Live Your Life and Live it Joyfully

Hi, there. Courtney here.

I’m pissed off.

Shall we take a deep breath together? Yes! Yes we shall.

Despite my concerns that I am turning into that dreaded “angry woman” that the world seems all so concerned about holding at bay, I must admit…that feels really good to say.

Its been two years since I was last able to write in this space. There are many interconnected reasons for that and they can all be summed up in the word “pandemic.” So much has happened, and NOT happened, in the two years since I last wrote here. I am grateful for some of it…I’ve learned alot. But if I am honest, I have spent most of the pandemic with a low grade simmer of anger in my soul over HOW all the people have reacted to this tragic, tragic time. I feel self righteous saying that. Its not as though I have handled each of these days with honor and courage. But there’s one thing I’ve just not been able to let go of in this entire season of death and peril. I’ve never been able to let go of the inkling that we could endure a difficult time with laughter and joy and hope for the future. Something in my soul just will not let this go. I believe we can live well in tragic times and I am pissed off that everywhere I turn we’ve succumbed to a spirit of doom and despair. I do not understand why the people I am most intertwined with, people of Faith, refuse to live lives of joy in the midst of all this difficulty. What other options do we have? Walking around in circles like children who “want to go on making mud pies in a slum because [they] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea?” (C.S. Lewis, we thank you for your words)

Sometimes I wonder if I am just refusing to grieve. This is possible. I am trying to remember what it looks like to grieve well. In college it looked like a lot of time alone and a lot of decisions that didn’t make sense to others but that made a hell of a lot of sense to my inner being. I took really long drives in the best car that was ever made for a college student – my Dad’s handed down navy blue Isuzu Rodeo. I quit the rowing team. I rode a bicycle across the United States one summer, ocean to ocean. I spent a lot of time with a cute guy I’d met who was more bookish than anyone I had ever dated but somehow kept wiggling his way around the circles I spent my time with. I swear I looked at him the other day and thought: “we have two children together!” like this was the first time since that second kiddo came around that I’d actually noticed how things have changed.

Grieving won’t look like it did my junior and senior year of college, this time around. I can’t buy a $400 bicycle and take off for two and a half months like I did back then. But there can be similarities. I can follow my gut and do one small thing that feels right, and just for me, on a given day. I can carve out space with friends and that cute guy and we can walk the grieving road together. Back in college I remember attending (or not attending) parties because I felt like I was the only one in pain. This time will be different as now we’ve all experienced loss and we’re all trying to feel our way back to a stable center. We can grieve collectively. I have faith that will be really beautiful.

For now, I can’t stop thinking about a moment that happened in the late night hours of October 5, 2019, the day my mom passed away. It was about 8:00 and Andy and I had just walked in the door to my Dad and step mom’s place after a long day of saying goodbye at the hospital and gathering with family who’d driven south to support my sister and I when we asked the doctors to turn off the machines. I hugged my Dad and after sitting shell shocked for a time I asked him if I could take a bath in the giant tub in his master bathroom. The one with the jets that overlooks the lake in their backyard. “Of course” he said. “I’ll go up and get it going for you.”

I met him upstairs with my towel and shampoo with the tub half full of water. “I can’t seem to get the jets to work for some reason, Court.” He told me, apologetic. “I’ll have to figure that out later but at least you can have a warm soak. Take as much time as you need.” And with that he left the room and I hopped into the warm bubbly water, quickly drowning my body head to toe in water as it filled the tub. I’d come up for air and then soak back down again as I reviewed the shockingly final six weeks of mom’s life. Six weeks that changed so dramatically and so quickly I never could have imagined it unless it had really happened. I reviewed our collective response, my sister’s and mine, and I wondered if we did it well. Was there anything I could have done differently? Did I fly up at the right time? Should I have listened to the doctor after they put her on the ventilator and promised Mom I’d return? Did she know I was planning to come back for her? I had told her this…but did she know it? Could she hear the transitions of visitors we’d arranged who came to be with her while she slept and Kristin and I figured out how to manage our households from a distance before the next trip to the hospital?

These were the questions that I drowned up and down in that tub on the night she died until the most curious thing happened, 10 minutes in.

The bathtub jets started working. In an unexpected instant, everything around me roared to life. The bubble bath soap that dad put in before I got there met the power of the bath tub jets and within minutes I was sitting in a tub overflowing with bubbles around my face and arms and legs. Within a minute, after I got my bearings, I started laughing and couldn’t stop.

This is totally something my mother would have done to knock me out of a funk. I can still hear her telling me to leave my college dorm room and go out to the bar with my friends. She was the person who told me every summer vacation to stop reading books about injustice on death row in America and to pick up a “trashy romance novel, for God’s sake.” Mom was never one to sit around and sulk. Quite the opposite she had a literal pep in her step most days that the people who knew her were quite familiar with.

And so I feel like I had my marching orders, straight from Mom that night. “Do not sulk. Live. Live your life and live it joyfully. I’ll see you soon enough.”

If she were with me today I want to believe that she’d tell me to grieve but to grieve creatively. Go for a walk. Paint a room. Quit doing something you hate. Make a new friend. Cook something delicious with an old one. Write.

“Stop reading books about injustice on death row.”

Not because injustice on death row is not important but because it is a reality. Just like pandemics are a reality. And we should engage with these realities not to feed the little devils in our hearts that tell us to live in despair over our inability to affect change in such massive spaces but to inform how we should play our part in righting the wrongs.

Which brings me back to my initial point dear readers. I am pissed. Really, really pissed. Not because we’ve lived through a pandemic. Not because my parent passed away. I am pissed because we’ve all been content to sit around the slums that these experiences have created around us and have forgotten that we are called to a holiday at sea. I keep thinking that if I can see this on the day that a parent passes away than can’t we all can see this?

And so today, that’s my question…Can you?

The Arena of the Artistic

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a salsa dancing class. I’ll admit that at the time, this “opportunity” felt more like an obligation. It was early in our years in Galveston and Andy and I were subletting a room in our “too large for one couple” rental home to a UTMB exchange student who had recently come to the United States from Poland. Ola wanted to learn everything she could about the United States and we took her along with us to the many places that we went and taught her the basics of life in our seaside town. Her English was pretty rusty and so we spent many afternoons with Ola’s Polish/English dictionary attempting to explain various items in a grocery store or the aspects of getting around. It didn’t take long for Ola to begin making her own friends at school and before we knew it, she was inviting us to activities that she had learned about too.

For weeks, Ola wanted to know if Andy and I would join her in Houston to learn Salsa. The classes were free at a Mexican restaurant in the city on Wednesday nights and Ola was desperate to try. At over an hour away in Houston traffic, I was less than thrilled with the idea of attending this class in the middle of the work week. After weeks of requests however I started to feel an obligation to give Ola the ride she needed to the class and so, on an evening where Andy had to study for a test, she and I headed north to Houston to learn how to salsa dance.

The class was well attended with 20 or so guys and gals ready to learn some beginning dance steps. Two professional male and female dance instructors lined us up on the dance floor in pairs and showed us the first simple steps. Without fail, over the next hour of practice, the instructors would stop us and remind us: “In dance, you must remember this: The man leads, the woman follows.” We would start again only to be stopped soon thereafter. “In dance, the man leads, the woman follows.” Then we would trade partners and start again. We ladies were assured again and again that we could lead in every other facet of human life, (and we absolutely SHOULD, we were told) but on the dance floor, the man leads and the woman follows or the dance doesn’t work.

They said this over and over again for an hour straight because its likely the hardest part of the entire dance. Learning to lead and learning how to follow. This is not necessarily intuitive when you’re trying to express art with your bodies and yet here we were regardless. If you want to learn to dance gracefully you have to learn this basic dance instruction first, regardless of the type of dance class you are practicing.

Midway through salsa class we all stopped to take a break for water and conversation. At this point I was happy to be there, despite general end of the work day weariness. I chatted with Ola and her dance partner and then grabbed some water and wandered to the corner of the dance floor to wait for class to resume. As I turned around, I’ll never forget what I saw I next. The music we’d danced to during class that night remained on and the instructors were using the time to practice their craft. I was stunned. I’m pretty sure my mouth hung wide open. This man and this woman were just so beautiful. I don’t know how else to describe it. The man was strong and confident and, quite frankly, so was the woman. He used his hands to guide their steps and she twirled and swayed with such authority that you wouldn’t have known who was leading and who was following. And I don’t know if it was the lighting or the music or just God turning the experiential volume all the way up but I swear to this day it was one of the loveliest (and dare I say sexiest?!) things I’ve ever seen to date. I just kind of wish you all could have been there to see it too. You would have been blown away.

Ola and I went home that night, tired and warm, inside and out, from a great time out in the city. And to this day, years later, I can’t help but shake what I saw. Two people submitted to their craft in different roles, making art for the world to enjoy.

I don’t really know what it was about that experience that struck so close to my heart that day. Or what to make of the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it to this day, years afterward. I think it was the confidence that both dancers displayed and the fact that I, as an onlooker, didn’t actually know who was “in charge.” Sure, those things were important when these two professionals first started out. Like us baby salsa dancers that night, they too needed to hear over and over again that “the man leads and the woman follows” or their dance career couldn’t move forward. But this couple had clearly moved beyond the basics of dance instruction. They were in the arena of the artistic, and everyone watching them knew it because what we were watching was beautiful.

So what does all this even mean and why can’t I get it off my mind in a time of such sorrow as 2020. I guess I just believe that we people with brains full of smarts and hearts full of desire (which is my audience of readers as I’ve known them to date, btw) are called to make art with the resources we’ve been given. The world is so polarized right now. We’re either pro abortion or anti abortion. We’re pro capitalism or pro socialism. We’re pro healthcare for all or we’re pro private insurance for the few who can afford it. God forbid we recognize that these problems are hardly ever clear cut. God forbid we lean in and ask for a healthy dose of nuance and creativity to solve our problems. It all makes me fear that we’re really more comfortable standing on the sideline attending a lecture about salsa dance or viewing a slideshow of people dancing than we are with strapping on our shoes to give the dance a try for ourselves.

But maybe that’s really the case. Maybe we really are just afraid. If I put on those lenses, things start to make perfect sense. Life is scary and if historically we’ve taken the dance floor only to be laughed at or told we’re too fat/short/skinny/lanky/ugly (insert your own shame story here) to dance then who wouldn’t remain seated and want more information before sticking out their necks. I totally get it and I’d be lying if those things haven’t taken me off the dance floor before too. The hecklers on the sidelines are loud and sometimes its just too hard to hear the music.

I guess in the end though, if we can’t hear the music than we just have to move closer to the speakers. I don’t have the energy to compare myself to others any more. Nor do I want to make a habit of comparing you and your story to mine any more either, so help me God. I really just want to know what it feels like to dance in a way that feels beautiful. And at some point, I happen to know, I’ll get tired of dancing on my own. I like to dance not because I want to know who’s in charge or who needs to follow me but because, dammit, dancing is really just SO. MUCH. FUN. Right?! Of course I’m right. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. Ha!

Its Election day in America and that reality is not insignificant. Leadership matters. The last four years have proved that to be true and I have a certain preference for how this election turns out, thank you very much. But when I wake up tomorrow (or later this week?) and find out who my president is, my plans will not really change all that much. The Lord has given me a body to take care of, a marriage to build up, a family to serve and a community to love with the gifts he’s given me to use and I’m prepared to follow His lead as we step out on the dance floor for the next four years and beyond.

He’s so supremely confident, our God is. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I just really hope my feet can keep up. And I hope you will join us out on the dance floor too. The music here is kickin’ and the people who’ve dropped their guard with me are the most enjoyable and interesting people you’d ever want to meet. We’re in the arena of the artistic and while we don’t always know the next right moves we’re committed to figuring it out with the help of each other and our instructor. I sure hope you’ll join us.

Life is too short to listen to lectures about dance. And looking at photos of other people having fun gets old after a while too. If we’ll be honest with ourselves for once we’ll realize that we all want to lead lives of significance and deep joy. And those things happen in the sweat filled, people packed, awkward but ridiculously fun-filled dance halls in cities and communities across the country. So put your shoes on. Or if you’re like me, take them off! However you show up just show up. Its just really not much of a party unless you show up.

Keep it Together

Keep it Together

By: Courtney Beck

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How do we keep it together

When the ones we love go missing?

Their physical presence, surely.

But mostly, I’m afraid,

the idea of those we love.

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What do we do when those go

in the ground too

and we’re tired

and alone

and out of ideas…

.

.

.

.

Hey! I have an idea.

Let’s take this table

stacked high with plans and papers

Let’s flip the whole thing over

Like a god-damn savior, in a temple

Let’s be confident and full of fury

Let’s start to deconstruct

.

I’ll snap pictures as the pieces fall

You’ll expose the film

We can work, together, to determine what to keep

Because I can’t keep it together anymore

And you aren’t keeping it together anymore

.

But I can sound the alarm for our Help

You can offer cover from the smoke

We can drop to the floor with our plans

and crawl out to the tree for safe keeping

.

The flames will die eventually

The smoke will clear eventually

I want you to hold my hand

I want to remember what we’ve loved

.

Because I cannot keep it together

And you cannot keep it together

But Maybe, together,

we can see what’s worth

keeping together.

Running Under Water

running shoes

Dear friends,

I miss you. I miss talking to you. Writing to you. Having a moment even to THINK about you and the things we’ve enjoyed discussing here. There’s just no way around it as I type these words.

This pandemic – and all the things that led up to it and all the things that are exposed by it -its all so hard. We are such vulnerable people, are we not?

Recently, I heard a quote from a book that is just the little granule of light and life and wisdom that I want to push forward into the world today. And, I’ll be frank here, every day of my whole entire life.

In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says this:

“One night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God and what I was supposed to do with my life.”

God said, ‘anything that pleases you.’ 

‘What?’ I said, resorting to words again. ‘What kind of an answer is that?

‘Do anything that pleases you,’ the voice in my head said again, ‘and belong to Me.’

Friends, I honestly think this is what I was put on this earth to hear. And then to share.

I told a friend recently, that if I were to die tomorrow, I would want it to be said that Courtney “went after what she wanted.” And I think she knew what I was saying. I think she knows me well enough to know that what I want had surely better be wrapped up in capital “J” Joy or I’m not interested. Joy, in my experience, is a settled and confident delight. Joy is worth fighting for every time. And joy, at least for me, is grounded in the love of a whole-hearted parent or spouse who understands his beloved from the inside out enough to say: “Go do what you feel led to do. Just stay connected to me while you do it.”

There’s a part of me that grows irritated as I consider these things during a worldwide pandemic. I know in my bones that this way of living is what we were created for, and yet so much of the living of it feels like trying to run underwater in these difficult days. Every single thing is difficult. No tiny thing is easy. What gives?

I don’t really have any good answers right now other than an inkling somewhere up in the foggy distance that there are people in the world right now who don’t understand what its like to truly belong, to God or to people. And they don’t understand what its like to belong because its taken a pandemic to realize that they’ve lived among people their entire lives and are suddenly unbearably alone and unknown. Its the kind of alone that can happen in a room full of people. The kind of alone that only God can expose (now, at large, through a pandemic) and that only God can start to fix (through his extraordinary means of grace).

So, while I don’t really have any choice, I do think this makes all this running underwater a potentially valuable strength building exercise for me, and perhaps most importantly, for my community. Maybe we’re just building the strength to hope. Maybe we’re just building the strength to trust this difficult process. And maybe we’re just building the strength and muscle that we’ll need when this crisis finally passes over us and we can start to build our communities back up again. Maybe this time it will be a little more joyful and a little more communal. Maybe this time we’ll know what its like to belong to God and to each other. Maybe this time we truly will be able to do what pleases us with full confidence and great delight because we will belong to the Lord and each other so fully that we won’t have to suspect each other any more. We can just live freely, together, in pursuit of the good things God wants to show us.

Maybe this is all a little naive and its likely good and proper to remain realistic.  But I don’t think I’m aiming for utopia. I understand our human condition a little too well at this point to shoot for that. I think its just that I happen to know what pleases me and what it feels like, if only in moments and brief seasons of my life, to belong to Him. And what compassionate person wouldn’t want that for her neighbors if they could have it too in this difficult and lonely year?

So each morning this fall, I’ll put on my shoes and my suit and wade into the proverbial pool for the workout this season requires. I don’t really get it. I thought we were ready to fly in 2020, I really did. There have been times, and there will be more, when I’ve wanted to pull the plug on this whole endeavor. But God has other plans and I’m willing to stay in the gym if it means we can throw a few more friends into this boat we’re building at the end. I don’t really know what its going to look like when we’re done. I’ll just hold onto the hope that its what we would have wanted if we’d known we could have had it this way in the first place.

Be well,

Courtney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry: This Easter Pilgrim’s Prayer

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This Easter Pilgrim’s Prayer

By: Courtney Beck

 

To the Lord of the life I’ve always wanted:

On our walk to the empty school last week

I passed the oak tree the workers had cut down

the week before. We watched them do it

my kids and I. We had hurried quickly by in

fact, to avoid the noise of the chainsaws and the

cars that distracted us from Springtime pinks and greens

we felt sure would unfold before us, just for us.

 

We hustled to the abandoned school

But the workers were there too, cutting

the grass in perfect lines that would, for a minute,

absorb my daughter’s heart as she sang to the

walls and the bees and her baby brother.

And for that minute we were all so blissfully

unaware of that oak tree up the road,

cut to the root for no apparent reason

but that it’s life was in the way of someone’s progress.

 

Our apartment is too cramped and the school,

we now know, is too empty and so

I’m left wondering how you intend to help us?

The children are clamoring, the chainsaw’s roared to life

and we lie down like dead oak trees with the sap

dripping down the record of our endurance.

We wait in dimmed and depressed concern for that

life we’ve always wanted

but found cut down, cut back and left for dead.

 

It must rise from the earth someway, somehow

like the Springtime, just for us.

And also for these children at this

empty school who would surely sing about the trees

if they came to life before their very eyes.

If they came to life despite us.

If they came to life like a miracle,

just for us.