear the drum-roll, like we were about to read the winner of the Oscar for best internship. I remember opening it to the words “combat veterans” and thinking, I am so screwed. I remember falling in love with the work,  and finding deep resonance in helping as a healed healer in the manner in which I was wounded (like Henri Nouwen says). Then, after that I worked with international refugees and survivors of torture, and the domestic violence, and sexual trauma.

With each kind of trauma I worked with I discovered that trauma was the same in many ways across many lines. I guess the same way that any pain is the same in many ways across many lines.


I remember graduating and before starting work deciding to backpack through Southeast Asia alone. It was like a defining point for me in affirming my adulthood, cementing a life in which I was no longer afraid, and a nod to my Miss Rumphius childhood aspirations. I had backpacked Europe and South America previously with friends but this was my Rumphius moment. I went to faraway places and met wonderful people like the woman who saved elephants in northern Thailand, and Mama, the devout Buddhist, who cared for me when I was sick in Laos, and “Ugly” the punk rock Thai tattoo artist who gave me my ankle elephants in Chiang Mai.

As I traveled alone I remembered all the other people I had met along the path of my life–since I had read Miss Rumphius, since I had woken from PTSD of trauma, and in this final long trip to faraway places. I remembered Mama Weidi who I met in Post-Katrina Mississippi, I remembered the alligator-tamer who I swam with in the Pantanal of Brazil, I remembered talking in Spanish about Campesino strikes at the top of the world in La Paz (peace), Bolivia. I remembered the railroad car conversation with the Kosovo refugee on the train from Italy to Amsterdam, translated through the Austrian stranger who spoke broken English.

In this solo trip it was as if all the lives of all those I had met blended into one–all exposing, in pain and kindness, how anywhere on the globe at any time we can feel the same thing in many different languages.

Pain is pain and joy is joy in the languages of  Thai or Spanish or PTSD.


I remember coming home from that final trip and being ready for a life which was “becoming”. It was the beginning of becoming a story of goodness which was less about me and more about everyone else. I remember meeting my husband in the moment when I was ready to meet someone and love someone and know someone completely. I remember marrying in our living room on New Year’s Eve in Kearny, NJ. I remember our honeymoon in Nicaragua and deciding to move to Florida. I remember four years of marriage that have gone by in a flash. I remember how my soul began to find resonance in God, in prayer, in contemplative reflection and a love of silence. I remember the strangeness of realizing that the opening and birthing and growing of something greater than me, within me, seemed synchronized with the atrophy of my physical body. I remember feeling my soul was on fire, burning, aching, and wanting to be more, do more, in service of others; it was as though my soul was carrying all the lightness and brightness and my body, conversely, began to burn out.

I was extinguishing physically, but coming into being more, soulfully.

I remember realizing that the “living a good story” had very little to do with all the many plot points of my life–the sorrow, the trauma, and even the resilience. I realized that all that was just a beginning, a primer for my soul’s true journey. This, now, feels like the hardest part of the road. All the things I thought would tear me apart–adolescence, loss of faith, trauma, fear, numbness, and the painfulness of waking up where only the beginning.

The real story starts now. The real story, the good story, is not really about me at all.

Like Miss Rumphius, it is about coming home in myself, in my soul, and “doing something that makes the world more beautiful.” I thought, for a very long time, that I was the protagonist in the story of my life. I realize more, every day, as my body shrinks and groans (from pain, from breathlessness, from a betrayal in many ways in the things we take for granted) that I am not really the protagonist of this story at all. God is the primary character. God is all the many seedlings. I am just a conduit, and in carrying the seeds and spreading them around, I can be a means to helping the flowers grow and making the world more beautiful. But I don’t make it beautiful alone, and I don’t make it beautiful for me. I do it because He asks, and I do it for others.

The fear I had as a little girl was that I would be the wallpaper sidekick to someone else’s story. Now I realize, with relief rather than fear, that I am a supporting character and that the “good story” is something I can be a part of but it is not mine, it is not me. I can only hope to sprinkle a few seeds and help create something beautiful.


I know I started all this with talking about grace as the “goodness” in the story. God is grace and the grace is God.

God was the grace that got me through the things that happened in my life. Grace is what turned a family tragedy into a beautiful (and, sometimes, painful) experience of caring for babies in need. Grace is what peeled me off the bathroom floor for many midnights. Grace is what allowed me to become a wounded healer, healing in the manner in which I was wounded.

Grace is what lets me, on my good days, get out of God’s way to listen and to carry the seeds of beauty.

Grace is what helps me get up when I just want to stop, when I feel too tired, or aching, or breathless to continue. Grace helps me write these words even though the inability to breathe has left me sleepless and exhausted for 3 days and counting. Grace is God’s seeds to me, the seeds that keep renewing in my soul even when I’m too tired to keep going myself, and be open to the ways I might be useful to someone else on the days I really just want to be selfish (not that I don’t give into that too, sometimes–I’m human and I get grumpy).

Grace is life.
Grace is goodness.
Grace is the seeds. Grace is the hand that carries the seeds. And grace is the earth in which the flowers grow.
God is infinitely propagating grace, planting like seeds, in fertile and dry soil.
I am in a life erupting with grace and hoping that I can help make something beautiful on the journey.
Is this story good? I don’t know. I only hope it continued to be filled with goodness and beauty and grace.

What is your story? Is it good? Is it graceful? Is it beautiful? Head over to Prodigal Magazine’s “good story” series to read the other blogger stories or write your own…HERE.

Miss Rumphius

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