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.
“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.
Losing someone close to you can be an opportunity to rediscover that you are the leading lady (or gentleman) of your own life. When someone who has been a part of yourself leaves you, or your path diverges from theirs, or one of you changes so deeply that you can no longer occupy the same space in each other’s hearts, you can find a new kind of independence and freedom. It’s often painful, especially at first, but as they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn.
This scene from The Holiday reminds me not to see myself as “the best friend.” Even though there are amazing people in my life, I am not defined by them or overshadowed by them. We may have the providential blessing of sharing parts of our lives together, but if that chapter comes to a close, that’s all right because I am the leading lady in my story. Not him. Not her. Not them.
Disclaimer 1: I may be the leading lady, but God is the author, director, producer, casting director, etc. Roll credits now.
Disclaimer 2: I am not advocating carelessly throwing away relationships. On the contrary, relationships matter to me very deeply. That is why the loss of a precious one can be so painful, and sometimes so necessary.
Disclaimer 3: Some relationships, such as marriage, are meant to be lifelong, but even in that case, it’s important to remain oneself and not be wholly consumed by your partner. Though you are meant not to be parted until death, death will, in fact, part you.
“I want to die as myself. I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not. I keep wishing I could find a way to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”
Peeta Mellark, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Sometimes I think the world isn’t all that different from the Hunger Games. We can give in to its pressures and respond out of anger, fear, and hurt when it lashes out at us — or we can respond as ourselves, or rather, as the people we were meant to be. We can let suffering produce perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-4). There are some riches that can only be found in the crucible.
I started this blog, not knowing exactly what I wanted to say in it, but knowing that I was going to deviate drastically enough from the types of posts I’d written on other blogs that I needed a brand new blog. I decided to go with my Twitter handle, @JypsyJBook, as the title of the blog, similarly not knowing exactly what that meant other than that it is a subtle nod to the concept of “literary journeys.”
Today I wrote to a friend of mine about this blog and tried to characterize what it’s developed into so far. I thought I’d share what I wrote because it might be interesting to follow the evolution of what this blog is truly “about.” Here’s what I said:
I wasn’t totally sure what the purpose of the blog was going to be, but currently I’d say the theme is focusing on the things that give me hope even in the darkness. I’ve been teetering on the edge of plunging into that state of darkness/depression a lot lately, but I am continually rescued from it after only a short period of time. And it’s often just by little things — a song, a brief conversation, a thought, a prayer. But I want to record these moments of hope. Often blog posts I’ve written in the past have been critical or complaining, but that doesn’t really bring much value to anyone, even if the posts do seem “intellectually interesting” to me. My biggest dream would be that someone else who is going through a period of darkness could stumble upon my blog and maybe listen to a song I posted or something, and even for just a moment feel the hope and love and peace that come from being embraced by Jesus.
In keeping with the theme of discovering what my own blog is about, I also wanted to share a “literary journey” quote I recently discovered. I’d purchased a picture frame in Prague and was intending to frame a postcard of a Franz Kafka quote (he was from Prague and I loved the Kafka Museum when I was there). However, the postcard I’d gotten didn’t fit, so I decided to design a new one that was the correct size. In the process, I found this brief piece he wrote called “My Destination”:
I called for my horse to be brought from the stable. The servant did not understand me. I myself went into the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a trumpet blast. I asked him what it meant but he did not know and had not heard it. By the gate he stopped me and asked “where are you riding to sir?” I answered “away from here, away from here, always away from here. Only by doing so can I reach my destination.” “Then you know your destination” he asked. “Yes” I said “I have already said so, ‘Away-From-Here’ that is my destination.” “You have no provisions with you” he said. “I don’t need any” I said. “The journey is so long that I will die of hunger if I do not get something along the way. It is, fortunately, a truely immense journey.” (from The Kafka Project)
The seeming incongruity, but the actual harmony, between the purposeful journey and the unknown destination is also a theme of this blog. I hope you will join me in this discovery, this journey, this story called life.