It seemed a strange coincidence that the Boston Marathon fell immediately after Easter in 2014. My “patient partner” Erica, who has a rare disease and for whom I was running, lamented this scheduling confluence; coming to Boston to see me run the marathon and to be part of the special weekend of activities meant leaving her family and cherished traditions behind on this important holiday. I lamented it a little too. I love Easter; I love celebrating Christ rising from the dead and the new life offered to us as a result of him overcoming sin and death. After moving to Boston and being separated every year from my immediate family on this holiday, I came to find even more spiritual joy in this resurrection. The kind of pure bliss I often experience only while running.
But this year, I was distracted from Easter because I was utterly consumed by the marathon. In many ways, my life ever since that horrific moment in the 2013 Boston Marathon, when three people were killed and hundreds injured, had been leading up to this race. I knew immediately I would run again the following year, as did so many others. There was no choice, no other way to reclaim our race and all that it stands for, than to run it again.
A friend and teammate of mine has been injured (not due to the bombing) for over a year, and she had no desire to run the marathon again this year. While the majority of the marathon would be downright fun for me even though the final miles would be torturous and I’d have difficulty walking the next day, for her it would be nothing but extreme pain from start to finish. But she did it, even though it took her more than six hours, because leaving this race unfinished was not an option in her mind. After spending hours stranded at Boston College last year without a phone, wondering if her entire immediate family who had been at the finish line were still alive, and after all the blood, sweat, and tears she’d put into training and fundraising for this race two years in a row, she had earned that finish line. She needed to cross it.
We all needed to cross it.
The colors of this year’s marathon jacket were controversial – a loud orange and electric blue. Adidas, the official clothing sponsor of the race, commented that they’d chosen these colors because they wanted to show that we had turned a corner. We weren’t enslaved to or dwelling on what had happened last year; we were moving on; we were victorious.
I was among those in the Boston running community who were disappointed with the jacket from the moment it was revealed. Some wanted to return to last year’s classic blue and yellow; others wanted red, white, and blue. Personally, I thought black and gold would strike the perfect chord of memory and hope. We wanted colors that were meaningful, not a garish or obscene flash of color that seemed chosen purely because Adidas wanted to be “avant garde.”
I hated the colors – until the day after Marathon Monday. I had refused to buy the official jacket but I still wanted some 2014 clothing, so I’d purchased a bright orange running T-shirt and a dark blue track jacket with marathon orange and blue stripes. I donned these items on Tuesday, looked at myself in the mirror, and surprisingly loved what I saw. I realized that I couldn’t have worn these colors two days ago. Not only because I don’t believe in wearing this year’s marathon apparel until after the race is done, but also because I wasn’t ready for the new colors until I’d crossed that finish line again. I needed to keep wearing the blue and yellow of Good Friday. But now, the head-turning orange and blue felt like Easter.
The race had been resurrected. With my own eyes, I’d seen Boylston Street alive once again – and this time, even more glorious and beautiful than ever before.
And so I realized how fitting it was for this year’s Boston Marathon to fall on Easter weekend. Compared to God’s grand plan of redemption for the entire human race, this redemption was perhaps small. But it was tangible and compelling to me. Boston talked about it ceaselessly the way Jerusalem talked about Christ’s death and then, the implausible claims that he had been seen alive again.
Could it really be? Could he have risen from the dead?
The images of the marathon finish line covered in smoke and blood are seared forever in my brain. But I’ve seen it come alive again. Resurrection is possible. New life, new hope, new glory are possible. I have seen it. This year, I celebrated Easter. And I celebrated Resurrection Monday. Thanks be to God.
Earlier this month, I went to an amazing exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts on the very last weekend it was here. It was called “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World.” Much has been written on the exhibit’s themes of identity, individuality, and refuting stereotypes about the Middle East, as well as its exploration of daily life against the backdrop of violence, war, and varying degrees of repression.
I appreciated the opportunity to explore these ideas while looking at the exhibit, but what I want to focus on in this blog post is my difficult-to-describe impression that a brief moment in the timeline of these women’s stories was intersecting with a brief moment in mine. Looking at photos of Middle Eastern high school girls in the haven of their bedrooms, surrounded by the items that mean the most to them and that express who they are and who they’re striving to become, I felt “sisterly” toward them; despite the obvious differences in our life experiences, at our core we want and need many of the same things. The exhausted faces of the women riding the subway told of concerns and challenges I can only guess at, just as I can only guess at the stories of those who ride the T with me in Boston; we brush shoulders for a few minutes, both lost in our own pain and thoughts, maybe never to see each other again in this world. This is the human experience.
Here are a few of my favorite pieces:
“Her Listen series comprises portraits of professional Iranian singers who, as women, are forbidden by Islamic tenets to record albums or perform in public…Tavakolian’s passion for these women’s stories led her to create imaginary photographic CD covers that represent the character of each performer, with titles inspired by Persian feminist slogans.” (from exhibit wall text)
“Ghadirian’s humorous pastiches set up encounters between different times and cultures. The European-influenced backdrop of a 19th-century Qajar-era Persian photographer is juxtaposed with contemporary studio props: ‘forbidden’ or restricted objects ranging from a Pepsi can to a boom box.” (from exhibit wall text)
“The photographs celebrate such modest pleasures as a picnic on the beach or an aerobics class…Connecting intimately with her subjects, Habjouqa gently portrays the bright side of their not-always-so-bright lives.” (from exhibit wall text)
“This early still represents metaphors of music, voice, and expression through delicately written Persian script across the singer’s face.” (from exhibit wall text)
When I came back to work after Christmas and New Year’s in early January, I had a stack of holiday cards waiting for me from vendors and PR agencies. Each one tried to put their own creative spin on an annual tradition, thereby winning my favor and, ultimately, business from my company. I smirked slightly to myself, thinking that there was no way any clever gimmick was going to succeed. After all, they were missing the heart and soul of what a holiday card should be: love, goodwill, relationship.
But to my surprise, one vendor did manage to infuse a little bit of the true holiday spirit in their season’s greetings. They gave me a $15 gift card to donate to a charity of my choice. (Yes, I know charitable donations can be just as much a marketing ploy as anything else, but I’ll admit that they work on me.)
I eagerly browsed the website listing thousands of charities, excited to find one I hadn’t donated to in a while (if ever). My eyes flitted across the name of an organization I hadn’t thought much about since college: To Write Love on Her Arms.
This organization, which is focused on raising awareness and finding solutions for depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide, had been somewhat trendy to support when I was in school. I remember lots of the artsy students, and many of my fellow English majors, sporting shirts with the logo. Because the name spoke to me – to write love on her arms – I asked them what the organization stood for. Most of them couldn’t articulate it very well; they just said something about how some group of people (in some versions of the story, it was a band; sometimes it was specifically Switchfoot) took care of a girl right before she entered a formal rehab facility and how this group now goes around talking about it.
As someone who wore the badge “Critical Thinker” very seriously at the time, I had to find out if this was just some feel-good fad or if it was real. Either I didn’t have ears to hear or the organization’s website also struggled to articulate its purpose, but I remember sadly admitting to myself that these well-intentioned people were fooling themselves. Yes, I “saw through” them as I saw through so many things. From my perspective, they had helped one girl and were now designing T-shirts and getting alternative bands to endorse them and, oh yeah, they had a few resources to help depressed people get in touch with a qualified therapist.
Little did I understand the power of story, of art, of music. Little did I understand what an organization built on those things could become. An organization built on story is like a holiday card sent out of undemanding, unselfish love: They both have meaning and spirit behind the actions.
While browsing that charity website this month, the name To Write Love on Her Arms spoke to me again. And once again, I pulled up their website. Only this time, I saw how that fledgling nonprofit with only a story had started programs of all kinds to reach people in the deepest pain. Each program and initiative was imbued with the spirit of that story, a truth deeper than any statistical report about suicide rates among teens. I saw how story and art and music could “bedew, embalme, and overrunne” the hearts of those who desperately need hope.
– Yumi Sakugawa, I Think I Am in Friend-Love With You (via NPR)
I’m not entirely sure why, but posting this picture (and saying that I like it — in both the Facebook and the real-life sense) feels like a slightly embarrassing confession. But it’s true that most of my deepest friendships have been based on this principle of finding the same things beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking in this world. And social media can provide an opportunity to find out that the things that resonate with me also resonate with others.
It’s like when you’re on the subway and you notice the cover of a book someone’s reading or you can hear music blasting out of their earphones; if it’s a book or song that means something to you, there’s a feeling that this stranger is a kindred spirit. Someone who could maybe become a friend in the over-quoted Aristotelian definition of “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
Perhaps these ideas feel like confessions because Facebook “likes” and moments on public transportation are mere shadows of what real friendship should be. They awaken a deep desire for a meeting of the minds and hearts, but they cannot fulfill it on their own.
But no friendship is Ideal (to move from Aristotle to Plato). Nevertheless, we do sometimes experience the rare gift of having people in our lives who, in their own way, reach below the surface and touch our souls — for the span of time it takes to read a retweet, for a season, or even for a lifetime.
For all of us, like Liz Lemon, who thought this was going to be our year and who now find ourselves discouraged that we couldn’t even make it a week, let’s sit back and enjoy this great scene from the opening episode of 30 Rock Season 2. After all, when life gives you lemons, that means it’s time for a Liz Lemon night. Because laughter and asking in a mock-Seinfeld voice, “What is the deal with my life?” make everything better.
Additionally, here’s a wonderful Jack/Liz moment from the end of this episode, while Liz is eating takeout food and sitting on the floor in her wedding dress (which she bought because it was on sale, even though she recently broke up with her boyfriend):
Jack: Good God, Lemon. What’s happened to you? l thought this was going to be your year. Liz: l couldn’t even hold it together one week. l’m not you, Jack. l can’t have a heart attack and pretend like it never happened. l can’t break up with someone and immediately recover. l’m not you. l’m just me. Jack: Lemon, don’t ever say you’re just you. Because you are better than you. And l am not going to let you give up. This is going to be our year. Now give me the ham. Liz: l like the ham. Jack: Come on. Liz: $4,000 ham napkin. l look pretty, though, right? Jack: Don’t push it, Lemon.
“It’s a bug bite, not a pimple,” she insisted to anyone who would listen, referring to the large red welt rising on her right cheek.
“What does it really matter?” my thirteen-year-old self replied. “It looks the same either way.”
When she looked offended and walked away, I realized she’d missed my point. I was trying to ask her a philosophical question: If you have to suffer an unsightly mark on your face, why is it comparatively better to have a bug bite as opposed to a pimple? Why did it make her feel better if people knew it wasn’t a pimple? It must be that in some subconscious way we’d come to believe that pimples are blemishes that go deeper than our skin.
Today, at age 26 (twice the age of the version of myself that asked that question and perhaps in possession of only half the wisdom), I had my very first facial. It was a surprisingly relaxing hour of waxing hair from my eyebrows and upper lip, rubbing bits of rhubarb, pumpkin enzyme, and birch wood on my face, and poking and prodding to extract blackheads and other “debris” from my follicles and pores. Perhaps the facial was so enjoyable because of the accompanying shoulder and hand massage or the foot warmer in the table where I was lying. But I think it was the feeling that I was being deeply cleansed.
I first got the idea that I “needed” a facial several months ago when I went to a salon to get my eyebrows waxed. As usual, I had gone longer in between waxes than the beauticians recommend, so I was already feeling slightly embarrassed about the untamed hair sprouting above my eyes. I lay down on the table, and the woman who would be doing the waxing started planning her attack.
“Would you like to get a facial today as well?” she asked.
“A facial. You should really think about getting one. It’ll help clear up your blemishes.”
“I’ll think about it,” I replied, trying to make sure I didn’t sound offended at her helpful, if also slightly self-serving, suggestion.
As she started to apply the wax to my eyebrows, I wrote a little speech in my head. I wanted to explain to her that I had never struggled much with acne before, even as a teenager. It had only started to be a problem since I became a long-distance runner, having sweat and salt and dirt and leftover sticky energy gels coating my face during runs that lasted 3-4 hours, and then getting home and having about a million other priorities besides immediately washing my face (such as eating, drinking water, getting warm, or collapsing in a heap on the floor).
“If you knew the journey I’ve been on to get these blemishes, maybe you’d see them more deeply,” I wanted to say. “Maybe you’d realize that they aren’t ugly; they’re actually battle scars, some representing victory and others representing perseverance in the face of defeat.”
“Maybe they are ugly,” I amended in my mental discourse. “But they’re a side effect of so many beautiful things that far outweigh their ugliness.”
And then I started thinking about the people I cross paths with every day, some of whom behave in ways that seem ugly to me. Maybe I should cut them some slack, I mused while the woman continued to rip off strips of wax from my face and tried to coax me into salon small talk. Maybe I should recognize that everyone is a work in progress. Sometimes ugliness reveals itself on the journey toward beauty.
This idea was further underscored during my facial today. The blackhead extraction hurt a bit, my skin is currently red and raw, and my blemishes are more pronounced than when I went in. The esthetician warned me about all of this. “Your skin is going to need time to heal,” she said. “When it does, it’ll be so much smoother than it was before.”
In order to get my skin healthy, she had to dig deep below the surface and unearth the grime that has made its home there for months or even years. (“This blackhead was nearly a quarter of an inch long!” she exclaimed at one point.) The process was painful and made the ugly blemishes even more pronounced.
Sometimes this is the case in life as well. I hope I am becoming a more mature, compassionate, wise person – but then I act in such a way that I begin to think I haven’t made any progress. In fact, maybe I’ve even gotten worse.
I need to recognize that unearthing character blemishes is a painful process that will sometimes make the blemishes even more pronounced for a time. Rather than measure my progress like a strict schoolteacher with a wooden ruler, I need to grant myself grace and time to heal. I need the opportunity to dig beneath my blemishes instead of concealing them with pore-clogging cover-up every day. I truly believe that until I learn how to think this way about my own journey, I will always struggle to be compassionate and understanding of other people.
So here’s to 2014 – a year of extracting blackheads and applying soothing balms!
“George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
– Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks, while trying to convince Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) to allow him to make a film of her book Mary Poppins
This is indeed what storytellers do. Sometimes fictional stories of redemption can give us hope when the stories of our own lives are too messy and our paths are too long and twisted for us to see that redemption is real. But it is real. The spark of hope we feel when reading or viewing redemptive stories, and the longing we feel for a better and more beautiful world, are not mere wish fulfillment. The understanding of how the world ought to be is written in our DNA, and these fictional stories are a way for us to experience tangibly the deepest truths.
Every year on Christmas Eve, my extended family sings the 12 Days of Christmas. Each person sings one of the days, and every year we ask things like, “Wait…is it ten lords a-leaping or eleven lords a-leaping?” As a group, we’re generally tone deaf and sometimes miss our cues, but we have fun. And even though every year we say we hope we don’t have to sing this yet again, that pretending is just as much a part of the tradition as the song itself.
Though a few iPhone videos of our family’s rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas have been taken in recent years, I decided instead to share this hilarious and amazing version by Straight No Chaser. If you haven’t heard it yet, or even if you have, you simply must listen. It will make your night.