Category Archives: Finding Beauty

This Summer: Love not Hate

Reminder: my blog is moving to elizabethsyson.wordpress.com. All my content will be both here and there for another week, but starting in August, this blog will no longer be active.


This is a summer of heartache.

I find myself grieving afresh almost every day—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, five police officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge, hundreds of people in Baghdad, Istanbul, and Nice, and, I know, more—probably hundreds more that I never see, hundreds that the media never takes notice of.

taken from Wikimedia commons

a memorial for the Nice victims

Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post about love, hate, and opposing beliefs. Today I find myself thinking again of the strange juxtaposition, the way love seems to inevitably give way to hatred, the way the lines between them grow hazy and thin until we can hardly tell one from the other.

This is a summer of blood, and voices cry out from every side. We are angry. We are frightened. Most of us want the same thing: we want the violence to end. We want lives to be valued above hateful ideology. We want equality and safety and hope.

We are angry because we love—because our hearts bleed for the innocent ones caught in the crossfires of conflicting beliefs. We are angry because we feel helpless—because we see no solution in the face of unchecked hatred, blind oppression, and ongoing violence.

But when our pain and outrage turn our love to hatred, how are we better? Suddenly we look back and realise that we’ve been so focused on righting wrongs that we’ve forgotten to love the wronged. We’ve so desperately battled against injustice that we cannot fathom allowing justice for the other side, whether that other side is political, racial, religious, ideological…

This is a summer of people—individual humans trying to live through the horrors. We weep over the tragedies, we rail against the unfairness, and we shop for groceries. We protest injustices, we question motivations, and we balance our budgets. We cannot stop the world spinning no matter how ghastly the news.

I knelt at my granny’s feet this morning because she can no longer put on her compression stockings or shoes by herself. Kneeling there, I thought, This is the kind of love we’ve forgotten. Not the kind that fights, but the kind that serves. This, I realised, is the kind of dedication we have lost—the kind that proves itself not by destroying opposition, but by creating goodness.

My granny is difficult to love well. Despite her years of loving me, I find myself resenting the restrictions her helplessness places on my time and freedom. I find myself wishing she could understand or acknowledge the sacrifices we make to care for her. And this, I finally understand—this is what love truly is. To kneel at the feet of someone who cannot see the gift to appreciate it, giving without expecting return, without bitterness.

With new clarity, I see that the fine line between love and hate is merely this: to stand, unequivocally and unflinchingly, not against something, but for something.

I cannot right every wrong, but I can weep with the grieving, and I can stand with the suffering, and I can kneel with a pair of elderly feet in the early morning.

This is a summer of hatred—but I am learning love.

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Confessions of a College Senior

There’s a frantic energy that pulses through college life. It’s the exuberance of the first week back in the fall, the urgent scramble to get ahead on homework before mid-semester apathy sets in, the wild abandon of late-night giggles before finals. It’s a desperation that pounds like a heartbeat, like treading water to stay afloat long after your legs are numb from exhaustion.

Numb legs. Numb mind. Numb heart.

That’s what I get after four years of this. I’m equally beyond panic and excitement. That freshman year flutter of anxiety over low grades has given way to an apathy born of desperation and exhaustion. The thrill of anticipation over upcoming events has dulled to a weary acceptance of change, a deadened recognition of time’s inevitable progression.

“Are you excited?” people ask when they know I’m graduating next week.

“Yes,” I say.

No, I think.

Excited? Who has the energy to be excited? I can’t see graduation past the packing, the cleaning, the final exams, the empty bank account, the endless commitments.

Photo credit: Laura McIntosh

The achievement I’ve worked toward, cried over, dreamed about—suddenly, as it comes within my reach, I find I don’t care. Exhaustion robs me of excitement. And besides—somewhere in the distance, beyond the cap and gown and diploma, I see something else coming. Something bigger. Something grander.

A new goal.

I’m struggling so hard to survive the moment, straining so hard to see into the future, that I’m about to let this achievement slip away unrecognised.

“You’re almost there!” people say.

“Yes, but…” I say.

That “yes, but…” is subtle. It feels like small talk when I say it, yet by letting it out, I negate my own success. Yes, I’ve put in four years of hard work, overcome challenges I never imagined, experienced adventures and heartbreaks I never anticipated—but…

But what? But I’m not quite there yet? But I have loans? But packing is hard and I don’t have a summer job and I’m worried about this, that, or the other?

This is not an isolated moment—this is every moment. At the crest of every hill, I see the mountain beyond and allow that to diminish my sense of accomplishment, to somehow make my effort meaningless, as if the successes to come make this one not matter.

There will always be a “but.” That’s life. Nothing is isolated. No day is 100% celebration. No moment is an isolated pinnacle. Something will always be coming in the future, but tomorrow’s struggle does not negate today’s achievement.

I cannot live my life looking away from today. I can’t diminish every ending. I can’t let every new challenge ruin the success of the moment.

So yeah—I’m stressed, I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed.

I’m also excited.

Because no matter what today looks like or what challenges wait in the future, I’m near the top of this mountain I’ve been climbing for four years. Whatever might be waiting for me beyond next week, I know that what I’ve done is significant. Where I am is important.

I refuse to let tomorrow negate today.

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Grief: A Sacred Space

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“Most of us on campus today don’t know any of these people. Most of us weren’t here. Most of us have no idea. But here we are, to remember together an event, a day, a world of emotion that most of us don’t know. It’s a painful, terrible, beautiful thing.”

I wrote those words in my journal yesterday, when I had the privilege of taking part in a memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of a van accident that took the lives of five at my university.

Recently my anthropology professor said that it takes only a generation to forget—and at a university, where generations pass every four years, forgetting is a rapid process. Events, traditions, and stories are lost in the flow of life, buried beneath the ongoing cycle of graduations and freshman orientations.

Ten years. Two and a half generations. And yesterday, we who have no memory of the tragedy joined with those whose lives were intrinsically caught up in it, and together we mourned.

That story—the story of death and loss that touched so many lives that were not mine—finally touched my life, ten years later, through the tears and words of those who lived it. Somehow, a decade after a loss I did not know, I was invited into a private, painful place and allowed to weep over a grief not mine.

And this, I think, is the most beautiful thing we as humans can do. To tell stories that are not ours, to feel emotions we should have no part in, to be united in another’s grief. It’s a humble position that we take, setting aside our own joys and sorrows to focus on someone else’s, laying aside our burdens, not to lift theirs, because we could never do that, but to join them beneath the weight.

This, I think, is the essence of love—that we who know nothing of their pain willingly step into a darkness we can never lighten, choosing simply to be present, and that they, who know nothing of us, allow us into that sacred space.

Yesterday, together, we told a story that was not ours to tell—because community has a responsibility to remember, to keep telling stories that are not ours but that are important. And today I have no solutions to offer. I have only this—this sense of awe at the terrible beauty of shared loss, this sense of wonder at the holy place I was allowed to enter, washed in the grief of strangers.


#Readwomen: This Is How You Say Goodbye

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I’m writing a day late, not because I finished the book a day late, but because it’s been two days and I’m still not sure what to say. If Wild felt like going along on a journey, This Is How You Say Goodbye felt like peeking in someone else’s window.

Victoria Loustalot writes of her father, of searching for a deeper understanding of him through a trip around the world—one he talked about during her childhood but never made. I read in a haze of bewilderment, caught up by the evocative phrases and relentless emotions but constantly amazed that what seemed outrageous to me could be commonplace in someone else’s life.

Emotions are universal; I’ve felt insufficient and confused and lost. I understand those. But causes are not. I will never understand the type of family Loustalot describes. The feelings that drove her across the world—I can believe her descriptions, but I can’t feel them myself.

And, I suppose, in some ways that’s the point of the book—a daughter searching around the globe for clues to help her understand how her father felt. People are complex; relationships are more so. Somehow, we find ways to understand each other even though we can never really feel what another person feels. And even though we’ll never completely understand, there’s something beautiful about trying.

This book captivated me like a beautiful song in a different language, or an abstract painting I can’t quite wrap my mind around. And perhaps that’s how people are, too—not exactly understandable, but all the more worthwhile for being complicated and contradictory. And maybe that’s all I needed to learn from this book, after all.


#Readwomen: Wild

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If you’ve been following me, you know I’m only reading women authors during December.

And last week, I spent a whole day trying to get over Wild

This is not normal for me. I mean, a book’s ending is always a goodbye. There’s that tumult of excitement at seeing the last few pages slip by; that rush of sorrow at the journey ending; the bewilderment at the prospect of closing the book and moving on with impossibly mundane things like taking out the rubbish or washing the past few days’ worth of coffee mugs.

But then I move on.

Except I didn’t with Wild. After a few days, I had to force myself to begin the next book on my list, but my heart remained caught up in a tangle of words strung along a mountain trail on the West Coast.

It moved me deeply. I felt a strange closeness while reading it–an illogical closeness, because the author and I have almost nothing in common–and yet I, too, have said goodbye, overcome fear, and learned to forgive, so really, I suppose, we have everything in common. None of the experiences, but all of the emotions.

Wild touched my soul because I let it. I’ve always analysed everything, perhaps afraid that if I don’t filter to catch perspectives I disagree with, I might change without knowing it–that I might become someone I don’t want to be, unconsciously. So when I take in someone else’s words, I weigh and judge them.

But this time, I didn’t weigh. I didn’t judge. I let the words flow through me; I let them be. Instead agreeing or disagreeing, I listened. I let her tell her story. I let it all be true.

I will never be the same at the end of a book; this is the nature of stories and the nature of life. To remain unchanged is to stagnate. I lose nothing and gain everything by allowing another writer to tell a story as honestly as she can. I lose nothing by reading vulnerably, and I gain everything by letting her discoveries be true. It’s not my place to agree or disagree. It’s not my story.

And somehow, by letting it be her story, not mine, by letting her experiences and insights be valid, I let it became my story, too. Somehow, I found my own peace at the end of her trail. And that, after all, is what stories are for.

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Chronicle of…what now?

“Blog about what you know best,” said the expert at the writing conference.

And I thought, “Fear. I know fear. I feel it daily. It drives everyone I know. And maybe, just maybe, writing a blog about it will force me to face my fears and grow as a person. What a great opportunity!”

And thus was born my blog.

The concept was simple: blog once a week about a fear I faced. Learn from it.

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The practice was…well, less simple.

It turns out fears aren’t as exciting as they sound. They’re not scaly, fire-breathing monsters to be slain and sung of in ballads. They’re mundane things. I’m afraid of apologising. Of meeting people. Of packing and resting and getting out of bed for class. (And of bees. I haven’t faced that fear yet.)

And the more I write, the more I realise something: I don’t want to write about fear. Looking back through my blog posts the other day while trying (in vain, so far) to get organised, I saw that my posts began as a commentary on my fears and gradually grew into the story of my search for beauty. Here’s the thing—fear is everywhere. Everyone is frightened of something, and dwelling on my fear hasn’t helped me deal with it. Maybe I’ve learnt to identify it, to recognise its legitimacy, to admit to it, but I haven’t learnt to live past it. But when I stop looking at what frightens me and focus instead on something that excites, engages, enlightens–then I can move beyond the panic under my ribs and the shaking in my hands.

Overcoming terror isn’t about identifying it; it’s about finding something more meaningful and focusing on that.

The rain glistening on skyscrapers in a crowded city.

The impossible red coating the underbelly of a maple leaf on a Monday morning.

The scent of coffee drifting through the office during a meeting.

Sunlight throwing tiny rainbows through the window after an exam.

Because beauty trumps fear every time.

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So this week, here’s my fear: I’m afraid of change and I’m afraid to commit. And this week, I’m committing to change.

I’m changing my focus.

It’s time to stop studying what scares me and start searching for what excites me. And will I still talk about fear? Most definitely—as a foil for the small, bright beauties I find everywhere. The breathtaking moments, the subtle pleasures, the unexpected smiles.

Because the world doesn’t need more fear. It needs more beauty.


Inkwell Poetry

I’ve taken to journaling with pen and ink.

I’m not talking a BIC stick; I’m talking wooden shaft, removable nibs, and a cute little inkwell with Jane Austen’s profile on it. (Okay, I admit it, I bought it in a gift shop.)

One morning, partly out of guilt for having used the set so rarely after buying it, I settled with my journal and my pen and ink, and somehow I fell in love with the medium.

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It’s slow. It’s unforgiving. It’s demanding. My usual hurried scrawl is impossible, but no matter how careful I am, my painstaking letters come out wobbly and uneven.

All things considered, I should hate it.

Yet, somehow, it soothes me. It slows me down, lets me think and breathe in between words. The rhythmic pauses to dip my nib in the inkwell force method and movement into what used to be an urgent, rushed process. Finding the precise angle best suited to my nib, like finding the precise angle best suited to my thoughts, takes practice and patience.

I love today’s culture: retro is in, and following fads is out (an irony that can twist your brain into knots if you think about it too long). You can wear anything you want and be in style. New home decor is as easy (and cheap!) as picking up broken windows or discarded bottles while yard sale shopping.

And record players are popular once more, as evidenced by the gleaming Crosley turntable on the coffee table across from me.

In an era when you can fit weeks’ worth of music on a pocket-sized device, why are people returning to a device as inconvenient and limited as a record player? It’s huge. It’s heavy. You have to flip the record over every fifteen minutes or so, and you can only listen to one album at a time—none of the “shuffle all” freedom of, say, an iPod.

So why, I asked myself as I set Simon and Garfunkel spinning, would I rather switch on a record player?

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For the same reason I like to dip a pen in an inkwell: for the authenticity. For the intentionality. For the beauty of the flaws—the fuzzy high notes or spreading ink blotches, the click of the needle when you set it down and the scratch of metal against paper as the ink becomes something new.

I love the inkwell because I dip into it and draw out words that flow to the page in a beautiful, organic way that never occurs when I force thoughts out of the cheap, plastic tube of a ballpoint. I love it because I feel the words forming, sense the effort and time they deserve rather than cramming them out as quickly as my brain can conjure them. Because even more than the words on the page, the process becomes poetry in its own right.

Because when I’ve finished and my wobbly letters straggle like weary soldiers across the page, I know I’ve given away a part of my soul—and then my soul feels not less, but more.


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