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On Joy and Suffering (Version 2)

June 6, 2011

My life is captured in moments – photos, journal entries, memories. It’s always intriguing how one instant you share with a person can represent your entire relationship. During my nine months in Costa Rica, I grew to know  the daughter of one of my students. Maria* is a four-year-old soul that has taught me far more than I could ever teach her. Here is a blog post I wrote near the end of my time in that place:

•     •     •

Day 242

Today my heart split in two, swallowing up all my homesickness. Little Maria flew up to me, latching her skinny arms around my neck and smothering my cheek in a sticky lollipop kiss. I held onto that moment, wrapped it in a fragile lining of hurting hopes, and laid it down next to other things I carry within me. Her existence wiggled in my arms and breathed in my heart. It hurt to tell her, but I had to.

“Tengo que irme en dos semanas. I’m leaving two weeks from today.”
“¿Pero por que? But why?”
“I need to work. I need to study.”
She looked at me, her elbows hugging my neck, fingers toying with the sun-bleached frizz-curls at the nape of my scalp. All her movement stilled as my reflection grew in her brightening cow eyes. The wisdom of children radiated from her.
“Why don’t you just stay and study here like my mom?”


•     •     •

These goodbyes are what won’t stop haunting me – the ones that still don’t make sense. Why did I return to the States? To inflate that space between my education and that of a people starving to learn? How can I justify leaving a slum that was one quarter of a mile wide and 45,000 people strong to live in a dorm that could be mistaken for a hotel? What did it say about my spirit that I would trade La Carpio for Lincoln Park? All of these questions continue to plague me, encroaching on my conscience.

While verbally navigating this pain that drains me of my inner-sunshine, a friend heard my words and spoke this truth: “Hannah, you know that all your suffering stems from joy.” It took some emotional distance to fully fathom this statement, but eventually my soul could comprehend what he was trying to say. Every muscle within me that aches for people on this planet is stretched and strained because of the deep love I have for them. And deeper still, the love they have for me. I complain that compared to most people, I have twice the memories, faces, and secret places to long for after growing up in the Pacific Northwest and then living in Costa Rica. I have two homes to miss.

I also have two homes to love.

And I recognize that one day I will go from this place too. It will be hard to leave Chicago, but if it wasn’t, that would mean I didn’t care.

The beauty is that just as we leave, we also return. Tomorrow I get to go back to Costa Rica, get to hug my host mom and sing laughter with my students. I get to share their passions and their sorrows. I get to see little Maria, a miracle who is also a product of pain. You see, Maria is the outcome of a man raping his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter until she had a child. That tender face is a consequence of tremendous abuse.

These are the stories that drown me. Hurt can cross cultures and leave all persons paralyzed with pain. Here is the hope: when you hold that agony, when it kisses you on the cheek, when its warm hands touch yours and the dark nights become pink dresses and her innocent voice names you, it is then that you see how suffering can birth joy.

*Name has been changed.

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Final Blog

June 6, 2011

Spiritual memoir is a kind of healing. It forces the writer to name her pain and realize all the ways that she has grown because of it. Unlike journaling or academic writing, spiritual memoir doesn’t merely groom the lawn of our surface-selves, but digs deep to the roots of what we believe and what we don’t. Sometimes this wrestling leaves our fingernails dirty, other times we may bleed in the process, but this is the only way to make room for the Light so our souls may bloom.

Within my own writing, I feel I have used various techniques that enhance my emotional expression. First off, my reflection blogs utilized contextualized quotes from the readings that I believe further developed what I was trying to say. Along those same lines, I used the blog format and “quote blocks” to create a clean, obvious transition from my commentary to some one else’s words. In the reflections, I not only emphasized my interpretations of the larger concepts and themes, but also focused on the diction of pieces that carried its own importance. When I reflected on Kelley’s piece, I pinpointed the word slithered, saying “The use of the word ‘slithered’ in both parts one and two of the writing let the reader know how disgusted the author felt with himself, almost reptilian to the point of repulsion.” Another technique I used in my reflections was combining the works of multiple authors in a single post. This forced me to seek out common themes, applying the bigger picture to other pieces and in doing so, looking at my own life as well. This is the ultimate goal of reflection: to look at a reading or experience through your own lens and full comprehend exactly what that means.

This leads me to the deeper themes and what I focused on spiritually. For me, a lot of this course forced me to look at my own experiences and recognize that 1) I have to let myself experience human emotion, 2) it’s going to be a painful process, 3) and that’s okay. In one of my first memoirs, I admit that “rather than being thrown about on the frothing waves of joy and sorrow…the safety of the sand seduced me into a sort of stagnant half-life” (which is also a good use of alliteration). This confession that I would rather numb myself than feel anything made me realize how selfish my outlook on life had become. Then I remembered my host mother and all the ways she loved, especially all the ways she loved me. When she said, “Love is a choice,” I realized which choice I had to make. Finally, my last memoir regarding joy and suffering allowed me to understand that love hurts, but it’s a healthy hurt. By reading the experiences of religious leaders and presidents, authors and activists, I was able to see that we all battle the same struggles. We turn our backs on justice, sleep with shame, and eventually crawl back on bloodied hands and knees looking for a Healer to hold our broken souls. This is our lot in life. It’s the way we hold onto this, the way we appreciate it that makes life worth living. Towards the end of the course, I heard Father Holtschneider give a homily regarding pleasure, happiness, and joy. These were some of his words:

“Happiness can come from receiving love, from receiving friendship and feeling connection with others, but joy can only be found in giving love. It’s a deep sense of satisfaction that come from caring for others, and that’s not always pleasurable and sometimes loving someone or giving yourself can cause great unhappiness…Joy isn’t giddy; it’s quiet and deep.” (Dennis Holtschneider)

These words were exactly what my life needed. After leaving my home in Washington, making a new home in Costa Rica and then leaving that one too, I thought loving others simply led to more pain. What I learned from this course was that yes, love can cause suffering and it doesn’t always make you happy, but it brings joy. This joy can be found in the faces of children or a midnight walk, in the hearts of the homeless and the hopeless or the wrinkled hands of a dying mother. It’s not quick or effortless – it’s slow and full. That’s how I want my life to be lived.

On Buechner

May 25, 2011

Where is that line between my own life and the lives of those around me? In an individualist society that values self-expression and personal growth, how does humanity as a whole come into the picture?

These are the kinds of questions that Frederick Buechner wrestles with in his book Now and Then: a memoir of vocation. Like ever person on the planet, Buechner encountered lifestyles on entirely differently levels than his own and tried to come to terms with how all of these disparities can coincide with each other.

He begins by depicting the employment office where he worked and all the characters who came in and out of those doors. Several lines stand out in his writing, particularly the description of a man named George. “His name was George,” he writes, “Last names were rare in East Harlem” (Buechner 24). This single statement unlocks an entire trunk of burdens that these people carry on their backs. A last name is a form of identity – it offers belonging and history. There is a past behind included and it propels people into the hopes of future generations. When this part of a person has left them, it is obvious that they are being denied a form of dignity. The adjective Buechner attaches is also unsettling: rare. This shows that East Harlem is full of these tired souls, a people who have forgotten who they were and who they want to be. The way this sentence is formed creates a clear, concise picture rather than fumbling through multiple negatives (i.e. “It was not uncommon for the residents of East Harlem to not have a last name”). By using simple, but potent diction, Buechner drew the reader into the world he inhabited at the time.

The piece continues and Buechner arranges his thoughts in a more challenging order. Rather than simply layout out what he saw, he displays the more vulnerable, intimate reflections within himself. After being called a “phony” by George, Buechner wrote, “I worked there only once or twice a week, and when I was through, I went back to a world that he could have known of only through the movies if, in fact, he ever had the price of a movie” (Buechner 25). This reflection was on the physical state of his life, a place he went home to and could physically touch and appreciate with a sense of pleasure. Later, after crossing paths with a man he had tried to help, Buechner realized that, “What was left was just his need for somebody to be alone in the world with, and I didn’t have the wherewithal for that. We both of us knew it” (Buechner 27). Here his writing becomes much more emotional, digging deep into his soul and the insecurities and weaknesses that made their home there.

Ultimately, Buechner asks this question:

“When you find something in a human face that calls out to you, not just for help but in some sense for yourself, how far do you go in answering that call, how far can you go, seeing that you have your own life to get on with as much as he has his?” (Buechner 27).

Because he presented this personal struggle with interpersonal interaction in the form of a question, Buechner demands the reader to try and form an answer for themselves. This technique engages the audience and forces a direct application to their own life and their own experience.

On Joy and Suffering

May 19, 2011

My life is captured in moments – photos, journal entries, memories. I’ve always been intrigued by how one instant you share with a person can represent your entire relationship. While I was in Costa Rica, I grew to know  the daughter of one of my students. Tanya is a four-year-old soul that has taught me far more than I could ever teach her. Here is a blog post I wrote near the end of my time in that place:

•     •     •

Day 242

Today my heart split in two, swallowing up all my homesickness. Little Tanya flew up to me, latching her skinny arms around my neck and smothering my cheek in a sticky lollipop kiss. I held onto that moment, wrapped it in a fragile lining of hurting hopes, and laid it down next to other things I carry within me. Wrenched back to reality, I broke the news to Tanya.

Tengo que irme en dos semanas. I’m leaving two weeks from today.”
¿Pero por que? But why?”
“I need to work. I need to study.”
She looked at me, her elbows hugging my neck, fingers toying with the sun-bleached frizz-curls at the nape of my scalp. All her movement stilled as my reflection grew in her brightening cow eyes. The wisdom of children radiated from her.
“Why don’t you just stay and study here like my mom?”

•     •     •

These goodbyes are what haunt me – the ones that still don’t make sense. Why did I return to the States? To inflate that space between my education and that of a people starving to learn? How can I justify leaving a slum that was one quarter of a mile wide and 45,000 people strong to live in a dorm that could be mistaken for a hotel? What did it say about my spirit that I would trade La Carpio for Lincoln Park? All of these questions continue to plague me, encroaching on my conscience.

While verbally navigating this pain that drains me of my inner-sunshine, a friend heard my words and spoke this truth: “Hannah, you know that all your suffering stems from joy.” It took some emotional distance to fully fathom this statement, but eventually my soul could comprehend what he was trying to say. Every muscle within me that aches for people on this planet is strained because of the deep love I have for them. And deeper still, the love they have for me. I complain that compared to most people, I have two times the memories, faces, and secret places to long for after growing up in the Pacific Northwest and then living in Costa Rica. I have two homes to miss.

I also have two homes to love.

And I recognize that one day I will go from this place too. It will be hard to leave Chicago, but if it wasn’t, that would mean I didn’t care.

The beauty is that just as we leave, we also return. Tomorrow I get to go back to Costa Rica, get to hug my host mom and sing laughter with my students. I get to share their passions and their sorrows. I get to see little Tanya, a miracle who is also a product of pain. You see, Tanya is the outcome of a man raping his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter until she bore a baby. That tender face is a consequence of tremendous abuse.

These are the stories that drown me. Hurt can cross cultures and leave all parties paralyzed with pain. Here is the hope: when you hold that agony, when it kisses you on the cheek, when its warm hands touch yours and the dark nights become pink dresses and her innocent voice names you, it is then that you see how suffering can birth joy.

On Augustine and Tolstoy

May 17, 2011

Although they lived centuries apart, Augustine and Tolstoy both used their writings to confess the emotional arcs of their lives. Like so many before and after them, they bellyflopped into freedom, flailing in their decisions that hurt those around them as well as themselves. Indulgences left them satiated in emptiness; Augustine says “I became to myself a land of famine” (Augustine 74). His words continue to depict these bleak images as he declares this truth:

“When I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces.” (Augustine 62)

This chaos breaks people – we see it in overachievers who burn out on their own explosion of ideas.  We see it in students who live double, triple, sometimes quadruple lives. It’s impossible to veer far from the person God created each of us to be without having part of our soul wrenched from our center. Like Augustine, Tolstoy felt this same despair within himself when he wrote, “With all my soul I longed to be good; but I was young, I had passions, and I was alone, utterly alone, whenever I sought what was good” (Tolstoy 17). Tolstoy mirrors Augustine’s desert-self, emphasizing his murky misery in those two words: “utterly alone.” This phrase, tucked between two commas, is unnecessary in the syntax, but vital in the story.
It is one thing to recognize this pain and acknowledge its origin; it is something else entirely to go about combatting it. The first seven chapters of Tolstoy’s book are a sinusoid of truths and untruths, rising and falling with each tide of his life. Finally he trips on hope, falling face first on faith.

“If I wanted to live and to understand the meaning of life, I had to seek this meaning not among those who have lost it and want to destroy themselves but among the millions of people, living and dead, who created life and took upon themselves the burden of their lives as well as our own. So I looked around at the huge masses of simple people, living and dead, who were neither learned nor wealthy, and I saw something quite different…As presented by the learned and wise, rational knowledge denies the meaning of life, but the huge masses of people acknowledge meaning through an irrational knowledge. And this irrational knowledge is faith.” (Tolstoy 57)

Both Augustine and Tolstoy offered their stories to humanity so that “whoever reads this may reflect with me on the depths from which we must cry to you” (Augustine 64). By processing their pasts, these men were able to transform their confessions into acts of reconciliation. We are called to do the same.

On Nouwen

May 10, 2011

We all carry pain within us, these headaches and heartbreaks that sink out souls deeper within ourselves. All too often this prevents us from sharing who we really are with one another. As humans we try to ignore this suffering, drowning it in distractions that not only prune our pain, but simultaneously handicap our happiness.

Henry Nouwen warns against this when he finally accepts his grief, saying:

“Now I know that my sorrows are mine and will not leave me. In fact I know they are very old and very deep sorrows, and that no amount of positive thinking or optimism will make them less.”

I myself have recently come to this same revelation. Throughout my life I have witnessed other people’s agony that has left my own spirit crippled. These emotional demons manifest themselves in nightmares, transforming moments of rest to times of terror. After I shared these burdens with a mentor of mine, she gently told me a harsh truth. Holding my eyes in hers, she said that this war within me –the effortless attempt to reconcile the lives that other people have to live with the one I get to live – will never come to a peaceful resolution. This conflict that constantly tears at my heart has no breaking point, but is constantly at a point of breaking my very being. She reminded me that Christ himself bore this same cross; we know this because he wept for us. Then, like Nouwen, she emphasized that there is nothing I can do. No matter how eloquent my words are, how powerful my prayers, that pain will always be present. All I can do is offer it up to God.

When she said this, the taught, tight fingers of my heart began to unfurl. A fresh breath swelled within my cramped, clamped soul. The tendons began to release and I saw my open heart as an open hand.

Me and my G. (Revised)

May 4, 2011

When my grandmother tells me stories, they usually begin with, “When I was your age, but married…” and I entered her as G-Unit in my phone. I believe that summarizes our relationship.

She’s part of that accidentally politically incorrect generation – the one we excuse because that’s how their parents raised them and although they possess seventy-five years of wisdom, change is always hard to swallow. My grandma writes me letters asking to scypt instead of skype. Our music and movie tastes more than just differ.

The one thing we share is our last name. We both received it from men who love us; she got it from her husband on her wedding day and my father gave it to me when I was born. The name, Holtgeerts, comes from Holland, but after my grandmother’s mantra of “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much,” I have felt more guilt than pride about my heritage. Part of me wonders if Mary Lou looks at me, her vegan, liberal granddaughter, and associates that same shame not with with where her family comes from, but where it is going.

The truth is I deeply admire my grandmother. At my age she could cook a meal, sew a shirt, plan a family and make a living. My life at nineteen requires none of those things. My days are filled with learning instead of housekeeping; my dreams aren’t yoked to anyone else’s.

It’s always been said to me that parents want their children’s lives to be better than their own, and that they can only hope the progress will continue for their children’s children. When I pick apart this idea and apply it to my own life, letting it spread over the space between her and myself, I realize something: my grandmother is the most successful woman I’ve ever known.