Category Archives: Feel

Matilda: The Truest Fiction (Spoken Word + Video)

Matilda cover4Watch the video on YouTube or read the poem below.
*trigger warning: child abuse*

What if I told you
That Roald Dahl didn’t write Matilda –
Matilda did.

She could read nearly as soon as she could talk,
So no one was surprised when she grew up to become an author.

Believe with me for a moment that
she tried several times to write an autobiography
but it was too painful to share.

So instead she created Roald Dahl,
wrote his autobiographies “Boy” and “Going Solo”
which of course were realistic fiction.

Next she tried to reach out to her younger self,
With stories of villains vanquished by children.
Stories with lots of funny bits, like children’s books ought to have.

But when a boy came over for tea
from what she would later call Crunchem Hall Primary School,
She realized children needed to hear her story.
She decided to write fictionalized reality.

The headteacher who tested students on their times tables
And insisted on perfect cleanliness
would be called Miss Trunchbull.

Yes, people would be caricatures with labels for names
like Miss Honey the teacher and Mr. Wormwood the car salesman crook.
The kid readers would never wonder who was bad or good
Because Miss Trunchbull would never put on charity fairs or give scholarships
and the parents would be nasty and dumb.

The horror of the headteacher’s office
Would not be rumors of what he did to little boys there
It would be something concrete,
a cement cupboard lined with objects that pricked you.

And since teachers couldn’t stop the menace,
Matilda’s burning anger would become a magic power
She would save the kids and send Miss Trunchbull away for good.

Of course, in real life there was no magic.

Just because Matilda could read books on the top shelf
Didn’t mean she could reach them.
Even as the cleverest student in the class
Her brainpower produced no miracles or even cunning plots
Only test scores that made Crunchem Hall look good
And a tendency to distrust her feelings.
And no matter how her eyes burned with anger
She couldn’t lift a finger,
much less levitate a piece of chalk to write threats from a ghost.

But write…
maybe she could write
words powerful enough to right wrongs.

Miss Trunchbull got away with outrageous evil
Precisely because parents found it unbelievable
Truth is stranger than fiction, Matilda learned,
So call it a story if you want people to listen
Peddle lighthearted darkness.

Yes, she could write a comedy
where everything was obvious
and the vulnerable were protected by mysterious forces beyond their control
she could write it for the children
perhaps not an autobiography, strictly speaking,
but it’s what she would have wanted to hear.

She hoped
that some precocious child who escaped to the library
would find her book on the shelf
would laugh at Matilda’s pranks
would know that justice wins in the end.

What if Matilda could save some kids yet?
Invite them to believe something so strange it might be true
That life is a comedy
That children’s books always have a happy ending.

… or in that case, what if Matilda wouldn’t have to save them?
Characters are not responsible for meting out poetic justice.
The author of the children’s stories would give them happy endings.
Mysterious forces protect the vulnerable
And I hear God’s in the business of saving.

What if I told you
the story isn’t over yet
but I know it will end well.
Believe with me for a moment.

What if I told you
The truest fiction I know how
Would you believe me?


Shalom 02: The Homecoming

Peace is “salama” in Swahili, much like the Hebrew shalom. The Homecoming is a poem about finding wholeness (view pdf).

Photo credit Steve Rasmussen

Photo credit Steve Rasmussen


Dumpster Diving Artist

Dirty White Trash (with Gulls), 1998 by Tim Noble and Sue Webster

Dirty White Trash (with Gulls), 1998
by Tim Noble and Sue Webster
6 months of the artists’ trash, 2 taxidermy seagulls

When I started this site a year ago, I had just read Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown. I intended to share vulnerability in healthy ways.

I stepped out blindly onto a path and soon found myself climbing a mountain.

This year I faced my feelings, including loneliness and homesickness. I faced shame about my work and my worth. I faced hurt from the past and anxiety about the future. And that’s only the list of what I shared on the internet!

I didn’t want to deal with pain. But God had thrown away the painkillers I’d always used to escape. I realized I needed to find healing for my hurts. When I brought them to God, I heard: “You are my daughter, in whom I am well pleased. You are understood. You are home.

So this year was harder than I expected, but I was also braver than I thought possible. It’s been an adventure, I suppose. As Nicole Nordeman sings, “sitting in the rubble, I can see the stars.”

In Mark Shaw’s Work, Play, Love he talks about how theologian Jonathan Edwards’ categorized beauty: Simple beauty was symmetry. Complex beauty was a harmony of opposites, where beauty absorbs and transforms ugliness. Moral beauty was love for persons. God was complex moral beauty. This year I have seen how God absorbs the sin and brokenness of the world and makes something deeply beautiful.

When I first began to grasp the concept of grace, I wrote a poem about God using the imperfections and brokenness of a lightbulb to create a stained glass masterpiece. I called God a dumpster diving artist.

The creator made us beautiful, but we hurt ourselves and each other, resulting in a broken mess that should’ve been thrown out. But God wasn’t ready to give up on us. God dove into the dumpster of this world with us and became a human. Jesus immersed himself in people’s sickness, poverty and hurt. He opened his arms to our pain – and kept them open wide in a torturous death.

But God – what infinite moral complex beauty! – turned death into life, defeat by torture into eternal victory. And that’s why in heaven, there will be no pain. In the presence of such a God, bones take on flesh, ashes become beauty (there’s a song about that too). This is not the art that we envision. But the Holy Spirit invites us to join in. We too can make a collage or quilt from scraps.

Creating art and writing to share here has helped me look at my life in a new light. I can see that this year’s trash has been recycled by a dumpster diving artist into a new creation. And I hope I’m joining the Creator in making some garbage art.


Find rest: My childhood as an artistic pillow

Lately I’ve been processing what it was like growing up in Tanzania – in my school, family and Christian communities. In fact, if I do any more introspection, I’m at risk of turning inside out. I’ve discovered the power of a little word: “and.” It frees me to affirm the good memories and the difficult parts of my experience. In typical Hannah fashion, I memorialized what I’m learning by delving into a challenging art project laden with symbolism. I made a two-sided pillow. Like with this project, I hope I can make scraps of hard and happy times into something beautiful and useful to comfort myself and others.

(Click on the pictures to view them larger).Pillow art symbolism_01

Pillow art symbolism_02 Pillow art symbolism_03


Feel 03: Overwhelmed

Image by Gwydion M. Williams (Flickr)

Image by Gwydion M. Williams (Flickr)

“There’s steam coming out of the car!”

As the van climbed a hill in the strong afternoon sun, the temperature gauge had been climbing too. But my dad and I hadn’t noticed. Finally, the pressure cracked the plastic top of the radiator. It said, “Stop! You can’t keep ignoring me!”

Later that week, my emotions did the same thing. The temperature kept rising until the gasket broke. For three separate situations, I sat down with a list of feeling words and wrote: “I feel anxious because… I feel angry about… I feel afraid that…” It took a lot of tissues to mop up all that escaping water.

It was an answer to prayer.

Of course, I didn’t realize it at first. I asked: “What are you doing, God?”

Writer that I am, I journaled… for three full days. I listened to my feelings. I listened to music. I listened to the Bible. If emotions were like food, mine were as processed as sausages.

A Sanctus Real song echoed my thoughts: “Whatever you’re doing, inside of me / it feels like chaos / but I believe / you’re up to something / bigger than me / larger than life / something heavenly.”

Work tasks and deadlines were part of my stress. Finally, I tearfully told my boss that I was worried I would disappoint everyone when our project wasn’t done on time. I felt shame because my work wouldn’t be enough. I asked for management solutions, a more detailed plan, and clearer expectations.

They listened, then reminded me that it wasn’t my work. It was God’s. I only had to take responsibility for my part. In fact, I realized it was proud to think I could do it all myself. I read a familiar passage about Jesus’ humility. Just below it, I saw: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13). Work humbly – because God works in you.

I read: “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires… the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace… The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again” (Rom. 8:5, 6, 15). Focusing on what had to be done made me feel fear and shame because I couldn’t do it. My supervisors encouraged me to focus instead on what God had been doing – and replace my anxiety with peace.

With another situation I was anxious about, I imagined the opportunity in it. I remembered what God had done before and decided this might be another step in the same direction.

Then I took a big picture look at all the emotions of the past couple weeks. What are you doing, God?

Cracks and growth

Cracks and growth

I remembered that I recently prayed for a closer relationship with the Holy Spirit.

I’d hoped for really powerful prayers and maybe a miraculous experience. But I also told God to do things his way recently. So he put me in a situation where I need the Spirit’s strength. My boss called this my “baptism by fire” into ministry work. The phrase means a painful initiation, but in the Bible, being baptized with flames is a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence. I often think of listening to the Spirit as sitting quietly and waiting for thoughts that are too profound to come from me. But I realized – music, journaling, the Bible – they’re all ways the Spirit speaks. I guess we have gotten closer lately.

I’d also asked to become pliable so God could mold me for his purposes. I’d prayed for humility.

Another supervisor compared this challenging time to how Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days before beginning his ministry. The devil tempted Jesus: “Prove yourself. Show your power and get the glory now – forget about the painful cross.” The liar tells me I’m not enough too, and I question whether all this is really necessary.

But Jesus fasted and chose the humble way. In fact, that’s where we get the 40 days of Lent from. We so often stuff the cracks in our lives with comforting distractions. But ‘tis the season to make peace with the cracks. This year I don’t have all the friends, ministry roles and accomplishments I often rely on to boost my self-worth. I’ve had to face the cracks and let the Spirit fill them. Maybe the Spirit’s leading me to the wilderness to prepare me for ministry, shape me for what’s next.

The crack in our radiator, annoying as it was, saved the engine from damage. Overheating forced us to stop – right in front of a car wash. We filled the radiator with buckets full of water and made it home. It took days with the mechanic, but our car is finally ready for its next adventure.

I feel… hopeful.


Feel 02: Lonely

Lonely_child_by_coolthang

 

Loneliness forced me to pay attention to my emotions this year.

As a kid, loneliness was one of my most faithful companions. My friends or I moved away every 2-3 years. But I hadn’t been lonely in a while.

 

Earlier this year, academics and my on-campus job were hard work. They also made it more work to see friends. Extroversion can be high maintenance, man. I was doing all the time just trying to be myself. I cried often. My logical default mode didn’t know what to do with all this emotion. I was horrified to be so fragile, scared to be out of control.

After graduation, I got a job back home. I’m grateful to live with my family, but I rarely see my coworkers, and it’s been hard to mostly start over with friends. When I was invited to join a group for pizza and acoustic guitar, gratitude spurted out of my eyes.

Reading the book Feel encouraged me to ask: What do my emotions tell me I’ve been focusing on?

At a friend’s house recently, I mentioned that I was lonely. I wanted to process with someone. But I’d been storing up so much that soon I was listing all the reasons it’s difficult to make friends. I could feel myself nearing that breaking point. When she tried to offer solutions, I dismissed them. The required lifestyle changes would be too great.

Then I realized: I was reciting reasons for self-pity. Instead of enjoying each moment with my friend, I guilt-tripped her for not spending more time with me. I might even suspect her kindness was just the result of my manipulation, and refuse to keep what I’d stolen.

People can relate to loneliness. But when it becomes self-pity, it isolates and overwhelms. Self-pity is love’s counterfeit. It gives you the attention you crave by focusing on you. But it’s jealous. It prevents you from seeing others’ needs, from loving and being loved. Self-pity casts your pain as affirmation, and makes you cherish it. It’s like drinking alcohol to get rid of a hangover.

Friendship or dating can feel like the answer to loneliness too. But you end up grabbing onto other needy people, and leeching off each other. So if you can’t trust your scarce friends or yourself, then what?

Jesus faced this problem. He was surrounded by needy crowds who mooched off his power and followers who didn’t “get it” most of the time. One friend betrayed him, one denied him, and the rest deserted him. Dying of torture, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

But even on the cross, Jesus didn’t succumb to self-pity. He gave instructions for his mother to be cared for, he assured the criminal beside him of a heavenly destiny, he asked for sour wine to fulfill a prophecy. His feelings were right and loving.

He focused on only his Father’s affirmation. I discovered Jesus’ Father speaks only twice in the gospels. Once right before Jesus starts his ministry, and again right before Jesus culminates it in crucifixion. If it were me, I’d want instructions for how to control crowds and preach effectively. Maybe tips on what to say on trial or how to block out pain.

The Father says this: “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

It’s not that the Father isn’t giving him guidance about what he’ll do. In fact, these words echo other stories:

  • In Psalm 1, the LORD promises King David that he will make the nations his inheritance, saying “you are my son.
  • When telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the LORD says, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love… and sacrifice him… on a mountain I will show you.”
  • In Isaiah, the LORD says, “Here is my servant… my chosen one in whom I delight… [he will be] a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison.”

Embedded in the Father’s statement of love were references to Jesus’ destiny: “I will sacrifice you, my only son. You will inherit the nations, giving them sight and freedom.”

But the Father didn’t actually say any of that. Out of those stories, he chose to speak only these words: “This is my Son, whom I love; in him I am well pleased.”

My pastor likes to say, “When you know who you are, you will know what to do.” My father recently left a Post-It near my bed. Usually I use Post-Its to remind me what to do. He repurposed this one to remind me who I am. That’s what Jesus’ Father told him too. From your being comes your doing.

Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry. That’s what Henri Nouwen called it in his article of the same title. He too knew about loneliness. He was a priest who longed for intimacy and, it seems, privately questioned his sexuality. All this as an Ivy League professor and then an assistant for people with mental disabilities.

Nouwen says when we run around begging for affirmation, we’re not free. I realize I am fragile because I depend on people to affirm me. I preserve sweet birthday cards to chew over when I’m down. But I can’t serve others – or even be a good friend – if I’m looking for them to serve my own emotional needs.

Instead, the secret is to listen to the same voice Jesus did. “To pray is to listen to the One who calls you ‘my beloved daughter,’ ‘my beloved son,’ ‘my beloved child.’ To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of your being, to your guts, and let that voice resound in your whole being.”

We have to forgive each other for not being able to love unconditionally, Nouwen says: “If you can forgive that another person cannot give you what only God can give, then you can celebrate that person’s gift. Then you can see the love that person is giving you as a reflection of God’s great unconditional love.”

Jesus came to literally free prisoners, heal blind people, and forgive us. But he also came to heal us from self-pity so we can forgive others. He came to free us with the knowledge of our belovedness, so we too will notice God’s love for others.

Maybe instead of trying to make friendship harder, God’s been trying to make solitude more convenient. To silence all the other voices so I listen to this one:

IMG_0168


Feel 01: Anxious

Feel - Matthew ElliottI knew something was wrong when I started craving chick flicks and feeling sick of Christian books. I’ve never been a movie fan, and Christian writing is my livelihood. I think I’m tired of thinking. I feel like it’s time to feel.

I should have seen this coming. First there was the powerful sermon in March on emotional maturity. Then the mentors forcing me to list feelings (apparently “confused” doesn’t count – it’s an intellectual state).

When I visited Ethiopia, an engineering grad about my age told me how she’d learned to pay attention to emotions. She suggested reading a Christian book about feelings. I laughed. What a solution.

Then I remembered my new boss was the premier scholar on emotions in the New Testament.

I’ve been devouring his book Feel the past couple weeks. I feel excited.

~

Estranged poet

I prefer
“How are you doing?” to “How are you feeling?”
The extra verb muffles being with activity.
When I want to be heard above the shuffle,
I feel not,
except to grasp my trusty “I think,”
wield my hard head,
shield the squishy parts.

But today, ask
“How are you?” and
I’ll be honest:
Lately I feel my heart
beat against the bars of its rib cage
to come out now
and I feel scared.

Stay posted for more on feelings.