I’m not at SunTrust Park tonight.

It’s 8:15 p.m. on Friday, April 14, 2017. For months, I’d been planning on being on my feet at this moment, foam tomahawk in hand, at a brand-new ballpark in Cobb County, Georgia, for the home opener of this season of Atlanta Braves baseball. Instead, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, trying to grade essay proposals. The Braves game is on the radio, but I can barely hear the commentary because the Braves are up 2-0 in the first inning, and the crowd is so loud that Jim Powell’s voice disappears.

I’m frustrated.

I tried on multiple occasions to buy tickets for today’s game, but the Braves sold so many ticket packages early that few people were able to buy single-game tickets when they went on sale to the public. I didn’t want to empty out my savings account to buy tickets from third-party sellers, and when the Braves released individual standing-room-only tickets earlier this week, I didn’t buy one because I know myself well enough to know that I didn’t want to go to the game alone. The new ballpark is exciting, but it isn’t familiar, and between traffic and wondering if I would get lost and not having a place to park and being surrounded by people I don’t know, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been fearful instead of excited.

I should have bought the ticket anyway. I didn’t. And now, like so many other times, I regret not taking a chance.

I’ve got excuses. It’s two weeks before the end of the semester, and the grading has piled up. My parents need to see me. Atlanta traffic is the worst.

There will be other games. There will be more Opening Days. But I think I’ll always regret not trying harder to go to this game.

I’ve been thinking too much about regrets lately, about taking chances (or not) when I can (or should). Two months ago, my father was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. He’s gone through two rounds of chemo so far. He hasn’t been too sick, but he’s been tired and weak. We won’t know for a little longer whether the chemo is working. But life has changed for all of us.

Two months ago, life felt like it was ending. It was hard to breathe some days. I set alarms for two hours before I needed to get out of bed because I knew it would take that long to convince myself to actually move. I broke down in front of students, in restaurants with friends, and especially in the middle of the night when nothing could penetrate the grief. I still do, actually.

But I kept counting down to baseball. Spring training games started two weeks after my father’s diagnosis. I occupied myself with arguing about who the Braves would put in their bullpen to start the season and guessing which minor league teams the top prospects would be assigned to and creating a spreadsheet for the players I would draft for my fantasy league.

At this point in my life, I’ve recognized the impermanence of things. Roommates and addresses change, sometimes more often than I would choose. Best friends move across the country or drift away, despite still living in close proximity. My favorite students graduate or transfer, and suddenly, the people who were so important to me for months are just gone.

The people I love the most are gone. Might be gone. Will be gone. Eventually, sooner or later.

No matter how you conjugate it, the loss is the same. Life is hard. Really hard. Even unbearable at times. So when you find something that gives you a real, true sense of fulfillment, you have to hold on.

The reality that I will one day, far sooner than I am ready, even if it is years from now, lose my father has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. But it has brought a sense of clarity about, as clichéd as it sounds, what is really important:

God is true and real and loving even when my heart is broken and the grief is overwhelming.

I will never regret spending time with my family instead of grading essays.

The people who matter the most are the ones who will be solid, faithful presences even when they don’t know what to say or how to help.

Baseball is the greatest, weirdest, most exhausting, most romantic sport in the world.

Some days, the stress of life is so much that my prayers are reduced to “Jesus, please just help.” Some days, I cry uncontrollably on the phone with my mom, who is stronger and braver than I can ever hope to be. Some days, I find solace in a good cup of coffee and a stellar defensive play by the Braves’ centerfielder. Some days, nothing seems to matter because the papers still need to be graded, and my father still has cancer, and the Braves’ bullpen loses yet another game.

But God’s mercies are made new every morning. And joy comes in the morning. And new batting order and opponents and games happen EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

That is the best thing about baseball. For eight months out of the year, I have something to follow, something to invest in, something new and exciting and unexpected to hope for. The Braves might have a losing record, but players still hit home runs and make exciting sliding grabs in the outfield and make impossible 4-6-3 double plays look like poetry come to life.

The last thing I wrote about baseball was about hope and the Chicago Cubs, and when I wrote that in November, I had no idea what was coming. But I do now. And in a few weeks, when the semester is over, I’m moving home for the summer, to spend time with my dad, to help out my family as much as I can, to try to find hope and to make the time last as long as it can.

But my dad made me promise that, if I came home for the summer, I would still go to as many baseball games as I can. And that’s a deal I willingly made.

SunTrust Park, I’ll be there as soon as I can.

Wake Me Up

Two of the last three mornings I’ve woken up, shaking the remnants of dreams out of my consciousness. Fortunately, while these dreams have been vivid and their effects lingering, they haven’t been visceral, haunting dreams. Just reflective.

Dream #1: I was alone in San Francisco, having flown there for a vacation trip. I was exploring an art museum near the wharf (or at least my mind’s version of the wharf), and most of the dream took place in the museum bookshop. A really nice woman working in the shop watched me wander around the shop, picking up and setting down books, postcards, and figurines. She finally called me to the counter and pulled a book out. She said, “You’ve been to Boston, right?” I said yes. (In the dream, this didn’t seem strange, but this was the first conversation we’d had; how did she know my love for Boston?) She said, “You’ll find this book interesting, then. It’s about the literary connections between California writers and Boston writers.” I turned the book over, noting that the price was only $6.95. (Seriously?!? A scholarly book for $7? This was definitely a dream!) She then said, “This will be useful when you return to Boston.” After a longer conversation, I bought the book and some postcards, then left the museum, wrapping my scarf tighter around my neck and setting off to explore windy San Francisco.

I woke up, wrapped in my fluffy comforter in my room in South Carolina, happy that it was a Saturday morning but disappointed that I wasn’t exploring alone, confidently, in California, too. I even looked up flights to San Francisco, which means that TripAdvisor is going to be emailing me travel deals on flights to SF for the rest of my life now.

Dream #2: I went to North Carolina to a tattoo/piercing place. I arrived there to discover that, unbeknownst to me, one of my students worked there. (This place employed a lot of people–my student was an assistant of some sort and was absent for most of the dream.) The place was housed in an old farmhouse, and I seemed to be the only patron (or else they were all hidden in other rooms in the house). I walked in and talked to the woman at the front, who asked what I was there for. I spent a long time discussing tattoos and piercings with her. I decided I would get a second hole in my ear, then decided against that. I considered piercing the cartilage at the top of my ear, but I knew that hurt, and I didn’t think I would even like having that done, so I decided against that, too. Finally, I settled on what I knew I’d come for anyway: a tattoo. I knew the exact tattoo I wanted: lyrics from the Gaslight Anthem’s song “Handwritten” (about writing: “It travels from heart to limb to pen”) with an image of a pen and drops of ink. When I described the tattoo to the tattoo artist, she even knew I would want the drops of ink. She handed me a book to pick out a font (is that even a thing?), but I spent so much time trying to decide that we ran out of time. (Apparently, she only tattoos people in the yard of the house, and the sun was setting. Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about, either.) I said that I would come back now that I’d decided what I want; I said goodbye to my student and left. I think both the tattoo artist and I knew that I wouldn’t be back. Then, I woke up with a terrible headache.

Ultimately, I think both of these dreams are about figuring out what my actual, waking dreams are. This is a natural result of achievement, right? For those of you who don’t know, I recently got a job promotion. Starting November 1, I’ll be full-time faculty at North Greenville. I’ll no longer try to balance a full-time staff position in the library and writing center with teaching classes as an adjunct. My last day in the library is Oct. 31, and I’m very excited to be moving finally into a position I’ve hoped to have for almost five years.

I’m 28 years old. I’m young. Too young, it almost seems, to be in my fifth year of teaching college writing and to have been hired as a full-time English instructor. But this is my dream: to teach students how to write and how to love literature. Yes, it’s at a small university, and yes, I’ll never be wealthy. But after a semester last spring of wondering if I’d made the right career choice and even of considering leaving my career, this semester has been a beautiful confirmation of why I love my job and why I love being at NGU. I have amazing students right now, and I’m finally going to be able to focus solely on them.

The rest of my life, however, is in a space of wondering what my other actual, waking dreams are. I’ve known for years that I place too much of my identity into being either a student or teacher (depending on what season of my life I was in at the time). Weekends, summers, and vacations often seem like a pause from “real life.” Even when I traveled to Savannah last weekend to present at a conference, I worried about my students and kept in contact with them through email and Twitter as they took tests and submitted essays, even in my absence. Life away from my work seems weird and unnatural.

But aside from my career and my students, what do I want? In looking at the first dream, it seems obvious: I want to travel. Duh. I know that. Everyone knows that. In the first dream, I was alone, exploring a strange city, unafraid. I want that. I don’t always have the financial ability to do that, but that’s a goal worth achieving, right? It’s definitely manageable, too. If I save up, search for inexpensive flights and hotel deals, I, too, can visit San Francisco. I could even write that book (as my friend Kevin suggested)! After all, writing a travel guide is on my List of Things To Do Before I Die.

You know what else is on my List? Getting a tattoo. The tattoo I described in the dream is the one that’s been on my mind for the last six months. In March, I saw The Gaslight Anthem live, and when they sang “Handwritten,” I remember thinking, I should have that line tattooed on my wrist. I love it so much, and it seems to encompass all that I love about writing and music. So why haven’t I gotten a tattoo yet? Fear, definitely. Fear of judgment from people who disapprove of tattoos. Fear that I, too, will regret my choice years down the road.

In the second dream, there was a dream within reach, and I walked away from it because of fear and indecision. In the first dream, my dream was happening, but it’s unattainable right now. In real life, I’ve achieved one of my dreams. Now might be a good time to rest in that fact and remind myself that dreams don’t happen in my own timing (otherwise, I would have been a full-time instructor two years ago). I need not despair that I haven’t visited San Francisco or gotten a tattoo yet. I need not despair that I haven’t figured out how to introduce myself to that very attractive guy I’ve been eyeing. I need not despair that I haven’t figured out where and when I’m going to get my Ph.D.

I do, however, need to recognize that these are all dreams that I have and that fear and indecision might, in the future, keep me from achieving them. It’s also telling that I was alone in both dreams: I want independence (traveling alone in SF), but I need accountability to follow through with some things (getting the tattoo). Facing my fears and dreams on my own is not going to work.

Knowing this, and knowing the dreams I’d like to follow through on, what happens next? Maybe it’s time to start figuring that out.

The Light & the Dark (Revisited)

It’s been a year and three days since I returned from Haiti on one of the greatest experiences of my life, since I saw such beauty and chaos, such light and such dark, existing side-by-side in a country I have come to love dearly. One of the greatest lessons I learned was how distinct the boundaries between good and evil are. It’s tangible in Haiti, in a way that it isn’t tangible in our cozy, comfy, middle-class American lives.

A year later, I’m even more thankful for my experience. It’s not been an easy year.

Five days after I posted that blog about Haiti, I received a terrible phone call. I was in the checkout line at Publix when my dad called. I hurriedly answered and said I would call him back, then walked out to my car. From the way Dad had said “Hello,” I knew this would not be an easy phone call. In my car, in the darkened parking lot, gripping the steering wheel, I listened to my dad tell me that my uncle–his sister’s husband, our neighbor, our loved one–had taken his own life. The gasping, aching hole was immediate, the sobs wrenching. I was, fortunately, on my way to my small group at the time, so minutes later, after I’d composed myself enough to drive, I headed straight there, to my family who comforted me and prayed with me, even while my biological family grieved far away.

The next night, I made the three-hour trip home, moving between numbness and uncertainty to crying and questioning. When I pulled into the driveway late at night, my parents came out to meet me. They had news, updates: my uncle, who had long been an evolutionist, had been attending church with my aunt and cousin. He had accepted Christ just two months before and was scheduled to have been baptized the following Sunday.

I collapsed on the ground in grateful tears. Here, then, was the light in the middle of so much darkness. Here was the sliver of hope. For whatever doctrine exists on suicide and unpardonable sins, we at least had hope when there had been none before. God’s glory was brighter than the darkness.

Just two and a half weeks later, however, the darkness threatened again. Another phone call from Dad, another intuition from the “Hello.” My grandfather–my mom’s dad–had been found dead that day of a massive heart attack or stroke. My only grandfather–my Papa Ting, my funny little old grandfather–was gone forever. The man who’d been proud to have me as his first grandchild, the man who’d financed much of my trip to Haiti, the man whose imperfections often made his family life difficult–was gone.

I made the trip home again, and this time I arrived physically sick–dizzy, nauseated, weak. I felt the effects of the compounded losses to my bones. The next day arrived, filled with trips to flower shops and the funeral home, and finally, the visitation, where I stood in a line for three hours, greeting hundreds of people, each of whom had a different story. I smiled, I laughed, I explained who and where and what I am now. Visitations aren’t for the family to grieve; they’re for celebration. And they’re exhausting.

The next day was Valentine’s Day–cold, rainy, gray–perfectly ironic for a funeral. The tension between grieving for my own loss and supporting my mother and grandmother, for whom the loss spread over decades and generations. And the oddness of smiling for photos because–for the first time in years–the whole family was gathered together, even in such a harsh setting.

The next day was the hardest of all: leaving my family, terrified that yet another loss would happen and I wouldn’t be there. Driving back to teach a class I wasn’t at all prepared for. Driving back to deadlines for my thesis, wondering if I should even bother trying to finish (after all, I’d attended the funerals for two loved ones before finishing chapter one–what else could happen before I finished all five chapters?). I almost emailed my advisor to withdraw and then realized I needed something tangible to lose myself in.

My thesis became my life. I wrote fast; I wrote long; I wrote well. One hundred pages in six and a half weeks. Finishing my thesis, graduating, and another ending also felt like a loss even as other celebrated with me. My purpose was gone alone with so many other losses.

The darkness of those few weeks in January and February–even though they were tinged with so much light–still managed to overcast the rest of my year. I didn’t care about much, and my heart felt aimless and wandering. In the fall, a hectic semester and students who weren’t always appreciative made me question my sanity and my calling. Did I want to teach ungrateful students for the rest of my life? What was I working so hard for? Would any of this ultimately matter?

Then, at Thanksgiving, when I was cherishing the time with family, we learned of another loss: my mom’s pastor, who’d been fighting brain tumors for two years, had finally passed away. At his funeral, I felt the love of so many people for him and I also profoundly missed my grandmother, my uncle, my grandfather.

And New Year’s Day, I awoke to a text from Mom. My cousin Todd, just a few days younger than me, had been wheelchair-bound his whole life after being born with spina bifida. He’d had surgery for an abdominal infection a few weeks before, and his health had been declining. He passed away the morning of New Year’s Day, just 27 years old. I missed his funeral but got a full recap from Mom: a celebration of a life that was worthy, even in the midst of hardship.

Here, in this new year, I’ve found myself reflecting on one of the toughest years of my life. So many losses, so much pain, so much hardship. In my life, in the lives of my family and others I care for, in the world. I’ve sensed the darkness in so much: the global disasters and tragedies, the national government issues, the scandals, the brokenness.

I’ve never felt the darkness so profoundly before. I know this is because of Haiti. You can’t walk through the streets of Jacmel or drive through the streets of Port-au-Prince and not believe that evil is real and present and powerful. And I cannot live knowing that evil is real without understanding that God’s power and might are greater and stronger and more beautiful than anything I can even comprehend. This year of darkness and brokenness has sometimes overwhelmed me; however, the good that’s come out of it is beautiful and wonderful and worth it. For the first time in years, I feel unity within my family–on both sides, my mom’s and my dad’s. The Gambrells have returned to our tradition of celebrating Christmas together, which fell by the wayside when my grandmother, our matriarch, was ill. The loss has brought us together again, and now we celebrate the next generation that will come when my cousin Whitney has her first child in March. On my mom’s side of the family, we were all together on Christmas day, and I heard for the first time in a long time “I love you” pass from sibling to sibling; I hugged cousins I’ve rarely seen in past years, and I feel a bit of hope that my grandfather’s death has brought us all together again. I’ve seen my family take care of one another and love one another, and while I’m sad that it’s taken loss to make this happen, I’m grateful that it’s happening nonetheless.

I have spent much of this year fearful, anxious, and worried about what the future holds and how much my life matters. I’ve seen a lot of the brokenness and wondered if wholeness were possible. I’ve questioned tragedies and grieved loss.

And now it’s a new year, a time of rebirth. And while life is hard and sin inflicts pain and hurt, God is real and true. I have seen darkness and death point toward life and light and love. I have seen unity come out of the pain. God’s love is strongest when it overcomes the pain of our fallen world. I found this truth in Haiti and carried it back home with me. In those few weeks in early January last year, when I wondered why I had to return to America and how I could hold on to what I learned in Haiti, I had no idea what was coming. I certainly didn’t expect the year that I had. But I’m grateful for His timing, for His mercy, and for the way He cares for His children. I’m grateful for a new year in which to see His glory shine and to worship him in new and unexpected ways. And I’m so thankful that His life shines so brightly and overcomes the darkness of this world.

Life and Other Matters

Most of my posts recently have been about books I’ve read or playlists I’ve created, and while those things are all awesome, it’s been a while since I’ve given just an everyday normal update about life. And I really should because life happens outside of the books I’m reading and the music I’m listening to.

You’ve seen a lot of mentions of my thesis in my blogs, if you’ve been following for awhile. Naturally, the thesis-writing eclipsed my life for a long time. I started writing on Monday, Jan. 25 and wrote the last chapter on Friday, March 9. In those six and a half weeks, I managed to write 96 pages with a 4-page bibliography.

I submitted my thesis, after several read-throughs, edits, and slight revisions, on Tuesday, March 20, and I finally heard at the end of April that I had officially passed. Then, I had to officially title that huge paper, check the formatting, print 5 copies on expensive paper, and attend a session to upload my thesis to the database. The hardest part may have actually been the naming. How does one summarize 96 pages of info in just a line or two? Here’s how:

Seeing that title page made it feel sort of real–as if I’d actually just spent years working on an M.A. and had managed to write extensive criticism of awesome books. Exciting!

The title quote comes from Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, one of the three books on which I wrote my thesis. (The other two were Alan Moore & David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta and China Mieville’s detective novel The City & the City.) “Heteroglossia” is an idea formulated by Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin; it’s the idea that the writers who are repressed manage to resist the dominant ideology of a political regime through becoming heteroglot, embracing a variety of languages and ideas instead of just blindly accepting the one hegemonic ideology they are being fed. I amended his theory and looked at ways that characters within these novels were able to salvage elements of language and culture in order to resist or overthrow a totalitarian governmental regime.

If I’ve lost you, I apologize. It’s hard to explain months of research and writing in a paragraph or two. Nonetheless, I have to say that writing my thesis was by far one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. Despite the long hours and exhaustion, I haven’t had nearly as much fun in a long time. I loved the books I was writing about, the theories I was reading, and the connections I found in three distinct literary works. And, honestly, in the few months following my thesis, I felt a deep loss that I was finished and didn’t have anything so huge to pour my life into.

Finishing the thesis was the last requirement for graduation, though. I am now an M.A. Here’s a picture of me in my regalia with my lovely thesis advisor, Dr. Shea Stuart:

Now, not only did I finish my thesis, I also won an award: the Gayle Bolt Price Award for Excellent in Graduate Student Writing. To celebrate, I went to dinner in Shelby with some of my professors and received the plaque then:

 From left to right:

Dr. June Hobbs was the English department chair during my time as a student at GWU. She taught a class on the American Renaissance in literature in Spring 2011. She is delightful, brilliant, and a woman of many varied interests. She’s also an expert on all things relating to death and cemeteries, a topic which I already found to be fascinating.

Dr. Shea Stuart: I never had the opportunity to take one of Dr. Stuart’s classes, but when I described my thesis idea to my academic advisor, she suggested I ask Dr. Stuart to advise my thesis. I sent an email describing my ideas, and from the moment I sat down in Dr. Stuart’s office during our first meeting, we were fast friends, bonding over our shared loves of China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Doctor Who, and all things British and sci-fi. I never expected to find a thesis topic that merged so many of my academic and “fun” interests, and Dr. Stuart fostered and encouraged those ideas (and still does!).

Finally, Dr. Theado is the current English department chair (GWU has a five-year rotation, and his turn has arrived). He is the only professor that I had the privilege of taking for two classes. In spring 2010, he taught a class on African-American literature, and in spring 2011, he taught an incredible class on Contemporary Trends in Literature. Both of those classes introduced me to a wide variety of authors I’d never studied before, and Dr. Theado’s chill, laid-back, discussion-style classes were a great fit for a fast-paced summer school course.

I’m blessed to have studied under these brilliant men and women at Gardner-Webb, and I can’t imagine a better experience for my M.A. than what I found there.

Beyond grad school, other cool things are happening. Since I have a Master’s degree now, NGU has added another course to my load. In the fall, in addition to the 2 sections of developmental writing that I normally teach, I’m also teaching a section of 1320, the second level of freshman writing, which focuses on argument and literature. I am both excited and nervous because it’s been a while since I’ve taught a class for the first time. In fact, in August, I begin my FOURTH year as a college instructor. I cannot believe that many years have passed.

But for now, it’s summer time, and I’ve been trying to relax although, honestly, that’s not working out so well. I’m filling up my time with activities and friends, but it’s a different kind of busyness, unlike the school year. I have friends getting married and having babies (not the same friends, to be clear). I’ve been going to the movie theater a lot; Harvin and I have a lengthy list of films to see this summer, and we’re racking up Regal Club points for our effort. I attended my first comic book convention this past weekend, and the Fourth of July is next week, during which I will spend most of the day with my small group.

August quickly approaches, and I will, for the first time in a long time, not have to balance work/teaching and my own schoolwork. But for now, there are books to read and films to watch and people to see. Happy summer!

Thoughts while Driving

I practiced a bit of metacognition on my lunch break today.

I left campus for lunch today, and while driving to TR to pick up a sandwich, I thought about life, about conversations that happened at girls’ night last night, about thoughts that are persistent, about Jesus and the Gospel, about heaven and hell.

I also thought about how I think about all those things. Metacognition.

I thought about the fact that my thoughts are so harsh and unrelenting, and I thought about the fact that if I say those words out loud, they evaporate as if sound waves infiltrate the lies. I also thought about the fact that I have so many great thoughts while I’m driving, but by the time I get back to my computer or to a place where I can sit with a notebook, those thoughts are gone. I have composed manifestos and memoirs in my head on many occasions, only to lose them when I arrive at my physical destination. On rare occasions, I manage to arrive home with an experience that fills up so much of my existence that I cannot rest until I have written those thoughts down, and I stay up late writing about storms and sunsets.

Mostly, though, my thoughts while driving are replaced quickly by emails, tweets, Facebook notifications, breaking news, and responsibilities. When I’m no longer alone with only my internal dialogue to keep me company, I move out of the role of a thinker and a writer and into another role with, seemingly, more urgent needs. I can rarely recapture the thoughts I found so beautiful when I was alone.

Today, however, I thought, once more, that I should invest in a recorder to leave in my car for those moments. Then, I remembered that I’d discovered that my BlackBerry actually has a voice recorder (let’s stop pretending I’m technologically advanced, shall we?). I pulled it out and spent almost 7 minutes just talking to myself (let’s pretend like that doesn’t make me sound crazy).

When I sat down to write this post, I listened to my recording. Once I got over that initial weirdness of hearing my own voice unfiltered, I found my recording to be amusing and poignant and revelatory. I spent the first minute or so commenting on the oddity of talking to myself, but when I finally settled into my train of thought, I discovered that my own words, speaking Truth back at me, are powerful in vanquishing a negative mindset. The result is that I reminded myself of just how big God is. I reminded myself that the plans I had were not the plans He had, and I recognized (audibly) that His ways are not mine, and His kingdom is more important than my puny plans.

In those 7 minutes, I thought about Jesus’ words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And if the Kingdom is here, but not fully here, then the kingdom of hell is warring against the Kingdom of heaven. When I choose to focus on the ways that the kingdom of hell is present–in heartache and loneliness, in difficulties and darkness–then I’m making a choice not to focus on the glory of God and His Kingdom on earth. My friend Jane said as much to me last night; she essentially told me that when I look at the future and think, “there’s no way that will ever happen,” then I’m not allowing God to work. There is conviction in that statement, and as much as I hate to say the words aloud or type them in this post, I live my day-to-day life trying to make things work in my own way, in my own time, and with my own power, and I don’t acknowledge the ways that God could be leading me. And when I cry out in anger and frustration that I don’t have an answer and things aren’t working out the way I want them to, He is always there reminding me that there’s a better way: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

This is not a new struggle. These are not new truths. Every day, my own sin and stubbornness and willfulness create a barrier between me and my Father. Some days, I let the barrier remain. Other days, I drive in my car, talking to myself, reminding myself of the truth of God and that the blood of Jesus and the grace of God have covered EVERY ONE OF MY SINS. In these moments, I can recognize that, ultimately, the goodness of God will win out over the blackness of evil.

I write these words for my own sake, more than anyone else. This will be a post that I will turn to on the days when the Kingdom doesn’t seem so near, when I forget that He is enough. Moments of clarity like this will remind me on those days when my thoughts are muddled and confused and fearful.

My Father is a living God, and His grace is sufficient for me. His mercies are made new every morning, and there is nothing I can do that can separate me from my Father’s love.

The Fault in Our Stars

“But it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person  starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in [An Imperial Affliction], Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.”

-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

* * *

The above quote occurs early in the fourth chapter of the young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and is a good indication of how the rest of the book will go. The narrator is Hazel, a teenaged girl who has had cancer for three years. She carries an oxygen tank everywhere she goes, she attends a Support Group that seems highly unhelpful, she loves her parents, she reads poetry from Eliot and Ginsberg, and she meets (early in the novel, at the previously mentioned unhelpful Support Group) a cancer survivor named Augustus Waters, with whom she eventually falls in love.

This, too, is not your typical cancer book. Throw every comparison to A Walk to Remember or Lurlene McDaniel out of the window. Instead, think of the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. In fact, John Green sends Hazel and Augustus to Amsterdam, where they have an incredible moment in the Anne Frank Museum, and I was reminded of why I loved and lamented Frank’s diary so much: I knew how the book was going to end. I got to know the characters, but I, the reader, understood that I could not be with the characters for long, even within the pages of the novel.

The beautiful thing about this book is that you know tragedy will occur. Hazel is very grounded, very accepting of the fact that she has a terminal cancer. She knows there is no cure; she knows the drugs she’s taking are only prolonging her life, not ending the cancer. She can, however, still lament the brevity of life. She can seeks to understand life in the short time she has.

Cancer is not portrayed as romantic, as in other novels. It is heartbreaking and devastating in so many ways. Hazel and Gus, and I and everyone else who’s read this, understand that.

* * *

In spite of the sadness, this book is funny and alive. The dialogue is fabulous–Hazel and Gus are quirky and intelligent, and their conversations often reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my best friend.

Green is also great at metafiction–reminding the reader that this is a novel, not reality. In the book, Hazel’s favorite novel is An Imperial Affliction, which Gus also reads. This novel drives a lot of the plot of the story as Gus chooses to use a “Wish” from a nonprofit organization to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the author of the novel. Hazel, in all her rereadings of the book, has hoped to discern what happens to the character after the book’s abrupt end. When she finally meets the author–who is a total jerk (to be nice)–he explains:

“But to be perfectly frank, this childish idea that the author of a novel has some special insight into the characters in the novel…it’s ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.”

This tirade, combined with Green’s author’s note that the novel is a work of fiction, serve as a reminder of the power of a story: we can care so much about characters, be driven to powerful emotion, travel around the world just to discover more of the story.

This reminder made it easier on me to finish the book. I don’t remember the last time I cried so much while reading a book. And while I lamented losing characters who had become dear to me, I also remembered that their stories actually did end when I turned the last page, and I remembered that my life continues beyond the close of the book. And while I continue to live, I remember what I’ve learned from stories: that life and love matter, even when they’re oh-so-difficult.

26: A Playlist for the Alphabet

Tomorrow is my 26th birthday. While last year seemed like such a milestone, this year, I’m not sure I’ll even celebrate. Maybe that’s because I’m busy and tired, or maybe it’s because most of the people I want to celebrate with are out-of-town or busy. Probably, though, it’s because 26 just doesn’t seem like a special number. (25 = 5 x 5. I like everything to be in multiples of 5, so last year, 25 just seemed like the absolute perfect number and the perfect age to be. Weird, huh?)

However, 26 is the number of letters in the English alphabet, so that’s kind of cool. To celebrate, I decided to make a new iTunes playlist–one of my favorite songs for each letter of the alphabet. You’d be surprised how difficult that was–do you know how many of my favorite songs start with the letter W? A lot. But here’s what I came up with:

A: “Awake My Soul,” Mumford & Sons.

My most-played track on iTunes. My current favorite song, period. Is it wrong to tell you that I cried when they played this live Tuesday night in Asheville? I don’t have words to explain how much I love this song. Watch this video and smile because not only is the song beautiful, but Mumford & Sons are also just SO DARN  CUTE. 🙂

B: “The Ballad of Love and Hate,” The Avett Brothers.

The song that made me love The Avett Brothers. Also a beautiful song.

C: “C’Mon, C’Mon,” Switchfoot.

Like so many Switchfoot songs, this one is about purpose and fighting for a life worth living. It’s from one of their EPs, and I actually only acquired it a few months ago.

D: “Drift Away,” Dobie Gray.

Old-school rock ‘n roll. Music about music. Wonderful. Also, this video is Dobie Gray singing the song in 1974.

E: “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” The Gaslight Anthem.

My favorite song from the fantastic album The ’59 Sound. I love this song because it’s slow and nostalgic and it still rocks. This is a song that makes me want to be young and idealistic and never really grow up.

F: “Fields of Gold,” Sting.

One of the songs I grew up hearing on the radio that I realized as I got older I really, really loved. But then again, how could you not love Sting?

G: “Gold Digger,” Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx.

No, this isn’t a joke. This actually is one of my favorite songs–so much so that it was easy to pick out a track for the letter G. I can sing all the words to the song. Harvin finds this fact to be the absolute most intriguing thing about me.

H: “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise,” The Avett Brothers.

Sometimes, this (along with “Awake My Soul”) is just what I need to give me the energy to walk out of the door and face a new day: “If you’re loved by someone you’re never rejected / Decide what to be and go be it.” Also, the video is just wonderful.

I: “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” Death Cab for Cutie.

Now, for something completely different. Melancholy and a bit emo, but I love it anyway.

J: “Joy to the World,” Three Dog Night.

Do I really need to explain why this song is awesome?

K: “Kiss Me,” Sixpence None the Richer.

This song came out when I was 13 and obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who, at the time, was attending the prom without her vampire boyfriend Angel. 🙂 This song is everything a romance-minded 13-year-old girl could love, and I (not so secretly now) still love the song.

L: “Let Me Back In,” Explosions in the Sky.

From their newest album Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. The first time I heard this, I was on the way to work (I had woken up early to download the album on the release day). And I realized when listening to this track that I was grinning like crazy because this song is so crazily-beautifully-wonderfully fun and hopeful that I could not control my smile.

M: “Mr. Jones,” Counting Crows.

I never get sick of this song. I can’t even explain why it’s so good; it just is. I love Counting Crows, but this is unarguably the greatest song they’ve ever written.

N: “Next to Me,” Civil Twilight.

This was also a difficult letter to choose, but in the end, I had to go with one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. This is one of Civil Twilight’s newest songs (from the re-released album that actually came out about a year and a half ago), and it’s my current favorite CT song.

O: “One Headlight,” The Wallflowers.

Oh, the 90s. Weren’t they great?

P: “Pinebox,” The Winter Sounds.

If you’ve never listened to The Winter Sounds, go look them up right now. They’re amazing. They’re also great live, and this is such a phenomenal song.

Q: “The Queen of Lower Chelsea,” The Gaslight Anthem.

Not many songs start with the letter Q, but fortunately, there’s at least one great one. From The Gaslight Anthem’s last album, American Slang, released last summer. They grew up some after The ’59 Sound, and if that album made me want to stay young and idealistic, this album makes me realize that, even if being an adult brings changes, it’ll be okay anyway.

R: “Ready to Start,” Arcade Fire.

From The Suburbs, which rightfully won Album of the Year at the Grammys this year. Good heavens, this album is amazing from start to finish, and even though this song wasn’t my favorite in the beginning, I’ve found myself listening to it more and more lately as I’ve realized how brilliant it is. The song is edgy and even a bit defensive; it’s about recognizing that we often do things because of what other people we think, and it’s about being intentional in saying we’re not going to live our lives a certain way just because other people do to. Example: “All the kids have always known / That the emperor wears no clothes / But they bow down to him anyway / Because it’s better than being alone.”

After Arcade Fire accepted the Grammy, Win Butler set the trophy on an amp and proceeded to play this song as everyone started asking, “Who is Arcade Fire?!?”

S: “Stand By Me,” Ben E. King.

“When the night is young / And the land is dark / And the moon is the only light we’ll see . . . ” Come on, you know you love it, too.

T: “Teardrop (Live),” Civil Twilight.

I discovered the band Massive Attack because Civil Twilight almost always covers this wonderful song at their shows. The lyrics are a little different, and I prefer Civil Twilight’s version (probably because I just love them so freakin’ much.) Also, aren’t they adorable? Yes, yes, they are.

U: “Uprising,” Muse.

Epic. So epic.

V: “Virgin,” Manchester Orchestra.

This song makes me want to fight somebody. I get sort of twitchy and restless when I listen to it. That’s actually just what I expect of Manchester Orchestra. I don’t really know why that’s a good thing; it just is. Here’s the band performing on Letterman just a few weeks ago:

W: “We Used to Wait,” Arcade Fire.

Although a ton of great songs start with W, this was the obvious choice. I like to listen to this song on repeat while I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Expect a lengthy blog post about that soon. In the meantime, go to the website The Wilderness Downtown and be amazed.

X: “Xanadu,” Olivia Newton-John.

I almost cheated and chose Moby’s “Extreme Ways” for this, but then I decided not to break my self-imposed rules. I chose this one because Xanadu is a ridiculously awesome movie, just like the 80s.

Y: “Your Hand in Mine,” Explosions in the Sky.

My favorite Explosions song. So beautiful. [Note: This almost lost to my favorite Switchfoot song “Your Love is a Song.” But in the end, I decided this was even better to start closing out the playlist.]

Z: “Zephyrus,” Bloc Party.

I had one song that starts with Z in my entire iTunes library. Fortunately, it’s a great song by a great band.